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The Cross Is Our Stairway to Heaven

Our salvation comes not from someone on our level, but from someone infinitely above it.

One of the most common evangelistic tools is a simple drawing of two cliffs with a chasm between. On one cliff is a figure representing the sinner, and on the other a figure representing God. What can span the chasm of our sin? A cross, dropped neatly in place to serve as a bridge between the sinner and God.

No doubt, this simple illustration has been used to great benefit, but allow me for a moment to make a mountain out of a molehill. Instead of a bridge between two level planes, the gospel is better understood as a matter of ascension, descension, and condescension.

Remember when Jacob dreamed about a ladder with angels ascending and descending? That ladder offers a better picture for how we think about salvation. A closer translation for the word “ladder” in Genesis 28:12 (ESV) is “stairway” (NIV). Jacob sees a series of steps—a stairway to Heaven, so to speak—with angelic mediators passing back and forth between God and man.

Scholars believe Scripture describes a commonly recognizable image for the original audience of Genesis: a ziggurat, or pyramid-shaped tower of steps that the ancients erected as a means to ascend to a deity.

The Bible even mentions one such tower “that reaches to the heavens” in Genesis 11, the famous Tower of Babel. Its builders intended to climb up to God on their own terms, but God frustrated their efforts.

In Jacob’s dream only a few chapters later, the same image is repurposed to tell a heavenly truth. We need not wonder what it is, for, conveniently, Jesus interprets it for us in John 1:51: “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

The span between ...

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US Pastor Still Detained in India, Awaiting December Trial

Bryan Nerren “always knew the danger” of missions in South Asia but longed to see revival in Nepal.

Each year, when Tennessee pastor Bryan Nerren delivered the closing message at a conference for Nepali Christian leaders in South Asia, he called them to persist in ministry despite the associated risk in a Hindu-dominated region sometimes hostile to their faith.

Now, Nerren, 58, is living out his sermon more than at any time in his 17 years of mission trips to South Asia, trapped in India for more than a month and prohibited from returning home following a six-day imprisonment. While Indian officials charge him with failing to fill out proper paperwork to declare the cash he was carrying, Nerren’s attorneys call the charges unjust and the detention an example of religious persecution.

Nerren, pastor of the nondenominational International House of Prayer in Shelbyville, Tennessee, did nothing wrong and “is essentially being held hostage in India for his Christian faith,” according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the evangelical legal organization representing him. “He deserves to come home.”

Released on bail October 11 in the Indian state of West Bengal, Nerren had his passport seized by a judge while he awaits a December 12 court date. Despite backchannel work by the Trump administration and three US senators, Nerren’s family doesn’t know when he will return home.

Arrest and imprisonment

Nerren’s legal trouble began October 5. He and two other American ministers cleared Indian customs upon arriving in New Delhi and proceeded through security to board their domestic flight to the northeast Indian city of Bagdogra to lead a conference there, the ACLJ reported. After Nerren answered questions for an hour in New Delhi about the cash he was carrying—including ...

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The Motivation of Transformation

Personal transformation had powerful missionary implications.  

Before and after pictures are compelling. In a glimpse they communicate that something—often someone’s life—has changed.

Lost in all of the talk about evangelism and mission is the fact that, far too often, it’s been a long time since many people have actually seen God’s Spirit transform someone’s life. Yes, they’ve likely heard the stories.

They are familiar with the pastor’s clever tales about salvation and life transformation, but these stories are often about people and places they’ve never met and haven’t seen first-hand. Some of these individuals can recount their own personal story of transformation, but even these stories have accumulated dust over the years.

Many in the church haven’t had a front-row seat to observe God orchestrate powerful acts of deliverance and change.

Over time, a lack of visible transformation fosters a certain predictable apathy. We know that God can save. We know that he does bring freedom from sin. We’re aware of the hope found in Jesus.

Yet, like a certain diet or exercise regimen, mere affirmation of potency does nothing if not matched by actual practice. We may know in theory, that something, or someone, is transformative, but we all need personal examples of that change to continue to inspire our actions.

We read these stories in the journey of Israel to the promised land.

