Can We Really Cancel Worship Due to Snow?
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Hickory Grove Church, PCA
We’ve been together now as pastor and congregation for some time. When it is necessary to make a decision, even big decisions, though I prefer consensus, if necessary I can be decisive.
But then sometimes, there are some easy decisions that leave me immobilized.
Yesterday Rick and Debbie Allen called to ask what I was going to do about church. They had carefully navigated some of the dangerous roads to see abandoned cars beside the road, and looked at weather forecasts for last night and today.
As he got off the phone, I think I heard Rick say laughingly something about “going to Hell if I cancelled church.” It reminded me of some responses I received the time I suggested “cancelling the prayer meeting.”
You do not cancel prayer under any circumstances. But can I cancel corporate worship?
Vicki had already told me she’d received a Face Book message from Roy Poston alerting me that if he risked venturing toward church, his family was coming to my house if I cancelled.
Thinking Bob Allen could provide good input, I called him but he was in the shower.
Susan said she could tell me what Bob would say without even asking: “You don’t miss church. If the doors are open, you are there.”
Then she followed with, “But as for me and the girls . . . “
“I really don’t have trouble making decisions. But some decisions like this — like the little decision of cancelling church due to snow, when only a handful of people will be able to get there — sometimes I just need someone to make the decision for me.”
That’s all Susan needed to hear, and the decision was made.
I laugh sometimes when I hear others criticize us conservative Presbyterians who follow Scripture in restricting the office of elder and deacon to biblically qualified men only.
“You don’t understand,” I respond. “The women in our church are Popes and Cardinals.”
So here we are this morning. Did the preacher cancel worship due to snow?
When we think about what it means to be God’s church — those in a faith union (e.g., think marriage) with Christ, those having been baptized and brought all the way into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, church as the place where God dwells with His people, where heaven and earth meet, our being in Christ and Christ in us — do we really “go to church?”
Or, would it be more accurate to say “We are God’s church. We are God’s church when we are gathered and we are God’s church when we are scattered.”
This morning, thanks to the snow, we have become a living illustration of what it means to be at the same time both the scattered-church and gathered-church worshipping together.
For our sermon-devotional this morning, I’ve excerpted pages 76-86 from Chapter 3 of Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper.
In what follows, Cosper addresses biblically the relationship of scattered and gathered church far better than I can.
Two Contexts of Worship — Worship Scattered and Worship Gathered
Participating in God’s glory-sharing life, then, happens in two contexts: scattered and gathered.
Worship scattered is the Spirit-filled life of the Christian in the world, and worship gathered is the meeting of God’s people to remember, encourage, and bless one another.
First, worship scattered. This broad, life-filling reality is the way things were meant to be when the world was made, a way of intimacy and community that was restored by Jesus, who tells us to boldly enter God’s presence (Heb. 4:16) and cry out to him with the intimacy of his child (Rom. 8:15). Because we are united with God in Christ, our whole lives are now caught up in Jesus’s cosmic worship of the Father, and we once again participate in the glory sharing life of God. As Harold Best describes it:
Nonetheless, this singular fact, full to the bursting, remains. It is a fact grounded in infinite outpouring: Christ is in me; I am in Christ. Christ in me is not some narrow, introspective disembodied, private, even embarrassing fact, specially savored by a narrow sect within the larger Christian community. It is an all-encompassing, all-empowering fact from which no quarter of my worship can be excused.
This means that, for the Christian, whatever you are doing whether serving the poor in Guatemala, serving Communion in local church, flipping hamburgers in a diner, or flipping channels on TV — it all happens in union with Jesus, before the eyes and presence of a loving God, who by a miracle of boundless grace receives each and every act, though offered with mixed motives or frailty of heart, as a pleasant and acceptable offering.
Scattered worship reveals the scandal of God’s grace. The whole mess of our lives is transformed in Christ, from corrupted to glorious, from ashes to beauty. The addict who can only cry out in miserable faith, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is just as accepted by the Father as a faithful missionary or a clean cut-Christian celebrity pastor. There are no mountains to climb to seek God’s presence, no gates to unlock, no feats to accomplish There is only Jesus, who throws wide heaven’s gates and cries, “All who are thirsty, come and drink” (see John 7:37).
He extends that invitation to you and me. Draw near. Walk behind the curtain. Behold God’s glory as you live out your days. Unrestricted access is yours in Jesus. Worship, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, no longer has an address. It’s about a man named Jesus, who has given us more than we dared dream.
This invitation will sometimes tempt us to wonder why the church still has worship services. If worship is spirit and truth not time and place, and is fully accomplished by Jesus, then why does the church still gather?
The author of Hebrews offers an explanation. After describing the priesthood of Jesus in the heavenly realms (Hebrews 8) and his once-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 9-10:18), the author then invites us to draw near to God through Jesus (Heb. 10:19-22) and to continue to gather:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:23-25)
Through the book of Hebrews, we’re shown how Jesus replaces the central focus of Israel’s gathering the temple, the priest, the sacrifice and yet the author goes on to tell his readers to continue to gather. The gathering’s purpose shifts from the work of the priests — the efforts to cleanse Israel’s sins — to the work of the church — encouraging one another, and all the more as “the Day” approaches.
The “Day” here is the day of judgment. The passage goes on to warn of the dangers of falling away, and the author points to the gathering of the church as one key for holding fast under the pressures of a broken world and the temptations to sin.
This is familiar territory when it comes to the story of worship. We’re profoundly forgetful creatures, and the consequences of forgetting our God are frightening. Adam and Eve forgot God’s word in the garden, and the Devil, the world’s first heretic, twisted their judgment and led them down a path toward death. Ever since, the authors of the Scriptures have been crying out warnings for us to remember, to guard our hearts and protect ourselves from forgetting:
Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you (Deut. 4:23).
Take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deut. 6:12).
You shall not forget the covenant that I have made with you (2 Kings 17:38).
The wicked return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God (Ps. 9:17).
We continue to gather in the light of this profound weakness. Like the children of Neverland, we’re forgetful, or “prone to wander,” as the old hymn says. Worship scattered happens in the midst of a not yet restored world, where those around us have long forgotten their Maker. Their idolatry — their love of money, fame, and glamour — is like the pagan Asheroth totems that dotted the land-scape around Israel. We, like them, are quick to forget our God and quick to install the totem in our living rooms, revolving our lives around it. Our only hope is to remember the gospel — remembering who we are and whose we are as we rehearse the story of redemption that calls us out of the wilderness and back to the garden.
Who Came to Church?
It’s no small thing to realize that when a Christian shows up, God shows up. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)
So when the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)
When this temple gathers, something otherworldly takes place. It’s an outpost of hope in a dying world, a fellowship of resurrected sinners, whose presence in the world is a foretaste of a greater transformation to come.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13)
Theologian David Peterson points out the communal nature of the text (Engaging with God, 209-10) — Paul is talking about the formation of an entire church, not just individuals. It’s not merely that I should be built up, but that we should be built in unity. This happens as those given to lead the church exercise their gifts, teaching and preaching from God’s Word.
. . . that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:14-16)
“Speaking the truth in love” is often understood as saying hard things or dealing with conflict: we “speak the truth in love” when we confront sin or say unpopular things lovingly. According to Peterson, though, “speaking the truth in love” is not so much about interpersonal boldness as it is about a community that shares a confession, a unified expression of faith in the God who saved them. The gathered body teaches the Word and proclaims it together; we speak the truth in love as we sing, read the Scriptures, and remember the gospel together.
The Goal of the Gathering
These passages, taken together, show us a church that gathers in the midst of the world’s pressures, under the hopeful warning of Christ’s return, encouraging one another and building each other up through the presence of God’s Spirit by immersing itself in God’s Word, singing and proclaiming the gospel. The fruit of the gathering is not just a strong individual, but a strong church united in faith.
In this sense, the gathering is unique not as an encounter with God (it is that, though God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian); rather it’s unique because it is an encounter with the people of God, filled with the Spirit of God, spurring one another along in the mission of God. Christ in me meets Christ in you.
It’s not just a family reunion either. We gather because we have work to do to remember the gospel and hold fast to our confession. The Greek word for the gathered church offers some insight into how the apostles saw their gatherings. Though the language offered a variety of options for words to describe the gathering church, the authors of the New Testament chose “ekklesia.” According to scholar Larry Hurtado, it was an odd choice:
In its historic Greek usage, ekklesia designated the gathering of citizens of a city to conduct civic business. Such events always had a religious character and would be commenced with offerings to the gods, but the ekklesia was not precisely a gathering to conduct worship (Hurtado, At the Origins of Christian Worship, 54-55).
We gather because we have work to do. Ekklesia emphasizes the work of the people. We gather to do our work, which is to say, we gather to remember, to encourage, and to spur one another on.
Scattered and Gathered . . . Together
Gathered worship then feeds scattered worship, building up and equipping worshipers to live in the power and wonder of the gospel, able to persevere amid the trials that surround them. Likewise, scattered worship feeds gathered, as each worshiper brings his or her growth, suffering, and maturing faith to the gathering. Harold Best beautifully shows the connection between the two contexts of worship:
We must conclude that the Christian needs to hear but one call to worship and offer only one response. These come exactly co-incident with new birth and, despite our wanderings and returns to the contrary, they suffice for all our living, dying, and eternal outpouring. We do not go to church to worship. But as continuing worshipers we gather ourselves together to continue our worship, but now in the company of brothers and sisters (Best, Unceasing Work, 47).
Colossians 3:16-17 has this same paradigm:
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (NIV)
Verse 16 describes the heart of the gathering — singing, sharing, and encouraging one another that the word of Christ might dwell richly among us. Verse 17 then opens the doors to the wider world, inviting us to step out with thankful hearts, doing everything in the name of Jesus. Worship scattered and worship gathered go hand in hand, shaping and informing one another in the life of the worshiper. One without the other will inevitably be weakened.
It’s a gospel rhythm — sent and gathered, always worshiping and regularly worshiping together, with the story of the gospel throbbing in regular rhythms at the heart of the church: this is who you are, this is your God, this is your story. It’s a life-giving and community-building pulse, and when the gospel is at the center — remembered, declared in unity, and displayed in the church’s worship — it’s a rhythm of grace.
None of this happens in a vacuum. These rhythms of scattering and gathering happen before many watching eyes — the audiences of worship. In the era of the rock-star worship leader, the word audience might come across as part of the problem. Worship should be for God’s sake, right? It isn’t about the crowd we draw, is it?
The Scriptures make it very clear that there are many eyes on the people of God, both as they gather to worship him and as they live their lives in scattered worship. In this sense, we can talk about worship having an audience — the eyes that witness the worshiping church.
In fact, there are three distinct audiences that the church needs to be aware of, both gathered and scattered. There is God, who is both the object of our praise and a witness to us as we praise him, there is the church, which both participates in and witnesses the lives and gatherings of the people, and there is the world, watching from the darkness.
God as Our Audience
God’s presence as an audience reminds us that our worship isn’t called out from another room. It’s not a Skype call. We don’t have to shout for him to hear us, and we don’t have to get the “recipe” right for him to pay attention. God is here, now, wherever a believer calls on his name. Not only that, he calls and accepts us just as we are because he meets us through Jesus, whose work makes us presentable. The Maker of heaven and earth is always pleased with us because of Jesus.
This isn’t to say that all of our methods are stamped “approved,” or that what we’re doing when we gather is always wise. Rather, it’s simply to state that worship done humbly in Jesus’s name is received with joy by the Father. We needn’t fear our acceptability or lack thereof. We need only trust in Jesus as we gather and scatter.
It’s sometimes overwhelming to think about preaching, or leading worship, or even showing up at church. We imagine this gathered body to be a special, holier-than-I bunch. We fear that the moment we enter the room, someone will discover that we’re faking it, we’re impostors, and we’ll be kicked to the curb. The gospel tells us just the opposite. It reminds us that this gathering is always made up of sinners saved by grace nothing more and nothing less. It reminds us as well that the hard work is already done. The sins we abhor have been fully paid for by Jesus. And finally, it tells us that the most important audience member is completely pleased with us in Jesus.
