Saturday, November 28, 2015

Soccer and My Experience With Muslims

I recently wrote a blog post about the Paris attacks and the controversy of bringing refugees into the United States. (click here if you would like to read that blog post) My mom talked to me about that particular article the other day, and she suggested I share my thoughts about Muslims. She reminded me that I came to the conclusions I did largely because of the personal experiences I have had with Muslim people. She is a wise woman, so I took her advice and here we go.

I grew up in Willmar, MN. One of the things I really enjoyed about growing up in Willmar was the large ethnic diversity. Willmar is a large melting pot of all kinds of different people groups. There are difficulties and problems that can come up with as big of differences as there are between different cultures, but there are some great benefits as well. In my opinion, one of the best benefits of different cultures coming together is soccer.

Many of my best memories of growing up in Willmar involve playing soccer. My brother and I played soccer almost all year around. We both played competitively during the summer and fall every year. During the winter and spring months we would find ways to play soccer with our friends and with the neighborhood kids as well. We loved, and still do love, soccer; which is also known as, "The Beautiful Game."

Photo credit:

My brother and I both started playing soccer when we were 4 or 5 years old. I know a huge reason we played soccer, and continued to play, was because of our teammates. We had the privilege of playing with some VERY talented kids while growing up. We learned to love the game from a young age.

Thanks to the cultural diversity in Willmar, we were able to witness the passion and love for the game that many Hispanics and Africans possess. I remember having teammates who were from: Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Kenya, and Somalia. We had a couple of guys from Spain and Germany throughout the years as well. (I text my brother while I was writing this blog and we both came up with the same list, so I don't think we forgot too many countries haha.)

My summer and fall soccer teams from junior high and high school consisted of about half white kids and the other half Hispanic and African kids. It was great! We were usually pretty good teams.

It's really fun playing soccer with people who have played their whole lives, because they know the game inside and out. I may have just met someone for the first time, we may or may not even speak the same language, but if we both speak soccer, then that's more than enough.

There were very few soccer games we played in Willmar where the sidelines weren't full of fans. Soccer was a family affair, especially for the Hispanic and African players. It was a blast. Like I said before, these are some of my best memories growing up.

Something I recognize now is that almost all of the teammates I had held similar religious beliefs to their parents. It makes sense, I guess. Many of the white kids were Christian or atheist. Many of the Hispanic kids were Christian, or more specifically; Catholic. Many, if not all, of the African kids were Muslim. One thing that almost all of us kids had in common though, was that many of us were complacent and pretty soft spoken about our beliefs.

We all had beliefs, and some of us even considered religion to be a huge part of our lives and beliefs. But it would've been pretty difficult to figure out what religion we were a part of, if it were based solely on the way we lived our lives. Our religious beliefs were mostly talk... just like most people.

Or as the Message Bible says it in James 1:26-27,
"Anyone who sets himself up as 'religious' by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world."

We were mostly hot air.

I only remember having one serious conversation/debate between a couple of us Christian guys with some of the Muslim guys. ONE CONVERSATION, that I'm aware of, in the countless hours we spent together over the years of being teammates. After the debate, we all agreed to disagree and left it at that. It was pretty easy to tell that both groups of guys were pretty set in their beliefs. The Muslims knew we were going to Hell and we knew they were going to Hell. And that was that.

A few of the Muslim guys on our team played soccer AND ran cross country during the same season. Both. During the same season! I have no idea how they did it. We were a decent team in soccer my junior and senior years. But they were a great team in cross country. They were the best. They won back to back state AA boys titles in 2005 and 2006. I remember them being ranked 5th in the nation and they were even in Sports Illustrated. Pretty crazy! They were living every high school athlete's dream.

The two guys on the left played midfield for us in soccer and were a part of our back to back state winning cross country team. They could run all day... and they did!
Photo credit: West Central Tribune

These guys were great athletes. They were great teammates. They were part of my soccer family. They had my back and I had theirs. They were my brothers. They were Muslims.

I have had almost nothing but positive experiences with Muslim believers. I wish they could say the same about their experiences with me, as a Christian believer.

I remember that Ramadan would usually occur sometime during soccer season. Ramadan is an Islamic month of fasting, where the believers don't eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset. No eating or drinking while the sun is up for a whole month. That's commitment. That's sacrifice. That's a dedication to their god and a form of worship that most Christians don't even get close to! (Hey Christians, we could learn a thing or two from the Muslims about commitment, dedication, and prayer!)

During Ramadan, some of us on the team were jerks to the Muslim kids. We would try to get them to "sin" and eat food and drink water after some of our soccer games. I remember some of the team buying them McChickens and putting the food on their table, just trying to get them to trip up and eat something. We weren't intentionally being mean, we were having fun and joking around with them more than anything. A little bit of hazing, I guess you could say.

Looking back now, I can admit that we shouldn't have done that to our teammates. But, it was all done in fun at the time. Thankfully, our Muslim teammates were good sports and had fun with our "game" as well.

