Think about your favorite story.
Great stories hardly are about trivial matters, often they are about something much deeper: vanquishing evil, finding love, choosing forgiveness, or celebrating life. There are things worth fighting for and there are things worth dying for.
In the story that started before the words “In the beginning” was even placed on a parchment, there was love. And out of this love, the Trinitarian dance, a grand story began. Forged from the fires of supernovas, slowly the universe took shape and life would take root on this planet. The Word, as John wrote in his gospel account, brought forth creation long ago. But somewhere things went wrong, as Adam and Eve brought sin and death into this story. Humanity needed a way back from the path of death to the way of life.
Athanasius would capture this way of life, pointing his readers to the Word who became flesh. He pointedly wrote,
it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. 
While humanity was broken “in sin and error pinning,” the Word became flesh and chose to seek after the lost.
At the core of Advent lies the message of hope: those who were lost can now be found. Through the first Advent of Jesus, we are saved, “for with his blood mankind he hath bought,” and in his Second Advent, he will put the world to rights.
 St. Athanasius (2009-08-19). On the Incarnation (Kindle Locations 74-79). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
O Lord our God, under the shadow of your wings we will rest. Defend us and support us, bear us up when we are little, and we know that even down to our gray hairs, you will carry us.
Friends, I get scared. I get nervous that things won’t work out and that the best laid plans I devise will blow up in my face. If I’m really honest, sometimes I fear that God has forgotten about me.
Have you ever been there?
I’ve said it elsewhere in my writings and I will continue to say it, but I find comfort in the Psalms when that happens. When I feel as if I’m abandoned by the Lord who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand, I turn to the raw emotions found in the center of the Bible.
This prayer of Augustine touches on those times of anguish, when I am on the verge of breaking. It points me back to the grand narrative of Scripture.
For the follower of the God who called Abram out of his father’s house, we are invited into a journey.
For the follower of the God who led his people out of slavery in Egypt, we are given freedom.
For the follower of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, we are given new life found in him.
Friends, I encourage you to take comfort in God in those times of despair. Like a frightened bird, find comfort under the shadow of God’s wings- He will care for you both when you are little and when you are gray. Take hope even when all looks lost.
Where do you find hope?
To end this series on the excellent book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas we will move into the church setting. A politician, an athlete, and a pope walked into a bar. Er, I mean, walked into the blog post…
While the first two men highlighted this month were giants of their respective arenas, this next man was a powerful man who was remarkably different from his peers.
Karol Wojtyla was 58 when he was selected as the next pope, which is a baby by papal standards. Pope John Paul II was quickly seen as different because he was Polish, an outdoorsman, wrote plays and poetry, and jogged. This jogging pontiff was also friendly, optimistic, and was devout without being a sour religious type. Quite frankly, he seemed to know God while also remaining full of life.
Born in 1920, Karol lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland. However, he managed to get through WWII while holding onto both his faith and life. Through much sorrow and suffering early in his life (his mother, father, and brother all died before he hit 20), the future pope began to see that God’s hand was at work in his life. He realized that there were no coincidences and that every event in his life helped him on the path God had in store for him.
Young Karol had a full life, he attended a secret seminary away from the prying eyes of the occupying forces, while also maintaining his involvement with theater and work at a chemical factory. He worked hard and eventually would become ordained in 1946.
Karol would rise in the Roman Catholic Church quickly, moving from a subordinate to the bishop of Krakow to archbishop to cardinal in a decade. A man who never aspired to a life of politics, Karol was well liked and he was placed in positions of great power out of this genuineness. When Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly (after a month in office), Karol was elected to the papacy. Here the incredibly down to earth man was cut off from his previous life with no possible exit to his former life. Still, Karl did not hesitate to accept the call, even if it meant his life would irrevocably change.
John Paul II addressed the crowds with such vulnerability and grace that people gravitated to him. He humbly communicated with clarity and he was charming without any sort of guile. His lifetime equipped him for this moment, his devotion, trust, humility, and service empowered him for this leadership.
What stuck out to me was his generous, broad minded nature while remaining seriously orthodox. Metaxas pointed out that the views of John Paul II flowed out of a place of love. His theological views were rooted in the belief that we are created in God’s image and that everything flows from this place. Our rights, freedoms, and responsibility flowed from this love. Even in the last stage of his life, he demonstrated that in suffering and weakness, God still provides strength. Once a strong man, Pope John Paul II would rely on Christ for strength. His grace, humility, life of prayer, and intellectual prowess help show that John Paul II was truly a man worth admiring.