All this is to say that having God in our audience means there is one who accepts us just as we are and deems our imperfect worship as made perfect in Jesus. When you worship, seek him out, and let his assured presence, peace, and comfort be foremost in your mind. These things in combination with his power and majesty bring comfort without complacency, the thrill of God’s presence rather than terror. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29).
In the fear of the LORD one has strong confidence and his children will have a refuge. (Prov. 14:26)
The Church as Our Audience
Which brings us to the next audience member: the church.
Many a young worship leader (or worship enthusiast) has commented, “We shouldn’t sing songs about God; we should only sing songs to God.” Similarly, some may say, “All these songs that talk about us they’re man-centered, and worship should be God- centered. Let’s not sing about us. Let’s only sing to God
This sounds pious and high-minded until you realize how many of the psalms are singing about and to Israel. Several New Testament passages thought to be early hymns of the church are the same way; they’re declarative and confessional, rather than directly addressing God. This becomes even clearer when you read passages like Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, and you realize that Paul’s command is to sing to one another.
The Bible makes it very clear that the church is an audience of worship and that the purpose of the gathering, in many ways, speaks to this audience. As I said earlier: the gathering is unique not as an encounter with God (since God’s presence is a constant comfort and help to the Christian); it’s unique as an encounter with God intensified among the people of God, filled with the Spirit of God, spurring one another along in the mission of God. It’s communal, not individualistic. Christ in me meets Christ in you. The gathering should be a place where believers are built up and encouraged in the midst of the various trials and circumstances of their lives.
So when we gather, we sing too each other. We declare the truths of the gospel to one another. Our presence and our participation is not merely for the sake of our individual relationship with God, demonstrating our confidence and hope, but it’s also for our brothers’ and sisters’ sake. Our participation in the gathering is testimony and encouragement to them. When you sing, you are “speaking the truth in love” to your church around you, and your bold confession of faith may be exactly what someone nearby needs to hear in the midst of his or her dark hours. Likewise, you may be the one who needs to receive the comfort that comes from the praises of God’s people
The Watching World as our Audience
These bold declarations have yet another audience: the watching world. As the church gathers, it proclaims to the surrounding world that Jesus is King, that he alone saves, and that he is their only hope. Just as the Psalms declare the wonders of God to all of Israel, they declare them to the nations (Ps. 96:3). In the New Testament, we see the gathered church as an island of exiles whose worship causes outsiders to see Christ’s glory and be drawn in. Paul, in l Corinthians 14, admonishes the church to seek to prophecy more than they seek the gift of tongues. He describes an outsider at a gathering: “The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25)
It’s the clarity of prophecy-heart-cutting words in an intelligible tongue that makes the moment transformative for the unbeliever. Tim Keller says:
It cannot be missed that Paul directly tells a local congregation to adapt its worship because of the presence of unbelievers. It is a false dichotomy to insist that if we are seeking to please God we must not ask what the unchurched feel or think about our worship. . . . God wants the world to overhear us worshipping him. God directs his people not to simply worship, but to sing his praises “before the nations.” We are not to simply communicate the gospel to them, but celebrate the gospel before them. (Keller, “Evangelistic Worship)
This reminds us of the centrality of the gospel to the gathered church. As Keller says, the world needs to clearly and coherently see the gospel celebrated. Even though three audiences witness our worship, the message doesn’t have to be tailored separately; all of them need to see and hear the gospel displayed and celebrated.
The same can be said of scattered worship — the world witnesses how we live out and celebrate the gospel. Our authenticity, our love for one another, our glory-transformed lives of worship are evidence of its power and truthfulness (John 13:35). (Keller)
During research, I stumbled upon a 1978 letter written by Jack Miller to the New Life Budget Committee.
When is the last time you heard of a pastor writing to a budget committee period, much less saying, “We local pastors and others here may not get paid sometimes”?
At that time in New Life’s history, the Spirit of Christ was on the move! Missions activities in Uganda and Ireland were stretching the faith of this newer congregation. Church attendance was increasing as was demand for New Life’s year long Leadership Training. Many who attended were new believers, while others had little money to give.
Yet when I read the statistics of New Life and the Presbytery of Philadelphia OPC, God opened wide His heart to His people who then opened wide their heart to others.
Christians often become uncomfortable when discussing money and budgets. I have my thoughts about that, which I’ll save for another time in order to focus on this encouraging exchange between a pastor and budget committee.
Like New Life in 1978, today at Hickory Grove we too have our general fund budget, and we too also have had to learn to be financially creative as we partner with the Spirit of Christ in carrying out the vision He has given us.
We have five other budgets outside that feeds into our church to support this vision: Harvest Prison Ministry, Covenant Family Childcare, and Nation2Nation; added this year are Crossroads of the Nations, PCA and the Emmanuel Gallatin Life Group/Church Plant.
If you hang around, at some point you will hear me say: “We need to make it about money long enough to make it not about money.”
This pragmatic point is intended to create a safe space to regularly address and openly tackle questions of finances in relation to vision so that money will not control and delimit our vision, but instead will retain it’s instrumental serving role.
This has allowed us to “Risk” rather than “Rust! as a church, as Jack Miller has also been known to say.
While we may address money more pragmatically, Jack’s letter does a much more comprehensive job of biblically addressing vision and money.
During this season of budgets and finances, I “risk” commending to you for your prayerful consideration (Hickory Grove Church, PCA, and to others who may have an interest in this oft-neglected topic) this pastoral letter from Jack Miller about “Christ-Oriented Giving.”
To: The Members of the Budget Committee of New Life Church
From: C. Jack Miller
Date: December 4, 1978
Dear Brothers and Sisters
Thank you in the name of Christ for your willingness to serve on the budget committee. It is my prayer that God will make your work a blessing, to yourselves and to the congregation in a very special way. To further that hope, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts. I hope some of them may prove to be of value to you.
First, I would like the budget committee to help the officers of the body to carry forward the work of educating the congregation and ourselves as Christ’s under-shepherds in the grace of giving in an orderly manner. It seems to me that one of the weaknesses in our giving has been a failure to emphasize giving as an act of total devotion to the Lord in worship. The offering time traditionally in our worship services has been one of the most casual and unfocused parts of our time together. It has been more a matter of “taking up the collection” than a casting into the temple treasury a whole-hearted devotion to Jesus (Luke 21:1-4). Tithing ought not to be a matter of handing over the taxes or even forwarding the noblest Christian ministry but first of all, a deed of praise under the inspiration of the Spirit’s rich fellowship. Personally I want to catch the excitement of bringing my gift to Jesus without any thought of any one else as recipient. I want to be Christ-oriented in my giving before I am cause-oriented–even when that cause is most urgent.
What I want, then, is to come to the Y[MCA] and rejoice in Jesus in the whole worship and delight myself in giving to Him personally when the offering is taken. Whether I have dime or a thousand dollars the heart of my giving is the liberty of love to Him. Of course, such liberty will lead to an increase in amount of my giving. As with the widow, consecration always leads to giving in freedom and generosity.
I also am eager for our children to enter into this spiritual ministry of giving when we meet for worship. Somehow we need to interpret the offering to them and lead them to give to the glory of Christ. I think this is very important.
So I guess I’m encouraging you folks to give leadership in educating all of us in seeing giving as first of all a ministry of praise. It was this that I find so inspiring in [name removed]. When he gives, you can see that he is doing it out of simple and pure devotion to Jesus Christ.
But such giving requires a basis in faith. You simply cannot come and pour all the anointing oil on Jesus’ head if you think that the poor of the world will starve because of your “waste” in worship (Mark 14:5). What is needed is a faith-partnership with God in your finances. At the heart of this fellowship is the recognition that His very nature is that of abundant provider for those in fellowship (literally “in Partnership”) with Him. If He is the Senior and Sovereign Partner who owns and supplies all my property, then I can give confidently in worship. Furthermore, I have a right to ask Him to increase my income and bless my frugality so that I may have more to give to Him and His kingdom work. It is out of this partnership with Him that I understand that the weight of world hunger is on His shoulders and that He is willing to increase my resources so that I may give generously to the support of the poor and the teaching ministry of the church. Our people need this faith-freedom in giving, so that they are not oppressed by the size of the church general budget or the ache of world hunger and lose their joy.
This faith basis for giving is not everything. We also need to learn that God expects a certain order in giving. I believe that the new converts in our midst in particular need guidance here. It is also possible that we older Christians need to struggle more with our priorities along the lines indicated in Haggai 1. How do we keep in partnership with God so that we avoid the easy route of materialistic consumerism (Haggai 1:9: “You busy yourselves each with his own house.”)? To keep priorities right, we need to struggle ourselves and teach one another to struggle not to live for self. In a word, we need to lovingly instruct ourselves to think through what proportion of our income is being given to God first. For example, is each brother giving at least a tithe?
At the same time, there is great danger that tithing become legalistic and forget that each man is to give out of his awareness of how God has prospered him. Early in the history of our church, a young woman came to the officers with a problem along these lines. Her job really did not make it possible for her to give a full tenth. But she said she was going to do it anyway. In response the church then made a monthly contribution to her rent. You may smile at the way we moved money around from one pocket to another. But we all experienced a blessing. We were happy.
How we can bring such “education” to one another is no small task, but I for one appreciate any creative help you can give us. But I also have some specific suggestions on the handling of the budget. First, I think it is important for us to have a clearer picture of the real budget. My hope is that we can include all the major items of giving on the official budget in some form so that we may have an understanding of the wonder of what God is doing in and through us. For instance, my understanding is that the official budget includes $2000 per year for [name removed], but in reality we give $6000 more through the Fund for Uganda. My thought is that we would do well to include in some way the $6000 in our official budget.
My purpose in this is twofold: 1) to give us a better idea of the total giving of our congregation, and 2) to give us some opportunity to examine “volunteer” items which come into our real budget without any opportunity for input from the elders, deacons or the congregation as a whole.
For instance, I talked with one young man recently who was interested in material support for an overseas missionary ministry from New Life. I am personally convinced that God is calling him to this service. Yet it seemed to me a problem if giving to his ministry became another major part of our “unofficial” budget. It might well be God’s will for the church to undertake a major part of his support. But at the very least the elders and the budget committee ought to give some kind of approval to this action. As well, it is my view that there are often creative alternative methods of financing missionary and diaconal ministry undertakings. In this case, it has been suggested that the high expenses involved in part of his training be paid for by his working for a time and saving money. I also suggested that there is no better training for a budding evangelist than to stay around one church long enough for the brothers to get to know him and deal with the weaknesses which afflict us all. I also pointed out that holding a job for a couple of years with a single employer gives us further opportunity to be socialized and humanized so that we don’t end up as men who talk the gospel but don’t walk it. To top it off, I also recommended that a nearby church which is friendly to us and the cause of missions be approached for prayer and support.
It is somewhat along these lines that I have approached the ministry to Ireland. I have discouraged solicitation for funds from among the members of the congregation. Some exceptions may be warranted, but as a rule we wanted people to provide their support by work or by support from friends outside New Life Church. My understanding is that considerable support came from outside the church this past year. Our hope is that this outside support will be expanded. This is part of the PEF [Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship] ministry worked out through our elders in cooperation with Ben Wilkinson. They have promised to promote this ministry more widely in the churches. We also expect that there will be more participants going from other churches in the future and comparatively fewer from New Life. My hope is that this is such an excellent training format for the whole Christian life as well as for evangelism that we could have something like a “mobile church” operating here during the summer in Philadelphia. The idea would be that people would give up their vacation time or take time off from work in order to devote themselves to ministry.
