Missions reflections: On the Point

Our team in the beautiful and historic Braunschweig “Altstadt” (old city)

 

I just recently returned from several weeks of mission work in Germany. I had the privilege of being able to go back to Braunschweig, where I was last summer also, and continue to build Christian Challenge’s partnership with a Germany campus ministry there called “Connexxion.” As I’ve shared in my blog before, Connexxion has strong ties to the Baptist family as it was started by an IMB missionary named Martha Moore. In their theology and structure, they are very similar to Christian Challenge and other Baptist campus ministries in the States, although almost all of the students and leadership are German. While in Germany, I also had a chance to briefly visit with some other American friends who are serving in campus ministry on staff with Cru in Munich. Their names are Michael and Arielle Hewitt, and they were formerly on staff with Cru at CU-Boulder, and were also members of my church here, East Boulder Baptist. There were so many encouraging things that I experienced while in Germany, and it was a joy to be able to reconnect with old friends from last year, and continue to see how God is at work in this special part of the world—the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. I’ve come to love the German language and culture, and I’m fascinated by the strategic importance of this country, not only historically, but in our current world as the largest economy in the EU, and the recipient of so many immigrants coming from all parts of the world, but in particular from Muslim backgrounds. Despite a decades- long trend towards increasing secularization which has led to a post-Christian mentality for many young people, there are still a lot of vibrant believers and many amazing ministry opportunities in Germany. And I believe there’s no more strategic place to pursue ministry, in Germany as here in the States, than on the university campus.

So I want to reflect in this post a little more about my time in Germany this summer. In particular I want to consider the many ways in which missions engagement, and especially overseas missions, can shape us spiritually. As I think about the best ways to continue to promote missions involvement to our Christian Challenge students, I’ve thought a lot about how best to describe the value of mission work to someone who maybe doesn’t have much experience with it. I myself certainly still have a lot to learn, and compared to many of my spiritual mentors, I am still a missions “rookie” for the most part. But I was fortunate enough to be raised in a home church (First Baptist Montgomery) that truly strives to honor the Great Commission and serve as a “missions factory”. In addition the campus ministry I now serve with, Christian Challenge, has a long association with overseas missions, and many of our staff, current students, and alumni have engaged in ministry in various places around the world. As a campus ministry, one of our primary goals each year, in addition to providing Christ-centered fellowship, teaching, and discipleship to students, and engaging our campus evangelistically, is to mobilize our students for involvement in missions whether locally, abroad, or both. How to best do this, and how to best encapsulate the tremendous value that serving in a missional capacity can have for one’s spiritual growth, is a conversation we are continually having as a staff, and individually with students. Reflecting on three mission trips that I’ve been a part of internationally—to Ottawa, Canada in 2014, and then to Braunschweig in 2017 and 2018, I’ve come to think of a mission project as an opportunity for accelerated spiritual growth and development. Now in making that statement, I should underscore the fact that much will depend on an individual’s attitude, and willingness to be flexible and teachable. But generally speaking, I’ve seen both in my own life, and in the lives of my other Christian friends, many instances where being involved in missions provides the chance to learn about and experience unique aspects of God’s Kingdom in a relatively, short, and often intense period of time. These are things that you could still learn or experience in the course of your normal life, however the mission field—particularly outside of America, simply provides a “laboratory” if you will, where God can teach and demonstrate certain truths to us very quickly and unmistakably, as opposed to in a more gradual fashion as may occur back home.

 

Typically German half-timbered houses in scenic Wolfenbuttel, a town near Braunschweig

 

Having said that then, I believe that even short-term missions trips can yield a huge impact spiritually, because they have for me. First, a trip may be “short-term” in that you’re only gone for a couple of weeks, but if it is part of a longer-term partnership (as our work in Germany is), then really each trip is a building block towards establishing a hopefully long-lasting alliance that will be bigger than any one individual or team. Certainly my goal all along in establishing Christian Challenge over in Germany is that eventually students or teams from Challenge ministries across Colorado will be going there without me even needing to participate directly because of the strength of the Kingdom partnership we’ve forged. Secondly, even a short-term missions trip can provide invaluable exposure for someone, opening up their heart to a new culture and ministry context, and giving them the chance to begin building special friendships, often with the result that they can’t wait to return to that place in years to come. That is certainly how I felt about Germany and Braunschweig after making my first trip there last year. I knew, almost inevitably, that I wanted to go back!

 

Our team during an excursion to Wolfenbuttel

My church back in Alabama, First Baptist Montgomery, as I’ve mentioned, has always been a very missions-minded congregation. Under the leadership of Pastor Jay Wolf we have sent teams all over the world to engage in Great Commission work. In the FBC weekly church bulletin, it lists those currently serving on missions teams as being “on the point.” This terminology has a military origin, referring to the leader of a reconnaissance or patrol. Whoever is “on point” takes on the most exposed and potentially dangerous position in order to lead the rest of the squad. The point person has to be able to read the terrain well, and adjust quickly to deal with any potential threats. While realizing that it’s an imperfect metaphor, I nonetheless think that the concept of being “on point” does help to convey some of the experience of being on a mission trips, especially when you’re leading a team. This year in Germany, the experience for me was more hands-on. In 2017 it had been somewhat of a vision trip, although I’d taken part in a lot of direct ministry as well. But this year, returning back, I had a much better idea of the kind of ministry I’d be taking part in, and in addition I was leading  a team of 3 others—all recent graduates from Christian Challenge ministries either at CU-Boulder or Colorado School of Mines. It was such a great blessing having these other guys—Andrew Thomas, Gunnar Hoglund, and Seth Topper, alongside me. But at the same time I felt an added sense of responsibility to help make sure they had a positive experience in Germany, and would then be excited about helping me to promote this as a future missions opportunity to students back in Colorado. The overall experience of being “on point” really can give you a front row seat to witness God at work in your life and in the lives of your teammates. The joys, and challenges that you encounter make an indelible impression, and give you some excellent food for thought in terms of spiritual applications once back home. And of course, the more you are involved in missions, the more you begin to realize that there should not exist any kind of sharp dichotomy between the “mission field” and “home.” Another thing that I love at First Baptist Montgomery is the signs they have strategically placed at the exit from the church parking lots. They read simply, “You are now entering the mission field.” Certainly most Christians know that we are to be on mission all the time, but going overseas can help expand your perspective towards not only what God is doing amongst the nations, but also what He is doing in the midst of your normal routine and setting.

So in the rest of this post, I want to unpack and explore a bit further some of the spiritual takeaways I had from this summer in Germany. At first I thought about labeling them “highs” and “lows” respectively, but as I think more about it, perhaps it’s better just to say that everything had its place as part of the full spectrum of spiritual emotions. As we so often find in Scripture, and in the course of our own spiritual lives, God may well use something that we initially perceive in negative terms to bring about a greater good. At the same time, hopefully some things that I share can be beneficial in helping both myself and others to be on guard against potential obstacles and spiritual opposition we can face during missions projects. Most significantly though, I want to highlight some of the amazing things that God was able to teach me and bless me with during these couple of weeks.

First, I want to touch on a subject that I’ve mentioned in this blog before, actually from last year’s recap of my first mission trip to Germany. But I think it’s worth repeating—that God can work in special ways when you try to engage others in their native language. I’ve studied German for many years now, mostly for reading purposes, although recently I’ve been making a greater effort to improve my listening comprehension and speaking skills, especially in light of my missions work. While I am by no means fluent, my efforts to become increasingly comfortable on a conversational level in German have been really enlightening, particularly when I view things from a spiritual lens. Germany usually ranks very highly as one of the leading countries in the world in terms of the number of proficient speakers of English as a second language. And on a university campus you can certainly find a fairly good percentage of people who speak English quite well. That may beg the question then of why it is even necessary to try and speak German with these students?? Well there’s the whole aspect of simply trying to be culturally courteous, and while that’s important, I think there are deeper spiritual benefits to be derived from making an effort with the language, no matter how challenging it may seem (and believe me, I continue to struggle with the intricacies of German grammar!) There is a real blessing that comes from trying to connect with someone not just in a language they know and understand, but is their “heart language”–the one in which they pray, read the Bible, and have their deepest, most significant conversations with close friends and family.

 

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“St Peter preaching on Pentecost” Fra Angelico, 1433

 

If we look at the Pentecost story in Acts 2, I think this deeper connection with a heart language is a big part of the miracle that takes place with the launch of the early church. Of course, the fact that the Apostles are speaking languages they presumably didn’t know beforehand, and communicating clearly the truth of the Gospel is miracle enough in itself, but the effect it has on the multinational audience gathered there in Jerusalem goes beyond linguistic expression. Listen to the response of the crowd in Acts 2:7-8…11—“Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born…We hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” We were extraordinarily blessed in that 3 of our 4 team members this summer could speak some German, and so I was able to witness again and again the way that even a modest attempt to engage people in their own language opened up doors for further conversation, and broke down some of the cultural barriers. We did a lot of spiritual surveys around campus at the Technical University of Braunschweig. Doing them in German, we noticed several things. Obviously, speaking another language, and one in which you haven’t achieve fluency, forces you to really slow down. You have to choose your words carefully and deliberately, but in the spirit of Colossians 4:6, this can actually be a very good thing. I feel confident and articulate speaking English, but when I switch to German, I’m immediately humbled, and sense a much greater dependence on God to give me the right words to express the often abstract and philosophical language of spiritual matters. Talking slowly is paired with the need to listen extremely intently. I can recall few times in my life when I’ve been concentrating so hard mentally as when I was trying to follow native speakers as they (at least to my mind) conversed very rapidly in German! But again, this can be used by God to our great spiritual benefit. In our everyday life, many of us are probably prone to not listening good enough to those around us. Conversing in another language, and finding yourself literally hanging on every word of the other person is one way to remind yourself about the importance of intentional listening! Finally, as I’ve reflected before, and I saw again this year, however imperfect our attempts may be, when we seek to engage others in their own tongue, it can be a great aid towards finding those individuals whom any missionary strives to encounter, “a person of peace.” This concept comes originally from Jesus’ instructions to the 70 disciples he sends out in Luke 10:5-7. In missions terms, a person of peace might not always be a believer or someone who’s immediately ready to repent and believe the Gospel, but they are at least open and receptive to your message, while demonstrating courtesy, friendliness, and hospitality. Walking onto a strange campus in another country to do spiritual surveys, and in a city where there aren’t too many other Americans to be seen, you certainly are praying God would direct you to such people! So speaking German became like a spiritual “icebreaker” in a sense when we did these surveys. Not always, but frequently we found that if someone was patient enough to listen to our less-than-fluent attempts at the language, they were at least willing to hear more about the Connexxion ministry, as well as open up a bit about their own spiritual opinions and background.

 

With missionary friends Michael and Arielle Hewitt at their apartment in Munich

 

But as with many experiences in the mission field, engaging others in their own language can come with potential obstacles, and be an occasion for spiritual warfare as well. Initially there is just the mental strain and fatigue it can take, even when you are in a relaxed setting, among friends. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, before arriving in Braunschweig this year, I was in Munich for a few days where I had the chance to visit with my Cru staff friends Michael and Arielle Hewitt, as well as with another German friend who lived nearby and had formerly been part of Connexxion in Braunschweig. It was a wonderful time, reuniting with these friends, learning more about the Hewitt’s ministry to the many college students in Munich and the surrounding Bavaria region, and seeing a bit of this famous German city. For the sake of practice and getting me ready for the work in Braunschweig, I’d requested that we speak German the whole day. The Hewitts, after several years of living in Germany now have a very impressive command of the language. So there I was with them, and my other friend—a native speaker, scrambling to keep up! Although the mood was very relaxed and convivial, I found myself mentally exhausted by late afternoon. In fact, when we went to dinner that evening, I rather sheepishly requested we continue our conversation in English, as I felt like all my German knowledge had been drained by that point! My 3 friends were very gracious and said that they understood, but my experience after just one day of language “immersion” was very instructive. I certainly gained further appreciation for the sacrifices and effort that missionaries all over the world make to learn a new language.

 

But feeling less then fully comfortable in another language can be opening a door to spiritual attack if we’re not careful. I experienced this rather intensely the first day our team was walking to the campus in Braunschweig. I knew I was about to go onto a campus where I didn’t know anyone, in a foreign, largely secular country, and try to engage complete strangers on the oft-awkward topic of their spiritual lives, in a language I didn’t have complete command of. I began to feel discouraged and full of doubts—in a way that I don’t usually experience when I’m preparing to engage in evangelism back in the States. I think when we’re in the mission field however, we cannot underestimate the propensity of the enemy to try and attack and discourage us. Certainly this is the warning expressed in 1 Peter 5:8-9 and Ephesians 6:11-12. But then something really neat happened. I’ve shared in an earlier blog post about the profound benefit that engaging in Scripture memorization has brought to my spiritual life. So knowing these two verses about the reality of spiritual warfare, my mind also turned to anther Scripture I’d learned, Exodus 4:10-12. Here, God reassures Moses, who’s feeling very uncertain about his speaking skills, that He will be with him, and speak through him. Recalling this verse gave me a new burst of confidence and I was able to go out with my team and have a great experience doing spiritual surveys in German.

 

Sharing with German students during their discipleship meeting

 

Related to how God can work through us in our attempts to speak another language is the fact that the Gospel itself is so powerful, and fundamentally true and consistent across any barriers of culture or language. This was certainly illustrated memorably on our trip, most notably one evening when our team taught the content for Connexxion’s weekly discipleship meeting. This is a gathering of the student leaders of the ministry. We wanted to share with them something that would be spiritually impactful and also readily applicable in their lives. So I actually taught on Scripture memorization, expressing my heartfelt conviction that this had been one of the most valuable disciplines I’d engaged in. And what’s really neat is that the student leaders in the Connexxion ministry had already been engaging in Scripture memory, following the example of their leader, Alex. The other three guys on my team all shared about the spiritual transition from campus ministry to full-time work, and how they were seeking to honor God, and share Him with their coworkers. We were all able to clearly communicate I think, speaking a mixture of German and English. I feel strongly though that the more effort we make to stay Biblically faithful in our teaching, and share out of the overflow of what God has been teaching us in our own lives, the easier we can communicate fundamental truths across potential barriers of culture or language. It reminds me of an old ministry adage I’ve heard that it’s better to have a prepared man than a prepared message. Another beautiful experience where cultural barriers melted away was when we had the opportunity to attend a service at the Braunschweiger Friedenskirche, which is one of the largest Baptist churches in Germany. Although the sermon was in German, some of the praise songs were actually in English, and were ones we were already familiar with like as “10,000 reasons.” But the real highlight of the service was the opportunity we had to share in communion with our German brothers and sisters in Christ. This special celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a great reminder of the common bond we have as Christ followers, regardless of where in the world we call home.

 

Our team does some planning with Alex and his other staff member Jonas

 

Speaking of bonds, another really great thing that God reaffirmed for me during this mission trip was how engaging in overseas ministry can serve to powerfully connect you with your fellow team members. Although I already knew Seth, Andrew, and Gunnar, the time we spent together in Germany drew us even closer together, and gave me so many neat opportunities to see their hearts in regards to Kingdom service. I roomed with Gunnar and we had lots of quality conversations in the evenings and as we walked across town to meet up with the rest of the team each day. I really enjoyed getting to talk with Seth too, and then Andrew, who’d also been with me in Germany last year, continued to inspire and encourage me with his command of the German language. I also enjoyed some great times of fellowship with Jonas, one of Alex’s staff members with Connexxion, who Gunnar and I stayed with. Also, while in Germany, I skyped on several occasions with Austin Riley, one of my Christian Challenge students who’s currently serving on a summer mission project doing developmental engineering work in Rwanda. Both being in the mission field, we were able to powerfully encourage one another with stories of what God was doing in our respective settings. All of these times of special bonding reminded me of the truth of Proverbs 27:17—“As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Again, this is a truth we certainly can note in our everyday lives, but one that takes on a special resonance when we’re removed from our usual support network of family and friends, and must rely that much more strongly on the people God has placed alongside us to serve.