Much ink has been spilled over what makes a man within Christian circles. I really don’t want to dive into the debate on Biblical Manhood or Womanhood, I’ll leave that to Mark Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans, and many others to robustly argue it out. Instead,I wanted to take a different approach by using Eric Metaxas excellent book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. In his book, Metaxas highlights (wait for it) seven men to help convey character and encourage the reader to cultivate positive traits that marked these seven. Out of those seven, I wanted to highlight three figures that stood out prominently to me. The next three weeks will center on the lives of William Wilberforce, Jackie Robinson, and Pope John Paul II.
Just to clarify, I am writing as a man (just in case you were wondering) and my appreciation of these highlighted men will come from that perspective. I also want to mention that these brief biographies will not be marked by hero-worship or overly critical treatment of these men. I believe we are in critical need of heroes, as imperfect as they might be, to help point us to being rooted in positive character. There is neither naivety nor cynicism in these posts, instead I wanted to draw some helpful good from these heroes of the faith for both men and women.
Manhood and Fatherhood
These posts came about through my own adventure into fatherhood and it made me want to read more about solid men from our past. In his introduction to the book, Metaxas pointed out that fatherhood is marked by a strong and loving heart demonstrated by sacrificing for those he loves. It’s choosing to be more than just a boy who can shave, it’s found in a love that is costly. That’s real manliness.
Strong men ought to protect the weak, whether it’s a child, other men who need help, or disadvantaged people in need. Through these principle, he can exhibit the same mind of Jesus, while having all power, courageously chose to serve others, not being a macho “tough guy.” Interestingly enough, to have courage (rooted in the Latin cor) means to have heart. It means that the man is strong and does the right thing even when all else points towards not doing it. Courage is sometimes quite costly! Having heart is like the boyfriend who shielded his girlfriend from an evil man’s gun at a movie theater in Colorado. Having heart is the father who choose to be present with his family, instead of constantly placing himself in his work at all hours of every weekend.
With these men, they were courageous by “surrendering themselves to a higher purpose, of giving something away that they might have kept.” In short, they had heart.
Wilberforce gave up the comfortable life to stop slavery within the British Empire and the world. Robinson chose to give up fighting back in order to lead the way for minorities to become integrated in American society. John Paul II chose to give up his former life to vulnerably lead the Roman Catholic Church for decades. These and the other four had heart.
As will be seen this month, these men took their Christian faith seriously and changed the world because of it.
The last trait that I want to highlight from John Stott’s Radical Disciple is dependence.
Relying On Another
Dependence is something foreign to many within a hyper-individualistic society. Some might even see it as an attack against everything that made a nation great. Admittedly, while America was built on rugged individuals, earlier generations were also connected to their town and community groups. Although as a Radical Disciple is concerned, they will pursue after God and be dependent on him (as hard as this might be!).
Really though, this is tough. I get it. It would be nice to have everything figured out on my own. Yet, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer at church, dependence hits me like a bucket of cold water. In the Lord’s Prayer, we’re declaring that the Lord must provide, otherwise we’re up a creek without a paddle, boat, or mosquito repellant.
Stott movingly recounts his realizations that he was becoming more dependent on others as his body was breaking down. Old age took its toll on him and now he needed care from others. Yes, dependence on others and on the Lord can be foreign to us in the USA. But a refusal to place our dependence on others is not a sign of maturity, instead it’s immaturity. We need others, especially as a Radical Disciple ages.
Grabbing onto Dependence
Dependence is pivotal to life. We come into this world as a baby, totally dependent on others.
Have you ever noticed that?
Something that I have personally witnessed is that my little daughter is 100% dependent on our love and care. Perhaps other phases of life will allow others to be dependent on us, but eventually, a lot will go out of this world dependent on others again. We are made to be a burden to others, to rely on the strength of the community. Whether it’s the biological family or church family, we are called to a life of “mutual burdensomeness.” Paul would similarly exhort that we should “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
If we are to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s follow his pattern. He was dependent on his mother and father (the God of the universe had his bottom wiped!!) and would exit the world at the crucifixion totally dependent, pierced and body stretched out on the cross. Jesus still had his divine dignity though, so nothing will be lost from us except our pride. If it’s OK for the God of the universe, then perhaps it will be alright for the Radical Disciple of Jesus.