My final thought has to do with paying out of the funds which come in. My recommendation is that we pay local expenses last and pay out the other items first. Would this mean that we local pastors and others here might not get paid sometimes? Perhaps there would be pressure here on all of us. On the one hand, it might make us somewhat more cautious about putting new items on the budget; and on the other, it might drive us to pray more for our needs to be met. But this would be all to the good. I am supremely confident that our Heavenly Father would not let us down.
I know, right? Who’d have thought; Jim Ford and Lou Jeter preaching the gospel? Well, that is what happened!
This week, I’ve been exhausted. Mostly, it is a good exhaustion. It was a catch up week coming off lots of travel for PhD work. Upon returning from Philadelphia and London, there was much to do at home and work.
When we decided to road trip to Erskine this weekend to see Molly play soccer, recovering from the previous week’s weariness was intentionally delayed, though it was definitely worth it. Molly had no idea we were coming to her game until she heard us cheering in the stands. Seeing the look on her face was priceless.
However, this morning, as I prepared to make some overdue pastoral visits, I was looking forward to seeing Jim and Sally Ford and Lou Jeter, even though I was moving very slowly, and thinking even more slowly.
As I drove from my house, I wearily voiced a half-spoken-half-sighed prayer that was hardly understandable, “Holy Spirit, please help me. I’m so tired, I’ve nothing to offer anyone, please be with me and give me something to give.”
All I could hope to have to give others what something I did not have myself when the morning began.
This blog post attempts to share God’s answer to that half-sighed weary prayer.
As I made my way to the Ford’s, as a pastor the unspoken and unrecognized assumption was, “Jim, Sally and Lou are the ones who need their pastor to encourage them at a difficult time. Pastors are supposed to be helpful and know what to say and do, and provide spiritual insight and comfort.”
It never even occurred to me that Jim Ford and Lou Jeter would be the ones with have something valuable to say to me, and that the person who needed more grace than anyone during this pastoral visits was the preacher.
Had you told me this morning that the Spirit was going preach the gospel to my weary heart through a dying man, and another who just turned 80 years old, perhaps I too may have laughed like Sarah when she was told she was having Isaac at such an old age.
Let me tell you what happened.
It was 8:30am, when I arrived at Sally and Jim’s home to visit, have some coffee, and “something sweet.” If you go to Sally’s and she offers you Banana Nut Bread, by all means, accept! That’s all I’ll say about that. You will be glad you did.
Jim was too tired to get out of bed this morning. You may know Jim is now under hospice care.
Suffering is always difficult, but If you’ve ever loved/cared for someone suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the slow, grueling day-after-day suffering of these terrible diseases is unbearable for both the caregiving spouse and the patient.
For 10 years this once brilliant attorney has suffered from dementia, a dementia that has now accelerated to such a degree he only intermittently recognizes his own wife Sally, much less others.
What some may not know is that Jim also has inoperable lymphoma growing throughout his body. It is only a matter of time until Jim dies. How much time remains no one on earth knows.
So I prayed for Jim and Sally at the foot of his bed, and we left Jim to return to his sleep; Sally and I moving into the kitchen area around the breakfast table to catch up and enjoy talking together, coffee and her Banana Nut Bread. We noted that it was a beautiful late September morning.
During this conversation where she updated me on Jim’s condition since last seeing them, I nearly started crying when Sally told me about the Singing-Hospice Nurse.
This is only the second day Jim was completely unable to get out of bed. From here things will worsen daily as the cancer continues to spread throughout body and into his organs.
Incrementally, Sally has been accepting additional help from hospice during the week to help care for Jim.
If you are from Nashville, you will not be surprised to discover that at least one of these hospice care-givers is also a very talented musician.
Somehow, Sally and this hospice care-giver decided Jim may enjoy live music. So last week the Singing-Hospice Nurse (e.g., I can’t recall her name and probably shouldn’t use it anyway, though Sally gave me permission to tell this story) brought her guitar.
The three sat in the living room; Jim in a wing-back chair, eyes closed with head peacefully tilted back, as the musician/care-giver began to sing country music, some songs she’d written, gospel music, and then some of those beautiful old hymns.
As the Singing-Hospice Nurse continued singing so beautifully, Jim began to pat his feet on the floor in rhythm with her guitar. You could tell by his smile how much he was enjoying the music.
Soon his fingers were tapping on the arms of the chair in step with his feet in step and the music.
When the Singing-Nurse began singing those beautiful old hymns — “Old Rugged Cross,” “Rock of Ages,” “In the Garden” — Jim became even more expressive.
Eyes still closed and head relaxed peacefully upon the chair, Jim lifted his hands motioning as a symphony conductor with hands waving rhythmically to the music as if he were holding an invisible baton while conducting music from an angel.
I’m not sure I’m communicating it exactly as Sally described, but the overall sense of comfort, peace and joy during otherwise times of suffering should be close enough to draw you into what happened next.
After singing a number of beautiful old hymns, the Singing-Nurse took barely a momentary break to check something.
And Jim, completely relaxed and at peace, eyes still closed and head remaining against the chair, simply said, “More Jesus! Give me more Jesus!”
“More Jesus! Give me more Jesus.”
The Holy Spirit took that story about Jim and those words, and I could feel them being pressed into my heart.
“Preacher, stop talking, stop using your words; listen! Jim, this dying man, is preaching the gospel to you, a dying man.
You came here thinking you needed to pastor Jim and Sally. But I brought you hear so Jim could preach the gospel to you. I’ve got him, I’ve got Sally, and I’ve got you. All the things that once felt so urgent, important, necessary now, and exhausting you in this life; in the shadow of death, they are put in perspective.
One thing, one name, one thought remains: “More Jesus! Give me more Jesus.”
Throughout the day, I could hear Jim Ford preaching the gospel to my tired heart: “More Jesus! Give me more Jesus.”
Can you hear him?
You may wonder about the ability of people with dementia being able to express their faith in Christ. The problem with such a speculation is too much emphasis is placed on our faith and not enough emphasis placed on the Holy Spirit who seals our faith in Christ, and breaks through the worst dementia and cancer enabling us to say, “More Jesus! Give me more Jesus.”
I was still tired physically, but spiritually I had been refreshed.
This was followed by Lou Jeter preaching the gospel to me today as well (e.g., some of us just so slow on the uptake that we need double and triple doses of grace to counteract our pride and stubbornness).
After leaving Jim and Sally’s more encouraged, Rick, Jennifer and I met Lou Jeter to have an early lunch with him for his 80th birthday.
Story-telling is fun! Everyone has a story, usually multiple stories. One of the reasons I asked thousands of annoying questions is to hear the lived-body details of these stories so I can extract those nuggets of gold in a person’s life and tell other’s about them.
On an 80th birthday, it is expected that the one turning 80 reflect openly upon their life for their audience, thereby giving a story-teller like me an opportunity to ask clarifying questions in search of one of these “glory-moments” that clearly reveals the Holy Spirit redeeming It all; working everything together for our good and God’s glory, and in ways unseen to us.
Decades ago, when Lou tragically lost his insurance business in Nashville, the family incurred significant debt (and Lou significant guilt and shame at his failure) that seemed an insurmountable obstacle to moving forward in life.
With bankruptcy a biblical issue of conscience for Lou, he and his wife prayed that God would enable them to pay off the debt in full, and in turn promised they would devote the next two years to working for the LORD wherever he called them.
God answered Lou’s prayer through work/collections of outstanding receivables amounting to nearly $100K, enabling Lou and his family to accumulate just enough to satisfy creditors, avoid bankruptcy, and get back close to breakeven.
Lou then recalled the promise he’d made to God.
Without a job, income or savings, Lou contacted a Christian temp agency to see if anyone needed someone like himself with salesman like gifts to work for a couple years. God took this born and bread Tennessean and his family north to Indiana where he began working with World Missionary Press.
Also, at a providential point during this time, Lou had also read and been deeply moved by “God’s Smuggler,” a biography about Brother Andrew smuggling Bibles into Soviet controlled Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
As God often does with biographies, God used Brother Andrew to stir Lou’s heart for missions.
Hearing that Brother Andrew would be speaking in an adjacent town to where he was working in Indiana, Lou had to find a way to hear Brother Andrew in person.
At the end of Brother Andrew’s message, Lou was deeply compelled to contribute in some way.
The problem was that Lou had nothing to give financially, not even a widow’s mite. As the offering plate was passing, as if speaking to himself, he sighed, “What can I do? I have nothing” when somewhere way back in his mind, a thought began to form and emerge.
He too, like me this morning, had nothing to give anyone else. The only thing he could possibly give was something he did not own but belonged to another.
Without even having asked his boss at World Missionary Press for permission, desperate to respond somehow to Brother Andrew’s message and express his thanks to God, Lou took a pen and, on a torn piece of paper, wrote a simple note, dropping it in the offering just as the plate was passing.
The note read (paraphrase), “I don’t have any money at all to give. But I do have access to a printing press. If you need anything printed, please let me know at . . . ” and he included the address to World Missionary Press and his name.
When Lou returned to work it never occurred to him to mention to his boss the note he had dropped in the offering plate. Lou had assumed nothing more would come of it.
So you can imagine Lou’s shock when a stranger named Brother Andrew showed up at World Missionary Press that week asking to speak to Lou Jeter.
I wish I’d have been there in person to see that look on Lou’s face so I could better describe the way he attempted to stammer his way out of this predicament with his boss and Brother Andrew. I can see him now.
What came next was even more surprising.
Brother Andrew said to Lou, “We need $100K to send Bible’s to China, and I want you to raise it, print and ship the Bibles to China.”
Lou didn’t give me all the details about what happened between he and his boss after Brother Andrew left, but somehow, the Spirit moved them to accept the challenge by faith that God had put before them, Lou did not lose his job, and now he needed those salesman gifts more than ever.
Lou, smiling said, “You would not believe it. Not only did we raise $100K for Chinese Bibles to go to China, but we also sent $50K worth of Korean language Bibles to North Korea, and $50K for Spanish Bibles to one of the South American countries (I forget which one he said). People just responded when we asked. It was like they were already prepared to give.”
And like Jim Ford, this 80 year old man on his 80th birthday, preached the gospel to his needy preacher. Lou summed it all up when he looked at me with that sparkle in his eye and said, “It is amazing what the Spirit can do when we trust him.”
There it was! “It is amazing what the Spirit can do when we trust him.”
“More Jesus! Give me more Jesus.” But Lord, I’m so prideful and self-reliant. How can I even create space in my own heart to get more of Jesus? “It is amazing what the Spirit can do when we trust him.”
This evening, to my two brothers in Christ and Sally whom the Spirit used to preach the gospel to me today, this blog is my way of expressing thanks to God for you!
And with this prayer of thanks, I also add a prayer that, in your weakness, even as I share how God has powerfully used you in my life today, and hopefully through me to encourage others, that you too may be blessed by your Heavenly Father as much as you have been a blessing to us.
To Jim, Sally, and Lou, and those reading, this evening, I pray you will hear Jim Ford and Lou Jeter preaching the gospel to you, “More Jesus! Give us more Jesus . . . It is amazing what the Spirit can do when we trust Him.”
If God blesses you with these stories, shoot me a note so I can pass that blessing back to those from whom I’ve received.
Isn’t it beautiful, amazing and God-glorifying to hear how God so brightens His world using such faintly glowing burned out wicks, and builds His glorious Kingdom upon the scaffolding of bruised reeds that are typically cast aside by the world as old, snuffed out, broken and useless?
Love in Christ, Mike Graham
PS — I hope I’ve reported these stories accurately. If not, I’m sure Sally and Lou will help me get the story straight.
While at breakfast this morning, knowing a little of his personal story, I asked Mano, Principle at Baldaeus Theological College, if he had advice for American evangelical Christians who are, real or perceived, feeling increasingly threatened in light of the recent SCOTUS ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states.
We discussed this new situation in our country. Based upon the Supreme Court’s application of the 14th amendment, racial discrimination has been equated to sexual discrimination with both being civil rights abuses. Consequently, my biblical views, if publicly stated, can now be construed as illegal and discriminatory by the State.
