With all of the recent chaos that broke out in Charlottesville, the stupidity of dozens of people (read: deranged, uneducated idiots) still toppling Confederate statues throughout the country and today’s ousting of top White House strategist Steve Bannon, any news of North Korea seems to have been temporarily buried amongst the metaphorical rubble. Obviously, these are all headlines worth following and — to be honest — I don’t really miss seeing Kim Jong Un’s bulging face and unsightly haircut plastered across every digital newsfeed on the Internet. In fact, it may have actually helped a few Americans to realize that he’s not the apocalyptic threat that he portrays himself to be — a topic that I discussed in a recent piece you can find here.
Also, we’ve had plenty of time to recognize that the psychopathic, self-described Neo Nazi White Supremacists in Charlottesville are not even remotely representative of Christianity, white people or conservatism. It’s probably time to move on from this topic altogether and take the spotlight away from them. Unfortunately, we’re trading that story for headlines about petulant rioters forming mobs and knocking over statues because their feelings are hurt by historical facts.
What a time to be alive.
Speaking of Christianity, though, I think there’s something worth mentioning about North Korea, particularly as I’ve been meditating lately on holding fast to one’s faith in the midst of difficult circumstances, trials and tribulations. It seems that for the last 16 years now, the eastern Asian country currently ruled by Supreme-Leader-Barking-Dog-In-Chief Kim Jong-un has been ranked as the “most oppressive place in the world for Christians” and the U.S. State Department even confirmed this week that NoKo is actually one of the world’s top religious persecutors. In fact, the brutal regime even goes out of its way to hunt down and execute individuals who are suspected — not proven — of worshipping God [any god other than Kim Jong-un], reading the Bible or practicing other traditions of the Christian faith. Of course, they also imprison or slaughter any friends and family members of these believers as well.
So, just looking at the numbers, how and why are an estimated 36% of North Koreans — over nine million people — still meeting to practice their faith? How is that even possible and, more importantly, why would they even do it when their very lives are on the line?
Could it be that perhaps they actually are ready to die for what they believe? Maybe they really are willing to suffer horrific forms of persecution and torture — like being crushed by steamrollers, hung on crosses while burned alive in fires and even used as lab rats in the testing of biological weapons? And, if this isn’t all terrible enough, North Korean Christians also have to be on the look out for government moles who continually infest their underground networks and report back to the regime leaders.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, we complain when our sanctuaries are too hot or too cold. We whine like spoiled brats when the pastor’s sermon goes ten minutes longer than we expected. We squirm when he challenges us to share Jesus with our neighbor across the street. We criticize the worship music, the color of the carpet, the lighting, the pews, the stage, the atmosphere, the ministries, the staff and even our fellow churchgoers. We find every absurd and utterly ridiculous reason imaginable to make the “church experience” more comfortable, more contemporary, more convenient, more easy, more luxurious, more cozy, more fashionable and more appealing by modern standards. And — once we’ve done all of that — we find excuses to not even show up at all. (Well, except for Easter and maybe Christmas Eve.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there’s a problem with erecting that trendy wood pallet background or ditching that 1970’s burnt orange carpet for something a little more stylish. But, I think that we have to keep things in perspective.
The simple truth is that it’s not the church’s job to make us comfortable. It’s not God’s job to make us comfortable. The Christian life — ministry, discipleship, evangelism, outreach, relationships, community, pastorship — was never meant to be one of comfort, convenience and ease. In fact, Jesus Himself said: “In this world you will have trouble.” It was practically guaranteed. For the disciples of old (and the current ones in North Korea) that kind of “trouble” usually meant the possibility of being hunted down and murdered or thrown into prison for the rest of your life.
So what’s the worst that could happen here in America? What’s the worst that could be required of you as a true, committed Christ-follower? Well, you might have to sacrifice more. More time. More energy. More effort. You might have to wake up earlier, stay up later, work harder and longer. You might have to juggle a full-time job with full-time ministry. You might have to juggle two or three jobs. You might have to get out of your comfort zone.
You might have to actually, you know, go to church on a regular basis. You might have to abandon the plan you thought you had for your life, grab hold of God’s hand and follow His lead. You might have to toss every ounce of logic, reason and common sense out the window and walk by faith. You might have to invite your neighbor or coworker to church. You might have to witness to a total stranger. You might have to lose a few friends or relationships along the way.
If this all seems like too much to ask, then it might be time to seriously reevaluate yourself. It might be time to ask whether or not you’re a real and active member of the Body of Christ. After all, how can you be a part of His Church if you’re not even willing to walk the most basic and fundamental elements of the path He’s laid out for us?
