Author Archives: lewinkler

About lewinkler

I am a professor of theology and ethics at the East Asia School of Theology in Singapore.

Jonah and His Whale of a Tale

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I was recently talking to a Chinese student who had questions about the reliability of the Bible. He mentioned he’d read an article debunking the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.

As he explained it, the article claimed Jonah’s undersea journey must have been a fable or myth (like Pinocchio’s in Carlo Collodi’s classic tall tale), since science has proven the majority of whales do not have throats big enough to swallow a human being whole. Even if there are whales (like the sperm whale) who can swallow a person whole, the environment inside the whale’s stomach is completely inhospitable to life.  Jonah cold not have survived three days in the belly of a whale, even if one did manage to choke him down.

His comments reminded me of my childhood when I read an account of James Bartley who purportedly fell overboard during a whale hunt and was swallowed by a sperm whale.  Not long after, the whale was captured and killed. When dressing it, the hunters cut open the whale’s stomach and discovered Bartley, unconscious, but alive inside.  As the story goes, he eventually made a full recovery.

It sounds like a whale of a tale, and many have questioned its veracity.  It’s embarrassing to admit now, but in the naïveté of my youth, Bartley’s account gave me some comfort and helped convince me that what happened to Jonah was somehow plausible since it might have happened to others.

What, then, could I say to this struggling student?  I might have mentioned that some Christians believe the book of Jonah is indeed mythical and was never intended to be taken literally.  There are exegetical and theological problems with this view and I strongly disagree, but genuine believers have embraced it from time to time in church history, mostly in the modern era.

I might have pointed out that the KJV translators mistakenly translated the Hebrew word, dag, as “whale,” when it should have been translated more generally as “fish.”  There are, after all, fish (like large sharks) who can swallow a human whole.

I explained, however, that ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that the story, on its face, is wholly implausible.  Science is right to question the possibility that someone could be swallowed by a large fish (or whale), spend three days in its stomach, and live to tell the tale.

But after admitting as much to this student, I then explained that the book of Jonah wasn’t created from some prior real-life event that was borrowed and embellished by an ancient Hebrew author to make into a good bedtime story for children.  In fact, Jonah’s harrowing journey is recounted in full recognition that it was a once-in-the-course-of-all-time occurrence. Consequently, science could not explain how Jonah could be swallowed and then three days later regurgitated alive on land by a gigantic fish—precisely because it wasn’t a natural event.  It was a supernatural act of God!

This is one of the points of the story: God did something only He could do.  In short, Jonah’s story is one filled with divine interventions and usurpations of science.  These were not natural events or myths, they were miracles!

Of course, appealing this way to a miracle is not some clever attempt to justify or explain the inexplicable.  But it is the overt recognition that while miracles don’t happen very often (otherwise, they could hardly be classified as miracles!), the God of the universe does sometimes perform them for His purposes and glory.  The fact is, we know and serve a God who can do the impossible whenever and wherever necessary.

Neither does it negate or invalidate the possibility of determining the reliability of scripture. As numerous apologists and biblical scholars have shown, there are many portions of scripture that directly enable us to test and examine historical and intertextual claims to discover if the Bible is telling the truth.  Since these portions show the scriptures to be trustworthy, we have good reason to trust accounts where miracles are recorded.

But this is only true, of course, if we do not have a preconceived bias against the possibility of any supernatural intervention into the natural realm.  If we are convinced that only scientific and naturalistic explanations for historical events are possible, then just like the skeptics in Jesus’ day, we will automatically rule out miracles, even when they occur right before our very eyes—consider, for example, the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, especially verses 45 and 46.

No other book has been more thoroughly examined (or more widely ridiculed and vilified) than the Bible. Nevertheless, it has stood the test of time and continually demonstrates its reliability against any and all assaults. Because it truly is the word of God and comes from Him, it can be trusted because He can be trusted.

