A Little Farther Down the Path: Jesus—A Pilgrimage

Last fall, I traveled from central Ohio (where I live) to Harrisonburg, Virginia (where I lived for nineteen years—1981-2000), to speak in chapel at my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For reasons almost incidental to the actual address, it was one of the best short trips I’ve ever taken. Coming, as it did, two days after the presidential election, it was a salutary endeavor, a balm to my bruised and battered spirit. (The bruises were not solely the product of the election result, but that certainly didn’t help.)

At the conclusion of my talk, a long-time member of the seminary faculty invited Shirley and me to join her and a group of student/pilgrims this summer on a month-long visit to Israel and Palestine, the region traditionally known as The Holy Land. My wife had some knee surgery about a year ago, and she knew immediately that she would not be up to a trip requiring so much walking. After a week or so of deliberation, I too declined to join the study tour for that most practical of reasons—I simply could not afford it. Continue reading

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The Christian’s Standard

One of the things I love most about worship in the liturgical tradition is the unison recitation of the Nicene Creed immediately following the sermon every Sunday. This fourth century document crisply summarizes the heart of what Christians have believed for two thousand years.

Every week millions of Christians worldwide intone the words…

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.

Those are powerful words no matter when they are recited, but the significance of that declaration is especially meaningful at this time of year–Advent and Christmas.

When I taught Christian doctrine at a small Bible college, I used to ask my students what they believed to be the most important truth in all of Christianity. Their most common response was generally the Resurrection of Christ. Some suggested His Crucifixion. Those, along with a few others, are worthy suggestions.N

But I always told my students that I considered the Incarnation—the truth that the all-powerful and infinite God took on human form and became a human being who lived among us on earth—to be the single most important tenet in all of Christian doctrine.

After all, if Jesus was not really God in human form, then his death, while perhaps notable, was still just the death of a man. If he was not really God incarnate, then the literal truth of his resurrection from the grave can legitimately be challenged, and that story can just as easily be interpreted in ways that do not require any miraculous element.

Continue reading

More Than You Might Imagine (Part One)

Have you ever been really, really afraid? If you have, you know that fear is a debilitating and potentially lethal emotion. It can produce severe, life-altering consequences. I have a friend in West Virginia who is bald from head to toe… not one hair on his body anywhere. How did that happen? He is convinced it is the consequence of fear.

When he was a boy, his brother, in jest, aimed a loaded revolver at his head, and it accidentally discharged. The bullet missed him by mere inches. Within a short time, his hair began to fall out until his entire body was smooth as an onion. Our friend is convinced he was scared hairless.

I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that fear clouds our thinking and distorts our judgment. It makes us do all sorts of things we would never do if we were functioning rationally and not caught in the grip of mind-numbing, gut-wrenching fear.

The disciples of Jesus, in the episode recorded in Mark 4:35-41, were really, really afraid. And humanly speaking, they had every reason to be. Here’s the way Mark puts it—

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The Sea of Galilee is really a large freshwater lake in the northern part of Israel. It is seven hundred feel below sea level. Just thirty miles north is Mt. Hermon, which rises to more than 9000 feet above sea level. The clash between the cold air from the mountains and the warm air in the lake basin makes for changeable weather conditions that can produce mean storms in short order.

Several of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen who had worked on that very lake. They were experienced sailors. If the conditions that night were severe enough to scare them, it must have been really bad. So whatever else we might want to say about these men, they were not wusses who were afraid of their own shadows. Their situation was legitimately frightening.

Now you and I may never have faced such an immediate threat to our physical safety, but, as you well know, storms are by no means the only things that can cause us to be afraid.

Do you want to know what scares me these days? It’s not death. When I was thirteen I nearly drowned, and I remember thinking, in that moment, “I’m going to die. This is the end of my life. I’m going to die, and I’m not afraid.” And to this day, whenever I think about dying, I remember that experience, and I am comforted by the fact that, on that day when I really thought I was going to die, I was not afraid.

But here’s what scares me. It’s the thought of living an unproductive, unfulfilled life. It’s the prospect of coming to the end of my life only to find that, somewhere along the line, I took a wrong turn and ended up a failure… not a failure in business or in a profession, but a failure as a man, as a minister, as a provider for my family, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I’m sharing this with you because I want you to know that, under my liturgical vestments and my clerical collar is a man plagued by self-doubt and subject to regret and second-guessing, even though I know how useless and counter-productive those emotions really are.

As a preacher (and a blogger), I have the privilege to put into words the almost unspeakable riches of the Gospel of God. If I do my job right, these words should help you (in the words of the prayer made famous by the musical Godspell) to see Jesus more clearly, to love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly… day by day.

