Florida Street Preachers Murdered

Christianity Today reports (April 2010) that… A man who spent 15 minutes with two street preachers in Boynton Beach shot them in the back of the head at close range. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition framed the January 30 murders as a free speech issue in his eulogy for preachers Stephen Ocean and Tite Sufra. Local police tied the murders to possible gang-related violence, saying that Ocean had been a member of a gang prior to his recent conversion and that both men had criminal records.

Often we think of those who die for their faith as something that happens in far away countries in the third world. Yet, here we are hearing of two men, out on the streets in a neighboring nation exercising their rights to free speech and sharing the good news that Jesus saves with others, who end up dead due to their efforts. I pay close attention to these things because I try hard to keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening in North America with regard to the Christian faith and the Church. And, as someone who also “works the streets” and witnesses and shares in the parks and on the bike/walking trails, I recognize the rising opposition to our message from others in our society.

Now I am aware that many who are out there sharing the Gospel do so in very offensive ways and so can bring out the worst in people. And, I am aware that some street preachers and those who share the gospel with others can be a real interruption in a person’s private space. I am sensitive to this as I an an extreme introvert and often sit near the walking trails by a stream to read my Bible and have some quiet time with the Lord while on long walks in the summer weather with my dog. So, I do understand the way others can perceive those of us out there attempting to share the good news with others who don’t see it as good news but view it is an interruption.

However, I have noticed an increase in negative reactions among those who are between the ages of 30 and 60 … I receive a warm welcome to my chatting about Jesus and His offer of eternal life if I am talking to those in my own age group – those over 60. I also find a warm and “I’m interested” response from those in their late teens and 20’s who seem to be searching for spiritual experiences and are looking for something significant that they can commit to and become involved in. They are looking for purpose – but often not looking in the Church to find it. And, if they do look to the Church, they are looking to traditional, denominational churches with liturgies and traditions.

So I have noticed an increasing disinterest in the message of the gospel and an increasing negative reaction to those of us sharing the good news. Not violent but borderline disrespectful and a little intolerant. So, I walk carefully when sharing and look for signs of “not interested” and any other signals or clues that it is time to thank them for their time and draw the conversation to a close. In otherwords, there is a real need today to be totally aware of your surroundings and the reaction of the person or people you are speaking to and know when “enough is enough” or when people are simply tolerating you and really wishing that you would just “go away”. Of course, they often don’t tell you where to go but you can guess that that it’s not to Heaven.

Personal evangelism is a command from the Lord and something every believer must be involved in as they go about their daily life. The message always remains constant – but the methods we use are not sacred nor set in stone. So, as society’s receptivity to the gospel changes we must be constantly adjusting our approach and always be seriously sensitive and aware of how we are being received. It might not have helped to avoid what happened in Florida recently but it will help the reputation of the gospel and maybe prevent some future tragedies.

Next Flight – Next Seat

I ran hard for the flight. We had been an hour late leaving the airport in Minsk, Belarus and although the pilot made up 30 minutes of that time while in the air I still had only 30 minutes and not the originally scheduled hour between flights in Frankfurt, Germany. Three long halls, another security check, and several changes in floors as I went from one terminal to another (I have become an expert at moving faster on the stairs than you can move on the escalators) and I finally found the right gate – they had changed gates, of course. The doors were still open and so I was on board.

The flight was nearly empty. I was thinking – good, that means that maybe the seat next to me would remain empty and then I would have more room to “set up my office” and accomplish 8.5 hours worth of work on this overseas flight. No such luck. All of a sudden there was a hugh rush of people entering the plane – another flight that had been late … then another rush of people from another connecting flight … all late like I had been. Apparently, and we were not told this in Minsk, it had been a problem with weather in Frankfurt and so all connecting flights had arrived late and so this plane was being held so passengers booked on it could actually board and the flight would not leave with 90% of the seats unoccupied as they were when I first boarded.

