Saturday, September 24, 2011

Harvest Training Center Update!

Hit 'Play' above...The staff meeting at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago begins with passionate worship...and has more people than most churches!

We're almost three weeks into our time at the Harvest Bible Fellowship training center for church planters and, in a word, here's our assessment:   Awesome!  Alys and I have been impressed with Harvest's unflinching commitment to glorifying God by building strong disciples.  We've been learning from experienced church planters how to avoid the pitfalls of planting and make sure that the planting process moves forward full steam ahead.  I'm blessed by the depth of understanding and wisdom of the senior pastors from the Harvest Bible Chapels around the country who have been brought in to the training center to share with the church planting residents.  

Alys was excited to find felafel in suburban Chicago Costcos!

With an intense schedule, there's so much to learn and so little time, I feel overwhelmed but very thankful to be here.  Alys and I are also thankful to God for the health of our unborn child, now in his(?) 14th week!  Please continue to pray that we would take the absolute best advantage of this unique chance to be equipped. 
Alys' comment (not mine): "Wow, it's a real baby now."

Finally, we need your prayers for wisdom as we finalize a planting location.  We're very hopeful that will be south LA county, but want to be open to God's leading.

We greatly appreciate your intercession for us and kingdom investment in this work.  Please tell us how we can pray for you during our time here.  

To God be the glory! 

With Love in Christ,
Bent and Alys

P.S. - A few more pics from the training center and around below:

Alys in our new apartment in Elgin, outside Chicago.

Our class has 11 guys, and they're all stellar.  Sam Jones (L), planting in Greenville, S. Carolina, and Jamie Hart, from Elkhart, Indiana.

No, not a mug shot.  Me holding my citation for an illegal right turn, which fortunately was only a warning.  I swear I didn't see the sign!

Craig Steiner, pastor at the Aurora (greater Chicago) campus of Harvest Bible Chapel, gives us a tour.  Craig is a great teacher and did a fantastic job with assimilation ministries track of our training.

Before Harvest, the Aurora campus was (and during the week still is) used as a TV studio.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Scriptures and Fairy Tales: How to Know You Really Understand the Stories of the Bible

When we read the stories of the Bible, we normally read them like fairy tales.  We expect the unsung hero who rises from obscurity or oppression to triumph with power and wealth (think David or Joseph).  We anticipate the young maiden whose virtue wins her renown and blessing (think Hannah or Ruth).  Viewed this simply, every culture boasts of similar kinds of heroes—although success is usually attributed to the favor of so-called gods, to fate, or maybe to time and chance.  Such characters in the narratives cycles of the OT highlight the faithfulness of God in preserving his people. 

As readers, though, we neglect the ‘flip side’ of stories that demonstrate the power of God in rescuing the mediocre person, the average person, from the morass of his own unbelief and his own unrighteousness.  So often we find God working in a way much more relevant to our own spiritual condition when we carefully heed those whom we consider secondary or supposedly ‘minor’ characters.  Ruth furnishes a perfect example.  Observers have often noted that Orpah, Ruth’s sister, serves as a foil for Ruth.  Orpah gives lip service to her loyalty to Ruth, and thus contrasts with Ruth’s sincere adjuration ("Do not urge me to leave you...", 1:16) to her mother-in-law.  More significant, however, is the contrast between Ruth and the one who, ironically, is revealed to be the main character of the work: Naomi.


In the beginning of Ruth, we learn that Naomi and her husband Elimilech have abandoned the promised land of blessing in Israel and have sought greener pastures (quite literally) in Moab.  In the Old Testament, land was part and parcel of the covenant.  To abandon the land was tantamount to abandoning God, since the OT did not conceive of the worship of Yahweh apart from the community of God’s people in the land.  The Levitical priesthood and its atoning sacrifices were only to be conducted in the place of God’s choosing—within the land of Israel—and forbidden in every other land.  The Israelites were to remain faithful to God, and God promised that He would pour out abundant blessing on them (an outcome apparently enjoyed by Boaz, who stays in the land during a period of famine).  Instead, Ruth and Elimilech flee to the land of Moab, whose god Chemosh was known for ritual child sacrifice.  Revealing an apostate heart typical to the age of the judges, Elimilech and Ruth place worldly security and success above the spiritual safety of residing among God’s people.

