The last day of our trip to Morocco overlapped with the Pope’s visit. We had just completed the final module of our Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins with 40 French-speaking Sub-Sahara African migrants. I was tired but excited after having spent time visiting house churches and engaging with serious missional leaders from ten or so different countries.
That day, Saturday, March 30 the Pope arrived for a two-day visit. Security was tight, and only people on pre-approved lists could attend the special smaller gatherings where he was speaking. Gracie and I weren’t on any lists. Students and faculty from the ecumenical theological seminary where we were teaching who were on the list gathered excitedly, ready to travel together by bus to one of the venues.
While I was waiting around, hoping to somehow be able to go, Gracie came over and asked me to help her pray for a French woman who had had a chronic illness for over 25 years. Christian, one of the African pastors who was on the list had also told me that he would rather take us to pray for a man from one of his house churches whose legs were totally paralyzed than see the Pope. He had told us that he’d likely be coming by later that afternoon to take us to this young man’s house. I wasn’t in the mood to pray for anyone- tired from four days of straight teaching and ministry in French.
Jesus’ journey to the feast in Jerusalem in John 5 did come to mind though—the story where he stops at the sheep gate and prays for a man paralyzed for 38 years. Stopping and praying for this man appeared Jesus’ priority over anything else.
Getting my will in alignment with Jesus’ priorities rather than seeing the Pope or being a tourist in Morocco felt like a kind of death. A Scripture from Romans 8:36 came to mind, which I’m finding myself called to remember and come under throughout each day, every day.
Just as it is written, “for your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
I reluctantly agreed to pray with Gracie for the French woman, as students and faculty left excitedly to get on the bus to see the Pope. We saw the Spirit move to bring healing and freedom– a beautiful experience! As we were wrapping up we got a call from Christian, the house church pastor from Cameroon, telling us he was on his way to take us to pray for the paralytic.
He flagged down a taxi and we headed out to one of the marginalized neighborhoods where many migrants find inexpensive housing (see video link below). The neighborhood had been cleansed of petty criminals—which normally abound, days prior to the Pope’s visit. We followed Christian through streets and alleys until we came to the paralyzed man’s house.
As we entered the smell of urine was strong. The 26-year-old man with paralyzed legs lay on a bed- immobile. His name is Jesus! He’s a worship leader from Afrique Central (Central African Republic) who had been unable to move his legs at all for over a year. We prayed for him and saw his excitement and faith build as his back pain left and he began to move his feet and legs. He insisted on attempting to get up, without out help, and was able to stand.
I think of the verse right before Romans 8:36:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
We left feeling like we were experiencing the verse following– Romans 8:37.
“But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.”
As we left Jesus’ room, Christian’s five-year-old daughter tugged on his arm, telling him God was telling her to pray for a blind Morocco Muslim woman who sat by the entrance to Jesus’ apartment. Christian did an about face—returning with his daughter to the woman and her friend. He explained what God had told his daughter. The two women were deeply touched, kissing the girl’s cheeks. The little girl boldly stretched out her hand and prayed for the woman’s eye to be opened in Jesus’ name. If anyone could reach these two Moroccan women, this little girl seemed like the perfect missionary.
Surrendering to Jesus’ will involves dying to our own agendas. “Being put to death all day long” might mean relinquishing our own plans, comfort, security—whatever needs to die in favor of following a higher calling. Abundant, resurrection life awaits us.
Check out this new documentary about us, Liberating Fire, on the coming together of Word, Spirit, Street in transformational ministry among the excluded.
We also invite you to consider taking our online Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins.
See our new bookstore, where we plan to promote new titles published by The People’s Seminary.
I also encourage you to check out Fred Sprinkle’s documentary film project asking the question “How does the Holy Spirit move people to address injustice in our world?” https://www.
At Tierra Nueva we train and mobilize shepherds who seek after lost sheep until they are found, bringing them back to secure “home” settings where their return is celebrated amongst friends and neighbors.
Since 1982 when Gracie and I began Tierra Nueva in Honduras, the prophet Ezekiel’s special focus on lost sheep and call for shepherds has deeply affected us. This image animated Tierra Nueva staff in Burlington to such an extent that for years we were all pictured hugging sheep on the staff photo page of our website.
