Betting on Jesus

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The older I get, the more I see family and friends facing their mortality.  We are not as young and healthy as we once were.  And since I’m unlikely to live beyond 100, well over half my life is already passed.  The many doors of opportunity that stood wide open in my youth are either shut or quickly closing.

And yet, of all possible lives I might have lived, the one I am in is infinitely better and more interesting than I could ever have dreamed of or imagined.  I am also well aware that many people my age cannot say that about their lives.  Instead, they feel regret, disappointment, bitterness, and pain.  Of course, I have done plenty of things to make me feel these ways, but overall, the forgiving and magnificent grace of God, alongside the indescribable life He has given, have been nothing short of fantastic.

Pascal speaks of making a wager.  He notes that in view of the possible eternal benefits, believing in God is wiser than the alternatives.  Many have criticized his wager as being foolish and naïve.  We should, after all, only believe what is true, no matter how bitter or discouraging that reality might prove to be.

However, while marveling at the grand adventure of my life, it strikes me full in the face: even if none of it is true, even if there is no God and at death I simply ceased to exist and fall into “the big sleep,” I would prefer this life to any other I might have lived.  Seeking after and following Jesus has been one incredible and undeserved adventure after another.  It has been so much richer and better than anything I might have conceived of, sought after, or accomplished on my own.  I am overcome by a profound and immense sense of gratitude.

Don’t get me wrong.  There have been many tough times and bitter disappointments along the way.  Life is hard, no matter which path you choose.  But I would not choose a different life, even if promised the world in exchange.  The money, things, fame, pleasure, and comfort that so looked so enticing in my youth now seem increasingly petty, fleeting, and insubstantial.  Life with Jesus really is better than anything or anyone else.

I also want to say that I have thoroughly and repeatedly investigated and examined the overwhelming evidences for the truth of Christianity and am more convinced than ever God is real, and that Jesus really did die for my sins and rise again.  I have experienced rich and undeniable intimacies with Him at numerous times in life, and am utterly confident that because of Christ’s righteousness, I will one day stand in God’s presence holy and blameless, with great joy.  But even if, on some incredible fluke of reality, Christianity turns out to be false, my life lived within it has been indescribably better than any other possible lifestyle or viewpoint.

Pascal was right.  There are eternal benefits for betting on Jesus. But beyond this great hope, living for Him now will produce the grandest and most incredible adventure you could ever imagine.  That’s bet worth making for this life and the next.

The Significance of Sacred Space

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I said goodbye today to the office I occupied for more than twelve years.  Much-needed renovations mean the school is moving elsewhere for now.  Faculty offices will be reconfigured, and the old ones all demolished.

After all the boxes were packed and the desk emptied, I took some time to reflect on all that had happened and been done in this place.  I thought of conversations with students, faculty, and staff, the many books and articles read and digested, the countless class sessions created and prepared for, the mass of papers and assignments read through and graded, the meals eaten, the times of prayer, worship, and contemplation where I heard from, talked, pleaded, wrestled with, and even raged against God.  I cried, laughed, prayed, listened, and sang here—alone and with others.

In the midst of my musings and grief, it suddenly struck me: Through the years his humble little corner had become a holy haven, a sacred space.

Because of dangers and abuses, Evangelicals often avoid designating some spaces more sacred than others.  We don’t want them to become idolatrous places, distracting and distancing us from God’s genuine presence.

In our protective zeal, however, something important gets lost.  We can forget to pause and remember that God was actually in this place, doing things only He could do.  In this sense, certain places can provide meaningful memorials and reminders of His goodness and faithfulness.

One of the most obvious areas where such places can be found is the so-called, “Holy Land,” where Abraham sojourned, David reigned, and Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  When the Israelites entered into this land by miraculously crossing the Jordan River on dry ground, God directed stones from the riverbed to be erected as a memorial to what He had done there.  It was intended to be an important teaching tool for future generations to remember His powerful kindness.   Such commemorative spaces can help us recapture, reenact, and reimagine all that God has done, reminding us to give Him thanks and praise.

