Washing Off the World
As a religion major at Carson-Newman College, I am required to take a course called an Introduction to Ministry, in which I am currently enrolled. It is an interesting class, and some of the assignments are really unique, especially this one. Our professor divided us into groups and told us that each Thursday a different group was going to lead the class in the Lord's Supper. This way, we could all get the experience of leading this kind of service so we would have an idea of how we would approach it in our future careers. One group, however, was especially unique. The service was extremely interactive, which I though was wonderful. But the most unique thing of all: we didn't have bread and juice.
They asked us to remove our shoes and socks, referring to the passage in Exodus 3:5, when God told Moses to take off his sandals because he was about to enter the presence of God.
We were paired off with someone we did not know, and told to share a personal prayer request with them. We were then told that we were doing this to establish an emotional connection with this person because we would be forming a physical one later.
Then, shoeless, we were guided on a walk around campus, in the cold, mud, and rain, while they read us questions to reflect on:
How can you serve your roommate?
How can you serve your friend-group?
How can you serve your campus (work place)?
What does it mean for you to receive service?
What does it mean that Jesus washed Judas's feet?
Then, with our feet dirty, cold, and in a lot of pain, we washed our partner's feet and they washed ours.
The walk was very painful, even after I thought my feet were numb. The pain put a lot into perspective for me, especially when we got to the last reflective question. Even though Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray Him, He also knew that Judas was hurting, and needed to be shown love. How true is that in our world? That there are so many people causing the world so much grief, so much pain, but are in so much need of love that they don't even register that they have that need? They are so imprisoned by the hate in their hearts that they can't fathom the idea that someone would take the time to wash the world off of them, to make them clean, to show them love. So they don't even consider it an option, and measure success by how much money they get, how many people they sleep with, how many enemies they defeat, how much territory they gain. Even those who are not “bad” are so consumed by the need to be successful or for social and economic gain that the concept of love is completely over their heads. Oh, how much different the world would be if we stood by the command to love our enemies, and not just the neighbors that are easy to love because they are less fortunate than us! (Luke 6:27)
Then, of course, we all had to receive the action of having our feet washed. I had to allow this boy that I barely knew to wash my feet. It has always been easier for me to give, but this activity also reminded me of a truth that I learned last semester: we were meant to receive as well as to serve. As a friend of mine once told me, "Yea, Jesus washed the disciples' feet. But He let John baptize Him."(Matthew 3:13-15; Mark 1:9-11) He humbled himself enough to allow someone else to baptize Him. Him, Jesus, Savior, the Almighty God in the flesh, allowed a human to baptize Him. How humble! What an example for us to follow: to humbly serve, and humbly receive. To not receive that truth is prideful of us. Even if we don't realize it, we are saying, "I'm too good for them. I don't need their help. I'm so good I can do it myself", even if what we are really trying to say is “I don’t want them to go through the trouble.” All they are trying to do is show us love. In our attempt to not inconvenience someone, we are unintentionally slapping them in the face, telling them their love and service isn't good enough for us, even if our intention was just to make their life easier so they wouldn't have to 'worry' about one more thing.
So what do we do with this truth? If we read it and that’s all, then it’s just words. If we think about it later on in the day, then it’s just a thought. But if we act on this truth, that’s when we will collectively make an impact on this world for the glorification of God. So instead of just reading about this truth or just thinking about this truth, let’s take the example that Jesus gives us and act on this truth. Let’s love when it seems impossible, serve when it’s harder, and receive when it’s uncomfortable. Then, the love of Jesus Christ will impact the world the way it was originally intended to: radically, unbiasedly, and purely.
Kalianna Freels, Religion Major
A Christmas Journey
The following is a journal entry I wrote while living in Texas a few years ago. I reproduce it here as a reminder that we must seek to open our eyes to the presence of God all around us, a reminder that is especially potent during the Christmas season.
December 8, 2000
Tonight I had one of those experiences that seems to jump out of the routine of the mundane and demand my attention. We were having dress rehearsal for “A Christmas Journey,” which is a Christmas musical about finding the true heart of Christmas. Each 20th century character is jerked backwards to the first Christmas when he or she opens a magical box. When they open the box, a journey begins. Through their journey, they each realize that the routine and the chaos of their everyday American life is far far far away from that first Christmas and the birth of the Christ child. Tonight that theme was illustrated for us quite vividly.
During one section of the program while preparing for the procession of the wise men, the youth choir waits in a virtual cubby hole behind the organ-side exit. As we looked out the doors that lead onto the front porch to 5th Street and the main entrance of the sanctuary, we noticed a homeless man in a sleeping bag on the front porch. At first, everyone was scared because there was a scary guy on the front porch and the doors were all unlocked. Personally, once I saw him and realized that he was not one of the typical guys that I see around the church all the time, I was somewhat worried as well.
Then it hit me--this was Christmas! What a perfect, yet horrifying picture! I myself had just taken “the Christmas journey!” Here we were warm and comfortable inside the safety of the walls of the church, God’s house, while a man shivered in the cold night on our front porch, with only a pane of glass between us. Here we were inside going about the typical routine of preparing for a musical to celebrate the birth of the Savior, while the Savior sat on the porch staring at us in the face of a homeless man.
And how similar this must have been to Bethlehem that first Christmas. I am sure if they had realized that the Savior was being born in their midst, someone could have found a room, or at least a more fitting place for the birth of the King. And I am sure that if they had known that their Messiah was in their midst, they would have gathered together to sing a song, celebrate with a tear of sheer joy, and lavish him with love and gifts--had they only known what was going on. But instead, they were too busy with their routines, with their busy lives, with getting counted for a census so that they might return home where they belonged. All the while, the Savior was born outside in the nip of the night air, with no one around to share that most marvelous of moments except a few livestock.