Though the criminal implications of the SCOTUS judgment for those who disagree has yet to be worked out, the consequences could make losing tax exempt status a small thing as compared to what could result when publicly “exercising” our religious freedom.
Based upon the First Amendment, I may still be able to privately and publically “advocate for” and “teach” my views, as the majority opinion by SCOTUS clearly states.
But there is also an obvious omission. The four minority opinions recognize the dramatic shift. The First Amendment is not about “advocating” or “teaching” religious views but freedom to publicly “exercise” those views.
As of now, my religious understanding on Biblical marriage is legally at odds with the Supreme Court’s legal definition of marriage, and increasingly at odds with the American public.
Asserting these simple realities should be generally inarguable.
The faculty and students here at Baldaeus, and local pastors around Trinco have been following the news from the U.S. and have had their questions of me.
Since I hardly know what to say, I tell them I am gathering information, trying to make sense of it all.
I’ve read the majority and minority opinions. I’ve read different articles, news stories and editorials, secular and Christian. I’ve attempted to learn from others as they recommend various courses of action from “take a stand,” “faithful presence,” “Constitutional Convention,” “Social exiles,” “Benedict Principle,” “make friends,” to “do nothing.”
Already knowing a little of Mano’s story, and how he chose to live in the world without being of the world, it occurred to me that he may have helpful advice for someone who has never experienced anything like this.
I’ve often thought that God’s world-wide church is rich in resources, having so much to teach me as an American about what it means to live for Christ in insufferable situations, under various forms of governments positive and negative toward Christianity, and in a multitude of societal and cultural relationships.
Mano’s response to my questions were helpful and thought provoking beyond what I’d expected.
Perhaps it is best for me if I just outline our conversation through his story with a few interpretive comments.
When you hear this outline, a number of prominent options emerge that may allow you to draw some conclusions about how to proceed as a Christian. Underneath each of these options — some biblical and some not — my prayer is that you will have a gospel soaked heart and attitude toward both believers and unbelievers as you do proceed.
Mano has given me permission to share this.
Mano (short for Manohar) is the third of four brothers, and three sisters.
Meaning no-disrespect to the sisters, I am going to focus on the four brothers from oldest to youngest since they are representative of the various options.
The brothers from oldest to youngest are Sekar, Suthakar, Manohar, and Vaseekar.
A little political and family context will be helpful.
Mano’s family is Tamil.
There are three million Tamils living primarily in the North and East of Sri Lanka, which has a total population of around twenty one million people.
To give a sense of size compared to population density, think about the State of New York, which has twenty million people, with New York City having nine million, and Colombo being the New York City of Sri Lanka in this analogy.
There are an additional two million Indian Tamils from Tamil Nadu state that live in central Sri Lanka brought over by the British as slaves to work tea plantations.
Finally, there is a group of ethnic Tamils near Colombo going up the east coast toward Mannar who, under great pressure, converted to Singalese in order to survive.
This parallel reminded me a little of City Church in San Francisco. It is a possible, though I do not think biblical, to do as City Church has done in San Francisco and change foundational views and associations.
I don’t mean to say that disrespectfully. Just as I can’t imagine what the pressure was like for these Tamils living near Colombo, I also can’t imagine was it is like for City Church in San Francisco or for the pastor who has a beloved son who I believe is openly gay (as I read the story).
When I asked Mano the other day about these Tamil-turned-Singalese, he said, neither the Singalese nor the Tamils trust them.
The Singalese expect them to betray their trust because, at heart, they are ethnic Tamils. The Tamils expect them to betray their trust because they feel that is what happened already. So they are alive and surviving, but deeply suspected by both.
Seventy percent of Sri Lanka is Buddhist. The rest are Hindu’s, Muslim and Christians.
The new President of Sri Lanka is Buddhist. However, thankfully, he is generous toward Christians. At least for now, the country regardless of religious preference is glad for his leadership. They have great faith in him because he seems to be bringing a measure of hope and reconciliation among all the religions after nearly three decades of devastating Civil War.
This is another great option. We can pray to God asking Him raise up a great leaders — Christian and/or non-Christian — to lead us in the various governmental spheres he has placed over us including the State, the Church, and the Family.
Though there is hope and expectation that comes with the new President, even talk of a golden era for Sri Lanka, there is also skepticism and soberness since peace is too new and unstable to know for certain whether anything will last.
Among the “religious” groups, Christians are considered the lowest of the lowest, mockingly called the “Hosanna people” by Buddhist, Muslims and Hindus.
In pubic schools, the Buddhist, Hindus and Muslims actually find agreement in mocking the Christian kids.
Ironically, Sri Lankan’s see Christianity as a new progressive religion that came with the British in the 1700’s while Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are the older traditional religions.
So this analogy could also help us consider what it means for Christians to be the lowest of the lowest. Aren’t we supposed to be that any way? Isn’t that what we confess weekly that we need grace more than anyone?
Hinduism was the primary religion before Buddhism became the central religion through war.
My history is very general here, but a King, under the influence of a Buddhist monk from India, was converted to Buddhism around 246BC (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Sri_Lanka) and would force the nation to convert to Buddhism.
Christians make up about seven percent of the population, with ninety percent of Christians being Roman Catholic.
Mano and his family were formerly nominal Roman Catholic before Mano became a Christian.
When I hear Americans talk about Buddhism or Hinduism naively as peaceful religions of enlightenment, I shake my head and laugh sadly to myself.
Only Americans and Western Europeans can come up with some of these historical interpretations including what a bad force Christianity is while idealizing Buddhism, Hinduism, and now Secularism and Atheism as essentially peaceful.
Really? I guess now we only need wait and see.
They obviously haven’t talked with Tamils from Sri Lanka, or other peoples from around the world who have incurred the wrath of these religions.
Admittedly, I recognize some of the atrocities that have also happened in the name of Christ. I don’t want to naively idealize Christianity, but my how the tide has turned.
Overall, I do believe Christianity, at its best, has been the greatest force for good in the world’s history thus far.
Nothing is simple, and few things are as they seem, which necessarily means faith is required. Not a leap of faith into the dark, but living faith in the person and work of Christ.
For Mano, the Civil War was first experienced in 1983 when his older brother Suthakar and his younger brother Vaseekar were at university in Kandy.
Mano’s father was a fisherman in Mannar, on the east coast of Sri Lanka.
Like in Bayou La Batre where I am from, his father had seen how young people could make good money during the summer fishing, and convince themselves they didn’t need to go to school.
To resist that pressure, Mano’s father would not even allow his children to learn to swim. He wanted them all to be educated, including the girls.
That is a big deal in an island country like Sri Lanka, living in a coastal city like Mannar, with a father who is a fisherman.
It was while at university in Kandy that the government suspected Tamil students and government forces rioted against Tamils on campus in 1983.
Suthakar and Vaseekar were forced to return to Mannar for safety.
Mano had gone to Colombo to study to be an accountant. He was called to ministry and by that time had left school to work for Youth for Christ. So they did not arrest him immediately.
However, his two brothers, though uninvolved in the riots, were taken for questioning and tortured.
Over the next few decades the Civil War between the LTTE Tamil Tigers who wanted their own Tamil state and the Singalese government worsened to horrific proportions.
On a regular basis the military would unexpectedly raid Mano’s house taking his brothers away.
Mano was arrested three times, which I’ll tell you more about in a moment. During this time, Mano spent ten years as a missionary in Tamil Nadu state of India among Tamil refugees.
Once his brothers joined the army, though he never joined, the Singalese military did attempt to arrest Mano as he ran, moving nightly from house to house, knowing not where he would sleep next until he was able to cross into India in 1985.
Sekar ended up not going to university, but instead took an important position in banking where he would work in different parts of the Sri Lanka before settling in Mannar.
After being taken for questioning many times, Suthakar, the oldest brother finally concluded he only had two options.
As a matter of survival, he would need to either join the LTTE Tigers and fight against the Singalese or he would need to leave the country.
He first asked Mano and his family to help him raise money to leave the country. During war time, there was no where to raise sufficient funds.
Suthakar, told Mano to take care of the family. Their father had died as a result of rheumatoid arthritis and eventually died in 1997.
Suthakar joined LTTE and actively fought for a Tamil freedom and a Tamil country. In a moment, to help you draw your own conclusions,
I’ll report the outcomes of these various options, spending more time with Mano’s passive resistance, not so much because it is preferred but because he is my primary source.
As I mentioned above, Mano became a missionary with Youth for Christ, and then during the war spent ten years ministering as a refugee in Chennai among his Tamil people who had escaped the Civil War to India.
Vaseeker was also a student of University of Kandy in engineering. He finally joined the military because he felt he had little option.
As a result of an internal dispute, he left the military and immigrated to England in 1985 where he works now as a software engineer.
The stories of each of these men, over time, may represent various options as we Americans live by faith into the new future God is Sovereignly overseeing for the United States.
Sekar — Approach: Do Nothing and Hope Everything Will Be Okay
Sekar chose to do nothing, and just keep working. Things will get better.
Just because one may choose to do nothing does not mean the situation will not effect them.
During this time, the Indian military was sent to Sri Lanka for peace keeping purposes between LTTE Tamil Tigers and Government forces.
This would lead to a short conflict also between LTTE and the Indian military.
Though he was not, Sekar was accused by the Indian military of being a spy.
One night, he was kidnapped from work, and disappeared for four to five days.
His family found his body in the middle of the stadium with eyes gouged out and beaten almost beyond recognition.
Later Mano would learn that while being tortured, Sekar would scream out Mano’s name.
Today, walking on the streets of Mannar, Mano still sees some of the men who tortured and killed his brother. They know him and he knows them. He simply prays for them and asks God to give him forgiveness.
Sitting in my room at Baldaeus, in a followup conversation, Mano begins weeping as he thinks about his older brother’s death and his mother’s grief.
Other than the two older brothers and sisters, the rest of the family are Reformed evangelical Christians, though Vaseekar has backslidden from the Lord.
Mano says he became Reformed from his reading the Puritans while in India.
There was some indication that the Spirit was working in Sekar’s life. They were praying fervently for his conversion, when suddenly he simply disappeared. This hope replaced by knowing nothing, has been a great burden for Mano’s mother, and Mano grieves for her and Sekar.
Doing nothing and waiting upon the Lord is a biblically defensible position.
However, do not be naive about the consequences. I am not suggesting that if you do nothing, you may be kidnapped and have your eyes gouged out. But also recognize the reality that doing nothing does not guarantee you will remain safely on the sideline out of harms way.
What SCOTUS has done with this legal judgment is in violation of God’s Law. That is no small matter.
When faced with a choice between God’s law versus man’s law, we should be less afraid of the one who can kill only the body, and more afraid of the one who can both kill the body and cast the soul into Hell. That scares me to even say it now, more that it has before.
At the same time we are not hopeless. We have also seen God overturn the verdicts from the highest courts in Jerusalem and Rome, when He rolled the stone away, raising the King Jesus from the dead, who has now ascended to the center of all power and authority.
I know there is a lot of talk that nothing has really changed, we knew this was coming, we should all just get along and be nice to each other.
That may be naïve Western post-modern talk, because we have not yet experienced the unspeakable. I do not want to invite trouble, I am simply using Sekar’s story to suggest that things are going to be different now, though to what extent I do not know.
Suthakar — Approach: Active Resistance (Eventually) against Injustice
I could have described Suthakar first sense he was the first to die.
Suthakar, while fighting for LTTE, was severely injured in the war. Being in constant pain, having no peace, security, or safety; only threats, it seemed to Suthakar that the war would never end, and Suthakar lost all hope.
So one tragic day, in order to escape all the misery and hopelessness, Suthakar put a gun to his head and shot himself, not considering the sorrow left behind with his family.
Suicide is not a biblically viable option.
However, Mano and I do recognize the reality of suicide as a way people escape from unendurable situations.