Jonah foolishly ignored this and paid a frightful (though ultimately miraculous) price for his willful disobedience.  Thankfully, we, on the other hand, have the amazing opportunity to learn from Jonah’s whale of a tale and trust God fully at the start of His call upon our lives versus merely at the tail-end.

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The Changing Face of Education

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Growing up, I went to a school building and sat in a physical classroom next to my classmates and teacher.  I liked some and—I confess—thoroughly disliked others, but never thought that hard about what education was all about.  I just knew I was supposed to be in school all day, every day, along with everyone else.

In sixth grade our class was selected to pilot an exciting new program called the “Calculator Project.” We got to use electronic calculators in math class rather than having to figure everything out in our heads or on paper. It felt a little bit like cheating, but we all thought it was cool that these handheld devices could do hard math so quickly and accurately.

Needless to say, the world of education and its use of technology has fundamentally changed in the past four decades.

I recently read an article stating that after twenty-five years, Moody Bible Institute (my son’s alma mater) is closing its Spokane, WA extension campus and significantly cutting faculty at its main Chicago campus.  In addition, Fuller Seminary (my alma mater) is closing three of its eight extension sites within the next two years and downsizing by selling its main Pasadena campus.  In a recent survey, 1 in 8 university presidents expressed concern that their school would close in the next five years—all due to severely declining enrollment.

The reason for all this reduction is clear: online distance learning is quickly gaining market share and drastically reducing student numbers at traditional campus-based institutions.

Education is not dead, of course, but it is changing—rapidly and radically.

Contemporary studies also indicate that online education produces as good, or in some cases, better educational outcomes than traditional residential campus models of education.  To be honest, I’m still not sure I believe it.  I don’t want to believe it.

Because of my age, I am hopeful that it might still be possible to finish my teaching career spending a significant portion of it physically present and face-to-face with students who are actually there.  But realism tells me this kind of educational experience will become increasingly rare. It appears that much of future education will be progressively localized and virtual.

Every educational model has problems and limitations.  I am not lamenting the loss of the traditional model because I am a traditionalist.  Old models of education have many problems and weaknesses.  There are some things I will not miss about it, like, for instance, the tendency to lack collaborative learning.  In addition, we cannot assume that taking a large block of time away from the contexts of “real life” will somehow result in students being able to remember and apply the mass of material presented at the residential school when they return to the “real world.”

And yet, I wonder what important things will be left behind in these “new” and “emerging” virtual models. I suspect the main thing will be the overt embodiment of truth and goodness in those students and teachers with whom and from whom we are learning.  In short, we will not be physically “rubbing shoulders” with the ones we are learning with and from.

This is a tragic and significant loss, especially in Christian education.  Disembodying virtue and veracity is dangerous when making disciples.  God did not send disembodied messages and sets of commands when He wanted to make Himself known and help us grow in godliness and wisdom.  Rather, He sent real-life leaders and prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and Elijah to share and flesh them out.  Ultimately, He sent Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, who is the epitome of what it means to embody virtuous grace and truth.

Is campus and residential-based education dead?  Not yet, but in many ways, it faces the danger of extinction.  Purely online education is an information delivery system, but little more.  It can too easily uncouple knowledge from the concrete realities of embodied life. True wisdom requires knowledge, but knowledge that is observable and well-applied in the everyday lives of those who want and claim to possess it.

My greatest teachers were great not just because they were well-informed, but because they were wise and personally available to me in ways that were concretely formative and meaningful. I ate with them, laughed with them, mourned with them, and struggled with them.  I directly observed them living well as they loved and interacted with God, their wives, their children, their students, and even their pets.

The Apostle Paul knew we needed real-life models and examples if we were to succeed in following Jesus.  That is why he told the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” and urged the Philippians to “join in imitating me and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”  We need embodied examples of what truth and goodness actually look like in the frequently confusing contexts of our lives.