And we sat inside, busily preparing for the musical that would celebrate once again the coming of the Messiah centuries ago, preparing to attempt to carry the audience on that journey with us. Yet Jesus sat right outside our door in the person of a homeless man, much like the Messiah might have looked, and definitely more like the Messiah than those of us inside. No money, no nice clothing, not even a shower. Yet he peacefully slept outside in an otherwise silent night, interrupted only by the busyness and the noise from inside.
As I wonder how Bethlehem managed to miss the Messiah, I realize that I repeat their blindness every single day. Jesus, we pray for your coming during this advent season. Please grant us the eyes with which to see you when you answer that prayer.
Assistant Professor of Religion
Real Prayer (Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1 and 1 Timothy 2:1-7)
Sometimes, sadly, we play games with prayer. We may fall into thoughtless and empty language in prayer—it’s like we are playing a game of “Let’s Pretend.” But real prayer is not a game. It’s serious conversation with God.
Not being careful about what we are saying, we lapse into old habits: “Our dear Heavenly Father, I thank thee for this wonderful day…” when actually it’s been the raunchiest day in recent memory! The biblical saints are much less likely to play pretend in their prayers. They are honest with God about just how bad things have gotten.
Jeremiah practiced real prayer—he was honest with God rather than playing games. And his prayers can teach us the power of lament. The ancient Hebrew lament was, simply put, a sad song. And Jeremiah is deeply grieved over the sins and fate of Judah, his people. He is heartbroken . . . in fact, the situation has reduced him to tears (we can him “the weeping prophet” because of this passage). He is deeply sad and he is telling God about it, being bitterly honest out of his poignant pain. He expects God to do something because he realizes he can’t. And such a prayer of pain has real power—spiritually, as well as psychologically. So real prayers are honest with God about where we are in life’s journey, even in all of the pain of it.
Paul, spiritually wise and seasoned by life’s hardships, wrote young Timothy, his protégé. And he extended much advice, both practical and spiritual. In this text, the mentor is teaching the budding young minister about prayer and the long view of petition. Focused upon God alone, and God’s work in Christ Jesus (vv. 5-6), real prayer looks in faith to God for life’s truest perspective and meaning. As agents of God’s work on earth, he advised Timothy, we pray for everyone—even the pagan king in Rome who wants to persecute and kill us all. We are seeking to be a part of God’s salvation work for everyone, even the worst around us. Especially the worst. When we practice real prayer, we take the long view, like God does, and we seek the best possible outcome for the worst possible people. It’s called grace. And peace (shalom). And because we are praying real prayers of petition for others, God may use our attitude of open grace to put us in position to touch others so needy of salvation.
Prayer of devotion:
Dear God, let me lean on you in my sadness during difficult days; and may I adopt your grace-full view of others as you deploy me as your witness to an undeserving yet needy world. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Professor of Religion
Right Thing Wrong Reason
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
Motivation is a significant issue to Jesus. As Jesus makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount, practicing our piety is a dangerous thing if we do so for the wrong reasons. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 6, we must pray because prayer is a central avenue through with God changes both us and our world; we must never pray in order to be noticed by others and to be perceived as a prayerful and righteous person. We must give alms because giving is core to the Christian’s character and because needs are great around us; we must never give with great fanfare where others will praise our generosity. We must fast as one of the valuable spiritual disciplines of the faith; we must never alter our appearance in a way that brags about our practice to the world. In all three cases, Jesus names a crucial act of righteousness, teaches the disciple to practice that act, and then cautions against misguided motivation. For Jesus, then, doing the right thing is not the only thing that matters; doing the right thing for the right reason is what matters. Motivation is crucial, and purity of character must be a defining quality of Jesus’ followers.
Prayerfully consider the following quote from one of the true saints of the modern world, Brennan Manning:
“The noonday devil of the Christian life is the temptation to lose the inner self while preserving the shell of edifying behavior. Suddenly, I discover that I am ministering to AIDS victims to enhance my resume. I find I renounce ice cream for Lent to lose five excess pounds. I drop hints about the absolute priority of meditation and contemplation to create the impression that I am a man of prayer. At some unremembered moment I have lost the connection between internal purity of heart and external works of piety. In the most humiliating sense of the word, I have become a legalist. I have fallen victim to what T. S. Eliot calls the greatest sin: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” (Taken from A Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning)
Assistant Professor of Religion
Sending Out the Twelve
An absent-minded professor was on board a train and he was unable to find his ticket. The conductor said, "Take it easy. You'll find it." When the conductor returned, the professor still couldn't find the ticket. The conductor said, "I'm sure you bought a ticket. Forget about it." "You're very kind," the professor said, "but I must find it, otherwise I won't know where to get off."
If you were about to take a journey this weekend what is the first thing you would do? Would you need to prepare your home? Provide for the care of the pets? Would it be to plan your itinerary? Would it be to take care of your car? Would it be to check out your destination? What would you be doing if you were traveling this weekend?
In Mark 6:6-13 Jesus sent out his disciples to go into the world. Mark calls Jesus’ disciples “the Twelve.” These followers of Jesus are sent out in pairs to go out into the world. He instructs them to take only a staff, the clothes on their back, and not to take extra money or provisions. They are instructed to travel to homes where, if received, they will be provided for, but if not, they are to shake the dust off of their feet and travel to another place. Their mission was clear. They went out preaching the repentance of Jesus. They cast out demons in the name of Jesus. They also anointed people with oil and healed them.
Do you not imagine that the twelve also had many preparations that must have been made? They needed to provide for their homes and families. They probably had to cancel appointments or plans that were made. Whatever was necessary, the disciples opened their schedules and lives to accommodate the instructions that Jesus gave them. According to verse ten they were successful.
