Do you know the Rock?

The verses which conclude Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:21-27 all relate to the general theme of relationships. We can have many different types of relationships in our lives, some rather transient, and some more permanent. But what about our spiritual relationships–are they built to last? Since June of 2019, I have been a happily married man, to my beautiful wife Melissa. I was 39 when I got married—old enough to be at that age, where, while they didn’t say so, I’m sure my parents, other family members, friends, were starting to wonder if it was ever going to happen!! I even remember one of my students from the campus ministry at CU-Boulder telling me that I needed to get married by 40, otherwise I was going to be so set in my patterns, habits, and lifestyle as a single person that I’d never be able to change! I don’t know if that would have been true—luckily I made it to the altar right under that threshold! But certainly I know what it’s like to be single and facing the challenge of finding other eligible people with shared spiritual values, and who match up well, personality-wise.           

With my beautiful wife Melissa, and our pup Milo

                   

Of course we live in the age of online dating. It’s something that’s really exploded over the last decade or so in particular. And as it turns out, I did meet my wife through a dating site—Match.Com, for the record. They aren’t paying me to write any of this haha, but I can vouch for them being a legit site. But I can also vouch for the fact that online dating is really a mixed bag. There are all sorts of people out there, and all sorts of different dating sites, and it can take quite a bit of time, energy, and discernment to wade through them and find what you’re looking for. Now some of the sites I tried like Match, or Eharmony required the creation of a fairly extensive personality profile, but others, particularly some of the dating apps forced you to be much more succinct in crafting your profiles. That was always tough for me—I tend to be a fairly verbose person, I like to talk, I like to write, so I always appreciated it when other people would put some time and effort into crafting their profiles on these dating sites. Now of course one of the main things I talked about on my profile was my faith, and how critical it was for me to find someone who clearly had Jesus at the center of her life. This shared faith would be the foundation for any new relationship that I pursued from a dating site, as it certainly turned out to be with Melissa. But, I was always surprised to find in perusing these sites just what kinds of things people claimed were important enough to put them at the center of what they were looking for in a romantic partner. For example, I love music, older Rock particularly —ask me about the Beatles some time!! But I would see profiles on these dating sites where people would claim that they couldn’t even date someone who didn’t share a significant portion of their musical likes/dislikes. Or sometimes it would revolve around sports—you had to like certain teams—or something else unique—such as “do you own a passport?”—i.e. travel is the most important thing to share with your partner. Many, many people put down a variation of phrases like this: “they have to be able to make me laugh.” Now I’m not knocking any of these other categories—they can all have their place within a relationship. But the superficiality of it all began to annoy me somewhat during these years of online dating. Here we were on these sites, supposedly out to find a life partner, and yet so many people didn’t want to talk about anything very deep on their profiles.

Thank God my story had a very good ending, and I think if you’re willing to put the work into it, online dating can be a great option. But as I’ve mentioned, there is this general tendency towards superficiality on many of the sites. And the truth is—it’s easier for all of us to live on the surface plane, not really putting in the work to go deeper. And that’s true not only with our pursuit of romantic relationships and friendships, but in the spiritual realm as well. A lot of people are connected to Jesus—but only on the surface level, and the things they are valuing in life are not the same things that Christ tells us to value. What’s more—the fragility of this relationship is sometimes not immediately apparent, but it will be tragically exposed when difficulties comes along—a trial or a test of some kind.

Kobe and Lebron

Let’s take a look now at Matthew 7:21-23. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” This is a tough passage to read, and at first perhaps we wonder who exactly are these people who think they know the Lord, and turn out to be mistaken. To help illustrate the situation, I want to try a little thought experiment. I’m going to list some names—ones which I think almost all Americans would be familiar with: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, LeBron James, Taylor Swift, Tom Brady, and Paul McCartney. These are names which as I say, are no doubt familiar…and in addition to the names many of us can probably picture faces as well. We may even can hear in our head what these people sound like when they’re talking. And what’s more many of us probably know a good deal about some or all of these individuals in terms of the details of their life. We know the answer to questions such as where are they from, perhaps where they went to school, and maybe what foods and free time activities they enjoy. Now, let me add one more name to that list—that of Kobe Bryant. He of course, sadly passed away just a few years ago—and when that happened, tributes began to pour in from across the country, and even internationally. Many people talked about how they missed Kobe, and they shared their favorite memories about him. But with Kobe Bryant, or any of the people I just named—while these are famous and familiar individuals…how many people actually know them, in a real and personal sense? These celebrities have millions of followers on social media, as well as millions of people who recognize their picture, and their voice, or know information about them. But how many of these followers are actual friends? Have the majority of these people even so much as met these celebrities one time? Most certainly not, because here’s the truth–you can “know” someone, but not really “know” them in an authentic personal way, at all.

And this is what Jesus is talking about here in these verses— addressing a clear message to those people who say His name and wish to claim some sort of knowledge and relationship—when there’s nothing deeper, or more substantial there. I want to note three points—first, from verse 22, it’s clear that we are never saved through any works—no matter how miraculous or extraordinary. One of my favorite passages in Scripture is Ephesians 2:8-9. And I love it because Paul is so emphatic in his description of the nature of salvation for the believer: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Even though in verse 22 we read about these dramatic actions of prophecy, casting out demons, and other “wonders”, as the text says—none of these things can save us—they’re still just works. As we just mentioned from the Ephesians passage, our faith is what saves us. Then look back at verse 21. Jesus doesn’t want our lip-service, or some sort of shallow, half-hearted acknowledgement of Him. Lots of people use His name, but how many are ready and willing to do His will? Now obviously we could spend an entire other lesson in discussion of the question—what is God’s will for my life? But I think a pretty solid general summary is provided for us from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:37-40. Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, and He gives two in response: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus tells those whom He never knew to depart from His presence. In Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, “knowledge” carries the connotation of something different than what we usually mean when using the term casually. It’s the kind of deep connection God talks about in Jeremiah 1:5—“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you a prophet to the nations.” The Hebrew verb here is a form of “yda”—“to know”. And this is a divine knowledge, whereby God, in His omniscience, is familiar with us to the deepest possible level of our beings. He doesn’t come to know us gradually, or over time, but from the beginning of our lives—the moment of conception in our mother’s womb. So it’s an extraordinary, intimate, and, complete type of knowledge. Likewise, the verb in Matthew 7:23 is a form of the Greek “ginosko”, which also conveys an idea of a very intimate, personal knowledge gained through experience. Jesus uses this same Greek verb in John 10:14, where He declares: “I am the good shepherd: and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” Thus if we can learn anything from this sobering group of verses, Matthew 7:21-23, it’s that just because someone uses the name of Jesus, we cannot assume they have this deeper, personal knowledge of Christ and relationship with Him.

The Wise and Foolish Builders

Now let’s turn to Matthew 7:24-27. “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” I actually want to look at these verses out of order, so let’s start with the story of the foolish man, who built on an unsound foundation. Now just as were discussing with the Biblical conception of “knowledge” so too when the Bible talks about “wisdom” the idea is something usually broader and more comprehensive than we sometimes mean today when we use the word in English. There’s a whole genre within Scripture known as Wisdom Literature, including Job, portions of the Psalms, and the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. When we read these books, although they all present somewhat different perspectives on the idea of wisdom, one message that is clearly conveyed in common is that Biblical wisdom, involves much more than just intellectual knowledge or understanding. It’s not merely about being smart, but about knowing how to live life skillfully, and with Biblical wisdom there is always a moral dimension!! I’ll share just a couple of verses from Proverbs that really help to capture the Biblical conception of wisdom. First of all—there is the utter foolishness that we as humans can commit if we are trusting solely in our own capacity to make wise decisions and choices. Proverbs 14:12—“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” By contrast, at the very beginning of the book, in Proverbs 1:7, we learn what the foundation of Biblical wisdom consists of: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Biblical wisdom is about knowing our own limitations, and being smart enough to realize what we don’t know, and that we aren’t really capable of running our lives for ourselves—we must instead entrust ourselves fully to God, and build our future upon this relationship. Hence Proverbs 3:5—“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

Thomas Paine : Collected Writings : Common Sense / The Crisis / Rights of  Man / The Age of Reason / Pamphlets, Articles, and Letters (Library of  America): Thomas Paine, Eric Foner: 9781883011031: Amazon.com: Books

Scripture teaches us repeatedly that it’s a really bad idea to base our lives on anything besides God, because everything around us is in a state of flux, including ourselves. The world is always changing, and we ourselves are slowly dying each day. Amidst all this brokenness, even those things we wish were most permanent, and reliable, can easily let us down. In Matthew 24:35, Jesus perfectly encapsulates the world’s transience, while still affirming the permanence of His message: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” What’s sad is that just as some of those who thought they were doing God’s work, and were in league with Christ, only realize the truth at the end, as verse 23 tells us, here we find that those who have built on an uncertain and unstable foundation don’t realize their error until the entire house comes to ruin in a storm. The winter of 1776 was perhaps the darkest time for the cause of the American Revolution. Our armies had suffered a string of serious defeats in the fall, leading to the British capture of New York City. To make matters worse, many of the American soldiers had enlistments which were due to expire at the beginning of 1777. Sensing that popular support for the American cause was struggling and that the morale of the army and the public was poor, political theorist Thomas Paine penned one of the most celebrated pamphlets in our nation’s history, known as The American Crisis. It famously opened with the following lines: “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” In popular language that everyone could understand, Paine bolstered the national spirit by reminding Americans that the true supporters of the cause of the Revolution would show themselves by maintaining their allegiance, and their unshakeable support for American liberty, even in the moment of greatest crisis, when the outlook of the war was anything but certain. Paine’s point–that moments of crisis can serve to reveal our true allegiance, and the strength of the relationships we claim to value, is a very valid one. Jesus talks about this in one of His most famous parables, that of the Sower, as found in Matthew 13. This is a fascinating passage, because it represents one of the few parables where Christ tells it and then subsequently explains the exact interpretation. Jesus talks about a man sowing seed, in different places, and then reveals what happens to that seed afterwards. Matthew 13:5—“Some fell on stony places where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.” Then, in His explanation of the parable from Matthew 13:20-21, Jesus teaches that “He who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.” So there we have it—the exact same principle as expressed in this story about the wise and foolish builders. The weakness of one’s relationship to Jesus, and its lack of depth is revealed not in the good times, but when the storms of adversity come rolling in.

Building Your House on the Rock – Mike Ruel

But the same storm that can wreck one person’s foundation, can demonstrate the lasting strength of another’s. This is the case with the wise builder that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:24-25. He faces the exact same storm—with rain, flooding, and wind, but he has wisely chosen to found his life on the unchanging truth of Christ. As Hebrews 13:8 reminds us “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Earlier we were talking about the importance of knowing Christ not just in an intellectual way, but in a deeply intimate and personal manner, as indeed God desires to know us. And how can we confirm that our relationship with Jesus is solid, lasting, and authentic? We must continually ask ourselves this question–can it withstand the storms and the tough times?

Heyerdahl - the Kon-Tiki Expedition Edition | eBay

In 1947 the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl set out on an extraordinary journey. With a small crew he sailed over 3700 miles across the open Pacific Ocean, from the western coast of Peru to the islands of French Polynesia. He made this amazing trip aboard the Kon-Tiki, a small, hand-built raft. Heyerdahl made the voyage to prove some of his ethnographic theories about cultural interchange between the peoples of South America and the South Pacific. But one of his most daring decisions was to build his seacraft primarily out of balsa wood. Many so-called nautical experts told him this was a disastrous plan, because the porous balsa wood would be too absorbent, leading the raft to become water-logged and eventually sink. But Heyerdahl trusted that his craft would hold up during the long trek across the deep ocean. The only way to prove it however—was to actually make the trip! He had to subject the Kon-Tiki to the waves, storms, risk of shark attack—all of the dangers of the open sea. But through this trial of adversity, Heyerdahl proved his craft to be seaworthy, based on the strength of its foundation—the balsa wood logs that he choose to build the Kon-Tiki.

We all need to make sure that we know who or what we are trusting in to take us safely through life! And if we say we are placing our faith in Jesus, let’s make sure that we really know Him, and aren’t just paying lip-service to His name! Paul tells us exactly how we should know Jesus in Romans 10:9. “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus Christ and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” We never want to just confess Christ verbally—there also needs to be that decision taken from the innermost depths of our heart, to repent from our sins, and to believe in Him, not just as some historical figure, or as a good exemplar to follow, but as Paul tells us—the risen Christ—our Savior. Now I wish we could say that all of our relationships in life are going to be rewarding, fulfilling, and stable, rock-solid. But the truth is, they won’t be—not for you, not for me, not for any of us. So the best I can do is point you to the One in whom you can place all of your trust, and never be let down. He is the Rock, He is Christ! I want to close by quoting from a wonderful 19th century British hymn—“Abide with me.” It expresses the desire that I think we all have to find that relationship, and that foundation that won’t change and can carry us through all of the ups and downs of life in an ever-changing world. It’s the hope that we can find someone who will always be there for us, will love us, and will never abandon us, nor change their feelings. “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away. Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” This hymn, like so much other great Christian music, is really a love song to Jesus. If we will build our lives on His firm foundation, Christ, will indeed abide with us, and fulfill His promise of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:20, to be with us until the end. And then with Jesus on our side of course, the end is not the end, but the beginning of our true life—the eternal one, together with our Lord and the fellowship of all believers in Heaven. May we know Christ in this way, and may that knowledge carry us into eternity, on the strength of the relationship which will change our lives, connecting us forever to the One who cannot change—Jesus. Amen!

Easter, every day

Sometimes the most powerful words are the simplest. Direct, first-person statements carry with them an impact that is often greater than a much longer dialogue or disclosure. And throughout history, certain of these first-person declarations have captured the imagination. In 47 BC, Julius Caesar famously described his victory over King Pharnaces II of Pontus with these pithy, but powerful words: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Even earlier, back in 323 BC, as the legendary Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great lay dying, he was asked about which heir he would leave his empire to, and he responded simply: “to the strongest.” Even more emphatic are those statements in which the speaker directly identifies himself with an idea, event, or entity. Louis XIV, the well-known “Sun King” of late 17th century France, so completely embraced his role as the head of the nation and an absolutist monarch that he once declared: “I am the State.” A little over a century later, French history produced another colossal figure given to such grandiose first-person claims, Napoleon Bonaparte. Reflecting after the chaos and confusion of the French Revolution, and vowing to represent a permanent return to order, while still preserving some essential gains of the movement, Bonaparte would say of himself; “The Revolution is over, I am the revolution.”

But no one has ever spoken of themselves with quite such first-person language as Jesus Christ did. The Gospel of John is noteworthy for its numerous “I Am” statements—different points at which Jesus makes a central, and definitive reference to His own Divinity. The greatest of all these for me is found in John 11:25-26. There, as Jesus prepares to perform perhaps His most memorable miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, He gives these words of comfort, and astounding Divine power to Lazarus’ sister Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” While there are many other points in John’s Gospel where Jesus identifies with God, I find these two verses to be the most striking, because of the power and authority therein revealed. Christ doesn’t just say that He has the power to bring people back from the dead, remarkable though that is, but rather He directly identifies Himself with the very act, and essence of renewed life, and the permanent conquest of death and sin.

Meeting of Jesus and Martha Bath Towel for Sale by Corwin Knapp Linson

It is this Resurrection, of course, that we celebrate at Easter, and it is an aspect of our Christian faith which cannot be overstated in its importance. The theological significance of this occurrence inspires Paul to pen one of his most extraordinary chapters—1 Corinthians 15. There, over the course of fifty-eight verses, he shares virtually every necessary detail to our understanding of why the Resurrection matters so much for us as Christ-followers. I could write numerous blog posts based just on this one chapter alone, but I’ll summarize here just a few of the most notable verses. First, Paul wishes to convince us that, far from being just a figment of the overactive imagination of a handful of His followers, Jesus’ Resurrection was an unmistakable reality that changed the lives of those numerous witnesses who were blessed enough to have an encounter with the risen Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:5-7—“He was seen by Cephas (Peter), then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once…after that He was seen by James then by all the apostles. Paul also makes sure that we understand the bodily nature of Christ’s return, in verses 42-44: “the body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption…It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas–Caravaggio, 1602

Many religions have teachings about a soul or spirit surviving on after death, but Christianity is unique in affirming the return of the physical body. And perhaps knowing that the disciples would be skeptical on this point, we see in the Gospels that Jesus goes out of His way to prove the corporeal nature of His return. He asks the disciples to literally touch Him to assuage their doubts, and even eats fish and honey in their presence to prove the reality of His flesh. However, as Paul’s words here also allude to, Jesus’ Resurrection body is changed, and is not identical to the old flesh. Once resurrected, Christ has the power to unexpectedly appear in the midst of a group, and then just as suddenly vanish. And after 40 days back on earth following His return from the dead, Christ departs again, and ascends to heaven. But despite these changes, He remains in a physical body, throughout His Resurrected state, and this is quite significant. The body, after all, is symbolic of our spiritual weaknesses, and is a constant reminder of our frail, human mortality. Yet God has promised us He will redeem that very part of us that was weak, flawed, and broken, and make it beautiful, and immortal. Paul also makes it clear that the Resurrection represents the final word in God’s triumph over not just the finality of physical death, but what he terms the “sting” of death—that is sin. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26—“He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” Continuing with this thought, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55—“So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.” O death, where is your sting? O hades, where is your victory/” Finally, Paul makes some pretty drastic statements regarding the centrality of the Resurrection in the life of all believers. 1 Corinthians 15:14-15—“If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise.”

