Preaching Butt-Naked

On that Wednesday night, I started my message by asking my audience the following question:

“Coming to church, did any one of you see the man standing butt-naked at the off ramp of 118 Freeway and Porter Ranch? He was holding a sign saying something about God judging the nakedness of America.”
“If you’d seen him, would you have called the police?” I continued asking.
“I almost did! But first I decided to talk to him. So I got out the car and asked him why he was doing such a stupid and disgraceful thing in God’s name.”
“God told me to do so!” Shouted back the man.
With much indignation in my voice, I asked the people, “Can you believe this lunatic? Would God EVER ask us to do something so humiliating, so shameful? Would He EVER expect us to do an act that might make us feel uncomfortable?”
I then went on to say, “Before answering my questions, let me read something to you.”
In the year the field commander, sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought and took it, God told Isaiah son of Amoz, “Go, take off your clothes and sandals,” and Isaiah did it, going about naked and barefooted.      Isa. 20:1-2
“I believe the word naked means butt-naked since it’s the same Hebrew word used to describe Adam and Eve’s appearance in the Garden. However, even if you believe it means stripped-down to one’s underwear, as some argue, it was still an extremely shameful act for a Jewish man to perform. After all, Isaiah didn’t live in America where it’s fashionable for men to wear their pants at their knees and their underwear pulled up to their chins.”
“So, my friends, in order to make his point, the Lord might/will ask his servants to perform acts that are uncomfortable, shameful and even indecent by our standards. The Bible is filled with incidents like that.“
A few years ago I had a very strange spiritual experience that was quite unusual and humiliating. Personally, I would have never sought such an experience. In fact, earlier, I’d mocked those who had experienced it. It didn’t live up to my theological standards. Hey, I was a seminary graduate who had the Creator of the universe all figured out.
On the surface, the experience was not only humiliating, but also foolish and downright weird. However, through that incident, I came to know my Savior and his love for me like I never felt and understood before. It created in me a deeper love for God and a longing for more of him in my life. I began to seek him like the addict Origen talks about when he says, “Without ceasing, the soul searches after the Bridegroom, the Word, and when it finds him, it looks for him again like an addict, in other things as well.” By the way, I am well aware that Origen, an early Church Father, didn’t have an orthodox Christology; however, I also believe that all truth is God’s truth.
Unfortunately, my experience didn’t sit well with some of my more theologically sophisticated Christian friends because it didn’t jive with their understanding of the Bible. Regardless of how much that experience had increased my desire to seek my Lord in a much deeper way, they severed their relationship with me. As if, like the blind man healed by Jesus, that was going to make me deny the reality of what had taken place in the inner most part of my being—that deep sense of God’s presence in my life.
Let me finish this post with a challenge to my readers. The core desire of my ministry, Shahzam Factor, is to see church different (the incorrect English is intentional). To see church differently, many of us Christians need to experience the Lord in a new way acknowledging that:
The newness inherent in any situation of encountering with God is brought by him, not by us, and the newness it calls for in us is not a newness of physical or psychological or intellectual experience, it is simply a newness being given to him (and that, too, is not a matter of psychological or any other kind of experience in itself, though it may, of course, lead to or involve some kind of transformation of experience of life).               Simon Tugwell
The Psalmist says, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” When was the last time YOUR soul longed after God with that intensity? Please note that I am not asking how much you love to read or teach the Bible. I am not asking you how much you long to fellowship with the believers, serve others, or tithe, but thirst after God and his presence in your life.  What if to fulfill that longing, God requires you to do something humiliating. Will you be willing to do so? Or at least, will you be willing to rejoice with a friend who is willing to be humiliated so he/she can draw closer to God?

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When Leaders Are Called Losers

