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Word:  Nehemiah 9: 22-31 (abridged) (NLT)

22 “Then you helped our ancestors conquer kingdoms and nations, and you placed your people in every corner of the land…23 You made their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and brought them into the land you had promised to their ancestors.

24 “They went in and took possession of the land. You subdued whole nations before them….Your people could deal with these nations and their kings as they pleased. 25 Our ancestors captured fortified cities and fertile land. They took over houses full of good things, with cisterns already dug and vineyards and olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate until they were full and grew fat and enjoyed themselves in all your blessings.

26 “But despite all this, they were disobedient and rebelled against you. They turned their backs on your Law, they killed your prophets who warned them to return to you, and they committed terrible blasphemies. 27 So you handed them over to their enemies, who made them suffer. But in their time of trouble they cried to you, and you heard them from heaven. In your great mercy, you sent them liberators who rescued them from their enemies.

28 “But as soon as they were at peace, your people again committed evil in your sight, and once more you let their enemies conquer them. Yet whenever your people turned and cried to you again for help, you listened once more from heaven. In your wonderful mercy, you rescued them many times!

29 “You warned them to return to your Law, but they became proud and obstinate and disobeyed your commands. They did not follow your regulations, by which people will find life if only they obey. They stubbornly turned their backs on you and refused to listen. 30 In your love, you were patient with them for many years. You sent your Spirit, who warned them through the prophets. But still they wouldn’t listen! So once again you allowed the peoples of the land to conquer them.31 But in your great mercy, you did not destroy them completely or abandon them forever. What a gracious and merciful God you are!

 

Often people and nations want to see the King of All Nations as the Judge of All Nations, eager to punish, eager to enforce, indifferent to human frailty, intolerant of human error.  This is not the picture that the prophet Nehemiah painted—and he could have easily. His task was to rebuild walls that the enemies of his nation had destroyed and demolished in the time of his grandparents.  He could have chosen to focus on all the suffering of the nation because of their rebellion at the hand of God, but instead he focused on the grace and mercy of the King of All Nations.

Yes, there was judgment as a consequence of rebellion, but over and over again, when the people of the nation realized that they themselves were the cause of their own suffering and when they turned back to God, over and over again he rescued them!  Over and over, the King warned them what would happen if they became proud and obstinate. Over and over again, he sent his Spirit who warned them through prophets—over and over again.  Over and over, he sent them liberators.

The King of All Nations desires to bless and to reward. Even the suffering, the consequence of rebellion, is not revenge; it is not justice. Even the punishment is not meant to destroy, but to draw the nation back so that God can give people the joy of his salvation.

 

Prayer:  Show us the sins of our nation, Father, so that we may repent and return to your blessing. Free us from those who would ignore your Word, who would attempt to set up their own throne over your nation, O Lord. You are gracious and merciful. Without your mercy, we are lost.  Amen.

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WORD Exodus 3:3-15 (NLT)

“This is amazing,” Moses said to himself. “Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it.”

When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

“Here I am!” Moses replied.

“Do not come any closer,” the Lord warned. “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord told him, “I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt….Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. 10 Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses protested to God, “Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?”

12 God answered, “I will be with you. And this is your sign that I am the one who has sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God at this very mountain.”

13 But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?”

14 God replied to Moses, “I am who I am. Say this to the people of Israel: I am has sent me to you.” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.

Moses was 80 years old when God appeared to him and told him that he was chosen to become the leader of an emerging nation.  Surely God could have found a more charismatic leader, younger at least, and more eager for the opportunity.

But the backstory is that God had been preparing Moses since birth for this assignment.  Moses was born to Hebrew slaves in Egypt during a dangerous time! His mother hid him from government soldiers for three months, but then could no longer protect him. She did all she knew to do, putting him in a floating basket in the Nile and posting her older daughter there to see what might happen. Pharaoh’s daughter found him and adopted him as her own son, hiring his own mother to be his wet nurse.  Now what would Moses have learned as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter? Exodus 2:1-10

After he had grown up, Moses kills an Egyptian in an attempt to deliver justice to his people. He must have felt strong, empowered, righteously indignant. He was attractive, but not yet ready to be God’s chosen leader.  After fleeing Egypt in fear of his life, he becomes a shepherd for his new father-in-law in the much-less-important land of Midian.  Forty years, he herded sheep, learning perhaps humility, learning how solitary and lackluster leadership can be. Exodus 2:11-24

These forty years were shockingly different from the first forty, but apparently necessary because only afterwards did God determine that it was time to act.  Exodus 2:25

It does seem that God had a plan both for the nation He was creating and for the Leader that He had chosen for it.