After strong words reproaching the shepherds of Israel for their self-focus, Ezekiel writes:
“Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; my flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them” (Ezek 34:4-6).
We have witnessed firsthand widespread neglect of the poor in Honduras–visible now in a massive Exodus of migrants in search of refuge. Here in our own country we witness harsh treatment of immigrant workers, and severe sentences and fines for the incarcerated, and inadequate infrastructure for the addicted. We are inspired by God’s missional leadership of a movement in pursuit of the excluded, visible in the next verses:
“For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. “As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for my sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day” (Ezek 34:12-13).
The Lord will “bring them back,” “gather them” and “feed them in a good pasture,” and “they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture.” (34:13-14). Psalm 23 fills out God’s shepherding vision even further!
We see that Jesus himself identifies with this movement when he says: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:11)
“Seeing the people, he [Jesus] felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. “Therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.” (Mat 9:36-38)
When Jesus is critiqued by religious leaders for eating with tax collectors and sinners he tells the parable of a shepherd who leaves the 99 in the open field and seeks after the lost sheep until he finds it. Caring for the many who are already gathered should not keep people from going out after the ones who have wandered off.
We have sought after today’s equivalents of “lost sheep” through our regular presence in the county jail, state prison, in migrant labor camps, low-income housing units, on the streets and throughout Skagit County. We see a need for a renewed emphasis on this seeking and finding focus everywhere we go around the world.
More recently, we have been especially drawn to the actions of the shepherd in Ezekiel and in Jesus’ parable: gathering, feeding and bringing to rest, celebrating returns.
“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:5).
We often act out this parable in groups, making sure to select a strong enough person to play the shepherd and a small enough person to be the sheep. In Glasgow a tall, strapping man (once a stone mason)went in search for a shorter, smaller man who played the lost sheep. Both men had recently been released from long prison sentences. In Paris, a tall African immigrant “shepherd” sought after an older white middle-class Frenchman. Both men were visibly moved when they were physically “found” and carried back. Each of these shepherds placed their finds across their shoulders and returned to cheers from the group, and we went on to read the next verse.
“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’” (Luke 15:6)
We have seen over and over that those we connect with in jail and through out other outreach efforts need special, deliberate attention that we are now more inspired then ever to offer.
The shepherd gets personally involved to the point of laying the found sheep on his shoulders—making sure each one feels secure and protected. Raising up disciples of Jesus involves building trust through giving people personal attention and love (for a fuller treatment of this see The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement.
Sometimes sheep who have wandered can be difficult and wily characters. However the shepherd doesn’t correct the sheep but rejoices when he brings him home to his friends. We at Tierra Nueva feel called to bring those we find to the equivalent of “home,” which here doesn’t equal a return to the 99. Home evokes security, familiarity, safety, and friendship.
The shepherd calls together his friends and neighbors, inviting them to celebrate the sheep which was found.
Here at Tierra Nueva we are deliberately trying to implement this vision. We have a number of sites that serves as circles of friendship, where people are gathered around Jesus—the master Good Shepherd.
In our Tierra Nueva building these include our Sunday worshipping community, evening Psalms reading group, morning Gospel reading circle led by Julio and also our Monday and Wednesday Family Support Center activities. We also enjoy sharing weekly meals together after Sunday worship, and community events.
Outside the jail we include: Kevin’s pastoral assignment at Mt Baker Presbyterian Church in Concrete, Salvio, Victoria and Julio’s visits to migrant families in their homes, our weekly Bible studies in men’s and women’s pods in the county jail and with Spanish-speaking inmates at the nearby prison. We have developed a series of Bible studies that build upon each other, for our growing circle of gathered people, so that they can grow in their faith (See Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit).
Through our weekly staff prayer and The People’s Seminary we seek to continually equip and strengthen our staff and others as shepherds adept at seeking, finding and gathering people affected by incarceration, addiction and immigration. We seek to follow Jesus in laying them on our shoulders, rejoicing, and bringing them into circles of safety and friendship, joining with the heavenly host:
“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
We have spent the past ten days with Sub-Saharan African migrants in Egypt and Morocco—most of whom are undocumented. Spending time with these vulnerable and courageous people has refreshed our perspective on life and faith.
