Looking back to look forward

It’s hard to believe, but I have now been in Boulder for a full three years, serving on staff with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado. Having celebrated a recent birthday, I’ve been in a bit of a reflective mood, and so I wanted to take an opportunity to look back just for a few minutes at the past years of ministry here in Colorado. I was reminded recently how such reflection can be beneficial not only for understanding the past, but for looking ahead to the future too when I read an interesting quote from the 19th century English writer and Christian, Margaret Fairless Barber. “To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.” In this spirit, I want to reflect based on several different categories that will enable me to ponder over these past three years and also help in looking forward towards what God has in store for the future. I’ll reflect on God’s faithfulness during my time in Boulder, some of the personal highlights I’ve experienced while on staff with the ministry, a few of the particular challenges I’ve faced, and lastly some future hopes and goals I have for myself in conjunction with the ministry. I hope that reading this post perhaps motivates you to take periodic stock of how God has been at work in your life. Regardless of what has happened, I believe being open  about your spiritual experiences, and willing to share them with others can provide a great encouragement for someone else who may be in need, or has experienced something similar.

 

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God has been faithful!! This is the first point I want to reflect on, and honestly these four words could be a succinct summary of my entire time in Boulder so far. From the spring of 2014, when with some trepidation and anxiety I began support raising in preparation to move to Boulder, the Lord has provided. I realize that it can sometimes sound cliché when so many people in ministry talk about Divine provision. And I never want to be dismissive or flippant towards those who are still actively waiting for the Lord to act, or are struggling to continue trusting Him and His goodness during seasons of trial or doubt. Having said that, I do believe that raising your own support gives a special insight into God’s generosity, plan, and provision as expressed through His churches and His people. When I first considered the possibility of going on staff with Christian Challenge at CU-Boulder, I was excited about the ministry and the chance to work with students in a challenging mission field. Yet I wasn’t sure exactly how the experience of support raising, and developing ministry partners would go. I had grown up assuming that all missionaries were fully-funded by churches or missions agencies, and perhaps too in my mind there were some lingering doubts and pride that God had to slowly help me deal with. Doubts–in the sense of a skepticism that I’d actually be able to raise enough money to move to Boulder before the start of the fall 2014 semester. Even though I had heard many amazing “God-stories” from others on staff with Christian Challenge, or friends who served with groups like Cru, I still wasn’t sure if the same things could actually happen to me! In addition, there was some pride involved, because after so many years spent completing my education, including nearly four years to earn a Master’s of Divinity, a selfish part of me felt more or less entitled to a traditional, full-time, paid ministry position.

 

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But both of these barriers were gradually eroded over several months in which I had the opportunity to see God at work through the support-raising process. I’ve posted about this before, and I could honestly write pages and pages more about all of the unique blessings that come through raising support, but I’ll enumerate just a few here. First, through support raising, I have been powerfully and continuously reminded of the Lord’s generosity through His followers. I know that the majority of those who support me also tithe faithfully to their local churches, and in many cases also give to support other missionaries and ministries. But their willingness to equally invest in me is illustrative of a principle once shared with me by Jay Wolf, pastor of my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. Jay told me that from his own experience, one hallmark of a faithful Christ follower in financial terms is how their giving capacity expands. Now simple math might dictate that the more a person is already giving to support different ministries as well as tithe to their church, the less likely they would be to embrace the opportunity to support a new ministry that might come along, such as mine. And yet as I have often found the opposite to be true in my own experience. Thus it’s the very people who are already giving most generously elsewhere who are likely to also add me to their support list. In relation to the generosity I’ve witnessed, I’m certainly mindful of Paul’s observation from 2 Corinthians 9:7—“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Again and again, my ministry partners and supporters have expressed to me how glad and joyful they are for the opportunity to support me and this serves as a constant reminder for me to cultivate a similar attitude when I tithe to my church or support other ministries. But I would be very remiss if in talking about support I only discussed the financial dimensions. Because I’ve also been the fortunate recipient of amazing prayer support and so many words of encouragement and affirmation. I have ministry partners that pray for me daily, which is such a humbling thing to consider when I know that many of them have plenty of other family members, friends, and concerns to remember. And on so many occasions, my day has been brightened by a supporter who took the time to send an encouraging email, card, or text message. I can very much identify with the way Timothy must have felt having someone like Paul in his life, a person who as is recorded in 2 Timothy 1:3-6, builds up his protégé through continual prayer, and timely encouragement that calls the younger Timothy to remain faithful to his spiritual heritage. In general, raising support has allowed me to both make many new friends, and also stay in touch with a great number of old acquaintances, with the common thread being that these are people whom God has placed in my life to make a difference with their giving, their prayers, and their encouragement. Thinking about these dear brothers and sisters in Christ certainly serves as a powerful motivation for me to go out each day and strive to make a difference in the lives of our Christian Challenge students at CU. Support raising is also very literally one of the main factors that prompted me to start this blog, Mile High Hallelujah, as a means of staying in touch with my ministry partners. Writing my monthly blog entries and prayer newsletter updates is my means of keeping these partners involved and current with the ministry they support. But it is also a very helpful and fulfilling way for me to reflect at regular intervals on how God is working in my life, almost like a spiritual diary. Overall, and as perhaps a cumulative effect of experiencing God moving in these different ways, I’ve come to view support raising not as preparation for ministry, but as another facet of ministry itself, and one that has brought many unique blessings into my life.

 

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            Having mentioned Paul and Timothy earlier now brings me to another way in which God’s faithfulness has been powerfully manifested over these last three years in Boulder—through the co-workers He has richly blessed me with. I’ve been lucky enough to serve alongside an outstanding staff with Christian Challenge. In fact it was a strong and immediate connection with Christian Challenge director Bobby Pruett that first led me to consider moving to Boulder after we initially met back in the fall of 2013. Bobby’s love for the Lord, and his enthusiasm for disciple-making in the university community was contagious, and it has been a privilege to serve alongside him, his daughter Bethany, and Derek Gregory as well as many other students who’ve fulfilled roles as part-time staff interns. Being part of a good team is so important, and in addition to the Christian Challenge staff, I’ve had other important Christian mentors in my life, including my parents, my pastor back in Alabama, Jay Wolf—and too many others to list here. But the heart of my day-to-day work with Christian Challenge is about building relationships with students. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many outstanding young men and women here over the last several years—vibrant champions for Christ who are going to go on and make a tangible impact for the Kingdom in a variety of different fields as they are called. And I’m indebted too not just to the Christian students I’ve worked with, but to those who’ve been skeptical, questioning, and uncertain. As I’ve heard these students talking about their doubts and objections towards Christianity, I’ve been forced to constantly reflect upon how I can do a better job of making the Gospel relevant to people on the “outside”. I’ve also gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the challenge that some people face when considering surrendering their life to the Lord. As Christian author Frederick Buechner once wrote “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Certainly working amongst such bright and clear-thinking students as can be found at CU has helped my own faith to stay vibrant and not stagnate. On the bottom of the prayer cards that I’ve given out to supporters is inscribed Matthew 9:37-38—“The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” God has lavishly demonstrated His faithfulness by providing me with an outstanding group of ministry partners, staff, and students who have all been co-laborers with me in this harvest!!

 

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First Baptist Montgomery

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East Boulder Baptist

And while I often think of my ministry in terms of the individuals who’ve been involved, I have to be equally thankful for the powerful fellowship and support I have received from the Body of Christ as represented by the Church. Two congregations in particular have been fundamental to my ability to raise support and serve here in Boulder. First is my sending church, First Baptist Montgomery, and then my current home church, East Boulder Baptist. These two bodies of believers have provided me with numerous opportunities to preach, teach Sunday school classes, and share with members about the ministry of Christian Challenge. And so even though these last three years have seen me immersed in the world of campus ministry, I feel more connected than ever to the work and purpose of the local church. I certainly strive to remind our students on a regular basis about the importance of finding a connection with a local church in Boulder, because our campus ministry is never seeking to take the place of a church within Christian life. Related to the blessing that God has provided me through these two churches, I can also reflect on the importance for me of staying connected to the Baptist denomination. Now certainly I’ve always considered myself ecumenical, and my time in Boulder has reinforced for me the importance of being Kingdom-minded, and focusing on how different Christian groups, whether campus ministries or churches, can find common ground as they seek to serve the Lord. I have some good friends involved in campus ministry who serve with groups such as Cru, Intervarsity, and Navigators, and these are all outstanding ministries that have impacted many lives for Jesus over the years. But I do feel very fortunate to be part of the larger Baptist family. Since I raise support as a Baptist campus minister, all of my administrative costs and fees are absorbed by the convention, meaning that I get to keep 100% of the money I raise, which is a rarity in the world of self-supporting ministry. Although Christian Challenge’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t necessarily the first or even primary thing that draws students to our group, they too have all benefitted from being part of a larger network not just of campus ministries, but crucially too of churches and missions partnerships. Whenever Christian Challenge takes part in spring break or summer missions projects, we avail ourselves of this incredibly wide-ranging and fruitful network of SBC church plants, missionaries, and ministries that we can connect and partner with. It makes it so much easier than having to go it alone and seek out groups to work with independently. So we do our best as Christian Challenge staff to educate our students about the importance of being part of a denominational team, and we share with them some of the fundamental theological values of what it means to be Baptist, and heirs to a spiritual tradition rooted in the Protestant Reformation. We realize that all of them of course won’t continue to be involved in Baptist-affiliated churches or ministries later in life, but hopefully during their time in the group, they’ve been instilled with some spiritual values that represent the best of the Baptist tradition, and will serve them well in whatever branches of Christian life their future calling leads them to.

 

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Reflecting back on these three years in Boulder, God has indeed been faithful, and there are many personal highlights I could talk about, special moments and memories that help underscore why I feel so blessed to have served here. I have thoroughly enjoyed every opportunity I’ve had to speak at Christian Challenge weekly meetings, whether at CU-Boulder, or at other schools around Colorado. College students are such an attentive and keen audience, and their intelligence and willingness to be challenged has been a great source of encouragement for me as I’ve thought about how best to both convict and encourage them, all the while staying faithful to the mandates of Scripture that should bind any sound Biblical teaching. One-on-one discipleship is something that is at the heart of our ministry, as reflected in the Christian Challenge motto—“changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” Certainly for me, as I’ve shared in earlier blog posts, the opportunity to mentor students has been among the most rewarding aspects of serving in campus ministry. I’ve been able to forge some amazing friendships with these young men, and in some cases even see them begin to pass on their knowledge and experience to younger students. In addition, I’ve been fortunate enough to have so many great mentors of my own, as I’ve already mentioned, which has helped keep me inspired, and excited about the chance to invest in someone else’s life. The high degree of individual attention that we can offer students to facilitate their spiritual growth is definitely one of the unique facets of campus ministry that can sometimes be hard to replicate in other ministry settings such as churches. However, my hope is that our students have learned the importance of spiritually investing into another, and that this is a practice that they will be able in some manner to continue later in life. Working with international students has also been an undoubted highlight for me. I’ve built relationships with students from Brazil, Japan, China, Panama, India, Ireland, Sweden, Taiwan, Singapore, Denmark, and Pakistan, just to name some of the countries that have been represented in our ministry. The rich cultural exchanges, learning about another country’s food, history, language, and customs have been fascinating in and of themselves. But an even greater thrill for has been the chance to share Jesus with these representatives of the nations, and see some of them come to faith in our ministry. And even for those who did not make a profession of faith, the knowledge that because of Christian Challenge, their time in America was brightened with warm spiritual fellowship and the chance to hear the Gospel message gives me a great deal of fulfillment. Working with internationals reminds me constantly about lessons of hospitality and cultural sensitivity that I believe have strong Biblical roots. At the same time, I’ve been continually reminded of the international nature of the Gospel, which can transcend all cultural barriers. I truly feel that one of the greatest blessings in being an American Christian in 2017 is the way in which the Lord has graced us with the priceless opportunity to reach out to His children from around the world who’ve literally come to our doorstep. I never want to take that opportunity for granted, or squander it, for many of these students will only be in our country for a short time, then perhaps never to return.

 

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Working with internationals has also provided a natural springboard to missions work. For me, going back to my childhood and adolescence, missions has always started locally. Some of my first ministry experiences back in Montgomery involved volunteering through our church’s community ministries outreach, known as the Caring Center. Taking some of this experience, I’ve been so proud of the way our students have embraced opportunities to serve those beyond just the university community. Compassion in the 303, our outreach to Boulder’s homeless, was actually started as an initiative of some Christian Challenge students. It’s been an honor to serve alongside many of our group who’ve selflessly donated their time and money to interact with some of Boulder’s most marginalized inhabitants, offering food, prayer and intentional conversation. From Boulder, our outreach has extended into Denver. On two different spring break mission trips, Christian Challenge has served in Colorado’s largest city, working first to help SBC church planters, and then on another occasion, to assist with a Baptist ministry based in apartment complexes, which are among those parts of the city that have been least reached from an evangelistic standpoint. Our students’ Christ-like dedication in all of these service projects around their community has been exemplary. And then there have been mission trips further afield, to Los Angeles a few years back on spring break, and then of course this summer for me to Germany. We’ve also begun to host missions teams, drawing on some of my ministry connections back to my home state. In March, a group came from the Baptist campus ministry at the University of Alabama, and in just a few weeks, another team will come from First Baptist Montgomery to help us with our big evangelistic push prior to the start of the fall semester. Having come out of a church background that always valued missions, and prioritized the work of the Great Commission, I’ve been thrilled to see these values replicated in our campus ministry at CU-Boulder.

For all of the ways in which I’ve noted God’s faithfulness, and enjoyed some amazing highlights, there have also naturally been some challenges over these past three years. But I see them more as faith-building opportunities rather than actual obstacles, and I sense that there are some particular spiritual lessons that God wishes to impart to me in each instance. When I first arrived in Boulder, noting the spiritual demographics, I expected to encounter a high degree of spiritual hostility, such as militant atheism, or strongly anti-Christian prejudices amongst those student body and in the community. For the most part this expectation has been unfounded, but what has indeed proven to be a challenge is what could be termed a widespread spiritual indifference, or apathy. As Paul astutely observes in 1 Corinthians 1:18—“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”. I’m still learning in each individual situation how best to react when people just don’t seem to care one way or another about spiritual matters, and when the thing that is keeping them from pursuing Jesus is not so much any great theological objection, but simply an inability to see any spiritual inquiry and pursuit as being worth their time. Another challenge is achieving consistency within our ministry. While I’ve been lucky enough to be around some students who are truly “pace-setters” in their 1 Corinthians 15:58 faithfulness and dedication, there are other students who have frustratingly fallen away. And there doesn’t always seem to be a detectable pattern or reason as to why some students remain inconsistent and non-committal even after years of being connected with our group. I worry about such instances, in particular wondering what will happen once such students graduate, and being out in the working world will likely have much less of a spiritual “support network”  around them than is available to them now in college. I struggle at times with being patient—waiting for God’s plan and purpose to unfold in His own perfect timing. This is especially true when it comes to evangelism, and awaiting the fruits from that. There have been several instances where a student seemed so close to making a profession of faith, and yet still they held back. However there’s been other times equally where I’ve been totally surprised to see the Spirit at work in sudden and unexpected ways. I’m reminded then of the truth of Jesus’ words in John 4:37-38—“For in this the saying is true: One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.” Never knowing where we may be in this chain of evangelism—whether preparing good soil, planting seeds, watering them, or harvesting, is a great humbling factor, and teacher of spiritual patience. There have been times when it has been tempting of course also to make comparisons with other ministries. You can always find a group that seems to be growing faster, has more of a presence in certain areas of campus life, and seems in some way to better embody whatever aspects of your ministry you wish to change or improve. I do value learning from other Christian groups, and have really enjoyed the cooperative spirit of a shared sense of values and purpose amongst many of the campus ministries. But I also need to remind myself that God has called our group to be faithful to those students we are able to reach, and not spend too much time focusing on fruitless comparisons. I think that whenever we want to take the focus too much off of ourselves and our own field of ministry to fixate on what others are doing, Jesus reminds us to return to our task at hand. I love how this is illustrated at the end of John’s Gospel in a conversation exchange between the Lord and Peter. John 21:21-22—“Peter seeing him, said to Jesus, ‘But Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”

 

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I entitled this post “looking back to look forward” because even as I’ve reflected upon how these last three years of ministry in Boulder have impacted me spiritually, what I’m most excited about is what lies ahead. I think it’s always good in life to have goals, and project ahead in order to keep oneself focused on a future we can change as opposed to a past that we cannot. Paul certainly considered as much, in Philippians 3:13—“One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” For this next year in Boulder, I have several ministry goals. I want to be more faithful and effective in discipling students. As I shared in my last blog post, this summer’s missions experience in Germany reminded me once more just how critical effective discipleship is to the long-term health of any ministry. We always want the things we teach students in Christian Challenge to be replicable, so that when they graduate, they are equipped spiritually to be successful in whatever ministry or life setting they might find themselves. I’m looking forward also to continuing to expand my role as a facilitator for missions. I’m so excited about the opportunity later this month to host a missions team from my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. I want to continue to cultivate a missions “pipeline” from Alabama to Colorado, giving both churches and campus ministries from my home state the opportunity to come serve alongside us here in Boulder, as well as also possibly connect with the work that many SBC church planters are doing in Denver. From an overseas standpoint, I’m excited about continuing the partnership we have with Connexxion, and their three, soon to be four campus ministries in Germany. I am praying that everything will come together for me to able to lead a full team back to Germany next summer, comprised of CU students and possibly students from some other Colorado schools as well. Ultimately, when I think of ministry goals however, there is inevitably a lot of overlap with my personal spiritual walk and goals. After all, I could never hope to instill in students, or in our ministry, something that I’m not cultivating in myself. So I must remain faithful in essential spiritual disciplines like prayer, Scripture reading, and Scripture memory.

I close this latest post with a sense of profound gratitude for all of the ways that God has blessed me, and enabled me to come to this place in life and ministry. I can only pledge that with His help I will continue to strive to give the best of what I am capable of to the ministry He has called me to here in Boulder. Every one of you who has prayed for me, offered financial support, and even taken the time to read this blog are part of my team, my wonderful family of ministry partners, without whom this would not be possible. So thank you again, and may each of you be able to trace God’s hand as you look back in your own lives, in preparation to then again look forward to the future He has planned for you. God bless!!!

Mission reflections from the Birthplace of the Reformation

Our summer mission team to Braunschweig, Germany, along with some of the students from the ministry

Luther poster in Braunschweig advertising the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation

 

Mission reflections from the Birthplace of the Reformation

            During a year in which we are observing the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, I recently returned from a month in German-speaking Europe, most of that time being spent in Germany itself. I had an amazing experience during this time abroad, and so I want to now share with you about some of what I encountered, filtered through the lens of some different Scriptural passages that have helped me to understand and process my experiences. But before I go any further, I want to preface the rest of my report with the acknowledged fact that in terms of missions experience, I am still very much a newcomer. That was one reason in fact why I wanted to spend some time in Germany myself before leading a full student team there. But I was privileged enough to grow up in a church that really valued the Great Commission, and took Jesus’ command to spread the Gospel seriously. So I have been lucky to stand on the shoulder of some missions giants, people like Pastor Jay Wolf, our missions pastor Brian Gay, Singles minister and missions veteran Kathy Cooper, former FBC community minister Jane Ferguson—all of whom were great models for me in demonstrating the blessing and the responsibility we have as Christians for being witnesses to our faith, whether here in America, or across the ocean somewhere. In addition, in my own current ministry context in Boulder, I’ve served alongside people like Derek Gregory, Bobby Pruett, and his daughter Bethany Pruett, who have inspired me with their stories of missions work, as well as our outstanding students, many of whom are also engaged in missions work, both in America and elsewhere, this summer. I am also aware of and profoundly grateful for the support through prayers and finances of all of my ministry partners. In the most tangible way they are the ones that made it possible for me to make this trip. So with it being fully understood that I still have so much to learn about mission work, as I share these reflections, my goal is that nonetheless people would feel encouraged and empowered. I know that missions can be simultaneously one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of the Christian life. But I want as much as possible to focus on some of the rewards because I hope people can hear about my experiences and think “I could do that too!”. A friend who served with me in Germany this summer, David Worcester, is the leader of Christian Challenge at San Diego State. He has a saying “the best method of evangelism is the kind you actually do”. Simple but true, and it holds true for missions work as well. So I really want my reflections here to prompt people to think less about all of the obstacles or potential hindrances to missions work in their lives, and more about how the obvious rewards from such engagement make it impossible to not want to go.

 

Me alongside Martha Moore and Alex Wille

My time abroad was actually the culmination of several years’ worth of prayer and preparation. Our ministry at CU-Boulder, Christian Challenge, has developed a partnership over the last several years with a European campus ministry known as “Connexxion.” This ministry can trace its beginning back to the early 2000’s when an IMB missionary named Martha Moore, who had a campus ministry background in America, started a ministry in the eastern German city of Jena. Martha had actually come out of the Baptist campus ministry at the University of Oklahoma, where she had been influenced by the long-time director there, Max Barnett. And as I’ve shared in some other posts, Max, until just recently was serving as the state director for Baptist collegiate ministry in Colorado. Martha was then later on staff with Christian Challenge at USC. So she has always been part of the same ministry networks that I am serving in. Then, in early 2016, I met Martha at the annual Life Impact Conference we attend in Colorado Springs. This is a missions-focused gathering of Baptist collegiate ministries from around the Midwest and Western U.S. By the time I finally met Martha in person, I had already heard a great deal about her, and the various ministries she had started around Europe. In fact, when Martha came to America on furlough in 2016, from that initial ministry in Jena, she had expanded her work to two other campuses in Germany, in Braunschweig and Bonn, as well as a stint in Seville, Spain, and was now planning on launching a new campus in Amsterdam. She is a busy lady, with a strong drive for Kingdom work and disciple-making amongst university students, to say the least!! Interestingly enough, her name had also come up back in 2013 when I was helping with Vacation Bible School at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. During a missions emphasis with the children, we watched an IMB-produced video that featured Martha’s story, and specifically her impact on one student she had reached and disciple in Seville.

`           So I was very excited to get to spend some time with her in person at Life Impact, and from there the groundwork began to be laid for my eventual opportunity to participate more directly in her work in Europe. Martha’s contagious enthusiasm and my own interest in working in secular, post-Christian settings (as Boulder has pretty much become) helped draw me increasingly towards the prospect of some kind of missions activity in Europe. Then, a few months after Life Impact, Alex Wille, the leader of the Connexxion ministry in Braunschweig, and someone who had been directly discipled by Martha, came to America for several weeks. In addition to spending time with the Christian Challenge ministry at USC in Los Angeles, Alex also served with us in Boulder for two weeks. During this time we got to be friends, and started discussing the possibility of further collaboration between our respective ministries. After further planning, prayer, and preparation, I decided to come to Germany in the summer of 2017 on what would be a combination hands-on mission experience and also “vision trip.” My goal is to eventually bring a full-sized student team from CU to work in Germany, but as a leader, I wanted to get some firsthand perspective myself before I took a team. There was also a unique opportunity to take part in a conference that would be bringing together students and staff from all of the Connexxion ministries, as well as some other American collegiate ministry personnel.

During this last month I was able to accomplish all of my goals and even had my expectations exceeded. I spent time with the ministry in Braunschweig, then attended the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, and then finally ended by spending a few extra days serving with the ministry in Bonn. Rather than give a more factual report of all of the work we engaged in (which I will do in my prayer newsletter—email me at englishwinslow@yahoo.com to sign up!), here I  want to think in more conceptual terms about the why, the how, and the what if, of missions. And again, please hear my disclaimer—I am in no way claiming to be any sort of expert or even veteran of missions work. But I do hope that my perspective may prove helpful to someone else, and if it can encourage even one other person to further engage in or support missions then it will have been well worth my time to write this post!!