I work hard to find just the right words when I write a sermon or a blog post. If I do my job right, you will not think “What a great preacher (or writer),” but “What a great God we serve!”

But I want you to know that I am well aware of the truth of 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul wrote—

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

I am a fellow-traveler with you. I try to hold up the ideal, which is the image of God in Christ, to which we all should aspire, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And I try to be a good example. But there is no aspect of my example that is more inconsistent—no place where my life is more like a jar made of clay—than in the area of being afraid.

Afraid of failure. Afraid that my needs won’t be met. Afraid that my days of productive ministry may be over. Afraid that God, Who has never been unfaithful or untrustworthy in the past, may somehow prove to be unfaithful or untrustworthy in the future. (You see how irrational fear can be!)

Fear is where we are most vulnerable to what Paul calls “the fiery darts of the wicked one.” And the “wicked one” surely knows how to exploit our vulnerability.

He was doing that to these disciples of Jesus in Mark 4. Now, granted this episode took place fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. They had not yet been to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked them who they thought He was, and Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One), the Son of the living God.”

But they had been following Him around for some months, perhaps a year or more. They had seen Him heal sick people—even lepers—and cast out demons. They had seen Him extend forgiveness to a man for sins the man had committed against somebody else. And they had heard Him declare Himself to be Lord even of the Sabbath. These were characteristics that could only be attributed to God.

If they had been thinking clearly, they might have concluded that, if Jesus was really the Messiah, the ship couldn’t possibly sink, because chances were that, if they drowned, He would drown too. And if He had been sent by God to be Israel’s Messiah, then surely God would protect Him from this storm.

But they couldn’t think in those terms. Their boat was filling up with water faster than they could bail it out. It was only a matter of time until the waves would swamp the boat. And the One who had healed lepers and blind men could possibly come to their aid… at least He could help them bail. But no. He was asleep in the stern of the boat.

So they waken Him. And here’s the way Max Lucado describes that encounter.

His (sleeping while they were in danger) troubles the disciples. Mark records their question: “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?”

They don’t ask about Jesus’ strength: “Can you still the storm?” (Or) His knowledge: “Are you aware of the storm?” Or his (expertise): “Do you have any experience with storms?” But rather, they raise doubts about Jesus’ character: “Don’t you care …?”

Fear does this. (It) corrodes our confidence in God’s goodness. We begin to wonder if love lives in heaven. If God can sleep in our storms, if his eyes stay shut when our eyes grow wide, if he permits storms after we get on his boat, does he really care? Fear unleashes a swarm of doubts, anger-stirring doubts.

And it turns us into control freaks. “Do something about the storm!” is the implicit demand of the question. “Fix it or … or … or else!” Fear…releases the tyrant within and it also deadens our recall. The disciples had good reasons to trust Jesus. By now they’d seen him perform countless miracles! But… fear creates a form of spiritual amnesia. It dulls our miracle memory. It makes us forget what Jesus has done and how good God is.

I believe that fear is so spiritually debilitating because our Adversary convinces us that everything that has happened to us beforehand… all those times that we think we saw God at work… all those prayers that we believe God has answered… all those situations where we thought God stepped in and did something supernatural in our behalf… all those were just coincidence or good luck or situations which, now that they are past, we look back on with rosy-tinted hindsight.

And deep in our hearts our Adversary plants a seed of unbelief. We begin to wonder if our faith has been misguided. We begin to wonder if all these things that are overwhelming us might be overwhelming God too. We begin to question whether God cares about us at all, or even if He does care, does He have the capability to do anything about our situation? In short, does He have any power?

I’ve certainly asked questions like that. And I imagine you have too. Well, that brings us to the second theme that emerges from this short passage from Mark’s Gospel—the power of God. And I’ll take that up in the next post. Thanks for reading.

Five Words For Christmas

I have done a lot of griping in this blog over the past few months, and I’ve offered many critiques. I will do a lot more of that in the days ahead; it is my wont, and it needs to be done. The critic is the precursor of the reformer.

Even today, Christmas Eve 2011, I was tempted to write a blog post lamenting how lonely Christmas can be, even for someone who has spent his entire adult life in service to the church. But I will have my wife, my daughter, and my beautiful (he prefers “cool”) four-year-old grandson with me for Christmas, so even though I am separated from others with whom I would like to spend this special day, I am still blessed indeed.

Christmas is a time for celebration, for hope, for gratitude… not for lament, regret, or complaint. And so, for the heart of this post, I am simply recording the five words that were going through my head when I awoke this morning… the refrain from the old German hymn which I have reproduced below.

