Nothing Has Changed

A couple of days ago, additional documents from the Tsarnaev case were released which included a heavily redacted summary of Jahar’s hospital interrogation, during which he was unable to speak and was writing information down for the investigators.  Although most of the information was not new or was implied based on other information that was released, the document sent people reeling.  This quote in particular caused a very strong reaction:  “Jahar did not warn any of his friends to stay away from the Marathon because he didn’t care if they got hurt.”  People who have strongly believed that Jahar was manipulated or intimidated by his brother and that the bombing was entirely against his character were suddenly confronted with his evilness – and I witnessed hearts toward him starting to change.  Although I have long since understood how evil Jahar had to be to carry out an attack like this, I was still a little jarred with being confronted with his evilness head on.

Late last night, as I was crying out to God for Jahar, I had a sudden realization:  Being confronted with Jahar’s evilness might be new for us – but it isn’t for God.  None of this comes as a surprise to Him at all.  As Jahar planned and carried out this attack with his brother, God knew every single thing that Jahar thought.  He already knew that Jahar didn’t care if his friends got hurt.  He knows far more terrible details than we ever will. And He loved him anyway.  Even knowing how dark and evil Jahar’s heart had become, Jesus still shielded his body that night in the boat and kept his heart beating so that he would have the chance at eternal life.  Even knowing the awful sickening thoughts that Jahar was having, our Father still looked down upon Jahar in that boat and said “Not this one.  This one is Mine.”  Even fully grasping Jahar’s callous lack of regard for human life, God still, in the words of John Piper, said “I want that man in My family.”

And that realization led me to my knees – not only because I was awed by the beauty of my God’s love for Jahar – but because I was also awed by the beauty of my God’s love for me – that He has loved me and chosen me even knowing every awful thought I’ve ever had and everything I’ve ever done to hurt Him.  “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Nothing about God’s love for Jahar has changed because of this “new information,” and so we must resist the temptation to let it change ours.

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A Father Knows

Imagine being a licensed foster parent when a social worker comes to drop a group of five siblings off at your house.  You have never met them before and only know a little bit about them.  The next several days would be interesting as you struggled to take care of children you didn’t really know.  You would have no concept of their background experiences, likes, dislikes, behaviors, needs, etc.  You would probably treat them all and respond to them all in the same way for some time, before you began to learn more about them.

Now imagine a father of five children who has cared for them all since birth.  Think of how intimately he knows each and every one of those children.  He knows what works and what doesn’t work with each one.  He knows what motivates them.  He knows what makes them tick.  If he needed them all to clean their rooms – he might approach each child in a completely different way.  For the first one, he might threaten to revoke a privilege if the cleaning is not completed.  For the second one, he might promise a treat when the room is cleaned.   For the third one, he might simply need to ask nicely.  For the fourth one, he might need to start asking hours in advance and give several reminders.  For the fifth one, he might need to physically help them to clean.  Why would he treat each child differently?  Isn’t that unfair?  Shouldn’t they all get the same treatment?  In actuality, “fair” does not always mean “the same.”  As a special education teacher, I can remember working with a group of preschoolers and frequently having to explain this concept to them.  When one child got to chew gum at circle time, or got to sit in a special chair, or earned stickers or tokens for good behavior, or got to take a break in the hallway – they wanted to know why that child got to do that and they didn’t.  “It’s not fair,” they would say.  And I would patiently explain over and over again that “fair” means that each child gets what they need to be successful, and that’s not always the same thing that another child needs.  A father knows his children inside and out – and he knows exactly how to help each one to do what they need to do.

It’s the same for our Heavenly Father.  He knows His children intimately.  He knows what will work with each of us and what won’t work.  He knows what motivates us.  He knows what makes us tick.  And as He pursues each one of us, He knows how to give us what we need in order to see the truth and to come home.  Some of us need to read His word, and our eyes are instantly opened.  Some of us need someone to share and explain the Gospel to us.  Some of us need to see its transformative power in someone else.  Some of us need to be invited to church and to take that step to go.  Some of us need to experience His presence, or provision, or providence, or love in our lives in an unmistakable way.  Some of us need to have a dream or vision of Jesus or some other supernatural experience.  Some of us need to study archaeology and history and apologetics to prove His existence.   Some of us need to watch a video or read a book or hear someone else’s story.  Some of us need to be facing death itself before we even stop to ponder.  Some of us first need to become aware of the fact that the path we are on is not the correct one and is leading to death.  For someone of us, it only takes once.  For others, we need to be told and shown over, and over, and over again.  For others, we need someone to come alongside us and help us or we will never get there.  Nobody’s story is the same – because we are not the same.  But He is our Father.  And He knows what will bring each of us to Him.