I share these thoughts on migration and immigration in response to disturbing news articles I’m reading about anti-immigrant rhetoric in the USA and Europe–and I hope to dissuade people of faith from any collusion with negative attitudes and the promotion of restrictive policies.
This past Sunday I preached at an underground church made up or largely undocumented African immigrants living in Morocco. Morocco is now the preferred crossing point for Africans seeking to enter Europe—though many have no choice but to seek passage via war zones like Yemen, or failed states like Libya.
At the Moroccan-Spanish border, high fences, dangerous waters and strict immigration enforcement are keeping migrants from leaving the African continent. Hundreds of thousands are blocked, settling in a foreign land. Many more are currently en route from countries ravaged by war, political impasses and poverty.
People told us of tremendous suffering in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. “To tell people not to leave their country is like telling someone to not jump from a burning building,” a pastor from Congo told us. He and another Christian leader recounted going for days without eating in order to give what little they had to their hungry children.
Many of these migrants are Christians. We spent four days worshipping and studying Scripture together with a group of 40 French-speaking pastors and leaders who are taking our Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins. They were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea– all French-speaking Sub-Saharan African countries.
People told us harrowing stories of having to pass through the Sahara desert, where they were robbed of everything of value (including their clothes and shoes) at gun or knife point by marauding gangs. Others told us of having to drink urine or die. Migrant women are often raped and forced into prostitution. We prayed for healing for women who had been infected with the AIDS virus through forced prostitution.
Pastors recounted how they regularly officiate at funeral services for acquaintances and even family members who drown in attempted crossings of dangerous waters at the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean in over-crowded inflatable boats. These leaders needed deep comfort and encouragement as they accompany migrants battered by traumatic experiences.
One man in his early thirties named Jean-Luc from Cameroon told me how God spoke to him repeatedly to leave his country and head to Europe as a missionary. He journeyed overland through Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and Algeria, working for small change along the way. Like many others he spent several months in the Sahara desert in Algeria, struggling to pull together enough money to pay smugglers to get into Morocco.
Jean-Luc has been in Morocco since February, but is finding it difficult to get work. He makes the equivalent of 6 to10 dollars a day, cutting firewood for bakeries. Yet his sights are set on God’s call on his life, wherever that will take him—to win people over to Jesus.
Morocco is 99% Muslim. It is illegal for Christians to evangelize Muslims. This leaves established churches (and other Christian organizations like the seminary where we were teaching) to focus their theological formation on African immigrants and other foreigners. Since migrant churches are made up largely of undocumented immigrants living their lives under the radar, there is little stopping them from reaching out to Moroccans or Muslim migrants.
People told us how they prayer walk their cities and neighborhoods, reach out to homeless migrant youth coming from new countries like Guinea, meet three times a week for worship and prayer and see their churches growing and the need to plant new ones in other cities. They were eager for our training to support their demanding, front-line missions.
Gracie and I worshipped this past Sunday with 60 plus African migrants in a damp, musty underground room accessed by a steep cement staircase. All I could think about as people danced and sang were Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Are we Western Christians counted among these meek?
I preached on Hebrews 11, which highlights Abraham’s exodus from his country to a place he was to receive as an inheritance.
“By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise, for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:9-10).
This Biblical passage seemed written for these dear people, and yet it appears to offer very little concrete hope for a secure material future in this world. This verse most certainly challenges today’s entitlement mentality, and growing security-conscious “me and my country” first attitudes.
“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:13).
Is this how you see yourself, as a stranger or an alien? If we have died with Christ and we have a new identity according to the Spirit, then I believe our identity according to flesh (nationality, race, social class…) must be submitted to a higher allegiance to Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
This passage in Hebrews 11 spoke directly to this African congregation. They “are seeking a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” I keep asking myself if this is in fact what I am seeking.
“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God— that is your God!,” I proclaimed to radiant faces. “For God has prepared a city for you!” (Heb 11:16)
Hebrews 11:33-35 describes these very stranger/alien people of faith as having “conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
The people told us their own stories of healings, face-to-face encounters with Jesus, and even resurrections from the dead that they had witnessed. Others could certainly identify firsthand with adversities like “mockings and scourgings, chains and imprisonment…being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (Heb 11:36-38).