Does God really call us to go out into the world in his name today? We make much of the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. But compared to the vast history of the church the emphasis on this verse is a relatively new focus and endeavor. Instead of just focusing on this one passage I urge you to hear the call of Christ in the totality of the Gospel. Jesus called his followers to care for the whole person. The disciples preached repentance, but they also ministered to the sick. The disciples preached repentance, but they also drove out demons caring for peoples’ emotional and physical conditions. The disciples preached repentance, but they did so without being a heavy burden upon those for whom they ministered. Without flash, without pageantry, without large provisions or accessories the disciples quietly and boldly began to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Are we really being successful today? Bill Cosby once said, “I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” As believers in Jesus Christ, perhaps we should model Jesus’ sending out the twelve in Mark 6:1-13. We can and do make a difference in our world, but if we are going to be successful it is going to take place one person at a time. Thomas Edison wrote, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Are your staff and sandals ready? What’s keeping you from going out today and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ?
- H. Wayne Ballard, Associate Professor of Religion
Who wants to be last?
“So the last will be first and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:16
“Last one there is a rotten egg!!” Utter these words and the challenge is on. For most kids (at least when I was a kid), these words are as good as “Ready, set, go.” Usually in my family growing up it was my brother who issued the challenge and it was usually me who ended up being the “rotten egg.” I was used to coming in last or pretty close to last, but I never learned to like it.
From a very young age we are taught that being last is a bad thing. The line leader is a valued position – not so for the last person in line. No one wants to be picked last for the team or come in last in the league rankings. For us, last is the same a loser. Who wants to be a loser?
In the Kingdom of God, there is a different understanding about the last. In the Kingdom of God, the last will be first! What a reversal from our way of understanding. The reversal of the last being first is both challenging and comforting. For those who are used to coming in first and who value that prize, a change of mindset is necessary. In the Kingdom of God it is not about who gets there first or who wins the most games or who has the nicest things. It is about participating with God and sharing God’s love and redemption with all people – especially those who don’t come in first. For those who are used to coming last, there is hope! God doesn’t value first place like humans do. God loves all people, especially those who come in last!
Despite our culture’s obsession with winners, the reality is many of us lose more than we win. For that reason, we might be tempted to lump ourselves into the category of the people Jesus referred to as the “last.” While it is true that some of us do fall into the category of last, generally speaking, most of us are among the “firsts” of our world. There are many people around us in our own country and elsewhere who truly are the last.
In our scramble to be first (whether we get there first or not), are we overlooking those who are last? If we take seriously Jesus’ words about God’s kingdom, we will begin working now!
“Your Kingdom come, your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven!” Mt. 6:10
A Place to Rest
I don’t know about you, but I find that the fall is a particularly busy time. School has started again as well as the extra-curricular activities that go along with school. There are several major holidays to prepare for over the next few months. There are meetings and more meetings to attend. I find that the busier my life gets, the harder it is to quiet my rapid-fire thoughts. What are rapid-fire thoughts, you ask? They are the many to-do lists that are running through your brain right now even as you read this devotional. Plan this, start that, complete those, call them . . .
A friend of mine in Waco, Texas had a phrase for that type of thinking. “Shallow rapid breathing produces shallow rapid thoughts!” she would always say. Judy led a small prayer group I participated in and we would start each meeting with deep breathing. Feet flat on the floor, sit up straight, breath slowly through your diaphragm. Breathe in . . . . Breathe out . . . .
Judy was working on her D.Min degree at the time and her topic was Sabbath, hence her concern for slowing down. She taught me the importance of resting in the presence of God, even if it is just for a moment during my busy day.
The psalmist also teaches us that lesson. In Psalm 131:2 it says
“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
Here we see a beautiful image of resting in God. The image is of a mother and her weaned child. Many of you have experienced first- hand the transition from mother and nursing child to mother and weaned child. It is not always an easy transition. In this psalm the psalmist has reached a point of contentment in the relationship. The psalmist no longer seeks God as a nursing child seeks his mother, anxious for nourishment. The psalmist has come to realize that in God’s arms there is more to be found – there is still protection and nourishment, but there is also peace and quiet and stillness.
When we take time to find the peace and stillness that is only available in God’s arms, even if we do so in the midst of a crazy time of year, we become more capable of thinking deeply. We are better able to turn our “shallow, rapid thoughts,” into deep thoughts. In those moments we are better able to think as Paul urges us to think in Phil. 4:8
“Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Christine Jones, Associate Professor of Religion
How Should We Respond to the Hate?
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Matthew 5: 11
Every time we turn on the media we see angry people. Political opponents interrupt speeches on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and crowds hurl insults and racial slurs at persons not like themselves. I am greatly disturbed by the growing hatred and lack of public regard in our country.
I was taught from the time I was a very small child – by my parents, Sunday School teachers and public school teachers – that such behaviors were wrong. I was taught to treat people – even people with whom I disagreed – with respect. I was taught that I should love others the same way Jesus did. But this is not easy. I can’t do it by my own efforts.
As I write these words on a beautiful Sunday afternoon (the Fourth Sunday of Easter), I am reminded that Easter is an invitation to receive God’s new life through the resurrection of Jesus. Through this “new birth,” the old self that hates and seeks only to have my way is put to death and the new self in Christ is born. This is the only way I can love others and treat others the way I would want to be treated.
But, the saddest part of all the hate I see around us is that much of it is found in the behavior of persons claiming to be Christians. We cannot be salt and light when we merely reflect an uncivil society.
Let us take Easter seriously. Let us be transformed continuously into the likeness of Christ. And let us work together to proclaim that hatred, racial slurs and uncivil behaviors are not acceptable. Let us show respect and love to those for whom Christ died.