A Parting Note
A Radical Disciple is someone who is thoroughly committed to follow Jesus (not a Christian in name only). They’re a pupil learning under a master and they are a person radically committed to the cause of the Kingdom.
What other traits does a Radical Disciple embody?
Another prominent mark of a Radical Disciple is that they are balanced.
There are many Christians that we might know (perhaps we are one of them!) that are high and low. They are strong in one area and weak in six other areas. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to be that person. Instead, I want to have a life that is balanced in my work, social, family, health, education, and spiritual facets to my life. I want to be a man who is characterized as not only even in temperament, but balanced in my schedule. Theologian John Stott wrote that the the marks of a well-balanced Christian can be found in one of Peter’s letters:Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
Stott using I Peter 2:1-17 extrapolates that we are called to embody a portrait with six major themes. We are called
As newborn babies– we are called to growth
As living stones– we are called to fellowship
As holy priests– we are called to worship
As God’s own people– we are called to witness
As aliens and strangers– we are called to holiness
As servants of God– we are called to citizenship
These six roles are not separate though, they are strongly connected. As a follower of Jesus, we are called both to individual discipleship and to corporate fellowship. We have individual identities and yet are also a part of something bigger than our own particular story. We are called to both worship and work, praising God and pointing others to him. We are called to be pilgrims in this world and also to be good citizens in the course of our lives.
As a Radical Disciple, we are called to a life that is more than just one dimensional, instead we are called to be a well balanced follower of Jesus. We are called to follow Jesus in every aspect of our life, truly making him Lord of all.
Another characteristic that Stott sees in a Radical Disciple of Jesus is maturity.
As many people have noted (both within Christian and secular scholarship), the church has grown rapidly throughout the world. This explosion of Christianity has outpaced even Islam in its global spread. Stott warns us though against becoming too triumphalistic, for this is often growth without depth. Church leaders in the majority world have been candid about the growing numbers and also are open to admitting the lack of a strong foundation. There might be plenty of numbers but cultivating deep roots is something that still lacks.
A lack of maturity is not just something that can be found in the majority world, but it can be found in Western churches as well. Paul confronted this in the 1st Century when he wrote to Corinth saying,
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
These sharp words to the Corinthians needs to be heard by the church today. Becoming a Radical Disciple of Jesus means taking on the marks of maturity, growing up from being a mere infant. Paul wrote to the Colossian church,
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
Maturity is not just about using big words and paying a mortgage though. Maturity comes from being connected in Christ as a branch is connected to a vine and our arms are connected to the torso. To be in Christ means we are organically related to him, and that relation leads to a worship, trust, love, and obedience to him.
How do we become a mature Christian then?
Stott would suggest practically that the more clearly we see Jesus, “the more convinced we become that he is worthy of our commitment.”
Theologian J.I. Packer wrote that we are “pygmy Christians” because we have a pygmy God. Christians have created small Jesuses in the fashion of capitalist or socialist Jesus, ascetic or partier Jesus, and meek or revolutionary Jesus. Many Christians have domesticated Jesus through creating a false image of him. I know that I have been guilty of this!
If we want to be mature Christians, then we will have to see who Jesus is with clear focus and fresh eyes. We can be centered on him in two ways:
We can see Jesus in his supremacy
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Col 1:15-20
We can see Jesus in his humility
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Phil 2:5-11
Last thing I want to point out about becoming a mature Christian is that all can become mature in their faith. It’s not just a secret club reserved only for pastor, theologians, or the little-old-blue-haired-lady-prayer-warriors. All can become mature and then encourage others on this path to a deep, mature faith.
For this month, I wanted to introduce an incredible thinker that I’ve recently discovered- John Stott. If you don’t know the British theologian John Stott, then I really hope you get to know him through his work. Quite frankly, Stott is incredible and this month will be centered on his book The Radical Disciple. With that introduction out of the way, let’s get on with the show!
In his book, Stott would write that two marks (among many) of a Radical Disciple are nonconformity and Christlikeness. For followers of Jesus, the first mark is cultivating nonconformity. We are called to live, serve, and witness to the world while also avoiding contamination from it.
The Church has tried to escape from the world many times in the past to preserve holiness, creating little subcultural ghettos. The church also has given up a bit of holiness in order to conform and go along with the world. Stott saw that the church needed to reject both escapism and conformism.
Holiness is a big theme in Scripture. We are called to be holy because God is holy (I Peter 1:15-16), to be transformed instead of conforming to the patterns of the world (Romans 12:2), and to follow Jesus by not acting like hypocrites (Matthew 6:8). Overall, Radical Discipleship in this characteristic is centered on a call to engagement without compromise.
