Monday, July 18, 2011

I went to Point of Grace Church yesterday, and now I want to know…

What does it mean to be a Christian?

What good does it do for us, or anybody else?


If you acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life and the Lord of the universe, what does that mean? What does that look like? How does that separate you from other people? What is the essence of “calling on the name of the Lord”?

Do we just need to get the name right? Is it enough to refer to our Lord as Jesus, or Yeshua, or Yesua, depending on what language we’re speaking? Do we have to know that he lived as a man in first century Palestine, and died on the cross for our sins? Do we have to declare that he is a part of the indivisible Trinity? Is that all?

At the conclusion of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan destroys the old, fallen world and brings all his followers into a new Narnia, deeper and fuller than the old. There, the protagonists of the story are shocked to find a soldier from the enemy nation, from the Calormen Empire, who worship a bloodthirsty god named
Tash. The soldier tells them the story of how he met Aslan:

“[He] said [to me], ‘Son, thou are welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no servant of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then I…said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites – I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”

100,000 civilians were killed in Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990. The war was triggered when gunmen belonging to a Christian militia group, alarmed at the growing number of Muslim Palestinian refugees entering the “Christian” nation of Lebanon, opened fire on a bus full of Palestinians, killing scores of civilians. On September 18, 1982, following the assassination of the Christian president-elect of Lebanon, Bashir Gamayel, Christian Lebanese militias entered two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and murdered around 800 Palestinian men, women, children and babies, sometimes carving Christian crosses onto the chests of their victims.

Who accepted that deed? Aslan or Tash?

In the 1990s, as the communist state of Yugoslavia was rapidly disintegrating into a patchwork of warring nationalities, the Christian Serbs of Yugoslavia set out to seize as much land from the dying country as they could. The best way to keep a Christian country Christian, they figured, was to cleanse Serb-held areas of their Muslim inhabitants. This was accomplished through a campaign of forced relocation, rape, torture, indiscriminate shelling of Muslim towns, and outright massacre. When the Muslim town of Srebrenica, once designated a “safe city” for Muslims and guarded by UN peacekeepers, fell to Christian Serb forces in July 1995, the Christian commander, Ratko Mladic, seized every Muslim male in the city, 7,000 in all, marched them into a football stadium, and executed every last one of them.

Who accepted that deed? The Lord Jesus or the prince of this world?

The speaker I heard at Point of Grace Church yesterday told us that the Allah of the Qur’an is the Satan of the Bible.


But when that same speaker called on us to vote for leaders who would close all the mosques in the United States, ban Muslim immigration to the United States, expel all Muslims from jobs in the U.S. military and American airports, cut off all foreign aid to Muslim countries, and deport our Muslim population, or else the Muslims would take over our country and we would lose our freedom – and his listeners applauded and shouted “Amen!” in response – who accepted those words as a sacrifice?

When he told us that the former king of Saudi Arabia used to travel around with a slave in case he needed an immediate heart transplant, that Muslims in the U.S. military refuse to kill other Muslims, that Obama’s church sends money to Hamas, that Obama’s church pays for abortions, that Muslims worldwide are part of a conspiracy to infiltrate and take over America, that Obama is deliberately bringing in thousands of Muslims to shift the demographics of the U.S., that Obama specifically invited the Muslim Brotherhood to listen to his address in Cairo, that Muslims have never invented anything, that Obamacare is a plot to bring more Muslims to America in the form of doctors and nurses who will replace the ones being driven out by shrinking profits - was he speaking the language of truth, or the language of the father of lies? (John 8:43-44).

I am not exaggerating a whit. The entire service, the pastor (!) informed us, will be posted on Point of Grace’s website. You'll be able to watch it for yourself, here, if you can handle it.

The speaker told us that President Clinton had betrayed America and Christianity by attacking Serbian “Christians” in Europe and allowing their Bosnian Muslim enemies to come and live in America. He repeatedly conjured up the image of Hillary Clinton kissing arriving refugees from Bosnia in welcome, as if that would disgust any right-thinking Christian.