Ray Dalton, Associate Professor of Sociology
Spring is in the Air
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is here in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. - Song of Songs 2:10b-13 (NRSV)
The emersion of Spring is an amazing thing to witness each year. This year Spring seems to be especially vibrant. One reason that Spring is so welcome this year is that Winter seemed to keep its hold on us longer and more fiercely than usual. My family and I officially started our winter in Oklahoma with a blizzard over the Christmas break. In January, the cold and snow just kept coming. My son’s school amassed an amazing 13 snow days over the course of the last few months. Not that he was complaining mind you, but he became very nervous when snow days were threatening to shorten Spring Break. The weather appeared to be affecting my ability to effectively teach my classes as well. A general mood of fatigue, depression, and general malaise seemed to be the norm in my classes with college students this semester.
But then – wham – there it is. Our first forecasted 80 degree day and it is absolutely beautiful. The smiles are back. There are skips in our steps with light in our eyes. The birds seem more cheerful in their daily melody. The squirrels are feistier, the horses more playful, and the wasps are making their annual reappearance. Spring is here!
With the celebration of Easter, Christians around the world have the opportunity to experience the coming of Spring. This Spring is not related to warmer temperatures, fewer clouds, or the shining of the sun. The Spring that comes from Easter is the warming of our hearts. Let us be filled with joy. Let us be filled with newness of purpose. Let us be filled with compassion toward our fellow person. And let us be thankful for the resurrection that made newness of life possible. Spring is in the air!
Wayne Ballard, Jr., Associate Professor of Religion
Two Paths Converged in a Verdant Wood--Proverbs 3:6
I had been serving as associate pastor for youth and young adults at the same church for nearly eight years. Along the way I had been taking courses toward a Ph.D. in family studies. Due to illnesses in my family and church staff, I had fallen behind the pace of finishing my coursework in the eight-year time limit. I got to the point that the only way I could finish my degree was to leave my job and go to school full time. But by now I had a newborn child. I also loved to preach and wanted to possibly begin moving toward a pastorate—meaning a halt to my Ph.D. work. I agonized over the decision. In the course of some informal networking, a pastor of a large metropolitan church asked me if I ever wanted to teach college. “Yes,” I said. He replied, “Then you need to finish the Ph.D. If you want to be a pastor, a D.Min.will do just fine.”
Pastor or professor? I couldn’t sleep. I ached. Finally, I made a pilgrimage back here to Carson-Newman—the campus where I had grown up; the place that drew me to academia like the headwaters of Alaskan streams call to salmon. I walked around campus, sitting outside classrooms, eavesdropping on lectures and quietly finishing the professors’ sentences. Gosh, I love this stuff. Then I went to one of my most sacred spaces (thank you Ernest Lee)—the dead end alcove under the stairwell to the vacant basement of my old dormitory. No one ever went down there—except me, to pray.
Almost in anger, I cried out, “God, in your word you promise, ‘In all thy ways acknowledge [me, and I] shall direct thy paths.’ I’m standing at a fork in the road here! DO SOME DIRECTING!!!”
A still, small, silent voice prompted: “Brad, recite that verse again, but this time the way you recently memorized it in the New Revised Standard Version.”
That’s silly, I thought.
“Just do it.”
“In all your ways acknowledge [me, and I] will make your paths straight.”
I was stunned. “Make [my] paths straight.” That seemed quite different that the burden of picking the right path that might lead me eternally away from God’s ideal will for my life.
The voice came again. “Brad, I don’t care WHAT you do. You can glorify me being a pastor or you can glorify me being a professor. YOU pick, and I’ll make your path straight.”
The weight was lifted. I wouldn’t disappoint God as long as my choice was wholesome and my goal righteous. Now, I’m not going to say the path through a double full-time course load while raising a newborn was without bumps. But get this. I had not preached for nearly two years at the church where I was serving. A month after I resigned a church job to pursue a secular degree at a secular college, I was invited to do pulpit supply for a contemporary worship service. They asked me to stay, and I preached nearly every Sunday for almost four years.
Pastor or professor? As reported in his famous poem, The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost had to pick between paths that diverged in a yellow wood. The beauty of grace is that when we seek to glorify God, the roads always converge at the verdant, fruitful orchard of the Kingdom.
Brad Bull, Assistant Professor of Graduate Counseling
The Gospel According to Ruth
The little book of Ruth (four terse chapters!) captivates me because it helps enormously in understanding the interface between the textbook doctrine of the providence of God – a good doctrine, to be sure – and the realities of everyday life in a broken world. I’m not sure about the alleged typology of the “kinsman-redeemer” (which, I confess, I do not understand very well). I happily ignore those who (like the “health, wealth and prosperity” preachers on what one of my students graphically described as “the big hair channel”) want to get straight to Ruth 4 before they live through the agony, abandonment, bitterness and desolation of Ruth 1. The book of Ruth is about ordinary people like us who, despite bewildering and painful circumstances, discover that God does indeed care for those who take refuge under his wings (2:16).
Ruth’s commitments to Naomi and Naomi’s God (1:16-17) are preconditions for the way the story unfolds – I don’t doubt that for a moment. But for me the real turning point in the story comes in Ruth 2:3, “So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.” Sanitised interpretations of gleaning just won’t do! Get rid of idyllic notions of a carefree young woman skipping through fields of wheat. Replace them with the grinding poverty and uncertain desperation of people like those who live on rubbish tips in Africa, hoping to find amid what others have thrown out just enough to stay alive for one more day. But here’s the thing: “as it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz” (NIV); “as it happened” (NRSV); and quaintly but arrestingly, “and her hap was to light on a part of the field belonging to Boaz” (KJV). Doubtless unknown and certainly unplanned by her, she just happened to find herself in the right place at the right time.