 

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A logical place to begin in Scripture when discussing missions would obviously be the Great Commission, from Matthew 28:18-20. But before we look there, I am struck by how with almost every missions trip the story really begins long before you step on a flight to travel somewhere far away. So often, we hear stories of how God has placed a country, a people group, or a part of the world on someone’s heart months, or maybe even years before someone has the chance to go there with a Gospel-inspired purpose. I’ve already shared a little bit of my own backstory in terms of hearing about Connexxion, and meeting Martha and Alex in America. But someone may be asking, why Germany? or even more broadly why Europe? For many people, thinking about “missions” may automatically mean going to a country that is majority non-Christian, perhaps located within the “10-40 window”. Some people may mistakenly think too that because of the historical prominence of Christianity in a nation like Germany, where after all, the Reformation began, it is a country that has already been “reached.” But statistics would paint a very different picture. According to a 2012 Eurobarometer poll, over a third of the German population considers themselves either atheist/agnostic, or non-religious. Islam meanwhile is a fast-growing religion within the country, given the large population of Turkish immigrants, and the growing numbers of refugees Germany has taken in from majority Muslim countries over the last several years. The two large state churches in Germany, depending on the region are either Catholic or Evangelical (mostly Lutheran). But as I discovered from talking with many different German university students, there are sizable numbers of people in these churches who observance is nominal at best, limited to perhaps once or twice a year on Christmas and Easter.

So my heart had for some time been burdened for countries like Germany that had such a rich Christian heritage, but where for so much of the population now the church, and more importantly Christianity itself had ceased to have much practical significance. While I was studying British history in graduate school, before I went into full-time ministry, I had taken a German class for reading purposes and to fulfill some program requirements. But after that class, I was fascinated with the language, and continued to study it on my own, mostly for reading. Little did I think at the time that I might one day have the opportunity to use some of my German language experience in a missions context! But I mention this just to note how we never know in what ways God can use parts of our past experience to prepare us for something that we may encounter down the road. While I am by no means fluent, having some background with the German language helped me immensely during my time there, which I’ll discuss more a little bit later on.

 

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But now, back to the Great Commission, which as I mentioned seems the most logical starting point for any Scriptural reflections on missions, and most directly  addresses the “why” question as to our motivation to engage in missions in the first place. This passage is of course well known to most all Christians, but it is amazing how every time I come back to it, I seem to find something new that God has highlighted for my attention. Matthew 28:18-20—“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Upon recently rereading this familiar passage, I was struck by how it is not only a call to evangelism, but to discipleship as well. In other words, the Great Commission doesn’t just motivate us to engage in evangelism in order to be obedient to Christ’s last command, but it also instructs us as to a critical part of the “how” of missions. In verse 20, Christ’s command to make disciples of the nations can only be accomplished by the steady, patient work of discipleship. During my time in Germany, I certainly saw the value of discipleship and the legacy it can leave, as well as the damaging results when discipleship perhaps is not as effective as it could be. On the positive side, at the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, the theme was “multiply”. The focus was all on how in our campus ministries we could strive to be more faithful by not just leading people to Christ, and then teaching them how to live as Christians, but also by ensuring that they are able to pass these same truths down to others. This is the great principal illustrated by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:1-2. The apostle is here speaking to his most famous protégé, the young pastor Timothy. “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” We see then how Paul is concerned not merely with his own legacy of evangelism, but he passionately wishes for Timothy’s ministry to be successful as well. And one mark of this success can be if Timothy is able to transfer these teachings down to the next generation of believers. During the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, we learned firsthand about the results of faithful discipleship as we heard some of the many stories about how Martha Moore had invested in students over the decades in five different cities across three different countries. And today, every student leader of a Connexxion ministry in Germany can trace their spiritual heritage back to Martha through either her direct discipleship, or through having been discipled by a student that Martha had discipled. Martha sometimes uses the term “impossible people” to describe some of the unlikely students she has seen make decisions for the Lord. But the true success and lifeblood of her ministry has been that when students came to faith in Christ, she was able, at least with many of them, to push for the next step of beginning a walk in faithful obedience through the spiritual foundations instilled by patient discipleship.

Now of course discipleship can be a very challenging process to navigate through, and sometimes students don’t stay the course, falling away rather than remain faithful. Certainly the secular, God-skeptical culture of much of Western Europe (and Boulder, Colorado to be sure) doesn’t help. The ministries of Connexxion in Germany, and many of our Christian Challenge ministries in the Western U.S. are not particularly large when compared with the campus ministries one could find in other states where I’ve lived, like Alabama and Texas. So discouragement can sometimes creep in, but when it does, ministry staff and students alike should heed the last promise of Christ from the Great Commission, a promise of His presence. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of this pledge from Jesus, perhaps my personal favorite among all the Scriptural promises of our Lord. It should give us an immense sense of reassurance, calm, and peace—and I believe that we in turn should strive to pass these same spiritual blessings on to others, in particular the people we are investing time in through a discipleship relationship! Encouragement then is another critical facet of discipleship—and it seems to me almost without fail that when I think of someone like Martha Moore, or the people who have had a mentoring influence in my own spiritual life, they are people who are in large part defined by possessing this gift of encouragement. Now I think that sometimes encouragement is misunderstood or minimized as simply “saying nice things”, but Biblical encouragement goes so much deeper than that. Listen to Paul again, speaking to Timothy, this time from 2 Timothy 1:5-7: “When 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. Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Paul’s encouragement to Timothy here then, is not comprised of some idle compliments or ingratiating flattery. Rather these are well-chosen words designed to strengthen Timothy based on the spiritual heritage which Paul has carefully observed in him, and in light of the formidable challenges Timothy will face in the future. Christian encouragement is realistic and is rooted in a desire to build someone up while keeping them ever humble and rooted in a strong reliance upon the power of God. I believe too that by reminding Timothy of his spiritual heritage, Paul is both seeking to strengthen him, but also implying that there should be a strong built-in sense of accountability as well. Timothy has a responsibility before God and in deference to his spiritual forebears to continue the faithful work of the Church which Paul is entrusting to him. The Christian who is built up and encouraged through persistent discipleship can then joyfully seek to live out the exhortation that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:58—“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

 

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But while this mission project opened my eyes anew to the rich spiritual benefits that can be reaped from faithful discipleship, I also sadly saw plenty of contrary evidence as to what happens when discipleship is lacking. I remember one conversation I had with a student in Switzerland, one of the countries I visited briefly before arriving in Germany. Although she no longer considered herself a Christian, she recounted, as did many German students I later met, how she actually had some background in the church. In fact she had gone through confirmation classes at a Protestant church during her adolescence. In this liberal church, the pastor had told the confirmation class among other things that they didn’t have to take Biblical authority seriously—for example, they needn’t believe in the troublesome doctrine of hell. But rather than make Christianity somehow more palatable, even this watered-down doctrine was still not enough to convince the student to stay in the church as a practicing believer. Later, talking to various college and graduate students in Germany, I heard fairly frequently from individuals that they had grown up with some exposure to the church—an infant baptism, confirmation, or maybe just going to church at major holidays with their family. And while there were various subsequent reasons given as to why each individual had fallen away, and decided that Christianity no longer warranted a significant place in their lives, the common thread was that all of these people had been in the church at some point. So from my limited experience, these findings might suggest that the problem in Germany at least is not so much that the Church has ceased to have any influence. People’s lives to some extent are still intersecting with Christian communities, however short-lived that experience might be. But during that time in their lives, apparently nothing significant enough occurs to make them want to stay on as they grow older. Discipleship is somehow lacking. Now please note that I say this in no sort of judgmental attitude. I love Europe, and Germany in particular and my heart is heavy for the spiritual darkness there, and I know there are many, many people in the German church who are trying to push back against it. And I also realize that right here in America, especially where I serve in Boulder, Colorado, and indeed within the midst of our Christian Challenge ministry, effective discipleship remains an elusive aspiration at times. There are certainly students who I have puzzled over how to reach effectively, and I have grieved to see some fall away, despite my best efforts to keep them involved in the ministry and connected to me personally. So in no way can I claim to have cracked any code as regards to how to do discipleship most effectively. I know too that in the final analysis, as that great German Martin Luther once said “Every man must do two things alone: he must do his own believing, and his own dying.” So in this sense then, discipleship is ultimately dependent on just how willing an individual is to be teachable, and the extent to which they allow God to be at work in their lives.

Thinking once more of the “why” of missions, a question that I know I’ve had before is “why do we have to leave America to do missions?” On the one hand, there is a short answer to that—we don’t! Certainly living in a place like Boulder, where on Sunday mornings the preferred activities for the majority of residents would be mountain biking, hiking, running, skiing—almost anything besides going to church, I am very aware that in my own backyard, and around the CU campus is a vast mission field. That’s one big reason I felt God calling me to move to such a place to pursue campus ministry. But in my own life at least, foreign missions has come about as a natural extension of the work I do here in America. Missions has always been a progression for me. It has started very locally. Unlike some people, for whom an early missions trip proved to be a formative spiritual experience, for me, missions began literally with crossing the street. My home church, First Baptist Montgomery has long utilized its downtown location to serve the needs of the surrounding community. And right across the street from our main sanctuary is the Community Ministries branch of the church, known commonly as the “Caring Center.” There I got some of my first ministry experience working in a food bank and a thrift clothing store. It always seemed natural to me to begin with the spiritual needs I saw right on my own doorstep, and see from that how God might touch my heart for a wider circle of influence. And that is how it has happened in Boulder too. When I first arrived in Colorado in August of 2014, my priority was to become comfortable in the new culture I found myself in. Before I thought about going overseas, I needed to learn how to reach students at CU-Boulder. But over time, a natural progression towards wider mission fields naturally occurred. Our students were motivated to want to have an impact not just on the CU campus, but in the Boulder community, so we engaged the local homeless population through an outreach called “Compassion in the 303”. At the same time, I felt like I had been called to Colorado not just to be a witness to college students, but also to share my faith with friends and people living in Boulder who might not have anything at all to do with the University community. The circle then widened beyond Boulder to include Denver, where we have engaged in missions work during the last two Spring Breaks, such as helping out church planters and working with a ministry based in apartment complexes. Christian Challenge’s influence has gone beyond the state of Colorado as well to touch other parts of America. During our Spring Break in 2015, we went to California to serve in a variety of capacities around the Los Angeles area. This March, we hosted a mission team from the University of Alabama that served alongside us at the CU campus, and in August we will welcome another team from my home church, FBC Montgomery. In addition, one of my focuses with Christian Challenge, as I have shared before, is ministry to international students. I have had the privilege to connect with students from Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Italy, Japan, Panama, Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and South Africa while I’ve been at CU. These experiences have naturally helped open my eyes to wider opportunities for overseas ministry and reminded me of God’s great heart for the nations. And as I have already described, God used people and events in my life to plant in my heart the seed for an eventual participation in the work of these German campus ministries called “Connexxion.” All of this is illustrated by a verse from the prophet Isaiah. Although he is called first to preach to the children of Israel, and call them to return to faithful Covenant living, Isaiah soon realizes that his mission’s implications stretch far beyond the fate of just one people group. Isaiah 49:6—“Indeed He says, ‘It is too small a thing that you should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be My Salvation to the ends of the earth.”

 

Having an exercising a spiritual vision that extends beyond your own immediate context for ministry can thus naturally lead you to increasingly widespread missions involvement. In this way, another missions “why” then becomes a “how.” In other words, in what way does God touch our hearts to prompt us to begin caring about people, cultures, and lives far beyond the sphere of our own daily activity?? Well essentially He expands our vision. This can be accomplished in many different ways, but when I logically seek to follow that thought to its conclusion, considering what it means to have one’s vision expanded in a spiritual sense, I think of being able to see into the future. As we just saw from the Scriptural passage, Isaiah was gifted by God to be able to sense that his calling might somehow impact members of the nations, Gentiles, that he would never even meet. In the same way, God can touch us, especially perhaps in those moments that we feel discouraged and maybe even question how much good we are accomplishing through all of our mission activity. The Lord can show us through His scripture what will be the sure and certain conclusion one day of all of our Kingdom  work, the great goal towards which every missions endeavor points, however partially or incompletely. It is the portrait given in Revelation 7:9-10—a glimpse into the very Throne Room of Heaven. “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

 

At the University of Cologne campus, with my German friend Jonas, getting ready to do some spiritual surveys!

Thus knowing how the great Redemption story will one day end should give us an enormous amount of confidence to continue forward with our work. We also needn’t burden ourselves with a feeling of responsibility in the sense that someone else’s salvation is dependent on whether or not they hear the Gospel from us! We know that God will accomplish His purposes, and will bring representatives from all of the nations together on that great day in Heaven’s throne room. But whenever we decline an opportunity to join where God may be at work in the mission field, we miss out on the chance to gain a blessing by participating in such Kingdom-building work. While I was at the Connexxion Conference, I got a chance to be inspired by the vision casting of Martha as she talked about her vision for the future of the ministry, a project she calls “Boundless.” The idea is to continue to expand the work she has been doing on different campuses in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Teams will come from America for a year-long experience that will include first partnering with one of the established campus ministries, and then setting out to start a new ministry at a different campus. The first campus chosen for expansion was actually the University of Cologne, and we were able to go there and do some spiritual “scouting” there during the Connexxion Conference. Martha Moore has had such a successful career as an IMB missionary because she is able to take the vision God gives her for one particular city, such as Jena, or Braunschweig, and then she translates that to something that is repeatable and transferable to a different city, maybe even a different country. In the meantime, the ministries that she leaves behind continue to flourish because she has discipled student leaders who will then in turn raise up new leaders, all in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:1-2.

 

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Related to vision casting, another spiritual trait that was certainly evident among the students and staff of the Connexxion ministries in Germany is that they are Kingdom-minded. This can come across in many different ways, but in essence it means they are focused on the big picture, and don’t get distracted by what we might call “small dreams.” One of the speakers at the Connexxion Conference was Robbie Nutter, leader of the Christian Challenge ministry at Kansas State. He taught during one session from Mark 10, the story where James and John came to Jesus to request special seats of honor next to Him in heaven. Robbie used this story to ask the provocative question, “Are small dreams keeping you from Christ?” Now certainly there is nothing wrong from time with being honored or recognized. Everyone enjoys feeling appreciated, and being singled out for a word of praise or encouragement. But as we work in ministry and in missions, is our primary motivation to win the praise and recognition of our fellow men and women? Or are we focused on the Kingdom, to the extent that we don’t mind being overlooked, allow the spotlight to be on others, and don’t even care who gets the credit, as long as God is being glorified, and His work is continuing? This is the essentially the message of Jesus in John 4:37-38—“For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I have sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labors.” So in this Kingdom work, we are all simply one part of the process and we leave the end results to God, and are able to be open-handed, realizing that only through a selfless, team effort, can great things be accomplished for the Lord.

I say this because I’m fully aware that often when church folks gather to talk about the mission field, Europe is not the “glamorous” part of the world to highlight. We don’t hear as many stories of mass baptisms, churches being planted overnight, or fearful persecutions—the dramatic events that sometimes accompany missionary testimonies in other parts of the world. And as I mentioned earlier, some American Christians may even have the outdated idea that Europe has already been “reached.” But the courageous students and staff of the campus ministries we worked with in Germany are just as much on the point for Jesus as anyone I’ve ever met. And the importance of their mission field has nothing to do with how much recognition it gets in American churches, or how many IMB staff members are allotted there, and everything to do with the great spiritual needs that are apparent around the country, and so acutely felt in its institutions of higher learning. Certainly I recognize and respect the call to bring the Gospel to many of the difficult places that lie within the 10-40 window, and the urgency preached by people like David Platt to provide Gospel access to unreached people groups. Everyone working in those settings has my utmost respect, and I even understand the need for a special priority of resources and mobilization to those parts of the world. But with that being said, it’s also ok for God to call some people to other parts of the globe, where while the cultural context is quite different, the spiritual darkness is just as real!!

 

Practicing my German with some students from the University of Bonn during a cookout we held in a park near the banks of the Rhine River

I talked at the outset of this post about how I wanted to make missions seem possible for everyone, and really encourage people to think about how God may be calling them to a mission field. In that spirit, I wanted to focus mostly on the positive things that I learned during this past month abroad. However it would be false for me to insinuate that missions is only about reaping spiritual benefits. As anyone who’s taken even the briefest short-term trip knows, the mission field is both a place where we can experience God’s bounty in unexpected and powerful ways, but also a place where we can face some of the strongest spiritual attacks, obstacles, and discouragements. So I want to address the third missions question—“what if”. Because if we’re honest, for many of us there is always a degree of fear lurking in the background when we think about foreign missions. Even though in years past, people would have considered Germany a safe travel destination, the recent rise in terrorist attacks there, and across Europe, made me slightly on edge as I prepared to travel there. Our team even filled out a special IMB insurance policy to cover us in case we were affected in any way by a terrorist event. But beyond such dramatic fears, often the obstacles we confront in the mission field take on a more personal, but no less challenging aspect. For me, one big challenge to embrace was my use of the language. Even though I knew that many of the Germans we’d be working with spoke good English, I had put in a fair amount of time over the years studying German, and I am convinced that this is not by accident. God uses circumstances and interests like that in our life to leverage for the Gospel, if we allow Him to. But for all of my language preparation, this would be my first time ever to be “immersed” in the language 24/7. After a few days of traveling in Vienna where I tried to use German as much as possible for things like ordering food or buying tickets, I noticed first of all how tiring it could be to try and “live” in a language besides my native tongue. I began to grow apprehensive. Would I actually be able to talk about spiritual things in German with college students that I didn’t even know?? Once I arrived in Braunschweig, I began to look for as many opportunities as I could find to practice my German—speaking at restaurants, in shops, and conversing with students in the Connexxion ministry. It was here that I felt all over again a special affinity for international students! Like me, they were still learning this challenging new language (although their German was far superior to mine), and they were very patient to help me along in our halting, stumbling conversations. I was immediately aware too of how much greater the challenge is for international students who come to America. At least in Germany, whenever I had trouble with the language, there was almost always someone there who could help explain the word I needed in English. But internationals who come to America are rarely extended such courtesy. They are expected to be able to fully function in English only from the time they arrive.

 

With a missions team from USC that I served alongside in Bonn

In addition to practicing my German some with the students in Connexxion, I enjoyed going to one of the largest Baptist churches in Germany, also in Braunschweig, and heard an excellent sermon in German. Later at the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, I was able to attend one of the workshop sessions on discipleship which was also held in German. God used these teaching opportunities through a different language in a special way I believe. So often, when listening to Bible teaching, the greatest enemies we must fight against are distractions of every conceivable kind that come into our mind and threaten to divert us from the topic at hand. Our mind can wander easily because we are able to half-way listen to someone speaking in English and still also be thinking about something else at the same time. But when I hear a message in German, I have no choice but to fully attentive! I have to hang on every word to be able to properly understand, and it struck me later that this is the attitude and the posture we should adopt any time the Word of God is spoken or taught! During the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, we made two different day trips to the Universities in Cologne and Bonn respectively in order to engage students on campus in spiritual surveys. Then, once the conference concluded, I went to Bonn for several more days to help serve alongside a student mission team from USC, and we again engaged in spiritual surveys with the students at the university there. It was these spiritual surveys that I was most nervous about beforehand. Because in all honesty this type of “cold-call” evangelism where you have no prior connection to the person can be challenging for even back in my usual ministry setting at CU-Boulder. And while I had already gotten in some good practice speaking German, it had been mostly with people who were already part of the Connexxion ministry. They had been patient and polite with me as I had tried to use the language, but how would it go with complete strangers? Maybe they would resent me interrupting their studies, relaxing, or conversations  to have a talk about potentially awkward, spiritual topics with a clearly less-than-fluent German speaker. Perhaps they would even harbor some anti-American sentiment when they learned where I was from, or would be fearful and suspicious hearing about a campus ministry, since such groups are much less common in the German university culture than back home. Maybe with my uncertain command of German, I would say the wrong thing or confuse them with my questions. These were all among the fears that ran through my head, most of them honestly lies from the Enemy.

 

As always in such moments, I found comfort and reassurance in God’s Word. A few passages stood out for me during this time. In Exodus 4:10-12, Moses is offering excuses to God as to all the reasons why he feels inadequate to be the Lord’s messenger. But God’s response echoes to us down through the ages as a reassurance and reminder of where true spiritual power comes from. “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.’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” Then I thought too, of Paul’s self-confession in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5—“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

 

A time of worship at Alex’s apartment in Braunschweig

So it was certainly a comfort to reflect that two of the mightiest men the Lord ever raised up, Moses and Paul, were both somewhat lacking in self-confidence as to their own ability to communicate the message to others effectively. As a result of course, they were that much more dependent on God’s power which is how the Lord wants it to be for all of us. And for me then, there was a real spiritual reason for my wanting to use German as much as possible during my missions work. Sure a part of it is because I have put a lot of time and effort into trying to learn the language, and there is always a natural curiosity to see much you really know, putting your skills to test in a real-life, rather than class-room type setting. But from a spiritual standpoint, using German allowed me to receive certain lessons from the Lord, as well as overcome some of these aforementioned spiritual fears that gripped me when I prepared to do campus evangelism.

 

Members of our Braunschweig mission team with Alex in the historic old city

I think I can some up these lessons in a few adjectives: Humility. When I’m speaking in English, I usually feel fairly eloquent, and able to express myself clearly and effectively. After all, a large part of my professional training in Seminary and my subsequent campus ministry experience has involved me learning to be able to clearly communicate and teach the truths of the Word of God, in prayer, preaching, and discipleship. But trying to accomplish spiritual tasks on even an admittedly much smaller scale in German proved to be an exercise in humble learning. I remember once in Braunschweig I had the chance to lead worship, and I performed two songs in German. These were two songs  which I knew already with the original English words, and for which I had to practice several hours just to be able to present a half-decent rendition. Another time before a worship service with the student ministry, I was backstage with the speaker, my friend, Alex, and everyone in the circle prayed for his upcoming message. So I joined them, in German, and about 2/3 of the way through my prayer, I ran smack into the language barrier. Being unable to conclude my thoughts in German, I had to rather embarrassingly switch back to English! But again, God used these experiences to show me humility, and also I believe to develop some other  spiritual qualities.

Students and mission team members from Braunschweig on a hike up in the beautiful Harz Mountains

Meditation. Often in ministry settings in America, I may launch into a prayer, an answer to a question, or even part of a message, and I don’t necessarily have to plan out, or meditate over everything I say in advance. It’s nice of course to be able to speak more extemporaneously, but at the same time we can lose something when we don’t give ourselves the time and space to meditate thoroughly over every Word that comes from the Mouth of God and that we wish to communicate to others. But often, as I spoke German, I had to premeditate the words and phrases I would use. So this afforded me the opportunity to be extra careful and intentional in the way that I spoke about God and my relationship to Him. Listening. I pride myself on trying to be a good listener in all settings, but especially as it pertains to ministry. But as I’ve already mentioned, we must often struggle against every form of distraction as we seek to listen intentionally, because to really hear what someone is saying, to be fully present in that conversation, and to absorb what God may be seeking to teach us, takes effort. But as I’ve already mentioned about hearing the German sermon and workshop discussion, so it was true also for individual conversations—listening in another language gave me no choice but to be fully, acutely attentive if I had any hope of being able to understand!! I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring someone, or only half-listening, and again God used those experiences to convict me that it should always be this way when we are listening to someone else privilege us with the story and details of their personal spiritual experiences. Finding people of peace. I had heard many missionaries talk before about the importance of finding a “person of peace”—not necessarily a believer, but someone who was at least open to the Gospel, and would serve as a friend, and a helpful guide into a new cultural setting. Well again and again during my time in Germany, the Lord blessed me to have encounters with such individuals, many of them students that I met during spiritual surveys. But I believe that my speaking German with them actually helped somewhat in that discernment process. My method of finding a potential person of peace was to go up and explain to them in German that I was a visitor to the campus who would like to ask them a few questions about student life at the university. The students would know immediately from my accent that I wasn’t German, or a native speaker of their language. And some probably could guess pretty quickly that I was an American. But if they were patient enough to nonetheless to talk with me for a few minutes, tolerating my bad grammar, and even helping me as needed find the right word to use in German, then I would say I found a person of peace. Often they weren’t necessarily believers, but if nothing else, they had been willing to show hospitality to a stranger, and literally in every conversation that progressed far enough for me to ask about a spiritual background, not one student took offense, or refused to answer. Indeed, having heard so much about Germany being a “cold culture” and how religious belief is seen as an essentially private subject, I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which these students who I had just met were willing to share about their spiritual backgrounds, and receive some information about Connexxion. Now of course there were students who didn’t wish to speak with us, just as there would have been back in Boulder (and honestly percentage wise, about the same), but by trying to speak German, it seemed I was able to maybe identify even earlier on those individuals who were a little more open.