But we also must remember that Moses only stood on holy ground because God was there, not because of any holiness inherent to that place.  Spaces do not become or remain sacred in-and-of-themselves.  They become sacred when God sets them apart by His presence and power.  This was especially the case with respect to the Holy of Holies, the temple’s inner sanctum.  It was only holy because God was there.  And as a result, it was not to be entered without holy fear and humble reverence, lest that person be struck down by God’s righteous indignation.

Sadly, this sacred space would itself become an idol.  God’s people began taking Him for granted, repeatedly rejecting and rebelling against Him.  Eventually, when God had finally had enough, He left the Holy of Holies.  He allowed it to be desecrated by foreign invaders and permanently dismantled by the Romans in AD 70.  It was not sacred in-and-of-itself.  It was only sacred because God chose to dwell there in a very special way.

Similarly, there’s nothing inherently extraordinary about the 10’X10’ fourth-story slab suspended by concrete and rebar that constituted my office for over twelve years. Nevertheless, I thank God for visiting and using this blessed little cube in the sky for His greater glory.  Much more than this, I long for and look forward to living in that place Jesus promises to prepare for us, a space that will always be sacred and never taken away since we will dwell there for endless days in His magnificent and marvelous presence.

Is it really worth writing? Thoughts on Great Christian Literature

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There aren’t many truly great writers in the world today, and fewer still are Christians.  In any given generation, very few genuine classics are written, and this kind of literature is more often determined by history and the generations that follow than by those in which it was produced.  Magnificent authors are rare indeed and worth their weight in gold.

In contrast, above average and good writers are much easier to come by and abundant in every generation. But given the fact that the vast majority of Christian writers in our age will never write an authentically enduring work, does that make them unimportant?

I would argue no.  Like all contemporary cultural products, such works represent a wide spectrum of both quality and influence.  Some have great initial influence but are quickly left behind for the latest and greatest production.  Others have little initial impact but grow in influence over time as their significance and importance become increasingly acknowledged.  Still others are immediately recognized for their exceptional nature and outstanding quality.  Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example, was quickly (and rightly) hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, not merely in Russia, but throughout the world.

There are, of course, cases where magnificent literature is only recognized for what it is much later in time.  It’s influence and quality are only appreciated posthumously.  Pascal’s Penseeswere not found and published until after his death.  The writings of Thomas Aquinas were initially condemned by the Catholic church until, over a period of several generations, their value and brilliance became undeniable.

The vast majority of Christian works, however, find themselves in the category of being neither very noticeable nor influential.  They may have some value and meaning for their authors and the few who read them, but they do not bear the marks of magnificence and significance that truly great writings possess.

And yet, this rushing flood of what we might call “normal” Christian writings has a crucial place in the creation, maintenance, sustenance, and transformation of culture in our time.  Very often it’s the “average” and “mundane” things that we read and think about each day which ultimately mold and shape us most powerfully over time.

Consequently, most Christian writers write, not necessarily to make money, influence the masses, or produce magnificent works of literature that will be read and appreciated for generations to come.  Rather, they write because it is, in many ways, a divine calling and vocation.  God has given them something to say and a way to say it, even if only a precious few will take any notice.

I like the way Anne Frank put it in her now-famous dairy: “[I]t seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.  Still, what does that matter?  I want to write. . . .”

Perhaps the “unbosomings” of most writers—Christian and otherwise—will not be preserved in the museums, publishing houses, or churches of future generations in any concrete way.  They will, however, be read, absorbed, and creatively appropriated by some in their own time.  Perhaps a few will be passed on to those who come after by private collection, recollection, word of mouth, and way of life.  In the end, if God is in the writing, such an outcome is more than enough.  It is for this rather unremarkable Christian writer, anyway.

Would I suffer and die for Jesus Christ?