I ended up with someone sitting next to me. I moved my book, my writing pad and pen, and my Bible. I had already begun to set up my office. He moved in as I moved out of his seat … and I introduced myself. Afterall, we were going to be in close quarters for the next 9+ hours. No response. He was sort-off pleasant and at least acknowledged my existence but he made it very obvious that he was not interested in any conversation whatsoever. I let it go hoping that as the flight progressed he would unwind (he too looked like he had run to get on board) and be a little friendlier. And, I recognized that I was old enough to be his father if not his grandfather – he was probably about 21 or 22 years old.

It turns out that he had seen my Bible and assumed I was a believer and thus totally against his chosen life-style. He was an active homosexual. You could assume this by how he was dressed. I did not make that assumption – never do. He dressed like a combination of ‘metro’ and ‘retro’. His mannenerisms could also have led you to this conclusion – I did not go there as I simply treat people as people. The way he spoke – tone and words – could have led you to that conclusion. Not the case. However, when I met his friend later in the flight and watched them together (as they sat together for a while in another row working together on a computer) it was hard to miss and very obvious to anyone and everyone who saw them and the way they were behaving. Which is fine with me as I am never upset by this and don’t judge. People are people, sin is sin, and everyone regardless of their sin needs a Savior.

I work by the L.A.F. principle – Love everyone unconditionally as the Lord loves me …. Accept everyone as they are just as the Lord accepts me as I am …. Forgive people when they hurt me or speak against me as the Lord did and requires that we do.

So, as I have been thinking about this young man over the past week – and praying for him and his friend – I see the situation I faced on that long overseas flight as a failure on my part and on the part of the Christian Church. I believe his reaction to me as a Bible believer and pastor is a result of past rejection or an assumption that he would be rejected or judged based on previous experience or, at the least, the reputation of the Church in general as a group that does that regularly. I saw the lack of receptivity to even a civil conversation as a natural outcome to the reputation that the Church has earned over the years – one of being judgmental and condemning. And, I am determined to do my part to help reverse this impression that we have left with the world.

I believe the Lord is calling us to be as He was – loving, accepting, forgiving! I believe we must be strong and secure in what we believe and stand for – secure and thus without a need to be defensive – and so not nervous when people disagree with us and challenge what we know to be the truth. We must lovingly welcome disagreements, discussion, and honest dialogue and do so with open and accepting hearts and lives so that people feel the warmth of the love of the Savior and know that they are being accepted as human beings of value and tremendous worth and not judged and condemned. We can disagree with a person’s lifestyle (as I am sure they disagree with the way I have chosen to live my life) and still lovingly accept the person.

I failed that day to communicate this love to the young man sitting next to me. But that will not stop me from trying again and again … because that is what I see the Lord doing as I read through the gospels and observe the way He interacted with people – His love, His acceptance and His forgiveness are obvious for all to see. So, it must be the same in my life….

The Final Lecture

When asked to give the annual lecture at the university where he taught Randy Pausch was told, as were all speakers in previous years, to talk as if this were his last public opportunity to speak in his lifetime. In other words, act as if this were your final opportunity to impact others and decide what it is you would want to share if it really were.

For Randy, a professor of Computer Science, Human Computer Interation, and Design at Carnegie Mellon University this was not difficult to imagine but it was a difficult assignment. Difficult because it would be his last lecture as he was actually dying of terminal cancer. The topic he chose: “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” was not about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think”). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe, It was about living – not dying.

This book is an expansion of that original “final lecture” and is a good read. It is not a “faith book” and there is really no indication that the author is a born again believer – but he has some real truths to impart and does so in a simple, straightforward, and always loving way. An excellent read – and you can read it in one sitting (as I did on a flight to Belarus recently).

To view his actual “last lecture” go to www.thelastlecture.com

University Lecture

When you think “university lecture” your thoughts would wander to the picture on the left – at least, after more than 10 years in higher education and three university degrees that is where my thoughts would go. However, when I recently spoke to a university class studying religions the picture on the right is what I faced that day. University classes and facilities in Belarus are different than they are here. But the students are the same. Hungry to learn and very impressionable.

