Biblical heroes: When the ordinary becomes miraculous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther

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

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

Jeremiah

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

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

Paul

AFA.net - Did Paul Invent Christianity?

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

Barnabas

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

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

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

Lyrical reflections for Advent, part 2

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

O Holy Night - Pat Dennis - Cokesbury Church

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirk Willems rescuing his captor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ Crucified–Diego Velazquez

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

A friend of mine–Mr. Charlie Lynn

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

 

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

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

 

Charlie with his dog Sandy

 

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

 

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

 

With Charlie and another great food shop volunteer, Jeff Mayton

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

 

Charlie and I during a visit at his home in Montgomery

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

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

 

Photo of Charlie as the young war hero

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Discipleship: The Good Fight

 

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

 

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

 

The New Evangelization and Discipleship | Mother of the Americas Institute

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Good Samaritan Parable Teaches About Love

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

 

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

Liszt

Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphonies, Deafness & Facts - Biography

Beethoven

 

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

First Baptist Church Pastor Jay Wolf | ALMetro360

Jay Wolf

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

A tribute to my parents

 

 

 

With my dad

With my mom

With my sister Jennifer

 

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

 

With my beautiful wife Melissa and our dog Milo

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

 

 

File:First Baptist Montgomery.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

First Baptist Montgomery–the old sanctuary

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

An appeal to heaven–dreaming of racial reconciliation

Racial Reconciliation Resources | Shepherd's Gate Church

Over the years since I started this blog back in 2014, I’ve posted about many different topics related to my spiritual life and ministry. Some months it’s been challenging to decide exactly what theme to tackle, while at other times I’ve had a clearer idea. But rarely, if ever, have I felt as strong a conviction as I do currently to address a concern, and unburden my heart. Like so many in America, I have been gripped by the extraordinary wave of social protests, and activism that has swept out nation following the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25th. It has been a little over a month since then, and with the rapid speed of the internet age have come many new startling revelations about the racial prejudices and divides that continue to undermine our ideals of being a nation of equality before God. Some of the largest public demonstrations in American history have taken place since Floyd’s death, in over 2000 cities, and spreading further abroad to more than sixty countries. These events have cemented the already vibrant Black Lives Matter movement further into the national consciousness, and have spurred discussions on race relations, police brutality and reform, the renaming of different institutions, and the taking down of various controversial statues and monuments. As with any mass protest and social movements, there have also sadly been some instances of violence or looting amidst mostly peaceful protests.

But in this post I want as much as possible to leave political commentary aside, and instead simply share some of my thoughts and reflections as a concerned American, and Christian. I’m appalled at the continuing pain, fear, and discrimination that so many African-American brothers and sisters still experience even in a 2020 America that would like to think we’ve moved past all that. I’m also troubled that as we move closer to November and another presidential election, we may see a return as a nation to late 2016, which was one of the most divisive political campaigns I can remember. Civil dialogue between partisan viewpoints is seemingly in very short supply these days, and reflects the deep rifts that have been exposed in our society during the last month. It is clear that significant portions of our population, in particular people of color still struggle to feel heard, valued, and protected under the law, and in our society in general.

I realize that so many voices have already joined in this conversation, and that even after taking time to collect my thoughts, I hardly feel qualified to say anything new or perhaps even helpful in addressing a time of such tremendous pain and turmoil. And yet I want and need to speak out because I desire my family and friends, as well as the students in my campus ministry, and my ministry’s supporters to know unequivocally where I stand when it comes to the topic of race relations and Civil Rights in today’s America. I know I’m joining in a conversation that’s been taking place across various social media platforms and equally in both large gatherings and individual households during these last several weeks. And this widespread national conversation on an often painful and difficult subject is a good thing I think. I firmly believe that the diversity of different voices, lived experiences, and viewpoints is what makes America beautiful and strong. I may not agree with every voice entirely, but I respect everyone’s freedom to be heard! But I also believe that the way we express ourselves now is vitally important. Civil dialogue must be preserved, even when it comes to hot button and delicate topics such as racial prejudice, white privilege, or systematic injustice. The ability to discuss these topics without resorting to demeaning or dehumanizing or opponents is the lifeblood of a healthy, and functioning democracy. Furthermore, to be able to hold such dialogue is a Christian duty for me. I love God’s invitation to us from Isaiah 1:18–“Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” What an extraordinary verse! We know from elsewhere in Scripture how much God abhors sin. And yet, out of love for humanity, a perfect and sinless God can still say this to us as deeply flawed individuals, or to ancient Israel as a sinful nation. Likewise, we who bear God’s image, and want to share the love of Christ, must always be willing to dialogue with others, even if they may hold views that we somewhat, or strongly disagree with!

 

God Sees the Heart — Grace Baptist Church | Anderson, IN–For God, it’s all about the heart!

However, this being said, seeking civil dialogue in no way means that we should condone hateful or bigoted viewpoints. In no uncertain terms, my Christian faith constantly reminds me that discrimination, prejudice, and racism, however veiled or subtle, have absolutely no place in our society!! As a follower of Jesus, I feel a strong moral duty not merely to ensure that I don’t harbor such prejudices myself, but to actively speak out against them while working to create a more just society for people of color, and all Americans. There are many different verses from Scripture I can cite, but here are just a few to remind us where God’s heart stands on the matter of racism, and how unacceptable it is in His sight. James 2:1 urges us: “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.” Equally convicting is the haunting question posed by 1 John 4:20—“he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” Paul then shares with us in Galatians 3:28 that our unity in Christ supersedes any attempt to divide or define people based on race, social status, or gender: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Perhaps my favorite verse in the entire Old Testament is 1 Samuel 16:7. Here we learn how God views people, through a special lens of love and spiritual discernment: “For the Lord does not see as man see; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Racism and prejudices of any form fixate our eyes on someone’s external appearance, while we then tragically miss the opportunity to see into their heart, and recognize them as a child of God. To be able to see into people’s hearts to the best of my ability, and to let them know how much God loves them, and wants to use their unique gifts and talents to make a difference, is one of my main goals in campus ministry.

But before I go any further, I want to issue this disclaimer—as a white person, I recognize that I have so much to learn about the negative experiences that many people of color in this country have suffered due to their race! I want to approach this topic with the utmost humility, recognizing that I’ll never be able to fully appreciate the pain and frustration that many African-Americans continue to experience, with the George Floyd case only serving to reopen these old wounds. Having never personally experienced racial discrimination, or been the victim of oppression because of my skin color, I understand that I must first devote much of my time to listening and learning, as I educate myself further about the realities of racial conflict—including at a systematic level, in the United States. Part of what inspires me in writing this post is a desire to empathize with the pain that I’ve heard expressed by two African-American students I have worked with in our CU Christian Challenge ministry–twin sisters Irmina and Ivana Clarke. They have been very active in our campus ministry during their whole time at the University of Colorado, and are two of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. They take their schoolwork very seriously, are close with their family, and are devoted to following Jesus! I’ve had the privilege of seeing them grow tremendously in faith during their time in college, including stepping out to challenge themselves in areas like evangelism. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet their parents. Their mother is from Benin, in West Africa, and treated our students to some of the delicious food from her homeland during one of our “Friday Night Thing” dinners. Irmina and Ivana are very proud of their African-American heritage, and have also been active in campus groups like the Black Student Alliance. I’ve heard both of them speak some before about the challenges of being minority students on a mostly white campus, but never so passionately as recently. I’ve gotten Irmina’s permission to share a few of the posts she recently made on one of our ministry’s group messaging apps. I think they reflect in a very real way how these racial divides in our nation affect not just the political and cultural landscape, but the lives of individuals. Here then are some of Irmina’s thoughts that I’ve collated, in order to share some of her perspective as an African-American woman, Christ follower, and university student facing continuing racial challenges in 2020:

“Something I realized is the misconceptions some people might have of the Black Lives Matter movement. It DOES NOT stand for Black supremacy,  nor violence or destruction. Black Lives Matter stands for equality…Another term that is often misunderstood is Pro-Black. It DOES NOT mean anti-White, anti-everybody else or black supremacy. It means supporting the well-being of Black people such as supporting Black owned business, supporting black culture and encouraging the Black youth.

Of course I believe that EVERY SINGLE LIFE IS PRECIOUS AND MATTERS. The statement “Black Lives Matter” NEVER said ONLY Black lives matter.  This was said because Black lives have been in jeopardy for so long and continue to be in jeopardy.”

 “I am not writing this message to attack, point fingers, and target anybody. I have prayed over this, and I believe that as a Black female who follows Christ I have the duty to educate and bring awareness to my non-Black friends because I live in this skin every single day and experience the oppression.”

 

Having heard from Irmina’s powerful firsthand perspective, I’d now like to deal with a series of issues that I think should very much be part of our current conversation and awareness when it comes to racial injustice in our nation. The first concerns acknowledging the existence of systematic racial injustice in America. As much as I’d like to think that America offers all its citizens equal and fair access/interaction with our various national institutions, the tragic case of George Floyd, and many other people of color, (whether their stories have been publicized or not) reminds us that this is sadly not the case. I used to think of racism more on an individual basis—i.e. a specific individual commits a racist action which is presumably an isolated aberration, rather than representative of larger systematic problems. As long as I believed this, I could also tell myself that we didn’t really have a “race problem” in the United States—such were the gains made in the Civil Rights Era, or as evidenced by the progress we’d made as a country to be able to elect a black president. And fitting in with this narrative, I could also tell myself that as long as racist actions weren’t overtly occurring, there was no need to look any deeper, or to probe beneath the surface to examine where racism might exist in American public, or private life. But I’ve now come to understand that racism is an uncomfortable part of the fabric of American life, and is woven very deeply into our historical experience as a nation. As a result, when we hear of racial strife, or find people expressing racist viewpoints, these are quite often symptomatic of deeper societal problems, and rifts that have yet to be fully exposed, let alone healed. Coming to accept that there is systematic racism in America by no means precludes me from still being proud of my country. After all, I can freely acknowledge many positive traits that are also deeply woven into American culture—our generosity, our willingness to dream big and celebrate innovation, our religious tolerance, our willingness to fight for the freedom of other nations, or our political stability, just to name a few. But a true patriot, and someone who wants to authentically love their country, rather than blindly defend it in a nationalistic sense, must equally acknowledge flaws alongside virtues. Because I love America, I’m willing to admit where we still have some room to improve, and our history of mistreatment towards people of color—such blacks, and Native Americans certainly leaves something to be desired.