God wove Jahar together as an infant in his mother’s womb, and from that moment He has never left his side.  He knows everything he has been through, everything he is facing at this moment, and everything he will face.  He knows his hurts.  He knows his likes and his dislikes.  He knows what captures his interest, and He knows what touches his heart.  He knows exactly what it will take to open his eyes to the truth.  He knows if it will take an instant or a lifetime.  He knows His lost child.

So I will choose to trust in my Father’s intimate knowledge of my future brother. He is powerful and able to do whatever it takes to bring him home.

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I was found of Thee

We studied the following passage at small group last night, and I felt like the Holy Spirit was speaking to me about Jahar throughout:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him,“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
— Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus was a rich tax collector, a chief tax collector to be specific. As a tax collector, he was a hated outcast of society categorized as a sinner. He was a Jew who worked for the Romans, collecting taxes to support the very empire that ruled his people oppressively. Not only that, tax collectors would collect more than the person owed and would keep the additional money for themselves.

Does that not sound like Jahar? On account of the terrible things he’s done, he too is a hated outcast of society categorized as a sinner.

In the passage we see Zacchaeus desperately seeking to see Jesus. Wait, what? This guy seeking Jesus? But he’s a terrible sinner!

Yet, he seeks Jesus. He wants to see Jesus so badly that when he finds he can’t see Jesus because he’s too short to see Jesus, he climbs up into a tree. We see here a man desperately seeking, desperately thirsting for something greater.

What this clearly illustrates to me is that people are seeking who we don’t necessarily assume would be. We cannot write people off as lost causes who would never want anything to do with Jesus.

I see that same seeking heart in Jahar. It seems he truly wants to know God, that he truly wants a relationship with Him. Yet, there’s a crowd standing in his way, the metaphorical crowd of the only religion he’s ever known and a family that might even disown him if he’d leave it.

How I long for him to realize that on account of that crowd, he’s unable to see the God his heart is truly longing for. How I long for him to climb up into the tree, so to speak, and open the Bible and finally be able to see Jesus there.

Yet the interesting thing we see in this passage is that while Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, it’s even more true that Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus.

I truly believe that Jesus is seeking Jahar. I don’t think there’s any other explanation for the way Jahar miraculously survived that night on the boat and for the way God has called so many of His children into persistent prayer for this broken young man.

When the crowd sees Jesus interact with Zacchaeus and say He will stay at Zacchaeus’ house, they grumble, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

That made me think: If Jesus were here physically walking the earth today, where would He go? Who would He visit? I think Jesus would visit those in prison, even those on death row.

I said to God in my head, “You’d be visiting Jahar.” I heard the Holy Spirit respond to me, “I am visiting Jahar.” Whatever that specifically means, it’s beautiful. But the thought that it could mean Jesus has been coming to Jahar in dreams and visions like He’s done for Muslims throughout the world makes my heart want to dance with joy.

When Zacchaeus encounters Jesus, his life is changed forever. Salvation is now his, and he is a new creation.

I find it interesting that Zacchaeus doesn’t just recognize his fraud as sin. He doesn’t just apologize to those he defrauded. He doesn’t just return the extra money he took from them. He restores fourfold what he took from them. Repentance for him means righting his wrongs, giving back to those he harmed.

I couldn’t help but think about what repentance then looks like for Jahar. He’s already shown remorse for his crimes and apologized to his victims, though sadly so many of them don’t believe he was genuine. But I’d love to see more once he comes to faith in Christ and his repentance isn’t motivated by a desire to earn God’s mercy but rather motivated by a heart of gratitude for the mercy he’s been freely given by what Christ has already done. I’m not so sure what he can do for his victims because obviously he can’t undo what he did to them in the way Zacchaeus could. I’d love, however, for his heart to be overcome with love and compassion for them and for him to spend a good deal of time every day crying out to his new-found heavenly Father for them.