This group of wonderful students are part of a four year degree that will lead them into positions of power within the government structure of their nation. Many will become very powerful within the political and social world of this great nation of Belarus. As part of their education they study “religion” like a scientist would study the eruption of a volcano. So, they have a scientific curosity about “religion” and study various belief structures so that they can understand what is believed by the followers of that ‘faith’ and why they believe it.

This group seldom has a guest speaker – they have not seen a Canadian speak in the university since 1984. I believe this opportunity foe me to address these future leaders was God-orchastrated. They were honored that I was there and listened very intently to everything I had to say. The topic was the spread of “religion” in Canada (historical to present) and I had only an hour ( with interpretation that means 30 minutes of me talking). Then there was a time of questions and answers to fill out the 90 minute time slot.

Before the class time we met in the professor’s office for tea. There we met another professor and had opportunity to get to know each other and get a ‘feel’ for the university and what we were about to be involved in. Then through many hallways and floors of the massive building we were in to the classroom where we immediately jumped in and began talking after a very brief introduction. The talk went well (I was a bit nervous) and I avoided all references to politics (my host in the counry had me registered as non-political and so I could not become involved in or comment on any political situation). The students were quiet and attentive – and the questions they asked were specific, pointed and polite. They was no anamosity. I spoke carefully and had spent a great deal of time in the days leading up to this event thinking through what I would say and how to say it so as to stay within the guidelines and yet make the most of the opportunity. Afterall, I am a guest in a foreign nation and not just a university.

Afterwards – more tea, a great conversation, a tour of a small museum to understand the history of the university and a second tour of a re-creation of a peasant village of the mid-1800’s with actual pottery, linen, a reconstructed house, etc. Amazing and we have some tremendous pictures of this second tour.

The professor who brought us in and whose class I addresed was very gracious and stayed with us the whole time asking questions and helping us to understand the historical significance of the university and what we had just been a part of in his classroom.

It turns out that this professor is the head of a governmental committee that has total control of who gets licensed as a church and who does not. He is the one who decides which churches will be regarded as legal and thus allowed to function openly and publicly and which ones will not be recognized and thus have to remain “underground” and live in fear of persecution. And here’s a coincidence – the last day we were back where we began in Minsk city and in conversation with a pastor there we discussed his decision made that week to begin a new union or network of churches in the nation and seek recognition as a legal group in the nation. I just love what God does. Of course, I am involved in a very limited way but I am involved.

As well, they have invited me to write a scientific “religious” article for a university publication. The purpose of the publication, which comes out three to four times a year, is to help government officials on all levels of government understand “religion” and its role in people’s lives. We were given the requirements for the article (how long, areas to write on, submission dates) in Russian and it is being translated for me by my Eastern Europe administrator. I will need to submit my subject matter by the 15th of May (that places me on a tight schedule due to other commitments and my next trip overseas). Then I can write the article for publication during the summer. I am told that this will open many doors all over the nation for me and this ministry and give to me much more freedom to minister openly that was not available this trip. Of course, I said an immediate “yes” to the offer as I don’t believe in coincidents and believe God has opened this door for us.

Your prayers would be greatly appreciated – much prayer must go into this current opportunity.

This Man’s Life Was Radically Changed By Jesus

As a convicted criminal serving time in the prison system in Belarus Sasha was feared by many and hated by the rest. He was not a nice person and was without hope according to many. He is now a respected businessman and pastors a home church of recovering addicts and assorted others. He was in attendance at our leaders week in Mogilov city, Belarus last week. And, a blessing to all involved.

His attitude is very positive; he is excited about life; he is moving forward in both the business world and his spiritual life; he is willing to serve wherever the Lord opens doors for him to do so; he is always talking about the Lord in a pleasant and powerful way (not a flakey and superspiritual manner) and is a very loving and caring person. He is totally in love with Jesus and you will know that as a fact within 2 to 3 minutes of meeting him. You will have no doubt that Jesus has made a real difference in his life and continues to do so. And, watch those hugs -they could squeeze the very life of Jesus into you.