Free Screening Of The Film 'Just Mercy' - 27 EastA still from Just Mercy

Just one example of the type of systematic injustice that we still struggle with is the challenge that many African-Americans face in navigating our criminal justice system. There’s an excellent recent film Just Mercy that highlights this plight, based on the true story of a young black lawyer named Bryan Stevenson. In the movie he works to exonerate his African-American client, Walter McMillian, who is on death row, falsely accused, as it turns out, for the murder of a white woman. The film underscores some of the different ways in which the typical black defendant may be disadvantaged or exploited in our criminal justice system. McMillian was actually sent to wait on death row in prison before his trial even began, and then the trial was moved to a mostly white county in Alabama to provide a more hostile jury. Finally, the presiding judge overruled the jury recommendation of life imprisonment to impose the death penalty—all of this when there was absolutely no physical evidence even linking McMillian to the crime! Walter McMillian’s case is sadly not an isolated incident however, as many African-Americans have suffered from substandard representation, and faced racist attitudes in our justice system. Factual evidence backs this up—consider that even though they make up only 13% of the population, black inmates comprise 42% of those on death row, and 35% of those who are eventually executed. Moreover there’s the horrifying statistic that between 1973 and 2016, 156 people have been executed who’ve subsequently turned out to be innocent! The fact that Just Mercy takes place in my home state of Alabama made the story all the more poignant for me. Just as we talked earlier about how surely God denounces racism from the pages of Scripture, He speaks with equal vehemence against all forms of injustice. Quite often it is the prophets who serve as His mouthpiece in this regard. Just to give a few excerpts: consider Amos 5:11-12—here, the Lord, speaking through the prophet, rails against the unjust practices which have become prevalent in his society. Therefore, because you tread down the poor, and take grain taxes from him, though you have built houses of hewn stone, yet you shall not dwell in them; You have planted pleasant vineyards, But you shall not drink wine from them. For I know your manifold transgressions,  and your mighty sins: afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate.” Or in a similar fashion, hear the lament of the Lord through another one of His prophets, in Malachi 2:9-10. “Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept My ways. But have shown partiality in the law.” Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another
by profaning the covenant of the fathers?”

 

Black Lives Matter protesters 

By fuseboxradio from USA – Justice for All March – Dec. 13, 2014, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89552414

 

Of course the nationwide protests the have filled the news recently have been in response to systematic injustice of another kind—specifically the very strained relationship between many in the African-American community and the police force, amidst widespread instances of unacceptable police brutality, such as involved in George Floyd’s murder. In acknowledging that fear and mistrust of law enforcement is a very real sentiment amongst many in the African-American community, I must also acknowledge that as a white person, it’s hard for me to imagine just what this pain and frustration must feel like. I’ve never known someone personally who felt they were a victim of police brutality, or who feared for their safety every time they had an interaction with a law enforcement officer. But so many black brothers and sisters struggle with this reality. That being said, I still believe the vast majority of those who work in law enforcement strive their best to protect the rights of all citizens. They have a difficult, dangerous, and stressful job, and many have given up their lives in the line of duty. One of my former students from the ministry at CU is preparing for a career as a policeman, and I’m very proud of him seeking be a Christian presence and influence in that community! But we can always strive to do better as Americans, and to ask more of the institutions, and public servants that we support!

First, I think we must acknowledge that tragic case of George Floyd was not an isolated event. Just a quick bit of research reveals similar incidents with Eric Garner, Manuel Ellis, Elijah McClain, Derrick Scott, and Christopher Lowe, just to name a few of the more high-profile cases from the last several years. The phrase “I can’t breathe” has entered into popular culture in representation of these horrifying scenarios where police brutality caused the death of a suspect (often during an arrest for a non-violent crime). In the wake of the George Floyd murder, and the protests that have followed, a new slogan to “defund the police” is being heard. I don’t like that phrase, believing it to be so intentionally inflammatory that many Americans will reject it out of hand without stopping to look at the rationale or ideas behind it. No doubt some activists who use this phrase are intending for a complete disbanding of police departments, which I do not agree with. Others however are instead calling for what might be better termed a divestment from policing, whereby cities could invest in other means of promoting public safety besides just funding an increased police presence. This could include more investment in social and youth services, housing, healthcare, education, and crime-prevention education. The goal would be to help get at some of the root causes of crime—including poverty, drug abuse, mental illness, homelessness, and lack of economic opportunity. Again, while in no way saying that police aren’t necessary or shouldn’t be supported, I think it makes sense to look at crime reduction on a broader scale, and for communities to think about committing some of their resources to agencies other than just the police force as they seek to create a safer environment for all citizens. Education to me is of such importance—if we can invest resources into helping our young citizens learn better values they may have a much greater chance of avoiding the lure of the streets and the crime associated with it. The wisdom of Proverbs 22:6 stands as true today as ever: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Given the high number of incidences of brutal police interactions with the African-American community, I think it very reasonable and indeed necessary that as citizens we call for our police to receive better training. I want to support the brave men and women who are serving us in law enforcement, and protecting our cities, just as we’d want to support our armed forces, and the challenging service they perform in defense of our nation. One resource that I believe it would wonderful to see more accessible and used in the police community is PTSD counseling and treatment. Like our servicemen and servicewomen, police officers are often subjected to a great deal of traumatic experiences during the course of their career. I want and hope that they can have the same resources to deal with the aftermath of such trauma as our veterans do, rather than having to carry around such emotions suppressed inside of them, possibly leading them to later not be at their best in their jobs. In addition, just as we want to hold every member of our armed forces accountable when it comes to how they treat prisoners and non-combatants, and just as we would want to rigorously prosecute members of military who’ve been accused of violations of their code of conduct, or possible war crimes, why wouldn’t we have the same high standards for our police forces? With this in mind, I think we must be willing to implement some systematic reforms within our police departments. This by no means is saying that we don’t support the police, but we want to support them more in fact, by seeing that they receive better training in order to potentially avoid some of the catastrophic scenarios that have unfolded between officers of the peace, and unarmed suspects over the past several years. Many different city councils and political groups have been discussing the topic of police reform recently, and have released statements or agendas to that effect. But one that I want to share comes from a group of peers—fellow ministers, in Texas. It was recently introduced to the Texas State legislature and was initiated by Dr. Joel Gregory, who was my preaching professor at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. Around 250 pastors and Christian leaders in Texas have already signed, including Dr. Todd Still, another former professor of mine and current Dean at Truett Seminary, and Rev. Matt Snowden, pastor at First Baptist Waco, my former church when I lived in Texas. I think it is a very well-worded and thoughtful document, which I can wholeheartedly support, and that I’d like to share here:

 

“The undersigned Texas Baptist pastors as initial signatories and those who will join with them wish to make public our concern for social justice in Texas focused on policing policies.

We affirm that most law officers in Texas are well intentioned, trained professionals who seek to do all in their power to treat persons fairly and with equal justice, risking their lives daily to do so. We express our concern that urgent and widely known social justice concerns call for a Texas legislative review of police training and practices, especially the use of unnecessary force in encounters with African Americans. We acknowledge that the death of George Floyd has focused the attention of all informed persons of good will on this singular issue. Indeed, it has created an unprecedented focus on this problem that calls for both religious and government leaders to attend to the matter with renewed urgency.

We observe that the members of our own congregations have expressed their intense individual concern in unprecedented numbers and with unmatched intensity. They wish us to address this issue both in pulpit and in practice. In heretofore unsurpassed numbers they wish to see change. In light of this, we the undersigned indicate our solidarity with thousands of persons in the 5,400 Texas Baptist churches, including 900 African-American churches, along with educational and institutional leaders of a number of Baptist universities, hospitals, schools, and eleemosynary institutions.

In this solidarity we call on the State of Texas to take legislative action in its 2021 session to review and as necessary legislate consistent policies binding on all law enforcement entities under its legislative oversight to prohibit the excessive use of force in police policies, especially the use of choke holds, that police be so trained, and that police be required by legislative law to report peers who use such abusive practices. At the same time, we express our respect for and confidence in those thousands of police officers who daily act justly, fairly, and humanely in the discharge of their duties.”

 

Sesame Street on Twitter: "Today we honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s ...Jesse Jackson and friends on the set of Sesame Street, 1972.