As we look around for national leadership, perhaps one of our questions could be who has God been preparing for this role?  What in his/her life’s story would suggest that God’s plan for the person and God’s plan for this nation intersect?

Even the Hebrew slaves often doubted Moses’ leadership, so it is not always easy to see God’s plan, but the more submissive we are, the less independent we desire to be, the more likely we are to find His person, His way.

Prayer Open our eyes and our hearts, Lord, to see those who want to lead our nation with your eyes. Give us wisdom and insight to discern how you may have prepared some person for national leadership, but protect us from mistaking our own wisdom for yours. Amen

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Word:   Psalm 96:7-13 (NLT)

O nations of the world, recognize the Lord;
    recognize that the Lord is glorious and strong.
Give to the Lord the glory he deserves!
    Bring your offering and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in all his holy splendor.
    Let all the earth tremble before him.
10 Tell all the nations, “The Lord reigns!”
    The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.
    He will judge all peoples fairly.

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!
    He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with justice,
    and the nations with his truth.

 

Some nations think the King of All Nations is only the king of their nation—or not king at all. The good news is “The Lord reigns!”  This fundamental truth is the framework for the entire revelation of God to man.  From the beginning of nations until the end of time, the Lord reigns. What is the impact on the world of this absolute statement of truth?

“The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.”   Our world of earthquakes and hurricanes does not seem to stand firm. The truth of daily suicide bombers and corrupt officials and suffering refugees does not feel like a world standing firm. And if world events were completely random acts, controlled only by the physical laws of cause and effect, then it would be foolish to talk about firmness . . . or fairness. But there is no random world event; the Lord reigns!

In a time of political chaos, when true perspective alludes us, when lies and twisted truths tempt us to believe there is no truth, what would happen if in faith we spoke the words: “The Lord reigns! The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.”

What if we recognized that our world is broken, but that the King of All Nations is coming to judge the world with justice and the nations with his truth.  What if we realized that every time we act justly and speak his truth, we were bringing a small part of his reign to our nation.  What if truth and justice—fair judgment—were the characteristics we sought in our elected officials? 

The psalmist described two responses: first, when we recognize his sovereignty, we surrender our own attempts to rule ourselves, and we submit to his reign. We break out in worship, giving to God the glory he deserves. Second, with all creation we celebrate his reign with joy! 

The Lord reigns, so we do not fear chaos, we do not fear injustice, we are not afraid. While the world  for a while is still broken . . . the Lord reigns.   

Prayer:  We do believe, Father, that you are the King of All Nations. We confess the brokenness of the world around us, which often confuses us, often makes us afraid and insecure. Give us greater faith and confidence in your reign over all nations. Continue to forgive us and to fill us up with faith, until we can believe the world stands firm, until we can celebrate your reign, until we find natural joy.  AMEN

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 ourgodreigns-picThe history of the world is full of critical moments, moments when the fates of nations seem to dangle by the thread of a single decision, a sole ballot, a solitary soldier, most often by some seemingly random act. Lawyers and insurance companies call these “acts of God,” trying to describe events that we humans have little or no control over.  But what if these unique moments really are acts of God!

As I was reading Israel’s history along with the prophets that spoke into those times, the undeniable involvement of God in history was no surprise, but it did strike me differently this time how much God was also involved in the affairs of many other nations, raising them up, bringing them down, punishing them for their sins, and rewarding them for righteousness.

Has God withdrawn from human affairs? Is he no longer concerned about good and evil, about justice and mercy? Does he no longer use nations to accomplish his will?  I’m convinced that the King of All Nations is as present in world affairs as ever.

The current U.S. national election, especially the presidential election, has presented many Christians with challenges that don’t seem to have good answers.  I have no intention of advising you for one candidate over another; rather, what I would like to do is share with you the Word of God, especially those passages that speak about choosing leaders and about the nature of God’s interaction with nations, in order to help you discover perhaps a divine framework within which you can act and find peace about this national election as well as the international events of our times that affect all of us.

Each day, I will share with you a text, some short and others longer, from the Word. My hope is that the Word will not only instruct and inspire you, but also challenge you to apply what you hear to our own election. Unless otherwise stated, all of the texts are taken from the New Living Translation.  Some of the longer passages are abridged, which I have noted so that if you want to read the entire passage you have the citation and can do so.

The Word is followed by a few thoughts of mine on the passage which I present to you, not as exegesis, not as a homily, but rather as initial stimulation to your own listening and thinking about what God is saying to you.

Lastly, we end in a brief prayer, acknowledging that we can neither know nor obey without divine help.