Ruth is the high-contrast reverse image of Naomi.  Clinging to both Naomi and Yahweh, she builds on her stunning expression of loyal love (“Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God,”  1:16) when she enters the land by not seeking after “young men, whether poor or rich” (3:10) but seeking a redeemer who will safeguard the economic interests and legacy of her family.  Our evidence of Ruth’s faithfulness grows, but Ruth’s faithfulness does not grow.  From start to finish, she is steadfast.

Naomi, on the other hand, undergoes a remarkable yet subtle spiritual transformation.  Returning to the land of covenant blessing after years of compromise, at first she does not apprehend the providential hand of God.  Naomi (meaning ‘pleasant’) fashions a new name for herself: ‘Mara,’ which means ‘bitter,’ and is therefore an apropos description of her outlook on life.  Naomi’s wholly narcissistic attitude softens in the beginning of chapter three, when she concerns herself with Ruth finding ‘rest’ in a husband, and thus evidences a loving concern for others.  Her transformation becomes complete when she humbly receives the blessing of the neighborhood women (“Blessed be the Lord …”;  4:14), who again call her by the name “Naomi” (4:17), and recognize that her bitter selfishness has yielded again to pleasant words of praise.

So who are Ruth and Naomi really?  Ruth is a Moabitess on the outside, but an Israelite on the inside who becomes (by marrying Boaz) an Israelite on the outside.  Naomi is an Israelite on the outside, but an apostate on the inside, who (by acknowledging God’s grace) becomes an Israelite on the inside.  And who really undergoes the greater transformation?  Clearly, Naomi.  In fact, the book of Ruth is not really so much about the obedient ‘Ruths’ of the world as the wayward ‘Naomis’, the hypocrites who profess God outwardly but wither away in times of trial.  It’s about the typically selfish, fickle, yet outwardly religious sort of person who has craved after the world and in the bitterness of his soul has abandoned God.  God is saying that he has a plan to save them too—that is, to save many of us.  Ruth and many like her may already be in the fold of faith, but God is seeking after the one who is lost.


Most of us would not write the book of Ruth the way it was written.  Sure, we all get excited about the vindication of Ruth, who is already a true believer at the beginning of the story, but few would write in lines about a bitter religious hypocrite experiencing saving grace.  Most of us would simply write the ‘fairy tale’ version of Ruth:  the lowly foreigner attains to blessing, fame, and happiness.  But if we want to understand the stories of Scripture, we have to move past the fairy tale and see how God is at work sandblasting sin away from the hearts of legalistically religious people with his unspeakable grace.  He turns a bitter woman like Mara to pleasantness and praise, and a vicious religionist like Saul into a humble apostle of salvation.  If you want to understand a biblical story, ask yourself how the characters rise above the 'default settings' of the standard fairy tale.  If you can’t see how they differ appreciably from the fairy tale version, I think it’s fair to say you haven’t really understood the story.

The pauper-turned-prince, the boy who goes from rags to riches, the slave girl-become-princess.  While these are certainly timeless motifs of the literature of every age and place, by themselves they don’t pass muster to craft stories of biblical proportion.

The more I study the narratives of the Bible, the more I’m convinced of their uniqueness.  God’s stories are not our stories.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Brief Word to the Saints at Compass

According to Solomon, there's a time and a season for every event under heaven.  This includes ministry transitions. Like everything in life that involves tearing and breaking, they are usually painful.  The adventure of stepping out in faith is mingled with the reality that the familiar and comfortable has fallen by the wayside and what is new and unpredictable lies ahead.

This is certainly how we feel as the Lord calls us on to a church planting ministry with Harvest Bible Fellowship. While we are excited about the next chapter God is writing in our life, we are sad to leave friends and ministry relationships behind. We love Compass and are confident that God will bless the ministry in this dark and spiritually needy part of Orange County. In the time to come, we hope to hear many great reports.

While we would have relished the opportunity to say so in person, we want Compass to know that we loved the opportunity to serve and were greatly blessed by the body. Whether at another ministry station during our earthly pilgrimage, or in the heavenly city, we know our next reunion with all of you will be a great one!

Love in Christ,

Bent and Alys

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review of Getting it Right: The Real Problem and God's Perfect Solution by Dr. Mike Fabarez

Some books aren’t as effective as they could be because the needs of the audience are not considered carefully.  Case in point: evangelistic literature, which tends to come in two flavors.  First, there are larger works of at least a few hundred pages that unearth and ferret out all the precious intricacies of the gospel.  While this genre is eminently useful for the Christian reflecting back on his salvation, it is less so for those non-believers who are merely curious about the Christian faith.  They may have heard the gospel from a friend and simply want some additional, straightforward discussion and references to Scripture.

