It was a cramped international flight - our destination, Costa Rica. The young woman came stumbling down the narrow aisle with her bags in tow. After stowing her suitcase in the overhead bin, she squeezed into the seat next to mine, heaving an anxious sigh as she buckled herself in. As so often happens when people are thrown together in such close quarters, friendly introductions were exchanged. Within minutes we were engaged in friendly conversation. She seemed relieved to have someone to talk to.
She explained that she was from New York, on her way to Costa Rica to stay with people she didn't know; a friend had arranged the visit so she could spend a week in that country. Now that she was on the final leg of her trip, her anxiety was growing. As the plane taxied down the runway, she queried me about airplane travel, about Costa Rica, about how to go through immigration, and what she could expect of the culture and people when she arrived.
I was sure the Lord had put us together so I could help her. I had been to Costa Rica several times. After I answered her questions and calmed her fears, she asked what kind of work I do.
"I'm an author, on my way to Costa Rica to see some of my friends," I explained. "I write about my adventures with the Lord." That piqued her curiosity. More questions followed and I shared about my faith, how the Lord has worked in my life, using me to help further His Kingdom through international missions. Finally she asked, "How can you know the Lord is with you?"
Great! I had hoped she'd pop the "big" question. We had a marvelous opportunity to talk about the Lord, and I then had the privilege of praying with her right there on the plane.
This encounter and many others like it with "strangers" have taught me that life is full of opportunities to witness. I look forward to strangers sitting next to me on planes. I even enjoy it when sales people come to my house. It's surprising how easily people are led into conversations about deep spiritual issues. I think it's an indication of just how thirsty people are for God's truth. I welcome the opportunity to share the Good News and pray daily that God will use me to bring people closer to Him. I'm certain these casual, everyday encounters are actually Divine appointments, planned by the Master of the universe. I encourage you to be open to similar opportunities to share your faith with others. What a joy to be used by Him!
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Hey, I know what we can do today," exclaimed my best friend, Kristy.
"Go for a hike and enjoy the sunshine?" I suggested hopefully.
"Nope. Let’s go downtown and practice presenting the gospel to people. It will help prepare us for our outreach in Tyonek next weekend." (Tyonek is a small native Alaskan village near Anchorage).
"Yeah!" my three children shouted in unison, scrambling to be the first out the door. Yeah, right, I thought. Just the mention of the word evangelize makes me break out in a sweat. Besides, we weren’t going to have to talk to adults in Tyonek, just do vacation Bible school with a few kids.
"Um, I’ve got . . . stuff to do. You guys have fun," I said.
Kristy glared at me. "What kind of example are you setting for your kids? C’mon, Shawn. It’s not that hard."
"Yeah, Mom," scolded Lindsay, my oldest. "You’ve always taught us that Jesus would give us the right words to say. It will be an adventure!"
But I’m allergic to adventure.
"Okay, I’ll go. Just don’t expect me to say anything. Evangelism is not my gift."
We ended up at a beautifully landscaped park in downtown Anchorage. After a fruitless hour of trying to strike up conversations, I suggested calling it quits and going for an ice cream. The two older girls readily agreed, but Candyce, my youngest, hesitated.
"But we haven’t talked to anyone about Jesus yet, Mom. Didn’t we ask Him to send us someone?"
"Yes we did, Honey, but the people’s hearts don’t seem very open today. The Lord will have to lead us to the right person at the right time," I explained.
That’s when we saw him. Dressed in faded jeans and a yellow sweatshirt and wearing a garish, multicolored afro wig, the slightly built man was passing out balloons and suckers to children playing in the park. Seeing my three girls, he skipped up to them and offered each a treat.
Hmmm, this guy doesn’t seem like he’s in such a rush. Okay, Lord. I feel we are supposed to talk to him, but I’m out of my comfort zone. Help me out here.
Unwrapping her sucker with gusto, 6-year-old Candyce popped it in her mouth, then remembered her manners. "Thanks! Hey, what’s your name? Why are you dressed like that?"
