Sharpening iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

I’ve been part of a men’s discipleship group at New Life for five years. It was initiated by two young men who were new to the church at the time. The group didn’t move in the direction they wanted and eventually they left both the men’s group and the church. Subsequently they also moved out of the area. But the group they had planted remained and thrived in the lives of four men. All of us are older. All of us are elders. Occasionally others will drop in for a visit, but four men have made a commitment and often experience spiritual highlights early on a Saturday morning.

The meetings are usually unplanned without designated leadership, but they follow a predictable format. We just talk. We are comfortable around one another and there is high personal trust. So the guys open up without fear of rejection or condemnation. But we challenge one another directly. The most common topic by far is politics. Closely related is the culture war. That often leads to the challenge of evangelism in a changing world.

In many of these discussions I remain silent for fifteen or twenty minutes while the guys vent. Eventually they ask me what I think or I finally say, “May I address this with you?” Then it’s my turn to vent. We open the Scriptures and God leads us through a remarkable time of insight and depth. Sometimes we go on for two hours. Many times we walk out of the session praising God and saying to ourselves, “Where did all those insights come from? We didn’t plan it, but God delivered. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. God is so good to us!”

Over time, no matter where we began our conversations, we kept arriving at the same conclusions from our time together: We need to change our unwritten core values of status quo and power. We started putting the ideas on a portable white board. They were radical changes, like stop judging others or stop trying to control others. We talked about radical acceptance and service from a position of powerlessness. Scary stuff. Sometimes other people would look at the list on the white board and comment, “I don’t like it!”

That’s understandable. I’m not so sure we like it ourselves, either, because our stubborn old values continue to assert themselves with force. I keep dragging out the white board. I point to it and say, “We’ve talked about this a dozen times from several passages in Scripture. This is what we always conclude, right?”

“Right,” they say. But it’s hard to put it into action. We’re still suspicious of outsiders. We are still quick to point out the faults of others. We still want to be in control of election results. We’re still angry about cultural changes. For the past year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the men’s group is stuck. Where’s the life change?

Two weeks ago, God gave me a breakthrough. It turns out we were off track and have been for a long time. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Others saw the problem and I didn’t. I’ll write about it next time.


The Great Raid

They called it “The Great Raid.” It happened at Cabana­tuan Prison Camp in the Philippines on January 30, 1945. One journalist wrote, “The raid on Cabanatuan remains the most successful rescue mission in U.S. military history.”

For nearly three years, survivors of the Bataan death march had languished in Japanese POW camps. The healthy prisoners had been shipped off to do forced labor for the Japanese. Only the sick, weak and injured remained.

When General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philip­pines in 1944 and began his assault to free the nation, the occupying Japanese responded by executing POWs in one of their camps.   The American military leaders became concerned for other POWs, including long-suffering cap­tives from Bataan who were being held at Cabatuan. They hastily planned a daring rescue mission.

Colonel Henry Mucci led 121 Army Rangers, along with Alamo Scouts and 80 Filipino guerillas in a brilliantly executed covert march 30 miles behind the Japanese lines. The rescue force avoided thousands of nearby Japanese troops and surprised over 200 guards at the camp. Most of the enemy were quickly killed in the assault.

Here’s what happened next, as reported by witnesses: Removing the prisoners… was an unexpected obstacle. Conditioned by captivity, many POWs thought the raid was a trick to kill them as they fled. Few recognized the Ranger uniforms that had evolved from blue to khaki during their years in captivity. Prisoners hid in their shacks, latrines and irrigation ditches. When the Rangers yelled to the POWs to come out and be rescued, the captives resisted their rescuers. Rangers sometimes had to resort to physical force to remove the detainees, throwing or kicking them out.

In the end, 513 POWs, including a few civilians, were rescued. Only one POW died in camp during the battle—of a heart attack. All but one captive survived the ensuing race to safety. Most of them were carried on the backs of rescuers or rode oxcarts to safety. Not a single POW was left to their captors, although one deaf, British prisoner was missed at first. He awoke the next morning to find he was the only living person in the camp. After a leisurely shave, he walked out to freedom. It’s an amazing story.

Followers of Jesus are being fired upon from all sides. Atheists. Agnostics. Muslims. Philosophers. Politicians. Media. Schools. The entertainment industry. Even other believers. The question is whether to return fire. Many Christians do shoot back at their critics.  It happens all the time. Just check out the comment section of any religious or political blog. The culture wars are a bloody mess. It’s ugly on all sides.

Jesus, Peter and Paul taught their disciples how to respond when under attack by unbelievers. They all gave the same com­mand: Do not return fire! This won’t make sense to Christians in battle until we realize bullies are not enemies to be shot; they’re captives to be rescued. They may be conditioned to their prison and they may heap abuse on their would-be and often foolish rescuers, but they are not the enemy; they’re POWs. This changes everything. Rescue teams don’t waste time criticizing bullies; they attack the real enemy to win freedom for the captives.

We’ll talk about how to respond when fired upon by bullies this coming Sunday.

When will it be time for Christians to fight back?

About a month ago one of our members strode into my office with a question. It was heavy on his mind. I think he dropped it on me without even extending a greeting.

“When will it be time for Christians to fight back?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean Christians are being bullied. When will it be time to stand up to bullies?”

“Well…,” I said, stalling for time. “There’s a difference between standing firm and fighting. But you’re asking a question we need to answer.”

After a few minutes of conversation, it was clear what was on his mind: Things like lawsuits against bakers who refuse to bake wedding cakes for gay marriages and judgments against courthouse clerks who refuse to issue mar­riage licenses for a same sex marriage. Most egregious of all are terroristic attacks against Christians in the Middle East–kidnappings and rapes of schoolgirls and systematic beheadings of believers.

The question is complicated by a changing role of the church in society. Recently several high profile Christian leaders have made statements urging their followers to ratchet down the rhetoric in the culture wars, if not withdraw completely, and focus instead on cleaning our own house. The church has plenty of closets to air out.

Focus on the Family has transitioned over the past sev­eral years to a much less combative posture than they used to present. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is calling for a shift from confron­ta­tion to dialogue. John Stumbo, President of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, has issued similar words of restraint: “We’ll refuse to get into shouting matches over these issues.” Recently Andy Stanley urged Christians to take a year off the culture wars and instead to quit looking at pornography.

For many Christians, a call to stand down sounds like compromise or worse, surrender. Soldiers in battle don’t like not firing back when fired upon.

Some years ago an elder in the church I was serving was telling me about his experience with the Navy in Vietnam. He served on a tiny patrol boat navigating dangerous waters. “We were told not to fire if fired upon,” he said.

“Did you obey the order?” I asked.

“No,” he said with a dismissive laugh. But he was deadly serious. Of course they would return fire!

So we come full circle back to the question of the day: When will it be time for Christians to fight back? We hear a lot about peacemaking and loving those who dis­agree with us. We hear a lot about not judging those outside the church. (First Corinthians 5:12-13 is clear on that.) But what about those who are bullying Christians? Shouldn’t we defend our-selves? Shouldn’t we return fire?

I’m glad you asked! That’s what we’ll begin to talk about this Sunday at New Life Church. The four-week series is called “A Time to Fight.”