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Worldwide, many contemporary Christians are experiencing persecution and even death for their faith. I have listened with sadness and admiration to accounts of those who risked their livelihoods, lives, and families by refusing to deny their faith in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:29 makes it clear that as believers, it has been granted to us to suffer for Jesus’ sake. It is, in fact, a gift.  And while we don’t always want every gift we receive, in God’s wisdom, He knows exactly how to give us what we need.  Suffering is a dreadful but necessary grace.

While preparing to teach church history, I read some older accounts of Christian martyrdom and persecution from the first three centuries of the church.  As a result, several things struck me, but two stand out the most.

First, it’s easy to admire the courage of these Christians with an abstract appreciation for their faith in the face of torture and death.  It’s far harder to picture myself and fellow family members standing before the examiner and facing the choice between forsaking Jesus or suffering torture and death.

When I first started walking closely with the Lord, I was convinced I would die for Him.  Thirty-plus years later, I am much more acutely aware of and honest about my cowardice and strong attachments to the things and consolations of this life.  For all my prior blustering braggadocio about being willing to “sacrifice it all for Jesus,” I now have to admit, I want a tranquil and comfortable life.

Would I really suffer and die for Jesus if offered the choice?  With all of my heart I want to say yes, but I’m also honest enough to admit it would not be easy.

In the end, I suspect I could only do so if the Lord granted grace if and when the moment arrived.  Meanwhile, I am still trusting God to help divest myself of inappropriate and inordinate affections for anything and anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ.  Perhaps that is an admission of faithlessness, but I hope it is more a recognition of weakness and desperate need for His everlasting mercy and grace.

The second thing that struck me is closely related.  It occurred to me how grossly unprepared most professing Christians—myself included—are to suffer for their faith in any serious way.  Most (but certainly not all) Christians I know have been led extremely sheltered and comfortable lives compared to the hardships of many contemporary and historical Christians.  I certainly have.

Of course, if this has been the case, it is not necessarily something for which we should be ashamed. It is a privilege to be able to turn our freedoms and resources into opportunities to serve and care for others for God’s greater glory.  And many have done just that.  Lord, let us be legion!

But those who have lived in relative safety and ease of comfort should pause to consider: If life ever became much more difficult precisely because we are Christ-followers, would we, like the believers of yesterday and today, be willing to suffer and even die for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Would you?  Would I?  God grant us the grace to live humbly and boldly for Your glory, whether in life or in death.

For Such a Time as This

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Growing up, I often dreamed of living in another time and place.  Some long to live in the future, fascinated by imagined and fantastic things that might someday become possible and common-place.  I, on the other hand, always felt like I was born too late, ill-fitted for life in the present age.  The quixotic past I envisioned living in was safer, slower, less technological and complex.

It’s easy, after all, to romanticize the imagined past and the dreams of the future when you don’t actually live in them.  It’s far harder is to live well within the messy and difficult realities of the present.

Many things make me want to live in the past, but the recent rapid rise of digital information technologies has been especially instrumental in increasing this nostalgic yearning.  The explosions of tech innovation and the accompanying breakneck pace of cultural and academic alterations in teaching have disoriented, dumbfounded, and discouraged me.  The methods and means of education are changing so rapidly, I wonder if I’ll be able to finish my career as a professor if I cannot quickly adapt to these relentless and radical technological transformations.

I frequently catch myself thinking, “Perhaps if I was born about fifteen years earlier, I would not have to worry about all these changes.  I would be approaching retirement and could let younger generations figure it all out.” But if my health and mind hold out, there could many years of teaching opportunities ahead.  God has been reminding me that like it or not, I will have to face these challenges in the here and now.  And when you really think about it, what other time do we have to live within but the actual present?

I suspect that many have wrestled with the longing to escape the difficulties of today by wanting to live in the future or the past.  And while we can certainly learn from the past and look to the future, God still calls us to live well in the present—the exact time and place in which He has chosen us to live and move and have our being.  As such, none of us were born too late or too early.

As Mordecai reminded Esther, we were born for such a time as this, created at just the right time for God’s sovereign plans to be revealed and fulfilled in and through us.  I doubt Esther wanted to risk her life to save her people from extermination, but it was the time and place in which God had positioned her.  That moment gave her the opportunity and responsibility to live well in the present. She accepted it with courage and used it wisely.