"My name is Rainbow Rambo," he replied with a sweeping bow. Straightening his wig, he asked, "And who might you lovely ladies be?"
The girls hesitated a moment, but when I nodded, they introduced themselves to Rainbow.
"It’s awfully nice of you to spend a Saturday morning making people smile," I told him.
"It’s more like therapy," Rainbow confessed, his smile fading.
His real name was Daniel. He’d been through some hard times lately. He was being treated for depression. "The drugs help some," he said, "but when I’m feeling really down, I put on this wig and come here and try to make people happy. I feel much better when I make others smile."
So, Lord, we’ve got a depressed, unemployed clown here. I suppose he’s a good candidate for the gospel. Just give us Your words.
Before I could respond, Danielle, the middle daughter, announced that she was starving. To death. And only french fries at the McDonald’s across the street could prevent her sudden demise.
Looking at my watch, I realized it was lunchtime, and I was hungry, too. But shouldn’t we witness to Rainbow first?
"Mr. Rainbow, do you want to get some fries with us?" Danielle asked.
"Yeah, come with us!" her sisters agreed.
"Would you like to have lunch with us, Daniel?" I asked, although he clearly had no say in the matter.
"Sure," he grinned, a bit of a sparkle appearing in his sad, brown eyes. "I haven’t eaten yet today."
Kristy caught up with us at McDonald’s. We introduced her to Rainbow Rambo and shared a bit of his story. Without hesitation, she began to talk to him about Jesus. Rainbow put his hamburger down and glared at us.
"Oh, I get it. You guys don’t really care about me. I’m just another notch in your spiritual belts. I know all about your Jesus. I’ve been to church—dozens of them. All I know is that Jesus never did a thing for me. And as for you people who call yourselves Christians—well, when I needed help and friendship most, you Christians have always let me down."
Pain and bitterness punctuated his every word. In Rainbow’s opinion, the only Christians he’d known had used and then abandoned him in his moment of need. He grew agitated as he described his painful experiences to us.
"What difference has Jesus ever made?" he asked, his voice rising. "What would change for me if your Jesus came to town today? Just what would He do?"
Suddenly, inspiration came.
"I think He would buy you a hamburger," I said.
"Excuse me?" Even my kids were looking at me as if I’d lost my mind.
"I think Jesus would buy you a burger," I replied. "He would know you were hungry and lonely. He would sit and listen to you. Best of all, Jesus would simply be your friend." Rainbow looked puzzled, but he was listening. As were my children and Kristy.
I kept going. "Daniel, Jesus couldn’t be here in the flesh today, so He sent us. It was really His idea to invite you to lunch, not ours. He wants to hear your heart’s cry, so He uses our willing hearts to listen."
Rainbow sat back in the booth, his brown eyes moist with tears. "Jesus told you to talk to me? Does He really care about me that much?"
"He cares more than you know, Daniel."
We later left Daniel that golden summer day, alone at his table. Alone, but basking in the presence of his newfound Friend.
We never saw Daniel again, but we never forgot the wonder of seeing God work through our simple step of faith, revealing His loving heart to a hurting man—through a burger and fries.
I haven't seen Clay for years, but despite my poor memory for names and faces I'm not likely to forget him. Late 'twenties, returned college dropout, determined to do better the second time around. Comfortable with friends, uncomfortable with classmates. Heavy guy. Slight limp. Looked like he'd had some hard knocks. Spoke apologetically but intelligently in class. Quiet voice with gravelly edges.
I liked him. He was also my greatest failure. We were two weeks into the semester when he showed up at my office.
"Professor, I gotta talk with you."
I waved him in, wondering at the melodrama. "What do we gotta talk about?"
He sat down on the chair in the corner, by my desk. "I gotta tell you that I'm getting scared."
Was he putting me on? I asked him, "Why are you getting scared?"
"Because you're scaring me. See? I'm shaking."
He held out his hand, and sure enough, it was trembling. There are lots of things that can cause a hand to tremble. I could picture Clay shaking from a hangover, or not enough sleep. But he said that he was scared.