Of course so much of what I’ve been discussing in this blog post related to systematic racism, police brutality, and the continuing racial problems faced by our friends in the African-American community has been championed by the Black Lives Matter movement. I realize this is still a controversial group to many people, and I confess I wasn’t always sure what the movement stood for. However just from its size alone it is a group that all Americans are going to need to seek to better understand and appreciate. Participation in the 2020 protests against George Floyd’s murder under the BLM movement included estimates of anywhere between 15 and 26 million Americans, making it the largest mass social protest movement in American history. In addition, the activism of the BLM group has spread overseas to include many different countries. Now I don’t want to get too much into politics here, because as I mentioned at the outset, my primary desire is to look at the racial problems of our nation as a Christian, and from a faith-based lens. However, I do feel there are aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement that all Christians can and should support. Believing, as I do, from Genesis 1:27 that all human beings are made in the image of God, and believing from John 3:16 that Christ has died for the salvation of all—we know that we can’t ever meet another human being whom God hasn’t made with unique love and concern, and that Jesus did not shed His precious blood for! As a result, when any one group of people feels marginalized, oppressed, or dehumanized, we have a responsibility as Christians to share their pain, and advocate on their behalf.  I truly believe that the majority of those in the Black Lives Matter movement are not saying that only black lives are significant, and thus are not making any statements of racial supremacy, as is sometimes misrepresented in the media. I also have the conviction that the vast majority of those involved in BLM marches and protests are peaceful individuals. But of course, any time there is a mass movement with millions of people taking part, there will be some who use their participation as a cloak for looting or violence. But from a human rights standpoint, black lives most definitely matter because they are seen and cherished by God, even amidst the very real indignities they must often face in our society. I want to share from a wonderful poem that was written in the 1950s African-American pastor William H. Borders, and later famously quoted by Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson during an episode of the children’s television program Sesame Street in 1972:

“I am somebody, I am somebody. I may be poor, but I am somebody. I may be young, but I am
somebody. I may be on welfare, but I am somebody. I may be small, but I am somebody. I may make a mistake, but I am somebody. My clothes are different, my face is different, my hair is different, but I am somebody. I am black, brown, white. I speak a different language, but I must be respected, protected, never rejected. I am God’s Child! I am somebody!”

Amen to that!! Black lives matter, and in the words of Borders’ poem, they should be “respected, protected, never rejected.” As long as there are significant segments of the African-American community that feel this is not the case, as a follower of Jesus, I believe I am called to stand in solidarity with them.

 

5 Reasons to Visit Montgomery, Alabama - Skye ShermanThe Alabama River near downtown Montgomery, AL

Another potentially thorny topic that I want to briefly address here is the question of white privilege. I know this is a phrase that at one time I didn’t like to hear. I didn’t want to face the fact that not having had to think about my race or the color of my skin over the years is in itself a form of privilege. Acknowledging this sometimes means reexamining the lens of the perspective from which I viewed certain things in life. Take history, for example. Although I love to study history, and am certainly aware of the troubled racial past of my home state, these past wounds are not nearly as visible on the surface of my everyday life to me as a white person, as they might be for a black friend. I can illustrate this point with a quick scene from the 2019 movie Just Mercy which I’ve already discussed a bit. I recognized some scenes from the film that were shot on location in my hometown of Montgomery. I remember one particular instance where the central lawyer character in the movie is overlooking the placid Alabama River. It’s a landscape that I’m quite familiar with, and that to me simply looks like a lazy river flowing near downtown Montgomery. But where I see nature, for a black person with a sense of history, seeing the Alabama River near central Montgomery could be a painful reminder of the fact that in an earlier time in history, slaves were unloaded from steamboats on the river to be sold in a downtown Montgomery depot. Now when I talk about and accept the idea of white privilege, it doesn’t mean that white people everywhere have a life that’s “privileged” in terms of never having to face adversity or overcome challenges/obstacles, etc. Everyone must do that. But as a white person in America, I would be being dishonest if I did not admit that because of my skin color, I’ve been spared having to face some of the potential indignities or outright discrimination that a black brothers or sisters have experienced in their lives. Acknowledging white privilege also doesn’t mean I have to constantly be apologizing for acts of discrimination that I haven’t committed, but it does mean that I can acknowledge that a black friend most probably has had a more visceral and unpleasant experience with racial discrimination than I could ever imagine. I’m also reminded of a quote from Alabama native Coleman Young, who became famous as the first African-American mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994. On the topic of racism, he once said “Racism is like high blood pressure — the person who has it doesn’t know he has it until he drops over with a…stroke…The victim of racism is in a much better position to tell you whether or not you’re a racist than you are.” I agree with Young’s assessment insofar as I may have some inherent “blind spots” when it comes to race matters simply because as a white person, I haven’t had to worry about potential discrimination or prejudicial treatment on the basis of my skin color, and so I’m not as aware about how that would feel, or how it would affect my view of American society. To acknowledge that is to acknowledge my white privilege. This doesn’t mean I can’t contribute or have an opinion when it comes to conversations on race, but it does mean I want to approach them from a very humble, respectful place, especially when it comes to trying to empathize with some of the sufferings of the African-American community.

 

Watch Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at Stanford University about ...Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In thinking about writing this blog post, I’ve been revisiting some of the legacy left by central figures in the Civil Rights movement. I’ve watched some good documentaries of that turbulent 1960s era in American racial history, including Henry Louis Gates Jr’s And I still Rise: Black America since MLK and also King: A filmed record–Montgomery to Memphis. In addition to the great Martin Luther King Jr., I’ve also thought a little more about the legacy of Civil Rights figures like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. While Dr. King famously preached non-violence, Carmichael and Malcolm X thrived on much more incendiary rhetoric. And while I still don’t agree with their approaches as much, after watching these documentaries, I can understand better why men such as these two were so angry, and were able to gain a following. After years of feeling like their voices weren’t being heard in America, many blacks found it cathartic and liberating to hear people talking about them no longer as victims who needed protection, but as a proud people who could unite en masse and stand for black power. Most blacks who heard this message weren’t literally wanting to use force to achieve their political means, but they wanted to know that there was someone out there who understood their rage and frustration at an American society they felt had systematically failed them. But interestingly enough, even though Dr. King, to his unfailing credit and as a powerful testament to his Christian belief, never endorsed violence, that never caused him to shy away from speaking out forcefully against white racism. A legendary orator, King could use his words as weapons. For example, early 1967, he wrote: “The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” While King welcomed white participation in his movements and marches, he was consistent in calling out institutional racism, and also in desire to shake up those same white people who were perhaps too self-satisfied when it came to the state of race relations in the United States. Dr. King was also unafraid of extending his criticisms to American foreign policy. He became a strident critic of the Vietnam War, which he saw as immoral and a drain from on resources that could have been better spent on domestic concerns. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s impressive array of social programs (the so-called “Great Society”) suffered as a result of our enormous expenditures in Vietnam, to the point that King once remarked: “the Great Society has been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.” As he began to widen the topics of speeches to include not only Civil Rights concerns, but also America’s role in the wider world, King fell astray of criticism from many former supporters. To such people he once brilliantly remarked: “Wouldn’t it be absurd to be talking about integrated schools without being concerned about the survival of a world in which to be integrated …For those who are telling me to keep my mouth shut, I can’t do that. I’m against segregation at lunch counters, and I’m not going to segregate my moral concerns.” Thus we see from King’s life and work the extent to which he fulfilled in many ways the role of a 20th century prophet, and the description from that old adage about the prophetic role—to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable, is a very apt description for the man and his message.

 

Colin Kaepernick on Time Magazine | Sports Eye | stlamerican.com

While not comparing him directly to Dr. King, because the context and nature of their work has been very different, we can’t deny that one of the best-known contemporary Civil Rights activists in America is a man once known primarily for his exploits on the football field—Colin Kaepernick. But ever since the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback began taking a knee when the national anthem was played during the 2016 NFL season, he has become a lightning rod for controversy and debate. Kaepernick has publicly stated many times that his kneeling gesture is to express his displeasure at the racial injustices that are still prevalent in our society. However many commentators and politicians took his stance as somehow intending to disrespect veterans and the American military. Yet interestingly enough, after initially carrying out his protest by remaining seated during the anthem, Kaepernick found an unlikely conversation partner in Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret, who’d played college football at the University of Texas, and also had a brief stint in the NFL as a long snapper with the Seattle Seahawks. Kaepernick had seen an op-ed piece that Boyer had written about his initial protests, and to his credit he wanted to meet with the veteran to discuss their differing viewpoints on the issue. Boyer suggested that if Kaepernick wanted to continue his protests, he could do so more effectively by kneeling. As Boyer would later reflect: “In my opinions and in my experience, kneeling’s never been in our history really seen as a disrespectful act…I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects. So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful.” Again, I’m not claiming to agree with everything that Kaepernick has said or done, but we cannot deny that his simple gesture of kneeling during the anthem has forced all of us to reconsider where our country is, and where we might want it to be. I think his actions have often been misinterpreted as those of someone who “hates America.” But I believe he’s kneeling because he loves our country, and wants it to change. The context of his meeting with Boyer certainly should let us know that Kaepernick’s intention was never to disrespect members of the U.S armed forces. And in the end, whether we like his gesture or not, the flag itself is not our liberty, but a tangible symbol of it. And part of that liberty that enjoy as Americans is the freedom to personally protest. Whether I fully agree with all of Kaepernick’s platform is not the point. He has the right to protest, and it takes courage to do so in front of millions on national television, knowing that so many of them will vilify you immediately without any further context. People like Kaepernick may make me feel uncomfortable sometimes because of their viewpoints, but that’s ok! Again, without comparing him personally to anyone else, it’s a little bit similar to the feeling I have sometimes when I read the Old Testament prophets. They challenge me, and shake me out of whatever smug self-satisfaction I may be feeling to let me know that justice has not yet been obtained, and that both I personally, and our society still has plenty of growing to do, and progress to make.

 

Amazon.com : Small Flag An Appeal to Heaven Flag also called the ...