I’m tempted to say, “What a stroke of luck! Some people have all the luck!” – but with Ruth’s help I know better. Luck is for the unbeliever. We who have taken shelter under God’s wings know that our destiny – regardless of present appearances – is in God’s hands. “Regardless of present appearances.” It takes us but a matter of minutes to read Ruth; we know the end of the story almost before it has begun. But some of the temporal markers in the story remind us that for Ruth the process took perhaps decades – the family’s time in Moab alone accounts for ten whole years (1:4). We also know – as Ruth could not have known – that not only would she become the great-great grandmother of King David (4:17), but that from her line, Gentile poverty-stricken widow that she was, Messiah would one day be born. Ruth helps us to see providence in terms of ultimacy; to take the long view; to understand that God, even though able to provide the “quick fix”, usually chooses to do his work in the historical process, in ways we probably won’t understand this side of glory. But he is working!
Indeed, “God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.” Thus William Cowper (1731-1800), himself no stranger to depression and disaster:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Thomas Merton articulates so well the prayer that rises from my heart as Ruth speaks to me again:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road in front of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
“D” (Donald) Morcom, Visiting International Scholar, School of Religion
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In this famous passage from Paul, we find what many have termed a “Christ hymn.” We are not certain if Paul constructed the hymn himself, or if Paul is drawing on a hymn already in use in the early church that he quotes and codifies here. What we do know, though, is that the hymn has a clear purpose: to define Christ in terms of self-sacrifice, and to extend that model to those who will follow him. In fact, I would suggest that if we were to give a definition of what it means to be a follower of Christ, we could do no better than simply that: self-sacrifice, or sacrificial love. This is the model, Paul tells us, that has been put forward in Christ. Christ, who was the very expression of deity, did not think that “deity” was defined by self-glorification. That is, “deity” is not something to be used for his own good, not something “to be exploited.” Rather, the model put forward here is that Christ is defined by self-emptying—“he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” The image is that of pouring out the contents of a cup. Further, Christ then humbles himself, or empties himself, even to the point of death on a cross. The clear model, then, is that Christ is defined by self-sacrificing love. The primary picture of this God is the picture of a crucified God hanging on a cross in the middle of history, seeking to redeem it. That is nothing if not a picture of sacrificial love that values others more than self.
If Christ is defined by sacrificial love, Paul states, so must also his followers. Paul, in fact, tells us to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”, or in other words, “follow this model.” As Christ-followers, we are to be defined by the same things that Christ was defined by: sacrificial love, emptying ourselves, sacrifice that values others above ourselves.
Are we defined by those things? This would be the critical question for us to think about. Do our actions reflect selfishness, or selflessness? Are we motivated by protecting our own interests, or by sacrificing our interests for the interests of others? Are we willing to submit to others and to serve others only so long as it doesn’t really cost us much, or do we do it especially when it costs us much? These are the sorts of questions that define us as followers of Jesus. If we as a body of believers were ever to conquer our own selfishness and replace it with the sacrificial love modeled by Christ, our disputes and conflicts disappear—whatever they may be, and however strong they may be.
Lord, may we adopt this model of self-sacrifice and sacrificial love in every moment of our lives that we may be found to be true Christ-followers.
Chad Hartsock, Assistant Professor of Religion
At The Cross
“And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)
In the New Testament Peter seems to be somewhat overshadowed by Paul. But when we come to the disciples of Jesus Peter seems to steal the limelight. For it is Peter who asks the tough questions, it is Peter who acts with boldness, it is Peter who shares with heart-felt transparency. Richard Bauckham states: “Of the twelve disciples, Peter is the one who follows Jesus furthest on Jesus’ way to the cross.”
In the upper room Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples hours before the crucifixion and Peter declares that he will lay down his life for Jesus. He meanders through Jerusalem with Jesus and the other disciples later that night into the Garden of Gethsemane, the Garden of the Oil Press. Jesus begins to pray as the trio of weary disciples drift into sleep. A few hours later the temple guard and soldiers shatter the silence of the night with shouting and the fluttering of oil lanterns and firebrands. Peter is courageous and un-sheaths his sword ready for a fight. He is checked by Jesus. When Jesus is arrested the disciples slink off into the shadows. Peter follows the arresting detail at a distance and together with the beloved disciple slips into the court-yard of the high priests’ residence. It is here that Peter falters and fails and abandons the way of the cross. Unmanned by the questioning of a servant girl he disassociates himself from the Messiah. He denies Jesus three times, the cock crows, Jesus’ tearful glance signals the betrayal, and the one called the Rock goes out and weeps bitterly. The man who wanted to prove himself a rock is shattered into a thousand pieces.
The problem in Peter’s life was twofold: he had a mistaken profile of who Jesus was and a misunderstanding of discipleship. Trace it back to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi of Jesus as the Christ, and the Rabbi’s’ initial affirmation of the disciple’s intuitive reply. A few moments later, however, Jesus censures Peter because he cannot accept the Son of Man’s declaration that he will be a suffering Messiah. Jesus repeats the forecast of his redemptive destiny three times on the way up to Jerusalem. But Jesus and Peter are literally at “cross purposes” since the heart of the discussion is the cross. For Peter, the indication that Jesus will die is unthinkable and incomprehensible. For Jesus, it is inevitable.
A wrong view of Messiahship leads to a wrong view of discipleship. Peter wants to be the disciple he thinks the Messiah needs. Yet, Peter’s failure is not fatal but wonderfully hopeful. It is the shattering of all Peter’s illusions about Jesus and himself. It is the one place where Peter’s extravagant devotion to Jesus can be recast on the anvil of authentic discipleship. It is the only way Peter can now begin to understand that it is Peter who needs Jesus to enable him to be a disciple the way Jesus wants him to be.