Anyway, I think that — in light of what we’re seeing play out with believers in North Korea — we are left with nothing to justify our pathetic laziness and apathy as American Christians.
May God forgive us where we’ve failed.
And may He give us the strength to do better while we still can.
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I’ve had to learn a lot of things in life the hard way. And by “learn the hard way,” I basically mean “fail miserably at them over and over again.”
As an overly eager and ambitious youngster in elementary school, I learned that I would never make it big in the world of professional sports as a famous athlete. This probably had something to do with the fact that I practically died of heat exhaustion during every one of my little league soccer practice sessions because I was morbidly obese and couldn’t run very fast. Also, my growing resentment over my little brother’s team being served snacks and soda — while my drill sergeant of a coach was ordering us to do 50 more pushups — didn’t help my attitude much either.
In early high school, I learned that my future career as a comic book artist wasn’t exactly going to pan out the way that I had hoped. Oh well. Who really wants to make a living drawing Batman and Spiderman for the rest of their life anyway, right? It’s not like superhero franchises are insanely popular cash cows these days or anything.
In college, I quickly discovered that filmography, videography and dramatic studio productions weren’t really my forte either. I tended to excel in and gravitate more towards digital media design, marketing, public relations, social media management, web graphical creation, writing and the like. But, if you were to hand me a shoulder-mounted video camera, a lighting kit and a pair of boom mics and tell me to “make a story,” I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. It’s only by the grace of God (and the mercy of my professors) that I even survived those handful of required TV, radio and film production courses.
And, all throughout my young adult life and in recent months, I’ve realized that my “man card” is essentially nonexistent in dozens of categories like heavy furniture lifting, intensive lawn care and outdoor survival methods. (Sorry, dad.) If there’s ever some sort of zombie apocalypse or end-of-the-world Armageddon, I won’t be the guy planting, harvesting and managing the family vegetable garden.
Even now, at the ripe old age of 31, I’m still learning things “the hard way” on this journey called life — a life that, in many ways, I never would have predicted. It’s a life that has been broken and marred by relational adversities, lost friendships, medical hardships and prolonged seasons of wondering, wandering and questioning. Honestly, if I had seen any of this coming, I probably would’ve done everything in my power to avoid it. Being re-diagnosed with Partial-Complex Idiopathic Epileptic seizures in my mid-twenties (after not having them since I was an infant), subsequently being placed on two driving restrictions (the latter of which is still current), weathering five and a half months of not eating solid food and simultaneously enduring several medication side effects haven’t been the most pleasant experiences in the world.
Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you’re there right now. You’re drowning in a life that you don’t want. A life you don’t understand. A life that you would do anything to change. Maybe it’s your marriage. Maybe it’s your job. Maybe it’s your physical health.
You find yourself daydreaming — at home, in class, at work, at church — about how things could be better, grander, more fulfilling, more successful, more beautiful, more peaceful.
But, the joyful and unshakeable reality is that our lives — and the progress we want to make in our lives — are not defined or even restricted by the brokenness of our circumstances or the brokenness of who we are. In fact, the brokenness itself is actually a glorious and wondrous part of our circumstances because God is the Author of our lives and He is incapable of making mistakes. How often we forget that He is the Divine Poet, penning every line as the script unfolds before our very eyes. With every stanza, with every unique verse and every perfectly orchestrated sequences of events, He is inviting us to take part in an epic adventure where He is in control of the final chapter and the eternal outcome.
Thus, the broken pieces and all of the ugly messes are ok because they’re just another part of the story, leading to a more spectacular and more breathtaking conclusion than we could ever imagine or could ever write for ourselves.
That’s difficult to swallow sometimes, though. We don’t like to accept the notion that God intentionally and knowingly allows suffering and pain to take place, not just on the earth in general, but especially in our personal lives as Christ-followers. It means we have to exercise great amounts of faith and trust. Regardless, we can do our best to take comfort in the truth that even as we encounter disappointment, trials and misery, everything is still happening within the framework of His sovereign plan as He uses us to glorify Himself and to encourage those around us.
Moreover, He promises that He will always be with us in the midst of life’s deepest hardships so that we don’t ever have to endure it alone, despite that we may “feel” alone.
So, cling to the brokenness of your story. Embrace the fragmented, shattered pieces of your life. The things that don’t seem to make sense. The things that hurt. The things that scare you. The things that send you to the floor every night in tears.
Because it’s in the brokenness where you’ll find God at work. It’s where your relationship with Him — your faith, joy and hope — will thrive, mature and flourish.
It your story.
He’s writing every moment of it.
And the story isn’t over yet.