Well, this has been a long and emotional post tow write, and it’s time to wrap up. But as I do so, I want to reflect briefly on the title I choose. “An Appeal to Heaven” was the motto found on a flag which dated back to 1775 and was used by the forces from the Massachusetts colony during the American Revolution. As I stated at the outset, the primary inspiration for me to write this post is my faith. And in Revelation 7:9-10, we get this amazing glimpse into the Throne Room of heaven. “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Heaven, the Bible is clear, is going to be a very diverse place! So as a follower of Jesus, it is this “Appeal to Heaven” that I have in mind when I seek to speak out against racism, and search my heart to find out what my role may be in promoting a more just and equitable society for all of my fellow Americans. Politics is a necessary vehicle for many of these changes to occur, I admit, but at the same time what inspires me to continue is faith, not politics. In my hometown of Montgomery, there is a moving memorial to forty-one brave individuals who lost their lives during the struggles of the Civil Rights Era from 1954-1968. Part of the memorial is a black granite face, over which water continuously streams, and there are emblazoned words used by Dr. King during his immortal 1963 “I have a dream” speech, which are themselves drawn directly from Scripture—Amos 5:24—“But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” King saw his dream of a better America through the eyes of his Christian faith, and it is this same faith which inspires me to pray for healing, racial reconciliation, and the hard societal changes that all Americans should be prepared to support and enact, to ensure that all Americans feel equally supported and represented under the flag of our great nation. To support this work I believe, is an extension of my Christian witness, and I cannot but think that as we work for justice and equality, more and more people will come to see and experience Jesus in the midst of it!! Join me in praying for racism to end in America, and to dream of the Revelation 7 portrait of a multicultural multitude we can look forward to one day joining before the throne of King Jesus!

 

Divine discernment

File:Which Way to Go^ - geograph.org.uk - 1090264.jpg - Wikimedia ...

 

After six years on staff with Christian Challenge at CU-Boulder, I recently made a big decision to transition to a new position at the Colorado School of Mines. Now, instead of being an associate staff member, I am becoming the director of the Christian Challenge ministry at the School of Mines, which is an opportunity that my wife and I are very excited to embrace! And yet, the decision to leave CU was very difficult. I can honestly say that I spent six of the happiest years of my life there, working with a group of outstanding staff members, and a whole host of talented students. So why make a change now? To answer that question, I want to share some insight into how I approach the decision-making process, utilizing a Biblical framework, as well as aspects drawn from my own experiences over the years. I hope sharing some of this will prove helpful to others, because during my years in ministry, some of the most commonly-asked questions I hear relate to people trying to make decisions. Sometimes these can be very specific choices, such as I just made about whether to take a particular job opportunity, but they can also be much broader, along the lines of “what is God’s will/direction for my career?” Perhaps the decision in question has to do with pursuing a relationship, or how to utilize finances . Regardless, I think there are certain parameters we can use to help us make decisions that will be God-honoring. Keep in mind that what follows is by no means my attempt to provide an exhaustive list of spiritual tools or resources for decision-making. Rather this list is a mixture of basic principles and ideas that I’ve found useful both in making specific, and more broad decisions. I’ve referred to this list recently in making my decision to go to the School of Mines, and earlier in my life, when I was trying to discern whether God was calling me into a vocation in full-time ministry.

 

 

File:Brooklyn Museum - Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray ...

Before looking at some of the specific steps that I find helpful in Biblical decision-making, I want to first think about some“prerequisites”. These are things that, before we even attempt to start the decision-making process, can prove helpful in terms of shaping our mentality and preparing ourselves for discernment. The first prerequisite is to maintain an attitude of prayer. One of my new year’s resolutions this year, which I blogged about a few months ago, is to be more consistent in daily prayer. And while it’s certainly beneficial to infuse our lives with prayer on all occasions, this is particularly helpful when it comes to making decisions. Here is one Biblical example, which gives insight into Jesus’ decision-making protocol from Luke 6:12-13—“Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles.” In this critical moment before He selected His closest followers, Jesus turns to prayer—an all-night prayer vigil in fact. This truth begs the obvious point—if the Son of God feels the need to bring His decisions before God in prayer, how much more so do we need to do so!!

 

 

967 BC: King Solomon the Wise

As we think about prayer in decision-making, a couple of other points may be helpful to keep in mind, related to how we should pray during a time of discernment. Certainly when we pray, it’s good to know just exactly what we are asking God for, and when it comes to decisions, I believe there’s nothing better we can petition for than the granting of wisdom. Here, we should follow the example of King Solomon, who, during his dream at Gibeon, made the following request of the Lord, in 1 Kings 3:9—“Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people– that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” Solomon of course became famous for his wisdom, but how interesting that his initial request had less to do with the mere acquisition of knowledge, and more to do with adopting the right heart attitude. Biblical knowledge always has this heart component, and moral dimension as reflected in another quotation of Solomon, from Proverbs 1:7—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Another great piece of advice which I heard regarding the attitude we should have towards making decisions is from a source/talk which I unfortunately cannot now recall. But the emphasis was on keeping one’s “heart in neutral.” To me, this means preventing one’s own desires or wishes from speaking so loudly that we can’t actually discern when God might be telling us something different from what we might want or hope to hear. In Scripture, the heart is seen not only as a seat of emotion (which is how we usually envision t in today’s Western culture) but as the seat of the collective will and desire of an individual. But in contrast to frequently heard maxims of today such as “follow your heart”, the Bible doesn’t always describe the human heart in the most laudatory terms. Corrupted as it is by our own sin and selfishness, we can understand the more sobering depiction of the heart we get from Jeremiah 17:9—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Another way of thinking about “heart neutrality” is that we don’t want to have our minds stubbornly made up beforehand, and then pray only in the hopes of receiving confirmation for our prior decision from God. Thus we can learn from the bad example set by King Rehoboam, son and successor to Solomon in 1 Kings 12. Rehoboam has a chance to continue the United Monarchy, and to build on the legacy left by David and Solomon. But he is facing a revolt of the ten northern Tribes of Israel led by Jeroboam. Rehoboam consults some of the elders, and they advise him to rule with moderation and adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the would-be rebels. But he then seeks out a group of younger men, who advise him to take a hard-line approach, filled with threats of tyranny and violence. Rehoboam takes the hard-line position, and not surprisingly, this attitude causes those in the nascent rebellion to harden their resolve to resist, and the Kingdom of the Jews is fatally split. Through this whole episode however, one gets the impression that Rehoboam had his mind made up all along, and was only seeking to find that group of advisors whose viewpoints would line up most neatly with his own. His consultation of the elders was a mere formality, because entering into the decision-making process, his heart was not in neutral, but was already decided.

 

The first step in a God-honoring decision-making process is to ensure that our decision is consistent and in line with God’s Will as expressed in Scripture. Or to put it another way—we should never make any decision that goes against the teachings of the Bible. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but as Christians the entirety of our lives, and not just our decisions, should be subject to the rule and correction of Scripture. Otherwise, we run the risk of basing our lives on a shifting source of truth—such as our own opinions. Of course not every decision we will make will encompass such a sharp potential contrast between right/wrong. But making decisions using a Biblical filter will help safeguard us from straying towards anything that could potentially be dangerous. Hence the desire of the Psalmist in Psalms 119:11—“Your word I have hidden away in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” Consulting Scripture gives us a powerful safeguard against being led astray by a deceitful heart, and against the natural “blind spot” that we all have, when we fail to recognize how desires that come purely from ourselves can be twisted around by Satan to lead to bad ends. As Proverbs 14:12 starkly warns: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

 

The Hidden God Disclosed—1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 ...

After checking with the Bible, another parameter that can help us to make God-honoring decisions is to gauge how frequently a particular choice or option comes up when confronted with different possible decisions. This rubric was helpful for me both when I initially decided to go into full-time ministry, and in deciding to take the Director’s role at the School of Mines. Sometimes people fear that if God is calling them to something, they could possibly “miss” His direction. But I believe that if God is leading us towards a specific decision, He will help to confirm that by repeating that calling over time. My calling from my career path of becoming a history professor into full-time ministry is one that evolved slowly over a period of some four years. During that time, God spoke into my life not just once, but repeatedly, such that I could not mistake His direction. And then with the decision to go to the School of Mines, there was also a repeated element. When I decided to accept the position this spring, it marked the third time actually over a nearly two-year period that I had had a conversation with our State Director about the possibility of me moving to Mines. There is a Scriptural example that I like to cite in this regard too from the story of the young Samuel. In 1 Samuel 3, the boy serving in the temple along with the older priest Eli is awakened at night by a voice calling him. Assuming it’s Eli, Samuel goes to him three different times, only to finally realize that it is in fact God who is calling him, marking the beginning of Samuel’s prophetic career. God’s voice is distinctive in this story, because it is persistent.

 

God’s direction for our decision-making is also often confirmed by others in our lives. As Proverbs 11:14 reminds us: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” One of the first things I did when I started thinking about taking the Director’s role at Mines this spring was to consult with a variety of different people close to me, whose opinions I highly valued. Of course I knew that ultimately I would have to make this decision on my own, but I was looking to see if I could find any common consensus in the views of those around me. I talked with ministry co-workers, as well as close family, and of course my wife. These were all people whose opinions I really valued, and who I knew had my best interests in mind. When polling the viewpoints of others, of course one always runs the risk of getting contradictory pieces of advice, but in this case, everyone was in agreement, supporting the idea of me taking the new position. But even if getting advice from others doesn’t produce a consensus favoring one particular decision, it can at least help to uncover if there is any factor with the decision that you’re overlooking.

 

 

Jacob's Dream Artwork By Domenico Fetti Oil Painting & Art Prints ...