Peter’s failure qualifies him to begin to be a disciple on the way of the cross, Only by admitting failure can Peter be raised up. Peter’s false start at discipleship ran into a dead end street in the high priest’s courtyard as Jesus was being condemned to death. Peter’s new beginning, however, began at another charcoal fire along the beach when Jesus reinstated him with a colloquy of love framed with three probing questions, “Peter do you love me?” To remember what a new beginning it was we may remember that 35 years later Peter was quite literally to follow Jesus on the way of the cross, carrying his own cross out through the gates of the city of Rome to be crucified himself.
We know as disciples that the signature of grace was written across Golgotha, ‘skull hill’, and there we kneel amidst our many failures. A scarred hand reaches out to each one of us offering us the priceless gift of forgiveness: release, friendship and fellowship with God. Failure is not a disqualification for being a disciple of Jesus. On the contrary, admission of such is a qualification for being a disciple of Jesus. Our failure is the point where God’s grace always proves to be greater.
Dr. David Crutchley, Dean, School of Religion
Slipping – Psalm 73
A few weeks ago, on a raining morning, I entered Henderson Hall a bit too quickly for the slippery circumstances and suddenly found myself in a helpless, slow-motion descent toward the tile floor. Thankfully, no one was around to see the embarrassing fall (at least I didn’t see anyone) and I walked away with only a bruise, but it took some time before I got over the sensation of falling. I really hate that feeling. This winter as I walked across the icy parking lot, it was the fear of falling that kept me alert, too bad I as wasn’t alert about the slippery floor.
There is a definite sensation associated with a physical fall, and sometimes we experience a similar sensation when we are slipping mentally and spiritually. The author of Psalm 73 understood that feeling and artfully articulates it for us. The psalm begins with a clear statement about God’s goodness toward the righteous, but immediately turns the initial confidence upside down. What would warrant such a slip? For the psalmist, his reality did not match his understanding of God. Contrary to the opening statement, the wicked – the arrogant, prideful, malicious, are doing well. No, they are doing more than well; they are wealthy, they have more than enough to eat, and they are praised by the people. The righteous psalmist, on the other hand, is plagued and punished – reality is the opposite of what it should be. The contradiction is enough to make the psalmist seriously consider abandoning the righteous and joining the wicked.
Two things stop the psalmist; first, the psalmist realizes that joining the wicked would mean turning his back upon the other children of God who were continuing in faith. Second, the psalmist enters the sanctuary of God and in that place he realizes the end that awaits the wicked. The wicked will fall, they will slip in such a way that they cannot recover. Once the psalmist acknowledges these truths, he reaffirms his trust in God. He turns to God who holds his right hand and guides him and states that God is his desire – not the wealth and acclaim of the wicked. God is his strength even when his flesh and heart may fail.
There are times in our lives when we slip, we slip into thinking that our faithfulness and commitment to righteous isn’t going to get us through when times are tough and are contradicting our beliefs. What a dangerous slope! The image that the psalmist provides of God reaching to hold his hand and guide him is such a comfort. We don’t have to continue down the slope, reach up and take God’s hand. The psalmist doesn’t communicate that there has been any change in his reality – the wicked are still there and prospering. The change is in his perspective. Instead of focusing on the wicked, the psalmist focuses on God and God’s nearness to him. When the slipping sensation hits and you begin the slow-motion descent, look up and reach out for God’s hand, re-focus on God and God’s nearness. The details of your reality might not change, but your perspective will and that makes all the difference!
Christine Jones, Assistant Professor of Religion
God is No Statistician
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. Ezekiel 34: 11-12
I am, by profession a sociologist. I am trained to examine the problems of the world in the form of statistics and rates, not as individual, personal, issues. This can be useful for understanding the enormity of problems we face. When unemployment or homelessness increases, statistical analysis can help make sense of these numbers. Poverty statistics or crime rates can be major factors in developing social policy.
But there is a disturbing aspect to this “statistical perspective.” The problem with statistical data is that they are impersonal and encourages us as believers to encounter the poor and suffering in an abstract manner – as passive observers. It becomes easy to forget that the numbers represent people, and, as a result, the individuals to whom we are to minister become invisible to us.
This is certainly not the Lord’s perspective. The Bible calls Him a shepherd who knows and cares for His sheep (Ezekiel 34, Psalm 23, Matthew 9:36, Luke 15: 4-7, John 10). God does not see the world as the statistician. He knows and cares for His people as persons, as individuals. In the Ezekiel passage (above) God tells the prophet that though the people are scattered like sheep, He will “seek them out,” and “rescue” them. The shepherd knows his sheep. In Luke 16: 19f we are told that the poor man at the rich man’s gate is known by name. When the masses pressed in on Jesus, he knew when the woman touched him in order to be healed (Luke 8: 42 - 48). Jesus did not look at the crowds and think in terms of averages and percentages, he saw faces, he saw persons.
Poet C. H. Lindblad has given us a word picture of the caring shepherd who knows His sheep, watches over them, and will bring them through the day of clouds and thick darkness:
Great Shepherd, Thou art seated now
Upon the highest hill;
There is no sheep Thou dost not see
In valley, plain, by rill.
We know that soon Thou wilt arise,
For night is gathering fast,
And call each of Thy precious sheep
Home to Thy fold at last.
Are we in danger of losing this perspective? In our fast-paced world where the “faceless” masses pass us in the street unnoticed, do we really understand that each one has a name and each one is known by God.
In one of her remarkable “Time” novels, Madeleine L’Engle relates a conversation between Meg, the young heroine of the story, and an angel (Proginoskes):
Progo!” Meg asked. “You memorized the names of all the stars – how many are there?”
“How many? Great heavens, earthling, I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“But you said your last assignment was to memorize the names of all of them.”
