Community Groups at Elim: The Hands and Feet of Jesus

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By Larry Short, Community Ministry Director

This is part six in a seven-part series on principles guiding community life at Elim. To read all seven principles in one document, click here.

Fr. Nicolae Tanase of Valea Popului, Romania

Fr. Nicolae Tanase of Valea Popului, Romania.

I experienced something of an epiphany 20 years ago, when I traveled to Romania with a group of nine other World Vision staff on what was essentially a staff vision trip. There, high in the mountains above Bucharest, we spent the day in a community called Valea Plopului. This was no ordinary community. It was centered around the life and work of an Orthodox priest named Father Nicolae Tanase.

Fr. Tanase became a priest at a time when it was very difficult and unpopular to do so. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, Communists, under the iron fist of a brutal dictator named Nicolae Ceauşescu, were in charge. They believed there was no God in Heaven and human children were nothing other than a commodity to be exploited for the purposes of the State. They encouraged people to have lots of children and made any kind of birth control illegal, and when parents could not afford to raise their children, the kids became wards of the state, where they were to be indoctrinated in Communist ways.

That was the vision, at any rate. The reality was that children were half-starved, and many were diseased and disabled. They were treated like cattle and often left to die, caged like animals in “cribs” with steel bars.

Because of this reality, abortion was rampant. This young, brave priest named Father Tanase, convinced that God was alive and wanted him to show compassion to suffering children, announced that unwanted children could instead be brought to his village in the mountains, where they would be adopted by loving parents and raised with the dignity of human beings created in the image of God.

This announcement didn’t sit kindly with the Communists. They attempted secretly to kill Fr. Tanase, but only succeeded in maiming him. (His huge, black beard covers most of the grisly scars of this event some 30 years ago.)

After Ceauşescu was deposed in 1990 and the Communists fell from power, Fr. Tanase accelerated his efforts. When we visited in 1997, dozens of children had been adopted by community members. They tended sheep and gardens, running hither and yon with joy through the hills. They were well-fed, healthy, and happy. And they knew Jesus loved them! The image that remained with me from that day is best characterized by the somewhat odd title: “Peter Pan goes to Sunday School.”

What does this have to do with community groups? As I reflected on what Father Tanase had done in Valea Plopului, it occurred to me that he hadn’t done it alone. He had a group of vibrant believers around him who were willing to sacrifice enormously to show the compassion of Christ to a hurting world. What an incredible testimony!

Elim has gotten small toeholds on this principle, through amazing efforts such as Freezing Nights, feeding the hungry at the Puyallup Armory, and more recently, our wonderful involvement in foster care ministry. But I believe God has far more in store for us.

And if compassionate outreach to the community and world around us is going to be effective and sustainable, I believe it will find itself envisioned and resourced from within the center of our community groups. Hence, principle six of our seven principles:

  1. The Community Ministry will seek to strategically equip and encourage groups not simply to be places of community and fellowship, but also to be the point of the spear for our church reaching out into the community and world around us. This will look very different for different groups at different times, but we will challenge each group leader to be interacting with his or her members with outward-reaching ministry in mind. We will ask them, “What is God placing upon your heart(s) to do to impact the world around us for Jesus?” We will encourage them to listen to God and work toward whatever vision He plants in their hearts. Perhaps not every group will be reaching out, but it should be an important value to do so and to support those groups that do.

I would like to encourage everyone in a Community Group to pray about a vision that God would implant for becoming His hands and feet to the community and world around us. This won’t look the same for every group. Some may focus on supporting foreign missionaries, and others may focus on feeding the hungry right here in our community. Some will have a heart for strategic evangelism initiatives, and others may have heart for supporting efforts to help children in our community and beyond. Who knows what God will do?

But I do know He wants us to do something. I look at Father Tanase and praise God for the way James 1:27 is being worked out in his small corner of the world:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

What will God accomplish through you and your group? Start praying NOW, and only time will tell!

P.S.: Where is Father Tanase’s ministry, 20 years later? The video below will blow your mind. I mentioned that when we were there, dozens of children were being cared for. Now that number is in the hundreds!

