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I was still struggling to grasp my surroundings as we slipped off our shoes and walked into the expansive, open-air, marbled courtyard. There were dozens of students pacing the floors, kneeling in prayer, and sitting in study groups amongst the roman pillars “harvested” from the once-plentiful churches of this ancient city.

Al-Azhar.

The oldest university in the world (969AD).

The Harvard of Islam.

After stops in the UAE and Qatar, this (extremely) white, Midwestern christian boy somehow found himself standing in the intellectual center of the Sunni Islamic faith. Just another day at the office.

Our missionary host led us through the university’s square to an old, wooden door at the base of one of the mosque’s minarets. He had a friend employed by the school that was planning to give us the grand tour. But first, he had something special he wanted us to see.

CairoMinaretThe antiquated door swung closed behind us as we stepped into the base of an ancient spiral staircase.

It was pitch black.

As I instinctively reached for my iPhone flashlight, my new friend stopped me. “Leave it off for a minute. Trust me.”

So I took a deep breath and began to climb.

The steps were rough and uneven, worn down by hundreds of years of pious footprints. I braced my hands against the sides of the chamber, trying to keep from stumbling as each tread varied greatly in both width and height. I could hear the voices of my climbing partners ahead of me, but I had no idea as to how far I’d fallen behind. My pulse was pounding. My thighs began to burn with lactic acid. I struggled to catch my breath.

Still no light. Still no rest. Just more and more steps. And more and more darkness.

That’s when he hit me with the point of this whole exercise. From the blackness above I heard this story:

“One of my muslim friends who came to trust in Jesus told me this stairwell is the perfect analogy for Islam. Always climbing, climbing, climbing. Completely in the dark. Exhausted. Worn out. With no light, and no end in sight.”

The metaphor resonated. They have their law, but there is no Gospel. They have heavy demands, but no grace.

And strangely enough, that’s not all that unlike the way many of us embrace Christianity: an endless ascent up a pious staircase in a fruitless effort to reach up to God by our own efforts.

But God doesn’t ask us to climb to The Light. The Light came down to us.

The Word gave life to everything that was created,
    and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
–John 1:4-5 NLT

My one-day journey into the heart of this muslim city didn’t leave me angry or afraid, it left me sober. Burdened for a people who must quietly long to escape the pressing weight of their religious bondage, to exhale under the freedom of God’s gift of grace.

And that reminder is just as pertinent for you and me today, too.

God isn’t found at the top of an exhausting climb up a dark stairwell. Jesus came for us. I don’t care what religious system you may associate yourself with today, that’s the Good News for us all.

There’s a famous story attributed to English writer and theologian, G.K. Chesterton, from the early 20th Century. The Times of London was planning a cover story titled “What is Wrong with the World?” and sent requests to Chesterton and other well-known philosophers of the day asking how they would answer this deep question.

In quintessential Chesterton fashion, he replied with the shortest (and yet most profound) answer in journalism history:

Dear sirs,

I am.

Sincerely,

G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton-I-Am

(Photo credit: The Noble Heart)

Amidst the heated debate about the denigration of our culture and the seemingly daily assault on judeo-christian values, it was good for me to hear this old story once again. I don’t know about you, but my gut reaction to the question, “what’s wrong with the world?” is simple:

They are.

You know who they are. The idiots. The rebels. The sinners. Them.

That’s where Chesterton’s pithy letter gives me pause.

Idiot, rebel, sinner describes me without the Gospel. Me without Jesus.

Last time I checked, the school of grace doesn’t hold graduations (at least not in this lifetime). I need to be drenched again and again in its healing and renewing power every single day. Except for Christ, I am what’s wrong with the world.

So as we stand up for morality, as we defend our religious freedoms, as we fight for what the Bible says is right and wrong (and yes, there is right and wrong), let’s do it as recipients of a gift. It will soothe our tone, it will humble our position, and it might even convince some people Jesus is who we know Him to be…

the only thing that’s right with the world.

I’m giving up self-righteousness for Lent.

I don’t even know if you can do that. Does that qualify? I don’t come from a faith tradition that regularly observes the church seasons, but I see all my Facebook friends giving up sugar, or television, or even Facebook itself, and I think “that’s good….wow, that’s gonna be tough….I hope they can pull it off.”

What’s something I hold onto more tightly than anything? What’s something I could lay down as a sacrifice during this Lenten season?

My self-righteousness.

I know, I know. It sounds all existential doesn’t it? But the last few years have reminded me of something incredibly important.

I’m a broken mess.

Now you wouldn’t really know it to look at me. I’m not a heroin addict. I don’t run around on my wife. I’ve got a good job, live in a respectable neighborhood, do my best to love my kids and give my life to those around me. The addiction I migrate back to isn’t going to land me in any rehab I know of. It’s socially acceptable. In fact, it’s socially admired.

It’s my belief in me.