 

Students excitedly awaiting the start of the Germany-South Korea game during our World Cup watch party

 

Another challenge that I faced, and that proved to be an instructive part of this year’s mission project was being able to put small setbacks into context. Given the climate of spiritual warfare that can sometimes exist in the mission field, incidences which would be relatively minor back home can take on a magnified proportion and threaten to distract us from our mission if we aren’t careful. This year, despite all of the stereotypes you might have about German efficiency, I experienced numerous delays while taking trains! The worst was a four hour stoppage, naturally on a train where I hadn’t bothered to reserve a seat since the journey would typically have only lasted a half hour. During the delay I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I tried to decipher the German loudspeaker announcements, and worried how late I might be getting in that evening. Eventually when I made it to the main Frankfurt train station, it was well after midnight, and so I had to end up spending the night there before I could take an early morning train back to the place I was staying at just outside the city. Then I had to quickly pack to get ready to take another train to Munich where I was supposed to connect with my ministry friends the Hewitts. Again, a four-hour travel delay in the US might be a bit frustrating, but when you’re on a mission trip it becomes more of an annoyance because you have limited time, and a busy schedule to keep. But when I found myself getting a bit stressed on that stuck train, I tried to pass the time in prayer and by reciting some Scripture memory verses. While I arrived in Munich a bit more tired than usual, I was still able to have a great time connecting with and encouraging my missionary friends there. Everyone has always told me how flexibility is an important value in missions, and certainly that’s the case when we can learn, in the spirit of James 1:2-3, to exercise Godly patience, and not as they say “make a mountain out of a molehill.” Another day, when we were in Braunschweig, Andrew, one of our team members fell ill. It was the day of perhaps our biggest planned outreach event, a World Cup watch party for the Germany-South Korea game. But poor Andrew was bedridden with a bad cold and congestion. It was frustrating for us as a team and we felt for him, but we prayed, and stayed in touch with him throughout the day, encouraging him to rest and not feel bad at all for missing the event. He was fortunately able to come back strong the next day. Again, having a cold back home and taking a sick day from work is not really that big of a deal, but getting sick far from home, and not being able to participate in a ministry event with your other team members can be more demoralizing.

 

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Campus of the Technical University of Braunschweig

 

We also had to deal with some frustration and disappointment in relation to the spiritual surveys we  conducted on campus in Braunschweig. The vast majority of students we talked to expressed little to no interest in a Christian group, and talked about God as having little place in their current lives. That can be tough, especially when you get a team motivated to step out in faith and go share in another language. It would be great to have seen more immediate fruit from surveying work. However I do believe that God can often teach us so much through experiences of frustration or at least when we don’t achieve the outcome we’d hoped for. Honestly speaking, the general attitudes towards God that we found in Germany were quite similar to the level of overall apathy and spiritual disinterest we often encounter on the CU campus. At any point, whether in the mission field, or back home, we can choose to focus on those negative aspects, or we can instead keep our eyes fixed on those positive things God is doing, both in plain sight, and also in ways that might remain hidden to us, at least for the present time. So with the surveys, while we might not have gotten as many positive responses as we would have liked, we did have some great conversations with German students who were kind, very open in talking about their spiritual background, and patient with us as we tried to express ourselves in the language. In addition we were able to get contact information from numerous students who expressed some interest in Connexxion. We didn’t get a chance to see these individuals again, but Alex and his team will have the chance to continue following up with them in the weeks to come. We can also take joy in the fact that seeds were planted, and as so many Christian testimonies over the years have demonstrated, the patient work of the Holy Spirit weeks, months, or even years after our presence there could always yield fruit. Also apart from the surveys we can be joyful about all of the wonderful interactions we had with students in Connexxion—being able to encourage them, pray with them, and share life with them. I have so many fond memories now from the last two years of conversations I’ve had with German brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as those who were coming into the ministry as spiritual seekers. Building these personal relationships is always the highlight of any mission trip for me.

Perhaps the most persistent and nagging obstacle to overcome and guard against in the mission field is fatigue accompanied by occasional homesickness. In Braunschweig we experienced long days of ministry that were very exciting, but also draining. As a result it became even more important than usual to stay rooted in God’s Word, and not grow weary in our work. Alex did a great job helping with this, as several times he organized Bible studies in the morning for the team before we went out to do spiritual surveys. These provided a much-needed boost to get us going, and I also found great solace in my Scripture memory verse cards. I knew these little verse packs would be an indispensable part of my packing list, and I turned to them repeatedly to help clear my mind of distractions and be able to focus better on the important Kingdom work at hand. I was also wonderfully sustained by the knowledge that others were praying for us. Each team member assembled a group of prayer partners back in the States, whom we sent updates to, and who we asked to be praying for specific things on specific days during the trip. I was reminded of the great truth of a phrase that Brian Gay, the missions pastor at FBC Montgomery likes to us—“prayer is not part of our strategy—prayer IS our strategy”. Ironically, during the packed schedule that mission trips often present, we can end up unintentionally sacrificing some of the very practices—prayer, Scripture memory, or Bible study, that are most needed to keep us spiritually healthy while in the mission field! I’m so grateful to my outstanding team members, Alex and his students, and my prayer partners back home for helping me to stay anchored and spiritually focused while in Germany! With such support systems in place, we are prepared to weather whatever setbacks and potential discouragements we may encounter in the mission field beforehand, keeping them in the proper context, and thus maintaining the attitude that Paul encourages us to have 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.”

 

In the Braunschweig Altstadt

 

In closing, I want to think for just a few minutes about how I can apply some of the things God has taught me this year during my time in Germany. It’s always good when you return from a spiritually beneficial experience to take stock of how you can continue to draw upon those lessons going forward. Several things come to mind for me. This trip certainly reaffirmed the value of spiritual disciplines, in particular Scripture memorization,that can help us to stay focused and Christ-centered amidst any potentially distractions or obstacles. And while I’ve mentioned here those distractions which are more specific to the mission field, the truth is that in our everyday lives we are always fighting a battle against those things of the world that would draw us away from God. Another powerful aid in this process of staying God-focused, whether in the mission field or at home, is drawing strength from the encouragement of our Christian friends. I relied so much on my teammates while over in Germany, and back in the States, I’m reminded of just how blessed I am to be serving with an outstanding staff at Christian Challenge, and fortuntate I am to be able to work with some great student leaders, just as Alex has in his ministry in Germany. This mission trip also reminded me of the importance of pushing through fear barriers that could threaten to hold us back spiritually. The misgivings and doubts I was experiencing that first day while walking to the campus were just lies of the enemy, and overcoming them in the more stressful and uncertain atmosphere of a foreign campus will help me to lead by example and encourage our students to overcome whatever fears they may have in doing evangelism here in Boulder.

 

I also think back to a conversation I had with Austin, my student who’s currently serving in Rwanda this summer. Austin is extremely well-traveled for someone in their early 20’s, as he has done study abroad trips to Spain and Argentina as well as developmental work in Peru and now Rwanda with engineering humanitarian groups. But Austin has always striven to ensure that his time spent abroad included a spiritual component as well. He’s gotten involved in the life of local church congregations in many of the countries he’s visited, and has also made an effort to share a Gospel witness with many different people he’s met in his travels. He’s someone I would regard absolutely regard as a missionary even though strictly speaking his travels haven’t been missions trips. As I’ve already shared, Austin and I were able to mutually encourage one another during our respective missions trips this summer through prayer, and skype conversations. I remember a conversation I had with him before we both left however that particularly stuck in my mind. Austin was talking about how valuable his travel experiences had been, from a cultural standpoint, but also spiritually. Then we discussed our hope that more students in the ministry would have the chance to experience serving God in an overseas context. We talked about what some of the obstacles or hindrances were that might keep students from embracing the chance to use their college years and the unique freedom they had at this stage in life to engage in missions opportunities. We mentioned potentially legitimate reasons such as academic constraints, family issues, or the need to work during the summer to gain money for school or to support others (although we try to encourage and remind our students that there are usually plenty of people willing to support a student financially for a missions project). The one factor that often predominates though in keeping students from engaging in missions is fear. But as 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us, this is an emotion that’s never from the Lord, and one that we should always encourage each other to overcome. Just in these last two summers alone, God has taught me so many amazing things through the opportunity to engage in overseas missions. And I certainly wish I had been more active in such endeavors when I was the age that my Christian Challenge students are now. So I look forward to the chance to encourage and mobilize them for participation in whatever mission field God may be calling them to. I know the blessings of serving out “on the point” will far outweigh whatever challenges there may be, and that our ministry back in Boulder will be immeasurably benefitted from the work God is doing through our students far beyond Colorado.

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Service through the dust

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         As I was pleased to share in a recent prayer newsletter, I am now serving as a deacon at my church here in Colorado—East Boulder Baptist. Although I’ve been active in different Baptist churches for a long time, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to serve in such a capacity, and I’m really honored and feel excited for what lies ahead! I’ve always felt strongly about my connections to the local church, to the point where I can’t really even imagine being in ministry without that relationship. My calling into full-time Christian service was greatly clarified by the opportunities I had to serve in various capacities at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery, while growing up. In a similar fashion, the college ministry experience I gained at First Baptist Waco while in seminary at Baylor has proven invaluable for everything I’m doing now with Christian Challenge. And in addition to the three churches I’ve already mentioned, there are many other congregations which I’m thankful to for giving me a chance to preach, and gain some experience in the pulpit. Finally, many of the people who I count as some of my closest mentors in ministry are serving in the local church. All of this might seem fairly obvious, but I state it because sometimes people perceive that there is some sort of gap or misunderstanding between campus ministries and churches, as though we had separate aims or intentions. The work of campus ministry however, as I see it, is never meant to replace or substitute for the local church. So I wish to continually affirm that the local church is a central partner in all I do in campus ministry. With Christian Challenge, we strive to constantly remind our students about the value of finding a church where they can connect to, in addition to being involved in our group.

 

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            As someone who raises their own support to do ministry, I’ve been consistently blessed by the financial generosity of so many members of both my original sending church, First Baptist Montgomery, and my current home church of East Boulder Baptist. And indeed, one of the very reasons I chose to serve in campus ministry with Christian Challenge is that it is a Baptist-affiliated ministry. I felt the local church was the best partner for the kind of ministry I wanted to pursue with students. And so many times over the last four years serving in Boulder, this has proven to be the case. East Boulder Baptist has provided a wonderful space for us to host numerous Christian Challenge events. We’ve also been treated to the hospitality of individual church members who’ve had us in their homes for a dinner. Many other church friends have provided snacks and foods for our weekly meetings. All of this to say that when the opportunity came for me to become a deacon at East Boulder, I felt very strongly that I wanted to serve in this capacity.  I thought it was the least I could do in order to give back a little to a congregation that has given so generously to me. I was also really excited about the chance to get to know the membership of the church even better through serving them, and I was looking forward to learning from the example of some of the other godly men who I would be serving alongside as deacons.

 

            The term “deacon” can mean different things in different Christian denominations, so I thought it would be helpful to go back and look briefly at the Biblical roots of this position. The Greek root word here, “diakonos”, can be translated as “servant”, “minister”, or messenger”. Further exploring the etymology reveals a literal meaning of “thoroughly raise up dust”, in other words, the image of dust being raised up by someone who is busily on the move in service to others. I like that image! And when we seek out the Biblical origins of the deacon’s role in Acts 6, we find that from the beginning these individuals were to be all about service to others. In the early church, disputes were arising between Jews and Greeks, and in some cases, the Greeks were being treated differently. These disputes of course related to an even larger question amongst early Christians as to whether one needed to become Jewish to be a follower of Jesus. The disagreements wouldn’t be fully resolved until the famous Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. But in the meantime, in order to ensure that the needy were being served, and to prevent the 12 Apostles from having to distract from their ministry of evangelism to do this, seven men were chosen to serve in the role of deacons. Here is the full story as related from Acts 6:1-4—“Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.  Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.  Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 

        Among the distinguished individuals chosen in that first group of deacons was Stephen, who would later be known as the first Christian martyr, as well as Philip, whose conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch is recounted in Acts 8. Later, in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Paul outlines a list of qualities for those who would serve in this role. “Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”Perhaps more important even than Paul’s list however are the qualities listed by Christ Himself in Mark 10:42-45, for anyone who would desire to live in imitation of Him. “But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

 

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            Deacons are called to serve in direct imitation of Christ. For me, as someone who is already taking part in full-time ministry, this provides such an important and necessary complement to my work with Christian Challenge. In campus ministry, whether through speaking, teaching, discipling, or planning events, much of what I do is in an up-front, and very visible capacity in terms of leadership. But now at East Boulder, much of my deacon service is behind the scenes. On the Sundays when I’m serving as deacon of the week, I buy donuts for the morning breakfast, and make sure that the coffee gets made and put out on time. I also get to stand outside to greet people as they come in for Sunday morning worship services. I pray with the pastor in his office before the service starts, and afterwards I make sure the building is secure and locked up when everyone leaves. Deacons may be called on to help as a parking lot attendant on busy Sundays, or assist with other miscellaneous needs or tasks that come up. At East Boulder Baptist, deacons actually do little in terms of making big decisions about church policy, leaving that to the pastoral staff and the elders. Instead, our whole role is centered around taking care of some of the details, the little behind the scenes chores that can then free up the church staff to be able to do their jobs more effectively. But much of the role is relational too. As I’ve already mentioned, deacons are in charge of Sunday morning greeting for church members and visitors. They also check up on church members who’ve been sick or unable to attend in a while, visiting with them, praying for them, and encouraging them. This relational aspect of the deacon ministry is one of my favorite parts of it, and something I’m really going to enjoy as a way to be able to get to know more people in my church. It’s a smaller congregation and it really does have a family feel. Continuing to promote that friendliness and sense of being a connected Body of Christ whose members are involved in each other’s lives and care for one another is a central motivating factor in my work.

            Ultimately, serving as a deacon will I hope remind me again about the essential role of laypeople in the church. Being a leader in campus ministry, I certainly am always aware that we couldn’t really accomplish any of our goals in evangelism and discipleship with Christian Challenge without the selfless service and sacrifice of our student leaders. In the same way, for the church to really be effective as a Body of Christ whose members demonstrate Jesus’ love to one another and to their community, there need to be people who are always ready to be called on to serve. Often times the roles that need embracing aren’t necessarily visible or even seemingly “important” from the standpoint of power, influence, or decision-making. But those roles need to be accomplished in order for the church’s pastoral leaders to be able to devote themselves fully to their ministry of the Word. I certainly feel privileged to have the opportunity to lead pastorally amongst college students in a campus ministry, but I feel equally privileged to be able to take on the servant’s role at my home church, which has served me and given me so much. I pray I will be able to raise up some good dust as I have a chance to give back to a people and a church that means a great deal to me, and in the process, continue to learn more about how to gain the servant heart Christ has so perfectly modeled for all of us.

Scripture memorization revisited

 

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Back in May of 2016, I wrote a blog post on the value of Scripture memorization entitled “Burying Treasure.” It was a pretty extensive post in which I outlined some of the various reasons that Scripture memory had become important to me and how I thought it could serve as a blessing to others as well. But now I want to revisit this topic some two years later. I’m doing this not because I’ve run out of ideas about what to write haha, but for the simple reason that in this year of 2018, I’ve embraced a new method of memorizing Bible verses that has proven to be one of the single most valuable spiritual practices that I’ve ever embraced. And because I struggled for so long to be consistent in learning Scripture, I want to share some encouragement with everyone out there who might be skeptical that they can actually begin to learn and retain Bible verses given their busy schedule, bad memory, lack of experience/familiarity with Scripture, or any number of other potential factors. I can certainly put myself in their position because even as someone who’s worked in full-time ministry for a number of years, I’ve struggled with a list of similar objections before when I thought about committing myself to learning the Bible better. So in this post I want to first outline what I believe is a tried-and-true method for effective Scripture memorization–one which has been used by countless numbers of campus ministry staff and students throughout the Christian Challenge network over the years. Then I want to share from my own experience about some of the many noteworthy faith benefits that can come from committing yourself to this spiritual discipline. Finally I’ll return to some of the potential objections people may have, and try to explain why I think Scripture memorization is something that any Christian can engage in successfully

 

First—the method. When I initially posted on this topic almost two years ago, I was using my phone to learn verses. I would copy them from my Bible app, and then transfer them to the memo section of my phone for review. I reasoned that since I almost always have my cell phone with me, it would be a perfect platform to do Scripture memory, and would save me the time and trouble of having to write verses down. Now I don’t wish to insinuate that this method could never be effective, and indeed I was able to learn some Scripture through my phone, but at least in my personal case, I eventually came to the sincere conclusion that this was not the most effective way to store God’s Word in my heart. The problem can be expressed in one word—distractions. In many different aspects of our spiritual life we must fight against the natural tendency from our fallen nature to become bored or distracted, and not follow through with an important spiritual practice, whether that’s prayer, reading the Bible, or in this case, memorizing verses. The problem then for me with using my phone was that it was designed to be a platform for so much else besides learning Scripture. Text messages buzz in, items pop up on my newsfeed, calendar reminders appear, and then even within the memo section itself where I had my verses stored, I also had to toggle around various other items I had stored there. And then I’d have to periodically find the master list of verses I had supposedly learned, and in checking back for periodic review I’d frequently find I didn’t have them memorized as well as I’d thought.