Over the next decade, or less, lots of people may become increasingly disenchanted and hopeless as they find that “satisfying” all the desires of their hearts just does not “satisfy,” and they too may decide that suicide is a viable way of escape.
Christians also may become so disenchanted, they just have had enough, and want out. Seems like the Psalms and Prophets speak this way at times.
My guess is that, as with Suthakar, when you feel you have no other option, suicide can feel like it is the only option.
So I want to create a common space around suicide for believers and unbelievers who are struggling with cynicism, despair and depression whatever the source.
My guess is, as cynicism and hopelessness deepens, and I think it will for some, we will need to recognize and be on the watch for some who may consider suicide as a possible way of escape and love them back to life.
As an aside, I’d like qualify one point that bothers me immensely. I hear this regularly from Christians and non-Christians as they relate homosexuality to slavery turning this into the Civil Rights issue of our day.
There may be a few correlations (no causations), but the disanalogy far outweighs any analogy.
I must admit, despite the SCOTUS ruling, I have the hardest time accepting such a logical fallacy that would parallel the atrocities of slavery to homosexuality in the same sentence.
If there is a parallel, it is the biblical parallel that Christians, based upon the authority of Scripture, should always resist slavery in any form, and repent for ever being involved in it or in any way having justified our complicity. What restitution that involves, I do not know.
I am not recommending Suthakar’s active resistance option. It obviously had significant consequences.
But, instead of complaining about fundamentalists, I am recognizing that active resistance is a viable biblical option, and those who tell you it is not are being extra-biblical, perhaps even postulating a new legalism.
If you choose this option, since it will be hard, be ready to man-up should some of these consequences come your way.
The real issue, it seems to me, is Biblical authority verses the State’s authority.
This should not be seen through the rubric of separation of church and state, or faith and fact, or science and religion.
We are talking about two State authorities.
In this case the Kingdom of God as set out in the revelation of God in Scripture, and the Kingdom of Man as, in this case, determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, and which of the two will be more Supreme in the Church, in the US.
I have absolutely no interest in creating a theonomic state in the U.S.
I’m using the two kingdoms language only momentarily so I can actually say there is really is only one Kingdom.
We don’t need a theonomic state, we already have one over which Jesus Christ reigns.
The closer we are to His law, the better it is for everyone regardless of the form of human government, including a secular pluralistic state.
Vaseekar — Approach: Active Resistance before Leaving the Country
I am going to save Mano for last since his story is so interesting.
Vaseekar left the country.
That is a possible biblically defensible position.
Certainly, Jeremiah 29, in an exilic situation, demonstrates how to live in the world without being of the world.
I think Jesus at least had Jeremiah 29 in mind when he prayed the Great High Priestly Prayer asking the Father NOT to remove us from the world, but that He would be with us in the world through His Spirit.
We are not orphans, we have the Spirit of God.
At the same time, England as well as Sri Lanka, and every other square inch under every other form of government, is also part of God’s world.
Vaseekar, given the opportunity, could freely leave Sri Lanka and still live in the world for Christ in England.
Some of you may be so tired of the United States you want to leave. That is a biblically defensible position for people, even Christians, to leave the United States if they cannot stand living in this country any more, or are afraid for their safety.
Seems like I’ve read about the dramatic increase in Americans renouncing their citizenship. But you still will have citizenship somewhere in this world, and if a Christian you have dual citizenship, with your greater citizenship in heaven.
I’m unsure you will find, at least at this point, a safer place to be than the United States, but it is an option, and who knows what may happen in future. Things turned fairly quickly in Sri Lanka after 1983.
Mano — Approach: Passive Resistance against Injustice
Which brings us to Mano, the source of this essay, who chose passive resistance, ironically summarizing his model, “kind of like Martin Luther King, Jr.”
I asked Mano to explain how he came to that position personally, how as a pastor he is leading his church, and how he interacts with other Christians who, using the same Bible, reach a differing conclusion closer to Sekar’s active resistance.
Part of it was the real context of seeing what happened to his older brothers, and how he was forced to run for his life. I probably don’t need to say more about that.
You can imagine the effect. Ultimately for Mano, it was biblically searching the Scriptures — Old Testament and New Testament — and having to come to a conclusion about how to live in the world without being of the world, while recognizing others in his own city, church and family may not agree with his conclusion.
He went through his theological thoughts, and perhaps I will ask him to enumerate them.
But it got really interesting as Mano discussed how this personal decision to take a stance of passive resistance worked out personally and in leading his congregation.
Mano was arrested three times simply for proximity to his brothers. He had not done anything, he was simply under suspicion for who he was.
The first two of Mano’s imprisonments were for 3 or 4 days, but the third time was for 48 days.
Though he was not in the war himself, simply because he was Tamil and his brothers were soldiers, Mano was arrested, handcuffed, and taken by millitary transport from Mannar to Colombo.
His family and church did not know if they’d ever see him again.
As he recounted this story, I think he finally connected with the reality that his experience could be helpful for me/us in the United States.
I say this because when you read what I’ve written, you may think Mano is exaggerating or making this up. That may be a reflection of our own cynicism I think.
Because even as he was answering my questions, I could see it dawn on him that he could actually provide important help, and his family and church experiences may have some parallel should in future any of us find ourselves unjustly imprisoned for what we believe.
His primary worry was his family, because they were worried about him and he couldn’t let them know he was okay.
Otherwise, he actually said he had a good time in prison.
What! That was shocking to consider. What do you mean you had a good time in prison? How do you have a good time in prison during a war?
He said when he arrived in prison in Colombo, he was put in a cell with eight other men, three Hindus, a Muslim and two Roman Catholics.
The best approach is to hear Mano describe a visit he received from one of his former inmates, a Hindu man who, after being released, risked coming back to visit Mano in prison.
The mother of this Hindu man yelled at her son for returning to prison to visit a Christian. Once you get out of military prison it is foolish to return. You don’t want to go back if you are still suspected of being an enemy of the State.
Mano was surprised as well to see this Hindu man visit him, and asked him why.
This Hindu man gave Mano three reasons for why he was coming back to see Mano.
1. Mano said “Thank you” to the soldier.
When this Hindu man first met Mano it was when Mano was being put in their cell with them. The soldier removed Mano’s handcuffs, and Mano simply told the policeman, “Thank you.”
That “thank you” had a dramatic impact on the Hindu.
The Hindu man had been there longer than the others. When he first came, he said he cried, yelled, kicked the bars at the injustice of being imprisoned until finally giving up he collapsed on the floor in dismay.
When all the others came, one after the other, they all did the same thing until, resolve broken, they collapsed on the floor in helplessness and sorrow next to the Hindu man.
Mano was the opposite. He was at peace, and calmly said to the soldier “thank you” as he removed the cuffs.
The Hindu wanted to know why Mano said “thank you” to this man who was his enemy.
Mano told the HIndu man that the soldier was just doing his job. This soldier could have made up some reason to act like Mano was running away and shot and killed him.
But instead the soldier handcuffed Mano as he’d been ordered, put him in the back of the transport, brought him from Mannar to Colombo, they even talked along the way, and delivered Mano safely to the prison.
And so when Mano arrived at the prison, and the soldier removed his handcuffs, Mano said “thank you” because the soldier was just doing his job.
2. The Hindu man said that when Mano came everything changed.
Before, Mano came the prison cell was a place of misery. The Hindu man said everyone was miserable, they were complaining, quarreling with one another, and hopeless.
But after Mano came, the whole environment in their cell changed.
They actually began singing, Mano told them stories from the bible, they prayed, they played cards together.
That doesn’t mean to say it was all easy, though Mano smiled as he thought about that time.
Mano said that the prison guards would some times wave their hands down, like a quarterback trying to hush a loud crowd, explaining that their superiors were coming for an inspection. “Don’t be so loud, we don’t want our bosses to think you are happy.”
So this Hindu man had come back to thank Mano for helping him not only survive, but giving him a sense of joy in prison when before was only suffering.
Sounds like Paul.
3. This Hindu man said Mano helped his enemies.
The big boss of the prison had brought a blue file that was apparently important and had given it to one of the soldiers.
Mano had been watching at the time, and he happened to see that soldier put the file on top of a set of shelves toward the back where it could not be seen.
One day, the prison superintendent came down looking for that file, but the soldier on duty had been transferred, and no one knew the location of the file.
The superintendent began yelling at the soldiers to find the file, they were running around chaotically looking everywhere, tearing through the desk and shelves.
Mano called for the superintendent saying, “I know where that blue file is.”
The superintendent said how do you, a prisoner, know where our file is.
And Mano pointed on top of the shelves way in the corner and said I saw the soldier put it there.
And the superintendent thanked Mano saying he’d not had a prisoner help them before.
The Hindu man said he had never seen that as well, and cited these three reasons why he was visiting Mano in jail to thank him.
4. “Tell the Truth.”
Finally, Mano gave one other practical recommendation should you find yourself unjustly imprisoned by enemies as you passively resist unbiblical authority.
He said he decided always to tell the truth.
One day, one of the soldiers came to speak to him through the bars.
The soldier was empathizing with Mano’s unjust situation and alluded to Mano’s brother than had been “innocently” killed in cross fire.
Mano told to the soldier the truth. His brother was not an “innocent” and was not accidentally killed. His brother was a soldier in the LTTE while against government forces, was injured, and shot himself and died.
Mano thought, if someone was his enemy, it was important to be truthful about that relationship, and after acknowledging it, love his enemies, rather trying to act like they were friends.
Usually when you try being friends when you have such foundational differences going in such fundamentally different directions, it may feel disingenuous.
Same-sex marriage proponents generally know what the Bible has concluded about marriage. My guess is they do not want to be patronized by evangelical Christians.
More importantly, being truthful about someone being an enemy doesn’t mean you cannot also love them.
In the gospel, enemy and love are not mutually exclusive categories.
Justification by faith alone, proves this to be a false dichotomy (e.g., since you are my enemy you cannot love me) since it speaks directly to the removal of God’s wrath.
The Gospel is what sets you free to love others including your enemies, and if you tell them in a loving way that your position puts you at odds, even enemies, it may even engender respect and even trust.
The next day that guard would come back to the cell, and in front of everyone say to Mano, I know from you I can get the truth. No one else tells the truth.
The Hindu man agreed with the guard. All the rest had lied to protect themselves, and only Mano was honest about being an enemy.
It didn’t occur to Mano at the time that the soldier was trying to trick him, and now the soldier actually trusted him.
Sometimes over the issue of homosexuality, we put love before faith.
We exhort people to love others different from us, those who are gay and don’t speak of them as enemies. Enemies of what? What is the source of this teaching?
Of course it is good to love. But biblical love comes through a faith union with Christ.
You need both truth and love to be on mission.
Truth without love makes one harsh. Love without truth makes one sentimental.
But when truth and love are operating together you have a mission.
Salvation is by faith not love. Love is the primary fruit of faith. When people trust you, no matter what, even your enemies, then good exchanges including love can begin to take place through faith, even among enemies.
Trust/faith is what opens these channels, and if people cannot trust you, or suspect your hidden agenda, they will be guarded.
Do not reverse the order. “For in Christ Jesus . . . divine faith in Christ powerfully works out in love toward God (first) and your neighbor (Gal. 5:6).”
Later Mano would lead his church to take this position of passive resistance and loving your enemies.
He didn’t act as if the Singalese were not his enemies as he passively resisted.
Nor did he judge those Tamils who disagreed with him and thought they should stand up and fight.
He realized both were biblical responses.
And he didn’t give some exhortation to “faithful presence” like being “faithfully present” would enable people to endure and forgive people experiencing great, even unimaginable, suffering.
Dr. Anthony Bradley said something on a recent Facebook post that really struck me. His context was the sin of the white evangelical church in the South and their reaction to the removal the Confederate Flag in South Carolina as a result of that horrific murdering by a damnable white supremacist.
This post is not about that, but we sure are being challenged to live by faith in Christ is some challenging and frightening times.