The Power of An Empty Tomb —

With this last statement, Paul is essentially saying that the truth of our entire faith hinges on the historical reality of this one event! If Christ’s Resurrection didn’t happen, or was just some sort of figurative, metaphorical occurrence, we don’t even have a faith to believe in ourselves, or to spread to others! And while we can say that persuasive passages in Scripture such as 1 Corinthians 15 help to offer proof for the Resurrection, noted pastor and author Andy Stanley, in his new book Irresistible, approaches the question from the opposite direction. In the afterword to the book, he talks about how the Resurrection as a historical event actually helps to prove Scripture! “The front of our apologetic approach needs to return to the apologetic of the first century, and that was an empty tomb…The reason Luke decided something needed to be documented (along with John and Mark and Matthew) is because something unusual happened—Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection is why we have the Bible…If there was no resurrection, there is no church, and there is no Bible. You and I wouldn’t even know those stories.”

Elvis Presley – If Every Day Was Like Christmas (1966, Vinyl) - Discogs

But now I want to turn away from these big picture arguments, and ask, the question—what does the Resurrection mean for me, and for other individual believers? Interestingly enough, at least in the Western world, Christmas has long been the biggest holiday of the Christian calendar, along with all its cultural trappings (although in Eastern Orthodox countries Easter traditionally warrants a larger celebration). Yes, we love our Christmas, me included, to the point that many a song has expressed the sentiment of how wonderful it would be if the “Christmas spirit” could last year-round. I think of the old Elvis Presley tune, “If every day could be like Christmas.”—“Oh why can’t every day be like Christmas, why can’t that feeling go on endlessly/For if everyday could be just like Christmas, what a wonderful world this would be.” But Easter, if anything should be an even greater celebration for the believer than Christmas. Jesus’ birth is obviously significant, but His Resurrection is the event that our faith is built on. We should never forget then, that our faith is tied not just to an intellectual assent to Christ’s teachings, or to the validity of the Scriptural canon, or to sometimes esoteric questions of faith, but ultimately to a historical event. All those early followers of Jesus—the Apostles, and Paul, were willing to stake their lives on a belief in this extraordinary occurrence.

Green, Keith - Asleep in the Light - Amazon.com Music

But is the Resurrection continuing to change our lives now? Or have we grown complacent, and does Easter too quickly come and go for us, unlike, say, Christmas, which is anticipated for months beforehand. The late, pioneering Christian rock artist Keith Green once sang, with great conviction on “Asleep in the light” about those believers who have become hard-hearted and unmoved even at the memory of Jesus’ tremendous triumph over death: “How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well fed? Jesus rose from the grave, and you, you can’t even get out of bed!” In the same song Green goes on then to accuse the church as a whole of harboring an unacceptable indifference towards the those outside, when in fact they are the purveyors of the greatest message ever, and one that desperately needs to be heard by a sinful world. “The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can’t fight ‘cause it’s asleep in the light”. If we really believe the life-changing truth of the Gospel, and recognize how Christ’s Resurrection power has changed our lives and reshaped our eternal destiny, then we should be living in the midst of that power and joy each day! Thus we can sing along in the words of one of my favorite Easter hymns, by Bill Gaither, “Because He lives.” “Because he lives I can face tomorrow, because he lives all fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives.” With each day’s rising of a new sun, and with our reflection on the work of God’s Son, Easter should be celebrated and recognized anew daily in the heart of the believer. And knowing we have this incomparable truth within us—the same truth that launched a new church and a spiritual movement that all the might of the Roman Empire could not defeat—this should inspire us to face whatever obstacles we have in front of us today. And what’s more, a truth this good, is one that isn’t meant to be kept to ourselves. We may meet skeptics who will seek to disprove Scripture, or who will cast doubt on other tenets of our faith. But no amount of cynicism can ever change the fact that because of an extraordinary event when the stone rolled away, and the tomb was empty, we have the Bible today, and a faith to follow. The Resurrection changed everything, and it’s still changing lives and hearts now. Happy Easter–today, and every day!

In search of the Sabbath

The Importance Of Shabbat

The text is a familiar one to almost any Christian, taken straight out of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” Straightforward though this text might seem, I’ve always found the fourth commandment to be one of the harder ones to keep, in part because its interpretation has often seemed to veer towards one extreme or another. Within traditional, particularly Orthodox Judaism, this command has always been taken quite seriously. A whole host of laws have arisen to help the faithful from unwittingly violating the work prohibition on this special day. Some of these provisions might seem almost comical in their strictness to us, but they are born out of a sincere desire for observant Jews to honor God’s law, down to the exact details. Thus not only will a conservative Jew not work on the Sabbath, but other actions they will avoid include: riding in cars, riding in elevators, using kitchen appliances, turning on light switches, or eating anything with bones in it that would need to be removed—since all of these activities could to some extent be interpreted as forms of “work.” As Christians of course, our quick response to these customs might be to reiterate that we are no longer under the old covenant of Israel, and that furthermore, Jesus, within His own ministry, refined many of the expectations for what could or couldn’t be done on the Sabbath day. Nonetheless throughout Christian history, there have still been plenty of Sabbath-based prohibitions, some of which even gained legal status. For example, within the lifetime of my own parents, who were born in the 1940s, many cities and counties within Alabama had Sunday “blue laws” which prohibited everything from the sale of liquor, to the opening of cinemas and theaters, and the hosting of certain sporting events on that day. Thus Sundays were exclusively for time in church, and with family, and essentially there weren’t any other options for entertainment in the public sphere.

Certainly this was changing by the time of my childhood, but Sunday did remain a day first and foremost to spend in church, at least for Sunday morning. It was after returning from church though that I began to lose clarity through the years on exactly how the rest of the day should be honored or observed. Sometimes I’d watch NFL football, and frequently there were nice family meals with my parents and sister. But quite often as well, particularly as I got into high school, Sunday afternoons and evenings became a time of frenzied academic work in preparation for another week of school starting up. This pattern would continue throughout the rest of my high school years, and into college, then afterwards in graduate school and seminary. Sundays for me developed into a pattern of church observance and worship, followed by a more or less ordinary day afterwards, although often one that was relatively busy with preparations for the upcoming week. For example, in seminary, though on Sundays I would often be reading in the Bible to prepare for an upcoming sermon or for coursework, or perhaps examining a passage in the original Biblical languages of Hebrew or Greek, the spiritual overtones of my work did not mean that the day felt like a Sabbath. Because the activity I was engaged in was in fact work, it didn’t really make Sundays substantially different from the other six days of the week.

My wife Melissa and I along with our sweet canine–Milo!

It wasn’t until after my marriage in the summer of 2019 to my beautiful wife Melissa that something began to change within me in regards to my view of the Sabbath. I started observing just how calm, and refreshed Melissa seemed on Sundays, and how she always looked forward to the end of the week, in anticipation of the rest and restoration she would enjoy during that special day. Melissa would sometimes mention the value of slowing down and taking a break from her regular weekday activities on Sundays. However she never pressed or pressured me to change my Sabbath habits during these discussions, although it was now the case that a certain seed had been planted in my mind about a better way to view the fourth commandment. Ultimately, the real catalyst for change however, was when the COVID pandemic hit. Suddenly, like it or not, my schedule was no longer so full, and the pace of my hitherto-hectic ministry life slowed considerably. Having some extra time available, I naturally began to spend my Sundays in more of a leisurely manner. I noticed an immediate difference with this change of pace, and some of these early COVID Sundays proved to be an amazing time for me spiritually. It felt great to finish watching our church’s worship service together with Melissa on the livestream, and then not have to rush off to any pending projects or continuing work from the ministry. I entered into Monday and the next week feeling much more energetic, and inspired.

But before I share a little more about my own journey in gaining a greater appreciation for the Sabbath, I want to first examine a little more deeply the basis for our honoring the Sabbath Day. As with anything I do in my Christian life, I want to make sure that I’m following a practice not just for the sake of tradition, but doing something that has a Scriptural foundation. And so we’ll look at a few key verses that have helped to inform my observation of what it means to honor the Lord’s Day. I’ll start with the initial command from Exodus 20:8-11. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” The first thing I notice, in addition to the prohibitions against work, is that God’s commandment is also a positive one. In other words, observing the Sabbath isn’t just about what we don’t do—but what we choose to put into practice. We are told to remember and to keep the day holy. Those two verbs imply that our Sabbath observances should encompass so much more than a simple listing of forbidden activities. Remembrance of God and His great works is a theme that runs throughout Judaism in fact. Definitely on the occasion of the Sabbath, we can honor God by simply reflecting on all of the ways He has shown Himself faithful both in our lives, and in the lives of His people throughout history. We can do this by worshipping Him, and also by spending time in His Word. Both of these activities aid as well in keeping the Sabbath holy. To be holy means to be set apart, and by taking one day of the week to set aside primarily for God, we have the chance to be reminded of how much we need Him, and how good it is simply to spend unhurried time in His presence. Then there’s the last part of the passage, which delves into the origin of the Sabbath—God’s decision to rest after His six days of creation. Now of course the Almighty has no need to rest, any more than a sinless Christ actually needed to be baptized. But God does rest, simply to give us a good example to follow. And if God takes a day of rest, who are we, frail, broken, and limited mortals, to say that we’re too busy to slow down! Like so many aspects of His law for us then, the Sabbath is given to us by God for our own benefit, and for the ultimate welfare of our bodies and souls.

Lord Even of the Sabbath -

And what about the concept and observance of the Sabbath in the New Testament? Well certainly it’s a topic that comes up frequently, particularly during Jesus’ public ministry. Christ often has run-ins with the Pharisees based on their perception that He has somehow violated the Sabbath code by performing healings on the Lord’s Day. But while Jesus is in all respects a very observant Jew, He also introduces a much broader conception of the purpose of the Sabbath and application of how to best observe the fourth commandment. Two statements in particular that Jesus makes about the Sabbath help to sum up how I try to honor this day as a Christ-follower. In Mark 2:27-8, Jesus tells us “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” From this statement we can gather that more important than following a strict series of rules or prohibitions, is to honor the Sabbath by fulfilling its purpose—as a day set aside by God for us to enjoy rest and spending time with Him. As a follower of Jesus, I know I have freedom in Him, to be able to enjoy those good things that God has provided for me. Therefore, just as Christ didn’t deny His disciples their desire to pluck the heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath as they walked through the fields, I don’t believe that the primary purpose of the Sabbath should be to deny ourselves anything that could be considered enjoyable. But the second part of Jesus’ words here are also very important—to remember that He is Lord over the Sabbath. Thus anything we do, or don’t do on Sundays, should be with the intention of strengthening our relationship with Christ, and serving Him better. The other statement that Christ gives us regarding the Sabbath which I find very helpful in ordering my own observance comes in Mark 3:1-5. I’ll give the whole passage here, just so that we can better understand the context surrounding the key verse, which is Mark 3:4. “And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.” Jesus is being closely watched here by the Pharisees, who are almost daring Him to attempt a healing on the Sabbath so that they can then accuse Him of not having respect for the traditional religious law of Israel. But Christ asserts, quite rightly, that these religious leaders have completely lost sight of the purpose behind the original Sabbath laws. The laws were to encourage us to spend time with God and to rest, apart from the distractions of a normal work day. But the Sabbath law certainly was not intended to eliminate any and all activity, particularly when it was an activity that could further the Kingdom of God, and bless another person, such as Jesus performing a healing. So for me, one great way to observe the Sabbath is to think about how I could be a blessing to someone else on that day. It could mean talking to my family, or catching up with an old friend who needs someone to listen to them, or helping my wife with some cooking, or in her preparation of material for her weekly Bible study group with her friends. Jesus’ teaching from Mark 3 helps us to think about the Sabbath less in terms of what we can’t do, and more in terms of what actions could be helpful and beneficial to others on this day, and thus in the process, honoring to Him.

The pause that refreshes. | Sabbath quotes, Happy sabbath, Sabbath

I want to close by briefly sharing some application points, to specifically delineate how I’ve been trying to observe the Sabbath day recently. Again, I claim no great expertise on this subject, nor can I say that I have a foolproof system that I’ve been following for a long time. But as I’ve mentioned already, drawing inspiration from my wife’s example, and from God’s Word, I’ve found several practices to be helpful. In general, I try to think of my Sabbath observance more in relation to what I do, than what I try to avoid. However there are some activities which I believe that refraining from can help me enter into a more relaxed and worshipful mood for the day. Speaking of worship, the first priority for me on Sunday is to be able to spend time in God’s presence, hopefully in church, although during the height of COVID, this meant watching streaming services with Melissa online. After worship, I enjoy spending more time with the Lord through the reading of His Word. And unlike other days where my Bible reading might have to fit in between ministry appointments, errands, and other weekly business, on Sundays it feels great to have an open-ended time for the contemplation and study of Scripture. In addition to reading the Bible, my Scriptural study time could also include going over some different memory verses, and studying my Hebrew and Greek textbooks. Foreign languages have long been a passion of mine, and it’s been a real pleasure for me recently to break out some of my old books from seminary, and begin to get back into the study of the Biblical languages. This time though there are no assignments or grades on the line, and so I can enjoy studying these languages for my own personal enrichment, and to enhance my understanding of specific Biblical passages and verses. I also feel the freedom on the Sabbath to engage in pursuits that while not specifically spiritual, are healthy and life-giving to me. Therefore, I may take a nap, or go out for a walk with our dog Milo, and enjoy the beautiful views of the Rocky Mountain foothills near our home in Littleton, Colorado. I almost always enjoy a good family conversation with my sister and parents over Zoom, and often I’ll help my wife cook dinner, after which we may watch a movie together. In terms of avoiding certain activities, I mainly try to stay away from those things that would be distracting, or could prove stressful. Thus I try to avoid answering a lot of emails or text messages—after all, it’s good to remind ourselves that even in this day and age of constant technology and instant access to everything, that sometimes those devices competing for our attention can just wait until Monday! I also try to resist the temptation to do too much ministry-related work. The reason is, even though it could be construed as spiritual in nature, such work wouldn’t necessarily be restful for me, and besides, taking a break often helps me to re-engage with my campus ministry role from a healthier position of rest and inspiration. The bottom line for me is this—since I’ve begun observing the Sabbath more intentionally, I believe that both my personal spiritual life, and work in campus ministry have benefitted tremendously. And I have realized that despite my earlier struggles to be consistent with finding the time for Sabbath observations, that if I’m too busy to stop and enjoy the God who has created me, then perhaps I’m just too busy!!

Matthew 6:25-34–“The death of worry”

Matthew 6:25-34 is a group of verses which concern something that we all face in life, and that is dealing with stress and worry. This passage has some significant implications both for one’s spiritual, and physical health. Stress itself is like a disease—medical professionals have noted in countless studies that it actually shortens our lifespan to worry! I was reading an article recently about the negative effects of stress on our physical health. Listen to this excerpt: “The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation…Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.”

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Abraham Lincoln: before and after

You know what else is interesting about the effects of stress and worry? Although much of the damage being caused is internal, you can sometimes see the proof on the outside. Look at these side-by-side photographs of Abraham Lincoln, one taken in the spring of 1860, before his initial election, and the other from his second term, during the winter of 1865, as the Civil War neared its end. It’s almost unbelievable to see the change that a mere five years had wrought. Lincoln looks middle-aged in the first photo, yet in the second, he’s grizzled and withered and appears aged enough to be his own grandfather! That’s what five years of Civil War, and the strain of trying to keep the Union together can do to a man.

And what about us? Certainly we live in a time when there is more than enough to be worried about. The COVID pandemic is still here, and even with the vaccine beginning to be distributed, the honest truth is that none of us really know when life will get back to the “normality” that we knew just a short year before. Our nation has been riven by political discord such as I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and these are just some of the things going on in the world around us. But I think our text tonight can speak to all of these things. Because several thousands of years ago, life could get pretty worrisome and stressful in 1st century Israel too. And then, as now, Jesus is offering to us the secret to not just overcome stress and worry, but actually destroy forever its power over us. Because we have a choice—we can let all the difficulties of life in a fallen world gradually worry us to death—or we can turn to the One who will show us how to experience the very death of worry. So however you may be managing your worry and stress—Jesus offers a better way—and let’s find out more!

            Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

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A scene from 1942’s Casablanca

I want to talk about that very first verse from the passage–Matthew 6:25. Sometimes when we get worried or stressed, we’re told something like this: “come on, whatever you are worrying about is not that big of a deal…get some perspective, things could be a lot worse, there’s more important things in life than this, etc.” And sometimes such a response is indeed good advice. After all, how often have you gotten really worked up about something, only to decide a few hours or days later that actually, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I’m reminded of a scene from the legendary old movie, Casablanca, made in 1942, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Bogart plays a café owner named Rick Blaine—he’s hard and cynical on the outside, but underneath he still has a heart. He finds himself in a love triangle with two other characters, one of them his former true love, Ilsa, played by Bergman. And at the end of the film Rick makes a heroic decision to let Ilsa walk out of his life, because the work of the wartime resistance to the Nazis is more important than any lingering personal feelings on his part. And the character Rick says: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” You see, with a great World War raging, the stresses and worries of one’s personal life seemed rather minimal in comparison. But here, in Matthew 6:25 Jesus shares with us some worries that honestly seem rather important. Food, clothing, we could add shelter to the list as being implied…Far from being insignificant, these are some of the most essential things that we all need, and that if for some reason we were unsure about, would certainly constitute a cause for considerable worry! We could even say with no real exaggeration that these are matters of life and death! So on what grounds exactly then, is Jesus telling us not to worry about such important things? Look again at the second half of verse 25, and the thought-provoking question that Jesus asks—“Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” What Christ is really doing here is giving us an invitation to stop concerning ourselves with the purely materialistic and tangible world, and look towards the realm of the spiritual. As important as it is to have our basic human needs for food, clothing, and shelter met, we are not purely physical beings. We are made in the Image of God, and we have souls—thus there is a distinctly non-material, and spiritual dimension to our lives. Life is about more than just staying fed, clothed, housed, and comfortable.

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Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond

Jesus next begins to analyze the futility and false assumptions that are at the heart of our worries, and also provides the antidote to an overly materialistic worldview. In verse 26, Christ tells us to turn to nature, to find a refreshing respite from the cares and concerns of our daily lives. Now living as I do in such a beautiful state like Colorado, I’ve become familiar with people telling me that they connect best with God, and feel His presence most in the great outdoors. I’ve seen the bumper stickers that say things like “Nature is my church.” Certainly there’s a long tradition for this sort of attitude towards the natural world—embracing it as an escape from the corruption and confusion of civilization. Noted 19th century American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously developed many of his ideas about society and politics during a period of isolation while living in a cabin at Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts. And he wrote about his decision to seek solitude: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life”. But this is not what Jesus means when he tells us to look at the birds of the air—they don’t provide a distraction from the hard realities of life, but rather we find in them, and in other facets of nature, irreversible proof of God’s loving hand. If the Almighty cares for birds, Jesus says—then He cares for men and women too, and how much more so! Jesus then reminds us in Matthew 6:27 of a truth that He’ll come back to at the end of the passage in verse 34. While our worries often take us back to a past full of regrets, or to a future clouded with anxiety, the truth of the matter is that all we have is this present moment. As we are warned in James 4:14, tomorrow is promised to no one. So all our worries won’t do a single, tangible bit of good for us, and furthermore, they may cause us to miss out on something very important that God has for us right here and now. Thus the words of Jesus in verse 34—“Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Going back then to Matthew 6:28-29, Jesus again turns our eyes to nature, but it’s not just to admire the simple, timeless beauty of the flowers. There’s something deeper at work here. Jesus could have simply said—look at the flowers, they are so beautiful, and they even have to work hard to be that way…but He adds in this interesting comparison with the great King Solomon in verse 29. I think He’s making the point that so often, at the root of our worries is a certain sense of pride. We are constantly concerned because, whether we want to admit it or not, the thought is going through our heads—“what’s in it for me”, or “what I am going to get”. We all have a tendency towards selfishness and greed—narrowly seeking to guard our own interests, and our worries can be an outgrowth of that. So in response, Jesus says that all of the manmade treasures we could accumulate—from wealth and material goods to the praise and approval of others…all of this is as nothing in comparison to the natural, perfect beauty of a single one of God’s flowers.

Image result for mountain wildflowers

As we continue, I want to raise a very important point—one that helps us to understand the very heart of this message. When Jesus is telling us not to worry, He’s not speaking from some far-removed heavenly vantage point, or talking as One who was supernaturally protected from really experiencing the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life on our Earth. Jesus has walked in our shoes. One of the students from the Christian Challenge ministry at CU-Boulder, where I formerly served, who graduated just this past spring, is now training to become a police officer. And you may be aware of this, but one of the really interesting aspects of police academy training is that candidates actually have to experience some of the same sensations that a suspect under arrest might. They get pepper-sprayed, and they get tasered. Why do they have to do this? Well perhaps after having experienced how intense and painful the sensations produced, these policemen-in-training may be less likely to casually or unthinkingly apply such methods of force to a suspect. They know what it’s like, from their own firsthand experience. And you see, when Jesus teaches us about anything concerning life—He also is speaking from firsthand experience. He didn’t just come to earth for a time, like a heavenly visitor, He experienced all aspects of life here as we know it. Matthew 8:20 tells us that during His public ministry Jesus is a wanderer, homeless essentially. Christ says “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” And Jesus knows what it is to be hungry—before beginning His ministry, He endures a grueling 40 day fast in the wild wastelands of the desert. And He knows what it is to be bone-tired and fatigued. He travels throughout Israel, trudging the dusty roads on His own two feet, and in John 4:6 we see Jesus sit down by the well in Sychar, weary and thirsty from His journey. Jesus, during His earthly life, even knows the worry and stress caused by facing temptation. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us of this: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Fully God, yet also fully Man, when Jesus tells us to not worry—He’s well aware of all the challenges of life that we are facing—because He has faced them personally. This is the true impact then, of His words in verses 30-32. Jesus shows us that our worries can ultimately reveal a lack of faith on our parts, and if we are professing to be Christ-followers who trust in God, a continual display of worry and stress can serve as a poor witness to others who might not yet know the Lord.

Ultimately, Christ tells us that if we’re worried and concerned, the solution is to fix our eyes on the Kingdom of God. I love Matthew 6:33, because it reminds us that we don’t have to completely eliminate our concerns or desires so much as we have to put them in their proper place—and get our priorities straight. “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Now what exactly is the Kingdom of God, and when is it actually coming? The Kingdom of God is one of those intriguing paradoxes found in Scripture. The Kingdom will be here one day, when Christ makes His Return to judge the world—the Second Coming. And yet we don’t have to wait for that day to experience Jesus fully, any more than His disciples had to wait. For as Luke 17:21 reminds us, “the Kingdom of God is within you.” So it’s here now, and yet to come, and we have to be able to live within that tension.

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Keith Green’s 1977 debut album, which I highly recommend!!

But how exactly can we be “Kingdom-minded”, in our lives at Christ-followers? Well it involves a certain unselfishness and generosity of the spirit. It means that we think of others before ourselves, and even more, of God and His cause, before our own motivations or self-interest. Keith Green was one of the pioneers of Christian rock back in the late 70s and early 80s. How would I describe his sound? Well, it was piano-driven, and his voice and style sounded a bit like a combination of Elton John and Billy Joel, with the big difference though that Green’s lyrics did one thing consistently—they glorified God and reminded us of Scriptural truth. Now back at this time there was really no such thing as “Christian” music that was written in more of a popular vein, with guitars and pianos. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at all to us today, but that’s a measure of the success of people like Green in breaking down musical barriers. A lot of churches back then were very suspicious of him, and then of course the mainstream musical establishment didn’t get it either—how could rock music and Christian beliefs ever mix? But Keith Green persevered, and just as he was beginning to enjoy a lot of success, and becoming exposed to an ever-wider audience, after two popular albums, he decided to do something very radical. He asked for a release from his contract with the Christian label Sparrow Records. And for his third album, released in 1980, he made the decision to literally offer it for free, with people allowed to pay whatever they wished, or nothing at all. Here’s what the press release that accompanied the album said: “Keith Green has just recorded a new album, and it will not be available for sale in bookstores or through any of the usual commercial outlets. Pretty Good Records has been given the exclusive right by Keith to give the album away to anyone for whatever they can afford to give in return. The whole reason for not charging a set price for the album is simple: We want everyone, no matter how much they have…to be able to hear the ministry of new life in Jesus that springs forth from this powerfully anointed album…We believe that if the Lord gives you something for free then you should share it freely.” To seek first the Kingdom, is to trust God enough to say, “I know this is my livelihood, but reaching people with the Gospel is more important than my salary…I’m going to rely on You to provide for my needs, and I’m going to focus on giving my all to the ministry You’ve called me to.” Keith Green’s story is just one example–each of us can seek the Kingdom in our own way. But it will always come down to this question—are we willing to sacrifice some of the things we worry and concern ourselves over, for the higher priority of following Jesus and doing His will in this world?

You can only truly follow the wisdom of Matthew 6:33 if you’ve made the right decision about who is going to be in control of your life. Whether you realize it or not, someone is in control over your life, your choices, and they very things that are causing you to experience some stress and anxiety. The question is—who is it? Because if it’s not God—it’s something else. Sometimes people are controlled by their perception of what others around them are thinking. They are constantly in search of another’s approval. Or there are others who have succumbed to addictions of various kinds, and they are controlled by those desires—for sex, drugs, alcohol, or other things like money, power…even academic achievement and finding a good job. I hope you can realize along with me, that none of those things I’ve mentioned are worth putting at the head of your life, and in control. The Bible teaches that we’re all flawed—we’ve messed up, we’ve sinned, and as a result, we are actually at the mercy of this broken, sinful nature that controls us. Jesus teaches us in John 8:34-36—“Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

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We’ve talked tonight about worry and stress, and how to handle it better—but let me ask you this. What’s the biggest worry of all? The ultimate source of all stress and concern in our lives? May I suggest this—it’s the threat of death? I’m not trying to be morbid here—but all of us are slowly dying. Stress and worry may speed up the process, but it’s happening just the same. And death represents the ultimate result of our sin and its eventual consequences. Now we don’t have time to delve into this story tonight, but you can go all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, to the Book of Genesis, and read about how Adam and Eve first sinned, and one of the curses—the strictest in fact that resulted from that was death. And when the Bible speaks of death, it’s often not just the physical fact of our bodies growing older and gradually dying. It’s talking about the death of the soul—an eternal separation from the love of God. That’s why Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:56—“The sting of death is sin”. But then just after writing this, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:57—“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul knows that Jesus has forgiven all of our sins through His sacrificial death on the cross, and that He has conquered the power of death through His Resurrection.

We can choose to accept the free gift of salvation that Christ offers to us, and as a result, be liberated from not only our everyday stresses and worries, but we can experience liberation from the greatest threat, fear, and worry of them all—from death. If you will make the decision to allow Christ to become Lord of your life, it’s not that your worries and stresses will magically vanish. But you’ll now have someone to turn them over to—and a goal much greater than yourself to help orient and prioritize all of your thoughts and actions towards. Jesus offers us all a choice tonight. Will we remain in control of our own lives, and allow the stresses of life, and our own worries, slowly drive us towards death. Or will we trust the One who can promise us the eventual death of worry? I pray that you’ll trust in Christ, and that you’ll seek His Kingdom first. And I can promise that if you do—everything else that you could possibly need in this life will be added to you, and so much more. Amen!!

Biblical heroes: When the ordinary becomes miraculous

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Many people who have perhaps only a cursory familiarity with Scripture may assume that the Bible is largely a collection of miraculous stories. Perhaps you’ve heard of the so-called “Jefferson Bible” which was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to “edit” Scripture by removing those parts of the Gospels that refer to any miraculous teaching or actions by Christ. Now of course, we can rightly assert that any such attempt to to modify Biblical texts, and certainly stripping away stories of miracles, healings, Divine intervention and other such dramatic examples of the Lord’s spiritual invention is to gravely sin against the integrity of God’s Word But at the same time, if we think that the Bible is only about the supernatural works of God, above and beyond the laws of nature and physics, and that correspondingly, the men and women whom we exalt as heroes of Scripture exist primarily as vehicles for God’s miracles to be performed we miss something. That is, at least, if we define the “miraculous” in the more narrow, traditional sense. More on that later! While one of the dominant themes running through the Bible is God’s supernatural intervention throughout history, Scripture also speaks about a God who empowers very ordinary men and women to exercise qualities we all have within us to then achieve something extraordinary, and so much greater than they would think possible!! I want to look today at a few key vignettes from the lives of some of the great men and women of the Bible: Moses, David, Esther, Jeremiah, Paul and Barnabas. When we think of these individuals, do we think primarily in terms of God working wonders through them, and doing things that perhaps we don’t witness very often today? Or do we see them as people who are extraordinary because of what God did through them, while at the same time ordinary, because they demonstrated qualities that we ourselves can aspire to emulate? Might we also realize that some of the most amazing and even miraculous things that they accomplished did not come about as a result of God sending His angels, or bending the laws of nature, but because they made choices to be faithful to His plan, using the same “everyday” spiritual resources that we have at our disposal….resources however that are of infinite value when placed in the hands of our amazing God!! In this sense, I hope to show through a brief look at some selected episodes from these six lives, what can happen when, through our obedience and God’s hand at work (sometimes unseen by us), the ordinary becomes miraculous.

Moses: The Untold Truth
Charlton Heston in typical Moses mode from the classic 1956 film “The Ten Commandments”

Moses is synonymous for most of us with the idea of a prophet. From movies and popular culture, we picture a stern, old, full-bearded and fearless man of the desert, who leads his people out of Egyptian bondage, accompanied by a series of miraculous interventions, all of it culminating in an unprecedented series of direct conversations with God on Mt. Sinai. These result in the birth of the Ten Commandments and all of the subsequent law. Moses’ fame and legacy is nearly unmatched by any other prophetic figure throughout all of Scripture. In Deuteronomy 34:10, we are told, shortly after his death, that “since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Then later, in the Transfiguration of Christ, recorded in both Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9, of all of the past heroes of the faith whom Jesus could have appeared with, He chooses to talk with just two men—Moses and Elijah. That’s a pretty select club to be part of!! So amongst all the different things we could say about Moses, perhaps his accessibility for us as a Biblical figure to emulate is not the first thing that comes to mind. He seems remote and almost otherworldly in the direct and privileged relationship that he has with God. But I want to mention a few episodes from Moses’ life which reveal a very different side to this famous man of faith, one which may make it easier for us to envision how we could follow in his footsteps. First, there is his reluctance to embrace God’s calling. Now almost every prophet in Scripture displays to some extent an initial reluctance to follow God’s prompting, and they all cite various excuses as to why they don’t feel ready, or worthy to undertake the Divine mission. But few offer as sustained and vigorous a series of protests as Moses. Even after God has revealed Himself in full and miraculous power at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3, Moses remains hesitant and doubtful. So God reveals more wondrous signs to him, through his rod becoming a serpent (n.b.–as someone who’s afraid of snakes, that would be all God needed to do to get my attention!), and by giving and then removing, leprous markings on his hand. Moses may now be satisfied that this is truly the Lord speaking to him, but serious misgivings remain as to whether he is actually the best man for this arduous task of liberating God’s people from the bondage of Egyptian slavery. And so he begins to make his formal excuses. Exodus 4:10—“Then Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” It seems that the same man who would later face down the mighty armies of Pharaoh had a bit of a phobia regarding public speaking! Even after God’s repeated assurances, Moses continues his protestations a few verses later in Exodus 4:13—“O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.” God then finally agrees to let Moses use his brother Aaron as a sort of spokesperson. I love this story from the life of Moses because it demonstrates to us that even one of the greatest leaders in all of history had some serious insecurities about himself, and had to really be prodded by God to embrace the calling in his life. Many of us can identify with this, and so Moses becomes for us a little less superhuman, and perhaps a little more like someone we could actually identify with, and try to imitate.

One principle aspect of Moses’ life that we should strive to follow is his lack of pridefulness. Despite having one of the most amazing ministry resumes that anyone could ever dream of, we are clearly told by Scripture that Moses did not go around with a haughty demeanor, and the power he held over the nation of Israel did not in any way corrupt the purity of his soul. Numbers 12:3 says plainly “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.” And one of my favorite examples of this humility comes from a chapter earlier. The people have been complaining against Moses, growing tired of their God-supplied diet of manna in the wilderness, and are begging for meat. To add to this climate of dissension, others within the camp of the Israelites have begun to engage in prophesy. Alarmed, Moses’ assistant Joshua hurries to tell him the news, and asks that he forbid any further such activity. But in Numbers 11:29, Moses gives this surprising response: “Are you zealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” Far from being in any way defensive or territorial about his position as the exclusive prophet and voice of God to the people, Moses is pleased that the Lord is now speaking through others. This response demonstrates an attitude that is free of pride—he is much less interested in who God chooses to work through, and more just that the Lord’s plans and purposes for the children of Israel are accomplished.