An education—residential or virtual—that fails to provide living models in close proximity with other learners is impoverished and incomplete.  The separation of instruction from instructor and those instructed is inherent to distance education.  This problem of separation is not insurmountable, but it must be adequately and creatively addressed so that future education does not become a contemporary form of ancient Gnosticism where the message is all that matters and becomes wholly detached and disconnected from the embodied character of those who share and live it out.

Thoughts on Safe Spaces

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I get my feelings hurt a lot.  It seems to come with the territory of living life in the context of genuinely meaningful relationships.  In a world fraught with sin, people do things to each other that cause pain and sorrow. More to the point, Ido things to others that cause them pain and sorrow.

There is a lot of talk on US college campuses these days about “trigger events” and “safe spaces.” Apparently, some have come to believe they have a right to never be disagreed with or have their feelings hurt. As absurd as this sounds on its face, it does tap into a deep human longing we all have to be secure and out of danger.

We would do well, however, to remember that ensuring safety in this life is a difficult and dangerous prospect.  Live long enough in this world and you will be both hurt by others and the hurter of others.  No one, it seems, can really be safe from the dangers of existing in a world full of people—at least if you choose to have significant relationships with some of them.

The only surefire way to maintain safety, then, is to never truly love anyone or anything.  As C. S. Lewis puts it in The Four Loves: “To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The kind of love he means is the concrete love of caring about and caring for an actual person with all of their assets and foibles.  This is not an ambiguous or abstract notion of “love in general.”  As Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazovrather amusingly writes: “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.  In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary.  Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.  I know from experience.  As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. . . .  I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me.”

At least the speaker was brutally honest.  Most of us want to pretend we love others until those others actually need us to really love them.  It simply isn’t safe to be in real relationships with actual human beings. Stay in relationship long enough and they will hurt you every time, sometimes horrifically.  No place, it would seem, can be truly safe if you take the risk to love.

Again, C. S. Lewis has a clear and clever way of pointing this out.  In his children’s classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the lion, Aslan, represents an allegory of Jesus.  Young Lucy Pevensie, reflecting upon the prospect of encountering Aslan asks Mr. Beaver, “Is he quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”. . . .  “Safe?”  Mr. Beaver responded.  “Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.”

Herein lies the secret to finding real safety, in the arms of a good and loving God.  But being in His arms is not actually intended to make us feelsafe.  Sometimes it does, but at other times it feels like the most dangerous place on earth.  That’s because His goal is to make us more like Jesus, and that’s often an uncomfortable and unpleasant process.  It doesn’t necessarily feel fun or safe.

Before passing away from cancer, former white house press secretary and radio talk show host Tony Snow reflected on his journey with God this way: “Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft.  Faith . . . draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution.  The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies.  There’s nothing wilder than a life of humble virtue, for it is through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do.  God relishes surprise.  We want lives of simple, predictable ease, smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see, but God likes to go off-road.  He provokes us with twists and turns.  He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance; and comprehension and yet don’t.  By His love and grace, we persevere.  The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.”

There’s a deep irony in the fact that the safest place to be is in the arms of the most dangerous being in the universe.  It is, after all, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).  But this same God is a good and loving God, and that’s what makes Him ultimately safe, even if He is not proximally safe in the here and now as we might desire to define it.

It’s okay to want a safe space.  We all long for security and safety, but we tend to look for it in all the wrong persons and places.  And as hard as we might try, it definitely won’t be found on our college campuses.  There’s only one safe space and that lies in the center of God’s perfect (and often unpredictable) will.

If you’re willing to trust in God, buckle up and get ready for the ride of your life.  If it hasn’t already, it’s going to get really interesting.

What happened to you? Facebook After Thirty

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Since joining Facebook, I discovered something unanticipated.  When I left high school and college, I unconsciously retained mental snapshots of my old friends and classmates.  In short, I thought I knew what they looked like.