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On September 24, I hope many of you will join me in 40 days of prayer and meditating on God’s Word as we move toward the national election on November 3.  I am including a preview today so that you can know what to expect.  If you would like to join us, just subscribe to this blog and it will automatically come to you each day.  My prayer is that we gain clarity and respond to the current political situation in a way that pleases God.

PREVIEW

THE WORD OF GOD:  from Isaiah 8

 11 The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does. He said, 12 “Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do, and don’t live in dread of what frightens them. 13 Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life. He is the one you should fear. He is the one who should make you tremble. 14     He will keep you safe.

. . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

19 Someone may say to you, “Let’s ask the mediums and those who consult the spirits of the dead. With their whisperings and mutterings, they will tell us what to do.” But shouldn’t people ask God for guidance? Should the living seek guidance from the dead?

20 Look to God’s instructions and teachings! People who contradict his word are completely in the dark. 21 They will go from one place to another, weary and hungry. And because they are hungry, they will rage and curse their king and their God. They will look up to heaven 22 and down at the earth, but wherever they look, there will be trouble and anguish and dark despair. They will be thrown out into the darkness.  (NLT)

During elections or times of national tension, everyone seems to be telling everyone how to think! Persuasion bleeds over into defamation; rational arguments become disingenuous distortions of the truth. All parties have their polls to tell us how everyone else is thinking.  Turning to our national sources of information becomes hopeless.

The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does.  Isaiah was directing his audience, not to a political alternative, but rather to God for their truth.

If you are going to be afraid of what could happen, then don’t create or believe every conspiracy theory, don’t shudder at the dire consequences that talking heads predict, rather look to God’s instructions and teachings and ask God for guidance.  Exchange the polls for prayer; choose to fear God rather than the opposing candidate.

And how do you know which you have chosen?  Isaiah says that the people who ignore the Word of God will rage and curse their king and their God. They will look up to heaven and down at the earth, but wherever they look, there will be trouble and anguish and dark despair.

Don’t despair; look to God’s teachings and instructions.

 

Prayer:  O Father, we are surrounded by voices of despair and contradiction.  Turn our hearts to you so that we can walk in the light of truth and not be afraid.  Teach us to trust your word above every other message. AMEN

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My first real encounter with a person from the Middle East was when we lived in Hannover, West Germany, in the 70s.  His name was Mustafa. I don’t remember what country he was from. We were a little afraid of him—I’m ashamed to say.

I had gone to the big Holiday Inn Airport hotel in Hannover and registered with them as “clergy” because I had read an article about how people traveling sometimes sought help at hotels. One night the hotel called because they had an employee that was distraught, and they were afraid he might be suicidal.  I drove to the hotel and met Mustafa.  We talked. He wasn’t really suicidal, but he was distraught and pretty isolated in Germany.  We met several times. He came once to our apartment for dinner and even brought Sherrylee a red silk robe from his country—a very nice gift!  But I have to admit that we were only cautiously friends.

lufthansa-boeing-737-hijacked-to-somaliaThe 70s were scary times—maybe more so than today.  We had only lived a few miles from the Olympic Village in Munich when the Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered. Airplane hijackings occurred frequently, some ending in grenades being rolled down the aisles of the planes. The Red Army Faction, known to us in Germany more as the Baader-Meinhof Group, were kidnapping people, bombing establishment sites, and assassinating well-known figures.  Wanted posters were everywhere.  I even had the German Bundespolizei call me for an interview once because after driving back from a youth rally, one of the young Germans with us had seen a VW van with lots of anti-government slogans painted all over it, and so he reported it to the police.

Those were scary days in some ways, but our fears of swarthy people were mostly from movies, and only somewhat from reality.  When I think about it, it reminds me of the first time I ever flew into Germany in 1968. At the airport in Munich, German soldiers with rifles stood at the entry to the airport as we deboarded, and my heart leaped into my throat because they appeared to me to look like all the enemy German soldiers I had seen in the WWII films that I had grown up on in the 50s.  It was a silly, but visceral response—and I think that’s where our apprehension about Mustafa came from as well.

Wednesday was our last day to teach English to refugees at the Omonia church in Athens, Greece. The farewell was similar to many we have experienced—a few tears, lots of hugs, and group pictures. Selfies with our students were new– and exchanging IM addresses.

And new was that virtually all of those that we were leaving were Middle Easterners! Most were Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Some were Christian background, Persians or Kurds.  All were refugees. Some needed clothes or medicine or diapers for their babies; others needed papers—they had no official nationality because their papers and/or passports were lost, stolen, or destroyed.