 

Worshipping in German in Braunschweig!

So how did the actual talks and spiritual surveys go?? Well it varied of course. We often found students who had some exposure to the church either through a baptism, a confirmation, or having attended on major religious holidays with their family members. As I alluded to earlier in my post, the problem, at least in part seems to be that not enough is happening in the churches to  make them want to stick around later in life. A problem, which of course is also very much a reality here in America. Hence my extended discussion about the importance of discipleship earlier in this post. I also heard many students that were hesitant to claim belief in a personal God, or the God of Scripture. And yet at the same time, very few were outright atheists. None of them seemed hostile either to the idea at least of what Connexxion was trying to do—build community among university students and at least give them the opportunity to hear and respond to the claims of the Gospel. Certainly it would seem that many of the German students we spoke with would like to find more community, as their college experiences seemed mostly comprised of working and studying, without nearly the level of extracurricular activity and involvement that is more typical in America. Also, just as an aside—I heard virtually nothing negative directed towards me personally as an American. Some of the students I talked to had traveled before in the U.S or expressed a desire to visit. Sure, some of them asked me about Trump and the current political situation, and I tried to answer as diplomatically as possible. But on the other hand they were perfectly willing to discuss equally sensitive questions in Germany, such as the future of the refugee situation, or their feelings about the EU and Brexit. The students we spoke too on the whole were remarkably well informed about events in America and the rest of the world, and seemed genuinely pleased we were visiting their country.

Now just as a closing note. I in no way want to come across as prideful about my language abilities. First of all they aren’t nearly good enough yet to warrant that!! And I also know that many Americans don’t have the opportunity to learn or practice foreign languages nearly as easily as most Europeans do. Spiritual preparation through Biblical study, prayer, and engaging in witnessing to others here in America is by far the most important way we can equip ourselves for the mission field. But I just wanted to mention the language aspect so that I could encourage anyone who is thinking of using their language skills, however meager they may be, in the field. If my experience in Germany is any indication, the locals you meet will be extremely appreciative of even a small effort on your part, and as I was, you may be pleasantly surprised how God can use language to open some doors, and teach you some spiritual lessons during your missions experience.

 

Getting ready to do some spiritual surveys on an excursion to the University of Bonn during the Connexxion Conference

Well it’s now time to close this lengthy blog post! In summary, I would say that there was nothing that I learned during this mission trip that I could not have learned while in my regular ministry setting in Boulder. However, I do feel like this was somewhat similar to an “accelerated course of study.” In other words, in just a few weeks I was able to absorb a variety of spiritual lessons, as I’ve attempted to communicate in this blog post. These may otherwise have taken me longer perhaps to learn in America. So I would encourage anyone who’s contemplating an overseas mission trip to go! God may be able to teach you faster and in a more unique way, some of the same lessons He wishes to impart to you here. And you might find too upon your return that you are that much more ready to engage in the mission field that your own hometown, university campus, or local workplace represents. What a privilege to partner with God in the ever-expanding work of His Kingdom, work which, we know from Revelation 7 will end in the beautiful picture of a Heavenly throne room filled with the representatives of the nations!!

             

 

Why I believe in the Resurrection

 

Recently, during the week leading up to Easter, our ministry engaged in a special evangelism focus around campus. One leading component of this outreach was hosting a book table where we gave away various Christian-related titles. One book in particular that we offered to many skeptics and seekers was the classic Josh McDowell apologetic text More than a carpenter. I personally gave copies of this book to two of my friends who are not Christians, in the hopes we can discuss it together. Reading through McDowell’s book in the last few weeks has made me ponder anew a question that I believe is perhaps among the most significant that any Christian can ask themselves. Did the Resurrection of Jesus Christ really happen?? Unlike some of the different posts I have added to this blog over the last several years, the question of the Resurrection’s occurrence is not simply a theological detail. Whether or not it literally occurred as a historical event is a question that should be of central importance to all Christians, and anyone who is investigating the truth of the Christian faith. Because, simply put, the entire validity of the life and claims of Jesus Christ, and hence Christianity itself, stand and fall on the question of whether the Resurrection actually took place. Paul states as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14-17—“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. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” The Resurrection is not only of paramount importance from a theological standpoint as the centerpiece of the Christian faith, but its acceptance often constitutes a stumbling block for many would-be believers. There have been very many men and women throughout history who were comfortable regarding Jesus as a good moral teacher, an enlightened man whose teachings offer many positive lessons for how we can better live among our fellow humans. And such individuals may even be willing to accept that Jesus could have somehow been able to have a calming, even a healing effect on people who were sick and diseased. They can identify with His preferential love for the marginalized in His society, and can recognize Him as a positive force for spiritual renewal and progress in the Jewish tradition. But many would still stop short of believing that this same Jesus, great teacher though He was, could actually have pulled off the greatest miracle of all—cheating death itself and rising again to life following a brutal and bloody death on the cross. The Bible itself recounts similar reactions from those who heard the story. In Acts 17, when Paul preaches in Athens at the Mars Hill, he is given an attentive audience by the various philosophers and intellectuals who populated that great city of the ancient world. And yet we are told in Acts 17:32—“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘we will hear you again on this matter.”

 

For myself, as a minister of the Gospel, and someone who is regularly engaged in trying to share the Good News with non-believers, this question of the Resurrection’s historical validity is a very personal one. And while there are a number of different ways that I could go about addressing it, I’m going to use a theological methodology that is among my favorite ways of analyzing the faith norms and traditions of the Christian life—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is something I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, and the basic idea, borrowed from the work of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, is that there are four main sources from which we can draw theological conclusions, and which govern our Christian belief and practice: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. As a Baptist, and someone who has been profoundly shaped by the theological legacy of the Protestant Reformation, I would agree with Wesley that Scripture is paramount as the ultimate source of authority in my spiritual life. But these other three categories—reason, tradition, and experience, can also be of value in helping us to interpret and apply the truths of Scripture into our lives. With this in mind, I’d like to use these four paradigms from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to investigate the Resurrection, and to make my personal case for why I believe it to be true, not just in my heart, and as a spiritual occurrence, although that is certainly important, but also as a historical event.

 

 

So first, what is the evidence of the Resurrection from Scripture itself?? Now some people might immediately ask, why even bother citing Scriptural evidence for the Resurrection?? After all, wouldn’t we expect the Bible to support this event, and weren’t the very people who were most responsible for spreading the teaching about Christ’s triumph over death (the apostles and Paul) the ones who wrote these accounts? In other words, aren’t they all biased witnesses?? Well, from the standpoint of a skeptic, yes. But seeing as the Bible is the main source of written information we have for even basing a claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we should at least consider the nature of the arguments there. First, it is important to establish that the Resurrection is not simply referenced in one particular verse or passage. There are many, many different Scriptural references to Jesus rising from the dead, too many, in fact, for me to recount in detail here. Biblical critics often refer to Scripture “contradicting” itself or to significant “textual variants” that might somehow cast doubt on the reliability of the Bible. But the Resurrection is one of those events in the life of Jesus that is clearly attested to by all four Gospel writers. Also of great significance is the fact that the story of the Resurrection doesn’t begin with Jesus coming back from death. For in fact, long before this occurs Christ repeatedly predicts that He will one day triumph over the grave. In Matthew 20:18-19, Jesus proclaims: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” Virtually identical predictions are made by Christ in Mark 10:33-34, and Luke 18:31-33. Then in John 11, we find the account of what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This miraculous event of course foreshadows Christ’s own rise, and proves that He has power over death itself as Jesus tells Martha just before her brother Lazarus is raised—“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?” Another interesting detail related to the Resurrection, as recounted in all four Gospels, is that the first people to discover the empty tomb and the reality of the risen Christ are a group of women who had arrived there early on a Sunday morning for the purpose of finishing the embalming of the body. What is significant about this detail, as many Christian apologists have noted over the years, is that in the ancient world, women would not have been considered reliable sources. Their word certainly would not have been held as valid testimony in any official record, or court of law, given their relatively low standing in society. But this fact actually adds credibility to the Gospel account. Because if the writers had really wanted to fabricate evidence surrounding the events of the Resurrection, there would have been no reason for them to include this particular detail since it would have actually weakened the validity of Christ’s claim for their audience.

 

There are a few other passages in Scripture which shed further light on the fact and nature of the Resurrection, but these relate to how Jesus’ rising from the dead was actually a reasonable occurrence, which brings us to the next point of the quadrilateral. Now on the surface, it might seem absurd to call the Resurrection “reasonable.” After all, such an event surely is something that is mostly appreciated through the lens of faith, and something that happened counter to all logical information about our usual expectations for someone dying, and remaining dead. In other words, far from prompting any sort of belief, the account of something so fantastical as the Resurrection should invite our natural distrust and skepticism. But in its own unique way, Scripture seems to both expect and even invite our skepticism when it comes to the question of the Resurrection’s validity. There are several examples of this. For instance, some critics might allege that the Resurrection of Jesus was but a ghostly vision, or hallucination that was experienced by followers of Jesus who were in denial about his death, and wished so badly to see Him again that they had imagined experiences brought on by their pain and trauma. But the Bible responds to such an objection in a couple of different ways. First, it makes it clear that Jesus didn’t just appear to a few women, or even to the Apostles in isolated circumstances. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:5, that not only did Christ appear repeatedly to different groups of people, but that “He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.” Note in the last part of this verse the special emphasis on the fact that many of these witnesses are still alive at the time Paul is writing. So he is effectively inviting the skeptic to go find one of these people and ask them about what they saw. It would certainly seem plausible that it less likely for a crowd of 500 people all to experience the same hallucination.

 

 

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But Scripture also speaks to the individual skepticism and doubt that some of Jesus’ closer followers, His 12 Apostles, experienced upon first encountering the risen Christ. In Luke 24:36-43, Jesus appears to His disciples, and His actions demonstrate that He is well-aware of their potential skepticism. “Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.” So Luke’s Gospel makes it very clear that the risen Christ was a corporeal presence, and not merely a spirit or vision. This point is further driven home in John 20. Here we have the story of the most famous of all Resurrection skeptics—the Apostle Thomas, “doubting Thomas” as he has come to be known through the ages. John 20:24-29—“ Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing. And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Again, isn’t it fascinating how the Scriptures seem to allow for our skepticism towards the Resurrection, and provide proofs to that end? Jesus could have easily upbraided Thomas for his disbelief, and yet He almost seems to expect it, allowing for Thomas to satisfy his doubt with tangible evidence, and yet at the same time praising the characteristics of faith which would allow countless followers of Jesus from that time on to believe in His Resurrection despite not having witnessed it personally. The Book of Acts, which is really the story of how the Christian faith and the early church grows after Jesus, begins with a statement that also seems designed to quell some of the natural doubt which might exist concerning the Resurrection’s validity. Acts 1:1-3—“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” The phrase “infallible proofs” would seem to suggest that rather than simply accepting the Resurrection as an article of faith, Luke, the author of Acts, is anxious that his readers know that this was a reasonable event, supported by logical evidence.

 

 

Image result for tissot the exhortation to the apostles

Whether one accepts the truth of the Resurrection or not, it would certainly seem fairly clear to conclude that the belief in Christ’s rise had an immediate and galvanizing effect on His followers. The first sermon recorded in Scripture after the time of Jesus was given by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2. Here, speaking to a crowd of both Jews and Gentiles, Peter attests to the reality of the Risen Jesus, even quoting from Psalm 16 as a foreshadowing of Christ’s defeat of death, a message which leads to many in the audience seeking to be baptized as Christ followers. What else could have logically transformed Peter and his fellow disciples, who just a short time before had been meeting in secret and hiding for fear from the Jewish and Roman authorities, short of the knowledge that their leader and teacher, Jesus, was not just another dead martyr, but lived again?? British theologian Michael Green says that confidence in the Resurrection “was the belief that turned heartbroken followers of a crucified rabbi into the courageous witnesses and martyrs of the early church. This was the one belief that separated the followers of Jesus from the Jews and turned them into the community of the resurrection. You could imprison them, flog them, kill them, but you could not make them deny their conviction that “on the third day He rose again”

 

But of course many critics can allege that either these early followers of Jesus were simply deluded as to the truth of the Resurrection, or that they knowingly concocted a false story in order to keep the religion going. C.S. Lewis has famously proposed in Mere Christianity that we have three options, his “trilemma” in regards to how we view Jesus—a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. I would argue by way of extension that these are similarly the choices we have for how to view the Resurrection, and the claims to it as given by eyewitnesses such as the Apostles. It could that the Apostles were lunatics, or to put a bit less strongly, at the least traumatized individuals who imagined they saw a risen Jesus. We have already dealt with the arguments against the contention that Jesus reappeared merely as a ghost or spirit. Furthermore, it’s a bit difficult to imagine these same disciples to be mentally unhinged, who were so instrumental in the spread of the Christian church, and in further propagating the teachings of Jesus which have had such a profound impact on Western society and the world as a whole. As Paul Little writes in Know why you believe—“Are these men, who helped transform the moral structure of society, consummate liars, or deluded madmen? These alternatives are harder to believe than the fact of the Resurrection, and there is no shred of evidence to support them.” Little’s quote also addresses the second possibility, that the Apostles knew perfectly well that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and yet decided to perpetuate this hoax for whatever reasons, and then managed to successfully spread it to posterity. But what would their reasons and motivations be for doing so?? Of course one could say that they had a vested interest in trying to continue the work and ministry of a man they had devoted their lives to following, and what better way to seal the credibility and authority of Jesus’ teaching by claiming that even death itself could not conquer Him?? But such a theory is severely tested when we take into account the eventual fate of these men. Eleven of the twelve Apostles would eventually meet a martyr’s death, as would Paul—their painful deaths directly connected to their insistence that Jesus had risen from the dead, and should be followed and worshipped as God.

 

Thus the question is raised—who would be willing to die for a lie?? As Josh McDowell perceptively points out in his wonderfully concise apologetic text, More than a Carpenter, many people in history have died for things that turned out to be false, but we would be hard-pressed to find many people in their right minds who have died for something they knew was a lie. And even if some of the Apostles, or possibly all of them as a group had been initially tempted to keep the legacy of Jesus alive by exaggerating a claim He had survived death, surely the temptation to give up the truth in exchange for their own personal safety would have been hard for them to resist. It would have only required one person to have betrayed the secret for the whole conspiracy, so to speak, to crumble. This was certainly the opinion of the eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who once wrote, “The allegation that the Apostles were imposters is quite absurd. Let us follow the charge to its logical conclusion: Let us picture those twelve men, meeting after the death of Jesus Christ, and entertaining into conspiracy to say that He has risen. That would have constituted an attack upon both the civil and the religious authorities. The heart of man is strangely given to fickleness and change; it is swayed by promises, tempted by material things. If any one of those men had yielded to temptations so alluring, or given way to the more compelling arguments of prison, torture, they would have all been lost.” But in response to Lewis’ trilemma, noted Biblical scholar and Christian skeptic Bart Ehrman has added a fourth potential option—legend. Perhaps the Apostles were sincere in their mistaken belief that Jesus had risen, and then over time, those men who wrote the books of the New Testament were influenced by stories of Jesus which gradually became more exaggerated over time to eventually incorporate such fantastic events as the Resurrection. Ehrman believes that Jesus could have been just an ordinary, moral teacher who was elevated to the status of a God by His later followers. And part of the strength of such an argument might lie in saying that the more time which passes between an individual’s death, and the records pertaining to their life and work, the more opportunity there could be for a possible distortion of details, and even the invention of information. But if we take the widely accepted date for the death of Christ to be around 33 AD, we find that the first Gospel, Mark could have been written as early as 65 AD, just about thirty years later. The last Gospel, John, was probably written around 90 AD. Thus we are talking about a period of only about 60 years between the death of Christ and the last of the firsthand accounts of His life. Especially by the standards of antiquity, that is not a long time-lapse. The Gospels were written within a timeframe that could easily have encompassed the lifespan of someone who knew Jesus and walked alongside Him. Therefore it makes it less likely that wild fabrications or outright legends would be concocted during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ time still would have been living.

 

 

The chart pictured above provides a nice response to people who would try and cast doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament, while refraining from similar critiques on other widely accepted works of antiquity. As you can see, both in terms of the number of extant manuscripts and the gap between the creation of the original and the oldest surviving copies, the New Testament has much stronger evidence for its textual integrity and existence than the works of Homer, Caesar, Aristotle, and many other famous figures from antiquity.

 

Image result for st vincent of lerin

So it is reasonable, I believe for us to have to entertain the possibility that the Resurrection of Jesus, as witnessed by the Apostles, really did occur as a historical event. Moving on to the next category in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, tradition, we needn’t give as detailed an inquiry. St. Vincent of Lerins was an early Christian bishop from France who lived in the 5th century AD. He came up with a famous maxim for determining what constituted widespread Christian belief, or orthodoxy—that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” This so-called Vincentian Canon could surely contain no more instrumental truth than a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. The vast majority of Christians, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, across numerous different denominations, cultures, and periods of history have held this truth in common. So as much as both critics, and those within Christianity have focused on the differences in belief and practice amongst various branches of Christianity, the fact of the matter is that there is more that unites the vast majority of Christian than divides them, a belief in the Resurrection being paramount among such unifying factors. Every time a group  of Christians gather to worship on Sunday, they are paying tribute to the honoring of the day when Christ rose from the dead, and also to the rich legacy of Scriptural and then ecclesial tradition which has passed  down this truth as being both essential to, and inseparable from, Christian orthodoxy.

 

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Finally, what about the evidence for the Resurrection from experience?? Well here I must draw primarily from my own faith background, although I do wish to cite one Scripture at the outset. One of my favorite verses is John 21:25—“And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” I love this verse because it suggests that a large part of the story of Jesus is not simply the historical account of His life and ministry, although of course that is significant. But the story of Jesus has also been written on countless human hearts down through the ages of history, and is measured in the multitude of lives that have been changed by belief in Him, a belief which for so many has centered on the reality of the Resurrection. Such personal assurances of the Resurrection’s significance have long been celebrated in Christian hymns. One of my favorite examples, and a hymn that I grew up singing as a Southern Baptist is “I serve a risen Savior”. In the chorus the words go: “He lives, he lives/Christ Jesus lives today!/He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way/He lives, he lives, salvation to impart!/You ask me how I know he lives?/He lives within my heart.” This hymn succinctly captures as well as any I know the importance of the Resurrection not just as an historical event, or an article of Christian doctrine, but as a living truth that is felt, and gives meaning and purpose to individual believers. The wonderful Bill Gaither hymn “Because He lives” celebrates in a similar manner the way in which belief in the Resurrection can offer daily hope and sustenance. As the chorus proclaims: “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” New York City pastor and author Tim Keller is a noted current-day apologist for Christianity, and I was once watching a video of him discussing faith questions with a room full of Christian skeptics. One of them asked Keller–if they made a solid or convincing argument against some aspect of the Christian faith, would he be open to possibly changing his views or beliefs? Keller responded that while he might be very willing to concede the validity of an argument that could challenge or even change some aspect of his belief, this could only really occur on an intellectual level. For one another, more heartfelt level, his personal experience of Christianity was something so unique to his life, that by its very nature it couldn’t really be challenged with a logical argument. And I must say I agree with him. If I have felt the reality of Jesus as a living presence, the Resurrected Lord, in my life through a personal faith relationship, then no amount of scholarly or logical arguments against the validity of the Resurrection should be able to shake that aspect of my belief. In much the same way, we could compare the intensely personal nature of romantic love between two people. An outsider could look in upon a relationship and say that there was no rational or logical grounds for why these two persons should be attracted to and committed to one another, but their opinion ultimately has very little bearing on the situation, because the two people in question have found through their personal experience, which is completely unique to them, that they love one another. I wanted to talk about experience last, because I think that in many ways this is the trickiest of the four categories of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to negotiate. Certainly due to its high degree of subjectivity, personal experience should be measured through these other lenses of Scripture, reason and tradition. But we also should not be too quick to discount its validity either. In my experience in campus ministry so far, not so many skeptics that I’ve talked to who’ve later become Christians have cited intellectual, or logically-based arguments as the deciding factor. More often than not, they have mentioned emotional conversion experiences, or a gradual awakening to the reality of God and His love through the actions of others. That is to say, experiential factors often play a critical role in someone’s coming to faith in Jesus.

As I reflect back on why I believe in the Resurrection, I think it all can be summed up in one word for me—hope. I believe in a God of hope, and that hope is symbolized most powerfully by the fact that even the bleakest and seemingly most insurmountable of enemies, death, could not thwart the redemptive plans of God for all humanity in Christ. The Resurrection for me is Jesus’ twin triumph over death and the power of sin. And what is most amazing about this last miracle of Christ, is that its implications extend to all who believe in Him. As Jesus says in John 5:28—“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth–those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation”. As I conclude this blog post, it is my hope of course that someone may have the chance to read it, and learn more about how they can be confident in believing in Jesus’ Resurrection as an actual historical event, supported by evidence drawn from Scripture and church tradition, as well as their own reason and experience. But an even greater hope, and prayer would be that someone will see my life—the choices I make, the way I treat others, and the witness that I share, and see in it a reflection of evidence for the Resurrection of Christ. The hope that the Risen Christ has brought me, and continues to bring, has been shared by billions of men and women through history, and I refuse to believe that such a powerful current of love, faith, and life-changing confidence can be based on falsehood. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed…and He Lives!

Withstanding the Tempter

 

Image result for jesus being tempted in the wilderness by satan

We are now in the season of Lent–the 40 day period prior to Easter. Lent directly commemorates the time which Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, a season of disciplined spiritual preparation for His public ministry, which culminated in Him facing the Devil’s temptations. We will examine this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness from Luke 4:1-13 in more detail in just a minute. But first, I want to think about what it means to go through a period of intense preparation and discipline in pursuit of a greater overall goal.

 

 

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No doubt, most of us have faced such times of preparation in our lives. If any of you have played sports you might have had to go through a training camp of some sort. I played high school football and we suffered through what were known as “two-a-days”. Every morning and every afternoon we trudged out into the hot Alabama sun—in early August, to practice and prepare for the upcoming football season. It was tough no doubt,—but what I experienced was an absolute picnic in comparison to the training camp held by coach Paul Bear Bryant for his Texas A&M football squad in 1954. This was Bryant’s first year in College Station, and he wanted to set the tone for the kind of rough-and-tumble football he expected his players to deliver. So he decided to take the players out to a forsaken little town in west-central Texas called Junction. And there Bryant put his team through ten days of sheer torture. They practiced on a hard, rocky field in outdoor temperatures that surpassed 110 degrees. No water was allowed. Scores of players were injured or suffered heat stroke. Bryant ignored their complaints and told them to keep practicing. As the days past many simply quit. As one of the players, Gene Stallings, memorably phrased it, “We went out there in two buses, and came back in one.” But Bryant’s harsh methods of discipline and preparation eventually did pay off. By his third year at Texas A&M, in 1956, the Aggies were conference champions. And of course he went on to win 14 SEC titles and six national titles during his lengthy tenure as head coach at the University of Alabama from 1958-1982. While the players changed over the years, and even the styles and strategies of offense and defense, Bryant’s hard-nosed approach to disciplined preparation for each football season never wavered throughout his career. The athletics world is just one example then of an arena in which people are willing to subject themselves to discipline in the hopes of being able to gain a reward. Paul discusses this fact in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, contrasting the fleeting glory that can be won in sports to the eternal spiritual rewards that Christ followers can receive. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do  it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.”