 

I eventually decided I needed a better system, and at the encouragement of our Christian Challenge director at CU-Boulder, Derek Gregory, I began to use a verse pack. This is the method that’s actually been taught to our students for years, and while it might seem a little antiquated and “old-school” to some, I quickly learned to appreciate the value of a simple collection of note cards when it comes to learning God’s Word. I’ve included a photograph of a verse pack here just to give an idea of how small and easily portable they are. This little pack which can slip almost unnoticed into a pocket or the palm of your hand, can also easily contain dozens of verses which you can carry around with you throughout the day, waiting for an opportune span of just a few minutes to review them. But even more so than its portability, the advantage of the verse pack system lies in its tangibility. The very act of writing a verse down already begins to stimulate the mental process of memorization so much more than copying something digitally off an app. I write down the verse on one side, the reference on the other, and then below the reference I include two dates—the date I begin learning the verse and then the date two months from then. This time span allows you to chronologically track how long you’ll need to not just learn a verse but to memorize it so thoroughly that you can probably thereafter review it just a few times a year in order to retain it for life!! In fact often, after just one month of reviewing it several times a week, it will seem obvious that a verse has been memorized. Adding that extra month of review will just serve to further solidify the Scripture’s place in your long-term memory. As you learn the verses, it’s advisable to try and memorize them word-for-word. It may be tempting to think that leaving out a stray article, conjunction or preposition won’t really matter, but in striving for word-perfection we remind ourselves that every part of God’s Word is precious. It’s also a safeguard against a verse getting distorted or only half-remembered as we pass it down or share it with others.

 

The tangible nature of the cards makes it very easy to remember when you started learning a verse, and once the two month interval has passed, you can store all your learned verses together in Biblical order, allowing for easy review later. This system works great too in that it’s easily teachable and provides for built-in-accountability with a friend. The value of any Spiritual discipline or method really only goes as far as it can be transferred to someone else for the purposes of discipleship. The verse pack method can easily be taught to anyone from a young child to a long-time adult believer. The accountability comes in with finding a friend who will help you in occasional verse review. This is so much easier to do by simply exchanging cards as opposed to having to locate verses on a cell phone amidst a plethora of other apps and information. And because the cards and pack are so easily portable, they can travel around with you, in readiness for just a spare 5 minutes you might have throughout the day when you can review. Scripture memorization then needn’t be conceived of as a lengthy sit-down process of hours-long study (as I used to imagine it!). It can be done at different odd times throughout the day, and in the midst of the business of life—on a plane flight, waiting in line at an office, on a short walk, while folding laundry, etc…

 

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But more important than any method is the central question—why should we memorize Scripture at all?? To some it may feel like an exercise in legalism, or some type of rote spiritual discipline—like a school homework assignment. But far from being a “niche” type practice that only a few Christians of a particularly studious bent can benefit from, I’m convinced that memorizing Scripture is a practice that can reap enormous spiritual benefits for believers of all ages and experience levels. One benefit is that learning just a single verse or a small group of verses can give you an easy handle on more in-depth theological issues, and what the Bible says about particular aspects of the Christian lifestyle. Here’s just a few examples of what I mean. One could read books with in-depth discussions of how Scripture addresses the question of dealing with sexual temptation. And that could no doubt be beneficial, but you could also just memorize 1 Corinthians 10:13 and 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, verses which combined, share a succinct perspective on the nature of temptation and why sexual sin is so spiritually damaging. In a similar fashion, you could study extensively about spiritual discernment, especially in the realm of spiritual warfare, but by memorizing 1 John 4:1-4, you will learn the essential and basic approach to discerning spirits, and recognizing true from false spiritual wisdom. Scripture memorization educates us spiritually, and can serve to protect us from a whole host of potential pitfalls, and doctrinal errors. Ephesians 2:8-9 outlines the foundational truth about Christian salvation coming through faith alone, and thus safeguards believers from being susceptible to any other teaching or theology which would seek to add works or some other practice as a necessary precondition for attaining salvation. Ephesians 4:29 is quickly learned, but once memorized, it can serve (as could many other Scriptures) as a lifelong caution against being careless with our words. 2 Timothy 2:1-2 offers in a perfect nutshell the essence of effective discipleship practices, while elsewhere in the same book, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 gives an effective summary of why we can trust and rely upon Scripture in its entirety, as a sure guide for our Christian life and practice.

 

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Sometimes learning just one key verse or passage can also provide insight and a handle on an entire Biblical story or theme. Genesis 1:26-28 provides the details of the crowning act of Creation, God making humanity in His own image, as well as the Great Mandate—God’s command to men and women to exercise dominion and authority over the rest of creation. Leviticus 19:1-2 meanwhile sums up the entire ethos behind much of the Old Testament ceremonial law, while in Matthew 22:37-40, Christ teaches us the two central commandments which are at the heart of all of the rest of the law. If you wish to learn the essential message of the Book of Judges and its warning against sin, memorize Judges 21:25, while 1 Samuel 16:7 provides a one-verse summary of the difference between David and Saul, and what God looks for in people. Often, learning a series of related verses can help in building on a particular theme. For example, I’ve learned a group of Scriptures from Psalm 119: verses 10-11, 28, 89, 105, 112, and 130, because all of them reference the glory of God’s Word. Or you could group together some key citations from Pauline epistles, Romans 3:23-24, Romans 5:8, Romans 6:23, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Ephesians 2:8-9, just to name a few, in order to gain a solid grasp on the Christian understanding of our sin, its consequences, and the nature of the salvation offered to us through Christ. But in all of this I’m not meaning to imply that Scripture memorization is somehow a shortcut to avoid a more detailed study of the Bible. In fact, it’s just the opposite, in that memorizing Scripture should lead us to a deeper appreciation for the Bible because when we learn a verse we should also always be sure to familiarize ourselves with its surrounding context!! And if we are already well-versed in having read the Bible, once we set out to commit certain portions to memory, we’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much of the substance of a verse we might already be familiar with from having read it so many times before.

 

So learning Scripture can reinforce and enhance the quality of our personal quiet time spent in the Word. Needless to say to, the very act of learning a verse, repeating it over and over again, can draw us closer to the Lord and the truth of His Word, as we learn to appreciate every nuance and detail of a particular excerpt from Scripture. Memorizing God’s Word is wonderful way to keep both your mind and spirit sharp, but the benefits extend far beyond just what impacts us individually. As someone  who has the privilege of mentoring different students as a key part of my ministry, I can also attest to the value of learning Scripture to be able to pass down a verse at an opportune time to someone else. This has also happened with me—several of the verses that I’ve chosen to learn have special significance because they were given to me by a loved one or a trusted mentor. Numbers 6:22-26 is a favorite blessing of my mother’s, one that she wrote out and put in my Bible, so it will always have a treasured personal value for me apart of course from its intrinsic spiritual worth. And then Hebrews 12:1-2 is a favorite verse of my pastor from back in Alabama, Jay Wolf, so I can never recite it without thinking briefly of him, and remembering fondly the great spiritual influence he’s had on me. As I learn verses now, I hope in the same way to be able to pass some of them down to my students, and bless their spiritual life the process.

 

In closing, I want to return to briefly address some of the potential objections that might be raised when someone considers pursuing Scripture memorization. I’m familiar with them because I’ve raised many of the same ones myself, but I’m writing this post to encourage everyone who’s considering Scripture memorization to practice it wholeheartedly. Are you concerned that with your busy schedule, you just don’t have the time to devote to learning God’s Word?? It turns out that as little as 5-10 minutes of practice, 3-4 times a week can be sufficient to learn verses, especially if you draw from Scriptures that you might already be somewhat familiar with. And as I’ve already mentioned, the portability of the verse pack helps ensure that you can do Scripture learning or review at any brief free point during your daily schedule, rather than feeling as though you have to carve out significant time for that specific purpose. If you think you have a bad memory, you might want to reconsider that objection as well! First of all, the system I’ve described, with its ample, two-month review period, helps to ensure that you will truly have a verse committed to your long-term memory before you consider it learned. And there’s no set rule about how many verses you need to start out learning. If you feel your memory isn’t that strong, just start slowly, for example add one new verse to learn per month. Also, ask yourself, as I did, if you find it hard to remember other random information?? (in my case the years certain of my favorite rock albums were released, or the dates of Alabama football national championships!). If not, it could be that the common denominator with this other information is that it concerns topics you’re interested in. If we will cultivate the same interest in the infinitely more valuable truths to be found in God’s Word, we may just find that it’s not quite as hard to remember as we thought! Some people could object that they’re not familiar with Scripture, and haven’t read the Bible that extensively, so they’re not sure where to even start with learning verses. While of course there are many ways you can acquire verses to learn, I have found in my own experience that I’m the most motivated to learn those Scriptures which have some sort of personal meaning to me. It could be that they stood out to me as I was reading the Bible, or perhaps when I heard them cited in a sermon or message. Or perhaps, as I’ve already shared, they were given to me by a loved one or spiritual mentor. But I think it’s important to establish a personal connection with each verse that you’re learning, because this is never just an exercise in memory, it’s a spiritual practice, and if you don’t value and understand the rationale behind what a particular verse teaches and stands for, it will be harder to motivate yourself to do the needed memory work. I pray that whoever reads this post will receive some encouragement to either continue with, or begin a program of Scripture memorization! I can personally assure you that God will bless your spiritual walk in a unique way through this timeless, faith-building practice!

A theology of work

 

I recently had a chance to travel with a group of 14 Christian Challenge students and staff down to Ingleside, Texas, near Corpus Christi, to engage in  disaster relief work during Spring Break. The project was organized under the auspices of Southern Baptist disaster relief, which is recognized nationwide, alongside the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, as being one of the foremost agencies in responding to natural disaster needs in America. I’m fortunate enough to have a friend from my home church, East Boulder Baptist, named Dennis Belz, who coordinates SBC disaster relief for the whole state of Colorado. For several years now, Dennis has been telling me about how potentially valuable an experience it could be for our students to have a chance to get involved in a disaster relief project. This past fall, following the widespread destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey in South Texas, we began thinking about, and planning such a trip for our Spring Break. Dennis helped coordinate all of the logistical details in terms of pairing us up with a church in need, and even provided some training and orientation for our students before we left. Our group ended up serving alongside another student team from the Christian Challenge ministry at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS), and a group from a church in Bayfield, Colorado, while being supervised by several experienced disaster relief coordinators who had backgrounds in construction work, which proved to be very helpful. The church we were serving, First Baptist Ingleside, had suffered extensive damage to their sanctuary as a result of the hurricane and subsequently has been holding worship services in a rather cramped fellowship hall. To make matters worse, asbestos contamination was discovered in the sanctuary and so for the indefinite future it will be off-limits, creating the urgent need for a new worship space.  Our task was to completely clear out half of their educational building, preparing it for the installation of a temporary sanctuary.

 

The project involved several long days’ worth of hard manual labor in often hot, muggy conditions, in addition to an over-1000 mile van trip there and back from Boulder! But I think almost everyone on our team would agree that the experience was well worth it, and felt like much more than simply a “building project”. It was as much a mission trip as other Christian Challenge outings which may have been more overtly evangelistic in nature. Why is this so?? Well that gets into the real topic of this post, which is less a description of our disaster relief project, and more a discussion of the spiritual dimensions of work. While manual labor on the surface might not seem to have an explicitly spiritual dimension, there is a significant amount of evidence from Scripture and church tradition to say that it actually does! And while knowing this might not make it any easier to chip away stubborn pieces of tile inside a construction site on a muggy Texas afternoon, I do believe that in retrospect, our understanding of, and approach to work can be enriched by realizing that there is more there, spiritually-speaking, than perhaps first meets the eye.

 

Before we even get into some of the details about how one could understand the Theology of Labor, there were several clear, and tangible blessings that our group noticed from participating in this disaster relief project. During our orientation prior to the trip, Dennis had told us that we were going to be the Hands and Feet of Christ to people in need. That certainly proved to be much more than just a spiritual-sounding truism once we began work in Ingleside. It was so rewarding to have numerous conversations with church members who spoke of our work playing an important part of restoring hope for them following a destructive storm. From the pastor on down, church members went out of their way to express their gratitude to us, and in many cases pitched in and worked alongside us as they were able. In addition, there was a great camaraderie we developed not only within the CU Christian Challenge group, but amongst some of the new friends we met from Bayside and the UCCS Challenge  group. Certainly, relationships can develop in any type of travel setting, but there is something special about a mission trip that bonds people together in a powerful shared Kingdom experience. Add to that the solidarity that comes from working hard as part of a team, and making tangible progress on a construction project, and you can get a sense of how we felt thata these several days’ worth of sweat and dust brought us all closer to one another, and to the Lord. During one of our morning devotionals, Bill Winter, an experienced SBC disaster relief worker who was organizing our project, read to us an excerpt from Matthew 25:31-46. In this passage, Christ gives us a preview of the final judgment. And while we know that our salvation ultimately depends of course not on works, but on faith, in these verses Jesus outlines how our love for Him can and should be demonstrated not just in words, but in tangible acts of service to others in need. Matthew 25:40—“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” We concluded our time in Texas exhausted, but also very satisfied with the work we had been able to accomplish, and the knowledge that it wasn’t just about clearing out debris, nailing boards, chipping away tile, and repairing a leaky roof. The deeper significance of our work, and its role in restoring hope for a community, was obvious in the conversations we had with church members, and others who came by as we worked.

 

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In addition to some of the tangible blessings we experienced as a result of this project, I want try now and articulate further some of the theological reasons why work is significant in God’s eyes. All of these truths are foundationally expressed in Scripture and have also been echoed and reiterated down through the ages in church history. And yet we can easily lose sight of them, or perhaps not even fully appreciate such a doctrine in the first place. Too often in our world, work is seen as simply a means to an end, something to suffer through so that the leisure promised by the weekend or holidays can be enjoyed. Frequently it is free time activities that people say they “live for”, with work being a sort of necessary evil to give them the time and financial means to enjoy whatever free-time pursuits they so choose. Or on the other extreme, people become so engrossed in their work that it becomes their sole defining purpose in life, and they lose sight of why we engage in work in the first place. So to go back nearly to the Beginning, we find that in the first chapter of the Bible, work is taking place. That initial work stems from none other than God Himself. Even though the world is spoken into existence by the Almighty, the Creation of the Universe still involves work on God’s part. Genesis 2:2—“And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” At first thought, it may seem strange to think of the omnipotent God having to put forth effort in work, to the point where He would need rest. But we can remind ourselves that some of what God is doing here is also setting a pattern for what He will ask and expect from the crowning glory of His Creation–the men and women that are made in the Divine image. Not long after the creation of humanity, God gives them His first command, found in Genesis 1:28—“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This command is sometimes referred to as the “Great Mandate”, and it is clearly a command which calls men and women to engage in work. It must be clearly understood then that work exists before the Fall. Sometimes work is erroneously referred to as part of the curse that God places on Adam in response to his disobedience and the first sin. But before the temptation of the serpent in Genesis 3, we find Adam engaging in work in Genesis 2. Verse 15—“Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” In addition to tending the Garden, we are told in Genesis 2:19 that part of Adam’s work includes assigning names to the animals that God has created. So already, Adam is starting to fulfill God’s command from the Great Mandate to engage in work. Now of course following the introduction of sin, the nature of work changes. In Genesis 3: 17-19, the Lord pronounces a curse on Adam: “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” Work is now going to be true labor—it will be hard, taxing, and at times tiresome and a burden. This is the result of our sin and living in a fallen world. But the original value and purpose of work is not completely lost, and indeed God retains an important redemptive value for our labor.

Church tradition has long spoken of the spiritual value of labor, and even how our work can in some way reflect the great salvific work of Christ, thus bringing a key redemptive element to an activity that had been marred by the effects of the Fall. This truth is expressed eloquently in the Catholic Catechism: “Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty…Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.” A similar message is expressed in this excerpt from The Christian worldview journal: “Work is part of what it means to be human…We need to start by rejecting the common idea that work is a necessary evil, that if we win the lottery or inherit a fortune we can lead a life of leisure and have greater fulfillment than we could get through our work. Nothing could be further from the truth. All work is the Lord’s work.”

 

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In addition to the foundational texts in Genesis, Scripture is replete with many other verses and passages which outline for us some of the spiritual benefit and value to our work. Exodus 35:30-35 talks about a group of artisans whose role was to help beautify the Tabernacle. These skilled workers are described in Exodus 30:31 as “filled with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship.” Now one might think there is nothing inherently spiritual about carving wood, or crafting silver and bronze, and yet clearly Moses wishes to highlight the ways in which the artistic skill of these men is used for the glory of God. Even in the Old Testament era then, it’s clear that one need not be a priest or clergyman to serve the Lord. I Kings 5-7 offers details about the building of the Great Temple at Jerusalem under King Solomon. And just as with the construction of the Tabernacle, it’s clear from Scripture how God is glorified through the skilled manual labor of the many craftsmen hired under Solomon. The importance of their work is expressed in the precise detail Scripture gives us regarding building materials and dimensions. Thus in all this work there is a clear spiritual purpose. The priests and the religious leaders could not have fulfilled their proper clerical functions without the hard work of the many anonymous laborers who built the House of God.