"How am I scaring you?"
He replied, "It's Aristotle."
"How is Aristotle scaring you?"
"In this book of his he keeps talking about virtue."
I lifted an eyebrow. "So?"
"It's making me realize that I haven't led a virtuous life."
As I realized that he was on the level, the truth of the moment sank into me. But you have to know something about Aristotle to understand what passed through my mind.
Wisest of the pagans, Aristotle did teach about virtue. Without courage, justice, frankness, self-control and all the rest of the moral excellences, he said that no one can be happy in the full sense of the term. If you hadn't led a virtuous life and weren't happy, and then you read Aristotle and realized that he was right, you might well be depressed about all the years that you had wasted. But you wouldn't be afraid. Aristotle would merely tell you to start learning virtue. As wise as a pagan could be, yet he knew nothing about "working out your salvation in fear and trembling." For all his wisdom in other matters, he didn't know God from a hatstand.
Could I have been the cause of Clay's fear? Scripture says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I do tell my students that I'm Christian; it's my custom to make mention of the fact on the first day of the semester because they ought to know where their teachers are coming from. But this semester I hadn't said a word about my faith. On the first day, I just forgot, and another suitable moment had never come.
So it seemed that Clay was right. The trigger for his fear wasn't my faith, and it wasn't me. It was Aristotle. This amazed me. The gospel of John teaches that the Holy Spirit came to bring the world conviction of guilt concerning sin and righteousness and judgment — but I had never thought He might use a pagan to do it.
Around this time I began to tremble myself. Not in my hands. In my heart.
Clay was waiting for an answer. I hesitated. He wasn't a former student; he was under my authority now, this very semester, in this very course. I had to be sure that he wouldn't feel pressure to agree with me just because I was his teacher.
"Are you asking me how Aristotle would advise you to live?"
"No. I understand that. I'm telling you that I'm scared."
"I can speak about that, but not as your teacher. I can only do it from the perspective of my faith."
"Would you do that?"
"Are you giving me permission to speak man-to-man?"
"Yes. That's what I want you to do."
"All right. Look." I made as though I were lifting something from my head. "I'm taking off my professor hat. Nothing I say here represents Post-Everything State University. Nothing you say here affects your standing in the course. You're free to say anything you want."
"I want you to speak from your faith."
I looked at him a moment longer. "Clay, I think you're experiencing what the New Testament calls the conviction of sin."
He took in a breath and let it out. "That must be it."
"Because I said so?"
"No, because it fits. You don't have any idea. I've done a lot of bad things."
"Everyone has. Paul says 'All men sin and fall short of the glory of God.'"
"Not like me."
"Just like you. Has anyone ever explained the Gospel to you?"
"I don't think so."
"Gospel means Good News. The Gospel is the message of Christianity. The Bad News you know already — that’s why you're scared. We make a mess of things. It's not God's fault — He didn't make us that way — but we've been rebelling against Him from the beginning. We're guilty, and we're broken."
"That's the Bad News?"
"That and one other thing. We can't forgive ourselves and we can't fix ourselves."
"What's the Good News?"
"God offers to forgive us and fix us and bring us back to Him. He can do this because He's taken the heat for us already. That's what the Cross is all about."
"I know that Jesus died on the Cross and that he was supposed to have risen again, but I never understood why."
"When Jesus was suffering on the Cross, He was taking the burden of our brokenness, our guilt, and our separation from God on Himself. That's why I said he took the heat for us. And then He arose from death to new life. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Clay said. I went on.
"The Gospel — the Good News — is that if only we believe what He did and trust him as Savior and Lord — that means as Rescuer and Boss — then in some way, what He did counts just as though we had done it ourselves. He died on the Cross, and we die to our sinful selves through Him. He rose again, and we rise to a new life through Him. So if we turn to Him, we don't have to be scared any more."
I paused. "Do you believe all this?"
Clay said "Yes."
"Dear God," I thought, "the fruit is ripe and dropping off the tree."
I asked, "Then do you understand what you have to do?"