 

Well as we study Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we see Him denying Himself, engaging in prayer and fasting, and then tangling with the wiles of the devil–a spiritual conflict with the highest possible stakes. We start to understand how crucial this period is in terms of preparation for everything that will come after. Jesus will face many obstacles and challenges in His ministerial career, and here in the bleak surroundings of the desert, He forges the spiritual discipline and an utter reliance on God which will enable Him to successfully be a perfect witness for the Kingdom of God, and ultimately, the Savior for all humanity. So as we commemorate this time of Lent, we recognize that it is a period for spiritual reflection, and repentance, in preparation for the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection which will soon come. So during Lent we try to focus on what’s important—what’s truly central in our spiritual lives. So often, we fall into temptation precisely because we don’t have our priorities straight—and we start to seek after things which can never truly satisfy or fulfill us. They are false hopes, and false idols. And in this passage from Luke, Satan tries to lure Christ into turning away from His difficult and demanding mission, to chase after some of these false lures. Jesus stays strong in the Spirit however, even when He is at a low point of physical weakness. He remains rooted in the anchoring truth of Scripture.

So as we study these verses, I think it’s important not to view Christ’s temptations as some sort of remote cosmic struggle, but indeed as a direct parallel to the spiritual challenges that we as Christians must face every day. Because even though it might not be fashionable to say it in some churches now—Luke 4 teaches us that Satan is indeed real. His power is considerable and he is the temporary prince of this world. And he is strongest in fact, when we completely discount him. Satan likes nothing better than for people to say, “the Devil—he’s just a fairy tale—he’s not real.” What a lie!—for this world is plagued by evil and by sin—it is a fallen place. And the sobering truth is that we all have shared personally in some of that sin. So let’s turn to God’s Word, and the story of Christ’s temptation from Luke’s Gospel to discover how we can better resist evil, and better imitate the actions of our Lord.

Luke 4:1-13–“Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry. And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.”And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. 10 For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you,’ 11 and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ 12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ 13 Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.”

 

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As we mentioned earlier, Jesus is at a physical low point when He comes face to face with the tempter. He has fasted for 40 days. He is weak, sunburned, and blistered by the desert heat and wind. He is lonely and no doubt longing to return to familiar surroundings, to friends and family. And yet He has been guided here, after His baptism, by the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He is listening to God’s voice, and following it with perfect obedience as He always does. And this, not surprisingly, is the point at which Satan chooses to attack Him. The Devil doesn’t often bother going after us when we’re living sinfully, when we’re in effect, living his way. But when we try to live right, when we seek after God and His righteousness, then we can expect temptation and trouble to follow after us. Yet we find here that Jesus, in a moment of supposed weakness, is actually stronger than ever. Note the mockery in Satan’s tone as he speaks to Jesus in verse 3If  You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” If…this word reminds me of how the crowd will address Jesus during His crucifixion. Matthew 27: 40-3If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him” The questioning word “if”, embodies the  voice of the tempting skeptic, and the cynic. In both cases though, Jesus will not be diverted from His mission. What exactly is the nature of this first temptation? Satan knows Jesus is hungry, and he simply tells him to turn the stones into bread. Simple enough, right? But this is a temptation to prioritize physical needs above spiritual ones. It’s perfectly natural for Jesus to be famished by this point, and desire food. But Satan wants to pervert that good and natural desire and turn it into something else, which is how the Devil always  works. So he tempts Jesus to seek the right thing—but by the wrong way: to misuse His Divine authority to perform a miracle for solely personal gain. We see a lot of examples even today of people seeking good results, through less than good methods.  Lance Armstrong was once one of the most inspiring stories in sports history. A man who had been virtually handed a death sentence from cancer in 1996, he recovered to win cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. In 1997 he also started the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for cancer treatment and research to date. Competing at the highest level in athletics, beating a deadly disease, doing extensive charitable work, and inspiring so many people—these were all wonderful aims that Lance Armstrong pursued. The problem lay in the way he accomplished these goals. For after years of rumors, in January 2013, Armstrong, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, confirmed our worst fears. He had been cheating all along—taking steroids, blood doping, using a host of banned substances to achieve better performance. He got the right results….but he sacrificed all of his ideals and values to get them. Now Jesus—with all of the miracles that He performs, all of his wondrous deeds—never does anything for His own personal gain or benefit. The miracles are always for the glory of God, and as signs for those who would follow after. As John 20:30-1 says “Truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples …these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” No miracles for personal gain—and so Jesus rebukes Satan—turning to Scripture to quote from Deuteronomy 8:3. 

 

 

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The Devil is nothing if not resilient however, and so he tries to spring another trap for the Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus to seek worldly power in verses 5-6. Seeking after worldly power, is in fact the desire in fact of many who surround Christ. When they discover the following that this charismatic preacher has, and even better when they hear of His miraculous deeds, the first thought in many a mind is—if we can only harness this power for political ends. Many Jews want Jesus to overthrow the hated Roman rule—to be an earthly king, a general, a man of power. But these are aims that reek of ambition, and of pride—which is of course the root of all sin. And ambition, earthly power, pride—these are all in Satan’s domain—they are his gifts to bestow. John 12:31 spells it out plainly—Satan is the ruler of this world. Not permanently of course—but for a temporary period. And so these kingdoms belong to him—as do other worldly things. This raises then the question—what part of the world is standing between you and God? The thing about world aims and ambitions is that they cannot satisfy us. The main reason they can’t is because they’re so temporary, so fleetingfor us who have been made in God’s image, created in fact, for the eternal.

 

 

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I’m reminded of a great quote at the end of the movie Patton, a film which tells the story of General George S. Patton, one of the great American military leaders of World War Two. Patton is a student of history, and as he thinks back over his many conquests and honors, another thought intrudes. He reflects on the ancient Roman Empire. And the movie ends with Patton repeating these lines… For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: That all glory is fleeting. Well Patton’s own triumphs would indeed be fleeting, and short-lived. He died in a car accident in December 1945, not long after the end of World War Two. Glory is fleeting.

 

 

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Consider the epitaph on the tomb of Henry II. He was an English king during the Middle Ages who fought many wars during his long reign from 1154 to 1189, expanding the territories of the crown into Wales and France. But in death at least, his ambition was checked. His epitaph reads….”I was Henry the King. To me diverse realms were subject, I was duke and count of many provinces. Eight feet of ground is now enough for me, whom many kingdoms failed to satisfy. Who reads these lines, let him reflect, upon the narrowness of death. And in my case behold, the image of our mortal lot. This scanty tomb doth now suffice, For whom the Earth was not enough.” Jesus rejects Satan’s offer of worldly power and prestige, again by quoting from the Word of God. We are reminded that nothing the world can offer is worth what God can give us, and nothing worldly is worth endangering our souls for. As Jesus says in Matthew 16:26: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

 

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The Devil won’t give up easily though, and he tries one more tactic—look at verses 9-11. He tries to get Jesus to test God’s power and authority by throwing Himself down from a cliff. Once again there is that mocking, cynical tone…”If you are the Son of God…why then surely you can do this.” Satan is even more clever here though because after hearing Jesus use Scripture, he too decides to quote from the Bible, from the Psalms specifically. The Devil can quote Scripture, and he can twist it around to suit his own wicked purposes. He does this to further disguise himself, and to trick the unwary. He is, after all, the father of lies, as John 8:44 tells us. But so often we still fail to recognize Satan when he comes to tempt us. There’s a great old episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone—perhaps some of your remember this show from back in the days of black-and-white television. It always dealt with interesting and unusual topics. One episode, called “The Howling Man” featured an American traveler named David Ellington, who while on the road late one evening, stops to stay in a monastery somewhere in Europe. Deep in the night, he awakes to hear a man screaming, literally howling. He eventually finds the source of the noise, it is a bedraggled, yet highly cultured and intelligent man who is being kept prisoner there in the monastery. The man is very persuasive and he begs David to release him, assuring him that all of the other monks are insane, religious fanatics. One of the monks later tells David to stay away from the cell at all costs, because the man imprisoned there is in fact the Devil himself. But David doesn’t believe the monk and after waiting for the opportune moment, he goes to release the prisoner. Curiously he notices that the staff which bars the door is easily within reach of the prisoner himself. But the howling man insists that he cannot be freed unless David removes the staff. So he does, and the prisoner exits. And as the freed prisoner walks towards the castle door, his appearance changes with every step, until he has assumed horns and a tail, and then vanishes in a plume of smoke. After discovering what has happened, the monk then sadly tells David that an inability to recognize the Devil has always been Mankind’s great weakness. Satan is always capitalizing on our inability to recognize him. We become immersed in sin—without realizing that he is at work, and without realizing that he can only work where we allow him to. Jesus however sees through Satan’s attempts to appropriate the Word of God, and with a final citation from Deuteronomy 6:16 he banishes the Devil. But note verse 13….”Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” As we said, Satan is nothing if not persistent. This is why 1 Peter 5:8 warns us in frank terms…”Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”

So what do we ultimately learn from Christ’s encounters with the Devil? How is Jesus able to resist Satan on three successive occasions, even when He is weak from hunger and fatigue? He turns to Scripture. By staying rooted in the Word of God, Jesus is able to ensure that no trick or strategy of Satan can distract Him from His true mission. During this time of preparation in the wilderness Jesus triumphs in a way that demonstrates not only His Divine authority but His humanity. You see Christ faces temptations just like all of us do—and He demonstrates to us how they can be defeated. Remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13–“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” We can defeat evil, we can overcome. Remember Satan, like Jesus would be a “fisher of men.” So stay rooted in the Word, remain spiritually disciplined, and with the power of the Holy Spirit Satan can be defeated. As James 4:7 eloquently states, “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” Amen!!

Faith and Science–conflicting or complementary??

 

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With this latest post, I want to address a topic that has evidently been a big source of conversation, and at times even controversy for many of the students I work with at CU-Boulder, as well as students on another campuses around Colorado. And that is the relationship between Faith and Science. Now of course this is an extremely broad topic, and let me just say at the outset that I’m not going to attempt to present anything like an exhaustive coverage of this theme, or even a thorough overview of the different issues, debates, and positions. What I do hope to accomplish however is to address this central question—are faith and science inherently conflicting, or can they coexist peacefully, and even complement one another?? Related to this are questions such as—can I believe in God and still believe in evolution? Or believe in God and still believe in a Big Bang?? Or what about the age of the earth—is it “young” according to a literal reading of Genesis 1, or “old”, in accordance with the predominant scientific perspective?? Is the Bible itself meant to be a scientifically-aware text?? These are a few of the questions I want to try to address, and in the process I want to share what I feel are some important general points to keep in mind when we discuss the intersection of science and faith. Because regardless of where exactly you stand on these topics, the fact of the matter is that we live in a world where science, and scientific discoveries are given an enormous amount of credence and respect. But at the same time, as Christians, we hold Scripture and its teachings with the highest degree of reverence. So where is the balance or meeting point between these two positions, if there is one??

 

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The date was December 24, 1968—Christmas Eve. On this special evening, millions of Americans tuned in to witness a live broadcast from the crew of Apollo 8, which was orbiting the moon in preparation for an eventual lunar landing (Apollo 11). This television audience, the largest in history at the time, listened spellbound as astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman took turns reading from Genesis 1:1-10. Now to me this is a remarkable little moment in time from the Space Race. These three men were the epitome of modern, scientifically-educated individuals. They were part of a nationwide effort to utilize the most modern technology of the era in order to reach for goals of interplanetary exploration that the people of Biblical times could scarcely have ever dreamed possible. And yet at this moment when they were orbiting the moon, in a triumph of scientific progress and technological innovation, their thoughts turned back to a book written thousands of years earlier, and the timeless spiritual message it contained. So for me, this moment aboard Apollo 8 symbolizes a harmonization between faith and science—something that I believe is possible, as we will discuss further.

We will investigate some of these questions through a Scriptural lens, as we attempt to tackle a few of the controversies which seem to inevitably arise when the intersection of science and faith is discussed. Specifically, we’ll look a little more closely at the discussion over the age of the earth, and then at evolution. As we talk about learning to balance these two perspectives of science and faith together, it’s my hope that you may find that they can coexist in some harmony with one another. It’s my belief ultimately that science and faith really ask completely different sets of questions, and employ a different set of methods to answer them. Yet in the final analysis, as Christians we should always be defined as a people of faith, and people who are faithful to the teachings and dictates of Scripture. These faith-based principles guide our entire worldview, including our use of science. And so whatever useful knowledge and perspective we can find through science, it should never be prioritized to the point that our faith is marginalized or obscured. After all, as Hebrews 11:6 reminds us: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”

 

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Galileo Galilei

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But the first point I want to share is that science and religion do not necessarily have to conflict with one another. Now in our modern society, the media often pits these two like opposing heavyweight fighters, with the assumption that it’s an either-or proposition and that only one can be right. But in my opinion this is setting up a false dichotomy, and leading us to mistakenly believe that science’s aim perhaps is to undermine faith, and that scientifically-minded individuals could never also be people of faith, who hold significant religious convictions. Without belaboring the point I want to highlight just a few of the most illustrious scientific minds in history—Galileo Galilei, Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Carl Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, Alessandro Volta, Lord Kelvin, Max Planck, Werner von Braun, Louis Pasteur, Francis Collins…all of whom were Christians, and the list could go on and on. To briefly illustrate the dual perspective that has allowed some of these brilliant scientists down through the ages to maintain both their faith and their scientific outlook, let me just share a couple of quotations from two notable Christian scientists. Werner Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who won the 1932 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in the field of quantum mechanics. He was once famously quoted as saying–“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you” Current-day scientist James Tour is an organic chemist known for his work in the field of nanotechnology. He is quoted as saying–“I build molecules for a living, I can’t begin to tell you how difficult that job is. I stand in awe of God because of what he has done through his creation. Only a rookie who knows nothing about science would say science takes away from faith. If you really study science, it will bring you closer to God.”

 

Clearly then, there have been some very illustrious scientists over the years who have found that their work needn’t prevent them from being persons of faith. In fact, many have discovered that their scientific investigations have actually brought them closer to God. And why not?? The very gifts of reason and intelligence which we use to pursue science and explore the natural world around us are granted by God. In Matthew 22:37, as part of the Great Commandment, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” So even the idea that we can love God with our minds, and honor Him through our intellectual achievements helps to endorse the thought that scientific inquiry and study needn’t bring us into inherent conflict with our faith. I also love the perspective we get in Psalm 8:3-4“When I consider Your heavens, and the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him” As you may know, many peoples of the ancient world were very keen observers of the stars, and often had considerable astronomical knowledge. And here, it seems as though the Psalmist is saying that by observing the night sky and studying the heavens, in other words through science, he has arrived at a greater appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of God. Now, changing tack just a little bit here, consider the rubric given to us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12—“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Paul is talking about the liberty we have as Christians, and the fact that we don’t have an intricate series of rules, or laws, or do’s-and-don’ts to govern our moral behavior. I think this perspective is helpful to carry into our discussion about Christians involved in science too. Because science, simply put, is a neutral field. It is neither inherently good nor bad, so it is a lawful thing for a Christian to pursue?? The question is—for what purpose are we pursuing scientific study—for the good of humanity, for profit, for our own glory, or for God’s?? Consider this too—if Christians were to all decide that science was someone a tainted field that could damage their faith, and thus they removed themselves from it, how could Christ-followers maintain an effective witness to the many people in scientific fields of work?? Furthermore, scientific work, neutral though it may be in principle, frequently leads people into areas where there is a need for moral discernment or judgment to be exercised. Cloning, the development of atomic weapons, and stem-cell research are just a few examples of such fields where scientific inquiry and potential moral dilemmas may collide. And so I think it’s clear that we need Christians working in these different scientific fields to help provide some of the ethical and moral perspectives that will guide and underscore the march of scientific progress.

 

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Well if we can accept for the sake of argument that science and faith needn’t inherently conflict with one another, let’s move on now to investigate further one specific area of controversy and discussion within this larger topic—that of Creation, and specifically the age of the earth. Both the way in which our universe was originally formed, and the age of earth itself are subjects which are often cited as examples of the potential conflict between faith and science. We can address both of these questions in closer detail by looking at the Biblical account of Creation, starting in Genesis 1. However, I would like to just point out a few significant things from the story. First, God creates the world out of nothing—or sometimes you will see this Latin term used: ex nihilo. Listen to Genesis 1:1-2—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void.” That God created the universe from nothing is an important fact that makes the Hebrew and thus the Christian conception of Creation very different from some other worldviews. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first I want to address the question of whether Christians can believe in the Big Bang?? The predominant theory accepted by most current-day scientists in regards to the origins of the universe is called the Big Bang. I won’t attempt to explain it in any great detail, but essentially the theory is that the universe was born out of a gigantic explosion of energy some 13.8 billion years ago, and starting from a small, hot, dense core, it has been continuously expanding since. And everything that is in the universe currently, starts, planets, galaxies—our own earth, resulted from this original cataclysmic event. Now most scientists will readily admit that there is much regarding the origin of the universe that remains shrouded in mystery. So the idea of the Big Bang is very much a theory. But the fact is that if you ask most atheists, or secular people about the origins of the universe, since they won’t accredit it to God, they will reference the Big Bang. But as Christians, can we accept that the universe was created in such a manner?? Well I believe that we can accept the Big Bang as Christians for this simple reason. No scientist will claim to truly know why this event happened. They can tell you about the process itself—the how, but not the why. To put it another way, scientists don’t really claim to know what actually caused or initiated this giant primordial explosion. So could God be behind it all—could He be the initiator and the first cause of the Big Bang?? I think it’s plausible at least—and there are other Christians that would agree.

 

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But there is another problem attendant with believing in the Big Bang—the relationship of that theory to the age of the earth. Because if you accept the Big Bang, you’re ascribing to the belief that the universe itself is some 13.8 billion years old, and that correspondingly the earth is around 4.54 billion years old. Some Christians will immediately object to this statement, because with a literal reading of the Genesis creation account, based on God making the world over the course of six 24-hour days, and then following through with the subsequent genealogies you arrive at a much younger age for the earth—around 6,000 years old. But much hinges on the interpretation of the Hebrew word for day, “yom.” Some people may assume that “day” in Hebrew always refers to a 24-hour period of time, but this isn’t the case. For one thing, the sun and the moon, by whose position in the sky we help to measure night and day, aren’t even created until the fourth day, which makes it at least plausible that the days referred to in Genesis 1 are not literally 24-hour periods of time as we know them now. Secondly, the word “yom” is used elsewhere in Scripture to mean something besides a literal 24-hour period of time. It can mean the time or season when an event is at hand. For example, Joel 2:11 speaks of the coming of the “Day of the Lord”—a time of future judgment. And day can also be used to mean simply an extended period of time of indefinite length. An example of this type of usage comes just after the creation story in Genesis 2:4—“This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” We should also note that there are passages in Scripture which plainly tell us that God’s time-frame is very different from our own. Psalm 90:4 says in regards to the Lord—“For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past.” Or listen to the perspective of 2 Peter 3:8—“Beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Even in current English usage, the word “day” has that same versatility. Expressions like “back in the day” or “in the modern day” convey something besides a 24-hour time-frame. So here’s what I would say in summary—you could be both a “young” or “old” earth advocate and still be Biblically faithful. But what is not Biblically faithful is to say that the earth, and indeed the universe simply came into being as the random outcome of blind natural forces.

 

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But as long as you believe God was the agent behind Creation, I think there’s a lot of potential leeway to believe different theories about the age and method of the earth’s Creation. And here’s why I say that—because the purpose of the Genesis Creation account ultimately is not to provide a scientifically-accurate, blow-by-blow account of how everything happened with a precise accompanying chronology. Genesis is primarily a theological account of the beginning of life on earth—not a biological one. Clearly Genesis 1 doesn’t try to describe every different type of plant, animal, or natural feature that God makes. But it is emphatic in its declaration that God alone is responsible for the existence of the entire universe and the natural world. And here is where it can be useful to compare the Genesis 1 account of Creation to some other cosmologies found in the ancient world. As we’ve already said, the Hebrews believed that God alone had fashioned the world ex nihilo, out of no preexisting matter, and had spoken everything into existence. Such was God’s power and majesty that His words alone sufficed to make things happen. Humanity too is formed essentially from nothing. Genesis 2:7—“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground”. Have you ever made anything out of dust?? This is just another way of saying God basically made man out of thin air—which both says a lot and also leaves much to mystery. Now, let’s quickly compare the Biblical narrative to one other roughly contemporary creation account. In the ancient Babylonian Creation story known as the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk kills a primeval giantess named Tiamat, and out of her corpse, the earth is fashioned. Also, in the Babylonian pantheon, both the sun and moon were worshipped as major deities. Yet in the Biblical creation account the sun and moon aren’t even created at all until the fourth day, thus diminishing their importance as simply one more aspect of God’s creation. And this is a God who needs no helpers to fashion His universe, and who is so powerful and all-sufficient that He can rest after His work—it is complete and perfect. Also, throughout the Genesis story, God is already making moral pronouncements on His work, calling it good. This is in sharp contrast to the Babylonian story where no moral values are assigned to creation—it simply happens. But perhaps nowhere is the contrast greater than when it comes to how God fashions humanity. In the Babylonian Creation story, humans are made out of the blood of a slain primeval monster, Kingu. And they are created by the god Marduk for the purpose of basically becoming slaves, to do all the labor needed on the earth and allow the gods to rest. How different is the Genesis account! As we mentioned earlier, God makes man out of dust—essentially nothing. But even more important is what we find in Genesis 26—“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” According to the Bible then, humans are the crowning glory of God’s Creation, and endowed with something of the intelligence, power, love, and spirit that God Himself possesses.

 

 

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So this brings us to the discussion of another major scientific controversy—the theory of Evolution. Can Christians believe in evolution and can it be reconciled with the Genesis Creation account?? Now just as with the age of the earth, there are Christians on both sides of this question. So without trying at all to influence your own personal opinions here, let me just share a few observations. First of all, you’ve probably all seen those bumper ornaments around before—the fish with legs. And it’s sort of a direct dig against the Christian fish symbol, right?? Implicit with this symbol is the idea that believing in evolution automatically counters or even disproves Christian teaching about God being the author of creation. The ideas behind this theory date back to the 1859 publication called On the Origin of Species by the English scientist Charles Darwin. Many people who favor a largely materialistic or secular worldview like to claim Darwin as their champion—the symbol of free scientific inquiry as opposed to the supposedly sheltered and narrow Christian worldview. But the facts are that Darwin himself never considered his works as making any kind of attack or statement against Christianity, or the potential belief in a Creator God. In a letter written in 1879, Darwin asserted his opinion that It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.” He then went on to write a description of his own religious beliefs which categorically denied his being an atheist: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” Now I fully realize that agnosticism is a far cry from being a practicing Christian, but at least this should demonstrate the falseness of the claim that Darwin was some sort of anti-Christian crusader, or that his works were meant to undermine or even destroy people’s faith in God. So, having said that, let’s return to the question of evolution itself. I don’t think it is inherently problematic to believe that animals evolved someone from a process of natural selection or that even humanity itself has been somehow shaped or influenced by these natural forces. Because the fact is—on both sides of this debate there remain many unexplained things. If you reject the idea of evolution, and take a very literal reading of Genesis, you still have to wonder exactly where all the sheer diversity of current human races, and different ethnicities came from, starting from just Adam and Eve. The Bible doesn’t really try to explain this. And if you are a secular believer in evolution, you and even the leading natural scientists are still puzzled to try and explain the sheer gap in cognitive ability and so many other factors between humans and their supposedly closest animal relatives—chimpanzees, and other members of the great ape family. Just as we said with the question of the earth’s age, the purpose of the Genesis account of humanity’s creation is not to provide scientific detail or a step-by-step account of how God made all men and women. The purpose of the story though is very much to assert that God made humans, and that He endowed us with certain Divine qualities, being made in His image, that clearly sets us apart from all other animals. Could this have happened through evolutionary processes?? Perhaps so, but it is God who is orchestrating and guiding these processes, and not blind, naturalistic forces.