I want to fix myself. I want to earn my way. I want to be admired and respected. I want you to think I’m more than I am. I want my good deeds to outweigh my bad. I want to control my own destiny. I want to be my own Savior.

And even though I fail every single time, I crawl right back and try again.

I need the Gospel. I need Jesus. The only One who can really fix what’s wrong with me. The only one who can redeem the power and potential that’s inside of me.

I can’t. But He did.

Jesus did.

And so this Lenten season I’m laying down my self-salvation projects. And if it’s all the same to you, with God’s help, I’m not going to pick them back up again.

If you begin recognizing Lent today, don’t allow the ritual to lose its meaning. Let it point you to Jesus. He’s the only place righteousness can be found.

Maybe We Just Need To Ask

Erik Cooper —  February 5, 2014 — 3 Comments

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some things I learned from my recent trip to Africa. I know, I know, it’s always such a “joy” hearing about other people’s life-changing journeys (and looking at their travel pictures), but I hope you’ll trust me here. These insights don’t necessarily have to do with exploring exotic cultures, they were simply inspired there. Sometimes it takes getting out of the norm to understand how to live better in it. I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Gilagwenda’s Story

Most things worth achieving in this life require years of hard work.

  • My friend Wendy just earned her associates degree after years of patiently chipping away at each class, all in between her real job as a wife and mother of three. She earned it.
  • My brother Darren became a amazing musician after spending countless hours with a guitar in his calloused hands. He earned it.
  • My buddy Josh just landed a big job promotion after 20 years of committed learning and devoted service (including a few years under me). He definitely earned it.

The concept of effort and achievement makes sense. Work hard and you improve. Do nothing and, well, you’re likely to get the same.

But what if you find yourself in a position where you need skills and abilities you don’t have time to earn? And what if God is the one that put you there?

P1292064

I met Gil last week in the bush of Tanzania. He’s a native Datooga, a truly unreached people group. A tribe of Africans that live in the dictionary definition of “the middle of nowhere.” Years ago, Gil was an alcoholic (consistently intoxicated with whatever local booze they manufacture out there in the bush) when a traveling preacher brought the Jesus Film to his remote village.

Gil was engulfed by this new message of Hope and gave his life to Christ right then and there, never again touching a drop the alcohol that had long been his god. As the preacher left for the next village he handed Gil a brand-new Bible. He long to tear into its pages, eager to learn more about this Savior who was already changing his life. There was only one problem:

Gil couldn’t read. Not one word.

So with the humble plea of a newly redeemed man, he simply asked this newfound Jesus to show him what the words said.

Thirty days later, he could read every word. Every word.

Today, Gil spearheads the missionary efforts to his own people.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself facing some new responsibilities and challenges that require things of me I don’t have two decades to learn and earn. Are tribesmen like Gil the only ones who have access to that kind of supernatural transaction? He didn’t achieve the ability to read, it was given to him as a gift. I wonder how many gifts might be available to us if we just asked?

I’m not advocating for a God that rewards laziness, but I am suggesting he will equip and empower His people for what He asks them to do. Miraculously if necessary.

Maybe it’s time we tap into our Resource. Maybe we just need to ask.

BluthCleaver

Earlier this week I had a textbook day. It was pretty magnificent, no kidding. A case-study for enviously good living.

Knocked out a few important projects at the office.

Spent lunch encouraging a friend.

Cheered both my girls to softball victories.

Helped my youngest daughter with her science homework.

Sat with my other two kids while they mastered a few new songs on the piano.

Prayed with a neighbor family about a health situation.

Talked through a beautiful passage of Scripture with the whole family

And tucked all three smiling offspring into bed by 9pm.

It was as if the day played out in classic 1950s black-and-white, with a perky orchestrated underscore and perfectly resolved plot line. I felt more than pretty good about myself as I crawled under the covers that night. I did good that day. That was one to be proud of.

And then the rest of the week had to go and take place.

Grouchy headaches.

Forgotten homework assignments.

A failed test.

A project that exposed my learning curve at the office.

Kids screaming at each other over the silliest of disagreements.

Me yelling at the kids because of their screaming (yes, I get the irony).

Missed bedtimes.

Hurried tuck-ins.

Rote prayers.

The high horse bucked. My inner Bluth went and knocked off my inner Cleaver. I had one of those days that leave you feeling below average, a bit embarrassed, and hoping no one was secretly filming for some TLC reality show.

Here’s the blunt reality:

Some days end with me feeling like a champion.

Other days end with me feeling like a complete failure.

But because of the scandalous beauty of the Gospel, every day ends with me knowing I’m a valued son of God.

My worth is not rooted in my failures or accomplishments. It’s not what I do, it’s what He has already done. We work, we toil, we strive, and we live – not for acceptance – but from a place of It Is Finished.

So don’t confuse how you feel at the end of each day with what you can know at the end of each day. That because of Jesus, you are loved. Because of Jesus, you have value.

Because of Jesus, you are a son or daughter.