If I can paraphrase him correctly, Bradley seemed to suggest that only a WASP writing for other WASP’s would come up with something like Hunter’s “faithful presence.”
I’ve read that book twice now, and there are some really good applications. So I am not saying that ‘faithful presence” is not a viable option.
I am just recognizing living “faithfully present” may look different for some than it does for others including being faithfully present with both active and passive resistance. The question has to do with “biblical faithful presence.”
For Mano, it was essential for him that he simply acknowledge the truth that we are enemies, and trust the power of the gospel to break down walls between enemies.
And as we think about it, that is what Scripture says.
We are all natural enemies. That is one of the great miracle’s of the Church in union with Christ and adoption into the Father’s affection.
We say that about ourselves in the church. The problem is that we are like skinless people, raw to the touch.
People are already under condemnation. My acknowledging we are enemies on same-sex marriage is not going to condemn anyone. Further, I’m not against loving people who practice the sin of homosexuality and want to change the laws to reflect that practice.
The Bible tells me how to address taking the log out of my own, before I proceed to remove sawdust from another.
Calling someone an enemy and loving your enemy are only mutually exclusive apart from Christ.
In Christ, I can begin moving toward my enemies as Christ moved toward me, his enemy, even when I was dead in my sins and trespasses.
It is essential that we call sin for what it is. Slavery is sin. Homosexuality is sin. I can enumerate countless sins in my own life and heart, though not all by any stretch of the imagination.
We don’t need to use modern niceties to cover up reality so we can play verbal games with each other.
The judgment of God is real, Hell is real. The Grace of God is real. Heaven is real. And even where sin abounds, in Christ, grace superabounds all the more!
We are people living in the age of grace, in the age of the Spirit!
Some of the Christians I know act like we have more in common with non Christian gay people than we do with Christian fundamentalists.
Other Christians I know act as if we have more in common with non-Christian Republicans than we do with Christians who are democrats.
Now that is something to be ashamed of and it is simply contrary to gospel.
We have the blood of Christ. We have more in common with our fellow Christians than we have with our own natural families.
One more thing regarding language of judgment that is just something I’ve been thinking about.
I hear church leaders say, God is going to judge our nation (e.g., in the future), we have put our nation in the cross hairs of God’s judgment.
Others say, quit using language of judgment. It is unhelpful and mean.
I would like to assert a possible third option using the various biblical patterns of judgement preceding the Final Judgment of God.
As far as I can tell from Romans 1-2, this SCOTUS verdict itself is possibly one of the worst judgements from God on both our nation and the church for our failure with respect God’s authority over marriage, sex and family.
What I am saying is the Supreme Court’s decision may or may not lead to additional future judgment, or even the Final Judgement.
This verdict may itself be the judgment of God, a kind of judgment known as “judicial abandonment.”
As I read Romans 1-2, one of the greatest judgments God can ever impose upon sinful man is to withdraw his providential presence and give us over to our own evil desires.
Whatever else this Supreme Court judgment may portend, it seems to me that, having resisted God’s authority over and over and over and over again, now for a long, long time, God has said, “You want to divorce yourself completely from me, you want to live life according to your desires, then I will give you over to the what you want.”
And so we have received the Supreme Court we deserve, the political and church leaders we deserve, and the ruling on same sex marriage we deserve for persistently and rebelliously turning our backs on God as both a nation and church.
Does “judicial abandonment” sound bleak? No.
From this point of judicial abandonment, we can see two concrete ways we are called to lead our churches and our nation.
First, we, the church, can lead in repentance. Judgment always begins with the household of God.
Second, we can lead in prayer, especially corporate prayer – not only of repentance, but priestly intercession for or nation, in the way Abraham did with Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah finally did with Nineveh, and Peter called us to do as a royal preached on behalf of the nations.
We, the church, are not called to be bearers of condemnation, but bearers of the grace we have received.
As a nation of priests under our Great High Priest, we are to boldly approach the throne of grace in this great time of need, and plead for mercy and help, not only selfishly for ourselves, but for others including non-Christians.
Our prayers on behalf of our nation matter. Perhaps we can start by repenting of cynicism.
Then we can ask God for his heart for the lost desiring that none should perish, that all should come to saving faith, and leave regeneration to the power of His Spirit.
Yes we have a prophetic voice and a kingly voice. But I suggest here to think long and hard about primarily exercising the priestly intercession on behalf of the nations.
We can focus the three voices together toward the church for now, as we wait upon the Lord, hearing from God how to respond in His way in His time as difficult situations continue to unfold.
Instead of biting and devouring one another over varying responses biblically available to us, or in some ex-cathedra way enthroning our preferred response, create some space for your brothers and sisters in Christ for various responses.
As I process what is happening in the U.S. from Sri Lanka, these are just a few of my reflections about the possible responses I’ve gleaned from Mano as he struggled to live as a Christian Tamil in Sri Lanka during difficult times.
Thanks to Mano for allowing me to ask him these questions, process this with you, and for giving me permission to tell a little of his story.
If you go in my office and look at my book shelves, or look on my computer under Scrivener files, you will find my research for each sermon, my translations, and every sermon manuscript written out word for word for every week for the last 14 years.
Since the Bible is the most researched and written about book in the history of the world — with commentators writing dissertations on almost every verse, sometimes every word — sifting through all the information, even with advances in technology, results in an overwhelming monumental task for most preachers each week.
This has been a significant hurdle for me over the years since seminary.
Regularly overwhelmed with far to much research, I am almost never able to complete the final edits/drafts that are necessary to simplify such a talk, leaving me with feeling that most Sunday’s I assault our congregation with an overabundance of unclear words.
They were clear in my head, but by the time the sermon left my mouth, the Spirit of Pentecost was forced to do a greater work than that Babel-reversing event in Jerusalem just to translate my confusing sermon to people’s hearts, a sermon which supposedly never left English the language.
The medication I have recently begun taking has helped.
Recently, to knock of some of the edges of my intensity and help me focus, I began taking a small dosage of addarall.
Though not all have been supportive of my using medication, I did openly let our church know, and they have generously given me space to utilize this help with minimal questions thus far.
How has it helped?
Among other things, now it doesn’t feel like as soon as I open my mouth that suddenly all the theological concepts and biblical ideas that had been fenced in my head during the week suddenly begin stampeding this now open oraface before it closes 45 minutes later.
Truthfully, the reason I’ve written out my sermons for 14 years is because I was too afraid not to.
It was my self-generated attempt to herd these stampeding words so they would at least have a chance to leave my mouth in orderly fashion.
The problem is compounded by my intense and passionate personality.
Calm reading and articulate theological reasoning soon give way to the spirited passion, and suddenly the running of the bull is on again (Get the pun? A preacher talking about the running of the “bull?” Funny huh?) as the words start stumbling over each other.
Instead of preaching by faith, I’m fairly certain I’ve been preaching much more by fear.
Fear I am going to say the wrong thing, fear it will make no sense, fear I’ll be imbalanced or overstated, fear I will go off on a tangent, fear it will not be theologically correct, fear my deep Bayou La Batre accent will frustrate hearers, fear this and fear that.
The first thing I learned from Jack about preaching is to keep my eyes open while I am praying; look at each person specifically and pray John 3:16 asking God to help me forget about myself and give me His love for His people.
The second thing I’ve been doing is just praying a lot more period.
But then, as I’ve continued researching The Jack Miller Project, on more than one occasion, I’ve seen a recurring strategy Jack employees with preachers and seminary students who over-rely on sermon prep.
At the last minute, out of the blue, without warning Jack will unexpectedly call on a person to speak.
Jeff tells of one of his experiences when Jack unexpectedly did this to him.
Jack had invited him to go to a Leighton Ford Leadership Conference attended by important successful leaders where Jack was to be the expert speaker.
And just before we left, Jack informs Jeff, “I’m doing five lectures while we are down there and you are doing two of them.”
Jeff surprisedly asked, “What are the topics? It was something like justification and adoption, and Jack said, “You will be doing the 2nd and 4th lecture, and I will do the 1st, 3rd, and 5th.”
On the plane to North Carolina, Jack told Jeff what his lectures were going to be and they compared notes giving Jeff just a little relief.
Arriving at the hotel, a very nice suite provided by Ford with a kitchen and sitting area, Jeff and Jack had gotten ready for bed when Jack said, “Now we will pray.”
As they were kneeling, Jack says to Jeff, “Now listen, I want you to do my lectures tomorrow morning and I am going to do your lectures.”
Dumbfounded, Jeff didn’t even know what Jack’s lectures were. “You mean you want me to do this lecture I prepared for the 2nd hour during the 1st hour?”
Jack said, “No, I want you to do my lecture and I’ll do yours.” And before Jeff had time to react, Jack started praying.
“I don’t think I closed my eyes or bowed my head. I was just starring at him.”
And then Jack turned the light out, said good night, and went right to sleep.
Jeff lay there with his eyes open like a saucer. “I just wanted to go to the kitchen, eat a bag of coffee, and rifle through his brief case to find out what I was supposed to speak on in the morning.”
And then Jack started snoring really loud. “It was loud, really loud, and I didn’t know how to stop him. I didn’t want to wake him. So I found this large body pillow in the closet and stood it up on its end leaning it against his face and hopped in the bed really quick and pretended I was sleeping.”
“Jack woke up, sat up in bed and starred at me, while I pretended to be asleep. It was a bad way to start.”
Jeff described the experience of complete weakness and helplessness. “I kind of smiled. I think God gave me grace to say I’ll just chalk it up as a lesson learned. It is only going to last for two hours. I’ll be totally humiliated for two hours, and it will be over.”
The next morning, Jeff doesn’t remember what he said, but he does remember telling the group the story of the snoring, and everyone busted out lauging, and it just set the tone for the whole conference.
And Jack raises his had to make sure everyone one knew, “I wasn’t the only one in the room snoring.”
Jack knew that Jeff had learned all he needed. He had the knowledge.
More importantly, Jack had faith in the Spirit at work in Jeff before Jeff believed himself.
That is a very Covenantal and Reformed view of faith!
Jack believed in the power of the gospel at work in people before they believed it for themselves.
If I’ve heard this once in interviews, I’ve heard it 30 times.
When I first read about Jack doing this to Rose Marie in Uganda/Kenya in Fear to Freedom, I thought, “What? My wife would absolutely kill me!”
She admits to wanting to kill him too.
But during research, I’ve learned this wasn’t an uncommon practice at all for Jack to effectively make this vital application professor’s of Practical Theology labor to make with their students.
Preaching is an act of faith!
It absolutely has to be.
Whether it was street preaching, preaching in a marketplace, at a conference, in the pulpit, or for seminary students, if you were around Jack, you had better come expecting him to push you out of your comfort zone, and help you to a place where you had to trust Jesus.
But Jack never did anything that he wasn’t doing himself.
Further, when it came to the gospel, Jack was fearless, showing no one favoritism not even the estimable Cornelius Van Til.
Others had told me the legend and I had seen the picture and read the article.
But through all the recorded white noise and the bustling sounds on Wall Street that day in 1979, I actually listened as Jack Miller loudly said, “And now I am going to introduce you to a young man of 84 years old. His name is Cornelius Van Til.”
And I listened to Cornelius Van Til street preach for 15 or 20 minutes until his elderly voice began to give out.
And then Jack preached a while, which was followed by, as Jack laughed at his own humor, “Now let’s hear from this even younger child who is only 82,” and after that someone who was 78, until he had gone all the way down to the infant seminary students with him and they had preached for 2.5 hours in front of the NY Stock Exchange.
When Jack did this, he was not giving preachers tacit permission to arrive unprepared to preach in some pentecostal caricature of preacher justifying laziness in the study by going into the pulpit mystically waiting upon a word from the Lord.
Jack was a brilliant scholar and expected students to prepare.
But he also knew preaching by faith was a supernatural work that requires the preacher to actively rely upon the presence, wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit.