So regarding both evolution and the age of the earth, my point would be that neither one of these questions or so-called controversies should ever be used as a litmus test to determine who is Christian, and who is not. Christians can believe in the Big Bang or not, they can endorse evolution or choose not to—and these ultimately are not questions of faith, nor are they the most important things that we need to be spending too much of our time and energy focusing on. The question to ask is—however one understands the processes by which the universe and the earth and humanity came into being—do they believe that God was ultimately behind all of it? I said earlier that when Scripture talks about God creating man out of the dust of the earth, this both says much, and also leaves a great deal to mystery. Because to say something is made out of dust doesn’t really tell you how it’s made, does it?? In the same way for God to speak the other various elements of creation into existence also doesn’t give us much in the way of detail about how precisely the sun, moon, and stars were made, or the plants and animals were formed. But on the other hand, we learn a great deal from this information. Because we learn that we serve and worship a God whose infinite power and wisdom allows Him to create things, ourselves included, by the sheer power of His will, leaving the exact process forever a mystery to ourselves, with our fragile and limited minds unable to grasp the full wonder of what He has done.

So as we conclude, I want to return to a statement I made earlier—my belief that science and faith needn’t conflict, but can actually coexist and even complement one another. The caveat is this—regardless of to what extent we endorse this or that scientific theory and find it can harmonize with our faith and our interpretation of Scripture, we need to always be ready to recognize the limitations of science. I said earlier tonight that one reason I believe science and faith can often co-exist is because they ask two different sets of questions, and use different methods to reach their conclusions. Along these lines then, we should recognize that there are certain questions in regards to the purpose of life, and the nature of love, beauty, goodness, mercy, forgiveness—that science can never address or answer. Such questions can only be approached through the lens that faith can provide us. And then correspondingly, a big part of being a person of faith is similarly recognizing limitations to our knowledge and wisdom. Proverbs, the great treatise on wisdom, tells us early on, in Proverbs 1:7—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”, and I think this is another way of saying that as God-fearing people, our pursuit of knowledge begins by admitting all that we do not and cannot know—that which belongs to God alone. The Book of Job is also included in the Biblical genre of wisdom literature, and at the conclusion of that book, in chapters 38-41, God breaks His silence to ask Job a series of questions that Job cannot begin to answer—all related to God’s sovereign control over the universe, and his complete mastery over all aspects of Creation. Job, for all of his desire earlier in the book to question God and demand answers from Him, is soon put in his place, realizing the gulf of knowledge between him and God, and humbly accepting that there is so much about God he will never fully grasp or understand. So science has its limitations, and we need to acknowledge that.

 

 

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Science also changes—and please don’t hear this as a criticism of science or a suggestion that as Christians we should avoid scientific study and inquiry. I’ve already said that I strongly feel like we need Christians involved in science. But science is certainly not infallible, and the scientific facts of today may well be questioned, challenged, or even supplanted centuries from now. For hundreds of years for example, the widespread consensus amongst medical experts held that bloodletting could be an acceptable treatment for all sorts of illnesses and maladies. In fact, the death of our first president, George Washington, in 1799, was hastened by the fact that his doctors, according to the wisdom of the day, repeatedly bled him during his final illness. Here is another example—you see above this paragraph a series of Time Magazine covers from the 1970’s that warn about an approaching new “Ice Age”, which scientists at the time believed was imminent. But as the more recent Time covers reveal, nowadays we are of course much more concerned that the world is getting warmer rather than colder. When I was growing up, we learned in school that there are nine planets in our Solar System—the furthest away from the sun being the planet Pluto. But a 2006 meeting of the International Astronomical Union the decision was made to downgrade its status to that of dwarf planet. We talked earlier about evolution. And you may have heard of a famous court case that took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, where a high school teacher, John Scopes was put on trial for teaching the theory of evolution to his students, which at that time was illegal in the state. His trial became a media circus and the basis later for the movie Inherit the Wind. Now many supporters of evolution will point to this trial as a landmark event in the struggle for the theory to gain wider acceptance in academic institutions. But often forgotten in retrospect is the actual content of the textbook that Scopes had used, called Civic Biology. For while it contained teaching about evolution, it also advocated for eugenics—that is selective breeding of humans in an attempt to weed out genetic disorders, a policy that would be put into chilling practice under the regime of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, and has today been totally discredited. Again, I mention these examples not to discredit science, but simply as a reminder that scientific knowledge is not something that is fixed and unquestionable—it is always in flux and changing.

 

Thus we need to recognize science’s limitations, especially when it comes to the faith realm. While we’ve looked at many different nuances of this topic, I could think of no better way to close than quoting from Ecclesiastes 12:12-14—“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” The debate over different aspects of science and their possible conflict with faith can be a never-ending one, so for me the bottom line is this: Do you acknowledge God’s supremacy over everything that is present throughout our universe? Do you recognize Him as the ultimate Creator, sustainer, and guide of life?? If so, then no matter what else you agree or disagree upon from the scientific realm, nothing should be able to shake these faith convictions which remain at our core. If we keep God at the center of the Created Order, then I believe scientific study will only go towards further highlighting His beauty, wisdom, and majesty. 

Reflections on “Silence”

 

            In general, I don’t use this ministry blog to comment much on pop culture items, even though dissecting trends and themes within popular music, movies, and television shows is stock-in-trade for many bloggers and writers on the internet. I feel there are plenty of other people out there who can talk about pop culture probably better than I could, and so often I guess I just don’t see the relevance of such discussions to my work in ministry. It’s interesting to engage with whatever is the latest hot cultural item, yet as most of us are aware, pop culture trends come and go with alarming rapidity, especially in the internet and social media age. What is trendy and current now might very much be “old hat” in a manner of just a few months. And even the best trend-watchers and media experts cannot really predict what will stick around and what will fade. For example, I’m sure there were many media pundits in the mid-60’s who assumed The Beatles were purely a teenage phenomenon, and would never have the lasting impact on Western society, let alone popular culture that they’ve had. So in general, I try to steer away from such cultural explorations, and focus more on foundational aspects of ministry and the Christian life that have stood the test of time.

All of that to say that this blog post is going to be about popular culture haha. Specially I want to share some personal reflections of mine after having recently seen the new Martin Scorsese film, “Silence.” Occasionally you are so touched by a film that it continues to play in your head for days and weeks afterwards, leaving indelible images, and perhaps more significantly questions and new perspectives on life. Certainly “Silence” proved to be such a movie for me. It’s already generated some share of controversy in the Christian community, but for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, I’ll go ahead and urge you to do so. You might not like everything in the film, and certainly it is a difficult movie in parts to watch, but I believe that any thinking Christian will benefit from having to wrestle with some of the spiritual themes that emerge from Scorsese’s nearly 3-hour long historical drama. This post isn’t necessarily meant to be a straightforward movie review, but more just a series of reflections that I’ve been carrying around with me since seeing the film several weeks back. However a warning—this post will contain some significant plot spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, perhaps watch it first!

 

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First—a little background information though. “Silence”, released in late 2016, is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. Endo was a practicing Catholic, and this is his most famous work, widely acclaimed by many as one of the outstanding novels of the 20th century. It is based on historical events surrounding the attempt by Portuguese Jesuit priests to evangelize Japan in the 17th century amidst severe state-led persecution. Director Martin Scorsese had been seeking to adapt “Silence” into a film from as far back as 1990, and described the project in strong terms as “an obsession…it has to be done.” Although he has always identified as a Roman Catholic and while some of his films have explored religious themes, Scorsese’s work has been equally marked by featuring high levels of profanity and violence. He has made films that have both been widely celebrated, such as the award winning Raging Bull (1980) and have courted considerable controversy, such as 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But from the start of the movie, it is clear that Scorsese takes his subject matter seriously with “Silence.” As further proof of this, he arranged for the world premiere of the film to take place at the Vatican, where a special screening was arranged for Pope Francis and members of the Jesuit Order.

 

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It’s also apparent that the main actor in the movie, Andrew Garfield, took his role very seriously. Garfield, who is part Jewish, had previously described his religious background as “mostly confused”. Yet in several interviews given around the time of the film’s release he makes some statements which would seem to indicate that he was spiritually changed by making the movie. Garfield plays Portuguese priest Sebastião Rodrigues, whose story is at the center of the film. In order to prepare for the role, he spent a year with a Jesuit spiritual advisor, whom he still considers to be a close friend. He practiced Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, and even spent time on a spiritual retreat in Wales. Talking about his experiences in preparing for the film role, in an interview given to America, a Jesuit magazine, Garfield noted–What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.” Later, he added:  “It’s such a humbling thing because it shows me that you can devote a year of your life to spiritual transformation, sincerely longing and putting that longing into action, to creating relationship with Christ and with God, you can then lose 40 pounds of weight, sacrifice for your art, pray every day, live celibate for six months, make all these sacrifices in service of God, in service of what you believe God is calling you into.” In another interview with British paper The Guardian, Garfield reflected candidly on some of his disillusionment with the trappings of celebrity as a major movie star–“The poison in the water started a long time ago,” Garfield says, “with the birth of Hollywood and Edward Bernays, propaganda and PR. We’re all in the same position now, because we all have the ability to self-promote. People are rewarded with money and fame, and ultimately the correct amount of emptiness for an egocentric life. There’s part of me that will always want to shed all that.”

 

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Now—let’s get into the content of the film itself. As I mentioned earlier, “Silence” is a historical drama, based on actual events that occurred during attempts by Portuguese Jesuits to Christianize Japan in the 17th century. The faith had first been introduced to the islands starting in the mid-1550s with the work of the famous Jesuit priest St. Francis Xavier. After some initial successes, a strong native community of converts developed. However by the end of the 1500s, the official Japanese attitude towards Christianity had changed, and official persecutions began to take their toll. By the time of the movie’s setting in the mid-1600’s, Christianity is an officially outlawed religion. The movie opens with two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), and Francisco Garupe (played by Adam Driver) who are in Macau, a Portuguese-controlled city in China, and are seeking news of Cristóvão Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), another priest who had been their mentor in the faith, and has now been working as a missionary in Japan for many years. The Jesuit Order fears however that Ferreiera has committed apostasy, because they have not heard from him in some time, and they know that the persecutions taking place in Japan are increasingly severe. Nevertheless the two young priests boldly volunteer to be sent to Japan in order to find out what exactly has happened to Ferreira. Their supervising priest warns them sternly—“the moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger.” In a back-alley of Macau, the priests find Kichijiro, a Japanese fisherman who knows some Portuguese and agrees to be their guide as they take ship for Japan.

 

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Upon arriving in the islands, Rodrigues and Garupe are surprised to find a fairly large underground church composed of native Christians, who continue to practice their faith secretly, despite the great risk posed by the state persecution. In a series of touching scenes, the two priests experience overwhelming love from these beleaguered believers, who have been desperately awaiting spiritual guidance. The priests perform baptisms, hear confessions, and administer communion. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, the native Christians insist the priests eat from their meager stockpile of food. When asked if they too will eat, one of the believers responds “you are our food.” But despite this warm reception at the hands of the native Christians, the two Jesuit priests recognize they are in grave danger as well. They must hide during the day to avoid detection, and can only come out at night to minister to the people. It is but a matter of time though before the authorities catch on their presence. Soon an official government detachment comes to the village where they have been working, in order to search for any suspected Christians. The villagers are told that a substantial cash reward will be offered to anyone who turns in a suspected believer. The detachment returns a few days later and this time calls out the names of several individuals who they accuse of being secret Christians.

 

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Then they produce a crudely made image of Christ, called a fumi-e. The test proposed is simple. If an individual in question is willing to tread on this image, they are set free. If they refuse, they are arrested for the illegal practice of the Christian faith. In scenes that will be repeated many times throughout the film, the reactions of the suspected believers vary. Some decide to tread on the image to spare their lives and maybe save the village from further trouble. Others cannot bring themselves to dishonor Christ, and thus by their refusal, they ensure their arrest and probable death at the hands of the state authorities. As for the government officials themselves, their tone is often strangely conciliatory. They simply desire to preserve law and order, they say, and they even downplay the significance of the fumi-e, saying that to tread on one is but a symbolic gesture that will appease everyone. But for those Christians who refuse to tread, a terrible fate awaits. As Rodrigues and Garupe watch from a hiding place in horror, several Japanese Christians, including a very elderly believer are placed on crosses in the shallows of the ocean, and left to slowly drown and starve as the tide advances. Their bodies are then cremated so that they cannot be given a Christian burial. Nonetheless even amidst this traumatic scene, the faith of the native Christians shines through. One of the dying men continues to sing praises to God for several days until his body finally gives out.

 

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In the aftermath of this wave of persecutions, the two priests make the difficult decision to leave the village, believing their continued presence there might cause more harm for the remaining believers. Rodrigues and Garupe then separate to try and reach further villages and assess the state of the believers there. We gradually find out more of the backstory too for Kichijiro, the fisherman who had guided the two priests to Japan from Macau. It turns out that he too is a Christian, but one who had recanted his faith in order to save his own life during an earlier period of suffering. During this persecution, the rest of his family were all martyred. As a result, he is wracked with guilt, and is continually wanting to confess to Rodrigues and ask God for forgiveness. At one point in the film he wonders aloud about what place there is in the Kingdom of God for a weak man such as he is. But while Rodrigues tries to comfort him, Kichijiro it seems cannot resign himself to be fully committed believer amidst the threat of persecution that continues to swirl over his head. In a haunting scene, the gaunt and thirsty Rodrigues, wearied by his long journey asks his native guide to find some water. At first the priest is relieved upon seeing the fresh stream, and then as he begins drinking, he becomes positively joyful, for there, for an instant, reflected in the water he sees an image of the face of Christ staring back at his own. A British movie review from The Guardian was rather critical of this moment in the movie—“there is something a little broad about the moments in which a priest sees visions of Christ in himself.” But for me it remains one of the defining moments of the film In Roman Catholic theology, the priest is considered to be acting in persona Christi. In other words, as he ministers to his congregants, he is standing in the place of Christ at that moment. And even as a Protestant, I think this is a valuable spiritual concept, especially if it is broadened in scope. After all, the term “Christian” itself means nothing more than “little Christ.” All of us then as believers have the opportunity to be Christ to someone else on a regular basis, mirroring the attitudes and actions that Jesus would take were He present. And of course given Jesus’ promise of a continual presence with us from Matthew 28:20, there is added reason for us to seek to always represent Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Rodrigues is rejuvenated by this sudden appearance of Christ’s face following a difficult period of doubt for him, but the vision is placed into the full and proper context with the next scene. For right after leading him to the water, Kichijiro is promptly surrounded by a group of imperial authorities, one of whom throws pieces of silver to him. It is clear then that he has betrayed Rodrigues, solidifying his reputation as somewhat of a Judas figure in the overall arc of the story. And yet, as the film unfolded further, I increasingly found myself identifying with this wretched man, because after each failure we see his despair, and heartfelt desire to repent. I believe that Scorsese is trying to show us that there are those who want to follow Jesus, but are simply too weak to remain resolute when savage persecutions become the litmus test for true faith. Perhaps given similar circumstances, many of us would react the same way. As for Rodrigues, perhaps he has discovered that the face of Christ appears to us most clearly in moments of need and of suffering. For after having witnessed Jesus in the pool of water, he is about to now enter into the very darkest of nights of the soul.

In stark opposition to Kichijiro’s weakness however, is Father Garupe. Rodrigues, after being arrested and taken to Nagasaki, is later brought out to a cliff overlooking a beach. In the distance he recognizes Garupe along with several other native believers. After refusing to recant, the whole group is drowned. Garupe perishes, exhausted in a last desperate act of Christian sacrifice, as he tries to hold one of the condemned women up in the water. This glorious martyr’s death is perhaps what Rodrigues has in mind for himself, disheartening though it is for him to witness his one other companion’s demise. But now the film zeroes in on the personal drama that is about to unfold within the very soul of this priest as he at last comes face to face with the authorities, and with the full consequences of his decisions regarding his faith.

 

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Rodrigues, while imprisoned in Nagasaki, witnesses several more instances where suspected native Christians are asked to tread on the fumi-e. Some do, but others refuse, and although the authorities don’t always react immediately, in one particularly dramatic instance, a believer who does not tread is promptly beheaded on the spot. This graphic execution underscores the intense moral dilemma that is now raging within Rodrigues. On the one hand, he intends to stand firm in his faith, wanting to offer a good example for those Japanese believers who are prepared to die before they will renounce Christ. But at the same time, it soon becomes apparent that the Japanese authorities are using Rodrigues as a pawn. They have no intention for the time being of killing him and thus allowing him to become a martyr, and they don’t even torture him. Instead, his punishment is to have to watch native Christians being interrogated before the fumi-e, as well as later being tortured by being hung upside-down in pits. Rodrigues also has periodic conversations with the head of the government interrogators, an old Japanese nobleman known as the “Inquisitor”. He regards Rodrigues with some disdain, seeing him as a proud man who is arrogantly determined to bring in a foreign religion to Japan. As he discusses the state persecution of Christians with Rodrigues he notes severely–“the price of your glory is their suffering”

 

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Still, Rodrigues remains resolute, until he faces his greatest test. He is brought to a Buddhist monastery, and there he at last comes face to face with Father Ferreira. His former mentor has now adopted a Japanese name, has married a Japanese woman, and is studying Buddhism. All of Rodrigues’ worst fears have been realized. At first he reacts with great anger, calling Ferreira a disgrace to the priesthood. Yet Ferreira, (played convincingly by the veteran actor Liam Neeson), responds calmly. He explains that after being tortured, and witnessing the suffering of so many native Christians, he committed apostasy. He states furthermore his conviction that Christianity is alien to the Japanese mind and culture, and will never be able to take long-term root in the country. Let down by the last man he hoped he could place trust in, and despairing of ever being able to leave the prison, Rodrigues is subjected to one more harrowing evening of listening to native believers being tortured as they are hung upside-down. Then, shockingly he is told that these are people who have already apostatized. But they continue to suffer because the authorities have realized that the single most demoralizing blow they could deal to the Christians would be for them to witness the apostasy of their leader, the priest. And so Rodrigues is told that he can end the suffering of these individuals only through his own renunciation of the faith. A fumi-e is brought out, and Rodrigues is told to step on it. Then in perhaps the single most dramatic moment of the film, Christ, whom he has been waiting to hear from for so long, finally speaks. Trample!” the voice of Jesus says. “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” So Rodrigues steps.

Then the movie fast forwards several years. We see Rodrigues now having ostensibly followed the same path of apostasy as Ferreiera. He has married a Japanese woman, taken a Japanese name, and is even shown in one scene working alongside his former mentor, helping the governmental authorities to sort through religious iconography captured from suspected Christians. There is also a heartbreaking reappearance by the disgraced former guide and betrayer Kichijiro, who now works as a servant for Rodrigues. At one point he begs him for forgiveness and absolution, but with an air of great sadness, Rodrigues refuses, saying simply that he is no longer a priest. The movie concludes with a few more poignant scenes. Kichijiro is caught with a Christian amulet, and despite his claims that he unknowingly won it from gambling, he is led away by the authorities, his final fate to be unknown to us. But perhaps this time, he will refuse to recant, after so many past failures of faith and nerve. The most touching scene is saved for the end though. We see Rodrigues in the moments following his death, dressed in Buddhist robes and being prepared for a traditional Buddhist funeral. To all visible evidence, this is a final proof of his failure as a priest, as a missionary and as a Christian. He is be buried in the faith of the very religion that he came to Japan to counter. Or is he?? For furtively, and almost unnoticed as she ritualistically mourns the death of her husband, his Japanese wife quietly slips a sheath of white paper into Rodrigues’ coffin. Scorsese masterfully keeps its contents a secret, until almost the very last frame of the film. And there, as Rodrigues body begins to be cremated, we see that within the sheath is contained a small crucifix, of the same kind which had been given to him by a native believer when he first came to Japan.

Having described the basic plot art of the film, I want to share now in a few reflections. I can remember that in the immediate aftermath of the movie’s conclusion, there was almost total quiet in the theater, rather than the usual chatter which begins as the credits roll. I left the theater trying to hold back tears, and with both a strange mingled sensation both of heaviness and exultation in my heart. What to make of this extraordinarily complex, and haunting piece of cinema?? I’m still wrestling with those questions several weeks later. I certainly understand why this is a controversial movie, and why some Christians may find it unpleasant and disturbing. That does not mean however that the movie is unbiblical. In fact, I would assert that it confronts us, as comfortable 21st century American Christians with some very hard Biblical truths—mostly in the form of the questions that it raises. Like a gifted filmmaker, Scorsese, I believe, is ultimately less interested in providing concrete answers to all these questions (a fact which alone will upset some moviegoers who like neat, tied-up endings) than he is in forcing us as the viewer to squirm in our seats as we contemplate the way we may have reacted in a similar situation. And yet “Silence” as a movie is not so open-ended that we are merely left in confusion. In fact, taken as a whole, it provides a narrative which for me confirms some of the essential, and unchanging facts about who Jesus is, and who we as His followers should be.

So I’ll now try to unpack some of these thoughts. Let’s think for a minute about four of the main characters—Rodrigues, Garupe, Ferreira, and Kichijiro. If Garupe’s martyr’s death represents a more straightforward expectation of the resolute faith of a missionary prepared to sacrifice his life for the Gospel, what do we make of the ragged inconsistency of Kichijiro’s testimony, and his continual recanting, even to the point of betraying his friend Rodrigues, followed by tearful pleas of repentance? Well, both are Biblical figures. Because for every Stephen that comes out of the pages of Scripture, dying steadfast in his commitment to Christ, there is a Judas, or perhaps more accurately a Peter. Because the leader of the Apostles, the man who first proclaims Jesus as the Christ, we must never forget, is also the same man who denies Jesus three times with a curse. Kichijiro’s continual weakness in the film then serves as a reflection of the spiritual inconsistency that we all struggle with. It is embodied by Paul’s impassioned words in Romans 7:19—For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice”. Jesus knows we are prone to such failings all too well—as He tells the sleeping disciples in the Garden in Matthew 26:41—Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

 

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Rodrigues and Ferreira are even more complex as characters though. It would be easy to simply dismiss them both as failed missionaries, as apostates, who cracked under the pressure of persecution and then renounced their beliefs in order to live a comfortable and assimilated life in Japan. While there is some truth to this, I don’t think such a simplistic view captures the whole story, especially in the case of Rodrigues. First of all, neither man gives in so easily. The very opening scene of the film actually shows Ferreira witnessing native Christians being tortured by having boiling water poured over their bodies, in a terrible, blasphemous mockery of baptism. We later see scenes where Ferreira himself is tortured in the same upside-down manner that Rodrigues later witnesses native Christians suffering at the Nagasaki prison. Ferreira reveals that he spent 15 years trying to convert the Japanese amidst all of these persecutions. Rodrigues of course goes through his own intense struggles as we witness throughout the film. At the outset of his landing in Japan, he is overwhelmed at the sheer challenge of trying to bring Christian comfort and leadership to the scared, scattered Japanese believers. Then he suffers untold agonies at having to watch these Japanese brothers and sisters in Christ tortured while he is powerless to help them. Finally there is the excruciating pain of coming face to face with Ferreira his former mentor in the faith, and the man whom he had come to Japan in order to find—only to discover that he is now apparently an apostate. Throughout all of this, I think that the filmmaker Scorsese wants to show us that committing apostasy is not a hasty act born out of a quick desire to avoid suffering, but something which can be brewing inside one for years, and is eventually brought out by a combination of circumstances. In the end, with both Ferreira and Rodrigues and their decision to recant, the tipping point actually seems to be less about them wanting to end their own suffering, and more about wishing to help end the sufferings of native believers.