Friending “old” friends on Facebook demonstrated—sometimes very starkly—something I knew in theory but never fully grasped in reality: somewhere over the past thirty-plus years, we all became genuinely old.  Looking at the profile pictures, I sometimes found myself silently asking, “What happened to you?”  Even more telling was the next logical query: “What happened to me?”

Sure, some of the guys still had most of their hair and others managed to keep most of the weight off, but thirty-plus years had taken a tremendous toll on us all.  It’s a helpful reminder, really, of something too easily forgotten or ignored.  When you are young and strong and beautiful, every new day seems a lot like the day before. You may have made some stupid and immoral decisions yesterday, but youth often enables you to bounce back rather quickly and with minimal effort.  However, after more than three decades, all that bouncing has left behind an increasingly weighty list of aches, pains, scars, wrinkles, and regrets.

While contemplating this, I came across Isaiah 56:12 which says, “Come, . . . let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”  The attitude is essentially this: we can fill each day with drunkenness and strong drink because tomorrow will be just like today—another day to party and have a good time.  It will always be like this.  Life will never catch up to us.

Thirty years and the Facebook time-warp has rather unceremoniously ripped off the illusory mask. Tomorrow keeps on coming.  Sooner or later, tomorrow is no longer just “like this day.”  Today’s tomorrows become weeks, months, years, and decades.  The daily choices we make—good, bad, and neutral—exact a small but growing (and ultimately measurable) price.  It’s more obvious than ever: none of us will live forever.  Each today is decidedly not the same as yesterday.

In light of our increasingly evident mortality, I thank God that each tomorrow will not be “like this day.”  No matter how wonderful or awful any given day is, some undisclosed future “today” will bring it all to a blessed end.  Death will finally find me.  And on that glorious day, I will finally see my Savior, Jesus, face-to-face.  That’s when, for all eternity, every tomorrow will not be like this day, but ever and always an even better day than the one before.  I can hardly wait!

Fulfilling Our Deepest Desires

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The recent death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was another reminder of the radical and sweeping changes over the past 40-50 years regarding popular attitudes toward human sexuality.  While many things could be said about these seismic transformations, two major and interrelated claims have emerged which bear special mention.

First, sexual fulfillment—whether heterosexual or homosexual in nature—is now considered centrally important to human identity and flourishing.  Second, and closely related, we are told that suppressing and rebuffing strong sexual desire not only leads to unhappiness, it is detrimental to human well-being and may even lead to psychosis.

The idea that strong personal desires should be sublimated (redirected) and subjugated (denied) in contemporary life is not only considered unreasonable, it’s deemed downright dangerous.  Instead, we are repeatedly told that life is fuller and more meaningful when we pursue and fulfill the deepest and strongest desires of our hearts, especially those that are sexual.

It may come as a surprise to some, but the fulfillment of our heart’s desires is actually biblical language.  Consider, for example, Psalm 37:4 where David says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

There are at least two things to notice here.  First, the desires of our heart arise from delighting first and foremost in the Lord.  When we delight in God, He gives us desires for good and noble things, and then fulfills those desires as we trust and seek Him.  Second, however, there is an implication: Our heart’s desires could also be directed toward what is evil and base.  This is why Jeremiah 17:9 warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”  In fact, we have a choice in the matter.

The decision to delight in the Lord above all other persons and things is the essential and indispensable prerequisite for experiencing divine fulfillment of our heart’s deepest desires.  Our heart has to be redirected and reshaped by the things that the Lord loves and values.  When we consciously and continually choose to delight in Him, our desires become very different than what they used to be.