Another facet of decision-making that I like to think about is one that I’ve borrowed from a longtime ministry mentor—Jay Wolf, the pastor of my hometown church, First Baptist Montgomery. Jay talks about being able to project a potential decision into the future with your “sanctified imagination.” In other words—can you envision yourself taking this step, and embracing where it may lead you in the future? Along with this use of imagination, I believe it’s helpful to think in terms of how following through with a particular decision may allow you to employ the unique gifts and talents that God has blessed you with. The Lord may have designed a particular opportunity precisely with you in mind, one that wouldn’t necessarily fit someone else, but does go along with the way that He has specifically created you. When Jacob fled from the wrath of his twin brother Esau in Genesis 28, and then wearily stopped to spend the night at Bethel, he scarcely could imagine that God was about to give him a powerful vision of the future to ponder in his own “sanctified imagination.” But that’s precisely what happened, as Jacob had his famous dream of the ladder to heaven, along with God’s promise to be present with him, and lead him to continue in the spread of the Covenant first promised to his grandfather Abraham. For all of the adventures that would come afterwards, Jacob had a preparation, and a confirmation that the Lord would guide His steps. Can we say the same before we make the final call on a momentous life choice?

 

 

Which Way to Go: Code One Presenters Help You Select Which ...

Finally, I’d like to mention one other aspect to decision-making that I’ve found helpful. I first heard about this in a talk from Brian Carlucci, the pastor at Cornerstone Church in Boulder. Often we view decisions as a stark choice—behind one door is the right path leading to happiness and the fulfilment of God’s Will, while if we choose another door, we find only unhappiness, and maybe even risk departing from God’s plan and purpose for our lives. While this image can sometimes describe the situation at hand, very often the difference between two or more different choices isn’t quite that dramatic. Moreover, holding such a view in regards to the decision-making process could cause us to become afraid to make a choice at all, because we are so fearful of the consequences of a wrong decision. We turn the possibilities over again and again in our heads, looking at them from every imaginable angle, but never arriving at a point of decisiveness, leading to what many term the “paralysis of analysis.” But what if there are times in which God has set before us a number of equally “good” decisions, and the only question is, how will we choose to involve Him in our choices, and even more importantly, how will we follow through with them? Many of us have heard the old axiom that it’s not always about making a good decision, so much as it is about making our decisions good. I think there’s a lot of truth to this point. Thus, as we pray to God for wisdom about making a good decision, we should also be praying to Him for wisdom in how we apply and begin to act upon the decision that we eventually land upon. I can look back at my own career in ministry, and recognize that there are probably several different ministries or churches that I could have served with, and in all of these positions I could have been within God’s will and plan for my life. And I don’t think now that me leaving CU is the only acceptable way for me to remain faithful to God’s calling. I could go to Mines, or stay at CU, but with either decision, what is more important is making sure that I involve God, and rely on His wisdom, at every step. Those classic verses from Proverbs 3:5-6, beloved by so many, express this sentiment well: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” May God direct, and be at the center of, all our decisions, large or small, and may we seek to honor Him through our deliberations and our choices, because following His path is the surest route to our own joy and fulfillment. Amen!!

Jesus is alive! Continuing the story

 

Jesus' Resurrection Left a Footprint Within History • Marian ...

Just a few weeks ago, Christians around the world celebrated Easter. And while churches in many countries remained shut because of COVID-19, no pandemic could curb the overflow of joy that believers experienced as we relived the miracle that happened that Sunday long ago, when Jesus triumphed over the grave, and proved for all time that death could not hold Him, or us, if we put our faith in the Risen Savior. But I’ve titled this post “Continuing the Story” because I want to look specifically today at the different reactions that the Resurrection elicited in Jesus’ followers. How did they respond to the defining event of their lives, a moment after which they would never be the same?

 

Tardelli celebration WC 82' | Coupe du monde, Affiches de football ...

The date was July 11, 1982, the World Cup final in Madrid. Italy and West Germany were pitted against one another in this final battle to determine soccer supremacy. Marco Tardelli was a defender on the Italian team, and playing at his position one usually didn’t score too many goals. In fact during 81 appearances for the Italian national team, Tardelli only scored 6 times total. But one of those goals came during the second half of a World Cup final. And as Tardelli struck a hard left-footed shot from just outside the penalty area that rocketed into the top right corner of the net, his life was changed forever. His manic, joyful scream, and frantic run of celebration has lived on in the decades since, and if you YouTube “Marco Tardelli” goal, I think you’ll agree that it’s one of the purest expressions of joy you can find on video. Tardelli himself said “After I scored, my whole life passed before me – the same feeling they say you have when you are about to die, the joy of scoring in a World Cup final was immense, something I dreamed about as a kid, and my celebration was a release after realizing that dream. I was born with that scream inside me, that was just the moment it came out.” Tardelli has further discussed in other interviews how scoring that goal was something akin to a spiritual experience. He now even views his life in terms of before and after that goal. And all this, just for putting a soccer ball into a net! Yet we’ve all had life-changing moments too…an instant in which, looking back, we could say our life could be measured in a before-and-after that unforgettable moment. Maybe it was that fateful first date with the man or woman who ended up becoming your spouse. Or the time you held your firstborn child in the hospital. Maybe it was receiving a medical diagnosis that forever altered the trajectory of your life, or maybe you heard a sermon in church, and God so touched your heart, that you made a spiritual decision which has marked your life’s progress from now until then. For the followers of Jesus, a life-defining moment arrived on that long ago Easter Sunday. As we think about how they were changed by this indescribably unique event, our discussion will lead to the question of what we might do as we hear again the age-old story of the One who defeated death on our behalf. How does the Resurrection change us personally and what is our next step, after Easter Sunday? How does the story continue?

 

Was Jesus Married to Mary Magdalene? Revisiting a Stubborn ...

Among the first reactions we see to Jesus’ Resurrection in the Scriptures is that many doubt. This shouldn’t be too surprising for us. After all, a man returning from the grave is not exactly an everyday event, in any age. But one thing that is critical for us to note here is the specific form that Christ takes upon His return from the grave. Throughout time, there’s been lots of stories of people seeing phantoms, hearing strange sounds, or otherwise finding some type of evidence that a friend or loved one may have survived on after death. Yet the Gospels make this point very clear—that Christ does not return as a ghost or spirit, or some sort of ethereal presence that perhaps an overactive imagination could have conjured up. No, it’s clear from Scripture that He has come back in a physical body. In Luke 24:39, Christ assures the disciples of His corporeal reality. “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” However, despite all this, there is still a good deal of skepticism amongst Jesus’ followers at the time of His Return from death. As you may recall, the first people to witness Jesus miraculous Resurrection weren’t in fact the 12 disciples, but some of the women who had been His followers. They behold the Risen Jesus, but then according to Luke 24:1-10-11, their subsequent story of this incredible event is met with incredulity by the very men who we might think would accept it–those who had walked with the Lord during His time on earth, and had even heard Him predict this event. “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.” Yet it wasn’t just the women who weren’t believed. Mark 16:12-13 narrates how two other unnamed followers of Christ, presumably Apostles, had an encounter with the Risen Lord that was also not accepted by their brethren: “He appeared in another form, to two of them as they walked and went into the country. And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe.”

 

Doubting Thomas - Wikipedia

Of course the most famous doubter of all was the Apostle Thomas. According to John’s Gospel, Thomas had not been present when Jesus had initially appeared to all the other disciples. But even their collective word was not proof enough to convince him. John 20:25—“Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Now perhaps what is most interesting about Thomas’ story is what happens when he finally does see Jesus. Whereas at other times in the Gospels we see Christ rebuking others for a lack of faith, He doesn’t do that here. Instead, Jesus tells him in John 20:27—“Reach your finger here and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Jesus then adds in John 20:29—“Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus demonstrates to Thomas and the group the necessity of having faith, and yet He seems willing to make a bit of a concession too. He realizes how extraordinary it is to expect these men to fully grasp and accept what has happened. As we pause to consider this first reaction to Jesus’ Resurrection—disbelief and doubt, I think if we’re being honest, we can probably recognize in ourselves these same attitudes. I remember a few months ago hearing a song performed in our church called “Doubting Thomas.” Later I found that it was written back in 2005 by the band Nickel Creek. But right there in the moment as I heard it the first time in church, my eyes began filling up with tears. I wasn’t even sure exactly why, but afterwards I found that my wife had a similar reaction. The lyrics are deeply moving, precisely I expect because it was so easy to find myself identifying with the singer. “What will be left when I’ve drawn my last breath, besides the folks I’ve met and the folks who know me/Will I discover a soul saving love or just the dirt above and below me?/I’m a doubting Thomas–I took a promise/I do not feel safe–O me of little faith… Can I be used to help others find truth, when I’m scared that I’ll find proof that it’s a lie…Please give me time to decipher the signs, please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted/I’m a doubting Thomas–I’ll take your promise/Though I know nothing’s safe–O me of little faith” Haven’t you been there before—haven’t we all? And yet, these very doubts can drive us forward. American theologian, pastor, and writer Frederick Buechner famously put it this way: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” This certainly proved true for Thomas. Because the apostle who had once doubted later found the strength to carry Jesus’ name and message into a distant part of the globe. According to early church tradition, Thomas became the first Christian missionary to India, and there are still groups of native believers there today who can trace their spiritual lineage back to him. He would be martyred in India, around 72 AD, a doubter no more, and his conviction and allegiance to Jesus sealed forever in blood.

Another, slightly more curious reaction to the Resurrection we see in Scripture is that Jesus is raised, and people fail to recognize Him. Have you ever failed to notice when God was trying to get your attention, and perhaps Christ was right there in your midst? After all, Jesus does tell us in Matthew 25 that the ministry of mercy and compassion to others can very well be a ministry to Himself in disguise. I read about a fascinating experiment that was once carried for a social psychology class at Princeton University back in 1970. Seminary students were asked to prepare talks on a variety of Biblical talks, and then were told to deliver the talks at different buildings around campus, their schedules being set with varying degrees of urgency and time restraints. But in route to deliver the scheduled talk, each student passed an actor who was posing as a victim in need of some assistance. The experiment tried to quantify and understand what factors, such as the perceived importance of the talk or constraints of the schedule, affected the willingness of students to stop and help their fellow men and women. And just to add an extra layer of irony, some of the seminary students were assigned to give a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan! I wasn’t able to find the actual statistics for how many people stopped versus those who ignored the victims hurry to their assigned locales. But before we jump to the conclusions about how we surely would have stopped, and helped, remember the last time, and honestly it probably wasn’t that long ago, that you or me didn’t fully practice and live up to the Christian ethic we espoused.