Profile of King David From the Old Testament
David cuts off an edge of Saul’s robe, while in the cave

When we think of King David, perhaps the first episode in his life that comes to mind is that immortal showdown with the Philistine giant Goliath from 1 Samuel 17. It’s among the most treasured stories in all of Scripture, but honestly, miraculous as it is, I don’t think it’s the greatest miracle that God works through David’s hand. This for me occurs a bit later, as recounted in both 1 Samuel 24 and 26. There, David, is in the midst of being pursued by a murderous and vengeful King Saul, who is looking to kill him. David, despite being the Lord’s anointed, is living the life of a fugitive, and yet he manages to twice catch Saul at a disadvantage—first in a cave, and then later as he sleeps in his camp. In each instance, it would seem that David is very much within his rights to have Saul killed. After all, he would only be acting in self-defense, and, he has already been chosen by God, as confirmed by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 16, to be the king to replace Saul. But remarkably enough, despite being a formidable man of war, David holds no bitterness in his heart against his enemies. He will seek no vengeance against the very man who had first befriended him, and then betrayed that friendship through jealousy and rage. David still regards Saul, with all of his flaws, as the one also anointed by God, and so he will not raise his hand against him. When Saul realizes what has happened, how David could have had him killed, and did not, he is moved with respect for the man who will succeed him. 1 Samuel 24:17—“Then he said to David: “You are more righteous than I; for you have rewarded me with good, whereas I have rewarded you with evil. And you have shown this day how you have dealt well with me; for when the Lord delivered me into your hand, you did not kill me.” Later David demonstrates further that his compassion on Saul comes from a deep-seated place of forgiveness and goodwill towards the troubled king. Following the death of Saul and Jonathan after their battle with the Philistines, he weeps bitterly, and even composes a famous song of lament, as recorded in 2 Samuel 1:19-27. In an age when kings casually executed any who withstood them, David’s track record of mercy towards a mortal enemy is as great a proof of God’s miraculous work in his heart as any giant-slaying! And it’s a heart attitude we can strive to demonstrate in our lives.

We can also seek to follow in David’s footsteps when it comes to demonstrating trust in God even amidst the most stressful of circumstances. While facing an angry, heavily-armed giant, or fleeing for your life before a king and his army might qualify as pretty stressful experiences, I want to look at another example of David’s ability to trust in God despite the storms of uncertainty raging around him, from 1 Samuel 30:6. While still in hiding from Saul, David and his followers have temporarily been serving with the Philistines. During this time they leave their wives and children behind in the city of Ziklag. In their absence, Ziklag is ambushed by Amalekite raiders, and their families are all taken off as captives. Upon their return to the city, David and his men find it burned and in ruins, with their loved ones gone. And quite suddenly, despite all of the effectiveness David has shown as a leader of his embattled group of followers, his men turn on him with a vengeance. “Now David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” I can only imagine how heartrending it must have been to be in the midst of grieving the misfortune that has befallen your own family, and the families of those around you, and then suddenly be in danger of losing your own life because others are seeking to turn you into a scape goat to satisfy their own anger and sorrow. Yet David responds in this situation not by lashing out at his men in defensive anger, nor does he attempt to sneak away. Rather he turns to God to unburden his heart, and receive reviving spiritual strength. As a result, he is later able to lead a successful military expedition to rescue the wives and children from the Amalekites. We may never be a great king and military leader like David, but we can similarly learn to exercise forgiveness towards our enemies, and to cultivate a spirit that trusts in God, and finds refuge in Him first, even when the situation around us appears to be hopelessly bleak.

Esther

The Remarkable Story of Queen Esther - Part 1 | Midnight Call

Most of us would probably say that another trait we’d like to develop in our spiritual lives is courage. This can mean different things in different contexts, but certainly what we find in Scripture is that God empowers people to stand for something greater than themselves, even when it’s not always clear if any miraculous intervention will save them. One such story comes to us from the life of Queen Esther. This brave woman faces a whole series of challenges, foremost among them being the constant pressure she is under as a Jew in exile, to assimilate to the dominant Persian culture around her. This pressure to assimilate grows even stronger when Esther, out of all the young women in the empire is chosen by King Ahasuerus to succeed Vashti as the new queen. Ensconced in a privileged position, with a king who doesn’t even know of her true Jewish identity, it would be very easy for Esther to essentially bury her past, and forget about any lingering ties to her people in exile. But when her cousin Mordechai informs her of the wicked Haman’s impending plot to launch a genocide against the Jews in Persia, Esther faces a critical decision. Will she go unbidden, to seek an audience with Ahasuerus, in order to reveal the plot against her people? The stakes are high, for according the law of the land, anyone, even the queen, who goes into the king without being called faces the penalty of death. Thirty days have passed since Ahasuerus last called Esther into his presence, but time is of the essence if Haman’s plot is to be exposed before it is too late. So the Jewish queen makes a courageous decision as recounted in Esther 4:15-17—“Then Esther told them to reply to Mordechai: Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” Esther’s bold actions lead to Haman’s downfall, Mordechai’s triumph, and the salvation of the Jews across Persia. But her courage is of a particularly noteworthy type. Her own life may not have been in direct danger, since Ahasuerus didn’t even know of her Jewish identity, and she seemingly had it made, enjoying the rank and status of court life, far removed from the sufferings that many of her people faced as exiles in the Empire. Yet despite all of this, Esther gave up her comfort and safety to advocate for the greater good of her people. In this way she mimicked Moses, who gave relinquished his status in Pharaoh’s court to once more identify with his people, and help liberate them from their sufferings. In Esther 4:14, Mordechai famously says that Esther, faced with her strategic decision, perhaps has “come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” Certainly she displays a courage that allows her to identify with the plight and sufferings of others, and she is willing to sacrifice her own comfort, and possibly even her life in order to benefit a larger cause. Esther is famously known as the one book in the Bible where God’s Name is not explicitly mentioned. However the “hidden” God is at work throughout the story, and His influence is particularly apparent through the courageous attitude of the Jewish queen. As we follow Christ today, are we infused with similar courage?

Jeremiah

A stained glass window depicting the Old Testamant Prophet Jeremiah Stock  Photo - Alamy

We’ve already discussed some of the traits of Moses that we should strive to pattern in ourselves, and I now want to mention one other Old Testament prophet briefly—Jeremiah. We could say many remarkable things about this man, and his long career. But perhaps the most bluntly realistic way to assess Jeremiah’s life is to say that, judging from most any modern spiritual metrics, his ministry is a failure. Throughout his lifetime, he has few converts, and in general he preaches an unpopular message of repentance and God’s impending judgment that is widely rejected and ignored by his indifferent. At various times he suffers extreme persecution, including being thrown into prison, and even down a well. However the quality that Jeremiah teaches us in abundance is one of spiritual persistence. He knows that his ministry will never be well-received, that he will continue to be threatened by certain groups who dislike him, and hope to silence his voice. And yet, sensing that God’s calling in someone’s life is irrevocable, Jeremiah never wavers in his determination to see the Lord’s work out to the finish. In his unflinching, and thoroughly honest manner, he admits that like Moses and others, he tried to back out of the prophetic call, yet could ultimately not run away from the searing urgency of the word God had implanted in him. Jeremiah 20:9—“Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.” But His word was in my heart like a burning fire, shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.” Most of us will probably never face the level of dissent and opposition that Jeremiah did from his own people, and yet we can be prepared for almost any ministry scenario if we follow his example here, and make sure that our words are all rooted in Holy Scripture. And if he can persist, even amidst an arduous and unpopular ministry, surely we can continue to spread God’s message in our spheres of influence!

Paul

AFA.net - Did Paul Invent Christianity?

There are plenty of faith heroes we could talk about from the New Testament as well, who amidst every day situations, demonstrate spiritual qualities, which are used by God for to foster some extraordinary results. . Paul is perhaps the single greatest influence in the growth of the early Christian church other than Christ Himself. He certainly experiences a wide gamut of spiritual emotions, from the fear and uncertainty of his blinding on the road to Damascus to his joy in sharing with different churches, to the long catalogue of trials and challenges he faces during his travels as recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:25-26. So how does Paul maintain his spiritual “equilibrium” when so much pressure exists around him? How can he calmly send a vital letter of instruction to Timothy from prison, of all places, that Christians around the world are still reading today? The answer is relatively simple: Paul has learned to keep an eternal perspective amidst a series of temporary setbacks, as he reveals in Romans 8:18—“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed within us.” Knowing then, of the eternal future in heaven that awaits him, Paul is someone who can always look with confidence to the future, no matter how difficult his present circumstances may be. Philippians 3:13-14—“I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Most of us will probably never know the tremendous weight of trying to serve as a pastor and encourager to so many different congregations, all within their relative infancy, while also speaking out against false and harmful doctrines that distort Biblical truth. But whatever the nature of the stress we are facing in our Christian walk, we can calm our hearts, and correct our perspectives, by asking God to remind us of the long-term and even eternal implications of each moment.

Barnabas

All of us can also use a good friend to help in those most challenging of moments. Paul develops many special friendships during his missionary career, and one of the most noteworthy is with Barnabas. We first learn about him at the end of Acts 4. There we discover the two most essential things about Barnabas’ character. First, he is someone who likes to build others up. His very name means “son of encouragement.” We also hear of his generosity, as he immediately takes the proceeds of some land he’s sold, and rather than just giving a portion to the church, he donates all of the money to the Apostles. That such generosity is not the status quo or to be taken for granted is evidenced by the very next chapter. Ananias and Sapphira also sell land, but only give a portion to the church, and are apparently deceitful about their intents, which leads to a Divine judgment on them and their subsequent deaths. We should also remember that in a time when the early church is starting to face increasing persecution from the Roman authorities, it would have been very easy for Barnabas, or any other Christian to have a fearful mindset, where uncertainty would drive them to hold tightly onto whatever resources they had. Barnabas’ generous spirit, by contrast, reveals the heart of someone who is fully trusting God, regardless of what the external circumstances are!

Barnabas ends up accompanying Paul on several mission trips, but then they have a disagreement as recorded at the end of Acts 15. Paul wants to revisit numerous cities where they had previously preached the Gospel, and Barnabas wants to bring a young man named John Mark along with them. But Paul strongly objects, because this same John Mark had earlier been on a mission trip with them, but had left prematurely to return home, and Paul possibly considers him unreliable now. I have to imagine though that as an encourager, Barnabas advocates for giving John Mark a second chance. The disagreement reaches the point where the two men decide to part ways and travel separately, Paul taking Silas as a missionary companion, while Barnabas travels with John Mark. While Paul may have had further reasons unknown to us as to why he felt John Mark was unsuitable to travel with them, I again think that Barnabas’ natural gift for encouragement meant that he was more likely to be sympathetic towards even those who perhaps weren’t as spiritually mature or committed yet. For those of us who’ve sometimes felt more like a John Mark than a Paul, it’s comforting to know that there are Barnabas-type people out there who are willing to give us a second chance!!

In sharing these stories, I am of course only scratching the surface of the vast treasury of Scripture. And while it is vitally important for us to affirm the Biblical truth that we have a God who chooses to intervene in history in unique, miraculous, and strategic ways, we also have those other instances where He simply empowers His children to make a difference in daily life! And they do so, not on the back of any sort of miraculous power or event, but by exercising qualities that each one of us has. But when we take our humility, courage, faith amidst stress, persistence, eternal perspective, encouragement and generosity, and harness these traits to God’s purposes and power, amazing, and even miraculous things can happen! These stories from the lives of Moses, David, Esther, Jeremiah, Paul, and Barnabas attest that perhaps the prerequisites for a miracle are sometimes those same “ordinary” traits that we each have within us. Dramatic miracles may get our attention, but the steady, patient work of God through men and women in every day circumstances is celebrated throughout Scripture, and continues to take place around the world today. These are indeed everyday miracles, which we can be a part of! So will we choose this year to be like some of these great men and women of the Bible, and allow God to take our limited abilities to do something so much greater? If so, we too may find ourselves at the intersection of where the ordinary can become something altogether different…even miraculous! 

Lyrical reflections for Advent, part 2

 

For my December blog post last year, I looked at several favorite Christmas carols, and then discussed how the lyrics of these different songs helped prepare my heart to welcome Christ anew during Advent–the season of anticipation leading up to Christmas. I decided to again use some of the songs of Christmas to help prepare myself in this late 2020 to welcome what is for me a desperately-longed for December 25th. It has been a rigorous year of pandemics and shut-downs, including enforced absences from so much of our usual human contact with family and friends. As a result, the comfort of the message of Jesus’ coming into the world amidst the dark and cold of winter is perhaps even more meaningful than ever. One of the ways that I have always most connected with the story and message of the birth of Christ is through the tremendous variety of beautiful and moving pieces of music that have celebrated His Nativity down through the ages. As I get older, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more not just those timeless and familiar Christmas songs like “Silent Night”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, or “Away in a Manger” that I grew up with, but also some of the rich tradition of Christmas music from other parts of the world. These different lyrical reflections all serve to remind us that at its heart, Christmas remains the celebration of a great mystery that has enthralled and captivated our souls since those long-ago shepherds and Magi first paid homage to an infant king. The life-changing truth of the Incarnation–that is the idea of the very God actually making His home with us, and coming down to share our time and space, remains at the holy core of Christmas. It’s a miracle so unique, and inspiring, as well as comforting in the way that it speaks to our human suffering, loneliness and despair, that no amount of Christmas commercialism or secular encroachment from Santa Claus or anyone else could ever fully extinguish this sacred flame which burns at the heart of the holiday. The wondrous mystery of the Incarnation is to me perhaps best captured in a single verse of Scripture, John 1:14—“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

 

What Was Mary and Joseph's Journey to Bethlehem Like? — Joy In Truth

The glorious dream of God actually becoming man, and leaving the starry heavens to share human life in the mud, dirt and brokenness of earth, right alongside the humblest of us, is one that never ceases to inspire people across different cultures and time periods. And I truly believe that this core spiritual truth, although often underappreciated or perhaps not fully recognized by millions who celebrate December 25th, is still a significant reason why so many human hearts respond to this cherished winter festival. Even the avowedly secular, and people coming from non-Christian religious backgrounds seem to find something to like about Christmas, and while they would not necessarily admit it, I think this proves the venerable old truth of Ecclesiastes 3:11—“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” In the midst of a time of year where, across the Northern Hemisphere at least, so much is dying, and landscape is bleak, the days short and dark, we all have an innate need to connect to some source of life and light that still remains. And that is what Christmas offers—with the miracle of the Incarnation of Christ giving us the chance to celebrate the arrival of the One True God into our midst. Not surprisingly then, so many Christmas songs celebrate this fact, and I now want to share from just a few from around the world that I’ve come to know and love, but perhaps are a little less known here in America.

 

Adam and Eve and the Original Sin – Stock Editorial Photo © jorisvo  #102765594

I’ll start with an ancient, 15th century English Christmas song “Adam lay ybounden”. The song, written in Middle English, celebrates a theological concept known as felix culpa, Latin for “blessed fault.” It’s the idea that despite the devastating introduction of death and the curses that resulted from the sin of the Fall, God also was working in that very moment to bring about eventual redemption through Christ. And so in a rather counter-intuitive fashion humanity’s original sin was actually a blessing in disguise, as it allowed God’s redemptive plan to then be set into motion, a plan that culminated with the coming of Christ into the world.  The theological viewpoint expressed in the carol is further supported by the remarkable prophecy found Genesis 3:15, where God speaks to the Serpent regarding the future salvific of Jesus: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”  In the song itself, the first two stanzas lament Adam’s long wait for redemption through the coming of a Messiah to efface the effects of that first sin. “Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond; Four thousand winter thought he not too long/And all was for an apple, an apple that he took/As clerkës finden written in their book.”

But then the carol turns to focus on the blessings which God wrought even out of the chaos of the fall: “Ne {never} had the apple taken been, the apple taken been, Ne had never Our Lady, A-been heaven’s queen. Blessed be the time that apple taken was! Therefore we may singen Deo gratias [thanks to God]!” As the lyrics relate, Mary could not have become blessed as the mother of Jesus, nor would any of us have experienced the miracle of God’s redemptive love in Christ, or known the forgiveness offered as His blood was shed at Calvary…had not first the need for all this arisen because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Perhaps it’s not everyone’s idea of obvious subject matter for a Christmas song, but I love how “Adam lay ybounden” takes us all the way back to the beginning, to celebrate God using even our greatest mistakes to propagate His own glory in the world through Jesus. Furthermore the connection the song makes between Christ and Adam is a very Scriptural one. Paul repeatedly describes Jesus’ salvific work in terms of comparison to the first man. Thus Jesus is regarded as a second or “last” Adam. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22:—“For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”

 

Martin Luther, Musizieren mit seiner Familie, Weihnachten, 1536  Stockfotografie - Alamy

Another Christmas song that expresses some deep Scriptural truths about the Incarnation was written by no less illustrious a personage than Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. Luther, in addition to being an eminent theologian, was also known as a hymn-writer of significant ability. His most famous composition in the English-speaking world is no doubt “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, which has always been one of my personal favorites, but Luther was also responsible for penning a Christmas classic that is quite well known in Germany—“Vom Himmel Hoch, da komm ich her” (I come here from heaven above) The song uniquely examines the birth of Christ from two different perspectives: heavenly and earthly. In fact, Luther supposedly envisioned that when his Christmas song was performed publically, the first five verses would be sung by a man dressed in angelic garb, as they are written from the point of an angelic visitor from heaven who is coming to share the good news of Jesus’ birth with the inhabitants of earth. The remaining verses were then to be sung by children, with their innocence and purity of heart, they strive to welcome Jesus with all joyfulness. The first verse begins with the angel’s good news: “From heaven above to earth I come, to bear good news to every home/Glad tidings of great joy I bring/Whereof I now will say and sing:” Then a few stanzas later, in verse 3, Luther seeks to solidify his description of the miracle of Christ’s birth, and specifically why it is good news for all of us here on earth. “’Tis Christ our God who far on high/Hath heard your sad and bitter cry; Himself will your Salvation be/Himself from sin will make you free.” The next line continues: “He brings those blessings, long ago, prepared by God for all below/Henceforth His kingdom open stands/To you, as to the angel bands.” And then we hear in their stanzas, the children, with modesty and love for Jesus echoing the feelings of devotion and unworthiness that so many Christians have sensed before the awe-inspiring miracle of the Incarnation: “Welcome to earth, Thou noble guest/through whom e’en wicked men are blest/Thou com’st to share our misery, what can we render, Lord, to Thee!”