Time and again, each of the 12 tribes are mentioned, the various land allocations described, and the people accounted for. God’s deliverance wasn’t for a vague powerful group, but real-life people who experienced the power of God in a personal way.

When Moses testifies that the Israelites were cared for the in the wilderness, that they were ...

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A Report from the Religious Liberty Front Lines

An experienced litigator explains why believers and nonbelievers alike have a stake in defending America’s “first freedom.”

As a leading attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Luke Goodrich has helped litigate some of the most important religious liberty cases heard by the United States Supreme Court over the past decade. Decisions in these cases have protected the ability of churches to select the ministers they desire, kept a family-owned company from having to provide insurance that covers abortifacients, and ensured that a prisoner could grow a short beard as required by his faith.

Goodrich has also written a book, Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America. Typically, attorneys are not known for their crisp, clear prose, but I’m pleased to report that Free to Believe is a pleasure to read. Goodrich is an excellent writer, and throughout the book he scatters stories and personal anecdotes that help bring to life what could otherwise be a dry subject.

A Robust Defense

Goodrich begins by offering a robust, Christian defense of religious liberty. He argues that God created men and women in his image, that he intends for us to be in relationship with him, and that this relationship must be freely chosen. Religious liberty is first and foremost a God-given right grounded in a biblical conception of justice, not a gift from the state. It is a right that God provides to all of his image-bearers, not just those who already follow him.

From the Roman emperor Constantine to the present day, Christians who have access to political power have been tempted to use governments to promote their understanding of Christian orthodoxy. This is unfortunate, Goodrich argues, because true faith cannot be coerced, rulers are poor judges of religious truth, and, most fundamentally, when “the government punishes someone for ...

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Another Way for Immigration Reform? How Evangelicals Can Help Lead It

Evangelical Call for Restitution-Based Immigration Reform allows evangelicals to voice their support.

This August, after more than three decades in the United States, 66-year-old pastor’s wife Julita Bartolome was deported.

Her U.S. citizen husband, a Baptist pastor and a custodian at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, had been trying since 2002 to get his wife permanent legal status. Now separated from his wife by an ocean, he intends to keep trying to get her back.

The case has many troubled, particularly among the evangelical community, of which Julita and her husband are a part. Many are asking if there is a better way than this.

They’re not alone in asking this question. One local church in the heart of the Bible Belt recently lost 150 congregants to an immigration raid. Another town – Morristown, Tennessee – found itself deeply shaken in the aftermath of a 2018 raid. Many of its residents are evangelical Christians who voted for President Trump despite – or even because of – his harsh rhetoric on immigration. Yet the raid complicated and colored their perspective.

“When I heard ‘crack down on illegal immigration,’ I interpreted it as a crackdown on illegal immigrants that were criminals,” Krista Etter told This American Life “If there was a drug situation, you know, violent criminals, pedophile, any kind of situation of that nature. That’s what I expected…I don’t think anybody ever really stopped to think that they were going to go after the family man working at the meatpacking plant. That’s not what I had in mind.”

David Williams, a Southern Baptist pastor in Morristown, concurs: “I think people were voting for a secure border. You know, surely people didn’t vote that families would be separated, and that families ...

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What Kanye West’s Sunday Service Taught Me About Grace

When I visited Kanye's Sunday Service, I was met by contradiction, a mix of characters, and a spiritual lesson.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m on my way to worship service—a normal part of my weekend routine except for the fact that it’s 4 a.m., I’m embarking on a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Sacramento to Southern California, and the service will be led by Kanye West.

Coinciding with the release of his much-anticipated ninth studio album, Jesus is King, West released $10 tickets for his “Sunday Service” at The Forum, a 17,500-seat stadium in Inglewood that formerly hosted the Los Angeles Lakers. I bought tickets on a whim and convinced my friend Vince, who is also a bit impulsive, to attend the show with me. Groggy and a little delusional, we laugh about what a bad idea this is (we also plan to make the drive home immediately after the show).