 

 

Walking with Christ: Do you know the way to Emmaus? | United ...

Jesus can be in our midst, and sometimes we don’t recognize Him. We’ve already mentioned how the Resurrected Christ is by no means a ghost or spirit—Scripture makes it quite clear He is in a physical body. At the same time, there is something different about this New Jesus. Paul talks later in 1 Corinthians 15, that great chapter on the Resurrection, how our bodies will be changed when we are reborn after death. We know that Jesus’ Body, while still recognizably His own, had some different properties when He returned to life. He could appear and disappear at will. Perhaps this is why in cases people didn’t recognize Him. Or maybe it says more about our natural human incredulity—how could this person, even when He is right in our midst, and He looks like Jesus and in fact is Jesus…but how could He really be, because after all, we are not expecting anyone, even the miracle worker from Galilee, to make it back from the dead! In John 20, Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’ tomb and is weeping, but then after a brief conversation with two angels, she turns around to see a strange man there, who is in fact Christ. But Mary initially thinks He is the gardener, a mistaken identity which would be almost humorous if not for the gravity of the occasion. But she then knows Him in John 20:16 because Jesus calls her by her name. He then further tells her in John 20:17—“Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.” Note the personal connection between Jesus and Mary here. Christ knows His own, and is in turn known by them, just as the God that Jesus brings us into relationship with is not only His God and Father, but ours too. Another fascinating encounter with the Risen Christ is found in Luke 24:13-35, the famous meeting on the road to Emmaus. A follower of Jesus named Cleopas as well as another unnamed disciple meet Jesus in route from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and once more, they don’t recognize Him. This time, Christ’s identity remains hidden for quite a while, as Jesus gives the pair a theology 101 primer about who the Christ is. Luke 24:27—“And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” But what’s really fascinating is that Jesus is not revealed to them during the teaching. Yet when He stays to have an evening meal with them, suddenly they realize who this mystery guest is, only to have Him vanish immediately. Cleopas and his friend later reflect on the two moments during their time with Jesus when they most clearly felt His presence. From Luke 24:32—“Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” And then as Luke 24:35 says “He was known to them in the breaking of bread.” For Mary, recognition of the risen Lord came through His personal knowledge of her, and for the travelers to Emmaus, it was through the Scriptures and fellowship–we might even say communion, that Jesus became known. So I think those are significant take-away points to remember. But we still haven’t answered the question of why exactly it was that these followers couldn’t initially recognize Jesus, post-Resurrection? And while we may not categorize a failure to see Jesus in our midst as a problem of the same severity as expressing outright doubts about His existence, perhaps like the students in that Princeton experiment, we are at times too distracted with the cares of the world, and simply too blind, spiritually-speaking, to notice when Jesus may be in our very midst.

 

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: 9789380028675 ...Taking the Batman out of the shadows | PBS NewsHour

Finally, there are those in the Bible who when Jesus is raised, can’t acknowledge Him and move forward because they are still trapped in the regret of past mistakes. Now sometimes for fictional characters, having a troubled, or dark past helps to form an intriguing part of their backstory, making them more interesting to an audience. The famous Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantes, titular hero of the Alexander Dumas novel, is fueled for much of his life by a consuming drive to revenge himself on the three men who had once wrongfully framed and imprisoned him. Or we can think of comic book heroes like Spiderman and Batman. Part of their appeal is the gothic details of their pre-superhero days. Peter Parker finds out his Uncle Ben has been murdered because he doesn’t stop to apprehend a thief, while the youthful Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents slain before his very eyes, a harrowing event which drives him to assume the persona of the Dark Knight. But while it might make for more intriguing detail in fiction, in real life, being defined by the memories and failures of the past can have damaging psychological, and spiritual effects. This is the dilemma Peter faces in John 21. If he’s going to continue on as an effective disciple of the risen Lord Jesus, he first has to move on from a notable failure. The very disciple who had once assured Jesus that he, of all of the group, would never turn his back on the Lord, but would rather go to prison, or even die first—this same Peter, had infamously denied the Lord three times. So when the Resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples alongside the Sea of Galilee, He has a special conversation with Peter. Now just before this, in John 21:3, Peter had already told the group that he was going fishing, a statement which some commentators have interpreted to mean that Peter was permanently returning to his former occupation, in his shame and regret at having denied Christ. Then Jesus asks Peter, three different times the poignant question “Do you love Me?” In doing so, Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon”, his old, pre-disciple name. Perhaps this symbolizes that in the weakness of his denial, Peter had fallen back to old habits. But Jesus calls Peter to surmount whatever obstacles his past might have imposed on him, and move confidently towards the future, because the Resurrection has changed everything. Jesus asks this question three times, to mirror Peter’s earlier threefold denial of Him. But Christ also tells Him to go and “feed my sheep.” This is a clear vote of confidence in Peter because Jesus is trusting him to serve the church. Jesus’ confidence in the restored Peter is further demonstrated by two other things He tells Him. Firstly, in John 21:18, He predicts Peter’s eventual martyrdom. Now at an initial glance, it might seem strange if I were to say to you—“here’s something to boost your confidence, I know when, and how you’re going to die!” But in the context here, Jesus is paying Peter the ultimate compliment. Because if to be a Christian is to mold our lives in the imitation of Christ, the ultimate imitation of Him is to follow even in His death. Jesus knows Peter will spread His Gospel faithfully, not shrinking back even in the face of death. For someone who had so recently lost his nerve and denied the faith, this is a tremendous vote of confidence. Finally, Jesus gives Peter in John 21:19 that same command with which He initially calls both Peter and Andrew, and James and John—“Follow Me.” Simultaneously simple, and profound, deeply challenging, and deeply comforting, this call is for Peter to be with Jesus, wherever He is at work. It’s the same call for all of us too. Like the apostle, we also have been forgiven and restored from whatever past mistakes burdened us. Just as the Resurrected Jesus moves with a mysterious fluidity, disappearing and reappearing at will, we as Christ’s followers have a special internal freedom to claim and embrace, knowing as we do that because of Jesus’ Resurrection, even our last and greatest enemy—death, has been crushed and trampled underfoot.

This segues into our final points of discussion: how are we being called to act and respond in the light of acknowledging our Lord’s Resurrection? I’ve entitled this message “Continuing the Story”, because after all our excuses–of doubt, or a lack of recognition of where Jesus is, or even feeling burdened by our past, we have a chance to let ourselves be changed anew by the glorious reality of the Resurrection. And we in fact can enter into this story ourselves, to show how we will now act as the bearers of this amazing news. The final passage we are going to look at is found in Mark 16. In verses 1-8, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome find Jesus’ tomb empty, and have a short conversation with the angel who guards it, and who also immediately tells them to go forth to spread the Good News to the rest of the apostles. But after this, Mark 16:8 says—“So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What’s fascinating is that many of the early manuscripts of the Book of Mark end right here. This seems like an abrupt conclusion, doesn’t it? However most of us can identify with their sense of fear, a fear that can even rob us of the motivation to understand and appreciate an event as monumentally important as the Resurrection. And I have a theory about why the earliest manuscripts may have stopped here. When we see the women fail to act, and fail to continue the story, it leads to the natural question of “what might I do in a similar situation”? We are forced to insert ourselves into the narrative, and imagine what our choices or decisions would be, rather than just watching passively. The Resurrection truly changes everything–we now know the story, and its importance, but what path will we choose?

 

I remember back when I was kid, and perhaps if you grew up in the 1980s, you will too–a special group of books they sometimes had in the school libraries. They were called the Choose your own adventure series. They always had very colorful, exciting-looking covers…with fantastic creatures like dragons, abominable snowmen, vampires, and exotic locales—mountain-tops, jungles, the ocean, outer space. And even cooler still—the featured characters in these books, the stars of the stories, were kids around your own age. The premise was that you would read the first several pages and then the story would present you with several different choices. Depending on which one you picked, you were then instructed to turn to another page, and the story would continue, until you arrived at another decision point. Each time the outcome was different, depending on the choices you made throughout the book. These books had a really high re-readability factor because each time, the story might have a different ending, whether good or bad, based on the choices you made. And as we just reflected on, discussing the original ending of Mark 16, we all are confronted with a kind of “choose-your-own-faith” scenario after Jesus’ Resurrection. How will we decide to respond? Both in Matthew and Mark’s Gospel, the story of Jesus’ return from the grave is followed shortly thereafter by one last, significant teaching—The Great Commission. This urgent call from Christ for engagement in worldwide missions is kind of our “marching orders” you could say. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” In the light of the world-changing events of Easter Sunday, we have an assignment to devote the rest of our lives to carrying out…and that is to spread Jesus’ message of abundant life around the world. Will we seize this opportunity as the disciples did, or will we allows ourselves to be silenced by a doubting, secular world, one which fails to recognize Christ even in their midst? In Jeremiah 20:9 the prophet says “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.’ But His world was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.” May we all have a faith that’s equally determined and tenacious as that of this long ago prophet! Because as Christians, we are the bearers of a great Good News that couldn’t be detained or diminished by death or the grave. Even the COVID-19 virus which seems to have put our entire planet into lockdown, is powerless before the one who rolled away the stone, and left the tomb empty. Now, more than ever, our troubled world needs to hear the hope that Easter Sunday brings. In 1 Corinthians 15:55 Paul asks perhaps the two most triumphant questions in history—“O Death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” And we can say those words along with him, because we both know and believe in what Jesus has done. But more people around the globe need to be able to join in with us—more people need to be able to seize that eternal hope.