 

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Moving into the New Testament, in Matthew 20:1-16 we find the Parable of the workers in the vineyard. This teaching of Christ shows that there is not a hierarchy within the Kingdom of God. Our salvation is not works-based and so we shouldn’t worry that something we do isn’t important or “spiritual” enough in God’s eyes—as long as we are fulfilling the calling He has placed in our lives. Clearly the Parable shows us that everyone is meant to work, but regardless of how much we do, we all will receive the same “wage” in the end, salvation in Christ. And this salvation is of course not really a wage at all, but a gift, because we have not, and cannot earn it. So while God calls us to labor diligently, we don’t have to feel pressure because our work is never meant to be salvific, rather reflective of the privilege God allows us in serving alongside Him in Kingdom-building labor.

In Luke 3:10-14, a fascinating passage, John the Baptist tells his followers not to abandon their professions but to stay in their God-appointed callings. Even controversial professions that may have been widely disliked amongst the Jews such as those of the tax collector and the soldier are specifically cited as acceptable in God’s sight, provided that they are carried out ethically. John wants his audience to see then that there are many different branches of work in which one can still glorify God. Then in John 9:4—Jesus urges us to work diligently while we still can. “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” This verse gives us an appropriate sense of intentional urgency as regards to our work. We have a finite, limited amount of time to labor in this world, so we should do it with all our hearts, and for God’s glory. Then we come to Acts 20:33-35 where Paul emphasizes the fact that he often supported himself during his ministry. If one of the greatest missionaries of all time often worked at another job, this certainly suggests that there is not a hierarchy between “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” positions. Paul’s position also underscores the fact that to serve in ministry is a privilege, one for which God may bless us with salaries. But we should never feel entitled to such money. Rather we should bear in mind the example of so many throughout history like Paul, who were willing and ready to pursue the calling of the Gospel, even if that meant having to finance themselves for a season, or perhaps for their entire careers. Then in 1 Corinthians 10:31 Paul reminds us to sanctify all aspects of our life. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

 

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Paul thus encourages us to find the spiritual and the holy in everyday life, and in the midst of our work. He expresses a similar attitude in Colossians 3:23-4—“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.” From Paul’s standpoint then, work is always sanctified and spiritually-edifying provided we don’t lose sight of who we are really working for. Our ultimate employer is always the Lord! Knowing that truth, we should pursue our labors, whatever they may be with a sense of vigor and purpose. Thus Paul exhorts us 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.” What better way to conclude this post than to reflect on the truth of that verse. While work can be demanding, it should never demean us, because the Christian is assured that none of their work is ever in vain, since our labor is united to the redemptive purposes of Christ in the world. As believers then, it is our responsibility to develop a theology of work, one which understands the deeper spiritual significance not just of “church work” or ministry, but of many different types of occupations. God has created us in His image, and part of that truth is that we were created for work. We can find so much more fulfillment in whatever type of labor God calls us to engage in if we will remember the redemptive goal of work that can bring us closer to the nature and person of Christ, and if we see every task and job, however demanding or however small, as a way to glorify God and as a potential platform to spread His gospel further. Like so many other aspects of our lives, work was indeed marred by the Fall, but from that day until now, God’s redemptive plan for humanity has been unfolding. Work, like all other aspects of Creation, is being and will be redeemed through Christ. We can share in that redemptive process even now when we engage in work, and begin to develop a work ethic and theology that honors God, and puts Him at the center of our labor.

Spiritual reflections on a tragedy

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On Valentine’s Day, Americans were stunned to learn of another horrendous school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and teachers dead. Sad enough to say, such events are becoming semi-routine in our culture, but because of my work with college students, these grisly tragedies hit particularly close to home. Many of the students who were slain were only a year or two younger than the people who I work in ministry with. And given that I spend hours each week on a large, public university campus that is essentially open to anyone, the thoughts certainly go through your head—“this could happen here.” In addition, since I do a lot of ministry with international students, I frequently have the opportunity to see America and our culture through a different lens, as an “outsider” might view us. And while almost all of the international students I know are very grateful for a chance to study in America, and are extremely complimentary of many aspects of American society and culture, they also for the most part view the United States as a very violent, and potentially unsafe place. This isn’t so much true right in Boulder, which has a fairly  low crime rate, but when they look at America as a whole, in comparison with the countries many are coming from, it does seem to be a more unsafe environment. Mass shootings, which have happened in disproportionate amounts in America, certainly reinforce the idea that many of these students have that Americans display a propensity for gun violence.

The recent Florida shootings have stayed in the news even weeks later however because the survivors have started the “Never Again Movement.” Already there has been a political response, with the Florida state government considering making changes in their gun laws, and Oregon adding some new restrictions in their firearm regulations. The political response, and debate over issues such as gun control, and mental health awareness, as well as school security, will no doubt continue for weeks and months to come. And as it should be in a democracy, different opinions and voices from all sides will be heard, from those of the President and veteran lawmakers down to newly familiar names of teenagers like David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Cameron Kasky. In the midst of all this, I am just another concerned citizen, and while the political discussions are highly significant, and very well could lead to changes in American laws and public policy, my interest ultimately lies more in the spiritual realm. As Christians, how do we respond to tragedies of such an unspeakable nature, and how do our spiritual convictions then potentially influence the extent to which we might support political action or decision-making?? These are difficult questions to wrestle with, and certainly I feel some amount of trepidation to even wade into this discussion. In general I don’t like mixing spiritual themes into political discussions. But at the same time, there are moments when it’s inevitable. As a campus minister, I want to help give our students the Christian framework to make moral choices and have a worldview with an ethical basis that is rooted in the Gospel. But such a framework and worldview cannot exist only in the theoretical sense. There are times when it must be translated into principles of action, however messy the process of determining just what those actions may be is. So while for the rest of this post I want to focus mostly on seeing this tragedy through a spiritual lens, I’ll also be discussing some practical applications as well.

 

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First, I want to address a viewpoint that I sometimes hear from Christians in the wake of tragic events like a mass shooting. Was what happened in Parkland a “judgment”?? Now certainly I cannot claim to always know the Will of God, but in my opinion, we should be very careful about assigning Divine Judgment to particular events such as these. One of the most useful texts for dealing with those occasions when the senseless and the unthinkable happen, is Luke 13:1-5. Here, Jesus shares the story of two different tragedies which occurred, not as Judgments of God, but rather as the natural outgrowth of living in a fallen world. The message to take away, according to Christ, is not so much trying to analyze why any particular person or group of people was affected by a tragedy, but rather to be reminded of the brevity of life, and the necessity that we be reconciled to God through repentance and forgiveness of our sins before it’s too late. “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

This important passage from Luke 13 also reminds us that just as the victims of these tragedies aren’t worse sinners than any of us, we also, astonishingly enough, can’t even claim the perpetrators of such horrors to be “sinful” in a different category than ourselves. Now honestly this is one of the hardest truths of being a Christian to grasp, but the fact is that the sinfulness that resides in the heart of someone to prompt them to go on a shooting spree is the very same sin that lies within our own hearts. Its manifestation may of course be much more grotesque and alarming—but the root cause is the same. Scripture reinforces this stark and unpleasant truth for us again and again, but perhaps nowhere more forcibly than in Romans. Paul tells us in no uncertain terms in Romans 3:23—“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This echoes the frank assessment of the Psalmist from centuries before of the human condition in Psalm 14:2-3: “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one.” Scripture also clearly teaches us that we cannot assign sin merely when an action is brought through to completion. If that were the case then we could too easily remove ourselves from possible guilt, making simplistic justifications along the lines of “well at least I haven’t killed anyone”, or “at least I haven’t committed adultery.” But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus definitively establishes the principle that sin begins in our thoughts and in our hearts, long before an action, if ever, is even committed. Matthew 5:21-22—“You have heard that it was said to those of old,  ‘You shall not murder,’ and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” And then in Matthew 5:27-28, Christ continues “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus further underscores the heart-sin connection in Matthew 15:19—“For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Given that we all share in this “heart disease” called sin, we must accordingly be very careful when trying to discern God’s Hand of Judgment in a particular situation. It’s certainly correct to assume that in any given moment He might be executing a judgment, for that is well within His right as Lord and Master over the entire Universe to do so. But we must guard vigilantly against ever assuming that any other individual, even someone who can commit as horrific a crime as a mass shooting, is more deserving of God’s judgment than we are. As sinners amidst this fallen world, we all equally deserve God’s wrath and condemnation!

 

Another subject that I want to address is the frequently used phrase of condolence after such events “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” I certainly understand what people mean, and are trying to say when they use phrases like this. But at the same time, after the Parkland shootings, there was a lot talk in the media about how certain victims at least were tired of such responses, even to the point of making statements to the effect of “we’ve had enough of your thoughts and prayers.” And I think I understand their point of view as well. Too often this phrase, while no doubt sincere when spoken by many, can simply be parroted by public officials.  It can get to the point where it becomes diluted of its original meaning, and begins to sound more like an empty trope, and even worse, becoming words that are used as a substitute for a real action or response to a problem. I want to discuss this for just a minute though—specifically the prayer part. Although I’m not sure who the quote originated with, one of my very favorite citations about the power and purpose of prayer is this: “prayer is not a substitute for action, but the action for which there is no substitute.” Furthermore, James 5:16 is among the many passages which attest for us to the value of continued, persistent prayer. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Then there is the lesson we can glean from Jesus’ Parable of the Persistent Widow. In Luke 18:1, we are told “He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.” As we’ve already discussed, the sinfulness which begins in our hearts and is common to everyone, is the root cause of these evil thoughts and motives which can lead to such foul crimes as were committed by the shooter in Parkland. To put it bluntly, there is no political solution whatsoever that can begin to address this deeper root of the problem. So to say then that prayer is somehow ineffective or that people want “more” than what prayer can provide in the wake of such events is really nonsensical if we start to analyze it. If diseased and sinful hearts are the ultimate cause of such monstrous tragedies, then indeed it is only in the realm of the spirit, and of prayer, that we can begin to grapple with, and address the problem. The frustration of the victim’s families, survivors, and many ordinary Americans in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting is palpable, and certainly easy to understand. But to return back to the Parable of the Persistent Widow for just a moment, we find Jesus reminding us that even as we raise our cry of “how long?” to God and struggle to comprehend the weight of such tragedy, Jesus has a question of His own to put to us in return. Luke 8:7-8: “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” That is certainly some food for thought.

 

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Well what about practically engaging with some of the issues and policy debates which naturally come up after a tragedy of this magnitude? How do we navigate the often complex intersection between faith and politics as Christians? I wish I had a simply answer to this question, but the fact of the matter is this has been a tricky dilemma going all the way back to the time of Christ. In Luke 20, Christ is questioned about paying taxes to the Roman government, and famously replies in verse 25—“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Such a rubric certainly doesn’t solve all of our questions, but as often is true in the Gospels, I don’t believe that Jesus’ intention is always to simply give us answers. He does wish to provide us a framework from which we can begin to make decisions that will honor God. It’s the same idea when He’s asked in Matthew 22 about what is the great commandment of the law. Christ could have at that point entered into a lengthy discourse about the Jewish law, but instead He offers a succinct summary which provides the perfect framework for then judging, and measuring all of our actions in light of God’s two greatest laws. Matthew 22:37-40—“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” So when we wade into the political arena, we clearly must remember that our attitudes, intentions, and indeed actions are not merely political in their effect, but will also reflect back on us as Christ followers. So whatever conclusions we may draw, or policies we may feel motivated to support or pursue, they must be in a spirit which honors God, and is respectful to our fellow men and women. It might seem like I am stating the obvious here, but one of the negative consequences of the Information Age, and in particular with the current prominence of Social Media, is that our public discourses are becoming increasingly polarized and divisive. There is a strong tendency for social media platforms to promote the opinions and viewpoints which are the most outspoken and intransigent, because they tend to draw the most attention, whether to gain positive, or negative feedback. In addition, the anonymity of many social media platforms is empowering to some people, and prompts them to say harsher things, and take more extreme positions than they would otherwise. This trend unfortunately has extended even into Christian circles as well. But we can, and must do better. Disagreeing with the political philosophy or policy position of another, even on an issue as emotionally charged as say, gun control is still never an excuse to belittle them as a fellow human being, and child of God. It is also supremely, and sadly ironic, to say the least, that people on both sides of the gun control debate, who ostensibly claim to be protesting criminal aggression, and mourning the loss of life after a tragedy like Parkland, take to the discussion with such vehemence that in many cases they actually are using extremely hostile language, and the threats of violence to put their points across!

It’s clear from Scripture that regardless of how strongly felt our convictions may be, they are never more important than the people we are discussing them with. Jesus urges prompt reconciliation in Matthew 5:23-24—“Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Then Paul similarly warns us in Ephesians 4:26-27: “Be angry and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.” Scripture speaks out strongly against Christians becoming embroiled in divisive quarrels and arguments, especially legal actions against one another. In 1 Corinthians 6:6-7, Paul goes so far as to say we should admit wrong, even to the point of being defrauded, rather than press on with action which could be divisive or injurious to another. “But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?”

 

In the wake of a tragedy such as what occurred in Parkland, there are many potential responses that are swirling around in our minds. They include tighter gun control measures, better mental health screenings, and improved school security, just to name a few. Groups such as the Never Again Movement are now being seen as pitted in combat against the NRA, and the rhetoric on both sides is full of defamation and anger against whoever is seen as the opposition. The intensity of these debates going on in public can convey the impression that people must take sides, and that there is no middle ground. But the fact is there are Christians on both sides of most of these issues, and that again, whatever someone’s personal convictions are, it does not give them the right to demean or humiliate their opponent. And just in the name of honesty and transparency, where do I stand on these issues?? Well I’m still trying to figure some of that out. I will say, speaking broadly however, I feel that it’s unacceptable to simply assume that tragedies of this magnitude will continue to happen, and that it’s just become a way of life for us in 21st century America. As I mentioned earlier, these school shootings affect me very personally because while a majority have taken place in high schools, I know they could just as easily happen on a college campus such as what took place in 2007 at Virginia Tech. And if we don’t want such tragedies to continue, it’s realistic to think that some policies have to change—whether these are in the realm of gun control, mental health evaluations, or school security procedures. The status quo has not been working, so it seems completely unreasonable to do nothing. And while I still support the basic Second Amendment Right to bear arms, maybe as Americans we need to be a little less concerned with our personal rights, and more thinking about steps which could benefit public safety as a whole. This does not seem like a time to selfishly focus simply on what may be good for one person as an individual. But above all, the tragedy throws into stark relief for me the importance of striving to reach young people with the Gospel. Many of these mass shootings in recent years have been carried out by socially and or mentally disturbed young people. Who knows what might could have turned out differently if someone had reached them with the message of Christ’s love before they became so desperate as to turn to suicidal violence. In today’s hurting world, the message of peace that Christ brings is more needed than ever before, and it must be the final word in any discussion of “what’s next” following the anger, confusion, and sadness that these tragedies bring. Well can certainly identify with the heartsick words of the Psalmist from so long ago: “My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to Your word.” (Psalm 119:28). And yet the words of response, and those for which we long to hear come from the Word of God, Christ, in Matthew 11:28-30—“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”

No greater love

 

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As we approach Valentine’s Day, my thoughts have turned to pondering the often vast disparity between the worldly definitions of “love” and how we see love illustrated in the pages of Scripture, particularly through the life of Christ. Valentine’s Day in America, and most of the Western world, is meant to be a celebration of romantic love between couples and spouses, and while there is nothing wrong with that on the surface, more frequently, in our culture it’s a very short step from talk of “romance” to highly sexualized thoughts and images. For many people it would seem, the terms “love”, “romance”, or “passion” invariably carry sexual connotations. This trend has of course been reinforced by movies, television, popular novels. At the same time, most people say at least that they are looking for “true love” and while each individual might define that quest somewhat differently, I think it’s very significant, that despite what their lifestyle choices may indicate, people are looking for more than just physical fulfillment in their relationships.

 

As further proof of this, the origins of Valentine’s Day are fascinating to explore. Despite the current associations the day might conjure up for most people, its namesake was actually a Christian saint, a martyr of the early church, and a true embodiment of the Christian ideal of love. As with many of the early saints of the church, there is a lack of extensive factual information about Valentine, and some of the stories associated with him are perhaps apocryphal. But nonetheless, there are numerous traditions concerning a 3rd century Christian priest in Rome named Valentine. He was known for performing clandestine weddings for Christian soldiers, despite imperial decrees forbidding this, and he also provided aid and encouragement to many Christians who were being persecuted. As part of this encouragement, Valentine supposedly cut out paper hearts which he would give to the soldiers he married, and to persecuted believers as a reminder of God’s love for them, and their vow to love and serve God in return. Eventually his activities got him arrested, and he went before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. The Emperor had discussions with Valentine, and was impressed with his intellect and his steadfast refusal to give up the Christian faith, even though just a nominal conversion to Roman paganism could have saved his life. The story is also told that while imprisoned, Valentine healed Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius, leading to the conversion of him and his entire household. On the eve before his execution, Valentine supposedly sent a last note of farewell and encouragement to Julia, signing it “your Valentine.” The modern celebration of Valentine’s Day, which began in 19th century Britain, drew on stories of this early Roman martyr for its inspiration.