I noticed one thing last night that I had never been aware of before. The placement of Zacchaeus’s story in the narrative of the Gospel of Luke is rather profound, and I think it illustrates an important point.

Zacchaeus’s life-changing encounter with Jesus is located at the beginning of Luke 19. Why is this important? Look at what happened just one chapter earlier in Luke 18:18-30.

After Jesus told the rich man to give away all he owned to the poor, to which the man refused with great sadness, Jesus said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).

I find it challenging to even thread a needle, but at least that’s possible. A camel going through the eye of a needle on the other hand? Clearly impossible.

Or is it?

When the crowd then asks how anyone could be saved, Jesus responds, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

And the very next chapter we see the very thing that was called impossible actually happen: a rich man is saved.

The moral of the story: No salvation is impossible for God. Nobody is beyond the reach of grace. Not Zacchaeus. Not even Jahar.

After all, as Jesus tells His new follower Zacchaeus, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of Thee.

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The leaves sing Your praises

Fall leaves

As I was driving back to my alma mater for homecoming, I couldn’t help but have my eyes diverted from the road to the reds, oranges, and yellows on a particularly wooded area of the interstate. The trees were gorgeous, stirring up praise from the innermost depths of my being to the One who painted those leaves with brilliant color.

Then a thought struck me—whether that thought came from my own mind or whether the Holy Spirit placed it there, I do not know.

The leaves are the most glorious and beautiful while they’re more or less awaiting their death.

Likewise, while Jahar is on death row, he can be that beautiful and magnificently display the glory of God for as long as he has in this world until “the wind carries him away,” so to speak, and he goes home. In his final years and days, he can shine like never before, to the delight of his Father and all those who welcome him as a brother in Christ.

I’ve witnessed this sort of thing with a brother in Christ who was executed by Texas last year. A chaplain said of him, “There is not a single trace of the [man] that arrived to Polunsky. God has totally changed him.” In his final hours, he was able to share the Gospel with his family, and his niece and his son came to Christ and one of his brothers rededicated himself to Christ. Instead of wasting his time on death row, he also made an effort to reach out to his fellow death row inmates with the Gospel and the love of Christ, and one of those inmates came to faith in Christ pretty much right before his own execution.

I’m reminded too of Kelly Gissendaner, an amazing sister in Christ, who was executed by Georgia last month. During her time on death row, she reconciled with her children (the victim of her crime was her husband/their father) and was credited with transforming and even saving the lives of many of her fellow inmates. As she was being executed, she sang “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

In Christ, depraved wretches like Jahar can become more beautiful than the most exquisitely colored tree, radiating the glory of God.

And like new life comes to a tree in spring, they will also rise to new life.

Fall leavesFall leaves

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Reflections

Editor’s Note: This is a guest contribution by Melissa of Priez Pour Dzhokhar, a French blog with a similar mission and subject matter to Christians United for Jahar.

It is understandable to find it difficult to pray for someone who has committed such a terrible act of terrorism, but we also benefit from such prayer practices. When we pray for our enemies God also grants us his grace. An act of humility puts our mind and soul in peace. Revenge is a powerful desire, but love is the only cure for hatred. A problem can not be solved in the same way it was created. When you pray for your enemy, you begin to take an interest in their spiritual welfare. You no longer see your enemy as abstract target of aggression, but as a fragile human being, created in the image and likeness of God who has flaws, just like you. They are your brothers and sisters and deserve your love and forgiveness, as God loves you and forgives you

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.Romans 12:17-21

Our natural tendency is to hate people who do evil things. Our natural tendency is to host bitterness in our hearts toward them, and want all kinds of evil against them. It takes guts to love your enemies. It takes courage. It takes determination. It takes strength, but more than anything, it takes faith.

Jesus spent much of his time on earth among the outcasts, those who were considered the scum of humanity at the time. For example, the tax collectors and prostitutes. He did not see these people as being beyond love or redemption. Instead, he said he came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10), and does not drive away those who come to Him (John 6:37), but it is in Matthew 5:44 he tells us to love our enemies.