While we engage the world by being present in it, we must also affirm the uniqueness of Christ. Jesus has no rivals nor successors and we should bear witness to this belief with a spirit of humility. Radical Discipleship calls for nonconformity, not “shaking in the wind like reeds or grass, bowing down before gusts of public opinion.” Instead we are to be as “immovable rocks in a mountain stream.” We are called not to be like a dead fish floating with the current, but to swim against the stream, to stand out visibly in a spirit of humility instead of changing our color like chameleons. We are called to be different, to be like Christ.
A lot of people hear what a Christian should not do, but they do not often hear what a Christian should be. They should become more like Jesus.
Stott unpacked this positive message through three passages calling for Christlikeness.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Romans 8:29
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. II Cor 3:18
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. I John 3:2
Still not entirely convinced? I John 2:6 puts it even more bluntly: “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” If we claim to be Christian, then we need to become like Christ, there simply are no other options. Practically, Stott sees Christlikeness in these ways:
In his incarnation– Christians are called to follow his humility Phil 2:5-8
In his service– Christians are called to help others and serve them, even if the task is menial of degrading John 13:14-15
In his love– Christians are called to love others in our lives, even if the love is costly like on Calvary Ephesians 5:2
In his patient endurance– Christians are called to endure, even when suffering comes unjustly.
In his mission– Christians are called to enter other people’s worlds, and to get skin into the game. We go to lost and lonely, for that is Christian love
Though suffering might come and sharing this message of Jesus might be difficult, but the reality is that we are not alone in this. God has graciously given us his Holy Spirit to help us fulfill this purpose in life.
“God’s purpose is to make us like Christ, and God’s way is to fill us with his Holy Spirit.”
I wanted to use this last post in the Wisdom Wednesday series on the Holy Spirit as a further clarification, just in case you missed this point in my series. The Holy Spirit is God, and this brief post will begin to unpack that with the help of the Early Church Fathers (so enjoy the history lesson without the tuition!).
Next to the Beginning
What you need to know for this post is that the second and third century leaders helped shape the trajectory of Christianity. Before you skip over to the Da Vinci Code though, understand that Dan Brown is wrong when he suggested that these leaders somehow created a Jesus that was divine. Quite frankly, that’s a pile of garbage.
The earliest writer in the New Testament is Paul, and his letters seemed to convey the message that Jesus was more than a nice philosopher, as a previous post on Liberalism and Fundamentalism would unpack. The Early Church encountered something new in Jesus (scholar NT Wright is excellent on this point).
It is true that a lot of these early leaders were figuring out the place of the Spirit and there was a lot of debate on his place within this God revealed in Scripture. I try to cut the leaders slack because they did not have the luxury of 1900 years of scholarship on this topic. Early on though, Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great Cappadocian fathers of the Early Church, argued vociferously that the Spirit belonged in the Trinity. Gregory wrote,
The OT preached the Father openly and the Son more obscurely, while the New revealed the Son and hinted at the deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit dwells in us and reveals himself more clearly to us.
Baptism and The Spirit
For Athanasius, a pivotal figure in the Council of Nicaea, the trinitarian baptismal formula was a huge point in demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). After all, if the Spirit is not consubstantial (of the same essence) with the Father and the Son, the Spirit then cannot make us conform to the Son and therefore cannot save us. The Spirit is our helper, and he was sent after the ascension of Jesus on Pentecost (see Acts 2 and a previous post). Also another strong argument for the Trinity is in Acts, where two individuals were caught lying to the Spirit, which is interpreted as lying to God himself.
A Lived Reality
More can be said on this subject, in fact a lot has been said on it (a great introduction to this in NT Wright’s Simply Christian), but my purposes here is to point that the God who made the world is the same God who wants to begin the work of making the future Kingdom of God real in the present.
While the working out of whether or not there is a Triune God can be seen in the writings of the Early Church (which are heavily footnoted with Scripture), this concept is not meant to just be in a book– it is meant to be lived out.
We were meant to live this stuff out, because it’s not some theological game. As theologian NT Wright would state, “for Christians it’s always a love game: God’s love for the world calling out an answering love from us, enabling us to discover that God not only happens to love us (as though this was simply one aspect of his character) but that he is love itself.”
We are invited into a story of love, one that was there even before the universe began. We are invited into new life and a new story than random present. For life in the Spirit is a life of love and hope.