The carol continues later—“Ah! dearest Jesus, Holy Child/Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled/Within my heart, that it may be/A quiet chamber kept for Thee.” Luther’s joy in this, the arrival of a Savior, who would give up His glory to come to us in our human need, is one that we can easily share in. And the Apostle Paul expresses a similar position in Philippians 2:6-7: “[Jesus)” Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Hymns like Vom Himmel Hoch help to remind us that in our meditations on the miracle of the Incarnation, remembering the pre-existence of Christ is so critical. A new Savior isn’t simply born into a human body in a Bethlehem manger, but rather He who was is and always will be God, actively relinquishes the glory of heaven to come down, and redeem us from our miseries here on earth.

 

 

en belen tocan a fuego. villancicos. rin rin. b - Comprar en todocoleccion  - 49086201

Another beautiful song of Christmas, which comes to us from Spain, narrates how various elements of Creation itself celebrate the coming of Christ. It’s entitled, “En Belen tocan a fuego” (roughly—“In Bethlehem a fire begins”). The song builds off the idea of bells tolling to announce a fire, but in this case the flames are heavenly, signifying Christ’s coming. The first verse announces the good news: “In Bethlehem a fire begins/From the manger come the flames/For they say He was born, the redeemer of souls.” Fire of course has a long association with God from throughout the Bible, going back to the Old Testament, and its use as a marker of God’s presence while He led the Children of Israel through the Egyptian wilderness. Later, John the Baptist heralds Jesus’ coming, proclaiming in Matthew 3:11—“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And then in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit’s entrance amongst Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost is marked by the appearance of tongues of fire hovering above each head in that room. The song goes on to chronicle in its chorus how other elements of the natural world celebrate the arrival of the Savior: “Fish in the river jump and dance/they jump and dance to see God’s birth/Fish in the water jump and dance/They jump and dance to see the dawn’s birth.” A later verse adds: “The Virgin washes clothes, and hangs them on the rosemary bush/The birds sang, and the water flowed rejoicing.” Some may object to these fanciful imaginings of animals and inanimate flames and water rejoicing at the Messiah’s birth, but don’t forget that Paul personifies all of the physical world as trembling in anticipation for God’s redemptive work to be completed in Romans 8. Verse 19: “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the songs of God.” And then then Romans 8:21-22—“Because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”

 

O Holy Night - Pat Dennis - Cokesbury Church

 I want to close by revisiting a familiar hymn in its original language. “O Holy Night” was a 19th century French composition whose original title is “Cantique de Noël”—(“Song of Christmas.”) Although it’s a beautiful, and very moving song in any version thanks in part to the breathtaking score of Adolphe Adam, a literal translation of the original French lyrics of Placide Cappeau reveal with great clarity the miraculous truth of the Incarnation of Christ, as celebrated from the framework of a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve—{“Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour/When God as man descended unto us to erase the stain of original sin/And to end the wrath of His Father/The entire world thrills with hope on this night that gives it a Savior.” And given the magnificent realization that our salvation has entered the world in the form of this little child, the next verse calls us to check our pride, in humble adoration of the King born in a manger: “May the ardent light of our Faith guide us all to the cradle of the infant/As in ancient times a brilliant star guided the Oriental kings there/The King of Kings was born in a humble manger; O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness/It is to your pride that God preaches/Bow your heads before the Redeemer!” What a beautiful summation of the joy of God becoming man, along with the correspondingly worshipful attitude that we should display in coming before the Lord. 

 

Carroll Brown's Old-Fashioned Christmas — The Roasting Room

I could of course share from many more Christmas carols, songs and hymns found the world over, which each in their own unique and beautiful way are striving to communicate the age old and sublime truth of Christ’s coming. These songs of Christmas never grow old, and it seems I discover some new ones every year. It is as if by unspoken accord, the peoples of the world recognize their desire to continue to celebrate in familiar but also changing ways the unchanging nature and glory of God. Hebrews 13:8 assures us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” To celebrate His birth in song is to connect ourselves anew to the source of this miracle each year, in that very time of darkness, decay, and fatigue at the end of the calendar when we need it most. Christmas songs can teach and reinforce for us some of the profound theology of the Incarnation, but at the same time they’re also just fun to sing, connecting us  as so many do with the traditions of the past. Christmas carols also provide for us the opportunity to fulfill that most natural of needs that everyone from the angels in heaven, to those humble first shepherds, and billions of the people in the world today have when they have their own encounter with the Christ—to come and worship!!

Matthew 5:43-48–“Loving until it hurts”

The passage I want to discuss in this post is Matthew 5:43-48, from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. It represents one of Christ’s best-known teachings–for even people who have only a passing familiarity with the life and work of Jesus probably know that one of His commandments to His followers was for them to love their enemies. A simple teaching, and yet to put it into practice embodies one of the greatest challenges imaginable in the spiritual realm. Reading this passage again raised a question What’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done? Such an inquiry his sent my mind in a bunch of different directions. It’s so challenging in part because my answer to this question has changed during various stages in my life. Growing up, I tended to think of hard things asbeing synonymous with physical feats of endurance—tests of will and strength. Doing something hard was climbing Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen, as I once read about in a mountaineering book describing the alpine feats of the legendary climber Reinhold Messner. Or “hard” was the tenacity displayed by my favorite football players, the ones I looked up as I myself donned a helmet and shoulder pads. They played on despite injury, impervious to the pain, willing themselves and their team to victory. In my own modest athletic career, I think some of the hardest feats of endurance I ever performed were simply surviving those summer football practices in the Alabama weather—only slightly less humid than the Amazon Rainforest!

But then as I got a little older, particularly in college and then into graduate school—”hard began” to be defined in other ways, such as intellectual challenges and achievements. The years of schooling, particularly the intensity of work during my history PhD program, made me think that the hardest things were perhaps the feats of the mind. But now as I’ve grown a little older, and experienced still more of life, I see that the hardest things that I’ve ever done, or could hope to do are those challenges of the spirit, which test our morals, character, and spiritual perseverance. Track and field athlete Lolo Jones, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, and who is also a strong believer, said this about the most difficult challenge she’s ever faced: “If there’s virgins out there, I’m going to let them know, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life—harder than training for the Olympics, harder than graduating from college, has been to stay a virgin before marriage.” I suspect that many of us can identify with her, and understand the challenge of facing a trial of the spirit.

In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus calls us to love the very people we don’t want to, the people who it even hurts for us to love, because of what they’ve done to us:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Now we first notice that Jesus starts this passage with a phrase that’s repeated throughout the Sermon on the Mount–“you have heard it said…” Christ is taking what was the standard, accepted Jewish wisdom according to the law, but then He’s changing it. Sometimes people misunderstand Jesus’ relationship with the law, as though Christ were coming to basically say, “you don’t need these outdated rules anymore, it’s just all about love.” But that’s really a caricature of His position, because we have Jesus on record, from earlier in this same Sermon on the Mount, upholding the Law with the highest sense of respect. Matthew 5:17—“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” If anything, what we see throughout this message is that Jesus is taking what’s expected of Jews through the Law—the minimum standard, and calling them to a higher, more demanding level of observance. So in some ways it’s a new teaching, but we could also say that what Jesus is really doing is simply trying to show His Jewish audience what the real intent and goal of the law has been all along. Let’s start with verses 43, and 44 here. When Jesus tells the crowd to love their enemies, as shocking as that may be, He’s only echoing part of the law given to Moses centuries before. Listen to God’s strict injunction from Leviticus 19:34—“The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” I love that verse—far from being able to see themselves as this special, privileged group to whom the ordinary rules don’t apply, God tells the Israelites that they must display no discrimination against foreign peoples, and He further urges them to remember their own story of being the foreign minority in a strange land. Furthermore, the Old Testament law doesn’t just provide for the Jews to have amicable relationships with those peoples around them who are friendly—it applies to their sworn enemies too! Deuteronomy 23:7—“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.” Without getting too deeply into the historical context here, we can safely say that the children of Israel were not exactly fond of these two neighboring nations—Edom and Egypt. They were pagan peoples, and had fought against them before—the Egyptians had of course enslaved them, and then the Edomites had denied the Jews passage through their land during the time of wandering in the wilderness. But God tells them they have no right to hate these Edomites or the Egyptians. To give us some contemporary context, it would be like the President coming up and saying—“Americans should regard all North Koreans as our brothers, just as we embrace in fraternal loyalty the great nations of Russia and Iran.” That would sound a little strange, wouldn’t it! And it would be hard to do!

Dirk Willems rescuing his captor

But again, Jesus calls us all to a higher standard. And if we go back to verse 43, this phrase “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” is an interesting one. You won’t actually find it anywhere in Scripture, and so that’s why Jesus is very specific in His description. He doesn’t say “it is written”, but “you have heard it said”…in other words, Christ is referring to the common misinterpretation of the law that had crept in over the years. The Jews thought, as we do sometimes, that we could love some, but turn our back on those who’d wronged us. But what does it look like when we choose to follow the Jesus way, and do something radically different? Dirk Willems was a Dutch Anabaptist who lived in the mid-16th century. Now the Anabaptists were a group that emerged from the Reformation, which many scholars believe were the forefathers of the modern Baptist church. They became known for rejecting the practice of infant baptism, instead advocating an adult believer’s baptism. As a result of this belief however, they were sadly persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics. So Willems, as an Anabaptist leader, was caught and imprisoned by Dutch Catholics. However he eventually escaped from prison and was fleeing across a frozen moat when a prison guard began chasing him. Malnourished, and lighter from the scant prison rations, Willems was able to run across the ice and was getting away, when he suddenly heard the screams of his pursuer who had broken through into the freezing water below. Remarkably, at that moment, Willems turned back to save the life of the very man who was chasing him. The guard was grateful and would have let him go, but his supervising officer, standing on the shore, sternly ordered him to re-arrest his rescuer. And so a few months later, Dirk Willems died, burned at the stake as a so-called heretic, but truly, someone who understood and lived out, to his own hurt, and eventually his own death, the command of Christ in Matthew 5:44. Because when we really absorb Jesus’ Words here, we learn that it gets a lot tougher than just holding ourselves to the standard of not hating our enemies. We are called to love enemies, bless them, do good to them, and pray for them. Really Jesus?? Wow!!

Now the thought currently going through your head may be a form of protest, something like this: “But God…our enemies, are our enemies, because of what they’ve done to us. We’ve carefully selected them out of all the people in the world, to call enemies because we have a good reason to dislike and even hate them. And even if we back down from hating them, they certainly don’t deserve love, blessings, good deeds, and prayer!” That’s the classic human perspective, one that we’ve all probably experienced at some point or another. But what about God’s perspective? We get some invaluable insight into that from Matthew 5:45. There, we discover that the Lord, in His goodness, makes some common blessings available to all people, regardless of if they’re deserving or not. So the point isn’t that our enemies don’t deserve our blessings. God knows that better than anyone—but He also knows that we don’t deserve those same blessings any more than our most bitter, implacable enemy. Now I realize this is a difficult teaching that may take a minute to sink in, but meditate on it for a moment. I’ll rephrase it—think of the worst, most despicable, sinful, horrible person you can imagine—no matter what heinous crimes they’ve done—and then realize that even the most dedicated Christ-followers, aren’t any more deserving of God’s blessings, and are in fact equally deserving of His condemnation and judgement. So in effect, we are all benefitting from the unconditional love and goodness of God—and it’s so much more than we deserve! This applies even to those people who won’t ever acknowledge God’s existence, and may even be actively working against His kingdom. But these same folks still get to enjoy some of the goodness of God which He pours out into the world at large.

Great Expectations Chapter 40 Summary | Study.com
Pip, as a young adult, finally meets his benefactor, Magwitch.

I have an academic background in British history, and so I’ve always been somewhat of an Anglophile. I particularly love the Victorian Era, and my all-time favorite author from this time period is Charles Dickens. One of Dickens’ most memorable novels is Great Expectations. The central character, named Pip, is someone whom we get to follow from his humble working-class origins, as he rises up in society, moving more and more into socially elite circles. Such social climbing doesn’t come cheap, however, and Pip’s lifestyle is liberally funded by an unknown and mysterious benefactor. He long assumes it’s someone fashionable, perhaps the eccentric old lady whom he gets to know—Miss Havisham. It turns out that it’s a shadowy figure from his past–the former convict Magwitch, whom Pip once brought food and supplies to when he was a young boy. When Pip finally learns who it is that has been funding his life for so long—the man to whom he owes his lifestyle, education, everything…he’s not particularly grateful, but moreso disgusted at the low social standing and disreputable origins of his long-time benefactor. The novel illustrates the truth that we can be blessed by someone without even knowing it, or without even caring to acknowledge with our gratitude, the generosity of the giver.

Yet how many of us have been just like this at times, in our attitude towards the Lord? But we must remember that God, in His turn, whether we acknowledge Him and show gratitude or not, never owes us. And there are plenty of examples from Scripture of this. You can read the Book of Job, which I highly recommend…42 chapters of a good man suffering, his friends trying to provide answers which prove incomplete, and all the while, Job is waiting, praying, desperate to finally hear God speak, who’s been silent for most of the book. And then finally the Lord responds…but not in the way Job is expecting. God never gives Job an answer or an explanation for all of the trials and sufferings he’s had to endure…because despite the undeniable traumas that he’s undergone, and despite keeping his faith, and living righteously—Job isn’t owed anything from God!! Jesus considers it in a slightly different way in Luke 17:9—“Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not, So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.” And this is what Jesus is driving at in Matthew 5:46-47. If we simply love the very people whom it’s easy for us to love, and then expect God to take notice, we’re missing the point. Jesus is saying that if we truly want to win a reward from the Lord, we must go above and beyond what is typical, expected, easy, or even natural for us to do!!

This brings us to the last verse in the passage, Matthew 5:48. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Now at first glance, this verse sounds impossible to live up to. But I have a couple of observations that may help us as we unpack the meaning. First, by calling us to be perfect in the manner of our Heavenly Father, Jesus is seeking to prevent us from focusing our moral compass on comparisons with others. As long as we can make someone else and their flawed behavior the standard, we can effectively let ourselves off the hook, because of course you can always find another person who you look good in comparison with. But what if the standard of comparison is a bit more elevated…infinitely so! I read a very interesting book once—it’s called The 100, a ranking of the most influential persons in history, by Michael Hart. It’s one of those books that if two people read it and then start a discussion, there’s probably going to be some kind of argument, based on where certain persons ranked, or didn’t rank. But there’s one phrase from the book that has always stuck in my mind. The author, Hart, to my knowledge is not a Christian, and he didn’t even rate Jesus number one in the book—Christ being a mere 3rd, behind Muhammad and Sir Isaac Newton, actually.