On the other hand, gospel tracts are usually in a race to compress the gospel message into as few words as possible, with as small a font as possible, as inexpensively as possible.  This is beneficial for aerial ‘carpet bombing’ gospel campaigns, evangelism blitzes, and the like.  But it again fails to meet the need of the bona fide inquirer who really desires to go deeper in understanding the biblical gospel.

Enter Getting it Right: The Real Problem and God’s Perfect Solution.  A slim 130 pages, you can probably keep a stack to give to friends, family, and that guy at Starbucks.  The book is also comprehensive enough to give you the gist of a really long, meaty fireside chat about the gospel.  A big plus: pertinent Scriptures are mostly printed in full, rather than concatenated in long chains of parenthetical references that can be confusing and look onerous to the non-believer.  The believer in an evangelistic encounter, on the other hand, can easily find and quote Scripture in making his case for Christ.

Getting it Right is an effective little book.  It doesn’t fall prey to the pitfall of setting out to write in a plain, non-polemical style (suited for the non-believer) but then getting waylaid by extended elaboration of the all the ‘hot’ issues in contemporary evangelicalism.  Nor do we sense a ‘ghost’ audience of believers who already know and cherish the true gospel—the bane of many evangelistic books that mushroom in size and scope.  Of course, because the gospel is infinitely glorious, even seasoned Christians can benefit from a lucid discussion of the gospel.  They’ll find it in Getting it Right.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Aslan's Islam: Kinder, Gentler, and Trickier

“No god but God” offers a sweeping, interpretive view of both the history and future of Islam. The book weaves rapidly from past to present and back again—from the cultural and religious background of pre-Islamic Arabia to the swelling currents of revolt that toppled the Shah and ushered in the age of theocracy in Iran. Aslan’s adroit writing style aside, the scorching pace and chronological zigzags make the reader feel like being caught in a time warp.

Positively, Aslan rejects the violent and misogynistic tendencies historically promulgated by many interpretive schools of Islam. He argues that Islam is marching forward and is now at the point of bridging a spiritual and intellectual divide in an evolutionary process that he asserts has strong parallels to the Protestant Reformation. While the differences between the Protestant Reformation and Aslan’s hoped-for reinvigoration of Islam are vast, the aspiration of peaceful progress is laudable enough.

Aslan’s blithe vision of Islam, in lockstep with democratic values, fully maturated and adapted to the modern world, is nonetheless premised on a severely anemic historiographic approach. There is slight treatment to painful issues such as dhimma, the essentially secondary status assigned to non-Muslim communities such as Jews and Christians in Muslim lands. Astonishingly, the author describes the special taxes required of these groups as “protection money,” a notion that smacks of Mafia-like extortion, and in any case completely ignores the hadith (traditions ascribed to Muhammad) in Sahih Muslim, Sahih Bukhari, and other Muslim commentators that contain openly derogatory references to non-Muslim groups and incitements to oppress and humiliate them. Aslan’s new vision of Islam may reject such widespread, systemic injustice. But his failure to address the indelicate historical realities leaves him open to the charge of trying to repaint the mural of history.

At times, the historical arguments reach the level of the ridiculous. Following a gratuitous note on Muhammad’s active libido, the prophet of Islam’s polygamy is temporalized and excused because as “Shaykh of the Ummah” (the new Muslim community in Medina) it was his “responsibility” to help hold the community together by the political expedient of multiple marriage. The Quran (33:50), however, reveals a different motivation. Muhammad could marry as “many” as he “desired”, cousins on his father’s side, mother’s side, “believing” women, and women whom he had attained as prisoners of war. If Muhammad’s many marriages were altruistic in nature, how could marrying slave girl prisoners benefit the community?

Aslan’s own smug Islamo-centric perspective seems to be lost on him. He parrots criticism in the popular press by condemning the “bigotry” of Christian preachers and pundits, some of whom have legitimate and not uncharitable concerns about the religious violence sanctioned by much (but not all) of Islamic jurisprudence and clergy. And in his opening pages, he caricatures a young missionary couple aiming to share the good news of Jesus Christ with Muslims.