I hesitate to tell you what some of them had seen. One young man said that he had been in a store in his city when a man in a truck drove up and started warning people about planes coming to bomb their homes.  While the man was warning the people, a rocket hit his truck and totally disintegrated it and the man.  “Poof” was the word the sixteen-year-old Syrian boy used to describe what he had witnessed.  What would that do to you?

Then there was the family of five from Iraq who came to Sherrylee’s class every day. Even though he was horrified at the destruction of their country by the military actions of the West, and even though he had worked with American forces during our occupation—or maybe because of his cooperation—he and his wife and children had had to flee.there-is-no-fear-in-love

How can people who have seen and experienced such horrible things be saved?

Two are being baptized in the name of Jesus today—it is eight hours later in Athens, so maybe they are already celebrating.  Sherrylee and I are home—glad to be here, but now our Facebook pages have Arabic writing in many of the posts which we have to use Google Translate to read.

John 3:16 may be the most publicized Bible verse in history and the first one that we and many of our children memorized.  I sometimes have the feeling that we are just beginning to learn what it means.

God so loved the world—not just the USA, not the West, but the world. And that’s why He sent us to every nation.

I’m just figuring out that Jesus was a swarthy, Middle Easterner too.

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jesus-teaches-in-the-synagogueThe young man had come home.  Here he was in his own synagogue, surrounded by the people who had seen him grow up.  Of course he was asked to do the Scripture reading from the Torah and to make brief comments afterwards. After all, he was one of them.

Some stories had spread in the small village about amazing things—unbelievable things—that he was supposed to have done. Lots of these kinds of stories circulated in those days. But here he was at home, where he belonged, in the synagogue, looking out for the need of his own! What a good son Joseph had.

The Scripture for this Sabbath was from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,   for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,   that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,  and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

What a great Scripture! This wonderful Good News is for the poor—that’s us! We are so poor. And we are captives to the Romans who oppress us. The Lord’s favor has not come yet. We know the Messiah will come and give us prosperity and freedom again, but at least this Scripture offers us future hope.

The young Nazarene sat down to deliver his comments. Well, he is still young.  But then he said, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” 

Well, I don’t know what that is supposed to mean! After all, this is Joseph’s son. We’ve known him since his family came back from Egypt years ago.  He is such a nice young man—and here at home, where he belongs, to take care of his own!  A strange message, but he’s one of us, and he will lose that youthful arrogance over time.

Then more pointedly, Jesus said,

But I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown. Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. 27 And many in Israel had leprosy in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.

Jesus said, It’s not about you! You don’t want to hear anything but what is about you. It’s not about you; it’s about the Syrians and the Lebanese, it’s about Iranians and Iraqis, North Africans and . . . Others. God sent his spokesmen to foreigners—because the hometown folks are chasing other things. Sure, they long for the Messiah, but they only want the one who will save THEM and who will bless THEM and who will free THEM!

The hometown folks became a mob. They hated hearing that God loved foreigners! And they hated the Messenger, so they tried to kill him.  Eventually they did.

But He still loves foreigners.

 

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Happy-Thanksgiving-PicturesLet me tell you a true story about refugees.  There were over 100 who had already fled their home country together because of severe and dangerous persecution. They had sought refuge in one country, but now needed to move on.  They paid a lot of money to arrange two small boats to carry them across precarious waters to a country where they thought they could be free and safe.  One of the boats was so leaky that after just a short ways, both of the boats turned around and went back to where they started. Those refugees in the leaky boat decided either not to risk it again or to overload the boat that had a chance of making it. The bravest or the most afraid launched out again on their dangerous journey.

Sixty-six days they were on that boat, many of which were quite stormy. Lots of seasickness, one baby born, and lots of prayers—as if they were their last words.

Finally, they made it to land—not where they intended to land, but at least they made it to land. They were received—more or less–by the locals, although theirs were very, very different cultures, different languages, and very different values.

Housing and food were barely adequate for the harsh weather that they experienced. Some of their people got sick, some died—actually many died.

As the traditional story goes, the winter months passed and after a successful harvest, these surviving refugees set aside three days to give thanks for their blessings. They invited the locals to join them, so 50 pilgrims and about 90 Native Americans feasted on deer and turkey and corn and much more, giving thanks to God for His provision.

We told this story to about a hundred refugees mostly from Iran, Iraq, and Syria on Thanksgiving Day in Athens, Greece, many of whom had quite similar stories of escape from danger and oppression. Sherrylee and I sat at the table with two families of believers from Iran who fled because they were persecuted as Christians. I asked if they ever wanted to go back, and they said they could never return for fear of being killed.

