June 26th, 2014
His name is Josef and much of his family would prefer him dead. (Sound familiar?) He’d fled his native war-torn Afghanistan while Coalition forces sought to dismantle Taliban hegemony of the country following 9/11. Arriving (barely) first in Italy he eventually made it to Germany where a kindly sister took him in.
During this first season of life as a refugee he began studying other faith traditions–Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. He attended a Protestant church out of curiosity, but once he’d applied for German asylum he was relocated to a refugee camp. There he encountered Christian missionaries whose witness soon precipitated Josef’s decision to yield to Christ.
You can read here the whole account of Josef’s harrowing experience that led to his conversion and the ensuing vengeance it provoked from his family. But I introduce Josef to you for two reasons.
For most in our culture there is little cost to profess and practice one’s faith. Josef’s experience (and others’ for whom we’ve prayed of late) reminds us how in many places that cost is so immeasurably greater that only a whole-heartedness for the glory and grace of God (as we spoke of last Sunday) can explain the willingness to risk so much–and sacrifice more. If we find our interest in God diminished, Josef’s story exhorts us to consider afresh the astonishing hope the Gospel offers.
Furthermore, Josef’s experience confronts a tepid (if that) interest in evangelism. That one should become so enamored by Jesus to the degree that he is willing to risk his own life is unassailable testimony to the purposefulness of making Christ known. But to make Him known does not require an exhaustive exposition of an entire system of belief (as we’ve done in Storyline.) It only entails putting the person of Jesus before them. In Josef’s own words,
“I think I was impressed by the personality of Jesus himself. The fact that he came here to take all of our sins, that moved me. I admired his character and personality long before I was baptized.”
We’re not tasked to move people; God, by His Spirit, takes that upon Himself. The heart wholly moved then finds reasons to live with radically different allegiances and ethics.
It’s those ethics that reveal the transformation of a heart and which can percolate through a whole culture.
Three roommates in New Paltz, NY demonstrated a radical honesty not long ago. Reaching into the crevices of a thrift-store couch they’d recently purchased, one of them felt a series of lumpy envelopes they came to find contained nearly $40,000 in cash. The late husband of the previous owner had stashed the cash for a rainy day but failed to mention its whereabouts to his now widowed wife.
The trio concedes they debated what precisely to do for a while, even soliciting the input of their parents. In time they had to realize this wasn’t their money. To keep it was to steal it. So they contacted the Salvation Army from which they’d purchased the couch to locate its previous owner and personally returned the money. In return they received a $100 thank you. But they also came to know the story of how the money came to be there–and how much it would mean for the widowed wife to have that last gift from her late husband.
We continue in the Ten Commandments this week with a look at the 8th: you shall not steal. One might assume the Commandment is concerned primarily with ownership. We’ll argue its concern is deeper still.
He met her while applying for a bartender job in Cleveland. They dated long distance after she moved to Manhattan. But six months later he proposed and they were married in Central Park.
Five months into their marriage, she phoned to tell him she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.
You may have already seen this set of photos shot by Angelo Merendino of his wife, Jen, documenting the fight that would eventually claim her life in 2011. Every shot shimmers in poignancy.
As Hugh spoke of the sacraments in last Sunday’s Storyline I immediately remembered this photo from late in her fight. A priest has come to administer the Meal meant both to remind of the One who overcame death, and also to confer a grace to the soul that confirms the promise to which the Meal points. As Hugh explained, the sacraments are a sign of God’s grace to us in Christ–a sign of the remission of sin (baptism) through the broken body and shed blood of Christ (communion). But it is also a seal of those realities, a mystery that does more for us than our mere reflection upon the sign can accomplish. Jen in her desperate hour came for both reminder and real consolation–the real Presence of God. We do, too, in both our desperate and more serene moments. (We will again on July 6th)
The photo deepens our appreciation of what the sacrament means. It also prepares us for our conclusion of Storyline this Sunday: Chapters 32 and 33 in the Westminster Confession. The Assembly’s effort to summarize our system of doctrine culminates with two concerns: what awaits in death and what awaits when death is no more. For topics for which so much ink has been spilled (and controversy provoked), the Assembly is remarkably terse in its summation of final things. For that we can be thankful; for do not such concerns about precise timings and signs dissolve in importance when facing the bridge between now and then?
I’d mentioned last week that I’d provide you a recap of what transpired at this year’s General Assembly in Houston. A friend and colleague beat me to the punch. Jason Helopolous offers such a summation and some of his own impressions of both the work of the Assembly and its manner.
Sixteen folks gathered last night to hear and discuss what facilitating Community Groups (CG) might entail. If you’re late to the conversation, it’s our desire to soon see CG’s form that provide a context in which Faithful Presence might be practiced. Last night’s response was clear (and heartening) indication that that desire is a shared one.
Close to 50 of you expressed some form of interest about becoming part of a CG. We hope to provide a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document soon to add clarity to what we mean. Pending approval of interested Facilitators our preliminary plan is to form groups to coincide with (and discuss) the sermon series on Galatians commencing in mid-August. Prior to that series, I’ll preach a short series on Marks of Christian Community. If you missed the survey we conducted to gauge your interest in CG’s, you can still register your opinion by clicking here.
“I’m interested in religion, only because certain churches seem to be a place where things can be talked about. What does your life mean? Do you believe in something bigger than you? Is there something harmful about gratifying every single desire you have that is harmful?… One place where I discovered stuff was being talked about was AA meetings. I’m not in [Alcoholics Anonyous], but I went to open meetings.. There’s a certain amount of goo, and there’s a certain amount of serious [stuff]. Like the fact that it takes enormous courage to appear weak. Hadn’t heard that anywhere else. I was just starting to entertain the fact that that might be true.”
The hazards of making oneself known to others notwithstanding, digging into deep realities of life in the context of acceptance that a gospel-centered community both offers and demands is an opportunity that outweighs the risks.
We’re going to let the Lord’s Prayer structure our time of corporate prayer (“Counting to Eight”) later in July. In his new book, A Transforming Vision, William Edgar quotes a prayer of St Benedict (d. 547) to set the tone of his exposition of Jesus’ prayer template
Gracious holy Father, please give me: Intellect to understand you; Reason to discern you; Diligence to seek you; Wisdom to find you; A spirit to know you; A heart to meditate upon you; Ears to hear you; Eyes to see you; A tongue to proclaim you; A way of life pleasing to you; Patience to wait for you; and Perseverance to look for you
Perhaps letting Benedict prompt your own prayers, consider praying:
- for Josef, still hiding outside Kabul from his vengeful family
- for those considering serving as Community Group Facilitators later this year
- for the mother of Debby Comer as she convalesces from recent surgery
- for our community spread abroad both working and resting
- for the girls in Nigeria, the mourners of MH 370, the strife in Crimea, Syria, and Iraq
See you Sunday at 9:30,