Yet it is precisely this freedom to express unpopular political and religious viewpoints that is suppressed—sometimes violently—in most predominantly Muslim countries. Cast the blame where you will—supposedly misconstruing the concept of jihad, deviant Islamic jurists and commentators, sinister ayatollahs, or Western imperialism. But when the ethos of intolerance is so deeply embedded in the fabric of society, how are we to believe change can be realized? What are the mechanisms that will make renewal and adaptation possible? These are the real questions a book like “No god but God” raises. But Aslan flatly fails to give us answers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Rejecting the Absurdities, Contradictions, and Contentions of Witness Lee and the so-called “Local Church” Movement

Most people, quite naturally, would fear being struck by a sword more than a scalpel. But slice someone up with a scalpel a thousand times and you can still kill him. Death by a thousand little cuts, rather than death from a single blow, is death just the same.

Some cults seem to have perfected the art of theological “death by a thousand cuts.” Case in point: the Liites (that is, “Li-ites,” or followers of Chang-Shou Li), better known by their self-given title as “The Local Church.” The Local Church first made its appearance in the US in the 1960’s, when Chang-Shou Li (known by his disciples as “Witness Lee”) arrived in America and began to draw followers to himself. Among other peculiarities, The Local Church claimed to be the only legitimate expression of the church. All other denominations and sects are part of corrupt “dead Christianity” from which the “blind” who receive “sight” must separate themselves: “When we were in the denominations, we were blind. I do not believe that any dear Christians who have really received sight from the Lord could still remain in the denominations.... But when he receives his sight, he will swiftly leave the fold for the pasture, for the sunshine, for the fresh air [i.e, join The Local Church].” (Witness Lee, Christ Versus Religion LSM, 197,1 p.109-110). The exclusivist claims of the LC have now been relaxed ostensibly, and according to their website ( Christians in other churches can now be saved. If that were the only “scalpel cut” inflicted by Li and his followers, then it wouldn’t be fatal.

But the surgical “cut to the heart”—and one of the reasons the LC is still a cult and not just a far-off-the-center fringe group—is their unorthodox view of the Trinity. Chang-Shou Li was what theologians call a modalist—someone who denies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons within one divine Being. Modalism affirms that God is one Person who has “temporary manifestations” as the Father, Son, or Spirit. You can think of the god of modalism as wearing different hats at different times. He puts on one hat and now he’s the Father. He takes that hat off, puts another one on, and now he’s the Son, and then, the Spirit, and so on. He changes titles, but doesn’t reveal himself as distinct Personalities. This heretical view of the Trinity has rightly been rejected since the days of the early church.

That Li was a modalist is clear. Among numerous other (literally) damning statements: “Therefore, it is clear: The Lord Jesus is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and He is the very God. He is also the Lord. He is the Father, the Son, the Spirit, the Mighty God, and the Lord.” (Witness Lee, The Clear Scriptural Revelation Concerning the Triune God, What’s perplexing though is that there are actually orthodox expressions of the doctrine of the Trinity on the LC website, for instance: “The local church believes that God is the only one Triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—co-existing equally from eternity to eternity (1 Tim. 2:5a, Matt. 28:19).” Nevertheless, despite repeated calls to do so from evangelical leaders, LC leadership stubbornly refuse to disavow the heretical teachings of their founder, Chang-Shou Li.

So which is it then? Is Jesus one of three Persons, or is Jesus and the Father and the Spirit all the same Person? Is the LC an orthodox church with a sound view of the Trinity, or a heretical church teaching modalism? The answer is both, and therefore, neither.

In fact—and this is what is so sinister about the movement—the LC today are neither modalists nor Trinitarians. They are “confusionists” who espouse two views that are mutually exclusive and irreconcilable with one another. The Godhead cannot be One Person and Three Persons. He is three Persons (biblical view) or one Person (modalist view). But both cannot be true. The philosophically savvy term of describing the LC view is deconstructionism, which posits that there are no integrated and consistent thought systems, only the illusion of unity that breaks down to absurdity and contradiction when examined closely. And that’s what LC doctrine does. It break down to meaningless babble and absurdity. Confused "God-talk" can neither save people, nor glorify God.

Add to all this the final “scalpel cut” of the LC church’s penchant for suing the pants off people who disagree with them (latest case: an $136 million dollar libel suit against Harvest House publishers who labeled the LC as a “cult”, a suit which the LC lost), and what the LC movement amounts to is theological “death by a thousand cuts”: on the one hand, diverting precious time and resources from the church to answer their clever obfuscations and legal tactics, and on the other, dragging precious souls with them down to hell.