But Hart, with his outsider’s perspective, cited Matthew 5:43-44 as the most distinctive of all Jesus’ teachings. Then he wrote, rather disparagingly, “Most Christian consider the injunction to “love your enemy” as—at most—an ideal which might be realized in some perfect world, but one which is not a reasonable guide to conduct in the actual world we live in. We do not normally practice it, do not expect others to practice it, and do not teach our children to practice it. Jesus’ most distinctive teaching, therefore, remains an intriguing but basically untried suggestion. I remember when I first read those words, I felt slightly insulted. How dare this outsider claim that Christians don’t always take their faith, or the Words of Jesus seriously! But while I know this is just one man’s opinion, I think Hart does have a point. Many of us, myself included, have failed at times to live out this most radical of Christ’s commands, and so perhaps there are plenty of non-believers who have never really been able to see the witness of someone who is embracing a radically different life for Jesus. But maybe, at the same time, there’s something else here that an outsider, and non-believer like Hart, could have failed to recognize. By calling us to do something nearly that is impossible via our normal human nature, like love our enemies, and by further saying that our standard is to be perfect, just as God is, Jesus is leading us towards a natural impasse. If we are called to do seemingly impossible things, and live up to an impossible standard, and then we strive to do this through our own efforts, we will undoubtedly fall miserably short. But this process of failure can then reveal to us the only possible way for success—to give ourselves completely over to the power of God, working in us through Christ. It’s the same spiritual journey that the Apostle Paul goes on in some of my favorite verses, Ephesians 2:8-10. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

Gary Ridgway: The Green River Killer | by The True Crime Times | Medium
Robert Rule and Gary Ridgeway

It becomes obvious then that we can never be good enough to save ourselves, and that the only way to achieve the perfection of which Jesus speaks in Mathew 5:48 is to receive the forgiveness and righteousness of someone infinitely greater than ourselves. This is what Christ gives us—the ability to actually strive towards the perfection of the Heavenly Father, knowing that it will never be completed until one day in heaven. But along the way, that progress can take us to some pretty amazing places spiritually, and even allow us to do some of the hardest things imaginable. Robert Rule was a grandfatherly-looking man, with a long white, Santa Claus beard. And in 2003 he sat in a Seattle courtroom with representatives from dozens of other families. They were drawn together in a common, but terrible bond. All of these families had lost loved ones to the murderous rampage of Gary Ridgeway, known as the Green River Killer, and the most prolific serial killer in American history. But Robert Rule, as a follower of Jesus, was able to address this wicked man who had brought him such pain, in the eye, and say the following: “Mr. Ridgway, there people here who hate you, I’m not one of them. I forgive you for what you have done. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and what God says to do, and that is to forgive. And he doesn’t say to forgive certain people, he says to forgive all. So you are forgiven, sir.”

Christ Crucified–Diego Velazquez

Jesus didn’t just forgive certain people—like the ones who were really attentive to His messages, or who patiently followed Him around Galilee. In Luke 23:34, in the midst of the agony of the Crucifixion, Christ forgives His very tormentors, and executioners. In the end—we forgive and love others not because it’s easy, but because Jesus gives us power to do so, and the witness of those who are brave enough to live out this most challenging of Christian tenets can truly change the world. But we forgive not just for the other person’s sake, but for our own sake too. As hard as it is to be reconciled with our enemies and to love them, the alternative—to hold on to that hate and let it coalesce into permanent bitterness and unrelenting anger, is much worse!!! Jesus offers this better way, but it’s only accessible to us when we realize the impossibility of ever arriving there under our own power. We are called to be perfect. We can’t be. But Jesus can, and He’s offering His hand out to us. As often as we will take it, our lives and the lives of those around us will be transformed. “You have heard it said…” But let’s listen instead, to what Jesus says. Amen!

A friend of mine–Mr. Charlie Lynn

I’ll admit that I’m not too much of a bluegrass fan, but the lyrics of one old song from the famed group the Foggy Mountain Boys recently caught my attention. It’s entitled “Give me the flowers (while I’m living)”. In this world today while we’re living, some folks say the worst of us they can/But when we are dead and in our caskets, they always slip some lilies in our hand/Won’t you give me my flowers while I’m living, and let me enjoy them while I can/Please don’t wait till I’m ready to be buried, and then slip some lilies in my hand/In this world is where we need our flowers, a kind word to help us get along/If you can’t give me flowers while I’m living, then please don’t throw them when I’m gone”

 

78 RPM - Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs And The Foggy Mountain Boys - Give Me Flowers While I'm Living / Till The End Of The World Rolls Round - CBS Coronet Western - Australia - KW-028

                I’ve been thinking about these lyrics lately, and the importance of sharing with people how we really feel about them, while they’re still around to appreciate it! I recently had a blog post talking about the tremendous influence my parents have had on my life, and my work in ministry. And while of course no one else can replicate or fill the unique position of a godly father and mother, I do count myself as extremely fortunate to have had other significant spiritual influences in my life. I’ve talked before about some different spiritual mentors, most of whom were pastors, and ministerial staff. But there are other key people in my life, whom, through their friendship, extraordinary personality, and the example of their lifestyle, have left an indelible impression on me for the better.

 

Charlie with his dog Sandy

 

One such person, who I want to talk about today is Mr. Charlie Lynn. I have known Mr. Lynn since I was growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, as a teenager, and he is now well into his 90’s, so we go quite a ways back! But throughout all this time, I would say that one of the things that stands out to me about Charlie is his remarkable consistency. Some people just never seem to change, and Mr. Lynn’s personality and character seem to me to be exactly the same as I remember when I first met him. Although we were both members of the same church, First Baptist Montgomery, because it is such a large congregation, we really didn’t know one another until I was in the eighth grade. Charlie, along with his good friend Jimmy Baldwin were the teachers for my eighth grade Sunday school class. Now working as I do in campus ministry, I’m familiar with the concept of having to develop teaching material that will engage young people and keep their attention, but I can fairly say that I don’t think any group of college students I’ve worked with would be half as challenging to keep focused as a room full of eighth grade boys!! Yet I can still remember fondly my experiences in Sunday school with the Lynn/Baldwin class. And I think it’s because as teachers, they did three things extremely well. First, they always gave us some space at the beginning of class to just be ourselves. And like most boys of that age growing up in the Deep South, our free time conversations before class began would almost always revolve around sports. Mr. Baldwin was a die-hard Auburn fan, while Charlie “bleeds crimson” as one of the University of Alabama’s most dedicated supporters (full disclosure—I’m with him all the way—Roll Tide!). We had some great conversations with our teachers about college football, college basketball, or whatever sports were going on at the time. In addition to letting us be ourselves, I always appreciated that both men treated us like young adults, rather than kids who had to be disciplined or constantly monitored. Although often as middle schoolers you’re feeling awkward, uncertain, and anything but confident and mature, to have people you respect you like an adult, while also expressing confidence in you, can do wonders for your subliminal emotional and spiritual development. And when it came time to share from Scripture, and give us some spiritual encouragement, Mr. Lynn took that very seriously too. Even though he was always smiling and had a great sense of humor, it was clear throughout that year of 8th grade Sunday school that Charlie Lynn was a man of consistent and unwavering faith.

 

I would discover even more about my friend’s faith walk when I got a little older. During the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I started helping out as a volunteer at the First Baptist Montgomery “Caring Center.” Under the leadership of our gifted Director of Community Ministries, Mrs. Jane Ferguson, FBC Montgomery took full advantage of its downtown location to run a large outreach ministry to those in need from around the local community. The Caring Center included a clothing store, and a food pantry, as well as various children’s programs, tutoring, counseling, and other community development groups. But helping out in the food pantry is where I came to know Charlie Lynn even better. At that time, in the mid to late 90’s, he was part of a close-knit group of older, retired gentlemen who faithfully came to the Caring Center at least once a week to give out food to those in need. Others who I remember over the years included Borum Bishop, Gene MacArthur, Hop Hopkins, Buddy Brendle, Curt Beasley, Dave Morris, and my other former 8th grade Sunday School teacher—Jimmy Baldwin. Some of these men were veterans of either World War Two or the Korean War, and they all shared a tremendous work ethic, which meant that even in their golden years there was no desire to retire to the beach or the golf course. Rather, they chose to stay active in living out their faith by helping others.

 

With Charlie and another great food shop volunteer, Jeff Mayton

In the setting of the Caring Center, I saw a whole different side to Mr. Lynn, as he became one of the most effective “people persons” I have ever seen. Seeing hundreds of individuals coming through the food pantry on a busy, and humid summer day, many of them in desperate financial shape, and needing much more than the relatively modest amount of food, clothing, and financial assistance we were able to provide, could be a draining experience. In addition, the Caring Center clients were sometimes understandably frustrated, having dealt with all kinds of economic, health, and family problems, not to mention the stress of trying to navigate through the maze of different aid agencies and programs, to determine their eligibility and what benefits would be best for themselves and their families. But in this atmosphere Charlie Lynn stood as an example of the most heartfelt, and gregarious Christian presence that I’ve ever been fortunate enough to be around. He was known in the food shop as the “bread man”, because every Friday morning he would rise no later than 3am to head over a local bakery which donated bread for the Caring Center. There, because of the personal relationships he forged over the years, he’d be able to get the pick of the production line to take back to the church, and would spent time later that morning getting all the bread unloaded and stored in the food shop. In addition to bread, he would pick up snack cakes and other baked treats, and then all of these goodies would be ready and waiting by Wednesday, the day when the food pantry was open to the public.

 

Charlie and I during a visit at his home in Montgomery

Charlie was willing to do this behind the scenes service that few people outside those in the food pantry even knew about, because he so loved the opportunity to be able to make weary people happy, and to bring a smile to their face, at least temporarily. Even though I had no idea at the time that I would one day work in ministry, watching Mr. Lynn in the food pantry during my teenage years, I was receiving a master class in how to be a “people person”, and lift others’ spirits even amidst some challenging circumstances. In the food pantry, Mr. Lynn would fill any role needed—I’ve seen him as a man in his early 90’s still being willing to push a grocery cart full of food out to the car for a family on a sweltering Alabama summer day. If that’s not being the hands and feet of Jesus for someone else, then I don’t know what is!! Often Mr. Lynn would help sign in new clients as they entered the food pantry. I hardly ever saw someone fail to smile after he’d engage with them. He always had a compliment—with people who wore the colors of the Alabama Crimson Tide being singled out for special praise! Charlie would take time always to offer everyone extra bread, and children were always given special sweets he had saved from his bakery runs. Clients and co-workers alike also laughed, and were touched by his folksy sayings. Some of our favorites included: “I love you, and the Good Lord loves you even more!”…“The Good Lord take a liking to you!”…”You have a greeee-aaaat day buddy!” “God bless you buddy”. Sometimes, especially on busy days we would have “walk-ins” to the food shop–that is people who didn’t yet qualify to receive groceries according to our records, but were in need, or transients who perhaps didn’t even live in Montgomery, but were in the process of trying to travel somewhere else. Charlie had such a big heart that he would never let someone like this go away empty handed. He’d personally ensure that they received a grocery bag piled high with bread and canned goods—rules and regulations were never going to stop him from showing compassion and helping others!

I’ve volunteered at the Caring Center on and off for more than 20 years now. Even after I moved away from Montgomery, I’d always try to make a visit back there when I could, and after he retired my dad became a regular food shop volunteer too! Throughout all the different ministries I’ve been engaged with, I’m probably as proud of my time at the Caring Center as any other place. Part of that of course is the fulfilment that comes with getting to serve others in the way that Jesus urges us to in Matthew 25. But another significant part of my enjoyment has come from getting to associate and serve alongside people like Mr. Lynn. I’ve already mentioned how his easy, outgoing manner put even people going through very stressful moments at ease, and also brought a lot of laughter to the food shop. But there are many other things that I’ve observed from Charlie that I now try to emulate in my own campus ministry role. He has a true servant’s heart. As I’ve said, he is willing to take on any role needed when we’ve served together in the food shop—including pushing out grocery carts into the jungle-like humidity of an Alabama summer day to help load a client’s car! And whereas some people seem to relish being served or waited on the older they get, Mr. Lynn is just the opposite! He’s always trying to do something for another person. I don’t think there was hardly a day ever when I’ve helped in the food shop where Charlie didn’t try to give me extra bread or dessert items to take home. And he would never come back from one of his frequent visits to the Coke machine without cradling an armful of sodas that he’d picked up for others to enjoy. Charlie’s life has also demonstrated tremendous faithfulness and consistency. As I mentioned in the outset, he’s one of those people who seems to me to be exactly the same as from the time I first got to know them. And this is a tribute, I believe to his steady, daily walk with the Lord. Faithfulness for Charlie means things like making that 3am wakeup call each week to go pick up bread from the bakery, even though he could have easily delegated this task to a younger person years ago. Faithfulness also meant that when his beloved wife, Mrs. Johnnie Lynn, had to move into an assisted living facility, Charlie visited her literally every day for countless months. Charlie’s consistency has been demonstrated by his being one of the only regular Caring Center volunteers who’s been serving continuously now for decades. There is understandably a lot of turnover with volunteer ministry positions—people lose interest, get busy with other pursuits, or sometimes get burned out. The bottom line is, as I remember a pastor friend telling me a long time ago—that one of the continual challenges in ministry is to locate, motivate, and maintain volunteers. But occasionally someone like Charlie comes along—who’d be any volunteer-run ministry’s dream. He’s always available, always on-time, and always ready to help others.

 

Photo of Charlie as the young war hero

And in doing this he expects nothing in return. Now you may be thinking “of course, after all he is volunteering for a ministry role!” Yet in my experience, churches are certainly not immune from the general human phenomenon whereby the more time someone invests into an activity or an organization, the more of a right they feel they have to influence or even govern how it’s run. But for all of the countless hours he’s spent serving others at FBC Montgomery, there’s no trace of a desire in Charlie to leverage that time into greater influence or power when it comes to church policies or decision-making. He’s always had a true servant heart, and the accompanying humility that’s a hallmark of that trait. Charlie’s humility means that there are some pretty significant aspects of his life that he would hardly even mention. I knew him for some time before I even realized that he had been a war hero—as a teenager, serving as a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber flying combat mission in World War Two over Germany. It’s just not something he talks about—he’d rather instead direct the attention to encouraging someone else, or blessing others. Charlie has accomplished some pretty remarkable things in his life, as a man who fought for his country, raised a fine family, ran a successful business, and most importantly served Jesus faithfully through his local church. But he’s always preferred to have the spotlight be on others.

 

Framed montage of some of Charlie’s war-related memorabilia, made for him by his grandchildren

As I grow older, and realize that ageing brings its own unique challenges as well as blessings, I can appreciate more too the ways in which I’ve seen Charlie handle adversity in his life. Because for all of his happy-go-lucky demeanor, and warm personality, Mr. Lynn has had to walk through some tremendous valleys over the years. He’s lived to see two of his four children pass away, as well as his beloved wife, Mrs. Johnnie Lynn. But I’ve never heard him complain about the circumstances he’s faced in life, which I suspect is further evidence of the unshakeable bedrock of faith that he has at his core. I think too, that Charlie learned long ago a lesson that I once heard in a sermon—that the surest way to overcoming our own sorrow is to pour ourselves out in the service of others. One of Charlie’s grandsons once wrote a song in his honor, called “Charlie Lynn, the poor man’s friend.” I’ve come to think that this title is actually a very appropriate summary of his entire outlook on life, and certainly what he’s taught me as a Christian. Of course, Mr. Lynn has been there to help the economically poor at the Caring Center. But some of us are experiencing poverty of other kinds. There’s emotional poverty—we’re lonely and in need of a kind or encouraging word, and Charlie has been there for such people too. Others have grown poor through their experiences—they’ve had some hard knocks, and become jaded and cynical about the goodness of people in this world. Such individuals just need to spend a few minutes in the presence of someone like Charlie Lynn to maybe have their minds changed!

 

My most recent visit with Mr. Lynn this summer–we kept our social distance protocol, but it was such a blessing to get to see him!

I highlighted earlier how Charlie has his favorite sayings which both his friends and new acquaintances love to hear. As a whole, he excels in giving verbal encouragement to others. In doing so, he lives out the truth of Ephesians 4:29–“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” Neither myself, nor anyone else who knows him well could probably ever recall Charlie saying something negative about anyone! Instead always uses his words to lift others up! So many times he’s complimented me on my preaching, or some other aspect of my ministry work. And as soon as I moved to Colorado, my occasional visits back to the Caring Center were invariably punctuated with Charlie’s kindly, but exaggerated description of me as an “expert skier”. When I took the opportunity to send him a brief card of encouragement, or left him a voicemail wishing a happy birthday, this would occasion several weeks’ worth of compliments to my dad on his “fine son.” Of course, when I come back to visit the Caring Center and serve alongside my dad (and I can’t think of a better way to spend a day), we both get to enjoy the warmth of Charlie’s smile, and his compliments. We invariably talk about Alabama football, and although I never feel like I do it adequately, I try to express to Charlie what an impact he’s had on me. Even though our career trajectories and life paths have been different, I want to try and emulate the way he has lived out his walk with the Lord, through ups and downs, while always giving the focus and credit to others. Most of all, I hope this blog post in some small way can give Charlie a few “flowers” to enjoy now. To quote from that bluegrass song again—“Won’t you give me my flowers while I’m living, and let me enjoy them while I can/Please don’t wait till I’m ready to be buried, and then slip some lilies in my hand/In this world is where we need our flowers, a kind word to help us get along.” Charlie, to me and so many others, you’ve given us “flowers” enough—of Christ-like love, support, and encouragement to plant a garden. I want to say thank you now, and for you to know that I can think of no one else I’ve known who will one day more richly deserve to hear Christ’s words from Matthew 25:23—“Well done, good and faithful servant”. I love you, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to put these “flowers” of mine into print! But may they bloom for you, and remind you of the legacy that your kindness has left in my life and in so many others’ lives as well. God bless you, buddy!!