The Gospel of John ends with an interesting, almost cryptic verse. John 21:25—“And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John is no doubt referring to all of the many other acts which Jesus undoubtedly did in His lifetime, and yet aren’t specifically recorded in the Gospels. But even more than that, I’ve come to see this verse as John’s way of saying—“here’s where all of you, my readers, enter the story.” Because if John, or anyone were to try to start to write the account of how each individual heart in history has been touched, changed, transformed by the love of Christ…indeed the world could not contain that flood of narratives about what Jesus did. You see, we are all part of a much bigger story—God’s story, and fortunately, we know exactly how it will conclude. One of the most touching and emotionally-charged verses in the whole Bible is found in Revelation 21:4. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” This is a promise more beautiful than anything we can imagine, and yet the Resurrection of Jesus is its proof, and its great foreshadowing. I want to close with excerpts from a couple of my favorite praise songs which celebrate Easter, and also give us an idea of how we may can respond to the Good News which floods our hearts on this day. Bill Gaither’s “Because He lives”: “God sent His Son, they called Him Jesus/He came to love, heal and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon/An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives/Because He lives I can face tomorrow; because He lives all fear is gone/Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.” And then, my very favorite—“Easter Song”, first recorded by the Second Chapter of Acts, although I love the Keith Green version. “Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing that you can be born again/Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing Christ is risen from the dead/The angel up on the tombstone said He has risen, just as He said/Quickly now, go tell his disciples, that Jesus Christ is no longer dead/Joy to the world, He has risen, hallelujah.” This is a message that’s much too good to keep to ourselves, and so I pray that for all of us, this Easter season, and especially in the season of COVID-19, we can reflect deeply on how God may use us, each one, to take the message and hope of the Resurrection to those in spiritual need. Jesus has done His part—what response will we give to continue our stories, and maybe to help someone else start their own?

Truly this was the Son of God

Christ on the Cross, 1632 - Diego Velazquez - WikiArt.org

 

I wish I could be in a church this Good Friday, observing the solemn occasion of our Lord’s crucifixion. But since I cannot, I want to share a message of love, straight from the Cross today in this blog. And my hope and prayer is that regardless of the challenges you’ve been facing during this national Coronavirus pandemic, you would take comfort today as we relive the significance of that age old story of Jesus’ love for you. These are certainly interesting times we are living in! Here in Littleton, Colorado, we’ve been under a statewide stay-at-home order for the past several week, as I’m sure many of you have been in your area. I try to stay up-to-date with the news, and often I find myself contrasting between two emotions as I do that—great joy and encouragement, and also profound sorrow. These contrasting emotions actually have less to do with the progress of treating and fighting the disease itself, but more with all of the different human responses and stories that have emerged.

 

Europeans sing health workers' praises nightly from windows | NBC4 ...

When you start to read a little, you quickly find that this international pandemic has brought out both the best and the worst in human behavior. There’s definitely some bad actors out there. I read about a man in Tennessee who, when the virus was first starting to spread in the US, he drove around his state and even into Kentucky and completely cleaned out truck stops and small stores of their supply of hand sanitizer. He eventually amassed over 17,000 bottles of it to store in his warehouse, and was starting to sell them at significantly marked up prices on Amazon. Fortunately his listings ended up being blocked, and he was prosecuted for price gouging. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, near the American epicenter of Coronavirus, a man was recently arrested who had hoarded 192,000 N95 respirators, 130,000 surgical masks, and 600,000 medical grade gloves, all items desperately needed by doctors and nurses who are on the frontlines of battling this epidemic. He had started selling portions of his inventory to doctors, at a slight 700% markup. Sadly some have seen the Coronavirus as a chance to profit from people instead of help them. But at the same time, there have been some utterly heart-warming stories. Across professional sports, we’re hearing of players and owners who are stepping up to donate millions of dollars to help out unemployed arena and stadium workers during the shutdowns. Many in Hollywood and the entertainment community have made donations to food banks and other charities. Landlords around the country have withheld rent collection, and one of my favorite stories is what’s been happening in France, Italy, and Spain. These countries have all been so hard hit by this disease. Yet every night, people in Paris, and Rome and Madrid are coming out onto apartment balconies, and spontaneously offering several moments of applause, music, and cheering for those healthcare workers and first responders who are putting their own lives on the line during the pandemic.

So this time of Coronavirus presents us with such contrasting narratives of greed and generosity, self-serving, and selfless sacrifice. I think a Pandemic is actually a very appropriate occasion to contemplate Good Friday, the day where Jesus’ death became the cure for all that truly ails the human race. That long-ago day at Calvary was simultaneously a time of intense pain, sadness, and death which nonetheless God used to bring about healing, joy, and triumphant life. The Crucifixion of Christ was indeed an intersection of the best and worst in humanity: the mocking of the crowds at the foot of the Cross, the utter indifference of the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments, and yet also the surpassing love of Jesus, and the permanent impact that His sacrificial death left for the rest of our human history. Today, I want to look at the significance not just of what happened at the Cross, but more specifically what happened immediately after Calvary: in nature, in the spiritual realm, in the hearts of individuals. After the Cross, nothing is ever the same again, and I want us to explore why that is.

 

Was Jesus really forsaken on the cross? – Good Question

We should begin though by trying to grasp, even if imperfectly, the enormous impact of what happened as Jesus died. You may have heard of the famous Last Seven Words from the Cross. One of these is found in Matthew 27:46. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This utterance from the Cross is among the most profound, mysterious, and haunting phrases that we ever hear from the mouth of Jesus. Christ is quoting from Psalm 22:1 here. Of course we frequently find Jesus making references to the Old Testament. But what exactly is going on here? Perhaps Jesus is feeling extremely lonely, betrayed by Judas, abandoned by the other disciples, and left to die, and He questions whether even God still cares. Other maybe this cry is a supreme example of Jesus demonstrating the fullness of His humanity. Even though we know He’s also God, at this moment, Jesus feels the weight of His human frailty and suffering, in the pain of the Cross. And certainly crucifixion would have been an almost unimaginably painful thing to witness and to bear. But the more I contemplate Jesus’ death, and this particular verse, I think that the true pain of the Cross wasn’t physical at all—it was spiritual. Bleeding, slowly suffocating, and eventually dying from a pain and exhaustion that would be beyond my descriptive abilities to speak about…and this still wasn’t the worst part of it. Because there was an even deeper spiritual pain that Matthew 27:46 speaks to. But through this pain, Jesus is persevering to bring about an even deeper and more profound healing, at the cost of His own life.

 

Descriptions of Characters for The Lion, The Witch, and The ...

In his classic children’s fantasy story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis weaves a spellbinding story of the battle between good and evil. The noble lion Aslan is the book’s hero along with the four children, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy. But Edmund has betrayed the group to the terrible Jadis, the White Witch, and so by the law of the Kingdom of Narnia, he must be put to death. The Witch tells this to Aslan in no uncertain terms. “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill…that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.”  Aslan agrees, but then he meets later in private with Jadis and offers himself up as a captive, to die in Edmund’s place. Believing herself triumphant, Jadis exclaims to Aslan before she executes him: “And now, who has won? Fool, did you think by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was…But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well?…You have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.” But then, as you know if you’ve read the book, comes the miracle of Resurrection. Aslan is restored to life, and not as a ghost, as he assures the children, but as a real flesh-and-blood lion. Aslan explains to Susan and Lucy: “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know…If she could have looked a little further back…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” Now I share this example from literature, because in a very simplified form, Lewis, being a devout believer, used this children’s story to retell a theory of the Atonement. That’s the formal theological term for understanding how exactly Christ’s death saves us. One such Theory of the Atonement is known as the Ransom Theory. In its most basic form, this theory says that because of the original sin of Adam and Eve, as well as all of our subsequent sinfulness, humanity had forfeited its right to life, and now belonged to Satan. In order to win us back, God offers His son as the perfect hostage, or ransom. He will die in our place. With the death of Jesus, Satan believes he has tricked God and won, but of course what he doesn’t know is that Christ cannot be held by death, and neither will his followers be. But in order to be ransomed to Satan, Christ had to not just serve as a stand-in to die for us, which would have been amazing enough. He literally had to be made into the embodiment of sin, He who had formerly been perfect and spotless. And once that happened, God the Father, who cannot look on, or be with sin, had to temporarily cast Jesus, His beloved Son, out of His presence. Paul sums it up for us quite well in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Thus the true meaning and importance of Matthew 27:46. Jesus feels forsaken, because in that terrible moment on the cross, He is forsaken by God. The Father must turn His back on the Son, who has become the very emblem of sin. What a terrible, and yet sublime moment. For Jesus has done this all out of love!! I could contemplate that thought, that moment forever, and never be able to fully grasp the kind of love it expresses.