At the same time, however, we must admit that our delight in the Lord is never perfect or uninterrupted.  We still struggle with those pesky and sometimes overwhelming evil desires of the flesh.  As James 1:14-15 explains, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

This dangerous element of strong wrong desire leading to sin is not taken seriously enough in contemporary society, a society that now expects and demands our deepest desires—especially sexual ones—to be granted every right and opportunity to be fulfilled.  In this context, we rarely, if ever, want to be told what we can and cannot do as well as when we can and cannot do it.  Human selfishness and sin make us prone to demand whatever we want, as much as we want, as often as we want it.  But these are the attitudes of spoiled children, not mature adults.  Mature adults learn to curb their voracious and capacious appetites.  But how do we become mature?  We must do two basic things: subjugate and sublimate our desires.

To subjugate our desires means we must bring them under the Lordship of Christ.  No matter how strong they are, no matter how much our society has told us we have every right to fulfill them, all our desires must be placed upon the alter of the Lord.  As we do, He may or may not see fit to fulfill them, but when we offer them up to Him, He gives us the grace to resist temptation and develop spiritual maturity and strength.

The second thing we are called to do is sublimate our desires.  Here, we consciously redirect them so that they might either be fulfilled in their proper contexts or be turned into desires for something or someone better and greater.

In speaking about subjugation in Colossians 3:5, the Apostle Paul uses the language of homicide and slaughter: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

When Paul speaks about sublimation and the redirection of desire in Philippians 3:8-10, he highlights the incomparable joy of knowing Jesus Christ above all else.  He knows that without something or someone better and greater to gaze at and aspire to, we would easily fall back into fulfilling our desires for lesser and ultimately harmful and dehumanizing things.

The world is wrong about many of our deepest human desires.  Their denial and redirection, far from harming our humanity, is most often the pathway to a deeper knowledge of God and a greater experience of who we as human beings were meant and created to be.

As we continually submit our desires to God, we can, like Asaph in Psalm 73:25-26, honestly say of Him, “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

When Our Wildest Dreams Don’t Come True

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Sometimes there’s a fine line between wisdom and cynicism.

In 1985, I was at a Cru gathering called “Exlpo ’85” where I first got really excited about my Christian faith.  The conference was my first serious introduction to all the amazing things God was doing around the globe.  The rallying cry was, “Come help change the world!”  I was young, unencumbered, idealistic, and wanted to be a “world changer.”

Several friends were also there, and together we began imagining how God might use us to alter the course of human history.  Trafficking in dreams seems to be the capital of youth, and while some dreamed of making money and becoming powerful and famous, we dreamed of being radically committed to Christ.  Others might live mediocre lives, but we were going to rise above the mundane and shine like stars for Jesus!

Those dreams were dreamt more than thirty years ago now.  There have been many storms and trials since.  Lots of water has passed beneath life’s bridge.  My friends’ lives took many different courses.  One (pictured with me above) died suddenly in his mid-twenties, another was married and then divorced, a third joined and then left Cru staff to become a lawyer, and one never finished college and became a security guard.

Reflecting on our lives and walks with God, I was struck by the thin line separating wisdom from cynicism.  All of us made choices along the way—thousands and thousands of them, choices that pulled and pushed us down the corridors of time.  Most of those youthful dreams quickly fled or slowly died away under reality’s crushing weight.  We all squandered opportunities to serve Jesus fully.

Did any of us become world changers?  I suppose we each, in our own ways, did help change the world—for better and for worse.  We wanted to be great, but in the end, we all turned out to be notoriously normal—broken, struggling, anonymous, unimpressive, and yet, still loved and graciously used by a wonderfully good and patient God.

Our youthful dreams of grandeur were mostly our own.  We were not wrong to dream them, but in the face of real life and God’s greater plan, they didn’t mean or amount to all that much.  And cynicism comes easy when you merely compare the youthful dream with the stark reality.  Most of our dreams are lost and forgotten in time.  Most of our goals remain unfulfilled.  Few succeed in achieving what was dreamed about in youth.

Wisdom, however, helps us understand that whatever visions and plans we may have once had, ultimately, all of us make daily decisions that bring us step by step to the threshold of today.  This is the wisdom of personal responsibility.  The wise will not blame others for what might have been but somehow never was.  No matter how awful or difficult the path became, we all had choices about the way we would live our lives.