One of my bosses in the fields this summer is a Muslim Bosnian woman named Amira (Arabic for “princess”) who came to Iowa in 1995, at the height of the Serbs’ campaign to kill and drive out the Muslims of eastern Bosnia. She greets me every morning with a giant smile. “Hello, Mr. Joel!” she says in a beautifully thick Bosnian accent. She worries about her daughter’s ear infection, makes sure we drink plenty of Gatorade in the 110+ heat index, and commiserates with me about my fears for Syria.

Who is more closely following the path of Christ? Amira, or Point of Grace’s speaker, the pastor who prayed over him, and the audience who applauded him?

“Hold on, Joel – are you saying that profession of faith in Christ is unimportant?”

I don’t know, my friends. All I am saying is this: By their fruits, you shall know them.

That, and:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 7:21

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” – Luke 6:46

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” – James 2:14

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” – James 3:9-10

“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” – I John 3:14

These verses are in the Bible for a reason.

The speaker in question is Usama Dakdok, an Egyptian Baptist Christian who runs a ministry, “The Straight Way,” to educate Christians about Islam. He is insistent that his first name be pronounced “Yoo-sama,” not “Oo-sama.” (When I lived in Egypt three years ago, I had a Christian friend named “Oo-sama.” He felt no need to change its pronunciation.) He tells us that the first time he saw a Muslim in America, he knew freedom in America was doomed. To those who claim, “Only 1% of Americans are Muslim; how could they possibly be a threat?” he says, “Would you take only a centimeter of blood infected with AIDS?” He is certain that President Obama is a Muslim in hiding, who is working steadily to destroy the United States financially and militarily. He knows this because Obama was “born a Muslim,” and in Islam you cannot leave the faith without someone issuing a fatwa calling for your death. There are over a billion Muslims, and not one has issued such a fatwa. Therefore, all of them must understand the plan. Yoosama told us stories of how he, pretending to be a Muslim, spoke in Arabic to other Muslims in the U.S. and confirmed their love of Osama bin Laden and hatred for the infidels. He told us the death of Osama bin Laden was faked. He claims that Obama is trying to give the Iranians the nuclear bomb, that he orchestrated the Arab spring in order to bring Muslim regimes to power in all the nations around Israel, which will soon have to fight for its life – and if the U.S. doesn’t support Israel then, God will judge it with firestorms, earthquakes and hurricanes.

And, in case you missed it earlier, he wants us to close all the mosques in America and deport all Muslims from America.

And his “Christian” audience applauded and shouted “Amen” when he said that.

Yoosama ended his talk with a call for all of us to turn over our lives to Jesus. You can only be free in Jesus, he told us – which is why we’ll lose our freedom if people who don’t believe in Jesus keep moving here. He told us, “If you can’t name the place and time you were born again, then you’re not a Christian!” I can’t name the place or the time. And that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. My King allowed himself to be tortured to death for my sake, and the sake of the lost. I want nothing to do with Usama’s king, who wants to terrify me into kicking the lost out of my homeland.

I don’t claim that twelve non-consecutive months in the Middle East make me an expert. But I do know something about how Christians and Muslims get along in Egypt and Syria, and it’s not a merry story. There are fourteen hundred years of strife between the two groups, even if it’s below the surface most of the time. The vast majority of the time, the Christians, being the minority, are the victims. As Usama Dakdok, the South Lebanon Army, the Phalangist militias, and the Army of Republika Srpska demonstrate, sadly, this dynamic of persecution has sometimes managed to reduce the gospel to a tribal siege mentality in Middle Eastern Christians, with deadly, even genocidal consequences. I don’t blame Usama for his hatred. I pity him, and I grieve over the difficulties he must have had growing up as a Christian in Egypt. I do blame Point of Grace Church for inviting him to purvey his conspiracy theories and blood libels in this country, which until lately has been perhaps the most welcoming Western country for Muslim immigrants. We have suffered no Muslim persecution. We have no excuse.

Dear readers, I’m sorry this post isn’t very funny or entertaining. I get sick at heart thinking about this whole mess. During my sojourn in Syria, I often despaired at finding people I could talk to who would share common ground with me. Who I wouldn’t have to convince that the U.S. government was not behind 9/11, that the Holocaust really happened, that the CIA was not orchestrating the Syrian revolution, that Jews don’t drink blood for the Passover, that their Muslim countrymen weren’t ready at the drop of the hat to kill their men and rape their women. I longed to be back in America, where I could talk to people who were both in touch with reality as I know it, and willing to look past the religion of their neighbor and see him as a person.