He has been totally transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ – which, Paul reminds us, “is the power of God unto salvation”. And saved he is! He is a definite “new creature in Christ – behold old things have passed away and all things have become new.” And, he is out to tell everyone “the night-and-day difference Jesus has made in his life” which Peter writes is what we are all about and what the chosen are to do. He is truly an “ambassador of Christ Jesus with a message of reconciliation.”

Well, I spoke a lengthy prophetic word over him one night during the service. At the end of the word I mentioned that the Lord saw his financial issues and would be quickly bringing financial blessings and release to him so that his ministry could be free of monetary concerns and he could focus better. The next night he returns and his face can hardly contain the grin. He asks to give a brief testimony. I let him. He had not been home an hour from the previous night’s service when he called someone that he needed to talk to and in the conversation reminded them of the money that they still owed him. He had written this loan off long before as uncollectable and thus a loss but he felt led to simply mention it. The lady he was speaking to then told him that she had wired the total amount ($3000.00+) to his bank account several days before. He was a little excited! Already God was fulfilling the prophetic word over his life. To him this was a miacle – that this woman would do that after so many years… We all rejoiced with him.

In contrast … I was immediately bombarded by a young man with numerous requests that I pray over him and his finances. My team members talked with him several times over the next few days and relayed what was happening to me after each meeting. He was really aiming to corner me and have me pray for financial blessings over his life so that God could supernaturally remove all his accumulated debt. Well, finally on the last day in that location I spoke to him. He does not have a job and is not looking for one. He spends money he does not have with no possible way of paying back what he borrows. As a believer he goes from conference to conference without a place to stay or food to eat or the means to purchase it. The hosts of each conference end up feeling sorry for him and feed and house him (and this was the case for the two weeks he had spent with us at both the youth conference and then the leaders week). He had no money, no job, no budget and was “living by faith” as he said to me. I refused to pray for him for a financial blessing or even to prophesy over him. I prayed that, as a healthy young man, he would find a job and become a responible young man and start to behave like a true believer “doing all things unto the Lord.”

The contrast between this young man – Oleg – and Sasha who had a good work ethic and was doing all he could to be responsible with his life was so evident. One life radically transformed the other being wasted.

Please pray for Oleg – this young man (not pictured above so as to protect his privacy … there are many Olegs in the former Soviet Union) – that he would bring his life into line with the scriptures and become a living example of a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ who Himself held down a job working with his hands from a very early age.

Pictured above – Sasha (Alexander) with the prophetic tattoo he had done while in prison (it is all about Jesus and he was not saved when he had it illegally done while in prison) and the second picture is with his wonderful wife who works in their business and ministry with them.

The Gospel According to Starbucks

One of the few joys of international travel is the reading one can do during the many hours on a plane and in airports… I don’t sleep while in motion and so have 24 to 30 hours each way to read. This most recent trip I read three and a half books while in flight there and back. One was by Leonard Sweet called “The Gospel According to Starbucks.” A most excellent book – as are all of his published books and materials.

Looking at why people go to Starbucks, stand in long lines, pay terribly high prices for their coffee (an acquired taste as I personally think their coffee is terrible) and what this Starbucks culture is all about – he then compares it to the Church and draws out the lessons we need to learn from the corporate strategy of this international coffee giant which can be found in many nations of the world including in some of the nations overseas where I work.

Starbucks has managed to do in a few short decades what the Church in many ways has failed to do over the centuries. There has been a steady “starbuckization of culture” going on and many have not even noticed it. They are influencing the way we think and live. This has been happening while the church’s influence over life and thought has been declining at a rapid rate. Only two other names are as well known worldwide – Google and Rick Warren’s “purpose”. They have had a major impact upon our cultural values and have become the meeting place that the church once was in days gone by.