"Do you want to do it?"
After a few moments of silence, Clay said, "No."
Inwardly I was staggered. How could you believe it and not want to do it? The words of James came back to me: "Even the demons believe — and shudder."
"Why don't you, Clay?"
"I believe what you said, Professor Theophilus. But God couldn't forgive me."
"Why are you different than other people?"
"You don't know what I've done."
"There is nothing God can't forgive, if only the person turns away from what he has done and turns to Christ instead."
"Professor Theophilus, that's easy for you to say. You say it because you haven't lived the way I have. You're a good man."
"That's not true. On my own I'm a sinful man. If you see any good in me, it's only because the power of Christ has been healing me. I may not sin so often or so obviously as I used to, but you didn't know me before I knew Him, and you don't really know me now."
"No, you're a good man," he persisted. "You're probably married and have kids."
I conceded that this was true.
"I just live with a woman," he said.
"Jesus forgave thieves and prostitutes," I said.
His voice dropped to a murmur. "But there have been — abortions. And other things."
"I was a wreck before turning to Christ," I replied. "Just through my teaching, I'm probably responsible for more abortions than you are. If I can be forgiven, you can."
"No. I'm not good enough to be forgiven."
I saw that he was leading me in circles. This was when I should have prayed for help, but I didn't. Instead I tried to redirect the conversation myself. I said good things. They just weren't the right things.
"When you say that," I asked, "aren't you missing the point of forgiveness?"
"It's because we aren't good enough that we need to be forgiven in the first place. The idea of being good enough to be forgiven gets it backwards. Forgiveness can't be earned."
"You mean it's like a gift?"
"I mean it is a gift."
He chewed on the idea. "I see that," he said, "but I'm too bad to be forgiven. God can forgive other people, but I'm beyond the limit."
"Clay," I said, "there's something fishy here. You want me to think that God's standards are too high for you, and it's true that we don't reach them; that's why we need His forgiveness. But when you say you're too sinful to be forgiven, aren't you really saying that God's standards are too low for you?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean He's willing to forgive you, but you won't let Him — as though your standards were higher than His. Believe me, Clay, you can't be more holy than God is."
He said nothing.
"Besides, God Himself says He is ready to forgive you. You said a few minutes ago that you believed it. Have you changed your mind already?"
"No. But I'm different. He didn't mean me."
I shot my last bolt. "This idea of yours that everyone can be forgiven except you — isn’t it just pride? It's as though you were the King of Sinners, as though your power to sin were greater than His power to forgive. He paid the ultimate price, but for you alone it wasn't enough. Do you see what an insult that is to Him?"
Finally Clay spoke, but only to return to an earlier point in the conversation. "I'm not virtuous like you are, Professor Theophilus. God can't forgive me."
I knew he was stonewalling. I think he knew it too. We spoke for a few minutes more. He thanked me for talking with him, then left.
That was eight years ago. I used to bump into him around campus. We'd always stop and chat, but not about God.
I know what I should have said to him that day. In prayer afterward, God made it obvious to me. Being too sinful to be forgiven was just Clay's pretense. He didn't really think he couldn't be forgiven; the real issue was that he didn't want to be. It would have required giving up his sins, and allowing God to change him.
But I should have been praying that prayer while the conversation was still going on.
I've learned to be a more prayerful witness. And God has forgiven me. But I pray that He will stir up Clay to seek a better witness than I was.
I wonder whether Clay still uses his guilt as a barrier against unwanted mercy. I wonder if he still finds security in being scared.
And I ask God to show him the grace that He once showed me.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that the one region on earth that posts the greatest threat to America and Western Civilization itself happens to be the 1040 Window? 1040 Window.org is a ministry which shares the good news of Christ with people in nations who have yet to hear it.?
The very parts of this planet where people have never had the opportunity to hear the Good News and have the slightest idea of who Jesus Christ is, also happens to be where the terrorism and hatred that spawned 9-11 were birthed.