 

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The idea of martyrdom as the ultimate expression of Christian love is of course rooted in the life and teachings of Christ Himself. In John 15:13, Jesus states simply, and profoundly, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” These words, expressed not long before His own impending sacrifice on the Cross, echo the same theme of sacrificial giving as expressed in so many other passages of the Gospels. One of my other favorites is John 10, where Christ gives us the extended description of Himself as the Good Shepherd. Jesus’ love for His flock is ultimately proven in the willingness He has to give up His life for their welfare. John 10:11—“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” Then, in John 10:17-18, Christ proclaims “I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of Myself.” Thus Christ makes it clear, again and again, that His sacrifice is not made under force or compulsion, but done with a willing heart.

 

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Starting with the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and followed by people such as Valentine, so many brave Christian men and women have been willing to give up material comforts, safety, and ultimately even life itself for the advancement of the Gospel. In an attempt to better understand the great love that inspired and allowed them to remain steadfast even in the face of death, I enjoy reading about the lives of some of these significant Christian martyrs through the ages. Stephen’s story is recounted for us in Acts 7. Chosen to be a deacon to serve the 1st century church in Jerusalem, Stephen offered an impassioned and convicting speech to the Jewish high priest, reminding him of all of God’s Covenant faithfulness to the Jewish people in the past, and concluding by chiding them for having so often rejected God’s Spirit, as they were doing even now by refusing to accept Christ. As a result of this speech, Stephen was stoned to death. But the last few verses of Acts 7 memorably record two noteworthy details about his death. First, in verse 56, we see a vision of the heavens opening, and Christ, standing at the right hand of God. Imagine, the Lord and God of the entire universe, actually on His feet to honor the example of the first Christian brave and faithful enough to follow in Christ’s footsteps by embracing death for the sake of his faith!! Furthermore, in Acts 7:58 we’re told that present at the stoning of Stephen was a man named Saul. Just a short while later, in Acts 9, we of course read about how Saul, who later becomes Paul, is converted on the road to Damascus. And we can’t help but wonder if the journey of this greatest of Christian missionaries from persecutor to champion of the faith, didn’t begin as he witnessed the inspired bravery and commitment of Stephen in the face of death. In addition to Stephen, and Valentine, another inspiring martyr of the early Christian church was Polycarp. The Bishop of Smyrna, he was considered one of the “Apostolic Fathers”, being part of a select group of church leaders who had been discipled by the original 12 Apostles. According to church tradition, the Apostle John had been Polycarp’s discipler. At the advanced age of 86, Polycarp was arrested during a series of persecutions of Christians taking place under the leadership of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was urged, in light of his age, to make a simple gesture of swearing by Caesar, and thereby to save his life. Polycarp’s famous response was this: “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong…How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” And so Polycarp subsequently and willingly suffered death by burning at the stake—an incredible example of faithfulness to Christ demonstrated even in the twilight of one’s life.

 

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For an example of steadfast faithfulness in youth, there is the story of St. Pancras, who was martyred at the tender age of 14 in the early 4th century AD. Pancras, a Roman, had converted to Christianity as a boy, but during widespread persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, he was brought before the authorities and asked to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Supposedly the Emperor himself was quite impressed with the young man’s fortitude, and offered him wealth and power in exchange for renouncing his beliefs. However the youth persisted in refusing to abjure Christ, and so he was beheaded. When I think of stories of early Christian martyrs, I also cannot forget the Latin phrase “Quo Vadis”, which being translated, means “Where are you going?” The phrase comes from a post-Biblical account of Peter’s later life, leading up to his eventual martyrdom. While Peter’s death is not directly recounted in the Bible, it is most certainly alluded to. Jesus, in John 21:18, famously predicts Peter’s eventual martyrdom: “Most assuredly I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” Church tradition subsequently holds that Peter was executed in Rome around the year 64 AD by the cruel and tyrannical Emperor Nero. A story from the post-Biblical narrative Acts of Peter and passed down in Christian tradition holds that Peter, falling back into his old habits of weakness and denial, flees the city of Rome and his impending martyrdom. Then alongside a road on the outskirts of the city, he encounters the risen Christ, and Peter asks him the aforementioned question Quo Vadis? Jesus replies “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” After this encounter, Peter is strengthened to return to Rome, and face whatever consequences might ensure for standing for his faith. Supposedly he was crucified upside down, feeling himself unworthy to be killed in the same manner as the Lord. I love this story because it demonstrates that even martyrs, apostles, and great saints of the church like Peter, are only human, and still need at times to receive spiritual encouragement like we all do.

 

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Leaving the period of the early church, there are so many examples of martyrs from later history, throughout all ages of Christian history. Some stories of martyrdom chill the blood with the revelation of the great cruelty which some believers have had to endure at the hands of those who could not fathom, or tolerate the love of Christ. One such example comes from the lives of a group of French Jesuit missionaries to Canada in the 17th century, some of the first people who tried to convert Native tribes like the Hurons  to Christianity. These remarkable men, among them Jean Brebeuf, Charles Lalement, and Charles Garnier, gave up the comforts of life in Europe for the harsh realities of existence in the barely settled Canadian wilderness of the 17th century. They spent long hours as some of the first Europeans to learn the Huron language. Brebeuf in particular excelled in linguistics, compiling a dictionary of Huron, and also translating a catechism that became the first printed work in that language. In addition, he composed a beautiful Christmas carol in Huron, “Twas in the moon of wintertime” that is still heard today. The French missionaries had to contend with all manner of difficulties, including frequently being blamed amongst the Natives for bad harvests or outbreaks of disease in the various villages they ministered to. However the greatest threat was the hostile Iroquois tribe, sworn enemies of the Huron people. Eventually the attacks of this tribe grew more numerous, but the French priests remained committed to serving their flock, despite the very real risk of martyrdom. That risk became a reality in 1649.

As recounted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints,  Brebeuf and Lalemant showed almost superhuman endurance in the face of the sufferings they had to endure. “On March 16, 1649, the Iroquois attacked the village at which Brebeuf and Lalemant were stationed. The torture of these two missionaries was as atrocious as anything recorded in history. At the height of the torments Father Lalemant raised his eyes to Heaven and invoked God’s aid, whilst Father de Brebeuf set his face like a rock as though insensible to the pain. Then, like one recovering consciousness, he preached to his persecutors and to the Christian captives until they gagged his mouth, cut off his nose, tore off his lips, and then, in derision of baptism, deluged him and his companion martyrs with boiling water.” Father Garnier would soon join his fellow Jesuits in attaining the martyr’s crown, as further described in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: “Before the end of the year 1649 the Iroquois had penetrated as far as the Tobacco nation, where Father Garnier had founded a mission in 1641 and where the Jesuits now had two stations. The inhabitants of the village of Saint-Jean, hearing that the enemy was approaching, sent out their men to meet the attackers, who, however, took a roundabout way and arrived at the gates unexpectedly. An orgy of incredible cruelty followed, in the midst of which Garnier, the only priest in the mission, hastened from place to place, giving absolution to the Christians and baptizing the children and catechumens, totally unmindful of his own fate. While thus employed he was shot down by the musket of an Iroquois. He strove to reach a dying man whom he thought he could help, but after three attempts he collapsed, and subsequently received his death-blow from a hatchet which penetrated to the brain.” Brebeuf, Lalemant, Garnier, and five other French priests were collectively canonized in 1930 and thereafter known as the “Martyrs of North America.”

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Closer to our own time, the horrors of the Holocaust revealed the story of a life that shone with the nobility of Christian love and sacrifice. Maximilian Maria Kolbe was a man later called by Pope John Paul II “the patron saint of our difficult century.” Kolbe was a Polish priest who had spent time working as a missionary in Japan during the 1930s. Later returning to Poland, Kolbe continued his ministry. When World War Two and the German invasion of his homeland intervened, Kolbe, whose father was German, had a chance to essentially protect himself from any harm by signing a special Nazi registry, but he refused. Instead he defied his occupiers by continuing to work at his monastery, producing anti-Nazi pamphlets, and over time sheltering some 2,000 Jews from German persecution. Eventually Kolbe’s resistance led to him being arrested and sent to the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz. There, in July of 1941, as retribution following an escape by three prisoners, the Nazi guards decided to select 10 prisoners at random to suffer death by starvation. One of the men selected to die lamented having to leave behind his wife and children, and so Kolbe amazingly volunteered to take his place. The brave priest eventually died after two agonizing weeks of starvation. During that time, he was frequently observed to be leading his fellow inmates in prayer. Franciszek Gajowniczek, the Polish man whose life was spared by Kolbe, lived a long full life, dying in 1995. And until the end of his days, he continued to tell the story of the priest whose Christ-like bravery had saved him. Kolbe’s story, like that of the North American martyrs is a powerful reminder of how even amidst the worst examples of human cruelty and depravity, God’s love shines through to have the final word.

 

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Sadly enough, not all Christian martyrs have died at the hands of non-believers. Some have tragically perished as a result of the internecine conflicts that have plagued Christianity in times past. Dirk Willems was a Dutch Anabaptist who lived in the mid-16th century. Now the Anabaptists were a group that emerged from the Reformation, which many scholars believe were the forefathers of the modern Baptist church. They became known for rejecting the practice of infant baptism, instead advocating an adult believer’s baptism. As a result of this belief however, they were sadly persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics. So Willems, as an Anabaptist leader, was caught and imprisoned by Dutch Catholics. However he eventually escaped from prison and was fleeing across a frozen moat when a prison guard began chasing him. Malnourished, and lighter from the scant prison rations, Willems was able to run across the ice and was getting away, when he suddenly heard the screams of his pursuer who had broken through into the freezing water below. Remarkably, Willems turned back to save the life of the very man who was chasing him. The guard was grateful and would have let him go, but his supervising officer, standing on the shore, sternly ordered the guard to re-arrest his rescuer. And so a few months later, in 1569, Willems died, burned at the stake as a heretic, but today revered by Christians from all nations as a man of true Christ-like character.

 

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When the staunchly Catholic Queen Mary I came to the throne in England in 1553, she initiated a savage period of persecution against English Protestants up until her death in 1558, thus earning her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.” Three of the English clergy who died during Mary’s persecutions were Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer. Latimer and Ridley, Anglican bishops, were burned at the stake in Oxford in 1555, dying after refusing to recant the theological and Biblical principles they supported as Protestants. While being burned alive, Latimer famously encouraged Ridley thus: “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Latimer’s words proved prophetic, and a stirring reminder, that for being willing to endure a few moments’ worth of physical pain, they and so many other martyrs offered a legacy of faithfuness that would inspired generations who came afterwards. In the same way, Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury under the Protestant King Edward VI faced severe persecution and imprisonment under Queen Mary, Cranmer on several occasions prepared to sign confessions repudiating his Protestant beliefs in order to save his life. But each time he tore the confession up, and eventually was prepared to face martyrdom. When he was burned at the stake in Oxford in 1556, he reportedly placed his right hand into the fire first saying: “I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn.” 

So how do we make sense of the great sacrifices, tortures, and ultimately deaths that these martyrs were motivated to endure throughout Christian history? Such love as they demonstrated is not really comprehensible to the world at large, and I think can only be understood through the lens of how God has already defined for all of humanity what love truly means. It is the great truth illustrated in 1 John 4:19 :”We love Him because He first loved us.” But for so many of us in 21st century America, martyrdom seems like a far-off impossibility, even amidst the realities of a world in which many Christians continue to die for their faith. In many ways we are victims of the affluence and comfort of a society in which very few of us are asked anymore to make tangible or difficult sacrifices in the name of our beliefs. Ironically enough then, the very blessing of living in a country where we can freely practice our faith, and freely share it with others could serve to erode the fervor with which we pursue Christ and proclaim His Kingdom to others. Former IMB missionary Nik Ripken is among the foremost authorities on the persecuted church today, having spent countless hours interviewing Christian men and women who’ve suffered for Jesus. In his powerful book The Insanity of God, Ripken shares the story of a Russian man named Stoyan, who endured years of imprisonment for being a Christian who tried to distribute Bibles in the old Soviet Union. After being interviewed by Ripken, Stoyan had these words of admonishment to share with believers in the west: “I took great joy that I was suffering in my country so that you could be free to witness in your country. Don’t you ever give up in freedom what we would never give up in persecution – and that is our witness to the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ!” 

Such convicting words remind us that while Jesus certainly doesn’t call on all believers to become martyrs, He does exhort us to demonstrate the same sacrificial love He demonstrated in His life and ministry. He also calls on us to be ready to live a life of service to others, and to deny those selfish impulses which could keep us from realizing our full spiritual potential. Luke 9:23-24—“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. for whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” Paul expresses similar thoughts in many of his writings, emphasizing that in addition to being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our faith, we should also be ready to “die” on a daily basis by turning our back on sinful desires. Galatians 5:24—“And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Then in Romans 6:11—“Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus tells us quite frankly in Luke 14 that we must count the cost if we are willing to be “all in” with our decision to follow Him in our lives. Luke 14:27-30—“And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? The Christian life is certainly an arduous pilgrimage at times, but the example of the martyrs should give us courage and purpose, knowing that for so many brave believers down through the ages, Jesus was worth it—worth whatever sacrifice they could offer, including ultimately their own lives. So as we think about Valentine’s Day, we should remember how the greatest love story of all was started, and finished by God, through the gift and death of His own precious son. Down through so many centuries, and for so many people, God’s love will remain unrequited, never fully appreciated, acknowledged or returned. Yet there have been those select few individuals in whose heart a desire burned to reciprocate that love and devotion to God, in however an imperfect manner, and even at the cost of their very lives. Whatever tortures, torments, and deaths they may have suffered, the martyrs could endure because something so much more powerful had taken root in their hearts—the love of Christ!! And as 1 John 4:18 eternally attests: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” May such love be found in all our hearts this Valentine’s Day, and always, as we share it with a lonely, and brokenhearted world.

New Year’s wisdom

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As 2018 dawned, millions of Americans engaged in the common practice of making New Year’s resolutions. I’ve made my own share of such decisions and intentions in the past, and I was interested to discover that this practice has pretty deep historical roots. In ancient Babylon, people would make pledges to the gods at the start of a new year that they would return any borrowed items, and repay their debts. Meanwhile the Romans would make yearly promises to Janus, the double-faced god of transitions and new beginnings, from whom we derive of course the name of the month January. Then in Judaism, between the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, there are traditionally 10 days of repentance.  During this time, the observant reflect on their sins from the past year, as well as their resolve to do better and amend their ways in the days ahead. A recent poll drawn from Google search results revealed some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions for modern Americans. They included getting healthy, getting better organized, learning a new hobby, spending less/saving more, and doing more travel.

Now all of these are fine aspirations, but what such New Year’s resolutions usually have in common is that they are something we plan to do for ourselves. And it will involve a certain degree of effort, resolve, or perseverance on our parts to accomplish, especially over the long course of the 12 succeeding months. But thinking from a Biblical perspective, what if our New Year’s resolutions were less about what we were striving to do in our own effort, and more about what we might allow God to do in our life, or what we could receive from Him?? And in addition, what if we thought less about what would benefit ourselves directly, and what instead might be a benefit for others, and allow us to bless those around us?? In 1 Kings 3:1-15, which is one of my favorite Biblical passages, we find a remarkable story about Solomon, and the special gift of wisdom he receives from God. King Solomon encounters the Lord in a dream, which is of course a common Biblical motif for humans to hear from God.  King Solomon’s dream at Gibeon is prophetic, instructive, and most notably, interactive. Solomon is given a choice by God, and a chance to reveal the true character of his heart. In turn, God’s response back to Solomon shows us even more about the character and the priorities of the God that we seek.