He knew how easy and dangerous it was for pastors to forget this reality of preaching and subtly rely on preparation rather than the Holy Spirit and crying out in prayer.
Since I’ve been in Sri Lanka, so far this summer I have preached ten to twelve times.
This week, I am participating in my first Sri Lankan wedding and will preach from John 2. You know how much I enjoy preaching weddings.
Add to this string of 10 sermons, my final week at Hickory Grove Church, PCA.
That was literally the first time in my life that preached with only my Bible in hand (on an iPad of course).
My sermon topics have come from personal bible reading and praying, where some story or doctrine jumps out at me.
These are not “topical” sermons, but always “expositional” sermons.
Interviewers observed something about how Jack read Romans and Galatians through the lens of the Gospels, especially Luke.
This really helped me solidifying my new sense of freedom in preaching by faith.
When Paul wrote these letters to the churches in Galatia and Rome, he was not sending an abstract letter, to abstract people, who were abstractly examining each verse using doctrinal abstractions, so from their inductive they could intellectually explain various propositional truths like the doctrine of “election,” after which the preacher can then proudly say, “Now I’ve taught God’s people about election.”
Jack intuitively married biblical and systematic theology in his preaching.
Essentially, Paul (and Jack) loved people, and when he wrote letters to these churches, he had real people in the down and dirty, nitty gritty of life in mind as the recipients of these glorious doctrines (e.g., Zachaeus, the prostittue, the Pharissee and the Tax Collector, Peter and Judas in John, etc), thereby making these great doctrines come to life through the stories of Scripture.
But instead of being man-centered, another thing Jack has helped me see, at the center of it all is faith preaching of the glory and greatness of Christ as he reveals himself through all of Scripture.
So far, whenever I preach two or three sermons a weekend, rather than preaching the same thing three times, I’ve had so much freedom in the Gospel that I’ve preached three different sermons from different passages.
I’ve never done that before.
One morning I was in such a funk and didn’t want to preach at all. I really didn’t think Jesus was going to show up. And so I just started reading Scripture, and there He was, the glory and greatness of Christ right there in Genesis 22.
Not only does preaching from Christ’s fullness help me to rely on the Spirit, the translator also has to stay on his toes too as he conveys this gospel message from English to Tamil.
At this point, I’m nearly half way through with my research and writing Sabbatical in Sri Lanka.
I’ve made important headway with respect to research and writing with the best yet to come.
And I will probably preach another dozen or so times.
My hope is that as I continue to preach by faith, that this courage and freedom in preaching will translate back to the Nashville and in the PCA context where I live so that I will continue preaching by faith the glory and greatness of Christ and the power of His gospel as I have been doing here in Sri Lanka.
To do that, he is going to have to take away my fear of man, wanting people to like me, and maybe even having to repent of 14 years of preaching.
That is an additional way you can pray for me these final five weeks along with the continuing work on my dissertation.
I still have some financial need of about $3000 in support if any of you want to partner with me this way as well.
If the Spirit leads, please send a check to Nation2Nation, 84 South Greenhill Road, Mount Juliet, TN. 37122 and designate it for “To Sri Lanka with Jack Miller.”
There is a dilemma when writing a biography of a person that has been important in your life.
We tend to create verbal statues overly praising normal people rather than giving praise to Jesus.
On the other hand, we all know that biographical sketches stir our own faith like few other things can.
In Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Jack Miller writes about the importance of biographies to him. This gives what I take to be sanction from him for me to write his biography, though he’d just laugh at the thought.
“[M]ore than once God has used a stirring example from the life of a more normal Christian leader to arouse me to the truth about my indifference to His glory. That is why I enjoy reading the autobiographies and biographies of Christian leaders of the past.“
Ironically, my reason for being in Sri Lanka is to write a biographical study of the life and ministry of Jack Miller.
But there are so many great stories of faith. I enjoy researching and writing these. Some times I think it would be great fun, and a blessing to the church, to travel the world and simply gather some of these faith-deepening stories.
The story I want to share today, the story compelling enough for me to take valuable time away from Jack Miller research to convey to you, has unfolded in two different conversations, with two people, over the last two days.
This is a brief biographical sketch of the stories of Vikki and Anton.
I’ll start with Vikki because it is the order of my conversations.
Vikki is one of my students here at Baldaeus this semester.
Vikki is 31 years old, a part time pastor in Suranagar (about 60 km from Baldaeus).
His wife’s name is Priya, and now he has four children.
During the week he studies at Baldaues pursuing a Bachelors in Theology, and each weekend he travels by bus to his home to preach and be with his family.
Vikki and Priya both are from a Hindu background (more on Priya’s background in a moment).
Vikki and a number of the students have been water jogging with me.
Vikki and I connect, perhaps because both our father’s were fisherman.
Vikki is the one who teased about the dangerous large flying fish coming close to shore at night that would eat me.
Yesterday, with Thiru translating in broken English, while I was water jogging, we began talking about the 2004 Tsunami.
Mostly I just listened and ask questions.
It was a Sunday morning. Vikki was brushing his teeth getting ready to go to church.
And then, without any warning whatsoever, he, his wife and his house were simply no more.
It was so mind-boggling to consider such a sudden and absolute helplessness, I didn’t even try to ask him to explain what he felt or thought. There was no time to feel or think.
That morning, the Tsunami came in three massive waves, each one greater than the previous one.
Somehow before the house and everything in it was utterly destroyed and swept to sea, Vikki was able to latch hold of his wife Priya so that both were carried together many kilometers into the Indian Ocean and almost certain death.
Priya was seven months pregnant at the time. The powerful shock of the storm surge completely shattered her leg.
Thankfully, Vikki was a great swimmer.
While we were water jogging, he motioned how he turned on his back, showing me how he had placed his wife on his chest, swimming backstroked for miles until they finally reached shore.
That night, out of sheer fear another surge would sweep them away, they climbed 30 feet into a nearby tree and slept.
We didn’t even talk about food and water. At that point it was just about breathing one more night.
Priya was in hospital healing for months after the Tsunami, and miraculously gave birth to their first child, a healthy baby boy they would name Jashain.
I was already amazed by this story Vikki told while water jogging, and was thinking of how I could share it with you.
Vikki will join us at Hickory Grove for Sunday School from Sri Lanka sometime in June and July. Then, you will have a chance to meet him, hear more about his story, and ask him questions.
This morning, while I was thinking about writing this story, I was late for breakfast.
Vicki and I were trying unsuccessfully to talk by FaceTime, and kept loosing signal.
By the time I arrived for breakfast, every one had already left.
So Anton, wanting me not to eat alone, and wanting to work on his English conversational skills, decided to sit with me while I ate.
He sat quietly, so I was just trying to be nice, encouraging him to work on his English, when I asked him to tell me his story about trusting in Christ.
Little did I know that Anton and Vikki were connected through Vikki’s wife Priya.
Funny how God works, isn’t it?
In a previous brief conversation, Anton had told me that Ken Harmon, one of the N2N directors, and an elder at Christ Community Church, was his spiritual father.
Ken Harmon, Bill Iverson and Richard Jennings are significantly responsible for my being in Sri Lanka just as I got them involved in India all of which has been God’s Sovereign doing.
Somehow, I quickly put together that Vikki was Anton’s brother-in-law.
Because of my conversation the previous afternoon with Vikki, immediately my interest piqued further.
This may be a great God-story.
I discovered that Priya, Vikki’s wife, is Anton’s younger sister by one year.
Anton and Priya were from the nearby village of Echalampathai, a village on the coast of Sri Lanka with about 300 Hindu families.
Anton was completely familiar with what happened to Vikki and Priya because it happened to the rest of the family too. In fact, Anton’s aunt lost four children to the Tsunami.
Anton had a similar experience during the Tsunami. He and his grandmother Rani were already at church when he and she were swept to sea, and he helped save her.
But we need to go back further, seven years before the Tsunami, and an already good story actually becomes and amazing story of God’s grace that will convict you, bless you, and cause you to worship Jesus.
Anton is now 30. He was 16 then. He has two other older sisters Sasi (32) and Oviya (33).
Anton’s father’s name is Mailvaganam, and his mother Kalarani.
To really get a feel for the story-arch, we have to start in 1997 with Anton’s uncle Lingam, his father’s younger brother.
You need to know that Anton’s grandfather, his father’s father, Thamppilai, was at the time the village Hindu priest. His wife was a Hindu magician. Also, Anton’s mother’s father was a Hindu magician as well.
In other words, the whole family on both sides were part of the Brahmin caste, serving as priests in the Hindu temple for generations.
Also, Mailvaganam (Anton and Priya’s father) and Lingam (their uncle) were Hindu priests as well succeeding their father in the Hindu temple in Echalampathai village.
As the story goes, Lingam had a debilitating and untreatable illness for 9-10 years.
Vast sums of money had been spent attempting to medically treat Lingam.
Their family had consulted to most prominent Hindu healers, and applied every Hindu religious treatment available with no success.
Finally they had given up all hope.
One night uncle Lingam had a dream.
It was so unbelievable to me as I heard it; it took a long time for me to go back and make Anton repeat it word for word several times so I could make sure I heard what was being said.
Anton patiently allowed me to interrogate his story so I could report it as accurately as possible.
Lingam had a dream.
In this dream there were two worship services, one on the left and one on the right.
On the left was a Hindu worship service worshipping all the Hindu gods.
And on the right side there was a congregation of people dressed in all white robes worshipping One God who was hanging on a cross.
In his dream, Lingam recounts that he chose to go to the left saying, “I am Hindu. I want to worship my Hindu gods.”
At that time, a woman (no name) came to Lingam and said, “That side worships nothing. Come with me.” And she took him by the arm to the right side, to the One God hanging on the tree.
And after the dream, when Lingam awakened, he was healed.
I said, “What! say that again.”
Now I realize some, especially us overly secularized Westerners, find this kind of thing crazy and perhaps a little antiquated. If we had time to investigate we could find the more scientific answer.
I will acknowledge, as I listened to Anton, and kept writing notes, I skeptically said to myself, “Really?”
But that wasn’t even close to the climax.
After that dream, Lingam got up for the first time in a long time, and went to his older brother, Mailvaganam, Anton and Priya’s father, who was shocked to see him up and about.
Mailvaganam, the acting Hindu priest of the village, listened to his younger brother’s dream, and offered the following Joseph-Daniel-type interpretation.
Mailvaganam said, “This man hanging from the cross, He is the Christian God, not the Hindu gods. He is the One who healed you.”
And at that time, Mailvaganam and Lingam concluded, “Jesus is Great!”
This all would have been 1997-98 when Anton was 16 and Priya was 15.
Then Mailvaganam took Lingam to the only church he knew about to learn about Christ.
Would you be surprised if I told you that the pastor at that church was a young man named Muralee.
I’ve preached now twice at the Church of Trinco where Muralee is pastor, and he has translated for me on multiple occasions. It was his daughters 21st b’day at which I was the guest speaker.
So when I heard this I just started laughing.
But we are not close to a stopping point.
You don’t convert from being a Hindu priest to a Christian in Sri Lanka without their being severe consequences.
When Lingam came home, the whole village met him.
They wanted to know how he could have been sick for 10 years and now he was healed.
The people ask him, “How can you feel well?”
So he told them his dream, and that “he believed Jesus.”
That day, 10-15 of the 300 families in that village gave their life to Christ.
Then, “day by day, day by day, people were being converted and joining the church.”
It was during this time in 1998, as the way of life in the whole village was being changed by the power of gospel, that the Hindu people decided to rise up and persecute these apostate Hindu priests.
They attacked and beat Lingam and Mailvaganam, hospitalizing them, and completely destroyed their homes.
This persecution continued for some time even while the church went underground.
Wait, there is much more.
After several years everything started to settle, they had rebuilt their home, it was then, in 2004, that the Tsunami again destroyed everything Anton’s family owned.
So, for the second time in 6 years they had to completely rebuild everything.
Then, as if they had not suffered enough, in 2007, the Civil War came to Echalampathai and Anton’s family had to flee for their lives.