 

1,177 Tears: The Memorial To The USS Arizona, Sunk At Pearl Harbor

But let us turn now to what happens just after Jesus’ death. Because far from being the end, as Satan and the powers of darkness hoped, the death of Christ is just the beginning. And right from that beginning, things start happening which let us know that this was no ordinary man who just perished on a cross. If any of you are lucky enough to have had the chance to visit Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, you may have gone to visit the memorial for the U.S.S. Arizona. She was one of the ships destroyed during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, going down with over 1000 men onboard. The unique floating memorial is built over the sunken remains of the battleship. And what is really amazing is that even more than 75 years after its sinking, oil bubbles from the wreck are still making their way to the surface of the water. They are known as “black tears”—as though nature itself continues to mourn the terrible events that happened there so long ago. With the death of Jesus there were also accompanying natural phenomena that signaled something very significant had just happened. Matthew 27:45 tells us that during His last three hours on the cross, “there was darkness over all the land.” Light and dark imagery features prominently in the Gospel of John to help illustrate the purpose and nature of Jesus’ life and ministry. According to John 8:12, Christ is “the light of the world”, while John 1:9 calls Jesus “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” Furthermore, we know from John 1:5 that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Christ’s mission was always to penetrate the dark world of sin, and offer the true light of God’s redemptive love. Now the victory of the darkness had seemed apparent such as in Luke 22:53, when the betrayal of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane is at hand: “this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” And so similarly now at Calvary, as Jesus experiences His last agonizing hours of suffering, the natural world itself falls dark. But rather than representing the growing advance of evil—this is in fact its last gasp. The great Father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, understood the Cross to represent a tremendous scene of triumph for Jesus, the final vanquishing of the powers of darkness in the last great cosmic spiritual battle. He wrote of Jesus’ death as “a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils…Even though these tyrants, our enemies, accuse us and terrify us, they cannot drive us into despair or condemn us.” Furthermore, Luther says that Christ’s death “takes away the law, kills my sin, destroys my death in His body, and in this way empties hell, judges the devil, crucifies him, and throws him down into hell. In other words, everything that once used to torment and oppress me Christ has set aside; He has disarmed it and made a public example of it triumphing over it in Himself” Just reading these words from the great Luther fills me with a surge of excitement! There is such tremendous power in what happened at Calvary! Little surprise then that after the sad darkness of Jesus’ final hours, the victory which His death secures is immediately reflected in the natural realm, as Matthew 27:51 records an earthquake occurring. And interestingly enough, this is not the last time God will announce His immanent presence through rending the earth. In Acts 16 you can read how Paul and Silas are saved from imprisonment in Philippi by a great earthquake which opens their cell doors and breaks their chains.

 

The Living Word of God: The Tearing of the Temple Veil

Even more dramatic however than the natural phenomenon after the Crucifixion, are the spiritual events that mark Christ’s passing. Two very significant things happen, which we can’t miss if we want to grasp the full magnitude of Good Friday. First, the veil of the Temple is torn from top to bottom, according to Matthew 27:51. Now this great Temple, the second to be built in Jerusalem, was the center of the system of worship for the nation of Israel. And there was one special section of the Temple to which only the High Priest was admitted. It was the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. Here, the Ark of the Covenant had once resided, and it was thought to be the literal dwelling place of God. The Holy of Holies was set apart from the rest of the Temple by a great curtain, the veil. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter here, on behalf of the whole nation. The veil, and what lay behind it symbolized a clear division between the holiest part of the Temple, and everywhere else. Growing up as a Southern Baptist boy, one of my all-time favorite preachers is Billy Graham. Of course I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another pastor who has so impacted our nation and indeed the world with his message. And it wasn’t fancy or sophisticated—Graham preached essentially one sermon for most of his life. But it was the straight Gospel, always with an invitation extended to the audience to make a decision of faith now, because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Graham however didn’t just preach transformative change from the pulpit, but he modeled social change in the way he ran his great crusades. Although he was born and raised in North Carolina, a son of the segregated South, when Billy Graham began reaching mass audiences around America during his great meetings, God started to tug on his heart. So it was that in 1953, before Martin Luther King’s name was a household word, before the Rosa Parks bus boycott in Montgomery even, Billy Graham took a bold step. He refused to preach in Chattanooga, Tennessee until the ropes designating separate white and black sections of the stadium were taken down. Now many of his financial backers had privately warned Graham to steer clear to addressing the “race question” in any form. But he told the organizers in Chattanooga that either the ropes came down, or they could hold the crusade without him. And from then on, Billy Graham preached only to integrated audiences. It may seem like a small gesture to us now in 2020, where racial equality is a thing taken for granted, but it was a critical, ground-breaking step from one of the most prominent pastors in America, years before such actions became popular. Graham was taking down racial barriers to a Gospel message that was intended for all peoples, cultures, and races.

But no one ever broke down spiritual barriers like Jesus Christ. And so Matthew says that this great veil within the Temple was torn in two upon Jesus’ death. And torn from the top down, such as no human hand could have done. This tearing of the veil is of course highly symbolic of the fact that from now on, because of Jesus’ sacrificial death, which is the perfect atonement for sin, we all now have full access to God. You don’t have to go through a priest in a temple, or a system of animal sacrifices. As Hebrews 4:14 reminds us—“We have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God…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.” But remarkably enough, the tearing of the veil was not the only spiritual event which occurred to highlight Christ’s passing. Matthew 27:52-53 recounts how “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” Now usually on Good Friday we aren’t yet looking ahead to the joyful news of the Resurrection—we save that for Easter. But we are clearly told by Matthew’s Gospel that Christ’s death precipitated a kind of spiritual foreshadowing with many of the faithful being raised in the very hour of His passing. Perhaps you’re wondering if these were merely temporary appearances, or if these individuals, like Lazarus, permanently returned to life. The text makes it clear however that this wasn’t some sort of mass ghost sighting. Rather “the bodies of the saints” came back to life! These events mirror the prediction Christ Himself had given in John 5:25—“The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.”

 

The Penitent Thief Was in the Right Place at the Right Time

In addition to the natural and spiritual phenomenon which accompany Christ’s death, there is the central question of how do people react? And more specifically, how do not just the followers of Jesus react, but the skeptics, the very Roman soldiers who had been callously casting lots for His clothing. Matthew 27:54 records that “When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!” Christ’s life changed many, and for the few who were able to witness His death, there was also a profound transformation. In addition to the Roman soldiers there was the thief whose conversation with Christ is mentioned in Luke 23:39-43. It’s one of the most moving passages in all of Scripture. While one thief is blaspheming Jesus, the other turns to him in rebuke: “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” The thief looks to Christ, and utters perhaps the most direct, desperate, and heartfelt plea for salvation we have in all of the Bible: “Lord remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus’ response gives blessed assurance: “Assuredly, I say to you, today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” So maybe despite the dramatic events in nature and the spiritual realm that occur alongside Jesus’ Crucifixion, the most dramatic occurrences of all are the human lives that are transformed in the very hour that the Savior dies. Because something about His death is enough to change even the hardened hearts of Roman soldiers and a condemned criminal. And what is it specifically? Jesus dies bravely, without complaint, but surely we can hazard to guess that even others had stoically borne Crucifixion, horrific as it was. But who else could die with thoughts only of others? Not only does Jesus reach out to the penitent thief—but in Luke 23:34 he forgives His very executors. And in John 19:26-27 Jesus looks with compassion on His mother, and tells the disciple John to receive Mary in as his own.

We’ve just looked at how some different people who witnessed the Crucifixion reacted, and now I want to finally make this very personal—how do we react, when faced with such wondrous love? I believe that we cannot turn away from Calvary without taking just a minute to recognize our own responsibility in Jesus’ death. I still remember when I was in college in Nashville, Tennessee, attending a Good Friday service with some friends. And we did a series of responsive readings based on the Passion narrative from the Bible. But this was unlike any responsive reading I had done before. We shared in Peter’s threefold denial of the Lord. We joined with the high priest Caiaphas in pronouncing Him a blasphemer. And then most dramatically, we echoed the response of the Jerusalem crowds, calling for Jesus to be killed and for Barabbas to be saved, I found my voice joining in with those of all the others in the church. Each time a little louder we repeated the fateful words to condemn our Savior: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him, Crucify Him”! And during that service, more so than other time in my life, I began to accept my share of responsibility for what happened at the Cross. My sin had helped to send Jesus there, and my sin kept Him on the Cross to suffer…He was in my place, and taking what should have been my punishment for rebelling against God, as we all have done.

 

What Is Salvation? | North Valley News

I say this not so much to emphasize all our collective guilt as to magnify the amazing love of Christ as expressed from the Cross. It’s a love that has captured the imagination of many hymn writers down through the ages. And in closing I’d like to share with you just a few excerpts from some of my favorites. Just reading these words I find to be an incredibly moving experience. First a very old one—“O Sacred Head, now wounded”, which was based originally on a Latin text from the Middle Ages, which was then adopted in the 17th century by a German minister and hymn-writer, Paul Gerhardt. From the second stanza: What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain/Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain/Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place/Look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.” And then in the third stanza:“What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend/For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end/O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be/ Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee.” Then there is “The Old Rugged Cross” one of the favorite American hymns of an earlier generation, which was written in 1912 by a Midwestern evangelist named George Bennard. So the story goes, Bennard had been recently heckled by a group of youths during a revival meeting, so severely that he channeled all his sorrow into this beautiful evocation of how a Christian views the Cross. “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross/The emblem of suffering and shame/And I love that old cross where the dearest and best/For a world of lost sinners was slain” But sometimes when we worship, the very simplest language is the best of all, as expressed in one more hymn that is very dear to me “O how He loves you and me”, written by Kurt Kaiser in 1975. Oh, how He loves you and me, Oh how He loves you and me/He gave his life, what more could he give?/ Jesus to Calvary did go, His love for sinners to show. What He did there brought hope from despair/ Oh, how He loves you; Oh, how he loves me; Oh, how he loves you and me.”  On this Good Friday, even in the midst of a pandemic, we pause to rejoice that our sufferings will never equal those of the Man of Sorrows. We rejoice too in knowing that His death has made it possible for us to possess the most precious of cures—salvation and justification in the eyes of God. Everything about the life of Jesus, and then about His death should enable all of us to say, along with the Roman soldiers from the foot of the Cross.—“Truly, this Man was the Son of God.” Thank you Lord Jesus…Amen!