Wisdom also affirms that life is more than choices.  This is our Father’s world, and our decisions are always coupled with His sovereign—and sometimes incomprehensible—purposes and plans.  True wisdom surrenders to the ways of a God who is wholly worthy of our trust.  We may have wanted more for ourselves when God wanted less.  The opposite is also true.  Many well-known believers never sought fame, fortune, or “scope” in their service of the Lord.  God simply chose to elevate and multiply what they were humbly doing for His own purposes and glory.  They were faithful, of course, but He was the Master Planner, opening doors for a broader base of impact.

Wisdom understands this and gives God all the glory.  Our calling, then, is not to fulfill our wildest dreams or achieve our highest goals, noble though they be.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more, of course, but just like John the Baptist, sometimes God calls us to be less (John 3:30).  The cynic lives in bitterness and regret over all that might have been.  The sage knows that sometimes less is more in the long-range economy of an omniscient and omnipotent God.  In this we can be content, giving Him our sincerest thanks and most joyous praise.

Thirty Years in Ministry: A Reflection

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When I joined Cru in July of 1987, I intended to be a “lifer” with the organization.  Looking back, I had no clue what that might actually look like over the long haul.  In many ways, it was little more than a romantic dream, a well-intentioned but poorly-understood commitment to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth and back, no matter what the cost.

More than thirty years later, reality looks a lot different than the dream.  I wanted to do great things for God, be known for exceptional devotion to and love for Him, give my all for the sake of the gospel.  In retrospect, my heart for and obedience to the Lord has often wavered, sometimes reaching embarrassingly low levels of commitment.

Back then, I thought that being in ministry for thirty years would have forged in me a more Christ-like character and provided me with some wonderful words of wisdom to share with those coming behind.  Truth be told, I do not feel especially righteous, sagacious, or qualified to offer others a stellar example or share anything truly compelling or profound.  The milestone came and went without much fanfare or notice.  Before and after, the mundane tasks of everyday life in ministry remain strangely familiar.  Nothing stands out as fundamentally different than before.

What is most noticeable is not my extraordinary commitment or growing resemblance (or lack thereof) to Jesus over the past thirty years.  Rather, it is the immense and inexorable faithfulness of God.  As 2 Timothy 2:13 says, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”  Above all else, God has been faithful, and His faithfulness continues to evoke gratitude and hope.

Gratitude comes from reflecting on the ongoing opportunities and graces, all undeserved, which God has granted and continues to give.  I’ve had the privilege of serving Him all over the world, of journeying through life with a beautiful, godly, loving, and loyal wife, of enjoying the joys and trials of parenting three wonderful children, of seeing God continually supply our every need, of being used to bring about eternal life change in numerous Christian leaders, and of experiencing the profound presence of God in ways I never dreamed possible.

Hope comes from knowing that no matter how far and repeatedly I fall short of His ideal, no matter much earthly time God grants me, He remains ever faithful, patient, and kind.  I am secure in His love and in the riches poured out upon me through the goodness of Christ, and will enjoy these unmerited benefits for all eternity.

I am reminded of some words from a beautiful hymn written by Keith and Kristyn Getty, “My Worth Is Not in What I Own.”

As summer flowers, we fade and die

Fame, youth and beauty hurry by

But life eternal calls to us at the cross

I will not boast in wealth or might

Or human wisdom’s fleeting light

But I will boast in knowing Christ at the cross

Two wonders here that I confess

My worth and my unworthiness

My value fixed, my ransom paid at the cross

I rejoice in my Redeemer

Greatest treasure

Wellspring of my soul

I will trust in Him, no other

My soul is satisfied in Him alone

Thank You, Lord, for the immense privilege of serving with You for more than thirty years, and for continually demonstrating Your faithful lovingkindness.