 

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1 Kings 3:5 tells us: “At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night’ and God said, “Ask! What shall I give you?” What a loaded question, we might say! Consider how Solomon must have felt! Imagine the Lord and Creator of the entire Universe putting Himself at your temporary bequest. The implications of one’s answer are almost frightening to contemplate. The answer given will reveal the true nature of Solomon’s character; it will demonstrate what is most dear to this great king, and it will expose him before God Almighty. So carefully, and deliberately must he consider how he will respond. And applying this to our own lives, how careful are we, when we go before the Great God in petition? How well do we consider what it is we shall ask for? Solomon’s story here shows how having the proper attitude towards the Lord makes all the difference! He demonstrates great humility before God, despite his lofty rank and status.  Consider that when Solomon arrives at Gibeon, he is in all his pomp and glory as the absolute monarch over the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. He has just concluded a marriage alliance with the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. King Solomon is also in the process of reorganizing the administration of his kingdom. He has plans to complete a massive temple dedicated to the Lord in the city of Jerusalem. His power is undisputed, his word law, his commands followed obediently by an army of subjects, for whom he literally appears as God’s representative on earth. And now Solomon has just been given license to add even more glory to his throne by making whatever request he pleases to God. Yet initially he does not ask at all–rather in 1 Kings 3:6 he first praises God. He remembers how God has worked in the past, having shown mercy to his father David. How important is this sense of history for the people of the Old Testament! The Jews have a distinctive conception of a single God, working to insert Himself in human history, in unique and unrepeatable ways. Solomon here sees the importance of a God who acts in history to establish His truths. Then, in 1 Kings 3:7—the King refers to himself, not in grandiose terms but as “a little child” who does not how to “go out or come inWhat candid and remarkably humility is displayed by this mighty King! Indeed can we imagine our world leaders today, our presidents, premiers and prime ministers being able to divest themselves of their power, pomp, and privilege to take such a lowly view of themselves? Or for that matter, how often do we, as meek Christian servants, actually consider ourselves in such terms?  Then in 1 Kings 3:8, still before he has made his request, Solomon freely admits to the challenges that he is faced with as a King, and acknowledges that he is not able to meet these with his own power. “Your servant is in the midst of Your people who You have chosen, a great people, too numerous to numbered or counted. So we see how the absolute monarch embraces his own limitations. And in fact, this is not a display of weakness at all, but instead of profound wisdom. Solomon knows he is confronted with a great challenge, and without God’s aid he will never be equal to the task. Too often we ask of God quickly, or rashly before we have considered exactly what it is that we need, and before we have considered that God knows our needs better than we do. And worst of all, we often ask before we have given God the honor that is due Him alone. In contrast, before he ever answers God’s question of what to ask for, Solomon has already cultivated an attitude of humility to be modeled. He comes before God with praises on his lips, humbly aware of his own limitations, and seeking the need for aid to face those problems which are greater than his own ability to solve them.

 

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It is then instructive to note what Solomon doesn’t ask God for. Solomon does not request longevity. Now in the Old Testament, and even perhaps in our own days, long life is often cited as proof of Divine favor. People who live to a ripe and advanced age we usually consider blessed, often without even considering the quality of those intervening years. That 19th century American writer Ambrose Bierce, in his masterful satire of the English language known as the Devil’s Dictionary defined longevity as “the uncommon extension of the fear of death”. Perhaps longevity on its own is of little value without the use of those years for something positive. I am reminded of a rabbi who was once asked who he considered to be the saddest figure in the Scriptures. Without hesitation he replied: “Methusaleh”. According to Genesis 5, this man lived to the amazingly advanced age of 969 years, and yet in all that time he apparently accomplished nothing more noteworthy than the bearing of sons and daughters.

Solomon also does not ask for riches or power. These two shining orbs have led many men astray. Both the believer and the non-believer recognize this. Soren Kierkegaard, that great 19th century Danish theologian said: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible”  And Albert Einstein, a secular man, but perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th century had this to say regarding the allurements of wealth and power: “The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible.”

In noting what he doesn’t ask for, God recognizes that Solomon values spiritual over material gifts. Solomon’s “understanding to discern justice” will benefit not only himself, but the entire kingdom he is to rule over. It is a request that demonstrates a profoundly unselfish nature. Like Kierkegaard, Solomon wants to see the possible, to discern between good and evil in the hearts of those he must rule. And God’s pleasure with this choice shows us something of where His heart lies too, and how His priorities differ so unmistakably from what our world values. With what criteria then shall we judge a life’s worth? By its length, or the power wielded by the individual, the success they had in their chosen field? Or by the value that life had, lived in service to one’s fellow man and to one’s God? Now this is not to say that long life, wealth, or success are to be regarded as evils. For God after all is pleased to grant these things to Solomon in verse 13, but because he does not ask for them. God yearns for us to see, as did Solomon, the value of the spiritual over the material, the call to service over the selfish desire to be served. This is the profound truth that underlies His response to Solomon’s wise request.

 

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            So what did Solomon’s dream say about him? It showed a heart that wanted to be obedient to God, and a heart that yearned to unselfishly give of himself in the judgment and service of his people. Solomon showed wisdom therefore, before he ever requested God for it. Yet sadly enough, in his subsequent life, Solomon often fell short of the ideal presented in his dream at Gibeon. The King who was the wisest man of his day, who authored the Proverbs, and composed the moving and eloquent prayer to dedicate the temple, was undone as 1 Kings 11 tells us, because he did not remain faithful to the Covenant. In part as a result of his numerous marriages to foreign women, as well as through his own disobedience, Solomon allowed for the worship of other gods.  He fell astray from the path he should have trodden, and as part of his long-term historical legacy, brought the united monarchy down with him. His son Rehoboam would preside over a divided kingdom. Solomon had an understanding heart, and wisdom received straight from the hand of God, and yet it was not always enough to keep him in the paths of righteousness, and we must admit how he failed at times in that most universal yet most difficult discernment between good and evil.

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Earlier we spoke of the profound implications of God placing Himself at Solomon’s bequest. Yet the Lord does the same for us. He says to us anew at the start of another year, “Ask! What shall I give you?” Now Scripture makes it clear that if we are to request something from God, Wisdom is one of the greatest gifts we can ask for. Proverbs 3:15 personifies wisdom is this manner: “She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you may desire cannot compare with her.” Furthermore, Proverbs 3:19 makes it clear that the Lord alone is the ultimate source of all wisdom, and that it is an essential aspect of His very character and nature. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.” Human wisdom on its own, has clear limitations, and so Proverbs 3:5 admonishes us–“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” As we consider a new year, and all of the challenges that will come with it, what better resolution could we arrive at than to ask for God’s wisdom to guide us throughout this year of 2018?? Like Solomon, we would desire this gift for the sake not only of ourselves, but also so we can seek to bless and benefit others. But unlike Solomon, we should also desire to persevere, and finish strong. Whereas the wise Old Testament King ultimately only had the law to keep him walking in the paths of wisdom, Christians have the great advantage of being able to walk personally with God, in the person of Jesus Christ. We know we can finish well, because of the promise Paul gives us in Philippians 1:6 regarding those who walk with Jesus: “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.” Thus for 2018, let us strive to have the wisdom and perspective of Christ. For He is the one who can not only grant us a wise heart, to discern between good and evil, but who can save us from the ultimate consequences of our inability to make those wise choices consistently. And that recognition of our desperate need for continued forgiveness, and the grace of a perfect Savior, is perhaps the wisest realization we could come to in this year, or any other. 

Christmas–Why God becoming man matters

 

The Christmas season is upon us, and for the next several weeks, we will be surrounded by the cultural trappings of this holiday. Christmas movies will be on television, Christmas carols playing on the radio, Christmas lights decorating everything, Santa Claus in the malls and stores. Now as I say, these are all cultural trappings, but at its heart, Christmas is a religious holiday, and an event of the greatest theological significance. Now as many of you may be aware, the spiritual purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But what’s so extraordinary about this special season is that the Christmas story actually begins long before Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And the message of Christmas continues long beyond the life of Jesus here on earth. So why does Christmas matter?? My succinct response is this: Because the idea of God becoming a man matters…greatly!! We’re going to be looking at several different passages from Scripture, in an attempt to address the theological significance of Christmas, and hopefully help you to better understand, apart from all of the cultural importance we’ve attached to it, why the true message of Christmas matters—eternally.

 

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Despite what might be implied from singing songs like “Away in a manger” or “O Little town of Bethlehem”, or seeing countless Nativity scenes displayed during this time of year, Christmas itself does not begin in Bethlehem, nor does it begin with the Birth of Jesus. Instead, Christmas begins with Creation. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is equal to God precisely because He has always existed alongside God. So there was a never a point at which Jesus was created by God. And this belief, like all foundational Christian doctrine, has a firm basis in Scripture. Here is John 1:1-5—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Now to explain this passage, when John talks about the Word with a capital W, he is referring to none other than Christ. As you may know, from the very beginning of the Bible, when God is creating the world in The Book of Genesis, He speaks everything into existence. So the Word is a very powerful concept in Scripture, and here John declares rather forcefully for us that Jesus co-existed alongside God from the beginning and was even directly involved in the act of creation. This passage from John also equates Jesus to being light, a light shining in the darkness. And this description symbolizes the fact that not only was Jesus around from before when the world was even created, but He represents and indeed embodies the triumph of good over evil, of redemption over sin, and finally, life over death itself.

 

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So then if Christ has pre-existed, alongside God from the beginning of time, as part of the Trinity, what are we precisely celebrating at Christmas?? We say the “birth of Christ”, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say the Incarnation. Listen to John 1:14—“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” This verse really contains the whole theological message of Christmas in a nutshell. The Word becomes flesh—that is Jesus, the eternal God, comes down to earth and becomes one of us. And yet, as John makes explicit here, Jesus becomes a Man without losing His divinity–without ceasing to be God. His glory remains the same as that of the Father. Now I fully understand that this is a challenging theological concept to grasp. But nonetheless this mystery, this amazing truth of God becoming man lies at the heart of Christmas, and why it matters. Because for God to become a man means that eternity has entered into our midst. And it was done out of love for us, for all humanity. One of the most creative illustrations for the Incarnation that I’ve ever heard came from Bishop Fulton J Sheen. He was a Catholic priest that up until his death in 1979, was for many years a noted television speaker for his devotional program “Life is worth living”. Sheen once gave a message entitled “Superman and Christmas.” In it, he made a startling comparison between Superman, the Man of Steel, and Jesus. Christ’s birth was like “Superman in reverse” Sheen said. Clark Kent goes into the phone booth to emerge infinitely stronger and more powerful, as Superman. But at Christmas, God—the infinite, the eternal, takes on the form of a helpless babe. God becomes weak to show us His love. And in doing so He shows His greatest power. In addition, while Superman, for all of his great power, can only affect events from the outside, from the external, Jesus, being born, comes into the world to change the hearts of humanity, from the inside. For at that blessed moment in Bethlehem, the moment we sing about in all the Christmas Carols, the birth of Christ marks the point at which the powers of evil and darkness are shattered by the coming of God into the world.

 

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Now Christmas is on December 25th, but the several weeks leading up to its observance, weeks of anticipation and preparation, are known as Advent. We observe Advent because Christ’s birth was also anticipated, and prepared for in Scripture. In fact, for centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets wrote about how a time was coming when God would send a Savior, a Messiah to redeem not only the people of Israel, but indeed all of humanity. Now the prophets, most succinctly defined, are those individuals who speak a word from the Lord. They are God’s mouthpiece as it were, to speak truth to His people—offering at differing times messages of both hope and judgment. There are many, many prophecies in the Old Testament which allude to Christ. I want to share here just a few from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah 7:14—“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” This prophecy refers to the coming of Jesus, through the miracle of a virgin birth to Mary. Then the prophet reveals more of the spiritual significance of Christ’s coming in Isaiah 9:2, and 6—“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder, and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Later, in Isaiah 11:1-2, we hear a prophecy of the lineage of Christ, and the spiritual work that He is called to do here on the earth. “There shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” But have you ever wondered why Jesus was born at the particular time that He was?? I’m reminded of some lyrics from the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar. “You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned/Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?/If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation/Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication”. You can read all sorts of studies and analysis which will talk about how Jesus came at a strategic and pivotal time in world history. They will discuss the so-called “Pax Romana” which allowed for the fluid interchange between different peoples throughout the vast boundaries of the Roman Empire. And then there was the wide network of Roman roads which made travel and transportation easier across the Mediterranean world. Also there was the Greek influence, which made a New Testament written in that language widely accessible across much of the Mediterranean world. All these may be valid reasons, but ultimately Christ’s coming at the precise point in history in which He was born is strategic for one reason—God chose it! There remains somewhat of a mystery as to the specific timing, but we have to be alright with accepting that God had a particular purpose and reason for sending Jesus into the world at the time that He did. As Galatians 4:4 tells us “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” The longing for Jesus’ coming, and the joyful anticipation of His arrival at are the heart of what Christians will observe over the next several weeks as part of Advent. These are sentiments that are encapsulated well in a treasured old song of the season—“O Come, o come, Emmanuel.” It’s interesting, how in the song, the first stanza expresses the hope of the Jewish people for the Savior: “O come, O come, Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel”. But a few stanzas later, the anticipation that is expressed for Christ’s coming is now shared by all humanity: “O come, Desire of nations, bind/
All peoples in one heart and mind”

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But the actual birth of Jesus was not quite as serene and peaceful an event as is often depicted in Christmas postcards, or in popular carols like “Silent Night.” In fact, when God came into the world as a man, He had to face all of the challenges that typically exist in our fallen world. There was no special treatment or exceptions made, even for the one who quite literally was King of this Universe. But before we get into the difficulties surrounding Christ’s birth, I just want to make a brief mention about the genealogies listed in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. The writers of the Gospels want us to know that Jesus comes from a very particular lineage, from the House of King David, as well as having other distinguished forebears such as the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now just having a noteworthy ancestry of course does not alone prove that Christ is the Messiah. But it does reinforce at least the idea that this is someone very special, whose lineage calls to mind other great Biblical heroes. But however storied His ancestry may have been, the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth could be considered anything but heroic. A dirty stable for a birthplace, an unwed mother, a potentially shamed spouse, and a murderous tyrant of a king are some of the elements of this first Christmas story. Mary, the mother of Jesus is a remarkable woman. According to Luke 1, she is visited by the angel Gabriel, and told she will bear a very special child. Luke 1:31—“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.” Mary, upon hearing this news is a bit incredulous, because she is not yet married to her future husband Joseph, and is still a virgin. Gabriel then tells her in Luke 1:35—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Then Mary’s response, one of perfect obedience and submission to the will of God is recorded in Luke 1:38—“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” But while Mary responds with ideal obedience, there is still the matter of her betrothed, her husband-to-be, Joseph. What is he to think when his pledged bride suddenly tells him she is pregnant from the Holy Spirit, and what will all of those in the surrounding community think?? After all, in those days especially, the idea of woman becoming pregnant outside of marriage was shameful to say the least, and could have carried very serious consequences for both Mary and Joseph. But then Joseph’s doubts and fears are put to rest when he too is visited by an angel, this time in a dream, as recounted in Matthew 1:20-21: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

 

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But even with both mother and father in agreement now with God’s unique plan for bringing His Son into the world, there are still plenty of difficulties to surmount. Because of a nationwide census required by the governing Roman authorities, Joseph, along with the heavily pregnant Mary, must make an arduous journey from his home in Nazareth, down to Bethlehem. Once there, they cannot find any room in an inn, and so Mary is forced to give birth in the humble surroundings of a manger, which is a feeding trough for livestock. In keeping with such humility, the first people to whom heaven’s angels announce the birth of the Christ child are not Roman officials, Jewish high priests, or rich merchants. Instead, according to Luke 2, it is a lowly group of shepherds who receive the initial good tidings. Interestingly enough though, even though Jesus’ birth is acclaimed by people such as the shepherds, there are others around who are not so pleased. Chief among them is King Herod, a local Jewish puppet ruler with Roman support. Herod is so concerned about the prophecies of a new king being born in Bethlehem that he takes the extraordinary cruel and sadistic measure of ordering that all male children in the region of Bethlehem under the age of 2 be put to death, in what came to be known as the “Massacre of the Innocents.” To escape the persecution of this murderous King, Joseph is warned by an angel to flee to Egypt with his family until Herod’s death makes it safe for them to return. And this flight is in fulfillment of a prophecy from Hosea 11:1. It also forms a neat kind of symmetry, or parallel too. In the account given to us in the Book of Exodus, God calls His people out of exile from Egypt to enter the physical embodiment of the Covenant–the Promised Land. Then centuries later, the Lord calls His Son of out Egypt to re-enter Israel, and bring the blessings of the spiritual “promised land” and the Covenant to all peoples.

 

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As we reflect for a minute, what do we make of all these challenges and indeed difficulties that surround the birth of Christ? They seem almost ironic in some ways because we are so accustomed to thinking of Christmas as a quiet, peaceful time. But there is a great amount of hope we can take from the fact that God is able to work even amidst such formidable obstacles as we have just described, to bring about His perfect plan of universal redemption through Jesus entering the world. And to everyone for whom Christmas, for whatever reason may be a difficult time of the year, this message of joy triumphing through adversity is very timely and encouraging I believe. I think of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of you probably know that name…Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian of the mid-20th century who had the courage to live for his convictions, and actively oppose the evil regime of Adolf Hitler. For taking such a stance, Bonhoeffer would eventually find himself a prisoner of the Nazi regime. And so in December of 1943, separated from his friends, his family, and his fiancée, he reflected in a letter on what Christmas meant for him, as viewed from a jail cell: “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell…That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of man, that God will approach where men turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for him they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives him a part in the communion of saints, a Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance.” Those are remarkable words born of Bonhoeffer’s faith, and unshakeable spiritual conviction. They are also words that, I would argue, could not be possible apart from the fact that at the heart of the Christmas story is the truth that Jesus came to earth in the midst of obstacles, and difficulties, and yet God’s work was not hindered in the slightest for all of the opposition that surrounded it.