Personally, I have never seen so many people pray for someone, much less a criminal and one of the perpetrators of the worst terrorist attack in America since 9/11. Most certainly God doesn’t do anything for something, everything that He does or allows serves a very special purpose, be it that we may not understand it amidst terror and destruction. We can, however, rest assured that it has served something somewhere.With that said we can be assured that God has a plan for Dzhokhar’s life even if he doesn’t know it yet.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.Jeremiah 29:11

We may rest assured that our prayers are heard and that at the right time, God will fulfill what he has promised. Not only will Jahar become a new creation in Christ, but God also blesses us for doing His will in obedience with scripture and we will also reap the rewards of having a new brother in Christ. When Jesus walked among the sinners and the tax collectors, he said that it isn’t the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick, and we know who here needs a divine prescription.

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.James 5:15

May we not forget the worth of God’s beautiful creation; one lost sheep, the one that the good shepherd would go out to seek even if that meant leaving the 99 others behind.

Pray for Dzhokhar

Pray for Dzhokhar

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Prayer for the victims

Editor’s Note: This is a guest contribution by Melissa of Priez Pour Dzhokhar, a French blog with a similar mission and subject matter to Christians United for Jahar.

Almighty Father,

Thank you for your love, grace and mercy. I pray that the discomforts of your children in Boston will turn to comforts, their pains into gains for You; their deprivation to more blessings, their losses to profits, their tears to smiles, their sorrows to pleasures, their illness to wellness, their debts to credits and their dreams to realities.

Lord, their bodies were damaged but they as humans were not broken. You have given them an amazing resilient spirit and You have made their stories touch the lives of millions of people; You have made them the faces of hope for a broken world. As the scriptures say “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” And he “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Amen

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You Are Stronger

Jesus,

I fully trust that You are working all things together to bring Jahar home to You – and if I remain close to You in constant prayer, I never doubt it.  But sometimes when my mind drifts from You – if I honestly stop and think about all of the things standing in the way of Jahar’s salvation, I can tend to get discouraged.  I can begin to see how, from an outsider’s perspective – this prayer of mine seems completely insane.  There are so many obstacles in the way…so many reasons why Jahar will never come to you.  Lord, I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9:24).  Because God,

You are stronger than Allah.

You are stronger than the Qur’an.

You are stronger than Islam.

You are stronger than his fear.

You are stronger than his shame.

You are stronger than his pride.

You are stronger than tradition.

You are stronger than his family.

You are stronger than lies.

You are stronger than deception.

You are stronger than spiritual blindness.

You are stronger than hardened hearts.

You are stronger than anyone’s desire to kill him – and You’ve proven that.

You are stronger than bullets.

You are stronger than drugs.

You are stronger than time.

You are stronger than solitary confinement.

You are stronger than mistreatment.

You are stronger than pain and suffering.

You are stronger than depression.

You are stronger than isolation.

You are stronger than mental illness.

You are stronger than suicidal thoughts.

You are stronger than his injuries.

You are stronger than the SAMs.

You are stronger than the prison walls.

You are stronger than the guards.

You are stronger than the literal and spiritual chains that bind him.

You are stronger than the government.

You are stronger than any jury.

You are stronger than any attorney.

You are stronger than the judges who will make decisions in his case.

You are stronger than the death penalty.

You are stronger than the doubts of the children You have called to pray for Your lost child.

You are stronger than hopelessness.

You are stronger than his sin.

You are stronger than evil.

You are stronger than Satan.

You are stronger.

Jesus, You are stronger.