If we are willing to embrace with faith and joy the place and time in which God has positioned us, and if we are willing to live—really live—in that actual present, I suspect God will grant us many opportunities—big and small—that we alone are meant to accept and fulfill.  They may or may not be, like Esther, life-risking, nation-saving endeavors, but in the here and now of God’s purposes and plans they still matter immensely nonetheless.  May we therefore attend to and live well within the present prospects God grants us so long as it is still called today.

When Truth Doesn’t Matter Anymore

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Watching the news recently, I have become increasingly discouraged by the manner in which people disagree. It’s one thing to disagree.  It’s another to refuse to consider alternative viewpoints.  And it’s yet another to vilify the opposition by using derogatory names and making threats of intimidation and even violence as a means to silence and subdue them.

I’ve often wondered, how did we ever come to embody this kind of immature and unproductive public and private discourse?  Then a friend recently called my attention to a Bible Gateway blog post from May 17, 2018 that helped make some sense of all this quarrelsome showmanship.  Part of the reason we now disagree in such disagreeable and unreasonable ways is because we have now entered into the next “logical” phase of postmodern thought—the “post-truth” phase.

In the blog entitled, “What Does It Mean to Live in a Post-Truth World?”, Jonathan Petersen interviews Abdu Murray about his recent book, Saving Truth.  Murray notes, “post-truth relates or denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. In other words, feelings and preferences matter more than facts and truth.”

My personal desires and feelings have not merely become “my truth” (as they were in postmodernity), they have become more important than truth.  They trump truth.  Even if someone could be adequately shown that something was true, all that would really matter to them would be whether or not they want it to be true.

There are many ways this manifests itself in contemporary life.  I have already noted the stubborn refusal to disagree in a constructive way.  If all that matters is how I feel about it, facts are either desire-confirming plusses or irrelevant irritants to be dismissed or derided.  Murray articulates another post-truth era effect this way:“Confusion has now morphed into a virtue.  Those who are confused sexually are labeled heroes.  Those who see morality as a fuzzy category are considered progressive.  And those who are confused about religious claims—saying that all paths are equally valid roads to God—are considered ‘tolerant.’”

On the other hand, “If someone is certain or clear on sexual boundaries, that person is a bigot.  If a person is clear on the existence of objective moral values and boundaries, that person is regressive.  And if someone clearly understands that different religious paths can’t possibly all lead to God, that person is considered intolerant. In other words, confusion has become a virtue and clarity has become a sin.”

Finally, Murray concludes that a post-truth thinker might concede that there is objective truth but would still insist, “I don’t care because my personal feelings and preferences matter more.”  Consequently, “Anyone who brings facts that challenge those feelings or preferences is labeled as a ‘hater’ or something similarly derogatory.”

This kind of labelling and name-calling doesn’t boost the potential for having productive interactions between those who disagree.  It also makes our job as Christians harder, not only because we still affirm that truth and moral standards are inherent to the fabric of God’s universe, but because we must continue to love and show kindness to those with whom we (even strongly) disagree in a way that still grants them honor and respect.  Why?  Because they, like us, are still made in and reflect, no matter how dimly, the image of God.

As Christians, we should also exhibit a deep conviction and confidence in the goodness and wisdom of God, a wisdom that sometimes goes against our natural dreams and desires.  And this means that some of the things that we and others want to be true and pursue are, by God’s design, false and detrimental to our personal flourishing.  In a world still under the curse of sin, we are not designed to ignore reality for the fulfillment of our often-distorted cravings and yearnings.

No doubt, desires and preferences matter, but when they matter more than truth and are allowed to determine reality, we set ourselves up for wide-ranging psychological insecurity, disappointment, and dysfunction.  But far more tragically, in subservience to our fickle feelings, we ignore and separate ourselves from the One who created us, loves us, and is goodness, truth, and life itself.

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.