This is my experience with Muslim people. What's yours? What's your reasoning for wanting or not wanting to help the refugees?

Don't write off a whole people group. Don't write off a whole religion. Don't write off the world's second largest religion. Don't write off almost 1/4 of the world's population. Don't write off over 1.5 billion people who need to know Jesus. Don't write off Muslims because of a few bad apples.

This is part of our mission. They are part of our mission. Love and serve Muslims. Show them Jesus in word and in deed. Be Christlike Christians my friends. It's in you because He is in you!

Shake the earth!
- Joel

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Perfect Pastor

I went to a meeting with some fellow ministers and pastors recently. As we were leaving the meeting I overheard one pastor ask another pastor how he was doing. The pastor answered, "I'm pretty beat up. A few of the people at the church..."

I walked to my car and didn't keep listening. It wasn't any of my business... but I did understand the feeling of being 'beat up' at times. It happens in ministry. It happens in any occupation where you deal with other people. Sometimes the hurt and beat up feeling is done unintentionally, other times, not so much. But either way, it happens.

It was cool to see this pastor genuinely care for and love on the other pastor. They weren't competing for congregation members, or debating theology and doctrine. They were loving one another as friends. As brothers. As family.

They were treating one another as God instructed us to in John 13:35, "By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The pastor, who voiced his feelings and frustrations, was genuine and real. He wasn't putting on a mask or pretending to be alright. He confided in someone and got some help. And hopefully, he received some healing and encouragement from his friend. It was awesome to witness this kind of love!

It was also cool to see the other pastor respond right away. He didn't look at his phone or watch and make an excuse as to why he didn't have time to help. He didn't blow his friend off and tell him, "I'll be praying for you!" and then go on his merry way. He took the time and made the effort to be a friend and a brother. He loved.

Love is intentional. Love is active. Or like DC Talk sang, Luv Is A Verb. (click here to watch the music video)

I'm not sure what the situation was which caused the pastor pain, but I do have a guess. When people put their spiritual leaders on a pedestal and expect perfection, they will be disappointed. They will be disappointed every time. Pastors are people. We hurt and feel pain. We are broken vessels. We will make mistakes. We will forget things. We aren't perfect.

Even though we are nowhere near perfect, we do want to point you towards Someone who is perfect. We want to point you to Jesus. Hopefully we can do that in our words and in our teaching. But even more than in our words, hopefully we can live that out in our lives and we can be examples to others and to our church family!

We aren't perfect pastors, but we do know of one perfect Pastor. And hopefully we are trying to live and love and serve as He did.

Photo Credit:

I once heard a story from someone that saw a car hit a dog and then drive off. The person that witnessed the accident felt absolutely horrible, and got out of their car to try to help the injured animal. When he went to go help the dog and tend to him, the dog went into fight mode. He growled and showed his teeth and wouldn't allow the person to help. The dog didn't know the person had good intentions. The dog wouldn't even let the person get close enough to find out for himself. The dog was snarling at its potential savior. The dog was responding out of pain.

Sometimes in ministry pastors will see that ugly side of people, just like the ugly side of that dog my friend saw. We help people through the muck and yuck in their lives, and sometimes they lash out in return. It's weird how that can happen.

Honestly, I thank God for opportunities to help people that react in a similar way to that dog though. It helps me grow. It helps me see where I am in my love walk. It's a good indicator of whether I'm serving the Lord and others for the right reason or not.

Am I doing this for appreciation and praise? Or am I doing this for Jesus?

We all can be like that dog with God at certain times in our lives. We so easily forget all He's done for us and for all the times He's been there and come through for us.

I see myself in that dog: scratching, growling, biting, and showing my ugly side. God is there and He still wants to help me despite my attitude and actions. Serving and loving people that react out of their pain helps me understand God's unconditional love just a little bit more. And for that, I am very thankful.

Pray for your pastors and other spiritual leaders.
Reach out to some of your former spiritual mentors or pastors and thank them.
Ask yourself why you are loving and serving others. Is it for praise and appreciation? Is it without ulterior motives? Or is it truly for them and for Jesus?

Shake the earth!
- Joel

Friday, November 20, 2015

Paris Attacks and Refugees

After hearing about the terrorist attacks in Paris, I was once again reminded of Ephesians 6:12 which says, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

It's incredibly easy, and almost natural, to point fingers at certain people, policies, and politicians after a horrific tragedy such as these attacks. But none of this is helpful, especially after the fact. Yes, ISIS or Islamic State (the people behind the Paris attack which killed 129 people and injured over 350), is an evil organization and needs to be dealt with. They need to be addressed and taken care of just like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and a number of other Islamic extremist groups.

But, I'm quite certain that eliminating one of these groups of people would just be putting a bandaid on a much bigger problem. These terrorist attacks are the symptom of a much larger problem. Not just a cultural problem, although that is part of it. Not just a political problem, although that is part of it. The main issue we are facing is a spiritual problem, just as Ephesians 6:12 tells us.