 

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However of course I wouldn’t wish to paint a picture of Christmas that only focuses on these obstacles, because ultimately the story of Christmas is one that is overflowing with joy, a joy not just for December 25th or a season, but a joy that should infiltrate and underscore our entire lives as Christ followers. Most importantly, it’s a joy that extends beyond this earthly life, and echoes into eternity. There’s so much I could talk about here, but I do want to focus on just a few of the remarkable blessings that accompany Jesus’ birth, as accounted in the Scriptures. We’ve already mentioned how Christ’s birth was first announced by angels to the shepherds. And the news these angels bring contains blessings of the highest order, blessings that will impact countless generations beyond those first humble hearers of the news on the hills outside Bethlehem. Luke 2:10-11: “Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Then a few verses later, a whole multitude of angels appear, praising God and proclaiming: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” So we clearly see from the angels’ greeting that Jesus’ coming represents good news for all the earth. But the impact, and blessing of Christ’s arrival is perhaps even more clearly marked by the observance and devotion paid to Him by the Magi, also known as the Wise Men. Their remarkable story is found in Matthew 2. Who exactly were these visitors to the Christ child? There are some different speculations—perhaps members of royalty or nobility, astronomers, astrologers, or Zoroastrian priests. Where did they come from—after all “The East” is a rather vague geographical designation, isn’t it? Many scholars think they hailed from the region which would now be the country of Iran. But I want to think about the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus in relation to the Great Commission. Because 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. While we don’t know the precise origin of these mysterious visitors, we can probably assume that coming, as they do from “The East”, they are not Jewish. In Luke’s Nativity narrative we see Jesus’ birth being proclaimed by the angels to the humble shepherds. 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. 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.

 

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            In addition, 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, an important lesson that the Magi teach us is 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. And if we are willing to give ourselves to Jesus, to even sacrifice for Him, we can be sure that this is only in some small way, a response to the magnitude of the love that He has already demonstrated towards us. For as 1 John 4:19 tells us, “We love Him because He first loved us.”

 

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So as this Christmas approaches, I hope all of you can think about how a message of peace and hope has come into the world through Jesus. And just as God’s love triumphed over all the forces of evil thousands of years ago during a time of difficulty and turmoil, it can do the same today. But we all need to ask ourselves—what will our response to Jesus be? Will we respond in obedience, like Mary, and like Joseph, perhaps even during those times when we don’t fully understand God’s plan? And like the Magi, will we bring to Christ our gifts and our talents—will we bring Him our best? Because as I’ve tried to show you tonight, the message of Christmas carries a significance that is far greater than just a seasonal observance. It’s a story that begins with Creation, and continues into eternity. To accept Jesus’ love for you, and dedicate a life in service to Him would be to receive the greatest Christmas present that you could ever imagine. And committing yourself to Jesus’ love can enable you to be a giver, and someone who blesses others for all of your life. Our world today desperately needs to hear once again that ancient message of the angels, of peace on earth, and goodwill to men. This Christmas, will you receive that truth from God, and then share it with those around you??

 

Reformation Reflections

 

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October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the event that is generally considered by historians to have launched the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Posting proposals for public debate was a common occurrence in the university community, and Luther, a once-devout Catholic, and former monk and priest, as well as a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, did not intend to launch a theological revolution. But that is what ended up happening, as his ideas spread rapidly, spurred on by the relatively recent new technology of the printing press. The theological doctrines and mindsets that emerged from the work of Luther and his followers, as well as other Reformation thinkers, have made a profound impact on my own spiritual formation. This is not surprising, given that I grew up in a denomination, the Baptist Church, which can trace much of its spiritual lineage back to the Reformation. So on this momentous anniversary in church history, I thought it would be insightful to reflect a bit upon some of the spiritual legacy that I, and millions of other Christians have inherited from the pioneering work and thought of Luther. By no means will this post attempt to exhaustively cover all of the main teachings of Reformation theology, or of Luther himself. Rather I want to delineate some of those Reformation values that have been particularly significant for me, and at the same time underscore the Biblical foundation for all of these teachings. Because perhaps the single most important achievement of Luther was to encourage Christians to define themselves as a “people of the book”, who looked first and foremost to Scripture as the source for all of their beliefs and practices.

 

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Speaking of the Bible, one of the major tenets that emerged from the Reformation and the life of Luther was the idea of Sola Scriptura, Latin for “Scripture alone.” This is the concept that the Bible is sufficient in itself to serve as the authoritative guide to the Christian’s life and belief. One of the great things for me about the teachings of the Reformation is that we ultimately don’t have to be persuaded by Luther, or any other theologian about the validity of these teachings—we can go straight to the Bible for validation. And that’s true with the concept of Sola Scriptura as well. In numerous verses and passages, the Bible attests to its own authority as our guide for life. For example, Psalm 119, the longest of all Psalms, represents 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 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 the Bible, 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.”

Now, if the idea of Sola Scriptura may no longer seem revolutionary to us, that is a testament to how ingrained it has become in the life and spiritual outlook of many believers. But in Luther’s time, this was a very startling claim to make. After all, the Catholic church had built much of its theological framework upon the assumption that church tradition, and the teaching power of the Magisterium–that is the pope, bishops and the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, was an equal source of authority to Scripture itself. Furthermore, because the Bible was written in Latin, its actual message was inaccessible to all but the most educated classes of society. But Luther challenged these centuries-long patterns, because one of the things that troubled him the most about the Catholicism of his day was the extent to which it was endorsing practices which Luther felt did not have any real Scriptural basis. Luther felt strongly that if the Bible didn’t endorse a practice, there was no other human authority that could justify it. As he once wrote—“The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”

 

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In 1521, Luther, whose writings attacking the church’s corruption were starting to garner increasing controversy, and gathering 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. Anything else, even the proclamations handed down by the highest ecclesiastical authorities, was prone to error, and could not provide the basis for supporting our strongest spiritual beliefs and convictions.

Another doctrine which was closely related to Sola Scriptura was Solus Christus—“Christ alone”. This is the belief that Jesus alone is the mediator between God and man—not Mary, not the Saints, and not priests. Salvation comes through Christ alone, and every believer has the privilege of direct access to Jesus. A closely related doctrine that follows from this is the “priesthood of the believer.” If Christians do not have to go through a priest in order to have access to God, then it follows that all believers, at least symbolically, are priests. 1 Peter 2:9 is a strong verse in support of this doctrine: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Then in Revelation 1:5-6 we read “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” The conception of the priesthood of the believer is essential to understanding why Luther felt it was so important to translate the Bible into the vernacular. Because if all men were priests, then they all had the God-given right, and the power, as given by the Holy Spirit, to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This role of the Holy Spirit to aid us in spiritual understanding, which could naturally include the reading of the Bible, is based on the promise given by Jesus to His disciples in John 14:26—“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” With the power of the Holy Spirit guiding them, Luther was confident that any individual believer could find and practice spiritual truth as drawn out from Scripture. As he memorably wrote, “a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it”.

 

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Following the Diet of Worms, Luther was installed at the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Prince Frederick the Wise, and there, for almost an entire year he labored on one of the greatest projects of his life—translating the Bible into German. 19th century Swiss theologian and historian Philip Schaff wrote of Luther’s translation work: “The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction. It was a republication of the gospel. He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house. If he had done nothing else, he would be one of the greatest benefactors of the German-speaking race.” The fact that any one of us today can pick up a Bible, selecting one of the myriad of different translations we can understand best, to read and interpret it for our own personal devotion and faith practice is one of the timeless and indelible spiritual legacies bequeathed to us from the work of Luther and other reformers.

As we’ve mentioned, Solus Christus is the idea that Christ is the only mediator necessary between God and humanity, a teaching reinforced by several key Scriptures. 1 Timothy 2:5 states “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” In a similar fashion, we have the description of Christ from Hebrews 4:14-16—“Seeing then as we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Even as we accept that Christ alone is the means by which we are saved, another spiritual legacy of Luther and the Reformation is the way in which we understand the process of Salvation, and how we are saved. A major shift in the understanding of how we receive salvation is embodied in two other Reformation principles Sola Fide, and Sola Gratia, “faith alone”, and grace alone.” One of Luther’s most significant theological breakthroughs came from his reading and interpretation of 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.” Whereas traditional Catholic teaching had included good works as a necessary component of salvation, leading eventually to abuses such as the sale of indulgences, Luther, drew a different conclusion from Scripture, and reflection upon his own early experience as a monk and a priest. During his monastic days, Luther had spent obsessive hours in the confessional booth, terrified lest he forget a single sin and be unforgiven. He tried in every way possible to be a model monk, praying and fasting rigorously, but yet he still remained frightened of the potential wrath of God. Then, as a newly ordained priest, he struggled to perform his first mass, again fearful at the idea of God’s wrath coming upon him as a sinful man, unworthy to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ. The spiritual realization that put these fears to rest finally was Luther’s understanding that we could never be good enough to in any way earn God’s favor, or contribute to our salvation with our works. Instead, it was all based on faith alone—meaning that God has done all of the work through Christ on our behalves. As he stated: “This faith alone, when based upon the sure promises of God, must save us; as our text clearly explains. And in the light of it all, they must become fools who have taught us other ways to become godly. … Man may forever do as he will, he can never enter heaven unless God takes the first step with his Word, which offers him divine grace and enlightens his heart so as to get upon the right way. Among those verses that helped Luther in this understanding included Romans 1:16-17—“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘the just shall live by faith.” Then, there is Romans 3:28—“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law”, and Romans 10:9—“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” The doctrine of Sola Gratia is closely linked to that of Sola Fide, emphasizing that God’s unmerited favor is what makes our salvation possible, and that He is in no way responding to any innate goodness or merit that we’ve already displayed. Verses that support this doctrine include 2 Corinthians 12:9—“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly will I rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” And then Ephesians 1:7—“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”

 

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In addition to some of these significant points of Reformation theology drawn from the life and work of Luther, I want to share a few of his quotations that I’ve found personally inspiring and helpful in shaping my spiritual outlook. When it comes to having an overall rubric for Biblical interpretation, I’ve never heard a better one than Luther’s guiding principle of “what promotes Christ.” Regardless of where I’m reading in Scripture, keeping my thoughts centered on what will promote the message and spirit of Jesus is an excellent way to distill and apply the central truth of a particular Biblical verse or passage. This is another favorite Luther quote of mine: “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing, and he must do his own dying.” There is a cherished Baptist doctrine known as “soul competency” or “soul liberty” which effectively underscores the truth expressed in Luther’s saying. It is the idea that each individual must one day stand before God alone, and that no church affiliation or family status can affect or substitute for an individual accountability before God. In 2017 this may seem like a fairly standard spiritual concept—that we are all ultimately responsible for the state of our own souls, and no one else. But in Luther’s time it was a bold break from centuries of Catholic teaching that saw salvation as a corporate process, regulated by the sacraments and church membership. In the 16th century, excommunication was such a feared penalty because it represented not only being cut off from the fellowship of the church, but being cut off from heaven itself. Luther recognized however that no human ecclesial body could ultimately determine who did or did not have access to God, because in the final judgment, we will stand before God as individual men and women. Two Scriptures out of the many that support soul competency are John 3:17-18, and Hebrews 4:13. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Then, from Hebrews—“And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” Both of these verses emphasize an individual responsibility to God when it comes to understanding our salvation.

Another very insightful quote from Luther is this one: I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self. Now first of all, I share this not to in any way disparage the current Pope Francis, or other leadership of the Catholic Church. While I don’t share all of the same theological viewpoints as most Roman Catholics, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that they have come a long way in the last 500 years since Luther’s time in correcting some of the abuses and corruption that he spoke out against. But we have to remember that in the context of Luther’s time, when faced with excommunication and possible execution by the Catholic hierarchy, his usage of the word “pope” here is symbolic more than anything of an oppressing power, and a spiritual threat. And yet Luther perceptively realizes that despite the dangers he faced in running afoul of the powerful church hierarchy, the greatest threat, to his spiritual welfare in particular, was the sinfulness and self-centeredness that lurked within his own heart. It is a great caution, and one that is echoed repeatedly by the words of Scripture. Jeremiah 17:9—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?”. Then Proverbs 4:23 warns us: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” And then there are Jesus’ words from Matthew 15:18-19—“Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.”

 

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Finally, I could not conclude this post without mentioning that Luther is the author of one of my all-time favorite hymns, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” As did so many of the great hymns of old, Luther’s words and music stir in us not only the desire to worship God in song, but each line also represents a rich repository of Biblical truth. The general basis for the song is Psalm 46, but each verse focuses on a different aspect of God’s provision for us throughout life. Here is the first stanza: “A mighty Fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing/Our Helper He amid the flood, of mortal ills prevailing/For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe/His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate/On earth is not his equal.” This stanza assures us of God’s reliability, even in the face of Satan’s power, and all of the travails and tribulations that this life can bring. In the next verse, Luther elaborates more specifically on Christ’s role in saving and sustaining us through life’s pilgrimage: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing/Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing/Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He/Lord Sabaoth His Name, from age to age the same/And He must win the battle.” Next Luther talks about how Satan, though a fierce opponent, is one we can resist because we know his ultimate defeat has already been ensured. “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us/We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us/The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him/His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure/One little word shall fell him.” Then the last verse neatly summarizes a variety of themes that were key in the life and theology of Luther: the power of Scripture, priesthood of the believer, the primacy of Christ, and an abiding confidence in the truth of his reforms. “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth/The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth/Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also/The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still/His Kingdom is forever.”

500 years on, it’s clear that the theological breakthroughs of Luther and others involved in the Protestant Reformation continue to cast a long shadow. And as I mentioned earlier, perhaps the greatest part of this legacy, and one that Luther and his followers wouldn’t hesitate to reiterate, is that all of the lasting truths from the Reformation are really nothing so new or innovative, though they may have seemed that way in their day. Instead they represent a concerted effort to simply return Christians to that inexhaustible source of guidance and truth that has been waiting for us all along—the Scriptures. And so insofar as Luther or any other theological reformer from that period was able to leave a lasting spiritual heritage, it’s due to the fact that they remained faithful to Scripture and its message!

The comfort and challenge of following Jesus

With this month’s post, I want to address a very basic, yet critical question for all Christians to ask–why should we follow Jesus?? What exactly does it involve, and how might it affect your life? Doing ministry in a largely secular setting like Boulder, Colorado these last three years has constantly reminded me that as a Christian, I can never afford to assume that someone else appreciates or understands the value in identifying with Jesus and giving their lives over to His teachings. Now admittedly, the majority of non-Christians I’ve interacted with do express at least some admiration for the person of Jesus, and some of His ethical teachings. But that is still a far step removed from viewing Him as God, and as such someone worthy of worship and our entire life’s purpose. So the purpose of this month’s entry will be to examine both the comforts  and the challenges associated with following Jesus. I realize that some people come across my blog and they are not Christians, and might not even really know anything about Jesus or what His followers do. I hope that I can explain a little better about what it means to follow Jesus, and how that can bless you, and what that might cost you. Now obviously, spoiler alert here—I’m going to be advocating for people to consider following Jesus, and living in a personal relationship with Him. But I want them to understand why.

 

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Pete Carroll is the super bowl winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks. But before that, he made his name in the college ranks. From 2001 to 2009 he was one of the top coaches in college football, presiding over a USC Trojans team that won two national titles, and 97 games over a nine-year span. One big factor in Carroll’s success is that he was known as a tireless recruiter, always ready to sell the program and the opportunities it offered to new potential players. In a 2007 L.A. magazine profile, Carroll talked about his enthusiastic vision for what the USC football program could offer to a recruit. “I know what I’m offering. They can’t even conceive. They don’t—they can’t possibly understand how special—” And he stops there. Pete Carroll is at a loss for words to explain just how significant, important, special he thinks an opportunity to play football at USC is for a young man. Now that’s just a life decision regarding sports—what school to play football at, what color uniform to wear, what conference you will be competing in, etc. Imagine though a decision involving your spiritual life, one that could affect your entire worldview, how you treat others, and even perhaps gives you some answers to some of the biggest questions out there—what is the purpose of my life, and what might happen to me after I die?? I get pretty excited when I’m sharing with people about Jesus, and I sometimes feel like I don’t have the ability to fully describe how amazing it can be to have Him at the center of your life. It’s interesting, also to reflect that when Jesus called His initial group of helpers, known as the disciples, He didn’t give some big speech detailing everything they were going to do, and sort of outlining all that they were signing up for. Instead, He just said “Follow Me.” And I remember I had a professor in seminary who once remarked that these two words were simultaneously the most comforting and the most challenging words that Jesus could speak. Comforting and challenging? Seems like a paradox, doesn’t it? Well that’s what we are going to investigate for the rest of the evening.