He bases the book on four key words making up an acrostic EPIC
E – Experiential (Starbucks is more than a coffee – it is an experience)
P – Participatory (It is where you go to participate with others in an interchange of conversation)
I – Image-Rich (The way it is set up with a fireplace, comfortable chairs, warm atmosphere)
C – Connective (It is where you can come, sit and connect with others)

These were four attributes of the Church in most cultures at one time. Now St. Arbucks (spell it out – Starbucks) is the place where people go on Sundays and during the week to do some of what they use to frequent the church to do.

An interesting read for anyone who enjoys good writing and having their lifestyle challenged and stretched. A must read for Christian leaders here in North America.

Stark Contrast – Severe Disconnect

My last Sunday in Belarus I ministered in an “old pentecostal” church in the city of Minsk. The first Sunday evening two weeks before I had ministered in a different “old pentecostal” church in the same city. The Sunday between I had ministered in an “old pentecostal” church in Mogilov city where I was ministering for two weeks.

Now, I am no expert on “old pentecostal” churches that belong to the same union (network, denomination). I have heard a little of their history and how they continued to worship during the many years of communism and all that they suffered to do so (thus the name “old”). I listened in amazement as they told me some of their wonderful spiritual history and all that the Spirit of God has done time and time again in years gone by (thus the name “pentecostal”). Great people, tremendous hearts for the Lord, and sincerely love God. But, I must admit worshipping with them was an experience and a bit of a shock for me personally.

The women all wear coverings on their heads (scarfs); the “song service” was okay but was definitely not ‘worship’ in the sense of taking us into or even near the presence of God; those leading, for the most case, yelled the whole time they spoke; the decor was all very old and astere; the congregations were mostly old in age; and they apparently had a complete disconnect from the world around them. Hear me – I’m not judging their hearts, just the way the service is “managed” and “presented”.

The contast between what we were experiencing and the world outside became evident after the morning service on the last Sunday I was there. I had been given a limited time frame to speak because it was an evangelistic service where everyone was suppose to invite unsaved friends and family. Everything was designed, I was told, to encourage people to answer the altar call at the end. So, I agreed to give a short version of my testimony and not minister prophetically (we decided that the prophetic would be the basis of the evening service). Good to go.

There was nothing in the morning service that a non-Christian could relate to yet it was an evangelistic service. Format, music picked, the choir, the prayers and the way they were prayed (crying and wailing), the worship, the Sunday School presentation…. nothing! I know because I work a lot with people on the streets and those who are non-believers back home and speak to my team over here a lot about their world, likes and dislikes, their age group, their culture and their desires. I am no expert but I spend a lot of time in analysis of services in many nations and how they are connecting to both God and the culture or world around them. I am even researching and writing a presentation on the disconnect in Canada between what we do and what people today are needing and looking for.

This stark contrast come into greater focus after lunch as I went for a walk. Right behind this converted kindergarten school building now the home of this church were several large buildings that were vacant and had been for many years. Just the brick and stone work was left standing with all windows and doors long removed for their value as wood (see picture). Sitting in the windows on the second floor facing the church building was a group of young men (ages 14 to 18) drinking beer and smoking (what I do not know). Across the lane from that, in what looked like some type of dormitory, there was some fairly loud and “young” music blaring from a window or two on the third floor and the noise of still more youth laughing and talking. It was such a stark contrast and showed me how severe the disconnect is that existed between what we had just been a part of and the actual world surrounding the building and parking lot of this local church.

This is not a problem unique to Belarus or this local church – as it exists in many churches in most nations. I’m not talking about watering things down to be “relevant”. I’m taking about presenting worship and the Word in such a way that people in the surrounding culture can relate to it and understand what the faith is really all about. I’m talking about “connecting” to the world around us as the Good News of salvation is only good news if others can hear it in a way that they can understand and can receive it. There is, right now a stark contrast and a severe disconnect.

Catching Up

I have arrived home after almost two full days traveling. Again, we were coming in from Toronto this morning and could not land due to problems at the Regina airport. Running low on fuel we flew to Winnipeg to wait for the Regina technical problems to be solved and to put more fuel in the plane as we had circled Regina numerous times hoping the problem on the ground would be short lived. It wasn’t. Shades of coming in from Calgary on my last trip and having to fly back again and spend the night. Welcome to the ministry.