We shared turkey and cornbread dressing, green beans and mashed potatoes, apple and pecan pie—quite a feast, but before that feast we stood together, held hands, and thanked God for His provision—in Jesus’ Name.

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rain in athensIt was raining hard this morning when we woke up in Athens.  Our apartment for this LST project is near the center of the city, so we are surrounded by tall buildings which block the sun a bit.  All this to say, that it was really a dark, rainy morning.

Sherrylee and I take Uber to the church building every day, so upon arriving, we went up to the third floor where Sherry’s classroom is. The church has only had access to the third floor for about five months, so, of course, there is no electricity yet. To explain the delay would take the whole page, so let’s just say it is always moderately dark on an average sunny day, and on a dark, rainy day, Sherry wondered how her students would be able to do their work—and there were no ready answers.

At the morning huddle, we were warned not to go near the government offices downtown because anarchists have gathered from all over Europe to demonstrate for . . . . no, against governments, I think. Eleni also said that probably only ten people would come today because people from super dry climates don’t like to get out in the rain, especially with their children, so our clothing distribution this afternoon was postponed and our common meal scaled down.

All in all, it promised to be a rather dark, dreary day.

At the end of our English classes for the day, we have a 30-minute devotional with all the participants, where we talk about God in four different languages.  Everything is translated, so one minute of a message takes four minutes to deliver to all the participants.

About one minute before we started, I was asked to present the message at the devotional.  Maybe because we had all been dealing with the weather all day, I thought to myself, Jesus said many things about rain, so let’s talk about rain.  I did a quick search and actually chose a passage from Acts 14, where Paul and Barnabas talk about rain to the people of Lystra

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

We had expected 10, but we had about 50 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, and others who gathered to hear the word of God that said the rain is God showing kindness on them, showing Himself to them, so they can find Him. And God not only gives you rain and crops that become the food that fills your stomachs, He also wants to feed you spiritually so that your hearts will be full of joy!  I concluded by saying,

So when you go out in the rain today, don’t let it depress you or make you afraid. Remember that this rain is an act of kindness to you from the Living God who loves you. Let that give you joy and make you want to know and trust this Living God.

The message to the people of Lystra was still powerful and alive for the people of Athens two thousand years later.  It wasn’t a dark day after all!

 

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refugees welcomeI visited with a Christian man from Albania today who moved to Greece seven years ago because he felt called to plant a church among the million Albanians who had fled to Greece in the 80s and 90s.  The Soviet Union was quite successful in purging all of its satellites—but especially Albania–of Christianity, so the million Albanians then in Greece seemed like a ripe mission field.  He and his family moved to Greece and began a church which then multiplied into other Albanian churches throughout Greece.

When the refugees started pouring into Athens, these Albanian Christians felt like they had to do something in spite of the fact that many of them had been refugees themselves. Every evening, they now go out on the streets of Athens looking for homeless, hungry, and otherwise needy refugees. On the spot, they give them sandwiches and clothes and try to give them information to help them find long-term solutions.

While I was visiting with my new Albanian friend, Sherrylee was visiting with a Brit who is in Athens running an organization that helps Muslim refugees who become Christians find housing. Most of these new Christians are refugees who have nothing anyway, but when they become Christians, they often are expelled from their family, harassed by their community, and sometimes physically attacked by their former Muslim friends.  These people literally leave everything and everyone they know in order to follow Jesus.

About the time we were finishing these conversations, an American attorney from Colorado walked up and put the keys to the upstairs in my pocket to return for him.  He and another attorney are in Athens for two weeks to give free legal counsel to refugees.  The Omonia church is providing them meeting space so that they can help the refugees coming to the church for help.

Jesus in Egypt

This is not a Christmas picture. This family is seeking refuge in Egypt!

While Elena (one of the missionaries at the Omonia church in Athens) was telling the group about the attorneys who would be here for two weeks, a refugee spoke up and asked if any doctors were coming. She said, “Not yet, but we hope some will come later!” 

Then she told the 70-80 people in the room not to be afraid because God loved them and that He is near. He is not far away, and if anyone tells them differently, then they were not telling the truth. (I love her boldness!)  She then asked everyone to stand for the time of prayer: I prayed in English, one brother prayed in Arabic, and another in Farsi. After the prayer, the church fed all us.

Here we were . . . in a room full of Muslims . . . praying to Our Father, who is an Unknown God to many of them . . . in languages that most often curse Christians . . . with Christian workers from countries that American Christians usually consider mission fields . . . . breaking bread.

I pray that you can imagine yourself in this room too—because God is here!

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