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I don’t like the Vietnam era or anything related to it. I lived in the midst of it, had friends who lost relatives in the war and friends who fought in the war and were never the same.  For that reason, as much as I like war documentaries, I never watch anything about Vietnam, except for “We Were Soldiers”.  The movie is a 2002 film that dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drangonthat took place on November 14, 1965.
If I’d known the movie was about Vietnam I might not have watched it.  However, once I started watching it, I was hooked.  It wasn’t so much the plot that attracted me as much as a segment of a speech the protagonist of the movie, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (played by Mel Gibson) gives to his men right before they head to Vietnam:
This I swear before the Almighty God: when we go into the battle, I’ll be first to set foot on the field.  I’ll be the last to step off.  I’ll leave no one behind.  Dead or alive, we’ll all come home together.  So help me God.
The statement touched me deeply.  All my life I’d lived by that creed, but this was the first time someone had articulated it for me.  I’m the type of a leader who likes to get close to his people — become buddy-buddy.  I refuse to shove my position down anyone’s throat in order to prove my superiority.  Those who know me, know very well that as a Christian leader I’ll never send my people anywhere I’ve not been myself, nor expect them to accomplish anything I haven’t or at least attempted to do myself.  And, because of that I was called a loser.
I must have really ticked off the mega-church pastor when he looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re a loser because you have no respect for your position and want to be buddy-buddy with everyone.”  In other words, I was a loser because I was too close and friendly with those around me.
“Pastor,” I said to the man, “when Jesus walked among us, he refused to ride on a horse.  He preferred to rub elbows with those around him, the sinners and the scum of the earth.  He didn’t give a crap about his position when the religious leaders of his time accused him of being ‘buddy-buddy’ with common people.  However, when He comes back, He’ll be riding on a horse to smash the heads of God’s enemies.”
For the sake of honor, I’m one of those leaders who refuses to ride a horse while fighting along side of his people.  I’d rather be the first to set foot on the field and last to step off than one who sits behind his desk in an air-conditioned mansion of an office telling others how to do things I’ve never done myself.  I’d rather be called a “buddy” by the forsaken than a “winner” by the likes of that pastor.
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When I was in 5thgrade in Iran, we read a story about one of the old kings of our country. The king loved to read. One late night as he was reading, the oil in his lamp ran out. His servant, who was standing behind him, reached over to take the lamp away for refilling when the king stopped him.
“I will do it myself,” said the king to the servant.
Absolutely shocked and dismayed, the servant replied, “But sire, it is beneath his majesty to do such a menial job.” But, he could not argue with his king.
So, the king got up, refilled the lamp and sat down to read. Knowing that his servant was still uncomfortable with what had just transpired, he turned around looking the servant in the eyes said to him, “When the oil ran out I was the king, when I got up and filled the lamp I was the king and when I finally sat down again I was still the king. Doing a servant’s job did NOT take away my kingly position.
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Pastor…leader, do you ever befriend people for no reason at all, or are there always strings attached?  Do you ever go out of your way to rub elbows with those who are not in your class, or is getting off your high horse too uncomfortable for you?  As I look around today, I notice that a true friendship is one of the most desired, and yet most lacking commodities in our society.  Why not be a loser in order to become that desired commodity?  Maybe then you’ll gain the ability and privilege to share the Gospel of Christ with those whom you’ve become “buddies” with.  

The Appearance Of Evil?

A few years ago, when I worked for a Christian missions organization, I got into trouble for carpooling. Well, not so much for carpooling, but carpooling with a female. This is what happened.
Three of us who worked together and lived in the same area decided to start to carpool—two male and one female. It was good for the environment and even better for our pocketbooks. All went well till the day my other male carpool buddy had to run an errand after work and needed to drive his own car. We never thought anything of it; as usual, I picked up my female co-worker and drove to the office.
As we entered the parking lot, another co-worker was just entering the building and saw us pull into my parking spot. Within a few minutes, I was reported to the boss for carpooling with a female, and was called into his office.
I was basically told that carpooling with a female had the appearance of evil, and I shouldn’t do it. Although I should have been flattered that my boss thought so highly of my multitasking abilities—being able to maneuver L.A. freeways while driving and, at the same time, performing whatever else it was that they thought I was doing—I was deeply offended and felt dishonored. In any case, I refused to obey, and continued to carpool with and without the third party.
What infuriated me even more was what took place a couple of weeks later when I approached my boss on the same subject.
“Don’t worry about it. We just found out that our president has been carpooling with his secretary for the last 20 years. So, you can now continue to carpool with a female in your car,” he said so nonchalantly.
Talk about being frustrated and angry! When I did it, it had the appearance of evil; but when the president did it, not only it was righteous, but also it became a moral and spiritual precedent for the rest of us peons. And all this time I’d thought Jesus was my moral guide. It wasn’t long after that the president, my moral compass, had to resign because of some financial irregularities.
What is this “appearance of evil” that we should avoid? Who decides that?
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I’m flying back to Burbank from Springfield, Ore., and have a two-hour layover in San Francisco. It’s Monday night, and a Monday Night Football game is on. My favorite team is playing against the Steelers—any team that plays against the Steelers is my favorite team. I decide to sit at a bar, order a hamburger and, while eating my dinner, I watch the game.
I notice my phone is dying, so I ask the bartender if I could plug in my charger anywhere. He places a power strip on the bar in front me and tells me to help myself. That’s when a very pretty young lady who was sitting behind me moves over and sits right next to me.
“My computer is dying. Do you mind if I share the power strip with you?” she asks.
I’m very used to this. Almost always female strangers start conversing with me without any hesitations. This has nothing to do with my charming personality, but a gift the Lord has given me. People, especially women, find me trustworthy, a man with no agenda, who cares.
We spend the next half an hour talking. She tells me she’s waiting for her friend to join her, so they can go paint the town together. As I’m talking to this young, beautiful lady, I’m so grateful that I no longer work for that missions organization, which would have frowned upon seeing one of their top men talking to a strange young woman in a bar. OMG, talk about the appearance of evil.
As I get up to leave, I’m impressed to do something.
“Do you like to read?” I ask her.
She says, “I love to read.”
“I’d like to give you a gift. It’s my new book.”
“I love it. Thank you!”
I autograph my book, hand it to her, and say goodbye.
On occasions, I’ve given my book to strangers, but have never heard from any of them until the above young lady. For almost a month I’ve been thinking and praying for June (not her real name) when I get a long email from her. This is how she starts it:
“It was a real pleasure meeting you that day, and after reading
(devouring?) your book I only wish I had spoken with you more! Your
book really resonated with me. It was written in such a way that I
felt a close connection with you; the way you wrote about your
experiences was like a friend sitting next to me telling these
stories. It gives me hope in my struggles as a young woman.”
Even if I were still working for my old employer, I’d have still risked being accused of “giving the appearance of evil” to experience the above interaction. But, thank God, I don’t. I wonder what Jesus would have done?