We listen to the new album on repeat as we drive, dissecting each bar and rating his tracks as I quietly hope that the performance will paint a clearer picture of West’s new status as an unlikely evangelical darling. But when we arrive at the venue, the tangle of contradictions only seems to grow.

By the time we arrive, the typical pre-concert rituals are already underway, but against the backdrop of the album’s strong religious message and iconography the scene is disorienting. Masses wait in line to snag limited edition Yeezy merchandise—one crewneck with pictures of a medieval dark-skinned Jesus runs for $250—a woman poses provocatively in front of a banner that read “Jesus is King,” and the unmistakable scent of California kush punctuates the air.

“He’s tapping into an urban market,” says Susie Seiko, an LA musician and longtime West fan. Seiko, who frequents multiple churches in the area including ...

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Split the Cedars of Lebanon: Evangelicals Balance Prayer, Protest, and Politics in Ongoing Uprising

With a prayer tent going up in Beirut square, participants see a “spiritual dimension” to anti-corruption demonstrations.

At first, it was two high school girls.

The education minister in Lebanon had just canceled classes nationwide due to an explosion of popular anger at proposed taxes. Public squares in Beirut and other cities swelled with demonstrations. The two students asked Steve White, principal of the Lebanese Evangelical School (LES), if he would join them and protest too.

White, a Lebanese citizen since 2013, became principal in 2000, succeeding his English father who’d held the post since 1968. Founded by a British missionary in 1860, LES preaches the gospel clearly and is one of the top schools in Lebanon. But it bucks the sectarian trend of community enclaves as 85 percent of its students are Muslim—most coming from the Shiite community. Discussion about religion and politics is forbidden.

The protests began October 17. At the height of student interest, White arranged four school buses for a unique civic education. Though he knows his students well, he couldn’t tell their breakdown by sect: Sunni, Shia, or Christian.

Which fit perfectly with the protests.

“I got excited because it was not religious,” said White. “It was nonsectarian: all of Lebanon together, no flags, no parties, they were cursing everybody.”

White did not approve of the cursing. But he did of the “everybody.” The slogan adopted by protesters: “All of them means all of them.” It targeted the leaders of Lebanon’s multiple religion-based political parties, accusing them all of corruption.

Transparency International ranked Lebanon No. 138 out of 180 in its 2018 corruption perception index, listed from clean to corrupt.

Traditionally viewed as the guardians of each sect’s interests, Lebanese political ...

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Despite HHS Change, Christian Foster Agencies Still Fight LGBT Requirements

The new federal policy doesn’t stop legal battles on the state and local levels.

Evangelicals celebrated the recent news that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will no longer enforce an Obama-era mandate that required foster and adoption agencies receiving federal funds to place children with same-sex couples.

But while the new policy will soon allow faith-based agencies to obtain government grants without setting aside their religious beliefs on sexuality, the same agencies face growing pressure from city and state governments. Regulations on prominent foster care ministries have resulted in several legal clashes over the past few years, with one case headed to the Supreme Court next week.

“Faith-based agencies … still need help from SCOTUS,” Becket Law attorney Lori Windham said on Twitter. “The federal rule will not stop Philadelphia or Michigan from discriminating against faith-based foster and adoption agencies.”

On November 1—the start of National Adoption Month—HHS announced that it will reissue guidelines that require adoption agencies applying for government grants to comply only with nondiscrimination provisions approved by Congress. The proposed rule will require agencies to abide by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act—all of which protect citizens against religious discrimination but do not mention sexual orientation.

“This is not a narrowing rule that excludes gay people and others from serving children,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about the proposed regulation change. “Instead, the regulation merely ensures that no one is kept from serving, while ...

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My Advice to Struggling Artists: Seek First God’s Kingdom

The key to creativity is worship and prayer.

A few years ago, I walked into Cason Cooley’s studio in East Nashville—a warm room strung with lights and jammed full of guitars and pianos and books—and sat down with my friends to start a new project. I looked around, thinking about all the other times I had done this very thing, marveling at how little I still knew about it. What do we do first? Do we sit around and play the songs for a day? Do we record scratch guitars? Do we pore over lyrics first?