Spiritual problems are dealt with by using spiritual weapons. The most powerful weapon we have as Christians is prayer. So please, please pray. Pray for our leaders. Pray for our nation. Pray for our world. Pray for Muslims. Pray for the victims and families of victims. Pray for Christians to wake up.

I hope and pray that the people behind these attacks are captured, and only when necessary killed. If they are killed they will spend eternity in hell. These people need to know and meet Jesus. Until then, I seriously doubt they will ever change.

My wife and I on a trip to Paris in the summer of 2011.

As Christians, we aren't supposed to rejoice when evil or wicked men perish. (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11, Proverbs 24:17) Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. (Matthew 5:44)

What if we actually lived that way!? What if we took Jesus' words to heart!? It might be unsafe at times. We might be unsafe at times.

Jesus was persecuted. His life was threatened and in danger on numerous occasions. He ended up being tortured and executed for His faith, for the way He lived His life.

11 of the 12 disciples were executed for following Jesus. Their faith was real. It cost them something. The following is the cause of death for the 12 disciples:

1.  Peter, or Simon Peter, was crucified in Rome. He considered himself unworthy to die in the same way as Jesus did, so he asked to be hung upside down.
2.  Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross in Greece. It is believed that he shared the Gospel with the crowd and his executioners while he was dying.
3.  Matthew was staked to the ground by spears and then beheaded in Ethiopia.
4.  Bartholomew, or Nathaniel, was martyred in Armenia in Asia Minor. It is believed he was either flogged to death by whips or skinned alive and then beheaded.
5.  Thomas was killed by being stabbed by a spear in India.
6.  Philip was killed by being impaled with hooks in his ankles and then hung upside down.
7.  James the son of Zebedee was beheaded by King Herod near Palestine.
8.  Jude was crucified in Persia.
9.  Matthias, the disciple that replaced Judas Iscariot, was mostly likely either stoned and then beheaded, or burned to death.
10. James the son of Alpheus was most likely thrown off the temple and then stoned and beaten to death.
11. Simon the Zealot was crucified.
12. John is the only one of the 12 disciples that most likely was not martyred for his faith. He was imprisoned and left to die on the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. It is also believed he was put into a pot of boiling oil in Rome and somehow survived.

None of these guys were sitting in a safe room in their house or in a bunker in their basement. They took Jesus' words to heart. They went into the world and preached the Gospel. No matter what the cost.

They loved and they served until the very end. Just like Jesus did. Just like many of our Christian brothers and sisters are doing throughout the world.

Following Jesus isn't all that safe. Well, ACTUALLY following Jesus and not just talking about following Jesus isn't safe. Jesus never told us it would be safe though. In fact, the Bible tells us otherwise! (Matthew 24:9, 1 Peter 3:14, 4:12-19, 1 Timothy 3:13) But, following Jesus isn't without reward. It is worth it. He is worth it!

If we are willing to die for something, then we should be even MORE willing to live for that something. If we are prepared to die for Jesus, then we should be even MORE willing to spend every day and every moment living for Him!

If we aren't living in such a way as this, then I question whether we would truly die for Him. Talk is cheap. Many times, serving and loving others is costly and inconvenient.

Many times the safe thing to do isn't the right thing to do. Many times the convenient thing to do isn't the right thing to do. Love almost always (if not always) costs something.

Love received is free. Love given is costly.

My allegiance is pledged to Jesus before any allegiance to my flag or to my country. Sometimes the patriotic thing to do is not the same thing that love tells me to do. Sometimes the best thing for our country is not the same as what Jesus has called me to do.

As nice as the American dream sounds, I am called to help the widow and orphan first. As convenient as shutting our country's doors to potentially harmful refugees sounds, I am called to love my neighbor first. I am a citizen of heaven. I am a citizen of God's kingdom before I am a citizen of the United States. And therefore, I want to live and speak accordingly.

Not every Muslim is radical. There's a noticeable difference between the average Muslim and a radical Muslim terrorist, just as there is a noticeable difference between most Christians and a church like Westboro Baptist that pickets military funerals and hates just about everything and everyone.

Westboro is the exception to the rule. The Muslims in these terrorist groups are the exception to the rule. The average Muslim is horrified by these terrorist attacks just as much as we are, if not more so.

Many of the refugees seeking asylum in the United States and other countries are victims themselves. They need help, and as Christians we are called to help.

Should there be screenings and background checks on these refugees? Yeah, I think so. Should we let everyone in? No, I think we need to help some more of our own citizens first. (Like the many homeless veterans on our streets.) But, should we sit back and do nothing? I don't think so. And I don't think Jesus would either.

Just my two cents on the hot topics of the day. Take it or leave it. But if nothing else sticks with you from this post, please do remember to pray and also remember what Ephesians 6:12 reveals is our true enemy.

Shake the earth!
- Joel