As I read on about “people of whom the world was not worthy, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground” I asked the congregation “how many of you have wandered through the Sahara desert?”
Hands went up around the room, including those of some who were still children and adolescents! They are counted among the people described as heroes of faith—and God is not ashamed to be called their God! These are the meek who will inherit the earth, “having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Heb 11:39-40).
As we fly home now, I am thinking of the thousands of migrants from Africa heading to Europe and Central Americans en route to the United States. I know from years of travel to Honduras that gang violence and poverty make life near impossible.
May we not harden our hearts to the poor and desperate.
Undoubtedly many of these migrants are people of deep Christian faith, willing to risk all to seek a future. I hope that we will not oppose the spiritual renewal God wants to bring into our nations through those who come bearing good news. I hope we can welcome vulnerable migrants, keeping our ears open to legitimate asylum claims.
Rather than taking the side of border and law enforcement, may we identify with the one who “has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). May we remember some of the earliest appeals in Scripture to embrace the foreigner.
‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” Lev. 19:34
“Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:1-3).
In late June I discovered what turned out to be a large mass in my abdomen. I was referred and scheduled immediately for a meeting with a surgeon at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance—and I hoped for a quick fix operation. But CT scans and a biopsy revealed follicular lymphoma—a slow-growing cancer that cannot be removed through surgery, but must be treated by chemotherapy.
This was hard news that I never expected I would receive—especially at a time when I’ve been in the best physical shape in years. Suddenly our future seemed up in the air. Our immediate plans for 2018-19 include Certificates in Transformational Ministry at the Margins (CTMM) trainings in Bristol, Glasgow, Paris, Vancouver, Tanzania, Rabat (Morocco), Stockholm and New Zealand (www.peoplesseminary.org).
We are entering a particularly fruitful season internationally and locally for which we’ve been preparing for years– offering needed support to front-line workers. Rounds of chemotherapy beginning in August would make it nearly impossible to move forward with our trainings, or continue with our normal schedule at home.
All this upheaval drove us to prayer, and many people have been blessing us by interceding and showing levels of tender care that we had never experienced. An African pastor friend from Tanzania sent me a message saying that as he prayed for me he kept getting 1 Corinthians 10:13.
At first glance this verse didn’t seem to resonate with my situation. “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man…” I wasn’t experiencing what I would call a temptation—unless it was to fear.
I decided to look up the underlying Greek word and learned that peirasmos not only means temptation, but commonly includes meanings like adversity, affliction, trouble, and trial. Suddenly the verse was highly relevant.
“No temptation (trouble, adversity, affliction) has overtaken you but such as is common to people; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted (troubled, afflicted) beyond what you are able, but with the temptation (trouble, adversity) will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”
During the months of July and August I took regular trips to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where I sat in waiting rooms filled with cancer patients I would have normally thought of as the “them” over and against healthy me. What I am now experiencing is common to so many people around the world.
It has been a deeply moving experience to find myself amongst others facing adversity, and I have been also remembering James 1:2-4.
“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials (adversities, troubles, temptations), knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
James 1:5 then mentions that “if anyone lacks wisdom, let him/her ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given.” And this is exactly what I have needed– wisdom to know the next steps.
I have found myself clinging to the hope extended in 1 Corinthians 10:13– that God who is faithful, will not allow me to be afflicted beyond what I am able to endure, but with the affliction will provide the way of escape also, that you will be able to endure it.”
God’s siding with the afflicted, the troubled, the escapee is at the heart of the news that we continually rediscover with people at the margins—in our Tierra Nueva church, in jail and prison and around the world. God is not aligned with the perpetrator—in this case cancer, which is not God’s will or part of his plan, as James 1:13 also states:
“Let no one say when he is tempted (troubled, afflicted), “I am being tempted (afflicted, troubled) by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt (afflict, trouble) anyone.”
That is good news! But 1 Corinthians 10:13 goes even further still, offering a prophetic promise—an escape route provided by God (rather than one of my own making) so that we can endure. I have been in special need of hearing this for myself. Would God help me escape this chemotherapy and its effects—and the cancer itself?