 

This brings me to perhaps the most controversial part of the movie. When Christ seemingly speaks to Rodrigues, giving him permission to step on the fumi-e, is it really the voice of Jesus? Would Our Lord ever tell us that in effect, it’s ok to give in to persecution, at least on the surface?? I certainly cannot know for sure, nor do I think Scorsese completely wants us to know, that the voice Rodrigues hears is truly that of Jesus. But how could it be that Jesus might conceivably say such a thing?? I am reminded of one particular passage in Scripture found in Luke 22:21-34. It is just before Jesus is to face His betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. And He turns to Peter, seemingly the leader and one of the most trustworthy and faithful of all the Disciples, with this shocking prediction—“Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” Peter then protests vehemently: “Lord I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.” But Jesus responds: “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.” Of course Peter shortly thereafter fulfills Jesus’ prophecy, as fear leads Him to a threefold denial of the man he claimed he was ready to die for. Later however in John 21, we find Peter being forgiven and restored by Christ. So what does this have to do with the denial of Rodrigues, and the apparent voice of Jesus speaking to him during that final test of faith before the Japanese officials with their fumi-e?? Is Jesus saying that it is ok to have a failure of faith?? Well yes—in the simplest terms, but we need to unpack this idea a little further. Because Jesus saying that it is ok when we fail is very different than Him endorsing our failures or weaknesses. But just as Christ recognized that Peter would shortly fail Him, and yet not ultimately be lost to Him, and maybe He sees the same thing in the heart of Father Rodrigues.

One of the bedrocks of my theology as a Southern Baptist has been the concept of “once saved, always saved”, sometimes known in other theological terms as “perseverance of the saints.” There are many Scriptures we could cite in support of this idea that once someone places their faith in Christ, it is impossible for them to later lose their salvation. Two of my favorites are John 10:27-29—“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” and also Philippians 1:6—“being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” The most compelling reason though for me to endorse the idea that Christians can’t lose their salvation is tied back to another foundational part of my theology, the idea of salvation by grace through faith alone, as expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9—“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.” Thus if faith is something that can be lost, it seems like we are putting it into the category of a work, and also saying that salvation is not a certain thing, but rather depends on one’s current spiritual state. Ultimately, I don’t believe ultimately that Scorsese is trying to tell us that Father Rodrigues’ recanting leads to the damnation of his soul. After all, that poignant final scene of him holding a cross in his grave, one that was put there by his wife, suggests to me that Rodrigues remained a Christian, at least secretly, and that he more likely than not also raised up his Japanese family to be believers.

But putting aside for the moment questions of Rodrigues’ eternal destination, I know there are those who will still scoff at the idea that Jesus would ever give anyone permission to experience a lapse of faith, even it was merely in a symbolic fashion that Rodrigues treaded on the fumi-e, while keeping faith in his heart all along. Now certainly, we’ve seen historically how persecution can fuel growth in the church, from the earliest days of Roman Christians dying in the Coliseum, to even the 21st century, with the explosion of the underground church in China, and the continued growth of the church amidst severe persecution around the Middle East. Longtime Southern Baptist missionary Nik Ripken, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the persecuted church, and a man who spent much of his missionary career working amidst believers who faced grave and life-threatening consequences for making a profession of faith in Christ. He consistently writes and speaks of the value of persecution, even going so far as to question why we, in the West will pray for an end to it, when it has proved to be such a catalyst for church growth through the ages. And indeed at one point in the movie, Father Rodrigues even states “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” So once again—how could Jesus ever advocate anything other than a believer continuing to endure persecution, and be faithful to the end?? I cannot give a definitive answer, but only offer a few observations. First, it is clear from the experiences of Ferreira, and then Rodrigues, that neither man “cracks” under the pressure solely of their own persecution. They both endure great suffering, and in particular Rodrigues, from the start of the film, by volunteering to be sent to Japan, must know that he could well be faced with possible martyrdom. But I sense that the real pain both men experience is from having to witness the suffering of Japanese believers, and knowing furthermore that their refusal to recant will cause even more native Christians to suffer.

Does this justify apostasy? No—but it does help us to put their decision into a little bit more context. It is also at least a valid question to raise as to whether merely treading on an image changes what is in one’s heart? Now I realize of course that we are commanded to confess Christ not merely in the privacy of our own spirit, but in the public sphere, and certainly the public treading on the fumi-e by the very priests who the native Christians most revered would have had a devastating effect on the morale of the Japanese church—much as the authorities intended. So I’m not attempting to endorse the actions of these priests, but I’m also not prepared to say that they committed a permanent or unforgivable apostasy. I once shared in an earlier blogpost about why I keep a crucifix on my bedroom wall. For me it is a symbol of the burden, the suffering, the shame, the sin that Christ not only carried for me, but is still carrying for me. Jesus never endorses my sin, or gives me license to indulge my fallen nature. And yet He also stands ever ready to forgive me, no matter what I’ve done. So like Peter, and like Rodrigues, our failures of faith are seen and even understood by Christ as part of the reason for why He had to carry the heavy burden to Calvary. So if the voice of Jesus does indeed speak to Rodrigues to say “you may trample” it is perhaps the greatest demonstration of His overwhelming love and compassion for us, even in our miserable and wretched state of sinfulness. I refer back to an earlier comment I made about the Japanese convert Kichijiro, he who recants repeatedly, and ultimately betrays Rodrigues to the authorities, yet still wants to believe. He wonders what place there is for a weak man in God’s Kingdom. But Jesus came to the world to die precisely so that even the weak could find a place in the Kingdom of God. Thus I must conclude that even the very public failure of  Father Rodrigues to declare his faith in front of the authorities, is covered by the blessed truth that Our Lord reveals to Paul. For Paul too, lest we forget is a man of profound weakness. He admits as much in Romans 7:19, and I have to imagine he lives his entire missionary career with some of the guilt and shame that remain from his not only failing to profess Christ, but from his active role as an agent of persecution towards the church. And yet Jesus promises to him in 2 Corinthians 12:9—“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Scorsese’s film invites us to wrestle with, and ultimate accept that spiritual paradox, whatever it may mean for each of us individually.

 

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The movie’s title derives from the fact that for much of the film, Rodrigues complains of the fact that he seems unable to hear from Jesus. At one point, his heart brimming over with despair, he exclaims—“I pray, but I’m lost. Am I just praying to silence??” But as we have noted, Jesus breaks His silence at the moment Rodrigues finally is brought before the fumi-e. Similarly, the face of Christ appears to him just before his own betrayal and arrest at the hands of his Japanese guide and friend Kichijiro. I think that Scorsese is making a twofold statement here on the nature of how and when God chooses to speak to us. Certainly the Lord can communicate through the Holy Spirit and Scripture and a whole host of other mediums, and at different times and seasons in each individual life. But He also chooses to speak uniquely to us in times of suffering and ironically enough, in those periods of life in which we seemingly are unable to hear His voice—in the silence itself. God speaking through silence is in large part the theme of the Book of Job. Job doesn’t hear from God until the very end of the book, and even then, he never really gets his big “why” questions answered. And yet we sense that the message of Job is that we must learn to accept it when God doesn’t speak, and realize that does not indicate His absence. Or consider Esther. God’s name is never actually mentioned throughout the entire book, and yet clearly it is a story of His working “behind the scenes” and through His servants to foil a Persian plot of destruction against the Jews. Jesus’ life is certainly marked by those moments where God would appear to perhaps be silent—His time of temptation in the desert, His agony in the Garden, and most notably, His cry of desertion, uttered on behalf of all humanity at the Cross in Matthew 27:46—“My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”

So this movie reminds us that God can, and does speak through those moments of silence. It also reminds us that God, especially through the person of Jesus Christ, does not just pity us in our suffering and weakness, but actively suffers alongside of us in difficult moments. In Revelation 21:7 we are promised by God—“He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be His God and he shall be My son.” “Silence” as a movie, invites us ultimately to question ourselves—what would we do, and how might we react, if we ever faced anything even remotely like the kind of persecution that Ferreira, Garupe, Rodrigues, and the countless Japanese Christians in the 17th century were confronted with? And so while some will remain critical of the film’s central characters, and the decisions they made amidst very trying circumstances, I for one, from the relative prosperity and comfort of the American church, hesitate to cast too strong a judgment on those men, into whose hearts I certainly cannot see or definitively judge. As I continue to reflect on this movie, I’m drawn towards thinking about not only how I might respond to persecution, but all of the ways in which I currently fail to stand up for Jesus and make spiritual compromises, even while living in a place of physical safety, religious liberty, and economic prosperity such as many other brothers and sisters in Christ have never known. I think the bottom line is that if we are prepared to label a character such as Father Rodrigues as an “apostate” then we are all apostates. But even amidst the flames of this world, and every effort to shake and buffet our faith, we will hold fast to the cross, somehow, and someway even as does Rodrigues, clutching it in his dying hands in the film’s final frame??

I love “Silence as a movie because it doesn’t offer us easy answers; in the process recognizing and treating  with appropriate complexity the subject of persecution, and how that can affect churches and Christians who, in the final analysis remain flawed and human. But as I believe the movie demonstrates, these flaws, if acknowledged, and repented of, ultimately draw us closer to the eternal embrace of the God whose arms are stretched wide for us in pain, but most importantly in love, at the Cross. Maybe the greatest truth expressed in “Silence” is one unspoken in the film’s actual dialogue, but very apparent in its entire ethos and message. The truth that Calvary provided the last possible Word on how much God loves us, how willing He is to suffer with us, and that indeed, His work is finished, as it relates to earning our forgiveness, acceptance, and salvation before the Father. So in those moments of spiritual silence that have followed for the church down through the ages, and in the moments of silence which will surely come for each one of us as Christians, we can have confidence that God remains by our side with a love that no amount of speaking could ever express any clearer.

Follow the Star and bring your gift

 

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Even though December 25th has passed, we are still in the Christmas season. In fact, traditionally in many European countries especially, the celebration of Christmas is extended from December 25th through January 6th, the so-called “12 days of Christmas.”  January 6th is the Feast of Epiphany, which traditionally commemorates the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. Matthew 2:1-12 gives the Scriptural account of the Magi’s visit to Jesus.….

2 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”

Well whether we call them the three kings, the wise men, the Magi, there are questions that seem to arise almost immediately when we hear this story. Our holy curiosity kicks in, and we begin to wonder. Who exactly were these visitors to the Christ child? Royalty, astronomers, astrologers, Zoroastrian priests? Where did they come from—after all The East” is a rather vague geographical designation, isn’t it? Were there even necessarily three of them? No one is precisely sure as to the answer to these questions. But when the Magi arrive, the plot of the Christmas narrative thickens, as it were. We no longer have just that simple manger scene with Joseph, Mary, the animals, and maybe an adoring angel or two, with shepherds keeping their vigil from a respectful distance. We no longer have a manger at all in fact—Matthew 2:11 talks about these mysterious visitors coming into a house to worship the infant Jesus. Because they come later, whoever they are and wherever exactly they are arriving from, the Magi’s story allows us to address the question of how do we respond to the Christmas story. After the celebrations and observances of December 25th itself have died down, after that initial explosion of joy at the Savior’s birth—what comes next? The Magi offer us a model for how to respond to Christ for the rest of the year, and indeed for our whole lives. We see in them a reflection of the Great Commission, a consistent faithfulness, and an ability to surmount the interference of a fallen world. Finally, we can learn from the type of gifts that they bring. Simply put, what the Magi do, every time we revisit their remarkable story, is to point us back to Christ.

 

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            Now I mentioned the Magi in relation to the Great Commission a minute ago. The Great Commission of course is Jesus’ last command to His disciples in the Book of Matthew—chapter 28:18-20 to be precise. The visit of the Wise Men represents the Great Commission in reverse. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ sends out His disciples to go and preach to all the nations, but here in Matthew 2 the nations come to Jesus, at the very moment of His birth! Now as I’ve mentioned, we don’t know the precise origin of these mysterious visitors, but we can probably assume that coming, as they do from “The East”, that they are not Jewish. Now in Luke’s Nativity narrative we see Jesus’ birth being proclaimed by the angels to the humble shepherds. Thus the Kingdom of God reaches across the socio-economic divisions of that ancient Jewish society. In the same manner, Matthew, with his account of the Magi’s visit, shows how the Kingdom of God reaches across national and cultural divisions. From the very start, because these foreign dignitaries have sought Christ out, Matthew wants to demonstrate to us that Jesus will be of significance not just for the Jews, and not just in Israel, but for the Gentiles, and for the whole world. The Savior’s birth has universal implications, and Christ comes to everyone, in the unique context of their particular culture and history. This fact is beautifully reflected when you study the nativity scenes prevalent around the Christian world during this season of Christmas. Now many of us probably have a nativity set in our homes, but I think it’s a safe guess that none of them would rival the size, splendor, and elaborate detail of many of the nativity scenes to be found in the Old World. Some of the Southern European nations in particular have a long and storied history of producing nativities which are timeless works of religious art and yet which also reflect the particular cultural traditions of those countries. The nacimientos of Spain, the creches of France, and the presepes of Italy all include such expected figures as the Holy Family, barn animals, shepherds, angels and the Magi. But they also feature peasants dressed in regional costumes, craftsmen, musicians, soldiers, pets, tavern-keepers…and often the architecture of the manger itself and other buildings is more European than Ancient Near-Eastern. The reason for all of these local alterations and additions goes deeper than mere artistic license or preference however. It represents for the artists a statement of belief—a belief that Christ is universal and so he comes to the Spanish, French, Italians, and all other peoples in a way they can understand, and in a unique manner befitting that particular culture. And people from all walks of society, from the most important, down to the most humble, are welcome at His nativity. The Magi thus point us to Christ, and specifically to the Great Commission. Long before the church is launched, before indeed Jesus’ ministry has even begun, representatives of the nations have come to adore the newborn Savior, who will one day give up His life for them, and for all peoples.

 

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We also find in the Magi a model of consistent faithfulness, embodied by the way in which they patiently and diligently follow the Star which leads them to Bethlehem. Now of course at Christmas we have many visual reminders around us of this star which guided the Magi, starting perhaps most prominently with the star that many have atop their Christmas trees. Perhaps my favorite though is the candles in the window. I love driving by a house on a dark December night and seeing the light of those candles shining forth to pierce the winter shadows. Across many different countries and cultures, the candle has been used as an integral part of Christmas observances. For example in Denmark during the days before Christmas, candles are to be seen everyone, alleviating some of the gloom of days in which there may only be six hours of sunlight. Denmark actually uses more candles per capita than any other country in the world–and they are even added to the Christmas tree itself! In Ireland, candles are traditionally placed in windows on Christmas Eve to provide light for the Holy Family and welcome them, in contrast to the inn at which they were turned away in Bethlehem. I used to live in Texas, and there and elsewhere in the American Southwest it is customary at Christmas to display small lighted luminaries all around the house. These are candles set into paper bags, and in the darkness they flicker and glow in a most enchanting manner.

 

All of these Christmas candles serve, like the Star of Bethlehem, to remind us to turn our eyes towards Christ. They further remind us of the truth expressed in John 1—that Jesus is the True Light, who has entered the world to overcome the uncomprehending darkness. So the Magi’s patient quest to follow the star says much about their faithfulness and burning desire to seek out God in their midst. The Star is a fixed point of reference that allows them to orient their quest around it. By keeping their eyes set upon its heavenly light, they avoid becoming distracted, or straying off course. Now here the question can be raised—what is our star today? I believe it is Scripture. Even within the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, in Matthew and Luke, we find Scripture repeatedly referenced, as the prophets of the Old Testament, Isaiah and Micah, are quoted in relation to the coming of Jesus. When we stay rooted in Scripture, it will again and again guide us back to Jesus, however far we may have strayed from Him previously. Jesus spoke on several occasions about the importance of the Word of God, and never more powerfully than in Matthew 24:35. There He proclaims to us “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” The Bible is permanent, it has endured through the ages, and it is God’s Living Word. Living, because through the Holy Spirit all Christians can understand and interpret it, and living because it is just as applicable a guide for us now as for the saints of old, and will continue to be so for all the centuries to come, until Christ returns. So as the Magi followed the star, which we see reflected atop our Christmas tree, or in the light of a window candle, we should also strive to follow that fixed, sure point of reference and guidance that Scripture provides for us in all areas of the Christian life. As Martin Luther so aptly phrased it, borrowing the language of the Nativity, Scripture is the cradle in which the Christ child lies.”. Through God’s Word, we are led to Jesus most reliably and directly. It is our own Star of Bethlehem.”

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But as we go through the story of the Magi there is an undeniably disturbing element which runs beneath—the role of the murderous King Herod. The black villain of the Christmas story, Herod is a figure who in many ways in strikingly modern. Long before megalomaniacal world leaders such as Stalin, Hitler, or Kim Jong Il, we have this wicked man, so blinded and myopic in his desire to hold onto political power by any means necessary. Instead of learning from the Magi’s devotion he only can think of how to use them as unwitting pawns in his paranoid quest to discover a potential rival for his throne. I see parallels between Herod and another figure, this one fictional, yet also instructive; Jacob Marley. Now anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol” will recognize the character of Jacob Marley, the man who was once partner to Ebenezer Scrooge in their counting house. Marley, like Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser, who cares only for money and yet once he dies, he learns of the terrible error of his ways. He then revisits his old friend. Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge that his only hope for redemption is to become a more generous and compassionate person, one whose every action is not motivated by the desire for profit. Now at first, faced with Marley’s lamentations and remorse, Scrooge proclaims that his old friend was always a good business man. Marley, greatly disturbed, responds: Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Marley then goes on to regret his lack of vision, and perspective in life: Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!  Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” Marley realizes that his obsession with the narrow pursuit of profit meant that he permanently missed his chance to make a difference with his wealth, and be a blessing to others. Marley however in Dickens’ fictional world does get a chance to warn his old friend, and thus play a part in the eventual redemption and changed nature of Scrooge. Herod meanwhile, despite his murderous threats and attempts to manipulate the devotion of the Magi is powerless to thwart the eventual and eternal plan of the Lord. Ironically enough in fact, the very efforts of Herod which drive Christ and His family to seek refuge in Egypt end up simply fulfilling Scriptural prophecies. Herod, for all of his evil desire to control events around him for his own purposes, ends up completely subservient to God’s greater plan. Thus the story of the Magi reminds us that no matter how the fallen world might strive against the work of the Lord, God’s purposes and plans will be accomplished. What lasting hope and surpassing peace there is in that knowledge!!

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Finally we can learn from the Magi’s story by specifically taking note of the gifts that they bring. There is the gold—symbol of the kingship of Christ, the Messiah who has come in the line of David. Frankincense—a kind of incense used in worship, and a reminder of the Divinity of Christ. Myrrh, used in embalming, is symbolic of Jesus’ eventual death, a foreshadowing of the purpose for which He came into this world—to give up His life as a ransom for many. But beyond these immediately symbolic meanings for the three gifts of the Wise Men, what else can we say about them? They represent the best of what the Magi had—laid at the altar of the newborn Jesus. I don’t think I could let a discussion of the Magi pass without referencing the famous 1905 O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi.” Many of you may be familiar with this classic little work. It’s the story of Jim and Della, a young married couple who are short on money, and yet want so badly to express their feelings for each other with the perfect Christmas gift. So Jim sells his prize watch in order to buy a beautiful set of combs for Della, who has luxurious long hair. Only it turns out that Della has cut her hair short and sold it in order to purchase a fancy chain for Jim’s watch. The young lovers are heartbroken when they discover how they have sacrificed for each other—seemingly for naught. But the author offers some perspective on their situation with the story’s closing lines: The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the new-born King of the Jews in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.” As the O. Henry story illustrates, the last lesson that the Magi teach us to offer the best of ourselves, whatever gifts or talents we have to Christ. We cannot hold back, if we are going to serve the Lord—we must give Him everything.

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So when we look at the story of the Magi, we should quite simply live in imitation of them. Remember that Christ has come for all people and for all the nations, a fact these same Magi acknowledged at the moment of His birth. Like they followed the fixed light of the star, let us follow the fixed and constant light that Scripture provides us, a light which will always lead us back to Christ. Just as Herod failed to thwart them, let us never fear the machinations of the wicked, which are ultimately powerless to derail the true plans and purposes of the Almighty. So let us have confidence and trust in the Lord, and like the Magi, follow the star, and bring our gift, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. And as we do, may our actions, lifestyle, and our witness serve to guide others to Him as well. Amen!

We are One Body

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I want to talk about unity. Since Tuesday, November 8th, we have been living with the results of a presidential election which fairly clearly underscored many of the divides that still run deep in American society.  Some people are excited about a change in political power, while others are frustrated, angry, and fearful. And knowing that there are Christian men and women on both sides of the spectrum, I felt it would be a good time to address this political conundrum by turning to a different question. That is, despite the obvious divisions in 2016 America, what about unity—specifically unity amongst those who follow Jesus?? What does unity look like in the Body of Christ, and the Church?? How are believers in the church united across the wide spectrum of different traditions, cultures, and denominations that make up Christianity? Is such unity even important??  It’s interesting that even in the immediate aftermath of this devastating electoral defeat for the Democratic Party, both Hillary Clinton and President Obama had words of encouragement and a unifying spirit to share, rather than expressing bitterness or anger at the man who had just defeated them.

 

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Outgoing President Obama reminded Americans about several important truths as he prepared to hand over the reins of power to someone who, on the surface at least, he would appear to share little in common with. “One thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency and the vice presidency is bigger than any of us. So I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush’s team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect. Because we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country…We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first.”

 

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Then listen to some words from Hillary Clinton, who despite just having lost the most important election of her life, was still in a conciliatory and positive mood: “Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans…I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” Now how is it that even following such a devastating political defeat, both Obama and Clinton can be so gracious and magnanimous towards a man with whom they admittedly have some very significant differences? I believe it’s because they both recognize that America, the ideals for which our nation stands, and the overall national unity which they can help foster, is more important than the partisan divide. And I think there is also a belief here that ultimately, those things which unite us as Americans remain stronger even than the obvious divisions that threaten our society.  Now I share all this by way of illustration to return back to my main topic—what does unity in the church look like? What does it look like not only for groups—churches and denominations, but amongst individual believers? What beliefs and practices bring us together, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, as Christians, how do we demonstrate a spiritual unity to the world at large? These are some of the questions I want to examine through the lens of John 17:20-26, as well as some other passages. These verses in John thoare part of a passage that constitutes Jesus’ great final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest. And in these last few moments before everything turns against Him, one of the big things that is on Christ’s mind is the unity of those who would call Him Lord. In light of this, I think that the 2.2 billion people around the world who profess to be Christians would all do well to call to mind the shared faith we have in the One Savior and the One God who is great enough to surpass all of our human weaknesses, divisions, and imperfections, to bring us together at the foot of the Cross.

 

To start out, let’s address a question that perhaps is obvious to some of you, but still is important to unpack a little. Because before we can fully understand why unity in the church is so important, we need to understand where the church itself came from. And no, I’m not referring to the Baptist church, or indeed any one particular denomination. This is a much larger question regarding the universal church. Who started it—who was its founder?? Now those of you who know me probably know that I’m a history guy—I love to study the past, and something that’s always been intriguing to me is how things get started. Because almost any entity you can think of has what we might call an origin story—and often that origin or beginning leads us back to one particular person, a founder.

 

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Cities have founders—Romulus and Remus were the two legendary founders of Rome, nourished, so the story goes, by a female wolf.

 

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Nations have founders too—Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan statesman and military leader who in the early 19th century, played a key role in the establishment of five South American countries as independent from Spain–Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the nation that would bear his name—Bolivia.

 

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Companies have founders—the Bell Telephone Company, established back in 1877, was started by none other than Alexander Graham Bell—the main who incidentally also invented the telephone.

 

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If you’re ever been to Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, you can see a large statue of Walt Disney standing hand-in-hand with his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary vision of one man, whose fertile imagination launched an entire multimedia and entertainment empire.