“I did. All the stars in all the galaxies. And that’s a great many.”
“But how many?”
"What difference does it make? I know their names. I don’t know how many there are. It’s their names that matter.” (A WindIn the Door, 1973, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 181.)
The Shepherd knows His sheep. Our names matter. God is no statistician – and for that we can be thankful.
Ray Dalton, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Expressing our Faith Experiences
February 22 was Transfiguration Sunday and the reading was the familiar story of Jesus and James and John and Peter going to the top of a mountain and seeing Jesus changed before their eyes into a dazzling white appearance. The Gospels present this as a kind of sneak preview of the Resurrection and for those of us after thousands of years of reading all of the story, we know what comes next. Or do we?
We do know what comes next in the narrative. The disciples do exactly what I would want to do had I been there. They want to build tents and stay on the mountain forever and bask in the afterglow (pun intended) of this mountaintop experience (pun also intended). After all, that’s really what the purpose of Christianity is all about it, isn’t it? I need to cultivate significant, powerful, moving experiences in my life because they are so pleasant and they work. They work to make me less anxious and make me feel good and holy and at one with the divine. The disciples clearly had light shed on who Jesus really was for them. They saw him a much more clearly than when they climbed the mountain. There’s nothing better to do with this kind of experience than to make it permanent.
But then the voice from Heaven speaks and says, “This is my Son, Listen to Him.” The Son does have some things to say to them, one of which is that they needed to come down from the mountain. If you read on a few passages later, you will find that the disciples and Jesus leave the mountain and are immediately involved in healing the afflicted and casting out demons from the possessed.
This story is about many things, but for me this year this story speaks to the importance of deep, moving Christian experiences and the cultivation of the interior life, something I don’t pursue very much. Mountaintop experiences, however we might achieve them, are important. There is nothing in this passage that indicates they were wrong for climbing the mountain to see the transfigured Jesus. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the mountaintop. Protestant Christians today, even Free Church Christians like the Baptists, are rediscovering ancient Christian practices, like Centering Prayer and Spiritual Direction, that call us to the depths of the interior life. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have practiced these disciplines for thousands of years. These new mountaintop experiences (new to us) add a new layer to our tradition of rich and moving hymn singing or the electric energy of a church camp experience.
The purpose, though, of a mountaintop experience, or for all of Christianity for that matter, is not to stay in the experience. The value of any kind of experience I have is ultimately in how I live out my life. Coming close to Transfiguration Sunday is Ash Wednesday, which is February 26 this year. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent call on me to look at the many ways I do not live out my mountaintop experiences in deeds of kinds and mercy and hospitality. May I resolve to do better this year.
In Jesus’ Name.
Mel Hawkins, Associate Professor of Religion
Joint Heirs with Christ
Romans 8:15-17 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
When I am honest, I have to admit that this paragraph makes me as uncomfortable as any paragraph in the New Testament. Indeed, Paul’s words in Romans 8 bring great comfort as we are declared to be part of the family of God, but the idea of being a “joint heir” with Jesus has always both awed and terrified me.
Paul tells us in this passage that we have been adopted as children of God. Adopted—the obvious implication here is that we are now part of a family that we were not previously a part of. We used to be enemies of God, separated from God by our sin, points that Paul has made quite clear thus far in Romans. Yet the gift God offers through the death of Christ is the hope of redemption.
Frankly, redemption would be more than enough, far more than we could ever ask for, deserve, or expect. That is, it would have been an extravagant gift to simply let us into the kingdom of God as third-rate citizens, on the furthest outskirts of that kingdom, in the kingdom but with no real status. Indeed, just getting into the kingdom at all is more that I would imagine or hope for. But that is not enough for this God. No, this God is not content to simply let us into the kingdom. Instead, this God adopts us into his royal family. We aren’t just given citizenship; we are given a royal pedigree, adopted into the family.
Had Paul stopped with adoption, I might even be able to wrap my mind around it; but Paul continues yet another step. Not only are we adopted into the family as children of God, but if we are children then we are heirs. As if being heirs to this kingdom were not already mindboggling enough, Paul pushes it one more step—joint heirs with Christ. This is a notion that makes me more than a little uncomfortable. Joint heirs with Christ? God is in some way putting us on the same level with the Son who died to make it all possible? That’s a status I am not sure I want, and it is for that reason that this paragraph makes me so uncomfortable.
What does this tell us about our God? This tells us that our God is pure love. I suppose I can fathom a God who would seek to redeem a broken creation, and I can even fathom a God who could love the creation enough to redeem it in a self-sacrificing way. But a God whose love is so deep, so extravagant, so far-reaching, that this God would elevate the newly redeemed creation to the status of “joint heirs” with the one-and-only Son who died to redeem that creation? That sort of love blows the mind. That is the sort of love that simultaneously fosters gratitude and love in response, yet also fosters a deep sense of unworthiness.
To the God who would redeem a broken creation such as us, we give praise and thanks. To the Father who would adopt us into his family as one of his own children, we are eternally grateful. To the Father who would also elevate us to the level of “joint heirs” with the Son, we bow in shame of our own unworthiness, and we pray for the love and the grace to live lives worthy of that status.
Chad Hartsock, Assistant Professor of Religion
"Showing” before “Telling"
We call him Master, yet obey Him not. We call him Lord, yet follow Him not. Nowhere are these claims more true than in the lives of contemporary believers and nowhere is the evidence more indicting than in our understanding of how it is we relate to God. Of all the relationships which comprise one’s life, none is more important than the relationship to God. If we truly wish to be followers of Jesus, then how we relate to God ought to be modeled after how Jesus related to God. We believe Jesus to be “fully God, fully human,” paradoxically both unlike us yet like us. But how did this One whom we affirm as the Word Made Flesh,(John 1), as the one “in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell “(Colossians 1:ff), as the “very stamp of God’s being “( Hebrews 1:ff), relate to God when He walked the earth as man? There is no simple answer due, in large part, to the nature of the Gospel itself.