The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance surgeon referred me to a lymphoma specialist– but the appointment was set several weeks away. So very difficult to wait! Finally the appointment date came and the doctor outlined the normal chemotherapy process, telling me about what to expect, side effects and risks. He said that for especially active people like me, chemo usually feels like a major blow, which would make it unlikely that I’d be able to offer our planned trainings. No way of escape was yet visible.
Then he surprised me by inviting me to consider participating in a clinical trial of a drug that has been effective with follicular lymphoma over the two years the trial has been running. This trial would involve me taking a weekly pill with minimal side affects, monthly check ups and lots of monitoring. Further tests would be necessary to determine whether I indeed qualified.
So during the month of August I underwent a bone marrow biopsy, extensive blood tests, PET scans and more CT scans, all before my August 29 appointment. Tests showed no cancer anywhere but in the tumor, confirming the original diagnosis. I was admitted into the clinical trial and began the medication that day.
September 2 we flew to London, and Gracie and I have completed chaplaincy and teaching responsibilities with Westminster Theological Centre, and two CTMMs in Bristol and Glasgow through Tierra Nueva Europe. We are now in Paris where we will offer our first French CTMM beginning this Wednesday.
I have now been taking the trial medication for three weeks and I’m feeling no side affects. I continue to pray that the tumor and all traces of cancer disappear. With new eyes to see and a renewed hope, I am helping others whom I accompany to face adversity, with an expectation of discerning ways of escape. May you too look for and expect the Holy Spirit to reveal to you escape routes that give you breakthroughs in the midst of your troubles, trials and temptations.
I’m delighted to release Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit– a practical manual that’s a sequel to my 2005 Reading the Bible with the Damned. Here’s a little more about what it’s about:
Jesus was born into a world marked by oppression and injustice to announce and embody God’s global liberation movement. Like an insurgent, Jesus comes in under the radar, behind enemy lines, and then builds a foundation of trust with a growing entourage of humble followers. He incites a revolution that he calls the Kingdom of God. Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit is a practical manual that condenses the outlines of God’s liberation movement. In this book you will learn to identify and overcome common obstacles to stepping into active faith, grow in your awareness of how God speaks and the Spirit guides, discover approaches to preparing messages that invite conversion and holistic transformation, learn essential basics for preparing and leading Bible studies and grow in understanding how the gifts of the Spirit are available now to provide essential support for the adventure of faith. Order a copy here. Below are some endorsements and the table of contents.
“This book is a valuable resource for all who yearn to participate in God’s subversive and revolutionary work. Throughout Bob Ekblad offers anecdotes from his decades of experience in diverse contexts. Bob embodies what he writes about. The stories he tells embody guerrilla interpretation; they are the flesh and blood of the guerrilla gospel.”
– Gerald O. West, Senior Professor of Biblical Studies, University of KwazuluNatal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
“Bob Ekblad has done it again! He has offered practical, spirit-filled, biblically deep principles and strategies to take the truth of God’s scripture to bring transformation in real life both inside and out. I highly recommend this book as a strategy for kingdom come in your own community!”
– Danielle Strickland, speaker, author and justice advocate
“Bob Ekblad is one of my heroes. I try to write down whatever he says and I try to read whatever he writes. In this latest book he brings the Bible to life as only he can – from the margins. It’ll change you profoundly.”
– Pete Greig, 24-7 Prayer International and Emmaus Rd, Guildford UK
Bob Ekblad is co-founder and General Director of Tierra Nueva and The People’s Seminary in Burlington, Washington. He holds a ThD in Old Testament from the Institut Protestant de Théologie, Montpellier, France. He teaches at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, Westminster Theological Centre (UK) and is the author of Reading the Bible with the Damned, A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement.