Beware the scalpel.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Burning the Qur’an: If You Do It, Don’t Say the Bible Told You So. If You Don’t Do It, Make Sure You Do What the Bible Tells You to Do.

Pastor Mike offered some sound insights on the controversy over the planned Qur’an burning by a Florida church at the Compass staff meeting today. Like the shrewd steward of Luke 16, the “wise as a serpent” Christian today does well to weigh the impact of his actions on his audience: are unbelievers more likely or less likely to respond winsomely to the gospel as the result of such a radical action?

But some might beg to cite biblical precedent here. After all, the occult books burned by repentant former practitioners of black magic in Ephesus (Acts 19:18-20) were so many that their total value reached 50,000 pieces of silver. A lot of Ephesians, and no doubt some Ephesian occultists, eyed the smoke rising from that fire! So is there a biblical principal in view in the present Qur’an burning dilemma that would require such a dramatic public statement?

Simply stated, no. The burning of the Qur’an and the burning of the occult books in Acts 19 are worlds apart for several reasons. First, it should be pointed out that the new disciples in Ephesus were renouncing their own former religion, not denigrating that of others. While a public book burning by Muslim converts to Christianity would not be a great idea, it would certainly be a different case than that of Terry Jones (the spiritual leader of a group of people in sunny, mild, and conspicuously non-Muslim Florida) getting a hankering to burn the religious text of some other faith. Not that this would be our best advice either, but why doesn’t he burn a few hundred copies of Playboy or Hustler? They probably sell better down there than English copies of the Qur’an do. And I doubt even Jones would argue that laying pure eyes on the pages of the Qur’an would be as defiling as the latest smut turned out by Hefner and friends.

If you were inclined to “go biblical” in your arguments to support Qur’an burning, chances are you’ve already made a turn back. But just in case, going a bit further into the context of Acts 19 we see just how impossible it is to use this text as proof for this latest misguided endeavor.

The converts of Acts 19:18-20 were, as we mentioned, practitioners of the arcana mundi, or “black arts” in Latin, which were specifically proscribed and punishable by Roman law. So too was any mystery religion that was not a religio licita, that is, a religion officially recognized and tolerated by the state. Roman society disdained such superstitio, “superstitious beliefs”, and a number of public book burnings are gleefully recorded in the annals of the Roman historians Suetonius and Livy. Far from enraging the average civic-minded Ephesian, the book burning would most likely have been viewed as a welcome purge from society of superstitious unmentionables.

Not so with the cult of “Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28) and her great temple, mentioned just a few verses later in the biblical account. A source of civic pride, the official cult of Artemis was one layer of the societal glue that bound Ephesians together. So careful were Paul and his companions not to cast unnecessary aspersions on the Artemis cult that later the town clerk could remark confidently that they were neither “sacrilegious” nor “blasphemers of our goddess.” (verse 37).

The Ephesian milieu was a complex mix of religion, social mores, and political pride—not unlike that of the Arab world today. The tides of Arab nationalism have waxed and waned over the centuries, but for many Arab Muslims, in particular, Muhammad will always be a rallying point. It was he who united the nomadic Arab desert tribes and began to form them into an impressive and dominating fighting force. The sayings of the Qur’an, which Islamic history attributes entirely to him, have served as a crystallizing and preservative force for the dialect of Arabic which has become standard across the Arab world. While not generally spoken by the masses, it is still largely understood, whether you’re a cosmopolitan socialite in Tangiers, Morocco, or a marsh Arab dwelling in tenement huts in Iraq. Though the analogy is crude, in some ways Muhammad was the founding father of the Arab national movement, just as George Washington was of that in America. Only, Muslims remember Muhammad as both a religious and secular figure, whereas Americans have long forgotten Washington’s deism, but still embrace his secularism and libertarianism.

In the end, the whole conversation seems like just another round in the endless cycle of foolhardy reactionism against Islam by Western evangelicals. We are too busy disobeying the Great Commission to actually do what Jesus tells us to do: Go to unbelievers (even Muslims). Preach a simple gospel with boldness and humility. And pray that people will be saved. Whether the next Florida pastor is too busy organizing sea-side treasure hunts for retirees or decides to go on a “burn crusade” against the world, we’ve missed the point.