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The Best Thing That Happened To Me

Many of my friends on death row know exactly what started me off doing death row ministry.  They know who God first laid upon my heart.  From time to time, we talk about it – especially when there is news.  After Jahar was sentenced to death by the jury in May, I wrote to my dear friend and amazing brother in Christ Carlos Treviño, who is on death row in Texas, and shared my anguish over the sentence. (Please note this is being shared with his permission.  He says “Anything and everything I write, you can use.  It’s not about me.  It’s about Him.  And I want you to put my name out there.  I will testify for God and you.”)  This was his response (I hope you get a chuckle out of the first couple sentences like I did):

Pic

Over the years that I have been fervently praying for Jahar daily, I have prayed time and time again that God would spare his life and that he would receive a life sentence.  When you pray for someone daily, you come to care about them deeply – and the last thing you want is for someone you care about deeply to be strapped to a gurney and poisoned to death.  However, I have always tried to honestly pray, “If receiving a death sentence is the only way he will come to You, then I trust You.”  When the sentence was read, my heart shattered into a million pieces.  But my brother Carlos gives me hope.  “If I were given a life sentence or whatever, I don’t think I would have come to the cross,” he says. “Being sentence[d] to death was the best thing that happened to me.  I found God.”  And Carlos is not alone.  There are many, many stories of prisoners on death row who came to Christ only when faced with their own death.

As Carlos explains, “Death is not a bad thing.  It’s being without God that is very bad.  Then one should fear death then.”  If Jahar’s life is spared and he lives out the rest of his life in prison and dies a natural death but dies without Christ, his eternity will be far more unspeakable than his punishment on this earth.  But if he finds Christ in the time he has left on this earth and gives his life to Him – his death sentence will only be a reward.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a staunch death penalty abolitionist who would love nothing more than to see the death penalty disappear forever.  If the day ever comes that Jahar is executed, it will be by far one of the most difficult days of my life.  But if it is because of his sentence that he goes straight from that gurney into the arms of his waiting Savior – to live in joy for eternity, completely free from his chains – then the sentence that broke my heart will have been worth it.  Your will be done Father.   Whatever it takes.  Just bring him home.

Carlos

Carlos Treviño

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Stand Up, Pick Up Your Mat, and Walk!

In John 5, we learn of a man who has been sick and lying at the pool of Bethesda for 38 years.  The pool was constantly surrounded by those who were blind, lame, or paralyzed and in need of healing.  When the waters would bubble up, they believed the first person into the pool would be healed.  Jesus sees this man and knows he has been ill for a long time, and He asks him, “Would you like to get well?”  “I can’t, sir,” the man explains, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up.  Someone always gets there ahead of me.”  (John 5:6-7)  Jesus tells the man, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” and instantly, the man is healed.  (John 5:8-9)

For 38 years, that man prayed for healing and spent his days by that pool, hoping that someone would give up their chance to go into the pool first in order to help him.  If he was going to be healed, he expected that it would happen the traditional way – by someone placing him into the pool.  He probably spent a lot of time praying for God to get him into that pool somehow.  When Jesus asked him if he would like to get well, the man may have thought that Jesus would help him get into the pool.  I’m quite certain that never in a million years did the man think that Jesus would just tell him to stand up, and that when he obeyed, he would instantly be well.

So many times we want or need something from God, and we have a picture of exactly when and how it’s going to happen.  When it doesn’t happen that way or as quickly as we expect, we can feel frustrated, impatient, and even angry with God.  But we need to remember that we are looking at things through our limited human viewpoints, forgetting that God may have a plan so crazy and incomprehensible that it is far beyond anything we could have ever dreamed up ourselves.

“For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9

I think sometimes we are like the man at the pool of Bethesda.  We pray daily for Jahar’s salvation, and in our human minds – we have visualized exactly how it is going to happen – and when it doesn’t…when things seem to be getting worse instead of better…we get frustrated and start to lose hope.  But maybe God has a “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” plan for Jahar that is far beyond anything we could have conceived of with our own imaginations.  Take heart brothers and sisters – He has a plan that is more amazing than we could ever imagine, and His timing is always perfect.

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Broken Cisterns

Your heart
Is filled with pure desires —
To please God daily
To receive mercy for your sins
To have eternal life
To know the One who’s always been

But you
Are running to broken cisterns —
That speak empty promises
That can never satisfy
That you think can fill you, but
That leave your thirsty heart dry

Yet He
Is crying, “My child, come to Me —
I am the One with living water
I am the One you need
I am the One who washes your sins
I am the One who makes you free indeed”

“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
— Jeremiah 2:13

“Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.'”
— John 4:13-14

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