Table of Contents
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS FOREWORD: Gerald O. West PART 1: PREPARING GUERRILLA GOSPEL ENCOUNTERS Chapter One: FOLLOWING COMANDANTE JESUS Chapter Two: ASSUMPTIONS FOR A LIBERATING READING OF THE BIBLE Chapter Three: GOD’S GLOBAL LIBERATION MOVEMENT Chapter Four: JESUS’ RECRUITMENT BEHIND ENEMY LINES- JOHN 4 PART II: FACILITATING GUERRILLA GOSPEL ENCOUNTERS Chapter Five: ALIGNING OURSELVES WITH JESUS AND HIS VISION Chapter Six: REVOLUTIONARY HEARING: TUNING OUR EARS TO DIVINE INTELLIGENCE Chapter Seven: PREPARING GUERRILLA GOSPEL ENCOUNTERS Chapter Eight: AGENTS OF LIBERATION: THE ART OF HOSTING GUERRILLA GOSPEL ENCOUNTERS Chapter Nine: GUERRILLA TACTICS: SIGNS, WONDERS, JUSTICE AND MERCY
Jesus’ words to his disciples regarding signs of his second coming and the end of the age are highly relevant today. Jesus tells his followers to expect wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, killing, betrayal, hatred, false prophets, and lawlessness.
“Lawlessness” (anomia), translated “wickedness” or “iniquity,” refers specifically to disregarding God’s word and ways—which Jesus says will increase over time.
“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Mat 24:12-14).
I’ve been noticing signs of people’s love growing cold, visible quite recently in a hardening of attitudes towards immigrants and refugees in Europe—and notably in the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Arresting and sending back immigrants fleeing violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico, and separating children from parents are disturbing signs of hardness of heart.
In response to international outrage, some cosmetic changes have happened that might keep children together with parents. But many children have still not been reunited with their parents and detention centers (falsely called migrant camps) are being built around the United States to imprison thousands of immigrants.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recently called on Immigration Judges to refuse asylum to people fleeing gang violence in Central America—as well as victims of domestic violence. Many are being deported by US Immigration authorities to life-threatening situations (read this).
Just before Christmas I bailed out a Salvadoran pastor from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prison in San Diego (Otay Mesa Detention Center). For over 20 years he ministered to incarcerated gang members in El Salvador, since his conversion out of a gang lifestyle. When police repeatedly accused him of being an active gang member and threatened to kill him, he fled overland to the United States with his 14-year-old son. I advised him to go to the US-Mexican border and request asylum.
Upon turning himself in to ICE agents at the San Diego border he was arrested and incarcerated. At this point US authorities separated his son from him, sending the boy to a juvenile facility, where he was held for 42 days. Since Christmas the family has been reunited—but now they face the possibility that their asylum claim will be denied due to Trump Administration decisions.
From the perspective of Jesus’ kingdom, gang violence, domestic violence and economic inequalities underlying poverty fit the category of lawlessness. The current US policy of “zero tolerance” towards undocumented immigrants and refugees also constitutes lawlessness from the perspective of Christian faith.
In Deuteronomy 14:29 God directs his people to tithe from their produce, feeding “the alien, the orphan and the widow in your town,” so they “shall come and eat and be satisfied.” “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
It is easy to let the bad news of growing lawlessness distress and even enrage us—threatening to diminish our love. Jesus warned that “lawlessness will increase and the hearts of most people will grow cold.” In the face of this he continues: “but the one who endures till the end will be saved.”
“The numbing of empathy, the dehumanization of other people through the encouragement of distain are documented stages in history that have led to atrocities and even genocide,” writes Laura Janner-Klausner, senior leader of Reform Judaism in the UK.
“How do we endure the lawlessness without our empathy being numbed, our love growing cold?”
I believe Jesus’ next words hold the key. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
“This gospel of the Kingdom” refers to Jesus’ message and ministry during his earthly life. Proactively engaging in Jesus’ ministry will keep our love from growing cold in the face of lawlessness.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he called humble fishermen as disciples. He then went “throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (Mat 4:23).
Jesus countered legalistic, hard-hearted, attitudes of his time by lifting up the lowly. He declared “blessed” categories of people we must seek to embrace and become: The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Mat 5:1-10).
At another time when proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing the sick Matthew’s Gospel states that “seeing the people he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus then declared his priorities in the clearest terms to his followers: “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to cast out workers into his harvest” (Mat 9:36-38).
Our love will grow strong as we proclaim and live out the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom in the face of lawlessness wherever it is found. As you exercise your love it will increase, and you will find your compassion for the desperate growing. In this way we will see the reign of God advance throughout the world.