My apologies for the silence of the last week and the lack of reports of our work in Belarus. However, my computer operating systems crashed over a week ago and in spite of hard work on the part of two different people in Belarus we were unable to get it to function properly. However, I do have a lot of penciled notes and will continue to write about Belarus and the Church there (as well as my experiences) over the coming week to ten days. Today my computer guy came as soon as I arrived home and spent several hours restoring the operating system and getting my mobile office functional once again. Thanks Ryan.

So, starting tomorrow I will be posting a daily blog once again. Thanks for your patience and for all your prayers for me, the team and the trip. It was truly amazing but not without its troubles and glitches as well as a lot of hard work and long hours. And, much was accomplished.

As I reflect a little on the trip (on a rainy and windy night – sitting in my own home once again … I have been thinking of how to summarize everything I do on these trips, How would I communicate with someone who I am and what I do without sounding like I am bragging or giving myself a title or position (neither of which I am interested in). Here is what I came up with…”I am a nobody that’s trying to tell everybody about Somebody that can save anybody.”

Really that is what we are all called to be.

Paul states that God does not call the wise, wealthy or good looking but the foolish and the weak. He does not call the ‘somebodies’ of our world but the “nobody” who is open and available to be used by God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

Our task as a nobody is to tell everybody the good news (Gospel) that Jesus saves. The Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” and it can literally blow people from the domain of darkness into the Kingdom of Light (Colossians 1:13). However, it is only good news if people hear it which is okay as we are called to “go into all the world…” (Matthew 28:18-20) and be “God’s chosen instruments to tell others the night-and-day difference He has made” (1 Peter 2:9).

The ‘Somebody’ is Jesus who is the only way to the Father as well as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He is God born as a man who came to live among us and reveal the heart of the Father to the people. He died for us and shed His blood paying the penalty for our sins (spiritual death and separation from God) so we can have life – His life flowing in and through us. By doing so and by us responding we have eternal life (Romans 6:23) which is a “relationship with God the Father…” (John 17:3).

And anyone can call on the Name of the Lord and be saved (Acts 4:12). The message is that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and so you can be saved and have the assurance that when you die you will go to Heaven to spend eternity with Him.

Everywhere I go this is really all I am doing. I dress it up in different clothes – using different topics – but I always have one theme … Jesus. And, I am discipling, training, equipping and mentoring the saints so that they can go out and be the Church in their world and move supernaturally as Jesus did (John 14:12).

This is what I did for 16 days in Belarus. Nothing less – nothing more!

An Amazing Oppurtunity! Please Pray!

Ralph Teaching in Russia

Please pray! I has just been invited to give a lecture at the University in Mogilev in Mogilev city, Belarus this coming Friday afternoon (early morning Saskatchewan time – 9 hours behind Belarus). This is to be on a ‘religious’ topic of my choice. We are told that this will be an historical event in the history of this university founded by the dictator and of the nation.

As well, I has agreed to meet with the dean of the university beforehand for an opportunity to share whatever is on my heart.

The government has also asked me during April and May to write a religious article on the born again faith for a ‘scientific journal’ and then to return in May of 2011 to attend and speak at a forum being sponsored by the government.

Please pray and thank you for your financial support that makes all of this possible!

Belarus March/April 2010

Belarus

I arrive home from the apostolic roundtable on Wednesday night and leave again on Friday – this time for the nation of Belarus. This is my first visit to this nation and it will be interesting to see what it is God will be doing during my visit there. I have wanted to visit this nation for over a decade and now the Lord has given to me the desire of my heart. I will be there by Saturday afternoon late and begin ministering Saturday night. I will return on the 12th of April arriving home mid-morning on the 13th. Inbetween – many, many meetings and opportunities to share God’s Word prophetically both in teachings to the assembled saints as well as in prophetic words over churches, leaders, and people. Read more