 

 

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But when we talk about the Church—we can talk about a founder greater than any other you could possibly imagine. Cities, nations, companies, even creations of fiction and the imagination, all have their founders—but in each case—these individuals built something that ended up being greater than themselves. But in the case of the church—its founder, Jesus was infinitely greater than what He created, yet He lived, and died even to serve His creation! The church, according to Scripture is not a man-made entity, the result of politics and hierarchy, but the creation of none other than God—in the person of Jesus Christ. Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18—“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Furthermore we know that the church, being once established by Christ will prevail ultimately because of the sacrificial love that Jesus has for the community of believers. It is a love that perfectly exemplifies the type of love a husband should have for his wife, as Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25—“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” Christians call the church the “Body of Christ”—a term that has twofold significance. It recognizes on the one hand that all of us as individual believers come together in a corporate fashion to compose a unified entity that should live and work in the Spirit of Jesus. This phrase also reminds us that Jesus has sacrificed Himself in love for the welfare of all Christians, both individually, and corporately.

 

So for all of its flaws and shortcomings, when we speak of the church as a whole, let us never forget that the idea of the church and its founding take us back to none other than Jesus. That truth alone should serve as a powerful reminder for us that the church is an institution worthy of respect and worthy of our best efforts to serve in and through it for the cause of Jesus. But within each individual church, as well as across many different churches and denominations, what is it that actually binds us together in a shared sense of value and purpose? What does a belief in Christ lead us to profess and practice in common? Well I want to highlight just a few truths here, which hopefully will further impress upon you the importance of unity within the Body of Christ. Because while it can be all too easy to focus on what separates us from other Christians, we must not lose sight of the great number of cherished beliefs that have been held in common by the vast majority of Christian men and women down through the centuries from the time of Jesus until our present age. Even if you think you have little in common with a Catholic priest in Rome, a Russian Orthodox grandmother in St. Petersburg, a Pentecostal congregation in Rio, or African-American Baptists in Alabama—there is an amazing commonality of belief and practice that binds us together as Christ followers. That commonality extends first from our beliefs—in one God, and in the Savior, Jesus Christ. A statement of universal Christian belief that I particularly value is the Apostle’s Creed. It dates back to at least the 700’s AD, and contains a powerful summary of those essential doctrines and truths that most Christians share across denominational and cultural boundaries. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” Now I won’t try to unpack all of the beliefs referenced in the Apostle’s Creed, but most of us who are believers can recognize in this statement a fairly accurate summary of a good deal of essential Christian doctrine.  And let me just add a brief semantic explanation here. In the Apostle’s Creed, “catholic” is a lowercase word, that is referring not to the Roman Catholic Church, but is being used in its other sense to mean “universal” and “all-embracing.” Christians are also bound together by things that we practice in common. For example, although the understanding of how exactly  to carry out these ceremonies may vary from church to church, virtually all Christians in some way observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. Christians worldwide also share in the church calendar, sometimes known as the Liturgical Year. Although the dates and customs of celebration may differ, almost every Christian will celebrate holidays like Easter and Christmas.

 

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Perhaps the most powerful factor in binding us together as Christ followers is our common adherence to the Word of God—the Bible. The power and permanence of God’s Word has been a strong anchor for the universal church down through the ages—through changing times and seasons, the authority and witness of Scripture remains steadfast. Jesus promises us this—in Matthew 24:35 He assures us: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” Then we can agree with and echo the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 119:89—“Forever O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” Now sometimes you might hear people say something like, “Well yes Christians everywhere use the Bible but it’s been changed and distorted so much down through the years by all of the different translations!” So I want to share with you a brief anecdote about how one Christian answered such an objection. Horizons International is a ministry located here in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. Their founder is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli before coming to faith in Christ as a teenager. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so often when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, which is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them, “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! Despite the different translations that exist, we should be confident that the essential message and truth of God’s Word, the Holy Bible has been preserved, and will continue to be preserved by the Holy Spirit.

 

Some people perhaps wonder how does the concept of unity relate to the obvious diversity that is present within the church?? And here I’m speaking not only of diversity of cultures, languages, races, but also a diversity of different personalities, gifts, and talents. I remember having a conversation with a student recently on campus at CU, and although he’s not a Christian yet, he’s been reading the Bible some with me, and is definitely spiritually open. But anyway, his concern was that becoming a Christian meant he would have to conform to a certain type of personality, with certain interests and hobbies, maybe even a particular way of talking or dressing—and I tried to assure him that while becoming a Christian does mean being molded increasingly into the person and character of Christ, it does not mean that you have to lose your individual identity, or lose those unique characteristics that make you different from everyone else! Scripture talks about this—and how unity within the church can still serve to highlight and celebrate the diversity of different gifts, talents, and abilities that are present. Listen to Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6—“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of you calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” So first, Paul is laying out the case for our unity as believers. But then listen to what follows—“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift…And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Paul expresses a similar thought—“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.” Paul then says later in this same chapter “Now you are the Body of Christ, and members individually.”

 

 

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Those of you who know me well know that my great passion in sports is college football, and my favorite team is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now I have to brag a little on my home state here, because in case you didn’t know, Alabama has been one of the best teams in college football over the past decade—during which time we’ve won four national titles, and an amazing 91% of their overall games. This remarkable run of success is largely due to their talented head coach Nick Saban. He calls his coaching style and system “The Process” and a key part of it is leaving nothing to chance, and building a comprehensive team of experts to guide the Alabama football program in every possible way. You might think that to be of service to a dominant college football program you either need to be an athletic young man between the ages of 18-22 or an experienced coach that lives and breathes football strategy 24/7. But Saban has recognized that there are many other pieces to the puzzle of constructing a championship caliber football team. So at Alabama the strength and conditioning coach is an equally important part of the program, as is the nutritionist, the academic advisors and tutors, and even a sports psychologist. In this way, Saban leaves nothing unaddressed that could possibly affect the on-field performance of his players, and he’s quick to mention how all of these diverse figures are equally important to the overall success of the team.

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There is a misconception amongst some that if you really want to be useful in the Kingdom of God, and serve the Lord, you have to devote yourself to full-time vocational ministry, or become a missionary. Now of course we need good pastors, and missionaries, and even campus ministry leaders, but it is also absolutely vital to the Kingdom of God that we have Christian engineers, Christian doctors, Christian business people, Christian teachers, and so on. So you should never think that you are of any less importance to the Body of Christ because you don’t do ministry as your career. A lot of people can get hung up on the decision about whether they should go into ministry or not as a profession, and while that might be a discussion that some will need to have, I think perhaps the larger and overarching question is prefaced by a statement. As Christians, all of you are going into the business of ministry and missions, and from there it’s just a matter of finding out what is your most effective mission field to serve in. And a Christian serving in whatever walk of life God has placed them in is just as important and vital to the health of the overall church as a pastor, missionary, church planter, or campus minister.

 

We’ve talked about how unity in the church comes from shared beliefs and ultimately from Christ Himself—so what does Jesus say on this subject? Well there are many passages we could turn to, but I want to focus on just a few verses for a moment. In Luke 9:49-50, Christ briefly addresses the question of sectarianism. This can be defined as the anger and strife that emerges between two different subsections or factions within an overall group. And if you know much at all about the history of Christianity, you know there has sadly been a great deal of blood shed over the years in support of sectarian quarrels—Catholics fighting Protestants, Orthodox fighting Catholics, even religious violence between citizens of  the same nation—such as was experienced in Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century. And it is clear from Scripture that none of this internecine violence and division is ultimately pleasing to Christ. Listen to Luke 9:49-50—“Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us. But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.”  

 

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Well that brings us to our central passage, John 17:20-26. Now, it’s interesting, but a few chapters before this prayer, in John 10:16 Jesus makes a significant allusion to the fact that His message will soon spread far beyond just this small band of followers and the largely Jewish world He lives in to reach many different peoples: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” So as these other, future believers come into faith, Christ emphasizes the unity that should prevail. Then, in John 17, during those last few precious hours before His betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for Himself and His disciples. But as we read a minute ago in verses 20-22, Christ also prays for many others who will one day believe—that even includes us as Christians today! “I do not pray for these alone but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.” There’s much to unpack from just these three verses, but basically Christ is praying for the great universal church, for all those who will come to faith through the teachings that will be written and passed down by those original 12 Apostles. And that includes us now. How cool is it to know that more than 2000 years ago, Jesus was already praying for you! Note also that when Jesus desires us to have unity amongst ourselves as believers, He’s calling us to model a much greater unity which exists in heaven. Because when Christ says that He and the Father are one, He’s referring to a perfect unity between God the Father and Jesus the Son as part of the Trinity. And the Church is called to honor and reflect that heavenly unity. Then listen to verse 23 in John 17. “I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” Here is a reference to the world knowing that Jesus has been sent by God. Christ is trying to remind us that the extent to which the universal church can either display unity, or a lack of it—will powerfully affect its witness. To put it in simpler terms—as my pastor Jay Wolf used to say back in Alabama, no one wants to come to church to see a fight! If those on the outside, non-believers, only see Christians continually arguing amongst ourselves, how attractive and compelling a testimony is that really, coming from people who claim to follow the Prince of Peace?? Make no mistake—a spirit of discord, strife, disunity and hatred that springs up between groups of Christians comes from Satan himself. You see the devil can so easily twist our seemingly spiritual feelings around. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with a new church being established, or even a new denomination—this has happened periodically throughout history, according to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But when that new church or group of believers is consumed with pride at their exclusivity and even led to believe that they alone have a monopoly on the truth, and when they start to look with contempt and derision on other Christians—well that is where the spirit of Satan very well may have superseded the Holy Spirit, and be at work. I heard a joke one time—“A man went to heaven and was being shown around by St. Peter. As they went from cloud to cloud they came to various doors which St. Peter would open. One showed a large group rolling on the floor and talking in tongues.  “Our Pentecostals” Peter said. Next was a serious ritual. “Our Catholics”, he replied. Then they saw a group engaged in a beautiful choral performance—“The Episcopalians”, St Peter offered. At the next cloud, Peter didn’t open the door but instead put his forefinger to his lips in a hushed motion and they both tiptoed past. Once past, the man asked what was that all about? “Those are the Baptists”, Peter explained. “And they think they are the only ones here!!”

 

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Now as I have already alluded to—there is nothing wrong with having different denominations or churches—their existence alone does not necessarily constitute an offense against the unity of the Body of Christ. Because we can have differences which don’t have to lead to disputes, or mutual distrust and dislike. We can think of different churches, or even different denominations like families. Now everyone knows that their family isn’t perfect, and yet I bet that most of us will at the same time stick up for our families. I’m a Winslow—my family has certain things we value, and they’re important to us, they’re not just arbitrary things, but maybe there are some differences with my family and your family. That’s ok—we don’t have to be exactly the same, maybe it’s even good if we’re different. It’s more interesting that way, and we can learn some things from one another. My denominational family is Baptist—that’s one major reason why I came on staff with Christian Challenge—which is the Baptist campus ministry at CU-Boulder, and not with a non-denominational group like Navs, or Cru, or Intervarsity. I am proud to be a Baptist, I can tell you some specific reasons why I am Baptist, and I would even say that I think there are some things we do really well as a church and a denomination. But by no means do I think we have a monopoly on the truth, or that the Spirit of Christ isn’t present and working in other churches and denominations. So all that to say, when we talk about unity, we need to make sure it’s unity for the right reasons, and a unity that is centered on Christ. Let’s go back to John 17:24-25—“Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me.” It’s clear to me from Christ’s Words, that our unity should be centered on Him—because faith in Jesus alone, not in our good works, not in our church membership, not in anything else, is what will bring about our salvation. Along those lines, I have a pretty simple criteria for what makes a church or a denomination Christian, in terms of their doctrine. You can get complex and look at a big statement of belief, but I have a very concise rubric that I borrowed from my pastor back in Alabama—“Jesus plus nothing.” If someone is saying that to be a Christian means believing in Jesus plus speaking in tongues, or believing in Jesus plus devotion to the Saints and Virgin Mary, or even something that sounds really good like believing in Jesus plus promoting social justice—they’re off base for me, and they’re missing the point. Because anything that is added to faith in Christ and then presented as an essential component of what it means to be Christian, is unnecessary. Jesus alone is enough. So we of course should reserve the right to dissociate with groups which have either removed Christ or added to Him being at the center of the church and Christian practice. So in summary, what we are talking about this morning is not unity at all costs, and it’s not an inauthentic unity for the sake of political correctness. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg concluded a period of destructive warfare between Lutheran German princes and members of the Holy Roman Empire. The peace settlement’s religious implications were defined by a Latin term–Cuius regio, eius religio, being translated—“Whose realm his religion.” In others words, the prince of a particular region would now determine the religion of his subjects based on his own beliefs. A Lutheran prince’s subjects would have to be Lutheran, a Catholic prince’s Catholic. Now this is spiritual unity of one kind—but it was forced, and therefore artificial. I would even hazard to say this type of spiritual unity does not honor God because it proceeds from man-made strictures rather than the heartfelt convictions of individuals.

 

 

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I want to conclude by talking in some very practical terms about what unity in the Body of Christ can look like, and how we can promote it. Because I firmly believe that promoting unity and ecumenism, a spirit of cooperation amongst those in the universal church begins not with bishops, popes, pastors, or presidents of denominational conventions. No, it starts on the grass-roots level, with people just like you and me. Ordinary Christians, who, nonetheless, can be called by God to do some extraordinary things. And many of the same things that promote a healthy walk with God as individuals will help us to be ambassadors of unity and reconciliation amongst the Body of Christ. So if you’re wanting to promote unity in the Body, ask yourself—are you striving to embody the nine Fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23?? What about those superlative qualities of love as listed in 1 Corinthians 13—are you making your best effort to live those out?? Love is paramount here—because it is the one quality that Christ highlights as the defining hallmark, and characteristic of those who would be His followers. Listen to John 13:34-5—“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Then, in John 17:26, Jesus says “And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” In addition to the qualities we should demonstrate individually, what about corporately?? What does a church that is unified, and actively working to promote unity amongst the rest of the Body of Christ look like?? Well the Book of Acts gives us a beautiful portrait of how the early church came together in harmony to promote the general welfare and furtherance of the Gospel of Christ. Acts 4:32-35—“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” Of course the early church wasn’t perfect—we can garner evidence of all the doctrinal disputes and problems they endured from the early letters of Paul. Yet there is the portrait here nonetheless of a unified Body of believers whose priority is each other’s mutual welfare as well as the spread of the Gospel message.

So what might your role be in promoting unity amongst the Body of Christ?? We certainly don’t have to always agree on everything, and as I’ve tried to show, a diversity of belief and practice can be the working of the Holy Spirit, just as the Spirit has also distributed a variety of different spiritual gifts and talents among us. But we should always be striving to build bridges amongst one another. Let’s follow the words of Paul in Romans 12:18—“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” If you can do that, and promote unity amongst all believers, you will be giving a powerful testimony to the way in which Christ can unite peoples across boundaries of race, language, history and culture. And today, in an age where there appears to be so much polarization and disunity, for all Christ followers to proclaim and live out the One Thing, Same Thing together is a priceless opportunity. Don’t miss it—be part of it—be one, even as Christ and the Father are. Amen!

The Tree of Life

Fall has always been my favorite season, but until recently, I was never fortunate enough to live in a place where you could experience a true autumn. So these last several years in Colorado have been a real treat–enjoying the crisp cool days and chilly nights during this transitional time of year, but above all marveling at the beauty of the foliage. Colorado is somewhat famous for its aspen trees and for just a few short weeks in either late September, or early October (depending on the elevation) they treat everyone to a riot of fall colors–vivid yellows, oranges, and reds. The leaves appear to “shiver” as they prepare to fall and hence the trees are sometimes termed “quaking aspens.” During the fall, I love to go up to one of the aspen groves in higher elevations, and lose myself in the scenic beauty of God’s Creation. As I’ve thought about trees during this fall season, it brings to mind the fact that the tree is a powerful, recurring symbol used throughout Scripture.

 

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Our teaching theme for the students this semester is “One Thing, Same Thing”, which is all about the fundamentals of our faith, and how to have a walk, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And one of the things we wanted to do for the semester was to find an image, a recurring illustration we could use that would help convey our teaching in a visual way. We decided on the image of a tree. And so one of our artistically gifted students in Christian Challenge, Jose Canizares, made a beautiful painting of a tree to give us a good visual illustration. I’ve entitled this post “The Tree of Life”, because ultimately what I desire for each of my students in Christian Challenge is the opportunity to begin or continue a life that, just like a healthy tree, is firmly rooted, a life firmly rooted in the promises and person of Jesus Christ.

 

 

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Now, as I started preparing this post, I was reading a little bit about famous, unusual and noteworthy trees from around the world, and the story of one in particular really caught my attention. You see a photograph of it above, the Tree of Tenere. It was located in a very remote area of the Sahara Desert in northeast Niger. So remote in fact, that this tree was reputed to be the most isolated one in the entire world, the only one for some 250 miles in all directions. Despite its harsh surroundings, the tree had developed deep roots, deep enough to reach the water table some 100 feet underground, and keep it sustained. For years the tree was celebrated as a symbol of life amidst scarcity, and the local Touareg people considered it sacred. Yet this fragile, beautiful symbol of the perseverance of nature, which even the harsh desert couldn’t kill, was gone in an instant as a result of the carelessness and stupidity of humanity. A drunk trunk driver struck, and killed the Tree of Tenere in 1973. Imagine the callous disregard of this deed. In this whole dead, empty expanse of sand, that individual managed to take away the one symbol of life!!

 

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I share that story with you because it reminds me in some ways of another famous tree, one that we read about in the Book of Genesis. For when God first created humanity, He placed our ancestors, Adam and Eve, in a beautiful garden, one filled with lovely plant life. Listen to this description in Genesis 2:9 of the vegetation found in the Garden of Eden—“And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Then a few verses later, God gives this command to Adam, in Genesis 2:16-17—“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” These would appear to be pretty simple instructions, right? God has created a wonderful garden for Adam, and then his companion Eve, to live in. There are no doubt all variety of different fruits and plants that they can enjoy, with just this one restriction. And yet in Genesis 3, we discover something very interesting about our human condition, and our human psychology. For what is it in us as humans, that would make us disregard the 99 wonderful gifts that God offers to us, and go after the one thing He wishes to protect us from? But the temptation of the serpent, and this perverse human impulse to do the forbidden prevail, and so Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The curses of death, work, and pain in childbirth follow, and to top it off, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden. We are told in Genesis 3:24 that God places a heavenly being, a cherubim to stand east of Eden, and with a flaming sword guard the way to the Tree of Life. So the tree first appears in Scripture then as a symbol of the Fall of humanity, and of our own sinful disobedience. Here’s the question: After this inauspicious beginning, how can we ever return to Eden, and go back to the Tree of Life? Well keep that question in mind as we begin to answer it by looking at some other tree images that occur in Scripture.

 

 

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Psalm 1 is a passage which uses the image of the tree to help illustrate for us how we can enjoy a healthy, and fruitful relationship with God by being well-rooted, and choosing our location wisely. Or to put it another way, this Psalm talks about the importance of keeping good company, and surrounding ourselves with others who are also pursuing God, and will encourage and help us in our faith journeys. Listen to Psalm 1:1—“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful.” So you see here, the Psalmist is describing someone who doesn’t imitate the unrighteous or allow themselves to be influenced by those who are not following God. We all naturally tend to be influenced and shaped by those around us, and it can be so easy, without even fully realizing it, to begin to take on some of the characteristics and attitudes of your friends, and the people who you spend the most time with. So we must strive to make sure that people we’re putting ourselves into community with are going to be positive influences, especially in the spiritual realm. In verse 2, the Psalmist continues by describing how the person who is well-rooted spiritually will delight in the knowledge and pursuit of the Lord—“his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” One reason why we study Scripture, and even meditate over it, is so that we can learn how to more faithfully walk with the Lord. Then, look at Psalm 1:3. Here we get the tree image in detail—“He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper.” What a beautiful word picture–a tree that is has deep roots, because it’s located in a good place, specifically near a body of water, which is the source of life and sustenance. Notice too that this tree proves its health by bringing forth fruit—this is a topic we’ll come back to in more detail in just a few moments.

 

 

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I mentioned earlier that one of my favorite species of trees, and one which is very much associated with the West and the Rocky Mountains is the Aspen tree. This picture is actually of an aspen grove called Pando, located in Utah. And what’s fascinating is that although this would appear to be a grove of many different trees, it’s actually considered by scientists to be just one single living organism. You see each of these aspen trees is genetically identical, and supported by one vast, interconnected root system. While the individual trunks may only live to be 100-130 years old, researchers believe the root system may be as old as 80,000 years!! This beautiful grove, this single living organism illustrates the idea that as Christians, our ultimate spiritual health comes from not only connecting to and associating with one another, but also connecting with Christ. And though the church features a wonderful diversity of different gifts, backgrounds, and individual stories, despite our uniqueness, Scripture says we are also One in Christ. As Paul writes in Romans 12:4-5—“We have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ”. In a similar fashion, in one of the last prayers of His life, Jesus, in John 17:20-21, asks that all of His future followers would be unified by their belief in Him: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I, in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that you sent Me.” So as we strive to follow God individually, let us seek also to find fellowship and unity with one another based on this common purpose, and the common salvation we can share through Christ.

 

 

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the original Lloyd’s Coffee shop in London

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Lloyd’s of London today

Now as we consider the image of the tree, we should also note the importance of good soil. A healthy tree can only grow where there is adequate soil, and when the seed has a chance to develop. This was the message of the Parable of the Sower given by Jesus in Matthew 13. As it happens, Matthew 13 also contains another parable of Christ with a similar message, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Listen to Matthew 13:31-32—“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” Certainly, one of the truths we can discern from this teaching is that big things can sometimes come from very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. In 1688, Edward Lloyd ran a coffee house in the city of London. It was frequented by sailors, merchants, and ship-owners. Due to the nature of his clientele, Lloyd offered reliable shipping news and weather forecasts in addition to serving food and beverages. Gradually, the shipping industry took more precedence than selling coffee, and eventually Lloyd went into the insurance business full-time. Now, some three-plus centuries later, Lloyd’s of London is headquartered in a slightly more imposing edifice than that original coffee shop, and is perhaps the best known insurance company in the world.

 

 

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A young James Hendrix

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Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Monterrey Pop Festival, 1967

James was a young man from Seattle, a high-school dropout, who, after a failed stint in the 101st Airborne Division, decided to try and make a career in music, since more than anything in the world, he loved to play guitar. He moved to Tennessee, but as a black man in the early 1960’s his professional options were limited. He ended up on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, playing clubs that catered to an African-American audience and serving as a backing musician for many different performers such as Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. But after a couple of years, with his career going nowhere, he moved first to New York, and then in 1966 all the way to London to try and make it. And it would be there in England, that the world was first come to know of Jimi Hendrix, who in just a few short years during the second half of the 1960’s completely revolutionized the music of the electric guitar.

 

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Born in 1860, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had lived a hard life, rearing ten children on a farm in upstate New York, only five of whom lived past infancy. And yet in her spare time, she enjoyed some creative pursuits, such as quilting, and embroidering. However at age 76, she was forced to give these up due to arthritis. Her sister suggested that she try painting as a new hobby. So in the early 1930’s, this self-taught artist began to paint simple scenes of American life–the holidays, and customs of the now bygone era she remembered from her childhood. Then in 1938, an art collector named Louis Caldor happened to be passing through the little hamlet of Hoosick Falls, New York. He stopped at a drugstore, and bought a few locally-made paintings he liked for between $3 and $5 apiece. Over the next few years Moses’ works slowly gained more and more acclaim, until eventually the farmer’s wife known as “Grandma Moses” gained exhibitions in some of the most prestigious museums in the country. By the time of her death in 1961, she was known around the world as an American cultural icon. One of her paintings today hangs in the White House, and for an artist whose initial work sold for $3, she had a painting in 2006 auctioned off for $1.2 million dollars! So in the business, music, and art worlds just to name a few examples, big things can come out of very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. To return to the parable in Matthew 13—Jesus wants to demonstrate with this message from the mustard seed, how from the humble origin of a tiny seed, given the right soil and enough patience, a great tree can spring up. Notice too that this tree is great not just because of its own size and prominence, but because it is able to offer a place of refuge and shelter to the birds. In other words, a mark of the life rooted in God is that such a person will influence and impact the lives of many others. And it doesn’t take much to get started. So those who are thinking that they don’t have much to offer God right now, or who are worried that they lack the amount of faith or the spiritual desire to start, don’t fear!! Because just like the tiny mustard seed in this parable, with God’s help your life can eventually sprout and transform into a sturdy tree of faith—a tree of life!!