My Tierra Nueva colleague, Danielle, and I were at the women’s jail pod on Father’s Day. Once gathered around the circular metal table for the Bible study, we discovered that most of women had experienced feelings of sadness, regret and disappointment when thinking about their fathers that day.
We prayed together and then turned to Luke 15, which begins with the tax collectors and sinners, coming near to Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and scribes were disgusted by the attention Jesus was giving to these despised outcasts and started to grumble, saying: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus responded by telling them three parables: the first about a lost sheep, the second about a lost coin, and the third about a lost son. In each story Jesus describes what was lost to be of great value, worthy of especial effort in being sought after—and joyfully celebrated with friends and neighbors once found.
“Which one of you wouldn’t leave 99 of your flock to look for one sheep which wandered away or look diligently for one precious coin until it is found?” Jesus asked.
All of us can relate to the joy of recovering a valuable animal or lost money, so Jesus has our attention. But a prodigal (wasteful) son? What is it about this guy who not only dishonors his father by demanding an early inheritance and but then wastes it all on prostitutes and partying? More importantly, what is it about this father who looks co-dependant in granting his son’s audacious request? Does God’s love have no limits?
The women in the bible study recount times when they “wasted” their bodies, resources and opportunities, damaging relationships, burning bridges and suffering devastating consequences on all levels. What earthly parent would warmly welcome such a son or daughter back in this state?
The response of the father to the wasteful son returning home in shame, asking to be treated as a hired servant is truly astonishing. Seeing his son approaching from a long way off “he felt compassion for him, and ran and hugged him and kissed him.” He didn’t even let the son finish the speech he had prepared about his unworthiness to remain a son. Instead the father prepared a lavish party to celebrate his son’s return and invited his friends and neighbors to come share his happiness.
The response of Jesus to the religious leaders and to all who take offense at the Father’s embrace of such “sinners” demonstrates the unfathomable depth of his love and forgiveness: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who need no repentance.” What parent would go to this extent to love a kid who wasted everything? Only our Heavenly Father. And this is the Good News.
The women and Danielle and I shared a moment of wonder and amazement at the crazy love of our Heavenly Father, which was starting to sink into our wounded and needy hearts. We marveled together about what this could mean. Could Jesus be telling us that God is this good? Better than anyone we could ever know or imagine? Yes! Even when we leave our Heavenly Father, we can return to him and expect to be embraced and celebrated regardless of how we have messed up.
At Tierra Nueva we are inspired to embody this radical love and welcome in all our encounters and gatherings, inside and outside the jail.
Violence in Gaza is once again on the rise as the Israeli Defense Forces battle Palestinian protesters outraged by inhumane living conditions in what is often referred to as the world’s largest outdoor prison. The last time tensions flared Israel brutally bombed Gaza in response to Hamas’ missile attacks in 2014— killing over 2000 Palestinians and wounding thousands more. The story of Abraham’s conflict and reconciliation with the ancient king of Philistia (located in modern day Gaza) in Genesis 20-21 is an invitation to Jews, Muslims and Christians to see each other through the eyes of faith.
Genesis 20 tells the infamous story of Abraham’s residence as an alien in Gerar, where he lies to Abimelech, king of Philistia, about the identity of his wife Sarah, saying she was his sister. Abraham expects the worst from this foreign king, assuming he will kill him and take Sarah for himself– since she is so beautiful. But after Abimelech takes Sarah into his harem God confronts him in a dream and Abimelech proves attentive. He dialogues with God, defending himself as innocent– and God affirms his integrity (20:5-6). Abimelech confronts Abraham about his lie: “You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (v. 10). He gives Sarah back along with many gifts, 1000 pieces of silver and a welcome to settle wherever they please (20:14-15).
Abraham clearly misjudged Abimelech in assuming he and his people did not fear God. Deep prejudices and hatred abound today on all sides of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and this text from the Torah offers a prophetic challenge. Might we consider asking God to give us a divine perspective on people and conflicts?