Discipleship: The Good Fight

 

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A central aspect of my work in campus ministry is discipleship. And whenever I think about this topic, one verse that my mind goes to quickly is 2 Timothy 2:1-2. I’ll be discussing more about those verses a bit later. But really the whole book of 2 Timothy is pretty amazing, and unique. It was probably the last letter Paul ever wrote, addressed to his beloved son in the faith, and protégé, Timothy. I’ve titled this blog post “The Good Fight”, based on another verse from this book–2 Timothy 4:7. There, Paul says “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

 

I want to talk for a minute about conflict, because it’s very apparent to me that we currently live in world, and in a society that is full of turmoil. There are demonstrations, protests, and conflicts that have taken place across the nation over the past several months in the name of combating racial inequality and injustice. Portland, Oregon has been the site of such continual protests every day now for the past 80 days. And then of course we’re in an election year, and if you haven’t already, you’ll soon start seeing and hearing more and more political ads, many of them negative and attack driven. So there’s heated conflict and division over which presidential candidate has the best vision and plan to lead America. And then of course—the elephant in the room…the one reality that’s been dominating all of our lives since March—COVID 19!! This pandemic has turned into not only a public health crisis, but a real source of conflict. All sorts of disagreements have been sparked from questions over how we should respond to the disease. Should schools be closed or opened? How should churches handle it? Here’s a big one for me—should we have college football or not? Sadly my beloved CU buffs aren’t playing this fall, while my Alabama Crimson Tide are planning on it. And these conflicts have not just been playing out in the public sphere, but for me, as I’m sure for many of you too—they’ve become personal, impacting our lives and careers. I work in campus ministry, formerly at CU-Boulder, and since late this spring, as the director for the Christian Challenge–the Baptist campus ministry, at the Colorado School of Mines. The School of Mines administration has made the decision to allow their students to return to in-person classes this fall. But in light of COVID concerns, there’s all sorts of restrictions. For the time being, the Mines administration has decided that they’re not going to allow any non-students onto campus. So while I understand the university’s desire to keep students as safe as possible, I’ve had to adjust to not being able to do an essential part of my job, which is to meet with these students, and spend time with them on the college campus.

 

The New Evangelization and Discipleship | Mother of the Americas Institute

In this time of conflict, and confusion—there’s a lot of stress that’s present, and we all have to prayerfully think about choosing our battles. Much of what’s familiar has been uprooted, and so what is left to hold onto, and what do we as Christians continue to fight for, when so much in our world seems uncertain, and the future is unknown? Paul, near the end of his own life when writing 2 Timothy, has a clear answer for us. There is a good fight that we can, and must continue—in fact it’s the only one that’s ultimately worth us giving our all to. And that is the fight of upholding the faith. Now this fight has two big components to it—in order to preserve and maintain our faith, we must be diligent in spreading it, and instructing people in it. The spreading part concerns evangelism. But in this post, I’m going to focus on that second aspect of maintaining our faith–discipleship. When I think about my work in campus ministry here in Colorado over the past six years, I can honestly say that nothing has brought me the level of satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment as engaging in discipleship has. One of the things I most look forward to every week during a typical semester are those times when I get to meet one-on-one with a student and read in Scripture together, pray with them, sometimes do evangelism, and just talk about life. Now one advantage of working with a smaller campus ministry is that it can be easier to offer people individual attention than if I were pastor at a church. But I firmly believe that just as we can practice discipleship on the micro, or personal level, we can also practice it on the macro level in the overall life of the congregation. Taking inspiration from Paul’s teaching in 2 Timothy 2:1-2, and then 2 Timothy 1:7, I want us to talk about what discipleship looks like, and how God empowers us to do it most effectively.

 

The question of what discipleship looks like, and what forms it can take, is an intriguing one, and we can look into Paul’s own life to give us a pretty remarkable example of how engaging in discipleship gives us purpose. We’ve already said that 2 Timothy is Paul’s last epistle. And here he is, an old man, who’s been such a hero of the faith, and has spent so much of his life investing himself in the needs of individuals, and of churches. Paul has triumphed over persecutions, and the purveyors of false doctrines, he’s survived internal conflicts within the leadership of the early church…and most amazing of all, he’s gone from being Saul, the enemy of Christians, to perhaps the single greatest missionary who ever lived. And so we might think that Paul would feel just the slightest bit entitled. Perhaps Paul might feel just the slightest inclination to say “Lord, I’ve kind of earned the right to live out my golden years on a beach, somewhere in the Mediterranean.” And if that’s the case, then we may think Paul could be a bit aggrieved that instead, he has to spend his final period of ministry, his retirement, if you will, in a prison cell! But throughout this entire letter, we don’t get the least hint of self-pity from the great Apostle. It’s really remarkable—his entire focus is on offering encouragement and sound Biblical instruction to Timothy. Now some of us are probably in a funk these days. With all the conflicts we’ve discussed, and COVID still raging, and election year blues, and maybe your favorite college football team isn’t even going to have a season…there’s plenty of reasons to feel a little down, and maybe even to wallow in some self-pity. But Paul proves himself again and again to be a master at surmounting the limitations of his own situation, and instead looking at the bigger picture, and what good things God may have in store for him beyond the immediate challenge or discouragement. After all, this is the man who said in Romans 8:18—“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” If we were to further press to find out the secret for how Paul is able to do this, I’d say it’s because he can consistently focus less on his own needs, and more on the needs of others.

Little house on the prairie. Charles Ingalls and Mr.Edwards | Little house, Old tv, Prairie

Isaiah Edwards and Charles Ingalls from “Little House on the Prairie”

 

During the past several months, my wife Melissa and I, like many of you, have been spending many evenings at home—with the COVID situation, and so much being shut down. And we’ve discovered some great old tv shows that we’ve enjoyed watching. Perhaps our very favorite is Little House on the Prairie—a classic from the 70s and early 80s starring Michael Landon. I’d highly recommend it to anyone–it’s a great, family-friendly drama, with so many episodes that teach Christian values and ethics, while dealing at times with some pretty tough issues. One episode I remember concerned a man named Isaiah Edwards. He was a close friend of the Ingalls family who were the show’s main characters. Mr. Edwards was a big bear of a man, always full of good humor, and a positive outlook on life. But all that changed after he was paralyzed from the waist down when a tree fell on him. Suddenly Mr. Edwards becomes immersed in a deep depression, despondent, and not sure if he even wants to go on living. Without full use of his legs, he considers himself a burden to others, and someone who no longer has a clear purpose in life. One day, Charles Ingalls, played by Michael Landon, takes Isaiah on a hunting trip in the woods to try and lift his spirits. Charles discovers that his friend is suicidal, and only waiting to find an opportune time when he can be alone with his gun to shoot himself. After praying for wisdom about what to do, Charles hatches a bold plan. He pretends to be injured, bleeding heavily, and he sends Isaiah to leave the woods quickly to go get medical aid. Thinking Charles to be seriously wounded, and now having a purpose to fulfill, Mr. Edwards forgets his earlier self-pity, and despite limited use of his legs, he makes his way out of the woods and brings back help. And while he’s angry at first to found out it had all been just a ruse, Isaiah Edwards then realizes that he can actually do much more than he thought, and that many of the limitations he had following his accident were self-imposed. When we realize that we have a purpose, and particularly when we can immerse ourselves into the rewards of helping others—this is often the surest way for us to escape feelings of despair or negativity. So it is with Paul—he’s finding purpose in his life by continuing to invest spiritually in Timothy. Paul doesn’t dwell on his imprisonment or think about his own weariness—he doesn’t want to waste any valuable time that could instead be used to have a Christ-centered impact on someone else’s life. Engaging in discipleship gives us this heavenly sense of purpose!!

 

The Good Samaritan Parable Teaches About Love

But some of you may be thinking what I’ve certainly thought in the past—how can I possibly disciple someone else in the faith when my own life is hardly an example, and when my own walk with Jesus is not yet what it should be? This is certainly a valid question, but Scripture has a clear answer for us. Look at 2 Timothy 2:1—“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” The key word for us to understand and absorb here is grace. You see, we don’t have to be perfect to help someone else—we just need to recognize our dependence on Christ, and point others towards the same. Do you know what a “Good Samaritan Law” is? Some form of these type of laws on are on the books in all 50 states. Taking their name from the Biblical parable in Luke 10, they all essentially have the same framework—to offer protection against any resulting liability for people who voluntarily offer assistance to others who are in peril.  Let’s say I pass someone who appears to be badly injured on the side of the road. I can stop to help them, even though I’m not medically-trained, and I don’t have to worry about repercussions if I make a mistake. The entire purpose of a Good Samaritan law is reduce our fear of lending aid to someone who needs it. What these laws in effect are saying is—don’t worry if you can’t help someone perfectly, it’s more important that you make the effort. Discipleship is a little like this—God isn’t looking for perfect exemplars of the faith to pass it on to others—because there are no such people. But He is looking for ordinary Christians to be willing to invest in someone else’s life, to help them, listen to their problems, and above all—turn them towards Jesus at every possible opportunity!! In 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul says “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” The more I look at that verse, the more I realize that these are the words of an imminently humble person. Now Paul, as much as anyone in Scripture, is very aware of his own flaws. He still remembers, no doubt, his earlier career as Saul, when he participated in widespread persecutions against the church, and was present for the death of the first notable Christian martyr, St. Stephen. This is the same Paul who writes in 1 Timothy 1:15—“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” But at the same time, Paul knows that in instructing and discipling Timothy his goal is clear: it’s not to produce another Paul, but another Jesus follower. Insofar as his teaching and personal conduct can imitate the model of Jesus, Paul says to Timothy—follow my example. And implicit in this is a certain accountability. If I’m going to disciple you, and do my best to point you towards Jesus, I should also be ready to get called out when I’m not living up to that same standard I’m teaching by. But this is all made possible by grace. We have God’s grace to cover us when we disciple imperfectly, and moreover, an honest admission of our own flaws and struggles can actually help us to connect with someone more authentically. I heard a great quote once that Christianity can be summed up as “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” Let’s approach discipleship with humility, and an abiding trust in God’s grace, realizing we don’t have to be perfect to teach another how to grow in faith—we just have to be perfectly reliant on Jesus, and help them to do the same!

 

Famous Hungarians in history: Franz Liszt, the Virtuoso - Kafkadesk

Liszt

Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphonies, Deafness & Facts - Biography

Beethoven

 

Moving to 2 Timothy 2:2 we discover another crucial aspect of the discipleship process—it enables our faith to be passed down from generation to generation. Listen to Paul here: “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In this remarkable verse there’s actually four different generations of faith represented! There’s Paul, then Timothy, then the “faithful men” that Timothy will pass belief onto, and finally, “others” who these faithful men will in turn teach. This verse is a microcosm of how faith is spread amongst the generations. Like some of you may have done when you were growing up, my parents encouraged me to take up a musical instrument. My mother had an old piano in the house, so my sister Jennifer and started taking weekly piano lessons when I was in elementary school. Through church, we had found out about a very nice lady, Mrs. Julie McDougal was her name, and she was a very kindly, and patient teacher. Now we didn’t advance that far musically…we played a few recitals, but essentially never got into the very advanced stages. Or let me put it this way—we didn’t really advance much past the stage where our piano books still had pictures in them—if that tells you something about the level of musical sophistication and aptitude we reached. If we’d really gotten serious about playing though, we might have wanted to find out about our music teacher’s lineage. You see the really well-known piano instructors will actually trace themselves back, in a musical family tree, to some pretty famous composers. I was reading about a lady who’s giving piano lessons in California, at a place called Inspire Music Academy. And on the website she listed her lineage. Following her teacher, that teacher’s teacher, and so on, she can, in just seven degrees of separation, trace herself back to the great Ludwig van Beethoven, and that same line also includes Franz Liszt! That’s a pretty impressive musical lineage to share in! But how much more rewarding to be part of a lineage of faith, as Paul and Timothy are!! Because when we invest in others spiritually, the benefits can extend across generations. Many of us are here today following Jesus because someone took the time to invest in us. Perhaps it was godly parents, such I was fortunate enough to have, growing up in Alabama. Proverbs 22:6 says it very well: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

First Baptist Church Pastor Jay Wolf | ALMetro360

Jay Wolf

 

I’ve also benefitted greatly from the influence of many tremendous spiritual mentors down through the years. Just recently, I had the privilege of getting to record a short tribute video for Jay Wolf, who has been the pastor of my hometown church in Montgomery, Alabama since 1991, and recently retired. Jay baptized me when I was twelve, and has been a critical influence and mentor for me during so many different spiritual milestones in my life. I got to talk about this influence when I recorded the video, but what was amazing is that there were tributes to Jay coming in not just from Alabama, or from Colorado, because his influence extended much further than just the borders of the U.S. There were tributes from all over the world in fact, because Jay has dedicated himself over the years to the work of discipleship. And just like with Paul and Timothy, he’s helped to create a spiritual lineage that will continue. People he’s never even met may one day benefit from some of his dedication, because someone will pass on to them the same spiritual lessons and truths they had learned from Jay. But as we’ve said, because this is all done through the grace of God, you don’t have to be as much spiritually gifted to have a multi-generational impact through discipleship…but just spiritually available.

 

When Martin Luther King, Jr., Became a Leader | The New Yorker

How then, does God enable us to disciple others most effectively? We’ve already mentioned His grace, but in addition, there are several other very important gifts that He places at our disposal. 2 Timothy 1:7 outlines them: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and of a sound mind.” Let’s take each of these gifts and break them down further. First, God gives us power. If we go to Acts 1:8, where the New Testament Church is launched, we hear Jesus’ promise: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” In addition to watching the aforementioned Little House on the Prairie, Melissa and I have also been enjoying watching some excellent documentaries and programs on the Civil Rights Era. Time and time again, we’ve been mesmerized by the amazing oratory of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not only was King a very gifted and commanding public speaker—but his messages always rang with the firm conviction and power of having God, and Divine truth on his side. Everything Dr. King advocated for within the Civil Rights movement came from these deep-seated roots in the African-American Church, and his belief that as Christ followers we had to stand up for justice and equal rights for all citizens. And when he spoke, King tapped into that power! American abolitionist Wendell Philipps said it well way back in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War which would destroy slavery in our country for good—“One on God’s side is a majority.” So there’s tremendous power available and waiting for us when we choose to disciple others in Biblical truth.

 

We also have the surpassing love of God at our disposal when we engage in discipleship. The famous Christian humanitarian Mother Teresa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who dedicated her life to working with the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, India once said “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Like some of you may, I love old Gospel music, and one of my all-time favorite Gospel albums is Elvis Presley’s 1972 release He touched me. It features the classic tune “A thing called love.” Listen to these lyrics: “Can’t see it with your eyes, hold it in your hands, like the rules that govern our land/Strong enough to rule the heart of every man, this thing called love/It can lift you up, it can put you down, take your world and turn it all around/Ever since time nothing’s ever been found stronger than love” That about says it, doesn’t it? And then finally, there’s the gift of a sound mind to help us disciple effectively. This is one that I think about a lot, working with college students! You know today’s college campus is truly a marketplace of ideas, which is not in itself a bad thing, but unfortunately there’s sometimes an unofficial hierarchy to these ideas. And as you may can guess—Christian ideals and teachings are sometimes viewed by the secular university as being lower down on the totem pole. As a result, I’ve often met students who would have described themselves as Christians in high school, or who at least came from a Christian background, and who then begin to struggle spiritually once they are in college. Paul describes a tragic situation in 2 Timothy 3:7 when he mentions individuals who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” I’ve known some college students who’d fall into that category. Discipleship is one of the remedies for such a dilemma–discipleship that involves sound Biblical teaching, which hopefully can rescue someone from falling into that trap of learning about every possible philosophy and worldview, and yet walking away empty, and ignorant of the life-saving truth the Gospel provides. To quote another Scriptural warning along these lines, listen to Colossians 2:8—“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” Now ultimately of course I can’t change anyone’s mind or heart—only God can do that, and people may choose to reject the Cross and the message of salvation it brings. Sadly, even those who’ve grown up exposed to the teachings of Christ, and have experience in the church are sometimes the very ones who decide to walk away. But nonetheless if we would dedicate ourselves to the work of ensuring that we instruct new believers and growing Christians in the essentials of our faith, I think we’d find them better prepared to weather the possible storms of doubt and disbelief they’re going to find as they go off to college and enter into the world.