The Gospel was an Event before it was a Book. That is, there is but one Gospel, namely “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). There are four literary “According To’s”- According to Matthew, According to Mark, According to Luke, According to John. Thus, prior to the telling of the Good News through the literary canonical gospels there was the historic showing of the Good News through the person of Jesus Christ. But I find it interesting that in all four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke directly, and John indirectly) the showing of the Gospel publicly is begun against the background of Jesus’ baptism. And I find it profoundly meaningful that in Mark, which most scholars believe to be the first Gospel to be written, the Divine Voice says “You are my Beloved Son, it whom I am well pleased.”
Notice, that affirmation comes BEFORE Jesus does anything, not after. It comes as Gift, “with the territory” of being God’s child, not as Reward for having accomplished some great task. We contemporary folk, who so often still want to DO things to earn God’s favor, need to hear that Good News. He did what he did across 3 years because he knew who he was. Jesus’ ministry was grounded in his relationship to God. And Jesus’ relationship with God was grounded in his sure knowledge that he was Beloved Son, a status not to be earned by hard work but to be received as Gift.
Prayer: May we who have ears to hear, listen.
Ross Brummett, Ph.D. , Professor of Religion
This Place is Too Small for Us!
Imagine if you will that you have been given a carte blanche for building or restoring a church facility?
What would you build or add if you were to build a new church today?
Would you place the emphasis on the auditorium? Or perhaps you might focus on the Sunday School classes? Or maybe you could actually update the church offices? Or maybe you could build a family life center for recreational needs of the community as well as needs of the congregation?
2 Kings 6 speaks of a time when Elisha was asked to lead in a new building program.
2 Kings 6:1-7
Apparently, Elisha and his followers had started what many people have called the first seminary. The NIV (New International Version) refers to this group as a “company of prophets.” Most agree that it was some type of teaching situation of a leader/teacher along with the students/disciples. Not only had they started it, but it was growing. It seems they had outgrown their place of meeting. They had a problem. So they decide to build a bigger meeting place and invite Elisha to aid them in the process.
This brief snapshot of Elisha’s life offers a great lesson for us today. I would like to share three practical applications from this little story.
I. What Do We Need to Do? Vs. 1
First, we need a sense of vision or purpose. The people in Elisha’s day knew what they needed. They didn’t have to gather together and have a large prayer meeting, or prayer walk through their village. They needed a bigger place to meet.
We sometimes dismiss the practical as not being very spiritual, but the practical may be exactly what God has for you to do today.
I can remember the car my wife Kim and I drove when we first got married. Kim had an old Chevrolet Citation. In seminary it seemed like we worked on that old car constantly. One day I was paying out at my favorite mechanics shop once again when took me aside and said, “Wayne, I hate to tell you this because you are my best customer, but you really need to get yourself a different car. This thing is going to continue to cost you money.” You know a car is bad when a mechanic tells you this advice. I went to our pastor and asked “Rev. Baker can you pray for me because I need to know if God is telling me to get a different car.” He had already heard the story about me, the car, and the mechanic. His answer shocked me that day. He said, “No, Wayne, you don’t need to pray about something when God has already told you what to do.” I’ll never forget that lesson that day.
Kim’s sweet grandmother, Essie Powell, tells the story of being off the coast in Alaska when the motor went out in the boat she was traveling in. The frightened tour guide and boat captain turned to their party and said “we are in a bad way. Do you see those rocks over there, we are in trouble. You all need to pray and maybe make things right with your maker.” Essie, being the great Christian lady apparently didn’t hesitate when she looked at him and said, “Sir, I am ready to meet my maker, but it won’t be today, get back over there and get that motor started.” He did just that.
II. Make a Plan to Accomplish your Task. Vv. 2-3
Second, we must decide the best course of action to accomplish our task. Elisha and the people decided they would go to the Jordan River where all the company could participate in the building of this new meeting place.
Bill Jarnigan is one of our faithful members at Block Springs Baptist Church in Blaine where I serve as the part-time Senior Pastor. Bill went with me and the Carson-Newman teams when we went to Mississippi to give help following the Katrina disaster. I love one of Bill Jarnigan’s favorite quotes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that job!” Most things in life worth doing only come about when we plan and count the cost of what we must do. Careful planning is faith in action. By faith, we determine the best way to accomplish what God is leading us to do. There are often many ways to accomplish a certain goal. Planning also involves the stages of prayer for God to give guidance, direction, and blessings. God always equips those who follow God’s plans. God provides for our needs when we step out of the way and allow God to work.
III. Don’t Be Deterred by the Obstacles. Vv. 4-6.
Third, we see in this story that we should not quit when obstacles arrive in our way. The people of Elisha’s party were working when someone lost their axe head and it flew off into the Jordan River. The person was perplexed because it was a borrowed tool. Elisha retrieved the axe head by causing it to float on the water. Many people make this part of the story the main focus of this text, but I disagree. Elisha simply did what was necessary to continue the task at hand – building a new place for them to meet. The real miracle was all of these prophets and potential prophets working together for the betterment of the whole.
Don’t panic when obstacles arise. They will happen!
What does all of this mean for us today?
First, identify what purpose or vision God has for you today? We often know not, because we ask not!
Second, take time to formulate a plan to accomplish what God has in store for you. If it seems too big for you then be excited because God may be preparing a great miracle to happen in your midst. If it is in your reach already be thankful that God has already prepared the way.
Third, there will be obstacles that will arise, but let us commit ourselves to ove