Abraham prays for Abimelech’s wife and maids, who God had kept from getting pregnant until things were resolved with Sarah—and their wombs are opened. Abraham is a blessing to this non-Jewish leader, in keeping with God’s people’s vocation: “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
In the next chapter, Isaac is born, and Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert– a text dear to Muslims. Abraham is their patriarch and the well that God shows Hagar they identify as located in modern-day Mecca.
Immediately following this story in Genesis 21:22-34, Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, approach Abraham. They recognize God’s presence with him, saying: “swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned.” And Abraham says, “I swear it.” (21:24).
While there are no known ties between Abimelech and modern day Palestinians living in Gaza, Abraham’s covenant to not deal falsely but rather kindly with the residents of Philistia seems highly relevant to Abraham’s Jewish and Muslim descendants in Gaza and throughout the West Bank today.
In the next story we see that Abraham and Abimelech’s covenant is tested by conflict, and Abraham models healthy peacemaking. He complains to king Abimelech about his servants, who seize his well. Abraham offers sheep and oxen as gifts and the two of them make a covenant (21:30). Later in Genesis 26:1-30 Isaac has a nearly identical run-in with Abimelech (perhaps the first Abimelech’s son), making a similar covenant with him. This story appears to emphasize the Jew’s special responsibility to keep and renew this covenant from generation to generation.
Gracie and I became aware of this story during a life-changing visit to Israel and the West Bank for three weeks in 2014. We began our trip by spending a week in Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Hebron, learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Palestinian perspective. We witnessed firsthand Israeli soldiers shooting rubber bullets into a crowd of Palestinian protesters. We toured impoverished Palestinian communities trapped behind the formidable border wall or under the shadow of heavily-fortified Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and Hebron.
We then rented a car and traveled past Gaza into the Negev, and visited Abraham’s well in Beersheva, a mere 27 kilometers from Gaza City. At that time Hamas was beginning to shoot rockets into Israel from nearby Gaza. Before heading to Beersheva I called a Messianic Jewish leader I had met a few years before at a conference in Paris. He welcomed us into his home and he shared his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gracie and I then headed to a local restaurant for some lunch before our planned visit to Abraham’s well.
The young Israeli waitress who took our order asked Gracie what we were doing in Beersheva. When she heard we planned to visit Abraham’s well she surprised Gracie by saying: “Be sure you go into the cistern, the Presence of God is really strong down there.” We learned that she believed in Jesus, and was active in the Messianic Jewish house gathering of the man we had just visited. She gave us the phone number of a woman from her fellowship who she said knew a lot about Abraham’s well and might be willing to meet up with us. We were excited by this unfolding adventure and called her. She offered to meet us briefly at the well.
There in the parking lot of the ancient Beersheva ruins she told us that Abraham’s well was actually the first piece of land that was owned by the Jewish people. She believed that the now empty cistern was symbolically important, but didn’t tell us why. She repeated what our waitress had said that the Spirit was especially strong in the cistern, and prayed for Gracie and I before we spent a few hours touring the ruins. It was then that Gracie and I read Genesis 20-21 and 26 together, and began reflecting on these questions.
That same day we continued eastward, visiting the Fountain of Tears. We were deeply impacted by this series of sculptures depicting Jesus’ final words from the cross, each one before a Holocaust survivor dressed in prison clothes. Our guide, himself a Messianic Jew, shared his conviction that Jesus’ suffering and death as the descendent of Abraham is what breaks down the dividing wall between Jews and gentiles, Israelis and Palestinians (Eph 2:13-18).
According to Paul’s writing in the NT, believers in Jesus Christ are grafted into the Jewish people, becoming “children of Abraham” through faith in Christ (Rom 4:19).
Jesus told his Jewish listeners to do the deeds of Abraham (Jn 8:39). He commanded his Jewish disciples and all who follow him today: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk 6:27).
Tensions are rising in the Middle East— between Israelis and Palestinians, between Israel, Syria and Iran– and in many other places as well. Superpowers are aligning themselves, funding and arming enemy camps for war.
May we resist partisan divisions and violent approaches—actively praying and working for peace in alignment with Jesus—the Prince of Peace. May we step more fully into the “ministry of reconciliation” that Jesus has given us: “Namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18-19). In so doing we will experience the benefits of Jesus’ promise: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God” (Mat 5:9).