 

How the Holy Spirit Leads Us to a Deeper Relationship with Christ | Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

In closing, I want to share about one more, all-powerful ally that God has given us to help in this work of discipleship—it’s none other than the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit! We see in the Book of John how Jesus makes a special promise to His disciples, and then by spiritual extension, to us. Having done so much to invest in their lives over the three years of His public ministry, Christ knows His time on earth is short. He also knows that many of the disciples are probably going to feel purposeless and alone once He departs. Even after the miracle of the Resurrection, when they see Jesus ascending into heaven, the same thought is going to flit across all of their minds—can we really do this alone, without the Master by our sides? But listen to Jesus’ comforting promise from John 14:16-18—“I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans: I will come to you.” Jesus then goes on to further clarify the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers in John 16, verses 8 and 13. “When He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment…When He the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” So there you have it—the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, fully equal to God and Christ, is our personal guide when we seek to instruct others in the truth of Scripture!! We know we’re all imperfect, and we’ve already discussed how that shouldn’t be a barrier to us taking up the mantle of discipleship. But how comforting to know that the ultimate safeguard for us, and the people we disciple, is the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit! We talked earlier about how even the great Paul approached his work of discipleship with a strong sense of humility. It’s important for us to follow that example. Let me remind us too, that while we are discipling others, we should never lose sight of the importance of continuing to learn and be discipled ourselves!! Growing in the faith, after all, is truly a life-long process. However long we’ve been following Jesus, we not only have something more to share to help another, but something more to learn ourselves. So let me end with this question—in this time of societal conflict, uncertainty, and confusion…what battles will you pick to keep on fighting? Paul urges us to take up the “good fight” and an integral part of that is being willing to instruct others in the faith. You see, there are all kinds of things we can invest in… the stock market, start-up businesses, fantasy sports, political parties and causes, environmental causes, our own self-improvement. And none of those things are bad. But I know from my own experience, and from the experiences of so many other Christians that there is absolutely nothing in this world so rewarding as to spiritually invest in other people!! It’s not always easy, and it takes some dedication, and a willingness to get into some of the messy details of our own lives and the lives of others. But we will always find God in the midst of such work! And the future of the church, and our faith depends on how many godly men and women are willing to invest in others, to help them walk with Jesus, and live out their faith. It’s a big task—but as we’ve talked about, we’ve got some pretty powerful helpers on our side! And I know we’re up to it! So my prayer is that we would all find within our lives a way that we can commit to discipling others. This is a battle worth picking, and one where we know the ultimate victory has already been secured by the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ. Amen!!

 

A tribute to my parents

 

 

 

With my dad

With my mom

With my sister Jennifer

 

Just last month I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to address the topic of racism, this month I sense another strong prompting from the Lord to write about another subject that I think is long overdue for me to address: the enormous influence my parents have had on my spiritual life! As many wonderful Christian mentors and influences as I’ve had in my life, none have been there longer, or had more of an impact on me than my mom and dad. This post is a tribute to them, and I want to borrow from the introduction of one of my favorite reference books, Huston Smith’s classic The World’s Religions. As he begins the book, he pays homage to his own parents, who were long-time missionaries in China—“My thoughts return to those who begot me, raised me, and now are tired. I would repay the bounty they have given me, but it is as the sky, it can never be approached.” That being said, I hope this post makes my parents proud, and that they know it comes straight from the heart of a son who loves them so dearly.

 

With my beautiful wife Melissa and our dog Milo

If I were to try and summarize the spiritual influence my parents have exercised over my life, several verses come to mind, including some familiar Biblical references about the power and influence of good parenting. One is Proverbs 22:6—“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Certainly I have benefitted enormously in my life from the godly influence and example of my mother and father. And even going back before them, I know my grandparents on both sides of my family were also people of deep faith–staunch Alabama Baptists. Reflecting on these generations of faith that I have been blessed to follow after, I can readily identify with Paul’s words about Timothy’s family background in 2 Timothy 1:5—“I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also.” I remember hearing a sermon one time, and the pastor was talking about how we can be the beneficiaries of prayers from years ago, and I certainly have lived out that truth in my life. I know that for years before I could even appreciate it, my grandparents and parents were praying for me—and not just for my physical wellbeing, but more importantly for my spiritual growth! I have no doubt that when I made a decision at the age of 12 to accept Jesus as my personal Savior, I was being blessed by the power of these parental prayers, offered up to God from years ago! But my parents, as they sometimes remind me, have of course never stopped praying for me and my sister Jennifer! The older I get, and within my own struggles sometimes to find good time for prayer amidst the busyness of life, I can certainly appreciate the sacrifice of love that this represents. And besides my baptism, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing other milestone moments in my life, knowing that the path to these had already been paved in part by the faithful prayers of my parents. Meeting the love of my life, Melissa, and getting married, moving to Colorado and finding a wonderful opportunity to pursue my calling of campus ministry, getting to lead overseas missions teams safely, learning how to preach effectively and getting to deliver sermons at the church where I grew up—these are just a few of such moments that I can look back on with joyful remembrance, and deep gratitude.

 

 

File:First Baptist Montgomery.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

First Baptist Montgomery–the old sanctuary

In addition to the gift of faithful prayer, my parents have instilled other very important spiritual lessons in me, starting from some of my earliest memories as a child. I can remember being in church well before I had any great understanding of God or Christ, and yet sensing nonetheless that I was in a sacred, holy place. There, in the beautifully ornate sanctuary of First Baptist Montgomery, I can remember trying to sit as quietly as possible, maybe occasionally doodling on one of the offering envelopes, or sometimes losing myself in contemplating the many beautiful stained glass windows in our church. But what’s really interesting is that years later, I realized that many hymns, Scriptures, and even theological concepts were already deeply familiar, even ingrained in me, by the time I became older because of the formative exposure to church and worship during all of those Sundays of my youth. For that I must thank my parents! But they didn’t just take me to worship, they also got me involved in Sunday School. There, I began to learn more about the Bible from so many dedicated men and women who had the patience and love to explain some pretty complicated spiritual concepts to young children. By taking me to church and Sunday school, my parents were teaching me from a very young age about the power of Christian community. Even today, they remain not only active in their Sunday school class, but are still close friends with some of the same people they knew when I was little. These lifelong friendships help illustrate something my longtime pastor back at FBC Montgomery, Jay Wolf, is fond of saying: “We need God, and we need each other.” Thanks to the conscientiousness of my mom and dad, I was fortunate enough to begin learning these truths before I could even fully articulate them.

 

My parents were also extremely wise when it came to discussing spiritual matters with Jennifer and me, and I think they demonstrated this in three main ways. First—they never made us feel like there was such a thing as a “dumb” question when it came to God. I’ve heard some heartbreaking stories about how people’s faith has been damaged at a young, tender age, all because a parent or other authority figure hushed them up when they had a genuine (albeit perhaps difficult-to-answer) question about faith. My parents never did this, and although I don’t remember the specific details of some of our conversations, I know that for both my sister and me, it was so refreshing to know that we could always talk to our parents about any spiritual or Christian topic that we were curious about. As I think back, this open, transparent attitude of my parents when it came to their faith taught me about much more than just the value of being curious. Perhaps even on a subconscious level it proved to me that if I could ask faith questions of my parents, by extension it was also ok to ask God questions too! Again, so many times I’ve read and heard stories from people whose view of God ended up being damaged or distorted because of harsh parenting when it came to their spiritual lives. But another wonderful thing that my parents did for me was to provide a supportive atmosphere for me to make spiritual decisions when I was ready. Very often, growing up in the Baptist church I would see children as young as 5 or 6 years old making professions of faith, and being baptized. And without being critical of this at all, I can still appreciate the fact that never once after a baptism did my sister and I come home to hear our parents pressuring us about when we would be ready to take this critical step in our faith journeys. We knew they loved the Lord, and had a personal relationship with Him, but we also knew that my parents were adamant that Jennifer and I decide independently of them that we wanted to invite Jesus into our hearts. Thus, even though I have obviously grown a great deal in my faith and understanding of what it means to be a Christian since I was twelve, I’ve never had to struggle with the authenticity of my decision to follow Jesus, as others sometimes do who made that decision as a result of parental pressure or nagging.

 

Finally, my parents always maintained a very respectful attitude towards other denominations and religions. Without in any way minimizing their deep and heartfelt commitment to Christ, or their strong roots in the Baptist church, I never heard my parents make disparaging remarks about other churches, or even other faiths. Doing campus ministry, I sometimes meet students who say that they’ve been “burned’ by organized religion. When they explain this further, they sometimes mention that they heard either their parents or leaders at the church criticizing other religious groups or systems of belief, which over time game them the idea that religion was more about proving who’s right and winning arguments, than humbly seeking God’s truth. I’m grateful that my parents didn’t give me such a negative example, while at the same time still making it clear how much their lives had been impacted from knowing the love of Jesus. In addition to these areas of specific spiritual encouragement, my parents in general lived out the truth of Ephesians 4:29—“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” Of course there were those moments were my sister and I undoubtedly tried their patience, and like any parents they disciplined us when appropriate. But Jennifer and I were very fortunate in that I can never remember being subjected to any kind of verbal abuse, or even to sustained negative and critical commentary. Sadly, this isn’t the case for so many children, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more how important our words are, and how verbal affirmation, or the lack thereof, can drastically shape a young person’s self-esteem, and worldview. Some unfortunate children have to hear things like “you’ll never amount to anything”, “can’t you do anything right?”, “you’re an embarrassment”, “I’m done helping you”…and other negative, cynical pronouncements from the very people who are supposed to love them the most!! In contrast, I can vividly remember my parents tucking me into bed as a small child, and hearing them say things like “we love you so much”, “you can be anything you want when you grow up”, “you’re so smart”, “we’re very proud of you.” What a blessing from heaven to have parents who not only think these things about their children, but take the time to regularly remind them of it!!

 

Now I want to share a bit more about how each of my parents has influenced me spiritually through their own unique personalities, and gifts. When I think of my mom, one verse that comes to mind is Proverbs 17:17—“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” I think of this verse because one of the outstanding qualities I associate with my mother is that she’s always willing to step into difficult, and even stressful situations to be there for a friend, or someone who’s in need. I know some people who effectively avoid visiting or calling sick people, or even going to visitations and funerals, simply because they’re not sure how to act in these potentially difficult moments where emotions are running high, and people are suffering. But my mother has always been one to jump right in during a situation where people are in need. So many times I’ve watched her pick up the phone, to offer consolation to those who’ve lost a loved one, or to talk with someone who’s been in the hospital, or is facing serious illness—always with great love and compassion, and accompanied with promises to be praying for them. So many times also I’ve seen her leaving to go to a visitation time or a funeral service, maybe even for someone she didn’t know that well. But because she believed it was the right thing to do, and because she was willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus even in those difficult moments, she never hesitated to drop whatever she was doing to be there for someone else in need. Her attitude has taught me so much as I’ve approached my own life in ministry. Being there for someone during the difficult, inconvenient, and even awkward moments of life is one of the principal roles we step into when we decide to become ministers. Thank you mom, for showing me how to do this so well!

 

But there are other traits I’ve observed in and learned from my mother that are equally valuable in a ministry context. She’s extraordinarily thoughtful, and always makes the effort to get to know people, and remember what’s important to them. Now as children, and even still as adults, Jennifer, my dad, and I benefit from this thoughtfulness often at Christmas! My mom is so good at finding the perfect surprise gift, and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. She let me in on her secret to this once—she does her Christmas shopping throughout the year! Whenever she’s in a store and sees something she thinks might make a nice gift, she goes ahead and buys it! But in order to do this, you have to know your family really well, and that is where my mom, with her thoughtfulness and observation, does so well. But it’s not just with family—my mom is a true example of what I’d call a “people person.” We used to joke whenever she was late coming back from the grocery store or other errands that “she probably ran into someone she knew, and got talking.” But my mom has so many friends because she’s mastered the art of being friendly by showing a genuine interest in others, and remembering the details of what’s important for them. I suffered from a great deal of shyness as a young boy, but I can always remember my mom emphasizing how important it was for me to say hello to people, and be friendly. She was also regularly introducing me to new people, and I had plenty of occasions to observe how good she was as a conversationalist, and in making others feel at ease. It goes without saying how important these skills can be in ministry, and I try to practice them in a way that would make my mother proud! My mom also taught us a lot about having respect and reverence for God. In particular, this came out in the way she treated going to church. Nowadays, so much has changed, from the way churches themselves look, to the way people dress who are going there, but there was a time when going to church meant dressing up, and entering into a building that could not have been mistaken for anything else. I’ve already mentioned how the old sanctuary at First Baptist Montgomery looked like a true house of worship—no way could it have been mistaken for an auditorium or a theater! And even though it was frequently hot and humid in Alabama growing up, my mom always insisted that we wear our “Sunday best” to church, which for me meant a coat and tie. Now later in life, especially working with college students, I’ve grown to appreciate the value of sometimes having more casual dress, as well as a casual setting for worship. But one thing that I hope I never lose that I learned from my mother is that, wherever it takes place, worship should never be done casually, but in an attitude of the greatest respect and reverence for the Lord!! I can even remember how my mom didn’t want us talking once we got in church—because we were now in a different setting. The ordinary world had been left behind, with its distractions, and we were in God’s house to focus on worshipping Him. Thank you mom, for the way you taught me to treat the House of God, and most importantly His worship, with the utmost sense of respect.

 

I’ve also learned a great deal spiritually from my dad. One verse that comes to mind when I think of him is Paul’s words from Philippians 4:5—“Let your gentleness be known to all men.” My dad has such a gentle, calm disposition, which is interesting, because his job was often very stressful. As a radiologist, he worked long hours in the hospital, often having to deal with making tough decisions, and interacting with sick, and hurting people who didn’t want to be there, and sometimes took out that frustration on the doctors and hospital staff. But my dad was always careful to never bring that stress back home with him. No matter how difficult a day he’d had at work, (or if he’d had to be out in the middle of the night on emergency call), my father was always so patient and loving with us. He also never used his busy schedule as an excuse to miss any kind of an event that was important to us, although it would have been easy enough for him to do so. He came not only to my football games, but even to many of my practices! And many times I can remember him coming home from work, and rather than resting or taking time for himself, immediately changing out of his office clothes so he could throw the football with me. Now that I’m married and hoping to have children of my own one day, I have even more appreciation for the amazing job my father did maintaining a healthy family/work balance. Although in actuality I shouldn’t really even call it a balance, because for my dad, family always came first!

 

And even though I was his only son, and there are many stories of fathers driving their sons to achievement in some particular field (often to follow them in the same career), I can say with assurance that my father fully lived out Paul’s command in Ephesians 6:4—“Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” I’m sure my dad would have pleased if I’d decided to also become a doctor, and he was always more than gracious to allow me to go to the hospital with him, and accompany him and observe during a work day. But he never pressured me at all to take that career path, and was equally supportive and encouraging when I made the decision first to pursue graduate work in history, and then later to go into full-time ministry. In fact, before I’d even decided to go to seminary, my dad had developed a passion for reading about theology, and had amassed quite an impressive Christian library. Since I’ve been in ministry, it’s always been a joy and a privilege for me to get to discuss theological questions and viewpoints with my dad, and he’s also such a faithful reader of this blog! Another quality I’ve seen time and again in my father’s life has been his deep-seated humility. Now his is really an amazing success story, and proof of the American dream—coming from such a small town in south Alabama that it’s not even on most maps, to becoming a first generation college student, and going on to earn an MD from one of the best medical schools in the country. For years my dad was one of the most respected and talented physicians practicing in the Montgomery area, as any of his peers would attest. And yet he has always remained humble to the point that he’s downright reluctant to talk about any of his accomplishments. I’ve also seen his humility displayed when I would sometimes accompany him on a typical work day at the hospital. Whereas some doctors had a slightly condescending attitude towards technical support staff or other non-physicians working in the hospital environment, my dad’s demeanor was the complete opposite. He made it a point to say to hello to everyone we’d pass in the hallways, from fellow doctors, to janitors, and he very often knew their names, and would stop to speak with them. I also never witnessed my dad lose his patience, even as his intense concentration needed to read X-rays properly would be interrupted with phone calls, doctors stopping by, or other distractions. At the heart of this, I believe is the fact that my dad has a tremendous ability to show empathy towards others. I have witnessed this on display in my later life, when, after his retirement, my dad started volunteering in the food bank area of First Baptist Montgomery’s “Caring Center.” Over the past several years he’s weekly served thousands of individuals in need, and has also even been willing to get up at 3am on Friday mornings to go collect bread from the bakery to store in the church’s food pantry. As a doctor, my dad had an amazing work ethic, and this has continued into his retirement. In addition to volunteering at the Caring Center, my dad also finds time to be involved in two different Bible studies, read widely in a number of different fields, do woodwork, yardwork, and keep up with everything Jennifer and I are doing! So when I think I’m getting a little busy in my own life, or that with ministry and church commitments my plate is getting to be a bit full, I just remember the dedication my dad showed for decades, pursuing a demanding career but without in the least taking away from his devotion to God and his family. I can honestly say now just as I would have when I was a kid, that my dad is my best friend. If I can be half the husband, father, and humanitarian that he’s been throughout his life, I will have done well.

 

There’s so much more I could say about both my parents, but in closing, I just want to thank them again for the amazing spiritual influence they’ve had on me! In paying tribute to them, I can say that their godly influence has drawn me closer to the Lord throughout my life, even as I’ve also been the beneficiary of their prayers for so many years! I hope that not a day goes by that I don’t think of them, and remember their influence, particularly in some of the areas of life I’ve mentioned where they so excelled. Perhaps the biggest tribute I can give them is to say that in my own marriage and family life, I want as much as possible to continue the faithful, God-honoring legacy that I’ve known as their son. God commands us in Exodus 20:12 to honor our parents, and this is something that’s always been easy for me to do, because my mother and father are such honorable people. Mom and dad–thank you for being steadfast servants of the Lord, and I love you so much!