In some ways, making art is like looking at a hoarder’s house and wondering where to begin the cleanup. It’s also like looking out at a fallow field, steeling your resolve to tame it, furrow it, and plant—but you know it’s littered with stones and it’s going to be harder than you think. I was a grownup. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I shouldn’t have felt that old fear, anxiety, or self-doubt, right? Then again, maybe I should have. As soon as you think you know what you’re doing, you’re in big trouble. So before we opened a single guitar case, we talked.

I told my collaborators that I felt awfully unprepared. I doubted the songs. I was nervous about the musical direction the record seemed to want to take. I wondered if I was up to the task. I told them about the themes that had arisen in many of the songs I was writing: loss of innocence, the grief of growing up, the ache for the coming kingdom, the sehnsucht I experience when I see my children on the cusp of the thousand joys and ten thousand heartaches of young-adulthood.

Then we prayed. We asked for help. If you’re familiar with Bach, you may know that at the bottom of his manuscripts, he wrote the initials, “S. D. G.” Soli Deo Gloria, ...

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The Road from Damascus: How a Syrian Christian Spoke at Harvard’s Commencement

From Homs to Harvard Divinity to Fuller Seminary, Tony Amoury Alkhoury trusts God to “bring life out of deadly events.”

Following Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria and establishment of a “safe zone” in coordination with Russia, the beleaguered nation faces another refugee crisis. According to the United Nations, 6.7 million Syrians have registered with their High Commission for Refugees. Turkey hosts the largest share, with 3.4 million, followed by Lebanon with 1 million.

The United States: 21,645, according to official State Department figures, from the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Of those, 536 were admitted in the last 12 months.

Of the total, 21,245 are Muslim, compared to only 211 Christians, including five Protestants. Tony Amoury Alkhoury is not one of them. But his is a story of potential for those allowed in.

Born in Homs and an evangelical Christian, he is 1 of 450 Syrians in the US on an active student visa.

In Arabic, Alkhoury’s family name means “the priest.” Currently pursuing a PhD in practical theology at Fuller Seminary, in 2016 he began a unique cross-cultural ministry adventure—at Harvard University.

Through it drove the divinity student to the depths of depression, it ended with rapturous applause.

“I want to live, I want to love, and I want to be loved,” he told the student body, which selected him to deliver the commencement address this past May. “I want to fight to keep hope and make meaning of all the things that I do not have control over.”

In the prime of his life, Alkhoury witnessed the destruction of Syria. America might have been a refuge for many, until President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Syrian visas reached a high point of 15,479 in 2016, the year of Alkhoury’s arrival. In January 2017, Trump issued his executive order banning ...

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‘His Dark Materials’ Imagines a Church Without God

The new HBO take on Phillip Pullman's trilogy explores the brutality of a church’s power without the gospel.

Imagine a world where the church exists without Jesus. Where a hierarchical church authority controls society, but lacks the genuine faith to guide it. His Dark Materials, a new HBO show based on the trilogy of the same name by Phillip Pullman, takes viewers into this oppressive world where the “Magisterium,” a fictional church, rules with fear and brutality.

His Dark Materials, which premiered Nov. 4 and airs on Mondays, intentionally offers viewers a picture of a powerful institutional church without Jesus or the gospel. The show’s narrative follows so-called heretics as they fight the ruthless Magisterium, which demands allegiance to its traditions and its mysterious “Authority,” without offering the hope of a Savior in exchange.

Anything that challenges the Magisterium’s authority is labeled heresy—and the merciless church will do anything to protect its power. His Dark Materials is less a story about belief and more about power, and how religious organization can distort and manipulate faith in God.

The overarching conflict of the show is between the freedom to choose and the church’s control. His Dark Materials isn’t shy about parallels to the Garden of Eden story. A key portion of Genesis is read aloud in one classroom scene: “eyes will be opened...and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

The Magisterium offers “scholastic sanctuary,” or academic freedom—but it’s a loophole with limits. Scholars are warned against “blasphemy” and spies are present even in private conversations, with the authorities ready to mete out punishment. This world lives under fear of the church.

Pullman describes himself as an atheist. ...

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