 

 

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Earlier, as we looked at Psalm 1, we saw how the tree described there demonstrates its health by bearing fruit. So let’s talk just a little more about that idea. Now you don’t have to be a farmer, or an arboreal specialist to know that if you plant an apple tree, or a pear tree, one way to ascertain its overall health is to check the fruit. And just because the tree might be tall, and have big branches, and otherwise look good—none of that really matters too much if it’s not producing healthy fruit, because it is then failing the very purpose for which it was planted and cultivated. Now I realize that all of us have different spiritual gifts, and talents. Each will serve the Lord in a different way—that’s fine, and that’s part of the beautiful diversity of the Kingdom of God. But we all must find our places of service!! Because just to sit back, and watch others, or to think that being a Christian merely means that you’ve obtained salvation, and are saved from going to hell, reveals a profound misunderstanding of our purpose as Christ followers. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms in Matthew 7:17-19 about the importance, indeed the necessity of bearing fruit. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Now these are strong words from Christ, and again maybe some people wonder about how exactly they can bear fruit in the Kingdom? Maybe you think that you don’t have the gift of being a pastor, or a teacher, or an evangelist—but there are still so many things you can do. God has uniquely given each one of us a platform, some special ability that you can use to serve Him and others. So, it is imperative that you discover how you can be not just a passive believer in God, but an active follower of His!! The great Christian author C.S. Lewis explained what it means to bear fruit by using another metaphor—that of the egg. In a passage from his classic work Mere Christianity, Lewis writes: “When He said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” Do you see Lewis’ point here? To bear fruit is to realize our full, God-given potential. That is what we are called to do, and the fruit we bear, is our witness to others. By that fruit, outsiders, non-Christians, people who don’t yet have a relationship with God, can know what that looks like. But in order for this to take place, we have to become active in our faith!!

 

 

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Well in closing, let’s talk about what is really the heart of the tree—the trunk, and then what extends from the trunk—the branches. A healthy tree, we might say, is one in which the branches spread wide and strong, twisting outward and upwards from that central trunk. But how much good is even the strongest, sturdiest branch, on its own—if it gets disconnected from the trunk?? You have to learn that you can’t do it on your own. This is certainly true in the sports world, even for the greatest individual players. After his team went undefeated during the 2005 regular season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bought an Audi Q-7 luxury SUV for each of his starting five offensive linemen. In case you’re wondering, the Q-7 retails for around $50,000!! In 2012, when Adrian Peterson rushed for an NFL-best 2,097 yards, the Minnesota Vikings star showed his gratitude by purchasing personalized snowmobiles for the members of his offensive line. Now Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson are household names, major stars in the world of sports, but even the most ardent Patriots and Vikings fans might be hard-pressed to name all five starting offensive linemen on their respective squads. But Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, and many other NFL stars instinctively know that for all of their individual talents, without the dedication and skill of their offensive lines, they could accomplish nothing in football. The role of offensive linemen is basically to be like a human shield. They block and hit people, pushing them out of the way so that hopefully the quarterback and running back—or whoever is carrying the ball on offense, won’t get hit. It’s a punishing occupation—but offensive linemen essentially sacrifice themselves and their bodies so that others on the team can have success. So back to that central truth–you can’t do it on your own. And that is very much the case in your spiritual life too. Jesus teaches us this in John 15:5 using a tree metaphor: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” 

 

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The reason that we should abide in Christ is because that is how we reflect our love for Him. And this love on our parts is but a pale reflection of the great love that Jesus has demonstrated already for all humanity. For Christ took it upon Himself to be the sacrifice for sin. He died on the cross, but that cross can be envisioned in another form, as 1 Peter 2:24 describes in reference to Jesus: “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the three, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness.” The same tree which was a symbol of our sinful downfall in Genesis is now recast in 1 Peter as the symbol of God’s redemptive work on the Cross. I asked earlier how could we, after the sin of Adam and Eve, ever make it back to the Garden of Eden, and that Tree of Life which we’d been banished from? Well now we have the answer. It’s nothing that we could ever do—but that which Christ has already done!! Let’s look briefly at Revelation 22. Revelation comes at the very end of Scripture, and is kind of like a fast-forward through spiritual history, to give us a glimpse of how God will one day bring all of His great redemptive work as well as history itself to a perfect conclusion. And in the last chapter of Revelation, we get a portrait of heaven itself. Hear this description of heaven from Revelation 22:1-3—“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.” Do you realize what’s happened here?? In the end, we shall once again have access to the Tree of Life, and we’ll be healed of that curse pronounced on Adam and Eve back in Genesis 3. Our lives will then perfectly resemble the tree planted by the waters in Psalm 1. All of these different Scriptural images of trees are fulfilled and perfected here in this last passage in Revelation 22. And again what makes this possible—what allows us to once again have access to the Tree of Life, is because Jesus gave His life for us on a Tree, on the Cross. S0–what kind of plant will you be?? Will your seed sprout up, and if it does, will it develop in a strong, healthy tree, that is in community with others, is well-rooted and watered, draws life to itself, and bears fruit?? The way to do that is to stay rooted in Christ. Invite Him to be Lord of your life, and strive to follow His example every day. Don’t feel like everything has to be perfect in your life before you follow Jesus, but heed the words of that beautiful old hymn—“Come ye weary, heavy-laden/Lost and ruined by the fall/If you tarry until you’re better/You will never come at all/I will arise and go to Jesus/He will embrace me in His arms/In the arms of my dear Savior/Oh, there are ten thousand charms.” If it’s rooted in a relationship with Christ, your tree then will indeed grow, and will serve to bless and be an example to others. May we all have the chance to prosper, and grow, while staying rooted in the life-giving truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!

The Word of God–nothing more, and nothing less

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Most people who know me fairly well would agree that I’m somewhat of a bibliophile. My apartment is crammed full of books, and that’s not even counting the many tomes that are still back at my parent’s house in Alabama. Ever since I was small, I’ve always enjoyed spending time in libraries and bookstores, and I really credit my parents for instilling in me a love of reading as a child. I read in many different genres–novels, plays, biographies, memoirs, history, travelogues, cultural studies, art history, theology–the list goes on. But what constantly amazes me is how one book above all, The Bible, has exerted such an inordinate influence over almost every conceivable branch of Western letters. In fact, even if you’re not a Christian, if you grew up in the West, you have been somehow shaped by this book. Because Biblical themes, standards, and ideals have left an indelible impression not only on the literature, but on the art, laws, culture, and psyche of the Western world. However living as I do in a fairly secular place like Boulder, Colorado, I often hear people saying something along these lines—“yes we know that the Bible is an important book, from a literary, and cultural standpoint. But is it something that we can still consider reliable as a guide to life in 2016?” And that’s a very legitimate question to explore, which is want I want to do in the rest of this blog post. I want to endeavor to answer some of these questions: How can we trust that that Bible is the Word of God, which has been passed down faithfully through the ages, across so many different cultures and languages?? And furthermore, why specifically is it that Christians make the Bible into their guide for faith and practice? Even if we accept the authority of the Bible–how do we go about interpreting it? How can we study the Bible effectively, and begin to live out what it teaches? I’ll start by laying out some claims about why we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint. Then we’ll get into why the Bible is our primary guide to the Christian life, how we can interpret Scripture, and finally some suggestions for further Biblical study.

 

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Let me set the stage initially though by talking about the power of the Word. Our words—mine, yours, everyone’s, have power. Words have power to inspire. Where I live, here in Colorado, the Broncos are king, but personally I’ve always been more of a college football than NFL fan. Maybe it has something to do with coming from Alabama haha. But I love to study the history of the sport, and read about famous coaches. And even though I’m no fan of the team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have produced some legendary sideline leaders over the years, and none greater than Knute Rockne. He coached them from 1918-1930, and during that span won 105 games and five national championships. Rockne, in addition to being a great tactician, was known for his rousing locker-room speeches. The most famous of them all was his “win one for the Gipper” speech, given during the half-time of the 1928 Notre Dame-Army game. George Gipp had been an All-American halfback for the Irish, but he caught pneumonia, and died an untimely death at the end of his last college season in 1920. So the story goes, before he passed away, Gipp made one last request to his coach, Knute Rockne: “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Rockne apparently saved this inspirational story for nearly a decade before using it to fire up his Irish team to come out in the second half and defeat Army, 12-6.

 

 

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Words, even just a few, if carefully selected, have the power to paint indelible images. One of my favorite poems is called “The Eagle” by 19th century British writer Alfred Lord Tennyson. I love it because in just a few lines, Tennyson paints an unforgettable visual portrait of this majestic bird: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands/The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls/He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls.” Words have the power to convict. I did my undergrad at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and as at many universities, we had an Honor Code there. But while the Honor Code is certainly not unique to Vanderbilt, there is a special story attached to it that I love to recall. Dr. Madison Sarratt was a math professor, and later a vice-chancellor at Vanderbilt in the mid 20th century. And this is what he once announced to a class before he gave them a test, in order to get his students to take the idea of the Honor Code, and their academic integrity seriously: “Today I am going to give you two examinations—one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry, for there are many good people in this world today who can’t pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good people in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.”

 

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So indeed, words have power. And this is the principle at the heart of why Scripture, the written Word of God matters. Interestingly enough, at the Beginning of all things, there were words. According to the Book of Genesis, the Lord God did not fashion the universe and all creation through His hands, or by stirring up some cosmic mishmash together. No, He spoke everything into existence. The Power of the Word. Later, in John 1, Jesus is referred to as the “Word of God”, and then as the “Word made flesh”. So Words matter, Words have significance, and the Words of Scripture, as we will see, are reliable.

 

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So let’s discuss that question now a little further—how is it that we know we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint? I could really use the rest of this post just on this one topic, but I do want to give you just a few reasons as to why you can trust that the Bible is reliable, and has been faithfully preserved down through the ages. Most people are probably familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient Biblical manuscripts were first discovered by Bedouin shepherds in Caves near the Dead Sea in Israel starting in late 1946. Over the next decade a total of 981 manuscripts were found, and documented. What did they contain?? Well there were portions of every book in the Old Testament except for one, including a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. The most remarkable thing about this discovery from an archaeological standpoint is that before this time, the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible we had dated to about the 10 century AD. The oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls go back to the 4th century, BC. So in other words, this discovery brought to light Biblical manuscripts that were over 1000 years older than any that had been previously found!! From a faith standpoint though, the most significant thing about the scrolls is that their appearance and subsequent translation has not significantly altered the Biblical manuscript. Except for a few grammatical differences and slight textual variants, what researchers and scholars found again and again was that the Jewish scribes had been extraordinarily faithful in copying and passing down their scrolls from one generation to the next, over a period of thousands of years! In fact even today, the Jewish people continue to treat the Word of God with extraordinary reverence. Specially trained scribes actually copy out the entire Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, in longhand, for use as a scroll in synagogue worship. When the scribe is being copied, if any mistakes are made, the entire page must be torn out, and done over again. And once the scroll is completed, a process which can take as long as a year-and-a-half, its pages must never be touched directly by the human hand. Instead, a special pointer is used to follow along in the text when reading.

 

 

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Now, some of you may be wondering just how it is that these Scriptures, which have been translated so faithfully and treated with such reverence across the ages, even came to be collected together in the first place? After all, some of the manuscripts discovered from among the Dead Sea Scrolls were fragments from texts that are not now found in Scripture. So how was it decided about which books to include in the Bible? Well it’s a fascinating process to study what is known the Canonization of the Bible—how the individual books were selected. In the case of both the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Greek New Testament, this process of Canonization was a lengthy one, rather than a single event. The first portion of the Hebrew Bible to be grated authoritative status was the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament—the books of the Law. By around 400 BC in the years following the Jewish exile in Babylon, the Torah was accepted as part of the Canon. Next to be accepted were the writings of the Prophets, by approximately 200 BC. Finally, towards the end of the 1st century AD, especially following a critical council held at Jamnia in 90 AD, the remaining books of the Old Testament gradually came into widespread acceptance in the various Jewish communities. But how did religious leaders and scholars decide which books to include, and which to exclude?? Well, there were several possible criteria—was the book written in the Hebrew language, was it believed to be Divinely-inspired, did it conform enough, in terms of teaching and content with other texts, and was it in widespread use amongst the various Jewish communities scattered around the Ancient Near East?? And what about the Canonization of the New Testament, written in Greek?? Well the first parts of the New Testament to be written were some of Paul’s letters, starting in the 50’s AD. These were followed by the Gospels, between roughly 70 and 100 AD, along with epistles from Paul and others. As for their inclusion in the eventual Bible, it’s widely accepted that by the end of the 2nd century AD, Paul’s letters and the four Gospels were all considered Canonical, while other books, such as Revelation and Hebrews, would take longer to be included. The earliest list we have of the 27 books of the New Testament comes from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD. Criteria for canonical inclusion of New Testament were fairly similar to those used to determine the Old Testament books. They included apostolicity, which is a book’s connection back to someone who either was an apostle or knew firsthand an Apostle of Jesus. Other criteria included that the book taught orthodoxy, or true doctrine, was considered to be Divinely-inspired, and finally that the work was widely accepted amongst the various churches and early Christian communities. I share this information so that you know the 66 books of the Bible were not assembled randomly, but with painstaking care, and according to a specific set of instructions.

 

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It is interesting too, just for a moment, to look at the Gospels specifically. These four books really are the heart of the New Testament, and at the very center of the foundation of the Christian faith, since they recount the life of Christ. But sometimes critics will charge that the Gospels were written long after the time of Christ, thus allowing their message to become distorted and inaccurate. Bart Ehrman is a noted author, and scholar of the New Testament, but he is not a practicing Christian, and has made a name for himself as a religious skeptic. Now the great Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis is famous for arguing that you have only three options for considering who Jesus is, based on the Biblical evidence: He is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. But Bart Ehrman adds a fourth possible option to this list—legend. In other words, Ehrman believes that Jesus could have been just an ordinary, moral teacher who was elevated to the status of a God by His later followers. And part of the strength of such an argument could plausibly lie in saying that the more time which passes between an individual’s death, and the records pertaining to their life and work, the more space there could be for a possible distortion of details, and even the invention of information. But if we take the widely accepted date for the death of Christ to be around 33 AD, we find that the first Gospel, Mark could have been written as early as 65 AD, just about thirty years later. The last Gospel, John, was probably written around 90 AD. Thus we are talking about a period of only about 60 years between the death of Christ and the last of the firsthand accounts of His life. Especially by the standards of antiquity, that is not a long time-lapse. Thus the Gospels were written within a timeframe that could easily have encompassed the lifespan of someone who knew Jesus and walked alongside Him. Therefore it makes it less likely that wild fabrications or outright legends would be concocted during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life still would have been living. Also, the chart I have posted above this paragraph provides a nice response to people who would try and cast doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament, while refraining from similar critiques on other widely accepted works of antiquity. As you can see, both in terms of the number of extant manuscripts and the gap between the creation of the original and the oldest surviving copies, the New Testament has much stronger evidence for its textual integrity and existence than the works of Homer, Caesar, Tacitus, and many other famous writers from antiquity.

Finally, as regards this whole matter of the historical reliability and accuracy of Scripture, I’d like to share a brief anecdote. Horizons International is a ministry located in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. As the name implies, they focus on reaching out to international students, specifically those coming from a Muslim background. The founder of Horizons is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon before converting to Christianity. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so sometimes when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, that is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them something like this: “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! As I’ve tried to show through a few historical examples, God’s Word has been preserved through the ages and is historically reliable.

 

 

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But why as Christians, and maybe especially as Protestants, would we say that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christian practice, and the final source we turn to in order to direct our life and faith as believers? Well to answer this question let’s go back in history a few centuries, to the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The man most associated with this movement to correct some of the major abuses in Catholicism was Martin Luther, that great German theologian and writer. Luther had actually trained originally to be a priest, and one of the things that troubled him about the Catholicism of his day was the extent to which it was endorsing practices which Luther did not feel had any real Scriptural basis. In 1521, Luther, whose writings attacking the church’s corruption were starting to garner increasing controversy and gather him a following of his own, was called before a council of the Holy Roman Empire, in what came to be known as the “Diet of Worms.” There, before the imperial council, Luther was asked to renounce all of his writings as heresy. His famous response was this: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Luther received the courage to stand against the imperial authorities and the assembled might of the Catholic hierarchy because it was his solid conviction that Christians should order their lives, first and foremost, according to the dictates of Scripture. This is why one of the primary truths that emerged from the Protestant Reformation is the term Sola Scriptura, which is Latin for “Scripture alone.”

 

And in various places, the Bible itself attests to its own authority as our guide for life. Psalm 119, the longest of all Psalms, is essentially a beautiful hymn to the glory of God’s Word, and all the ways in which it can aid and sustain us through life. God’s Word guards us from wrongdoing–Psalm 119:11—“Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The Scriptures help us in times of difficulty and suffering–Psalm 119:28—“My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to your word” Scripture and its truth are not just for one age, but for all time–Psalm 119:89—“Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” The Bible will guide us in all areas where we would require advice and discernment–Psalm 119:105—“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Then we later have the testimony of Christ, which powerfully echoes Psalm 119 in attesting to the power and permanence of God’s Word. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He responds by quoting from God’s Word, and avowing our absolute need to be sustained by it daily. Matthew 4:4—“It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Here Jesus is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, thereby demonstrating His own knowledge and faithfulness to Scripture. Christ’s Twelve Apostles furthermore recognize that they can do no better than to be guided by the Divine Word. At one point, Jesus asks them if they wish to turn back from following Him, as some others have already. Peter’s response is perfect in its succinct truth. John 6:68—“Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And then like Psalm 119, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us that the Bible can guide us in all areas of our life: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

 

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But how are we to go about understanding and interpreting the message of the Bible? Can’t Scripture often be challenging, complex, and hard to fully understand? After all, it was written thousands of years ago, in a time and culture very different from ours today. Now all of that is true, but at the same time, as Christians, we hold the Bible dear precisely because we believe that everyone, and not just the specially-trained person, can understand and apply Scriptural truth in their lives. Another one of the foundational principles that emerged during the Protestant Reformation from Luther and his followers is the idea of the “Priesthood of the Believer.” This is the concept that all Christians, and not just the clergy, have direct access to God through their prayers and the power of the Holy Spirit. This access also includes the ability to interpret Scripture. Now of course it can be helpful to have training to better understand the Bible, and in fact what I want to talk about now are some of the aids that we have at our disposal to better understand Scripture and its meaning. The most important one perhaps, is the power of the Holy Spirit, which is promised to us by Jesus in John 16:13—“When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will speak not on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will tell you things to come.”

 

 

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John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church in England in the 1700s, and later, his followers compiled a methodology based on his ideas known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The idea is that there are four norms or sources for guiding our Christian theology and practice. They are Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Scripture is the most important of these four, in keeping with the teaching of earlier theologians like Luther. But the other three categories can all aid us in the interpretation of Scripture. So our God-given reason and common sense can help us understand many Biblical passages, as can tradition—borrowing from the work and wisdom of the many great Christian thinkers and teachers down through the ages. Finally experience, that is our own personal relationship with God, and what we have learned from this, can be an aid in our better understanding the message of the Bible. Now obviously Biblical interpretation is not always so simple a matter. After all, that’s part of what I went to seminary to do—to learn how to better interpret Scripture. And if you wanted to, you could go and study Biblical Hebrew, and Koine Greek, so that you could read the Biblical texts in their original languages. All that would help.

 

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But we should be careful of assuming that the Bible is so complex and mysterious in its interpretation, because very often, the message of Scripture is perfectly clear, but we simply don’t want to follow what it says. I love a quote from Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th century Danish theologian, on Biblical interpretation. He said this: “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?” To finish this thought—I want to return briefly to Martin Luther. His guiding rubric, and philosophy for his entire approach to Biblical interpretation was actually quite simple, and for me, pretty hard to improve upon: “What promotes Christ.”

 

 

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Lastly, I want to talk just for a moment about how you can begin to apply Biblical truth and authority into your Christian life. A lot of people say they want to live their life according to Biblical principles, but doing this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.  Gary Player is one of the most famous and successful golfers in history. The South African, known as “The Black Knight”, won nine major championships over the course of his long career, and in total has won 165 tournaments. But what was the secret to his becoming successful and then maintaining that success over such a long period of time? Well one time, so the story goes Gary Player was hitting balls off the practice tee one morning, and the first ball he hit went 280 yards straight as a bullet.  A man watching him in the gallery said, ‘Man, I’d give anything to be able to hit a golf ball like you.’  Gary walked over to the guy and said, ‘No, you wouldn’t.’  The guy said, ‘Yes, I would.  I’d give anything to hit like that,’ Gary said, ‘No, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t be willing to do what it takes. You have to rise early in the morning and hit five hundred balls until your hands bleed.  Then you stop, tape your hands, and hit five hundred more balls.  The next morning you’re out there again with hands so raw you can barely hold your club, but you do it all over again.  If you do that through enough years of pain, then you can hit a ball like that.”

 

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Well it’s really the same with your spiritual life. There are no shortcuts—you have to develop some good habits, and engage in some spiritual disciplines if you really want to learn and apply Biblical truth to your life. First, you have to commit yourself to reading the Bible on a regular basis, preferably every day, during a quiet time. And not just reading through casually, but really studying, and pondering the truths contained therein. Psalm 1 says “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he mediates day and night.” Then Psalm 46:10 commands: “Be still, and know that I am God.” So we all need to be able to find a time and space where if even for just a few minutes, we can devote ourselves to studying and meditating upon God’s Word. And then I would also encourage you to think about engaging in Scripture memory. I posted about this not too long ago.  Over the last few months, I’ve been making more of an effort to pursue Scripture memory and it’s making a difference in my quiet time and in my spiritual life. There are many different systems to use for Scripture memory. A lot of the students at CU have a verse pack, where they keep index cards with their memory verses. I actually prefer to store my verses on my phone, just because it is always something I have with me. You might find another method you prefer. But I do strongly encourage you, even if it’s just one verse a month, or a few per semester, to start learning God’s Word and storing it into your heart. It will not only help you in your own walk with the Lord, but it will help you as you minister and witness to others. As Psalm 119:130 so eloquently states in regards to God’s Scriptures: “The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple”.

 

Let me close by saying this—for all of the evidence that I’ve tried to offer here, ultimately, accepting Biblical authority is going to come down to an individual act of faith on each person’s part. If someone is truly a skeptic about the claims and authority of Scripture, no amount of arguing by me or anyone else will persuade them. But I do believe that God can do amazing things, even to the heart of a skeptic, if they will begin to read and study the Scriptures with an open mind. But for those of you who are Christians, and who do accept the authority of the Bible, let me give you one final exhortation. If you are basing your Christian faith and practice on something besides the Bible, be careful! For almost any other source of authority you could find, including some of  those we mentioned like church tradition, your own reason and experience, our culture, the influence of friends or others…all of these things are subjective and subject to change. Scripture however has stood the test of time, and it is a sure and certain guide that will never let you down! In Matthew 24:35, Jesus vows: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” The Word of God is historically reliable, true, and eternal, and so I urge you to base your faith and your walk with the Lord upon nothing more, and nothing less. Amen.