Despite efforts by certain individuals and organizations to denounce the terrorist attacks as “un-Islamic,” the perpetrators of the countless attacks we’ve seen in recent years have all carried out their deeds with one thing in common, they did it for Allah. In fact, many of their last words were, “Allah Akhbar,” meaning “God is Great”.
Since 9-11, the world’s fascination and fear of Islam has spawned out of control. From documentaries on the faith, to books exploring the roots of jihad, to even Focus on the Family’s own special series on radical Islam last summer, we’re all curious as to what Islam is all about.
There’s no denying that Christians and Muslims alike have their problems. But, the treachery stemming out of the Islamic world these days is hard to ignore. From a gang-rape victim in Saudi being sentenced to 200 lashes for being in public with a man other than her own relative, to a teacher being sentenced to 40 lashes and 15 days in jail for allowing a student to name a teddy bear, “Mohammed,” the list goes on and on.
The problem with our perception of Islam and the Middle East these days is that it’s derived from a biased media whose whole mantra is, “bad news is good news.” Of course the hideous stories we hear are devastating and appalling; but would you expect otherwise from a place where Christianity and the love of Christ is basically completely devoid?
The challenge to the Christian community is to look past these horrific occurrences in the Islamic world and see the situation for what it is… an amazing opportunity to share the love of Jesus Christ.
Fouad Masri, a Lebanese Christian here in America, started an organization called the Crescent Project. CP’s goal is to encourage Christians to stop seeing Muslims as the enemy and start seeing them as the prize. Fouad says, “Our job is not to make the Muslim a Christian. Our job is to show them [Muslims] the love of Christ.”
For too long, we’ve harbored fears and misunderstandings of the Muslim world. Not that we must be ignorant to the radical Jihadists who want to wipe us off the face of the earth, but again, do you expect anything more from a society, culture and faith which suppresses critical thought?
Despite what we’re told from the academics and theologians here in the West, to truly study and grasp the essence of Islam and the Middle East, one should focus on that particular region as a reference point, not some obscure local mosque outside of Los Angeles.
The fact of the matter is that Islam is world’s fastest growing religion. True, most new adherents of the faith can be attributed to demographics rather than enthusiastic (not by the sword) conversions, but it should be recognized that the Islamic faith is extremely evangelical, and by that I mean that proselytism is strongly encouraged. In fact, in Egypt, there are cash rewards for Muslims who get Christians to convert to Islam.
I recently took my first trip to the Middle East and perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was the realization of the importance religion plays in the Arab World. As Americans, we’ve grown accustomed to suppressing our faith and holding it as a private, personal matter. But in the Middle East, religion is anything but private and personal – it defines your very being.
With religion (Islam) so deeply embedded in the culture of the Middle East, it’s no wonder that our government’s initiatives to “strike peace” have failed time and time again—it is a religious problem that requires a religious solution.
Trying endlessly to quell the woes of radical jihad through solely diplomatic and militaristic endeavors is a lost cause. Not to discredit the important roles our government and military play, but it’s imperative for the American Christian community to recognize the spiritual component of the struggle which we’re up against.
A good friend of mine, Dr. Tawfik Hamid, a former Jihadist-turned-Muslim Reformer, has been preaching against the very violence and hate-filled ideology which he was taught while a child in Cairo. In fact, as a member of the terrorist network Jemma Islameia in medical school, one of Tawfik’s accomplices was none other than fellow doctor Ayman Al-Zawaheri (al-Qaeda’s #2 leader).
Yet, today Tawfik has chosen to refute that radical ideology and preaches a message of peace and reformation. “I want to teach Muslims about the love of Jesus Christ”, he says. “The greatest problem in the Muslim world today is that they have no love in their hearts.”
Despite no attacks on our homeland since 9-11, radical Islam is alive and well, and the only thing that will conquer it is the love of Jesus Christ. To learn more about how you can get involved and share the Hope with a Muslim in your community, visit www.CrescentProject.org.
Matthew Taylor is with the Friess Family Foundation, an organization devoted to providing relevant, empowering information on issues transforming the nation.