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On Peacemaking and Self-Defense

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By Larry Short

Thank you to everyone for the kind words and gracious support of Jason Comerford and me as we co-taught on Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” last Sunday.

I always feel, after preaching, like way more needed to be said about a specific passage than I actually had time and space to say. And I think I felt this more acutely last Sunday morning than I ever have before.

21-beheaded-by-ISIS

Last year ISIS beheaded 21 Ethiopian Christian martyrs on a beach in Libya.

After the sermon a friend challenged my assertion that “peacemaking sometimes involves the use of force.” Now, I believe this is fundamentally true. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an incredibly violent act, but it brought a forceful end to a war that most historians believe would have dragged on for several more years, costing hundreds of thousands more Allied and possibly millions of Japanese lives in the process.

Jesus, the Ultimate Peacemaker, paid the ultimate price for peace between us and God. And that price was a violent death on the cross. The cost of true peace is sometimes very high.

At the very end of our time together, Sebastian asked what Jesus meant by His statement, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Is this a justification for violence? Are Christians to wage crusades in order to propagate an enforced peace throughout the world? If the answer to this question is “Yes,” then how are we any different from        fundamentalist Muslims who believe that sharia and the caliphate must be ushered in by acts of terrorist violence?

I think the answer to these difficult questions lies in the cross and the example of Christ as He approached it. We must understand that the cross was an incredibly violent and ultimately unjust act: sinful man crucifying an innocent and sinless God.

After He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, seeing that Peter had pulled out a sword and was seeking violently to defend His Lord, Jesus instructed: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)

Jesus said He had the power to call down at least “twelve legions” of angels … and in terms of the Roman Army, a legion was at least 6,000 soldiers, and often more. So 12 legions of angels would be at least 72,000 angels.

The question is, how powerful is one angel? One clue can be found in Isaiah 37:36.

Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!

You heard that right—one angel singlehandedly defeated 185,000 soldiers in one night. Doing a little math, therefore, shows you that 72,000 angels should be able to successfully take on an army of at least 13.33 billion soldiers!

No doubt this gave Christ a comfortable margin of error if He did indeed choose to fight that small handful of Roman soldiers rather than submit to the cross.

And I think that’s the whole point. Even though He had the power to defend Himself, Jesus willingly accepted the violence of the cross, both “for the joy set before Him” and because it was the will of His Father. True peacemaking is willing to pay the price!

Peacemakers don’t go out and take up a sword in order to forcefully institute some sort of kingdom of God on earth. Instead of taking up a sword, they take up a cross. They lay down their lives.

Armed with knives and guns, a group of ISIS terrorists marched a group of 21 Ethiopian Christian men out onto a beach in Libya in early 2015. They forced them to their knees, then beheaded them.

Who were the peacemakers in this scenario? Jesus told Peter, “Those who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Those 21 Christian martyrs entrusted their lives to Jesus.

I have a close friend, the husband of a coworker at World Vision, who was kidnapped by Communist rebels in Ethiopia when he was a young man in a Christian high school there. He and 89 other Christian students were lined up along a ditch, their hands tied behind their backs. Terrorists pointed machine guns at them and ordered them to recant their faith in Jesus. “Deny the name of Christ, and live,” they were told.

Eighty-one of the students recanted. My friend was one of nine who refused to do so.

Thank God it was a false threat. These young people were beaten and tortured, but not killed. Later, the government of Ethiopia, at the urging of the leadership of that Christian school, found and rescued alive those 90 students. Today my friend is an evangelist who preaches Christ to crowds in the tens of thousands in his homeland of Ethiopia. In obedience to the gospel, he was willing to lay down his life for the name of Christ, and Jesus chose to give it back to him to use as He saw fit.

Blessed are the peacemakers. My friend is one of the most blessed people I know.

How about us? Jesus may give us the power, the capacity, to defend ourselves against evil. Will we use it? Or will we choose to “take up our cross” and trust Him instead? That’s what true peacemakers do.

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