Can you imagine how depressing it is to come home to this?

When did these twin toxins of bigotry and conspiracy theorizing infect the church I grew up in? Did it happen while I was away? Am I now seeing the American church with clear eyes for the first time, as a result of being away? Is a black man as president all it took to send us completely over the edge?

When did the American church become like this? When did it become a rendezvous point for scared white people, instead of a home for the dispossessed and an army of the mighty, ready to face death for His sake and the sake of the least of His brothers all day long?

Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States are on the rise. This is not an accident. Are American Christians going to be the protectors of our Muslim brothers and sisters, or will we feed the hatred?

If you think I’m wrong, if you think Usama Dakdok is right on any point, PLEASE e-mail me or leave a comment. I’m not angry at you, I promise. I just need to understand, for the sake of my own mental health. Please let me try to convince you.

Oh God. Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old.

Unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.


  1. I'm not sure how to comment. Your writing is phenomenal. And I need to do a lot of thinking on this. Trust in God to work in you to calm your heart, Joel. After you have experienced both sides, living in the Middle East and in the Deep West of America, I can only imagine (if that) the great divide you must have in your heart and mind.

  2. There have always been those who have used the pulpit to preach fear and hate. It is discouraging to be sure.

    Fear is powerful, and when left unanswered it tends to escalate. In many ways, the new fear of Muslims is just the newest face on the fears of Japanese during WWII or blacks for most of our country's history. That doesn't make it better, but it's the only explanation that I can think of.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and impassioned commentary. Keep challenging the assumptions and misconceptions that tend to grow when left in the dark!

  3. Joel, you know that many Christians do not think that way. Obviously. Most Churches would never share in those views. And yes, there are insane "Christian" people that completely miss the point of the Bible. love.

    Have you read "Love Wins" recently? :)

    You're welcome to come up to NWIA here and rant all you want. I'd love to hear it. In fact you should come again. So should Snoop. (not that I don't want to go to Des Moines, but we have a lot going on here... bad excuse?)

    Yes to Matthew. Trust in God to work in you.

    And, maybe I'm way off, and completely wrong, but I do believe as reformed people do that we are totally tainted, apart from Jesus' perfection. So I believe that Jesus is the crucial link. But again, I could be wrong. I'm not closed to that.

    (maybe I'll write again after reading your post again.)


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  5. I hope you ask yourself what it means to be a Christian in other times as well. I think the more politically oriented Christianity gets, the more at risk for distortion it gets. I am reading "Knowing God", by J.I. Packer. I feel like that gives a lot more insight into who God is than anything I have read in a long time.

    Consider this: is their any other religion more at risk for distortion and misinterpretation than Christianity? Would Satan want more to assault any other truth in life than the greatest truth of Christ? Life has been "good" for Christians in America for a long time. I think we need to realize that things are going to get a lot harder in days to come. What you witnessed is a perfect example of the ways that true Christianity is being assaulted. On the other extreme you have a book like "Love Wins", which many claim takes an easy way out, and doesn't really seem to take this conflict of truth seriously at all.

    The thing is, there is truth and deception. There is right and wrong. God tells us this, and that is why there is conflict in our own hearts and between people around us. However, the burden is not on us to make judgments on non-Christians. Even in the face persecution Christians are called to rejoice in their suffering. You know this and so do I.

    I remember being so baffled by you telling me once that Christianity is "reasonable". And that you came to understand through logic. Do you still believe that? What is Christianity to you? It has been used as a tool for control for almost as long as we know of it probably. The truth can be found in the word God revealed, and through the prayers you bring to him. If you only ask yourself what it means when you walk out the doors of point of Grace, or in the context of your relationships with other people who don't believe in it, how could you possibly expect an accurate understanding of it?

  6. Lol. My Catholic friends in Syria repeatedly threatened to baptize me in my sleep. Maybe they succeeded. Would you care to elaborate on why?