 

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So first, let’s talk about what exactly it means to follow Jesus. That word, “follow” is a fairly vague, all-purpose term in our language today, with a wide variety of possible uses. You can follow a sports team—keeping up with their wins and losses, the players’ stats, going to see the occasional game. You can follow a celebrity on Twitter, taking note of what they post about, learning about their opinions on different events, seeing their pictures. Music lovers who have a little free time on their hands might follow a particular favorite band around, going to the concerts, and interacting with other fans along the way. In the classroom, you can follow the argument or line of reasoning of a professor as they explain a particular concept. But all of these various types of following are quite distinct from what we mean when we talk about a follower of Jesus. Because in every situation I’ve just described, to follow means to be a passive spectator, or listener. But to follow Jesus means not only to learn and absorb His teachings, but to actively participate in His work in the world today, walking in direct imitation of His life and attitude. Now one dominant theme that we see demonstrated throughout the life of Christ, and that should be equally prominent in the lives of His followers, is being a servant. Listen to Christ’s words in Matthew 20:28—“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Later, Paul writes about the humble servant attitude demonstrated by Christ in Philippians 2:7—“[He] made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Jesus teaches in many different ways about serving—one of the most notable comes in the form of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. This is the story of a man who sacrificed of his own time and money to help an injured traveler along the way, while other, supposedly more pious individuals simply passed him by. Another memorable example of Jesus’ servant heart in action comes from John 13, where even in the time leading up to His betrayal and arrest, Christ remains focused on the needs of others, to the point of washing the feet of His disciples.

 

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What else do Christ followers do? They teach, and instruct others in the truths of God. Scripture is full of “blocks” of teaching, where Christ sits down, and in great detail explains, whether to crowds or to His inner circle of disciples, what it is that God expects of them. Examples include Jesus teaching the multitudes about ethical standards for living in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, or in John 14-17, where Christ gives a detailed farewell address to strengthen and encourage the disciples before His own impending death. Throughout the Gospels we also see how Christ employs novel and thought-provoking illustrations, called parables, to help His listeners grasp what could otherwise be very abstract and challenging spiritual concepts. One such example comes in Matthew 13, which is actually a whole chapter full of nothing but parables. And when Christ teaches, He reaches a representative cross-section of the many different people in His society. He is not concerned only with the elites, or even just with the Jewish people. Jesus reaches out to everyone, from the highest to the lowest, and His teaching is for all to receive. He becomes somewhat notorious amongst the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, for spending time with societal outcasts such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and many Gentiles, or non-Jews. In response to their critiques, Christ says in Mark 2:17—“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” In John 4, Jesus takes a bold step by initiating a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. The Samaritans and the Jews were historic enemies, and in Biblical times it was highly unusual for unrelated, or unmarried men and women to converse together in public. But in doing so, Jesus boldly challenges the social conventions of His day, which did so much to separate people based on gender, ethnicity, and profession, thus reminding us that everyone is a child of God, worthy of dignity and respect.

 

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When we look at His interactions with people as a whole, we could summarize much of Jesus’ work, and teaching by saying that He comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable. I’m reminded of a description taken from the lyrics of an old Michael W. Smith song, “Secret Ambition” which talks about Jesus: “questioning those in powerful positions/running to those who called His name.” Again and again in the Gospels, we find Jesus coming to the aid of the powerless, and the persecuted. In John 8:7, Jesus rescues a woman caught in adultery, as an angry crowd is preparing to stone her, dispersing them with these powerful words in “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone first.” To all of His followers who might face affliction and challenges in the world, Jesus gives great hope, and comfort, as expressed in John 16:33—“In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” As we’ve already mentioned, Jesus sometimes has clashes with the religious authorities of His day, especially the Pharisees, who considered themselves to be the most observant of all Jews, and experts in all areas of religious law. And yet, from Jesus’ perspective, they often appeared more concerned with observing the letter, rather than the spirit, or actual intent of the law. For example, when the Pharisees chastise Him for the company He keeps with societal outcasts such as tax collectors, Jesus responds in Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’, which is itself a quote from the Old Testament prophets, specifically from Hosea 6:6. Jesus is frustrated with these religious leaders because He sees them missing the point of the law, in order to seek to enforce its exact detail. In another famous example of challenging the powerful, Jesus enters the Temple and in a holy fury, drives out all of the money-changers and business people who were using the outer area of the Temple to transact their trade. In Mark 11:17, He angrily accuses them: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a den of thieves.” Just as an interesting side note—a lot of people assume that Jesus drove out these figures because they were cheating worshippers and overcharging them for exchanging money, or buying animals for sacrifices. But another interpretation I’ve heard of this story is that Jesus drives them out because their activities are taking place in what was known as the Court of the Gentiles, an area outside the main temple, where Gentiles were permitted to come and worship. Jesus did not want their access to worship to be blocked by this makeshift marketplace that had arisen in the Temple complex.

The fact too that Jesus refers to the Temple as a house of prayer for all nations” is a further indication of another dominant trait of His life and work—and something subsequently that His followers should strive to imitate: a passion for evangelism. Throughout the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus has a message for all peoples, and not just the Jews. And He calls on His followers to continue to spread His message to all people, once His earthly ministry is concluded. The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:18-20, is well-known as Jesus’ final command. It offers a pretty clear mandate to His followers to go and spread the Word: “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.” So then people who identify as followers are Jesus are to never keep their faith a secret, or private matter, but rather they are to always look for opportunities where they can share it with others. Jesus accordingly advises in Matthew 10:32-33 that sharing a verbal witness is not just the responsibility of pastors or ministry leaders, but is something that all believers are called, and expected to do. “Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

 

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Followers of Jesus are also people of prayer. In all circumstances, regardless of what is happening in their lives, they communicate with God through prayer, directly imitating the life of Christ, whom, according to the Scriptures, spent frequent time with God in prayer, and often got up early in the mornings, or retreated away from the crowds  to a place of solitude in order to pray. In Luke 11:2-4, we find the model prayer given by Jesus, sometimes known as the Lord’s Prayer. But this is not to be followed slavishly or mechanically. In fact, in Matthew 6:7, Jesus cations “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Prayer, for the Christ follower then, should be personal and heartfelt, and never a matter of lip service or mechanical repetition. The attitudes displayed by Christians to those around them are very important too. Following the example of Jesus, who forgave even the very men who put Him to death as hung in agony on the cross, Christ’s followers are to be forgiving people as well. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Followers of Jesus are also to be men and women who display unfailing personal integrity. In John 8:44, the devil, Satan, is referred to be Jesus as “the father of lies”, and so in sharp contrast, followers of Jesus should be marked by their truthfulness. With this in mind, Jesus instructs us in Matthew 5:37 to not make oaths or swear by anything, but rather “let your yes be yes, and your no, no”. Lastly, but certainly not least, Christians are to be known as people of faith. We are told in Hebrews 11:6 that without faith it is impossible to please God, and a constant request by Jesus in His interactions with the disciples, and others is that they learn to demonstrate faith, trusting in God even when circumstances are difficult, and it is hard to discern a Divine plan. According to Jesus, exercising even just a little faith can make a huge difference. Matthew 17:20—“If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

 

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I could go on talking about what all it entails to follow Jesus, but now I want to shift gears into discussing the practical question of why?? Is it worth my time, my life, or anyone’s time, or life, to devote over to following the teachings of Jesus Christ? May I suggest at this moment what is known in the business world as a cost-benefit analysis? Let’s measure out some of the potential positives, and negatives to following Christ, and see where that leads us, see where we end up. Now I know some of you are already thinking, wait a minute Blake, you’re talking about a purely spiritual decision here—how can you possibly be making an allusion to business?? But a decision to follow Jesus gets us into the territory of what we call Lordship. This is the idea that for a Jesus follower—not only spiritual things, but every aspect of their life: relationships, finances, your career, even hobbies and how one spends their free time—these things should in some way all reflect one’s identity as a Christ follower. Recognizing the concept of Lordship means there’s no area of our lives that we should keep God out of, and that there isn’t a sharp divide between “sacred” and “secular” aspects of life—everything we do falls under God’s domain, and jurisdiction. In Luke 14:27-28 Jesus tells us—“Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it” So let’s look now at both some of the benefits, and some of the challenges and costs to following Jesus.

 

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In terms of the benefits that following Jesus can bring to your life, there are so many things I could talk about. But I’ll touch on just a few. First, following Jesus gives you a personal relationship with Him. Now some of you may be wondering exactly what this means. It means that following Jesus is not just an abstract process whereby you learn His teachings and try to honor and emulate them, the way you would a political philosophy. For the Christian, Jesus is not some distant exemplar from the ancient past, He is a living and ever-present source of inspiration, a guide to every facet of life, and most importantly, a Savior. We’ll talk more about that in a minute. But in John 10:4, a passage where Jesus is called the “Good Shepherd” the personal relationship Christ has to His followers is well-illustrated. “When He brings out His own sheep, He goes before them; and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.” This is why too, you might sometimes hear a Christian say,“it’s about a relationship, not a religion.” Jesus is a personal, every day presence in the life of the believer, a dear friend, and not someone you only encounter in church, or through certain rituals. In John 15:15, Jesus tells His disciples, “no longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know  what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” Note again the emphasis on a close, and personal relationship between Christ and His followers. Following Jesus and knowing Him personally also gives you purpose for your life. I think that’s something that everyone is looking for, but so often it eludes us. Now throughout the Old Testament, a big part of what gave purpose and order to the lives of the Jews was following the Law. This was an exhaustive code that basically governed how to act and behave in every conceivable facet of human life. But in Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus takes the 613 commandments of the law, and perfectly reduces them to two main commands. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

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We look at the world around us today, and read news of monster hurricanes, raging forest fires, North Korean nuclear threats, credit agency security breaches…and now most recently a horrific  mass shooting in Las Vegas. So amidst all of this turmoil and unrest, isn’t it nice to know that another major benefit of following Jesus is the peace that Christ brings to your life. The gift of peace is a promise that Christ offers to His faithful. Listen to Jesus’ words in John 14:27—“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” A wonderful Biblical example of Christ’s peace-giving power in action comes in Mark 4, when Jesus, traveling in a small boat with his disciples, calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee that threatens to capsize them. And when I think of Christian peace, I’m reminded too of a great story that my mother shared with me one time. A farmhand once arrived in a prairie town, and soon found work on a large family farm. He got along well with the owner, and seemed to be a dependable, reliable helper. Now one of the things the farmhand did every night, before going to sleep, was to make sure that the barn was shut up securely, all the animals were fed, and to double-check that all of his additional tasks for that day were completed. Well late one evening, a violent storm blew in–it sounded like it might be a tornado. So the farm owner awakened, and rushed out to check on things. Immediately, he went charging into the little building adjourning the barn where his farm hand was quartered, and he found the man asleep. Absolutely livid, the farmer yelled at him to wake up!! But the farmhand upon awaking was very calm, and simply told his employer that everything was safe and secure as it should be. The farm owner, still alarmed, rushed out to check on the barn and animals and everything else, and when he returned, he told his farmhand he was pleased, and apologized for his earlier outburst. The farmhand replied that he knew he could rest secure, even though the storm raged, because he had already completed his duties as instructed.

 

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The point of this little story is that Christian peace comes to us not when sit back and passively wait for it, but when we actively trust Jesus, and do those things He commands us to do. At the same time we must leave whatever is out of our control in His hands, and trust that He will bring about the right outcome in any situation. Following Jesus can bring you peace, and there’s all sorts of other ways it can positively impact your character and attitudes. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul lists out nine character qualities, called the Fruit of the Spirit, and these are qualities that all Christ followers should demonstrate. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Now let me just ask you—whether you’re Christian or not, whether you even consider yourself a spiritual person or not, don’t these sound like qualities you’d like to have in your life? One final benefit of following Jesus is the hope He gives us for the future, and indeed for eternity. Hebrews 13:8 assures us of the unchanging nature of Christ, as someone we can always put our faith and trust in: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Now as we just talked about a minute ago, following Jesus can bring you peace, and this peace is really tied into the idea that Christ, as our Savior, has overcome all of the sin, and the evil in the world…even death itself. Two of the most hopeful and comforting verses in all of Scripture can be found in John 11:25-26. There Jesus promises us: “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.” To be able to possess that lasting, powerful hope that even extends beyond the reach of the grave is perhaps for me the greatest benefit, the greatest blessing in following Jesus as my Savior.

 

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But as I mentioned at the outset of this message, I don’t want to just paint a rosy picture here. Everyone needs to know that following Jesus, as wonderful a journey as it can be, will come with a cost. And talking about this cost is something that Jesus never shrank back from doing. He offered full disclosure as it were regarding the potential difficulties and challenges to anyone who was considering becoming one of His followers. He once compared the path of following Him to taking a difficult road. Listen to Jesus’ caution in Matthew 7:13-14—“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” And why exactly can the way of following Jesus be so difficult? Well Jesus calls us to attitudes and lifestyles which are often at odds with what is popular or celebrated in the world around us. And being different can at the very least provoke misunderstanding and disdain from others…sometimes it can prompt an even stronger reaction, like hatred. Jesus warns us of this in John 15:18-19—“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” But the opposition that a Christian faces is not merely human in nature. There is a chilling verse in 1 Peter 5:8 that warns us of the powerful spiritual opposition offered by Satan. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” And you can be sure that the more you try to live for Jesus, the more Satan will seek to find ways he can undermine and attack you. I know it’s not popular to say so, but following Jesus can and will lead you into suffering. When Paul first converts, Jesus says in Acts 9:16—“I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” And you can go read in 2 Corinthians 11, in great detail about all of the calamities which Paul did endure for the sake of his allegiance to Christ.

 

 

 

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But in whatever suffering we face as believers, we can be comforted by the fact that Jesus has suffered first, both as an example for us, and ultimately on our behalf. 1 Peter 2:21 touches on this theme, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.” As former director of Christian Challenge here at CU-Boulder, Bobby Pruett, liked to say, “Jesus was raised up higher than any man could go, but He also had to suffer and be brought lower than any other man could have endured.” Now you may be thinking…wow Blake, this Jesus thing was sounding ok, but all of this talk of suffering, and Satan, and walking narrow roads…I’m not so sure any more. AI can certainly understand some of those thoughts. But just consider the fact that in other fields of human endeavor, people will gladly make sacrifices, even leading to death. In the mid 1960’s as the war in Vietnam raged, Army ranger Charlie Beckwith was called upon to establish an elite surveillance and reconnaissance unit that would operate in dangerous conditions well behind enemy lines. The assignment was called “Project Delta” and Beckwith’s recruiting pitch for it was simple. “Wanted: Volunteers for Project Delta. Will guarantee you a medal. A body bag. Or both.” Amazingly, he still got men to sign up for it! In 1836, Colonel William B. Travis, was in charge of the small garrison of Texans at the Alamo, and he knew full well that the military situation was increasingly bleak. So he addressed his troops. “We must die. Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death.” Travis saw three possibilities: surrender and summary execution, trying to fight out only to be “butchered” by Mexican lancers or “remain in this fort…resist every assault, and to sell our lives as dearly as possible.” Then Travis took out his sword and marked a line in the dirt. “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” Amazingly, so the story goes, every man but one crossed over the line to join Travis. Now in both of these historical instances, these soldiers were not compelled these to take on these missions. They could have declined, citing the high risk of death. But they willingly volunteered out of a sake of duty and love for country, and perhaps even a desire to obtain glory. So is it so strange that we might willingly choose to follow Christ, despite the challenges that might entail?? Because after all, the spiritual rewards for obedience to Jesus are much more lasting than any kind of earthly recompense one could imagine.

Perhaps the ultimate cost to following Jesus perhaps is not necessarily dramatic, visible suffering though. It’s just the daily, private choices we must make as Christ followers to continually deny our own selfish impulses, and always seek to put others first, to serve and be open-handed. This is what Jesus embodied throughout His whole life and ministry, as He says in Matthew 20:28—“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” So is it worth it to follow Jesus?? This is a question that ultimately you will have to answer for yourself. Certainly though I, and many others throughout history have felt that it is. But you must be prepared to go “all-in” as they say. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:24 that we have to make a decision about who we will commit to, and who we will serve with our lives. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches.” So the question is, if you don’t turn to Jesus, and if you don’t follow Him, who or what will you turn to and follow? Because we all are going to be looking to something to guide us in this world, to center our hopes and dreams around. Make sure that whatever it is for you, it’s something that is big enough and worthy enough to occupy your attention and your focus. Will you choose to live for something bigger than yourself?? To live for others, and for God? I urge you to count the cost in following Jesus, but also to count the potential cost for not doing so…for a wasted life that doesn’t leave you fulfilled in the end, and doesn’t utilize all of your God-given potential. Also please remember that regardless of your choices in the past, and even whatever choice you are making today, it’s never too late to turn back to Jesus—He will receive you, and in following Him you might just find everything else that you’ve looking for all along. Amen!