I remember the first time I heard this hymn. It was the fall of 1967, and I was a freshman in Bible college. I was out of money, discouraged, and homesick. For our chapel service one morning, the song leader had selected this as the congregational hymn. Since I didn’t know it, I wasn’t particularly moved as the first chords of the introduction rang out from the organ. But by the time we were half way through the first stanza, I was caught up in such a spirit of worship and thanksgiving that I could hardly sing. And by the time the hymn was over, tears were streaming down my face.

So, you can expect to read a lot more gripes and critiques in the pages of this blog in the coming months. But please remember, behind and beneath it all will be my unwavering commitment to Jesus as Lord and my confident declaration, contained in the hymn’s refrain, and offered here as my contribution to the blogosphere on this Christmas Eve. “May Jesus Christ be praised!”

  1. When morning gilds the skies,
    My heart awaking cries:
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
    Alike at work and prayer
    To Jesus I repair:
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
  1. To Thee, my God above,
    I cry with glowing love,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
    The fairest graces spring
    In hearts that ever sing,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
  1. Does sadness fill my mind?
    A solace here I find,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
    Or fades my earthly bliss?
    My comfort still is this,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
  1. When evil thoughts molest,
    With this I shield my breast,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
    The powers of darkness fear,
    When this sweet chant they hear,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
  1. When sleep her balm denies,
    My silent spirit sighs,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
    The night becomes as day,
    When from the heart we say,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
  1. Be this, while life is mine,
    My canticle divine,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!
    Be this th’ eternal song
    Through all the ages long,
    May Jesus Christ be praised!

Lyrics translated from 18th century German hymnal by Edward Caswall (1814-1878)

Music by Joseph Barnby (1838-1896)

If you’d like to hear a lovely arrangement of this hymn, including stanzas 1, 3, and 6, click here.

Merry Christmas!

Christianity’s Most Vital Truth

One of the things I love most about worship in the Anglican tradition is the unison recitation of the Nicene Creed immediately following the sermon every Sunday. This fourth century document crisply summarizes the heart of what Christians have believed for two thousand years.

Every week we intone the words…

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.

Those are powerful words whenever they are repeated, but the significance of that declaration is especially meaningful at this time of year–Advent and Christmas.

When I taught Christian doctrine at a small Bible college, I used to ask my students what they believed to be the most important truth in all of Christianity. Their most common response was generally the Resurrection of Christ. Some suggested His Crucifixion. And these, along with a few others, are worthy suggestions. But I always told my students that I considered the Incarnation—the truth that the all-powerful and infinite God took on human form and became a human being who lived among us on earth—to be the single most important tenet in all of Christian doctrine.

After all, if Jesus was not really God in human form, then his death, while perhaps notable, was still just the death of a man. If he was not really God incarnate, then the literal truth of his resurrection from the grave can legitimately be challenged, and that story can just as easily be interpreted in ways that do not require any miraculous element.

But if Jesus Christ was “true God from true God” who “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,” as the Creed declares and as orthodox believers understand the Scriptures to teach, then his crucifixion was far more than merely the death of a man. And if it was God in human form who died on that cross, then it is silly to deny the possibility of a literal, bodily resurrection.

In other words, if Jesus was not the incarnation, the “enfleshment,” of God, then everything else Christians say they believe about Jesus loses all significance. There is no more foundation for its truth. If, however, as we Christians believe, Jesus was in fact God in human flesh, then everything else the Creeds and the Gospels say about him is altogether reasonable and consistent with what we would expect from a God-man.

It was a fresh appreciation for the significance of the Incarnation of Christ some years ago that set me on this relentless pursuit of authentic faith. I began to subject every element in my practice of Christian faith to questions like these: “Is this worthy of association with one who was really and truly God in human flesh? Does this belief or this practice reflect the dignity, the gravitas, the majesty that should be accorded to one who was, and is, God with us?”

The result of that intense examination of my faith, which continues to this day, was my conclusion that much of what passes for Christian faith and practice is shallow and superficial. It reflects political ideology and cultural influence more than the teaching and example of One who, although He was God, considered our human predicament serious enough, and our eternal souls valuable enough, to become one of us in order to do something about our situation.

That is why I have been willing to change my mind, from time to time, about things I had previously embraced as essential Christian truth and practice. I now try to subject every element of my belief system to this standard: All that I believe and all that I do as a Christian must be consistent with the foundational truth upon which Christian faith rests—God became man.

People may reject our claim that Jesus Christ was really God in human form. But God forbid that they should be aided or encouraged in their denial of that truth by secondary “beliefs” and practices which are unworthy of the One who was, and is, God with us.