If you were Buddhist Singalese, you had a group.
If you were Hindu or Tamil you belonged.
But who did Christian Tamil’s belong to, especially heretical priests now converted to Christ?
So Anton was forced to spend two years in a Bible College that was being used as a shelter for those dislocated by a horrific war.
And now the family would again have to rebuild everything for a third time.
Being so materialistic, at this point, I simply stopped Anton. My faith was somewhat shaken.
I had to ask.
I shared how upset I was that night when my iPad wasn’t working properly, and in anger I wanted to throw it across the room while cursing God for being unfair and insensitive to my needs.
So I said, “Anton, it seems that all these horrible things that happened to you happened after your family became Christian. Did you ever stop and say to yourself, if I had never become a Christian, maybe things would have been better? Of if this is what Christianity is all about, I don’t want anything to do with Jesus?”
Anton smiled and responded, “Yes. Actually, when I was in that shelter, I was asking this same thing in my heart” as he patted his chest with his left hand.
“What happened,” I asked? “Why didn’t you just give up on Christianity?”
God sent me a man named Priya Handy (whom I met recently), the former principle of Baldaeus at that time.
“What did he say,” I asked?
Anton tried to remember precisely.
“Was it helpful,” I asked while he was thinking.
“In the middle of this war, he [Priya Handy] told me that Jesus was the One True God.
We may not understand why we suffer. But we do know that God loves us so much that He has entered our suffering with us; he has not left us to suffer alone.
Jesus suffered the greatest persecution, the greatest Tsunami (if you will), the greatest war of rebellion of all time so that we can live forever with Him.”
It was at this point, in the shelter during the war, that Anton said he trusted his own life to Christ rather than depending on his father’s faith.
There is one more tragedy in 2008 that forms sort of a denouement.
Anton, along with Newton (my primary translator at Baldaeus), were in a van belonging to Baldaeus.
Jackie Coole, the wife of the Baldaeus founder Charles Coole was driving when the terrible accident occured.
Jackie Coole was severely injured, and continues to be impaired today.
Newton’s face was crushed. After a lengthy rehab, he has made recovery and is a full time teacher and dean-like leader at Baldaeus.
Anton’s wrist and hip were broken. He was in the hospital for a month recovering.
Anton is graduated from Baldaeus in 2011 with a Bachelors of Theology.
He is an associate pastor at a local church in Trinco where he preaches twice monthly and teaches as an adjunct professor at Baldaeus.
He teaches New Testament, Christianity and Hinduism (because of his background, he is a brilliant Christian apologist in a Hindu cultural and religious context), and next semester he will begin teaching Church History.
In August of 2015, Anton is being sent to England, to study English in Bristol.
When I put all this story together, we are faced with one of what Tim Keller has described as one of the most significant defeater beliefs in Western Culture.
A defeater belief is a prior foundational belief that people use to explain why they do not want to become a Christian, why theyfind Christianity a dissatisfying explanation of the way things are, or a belief used to justify disbelieving in Jesus from the start.
It goes like this: How can an all-loving, and all-powerful God allow such suffering in the world?
If God is really all-powerful, he cannot not be all-loving, or he would stop suffering.
Or, if God is all-loving, he cannot be all-powerful, and therefore cannot stop suffering.
But he can’t be both all-loving and all-powerful, because it would be evil for Him to let suffering continue.
It is one thing to think about a theodicy of suffering from a distance. It is quite another to listen to it so personally, and yet another to have experienced it.
Anton and Vikki’s story of suffering and faith underscore this dilemma.
On the one hand, between the Tsunami and the Civil War, everyone faced such terrible suffering in Sri Lanka, especially the North.
Many, perhaps even most, would shake their fist at God in anger.
If you really loved me, and you have the power to stop it, why are you allowing this to happen to me?
And they may stand in judgment of God either declaring that he is not all-powerful, not all-loving, but sure he can’t be both, and if he were, I would want nothing to do with such an unjust God.
This is one possible response to suffering that finds it completely meaningless.
Refusing the Bible’s explanation, people refuse to worship the God of the Bible requiring Him to bend His will to our will and our understanding of evil, suffering and justice.
Anton say this is basically Hinduism. Hinduism starts with man. Man shapes the gods in the form and image that he or she prefers.
On the other hand, you have the faith response of Anton, Priya, Vikki and their families to suffering.
They have asked the very same questions, and suffered the same, even greater tragedies.
This has not been an experience of hypothetical suffering attempting to answer a hypothetical question about an abstract defeater belief that primarily American’s and Europeans ask.
This is real, personal, repeated and extended suffering that came in various forms that God used to draw them to Him and to deepen their faith in Jesus.
How do we explain their stories of faith in the worst of circumstances?
Anton wants us to know his explanation. For the Christian, we do not start with man, but we start with God.
In fact we may say that Christianity starts with God, centers upon God, and ends with God to whom belongs glory forever and ever.
And though Anton may not understand all the reasons he has suffered, he realizes that everyone suffers in this fallen and sinful world.
What’s more, he knows that Jesus suffered the greatest suffering on the cross for us.
Instead of avoiding our suffering and remaining enthroned in heaven, removed from this world, the Second Person of the Trinity came down, was born in a manger, was tempted in every way in which we are, and yet, unlike us, without sin.
And on that cross, for the love and glory of His Father who desired to loves us despite our being enemies at war with Him, Jesus endured the greatest suffering and shame of all.
He took on himself the greatest tragedy, the greatest pain, the greatest sorrow, the greatest judgment.
He, who only knew perfect love from His Heavenly Father, cried out a cry from the cross that really belongs to us: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
He made this Great Atonement so that you and I, through faith in Christ, can hear the Father say of us, “You belong to my beloved son, and in you I am well pleased.”
So even though we might not know all the reasons for suffering, as Tim Keller says, we do know one reason it cannot be.
It cannot be because God does not love us.
Your pain and suffering is not meaningless. God promises to bring a harvest of righteousness from your tears of sorrow when you plant them in Him.
So whatever you are suffering today, for whatever reason; only God can deliver on the promise to work it out all together for our good and His glory, even death on a cross.
When I suffer, it is not usually a result of persecution, war, or some tragic storm.
Usually, it is the Fatherly discipline of Hebrews 12:5ff when I am determined to sin.
Though God mitigates this suffering, he does not take it all away, even though I want it over as quickly as possible. Truth be told, I’d rather not have to feel any pain just pleasure and comfort.
Those, pleasure and comfort, are a couple of my preferred Linus-blankets.
At the end, as someone who has suffered so little, and hardly at all for Jesus sake, I reached over and took Anton’s hand and held it.
I looked him in the eye, and I said, “Thank you, Anton!
I personally count it as a great privilege to have met someone like you whom God has counted worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesus.
May God bless you and your family for your enduring faith in Jesus that is an example to me.”
What a story!
Can’t wait to tell you more.
“If Jesus rose from the dead what are you going to do with him?”
Arrested by the question and its implications, Jim (name changed) kept asking me to repeat that question.
But at first, he clarified, “Are you asking me that question. I hope not, I don’t know what I’d say.”
“Okay then” I said. “I am asking you that question.”
“Wow” Jim said.
As an aside, with everything going on at home, even today I was somewhat skeptical going to Sri Lanka was a wise idea.
The last hour and a half with Jim has helped. I am reminded again that Jesus redeems everything including my questionable decisions.
I’m learning that when I say, “I’m on my way to Sri Lanka”, it is an awesome conversation starter.
Every person I’ve spoken with has followed up with additional question.
When they find out I’ll be in Sri Lanka for 10 weeks, the questions cascade.
And when I tell them I’ve been researching and writing about this person named Jack Miller, whom they’ve obviously never heard of, they become even more intrigued: “Who he is? What makes him so unique?”
In Jim’s case, I just told him some Jack-stories — one after another — about a 5′ 7″ seminary professor/church planter/missionary going to the oddest people and places sharing the gospel — on planes, in trains, in automobiles, on Wall Street and Grafton Street, in Ugandan hospital beds and on Ugandan garbage trucks, from scholarly lecterns to rugged motor-cycle gangs, or while lying on the grass next to a drunken sailor on St. Stephen’s Green.
Jim inquired as to how my story connected with Jack’s story taking me on a journey from Bayou La Batre, AL to Trincomalee, Sri Lanka through all the spiritual, marital, financial, and intellectual ups and downs.
For a moment I was concerned I was being overbearing since Jim was sort of trapped.
People tend to despise Christians who cram the gospel down their throat, and I was on the aisle and he was next to the window of a smaller plane. I’m fairly certain a number of people around were listening to us.
So I asked him if I was being offensive, and told him to please stop me anytime he wanted.
But he kept asking more questions.
That is when the conversation turned more to the bible.
When I told him about all the other wanna-be Messiah’s at the time, and how to discern if one was following a false-Messiah or The Messiah, he was arrested again.
I said “You can tell if a Messiah’s claims are false if that Messiah is dead.”
“That is what happened to all the other people who were following false-Messiah’s and false gods, and that is how the disciples felt at the cross.”
“What a tragedy to learn they had given up everything they loved to follow this man who was just another false-messiah. What fools they had been! It’s over. It’s time to pick up the pieces, make the most out of life and move on, or be like Judas and commit suicide.”
But then three days later, “Wait! What? What do you mean the tomb is empty? I saw Him die! I saw His side cut open. I watched them anoint his dead body, and wrap his body in cloth. I heard the Roman soldiers confirm his death and report it to Pilate. Now, how many people did you say saw Him alive? 500 at one time? And, what about all these women? And what did you say about Thomas putting his hands into his hands and side?”
There was no question or experience that Jim, or any other modern person had or could ask that the those first witnesses to the resurrection didn’t in some way ask, search out, or experience.
Jim asked me to repeat the question a third time, this time with an “I” instead of “you. “If I, I, really believe Jesus rose from the dead, what am I going to do about that?”
I casually reminded him. “If Jesus didn’t rise, don’t sweat it. It is no a big deal. Who cares!” and made mention of Pascal’s wager.
“But if he did rise from the dead, what are you going to do about it?”
Jim is a successful businessman only three years from retirement. He was in Nashville on business now heading home to his wife of 30 years.
And he couldn’t let that question go. It was stuck.
I noticed that his eyes were beginning to redden around the edges.
I told him “Thank you for asking such great questions. You have really helped me a lot with your openness and willingness to talk. I had been praying today for someone that I could really love, and that God would give me courage to talk to them about these things.”
He said, “I think that prayer was answered. If the other leg’s to your flight work like this, you are going to have some good long conversations.”
As we approached the terminal, Jim said he had been raised Catholic and attended a Catholic School. “I’ve thought about questions like these a lot, but I’ve never had someone just sit next to me, one-on-one like this (and he pointed from me to him), so I could ask these questions.”
He thanked me emphatically and said: “Tell me that question one more time.”
And I talked to him about faith receiving and resting upon the promises of Jesus Christ, and that Christ had come to marry himself to you, Jim.”
Emboldened by the Lydia-like openness of his heart, just before arriving at the gate, I said, “Jim, can I pray for you.”
He said “Yes, of course” before he did not have a clue I meant pray now, right here, on the plane, together.
That same look of shock crossed his face as I bowed my head and prayed for God to answer Jim’s question directly.
When I looked up after a moment, I thought I’d say thank you and so nice to meet you.
But he was looking me straight in the eye, tears now leaking around the edges of his red eyes, and said in shock, “No one has every prayed for me like that before.”
I’m not sure how to interpret what Jim said next or what happened since I was already rising to getting my bags as the other passengers ushered us out of the way.
But as we hearty grasped hands, he was so thankful. I promise to keep pray for him and his wife while I’m in Sri Lanka this summer, and that God will give he and his wife an answer to that question.
And I’m almost positive Jim said something to the effect of “I think I have learned both the question and the answer” as he pointed at our seats “right here.”
What will God do next?
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