Saturday, February 28, 2015

SEEKING TO KNOW JESUS BETTER, pt. 3: Through the life - and sacrifice - of Kayla Mueller

Seeking to know Jesus better . . . Sometimes the best way to get to know Jesus better is to know - or at least know the story of - someone whose life reflects her/his own nearness to Jesus.

And so it was with the story of Kayla Mueller, as related in a recent article by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. As I read Kayla's story, much of it quoted directly from letters written to her family, I felt that I had come to know Jesus a little better.

Kayla is the young woman who was taken captive by, as Milbank says, "Islamic State savages," and held for 18 months until her death, almost certainly at the hands of those same savages. Yet I have a strong feeling that Kayla never saw them as savages, for she truly seemed to see people through the eyes of Jesus.

She wrote her family, "I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how You are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you." I think Kayla looked into the eyes of her captors and saw suffering rather than savagery . . . she saw the One who said, "whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me." (Matthew 25:40, NIV)

Listen to her words, written while held captive in the most brutal of circumstances: "I have been shown in darkness light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it."

Sound familiar? Listen to the Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi from his prison cell in Rome: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12-13)

Milbank tells us that Kayla wrote, in 2010, "This really is my life's work, to go where there is suffering"; then, in 2011, ". . . if we can't handle learning about the darkest places of our world, they will turn into the darkest places in us. . . . I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering."

So, after joining the campus Christian ministry at Northern Arizona University, she:
  • Volunteered nights at a women's shelter
  • Protested genocide in Darfur
  • Started a chapter of Amnesty International
  • Volunteered at a summer camp for young African refugees in Israel
  • Traveled to Israel's occupied territories to show support for Palestinians
  • Protested torture in Guantanamo Bay
  • Took part in a humanitarian mission to Guatemala
  • Went to India to teach English to Tibetan refugees and to women and children living in poverty
Then came the fateful decision to go to Turkey and help Syrian refugees. But as we've seen from the list above, taking on risky, even dangerous, missions had become a way of life for Kayla, because that is part and parcel of going where suffering people are . . . going where God is.

Last week, a group at my church, Wilshire Baptist in Dallas, presented three scenes from Arthur Miller's play, All My Sons. The central figure in the play is a businessman - a wartime contractor - who had "cut corners" by knowingly providing defective airplane parts to the government, ultimately resulting in the deaths of pilots and failure of their missions. After denying his guilt for years, he finally confesses to his family yet continues to defend his actions, resulting in a shouting match between him and his youngest son. Stripped bare of his defenses, he desperately shouts, "A man can't be Jesus!"

Yes, Jesus' life is a hard one to live up to. Even Jesus struggled to do it. ("My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me." Matthew 26:39)

But it's not impossible, or Jesus wouldn't have asked us to "take up your cross daily, and follow me." What it takes, though, is truly knowing Jesus and truly letting Him live from within us . . . every day, day after day, no matter the circumstances.

Kayla Mueller knew Jesus. And she's helped me get to know Him a little better than I did before.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Legacy of Welton Gaddy at The Interfaith Alliance
by David R. Currie

(NOTE: David R. Currie is retired executive director of Texas Baptists Committed, having served in that role from 1988-2009.)

I was honored to serve on the board of The Interfaith Alliance for many years. In fact, Foy Valentine and I were on the search committee that called Welton Gaddy to be our president 17 years ago.

The Interfaith Alliance was formed by Foy and other religious leaders as a counter voice to the Religious Right. Welton was the perfect person to lead this effort, because he combined great intellect with a unique ability to communicate the truth in a way that common people could understand. He was comfortable in the halls of Congress, as well as speaking in a local church or synagogue or on national television, as he often did.

I often stated that The Interfaith Alliance was not about encouraging people to pretend there were not differences in our faith, but rather to encourage people to respect the faith of others and work together to protect religious freedom. Welton would often be a calming voice in the midst of religious extremism, encouraging persons to remember the highest teachings of religious faith, and calling others to live out the best of their faith.

As Welton retires after 17 years, he leaves a legacy of intellectual honesty and courageous leadership. I was proud to serve with him and support him as he was often (along with Brent Walker) the sanest voice in Washington!!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

SEEKING TO KNOW JESUS BETTER, pt. 2: The four Gospel accounts - how they came to be

I've pulled down a book from my shelves, one that I've had for a long time. In fact, it was recommended to me by Jerry Barnes, the pastor who was so influential in my search for truth during my college years. During that time, Jerry recommended a book entitled The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, by James S. Stewart, a Scottish minister. I read it back then, and I remember getting a great deal out of it, but it's been probably 40 years since I last read it.

This week, I've re-read the first chapter, and I think this book is going to be helpful to me as I read the Gospels, because it provides some valuable context for them.

In this chapter, Stewart begins by making some general observations about the Gospel accounts:
  • They are not biographies, but instead are "a set of 'memoirs,' selected historical reminiscences."
  • These "historical reminiscences" were selected with one purpose in mind: "that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." (John 20:31)
  • Each "evangelist" writes from his own perspective, giving us, in essence, "four distinct portraits of Jesus."
  • The earliest of them appeared some 30 to 40 years after the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. Why the delay?
    • The early Church was busy evangelizing the world.
    • Most early Christians were expecting a speedy end of the world as we know it (Jesus himself had said "This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled."), so who would be around to read what they had written?
    • Christ's presence was so real to many of his followers that, early on, they may not have felt it necessary to keep going over what he had said and done in his ministry.
  • As the years went by, and many who had known Jesus and were eyewitnesses to his life, death, and resurrection themselves died, "it became obvious that to continue to rely on oral tradition and on fragmentary documents would be extremely precarious." They were concerned about:
    • Providing the story for those yet unborn
    • Educating new Christians who would need to be given historical context for such practices as the Lord's Supper
    • Combating heresy, giving a basis for settling debates within the Church
  • The authors drew upon a variety of sources.
    • In his opening passages, Luke tells us that he had a large quantity of miscellaneous materials from which to choose in constructing his narrative. As Stewart writes, "Here a parable would have been preserved in writing, there the story of a miracle, there a group of sayings, there a body of teaching on some special subject . . ."
    • In 1:1-4, Luke gives us an idea of the extent of the task he undertook. Stewart explains, "the inspired writers were not miraculously freed from the necessity of hard historical research which other writers have to face. Inspiration was not God magically transcending human minds and faculties; it was God expressing his will through the dedication of human minds and faculties. It does not supersede the sacred writer's own personality and make him God's machine; it reinforces his personality and makes him God's living witness."
Stewart then goes on to detail characteristics of each Gospel account and major differences between them. I'll deal with these matters in a later post.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Another step in my journey with God

I've felt something's missing. As many discussions as I enter into in Sunday School and elsewhere about Jesus . . . as faithfully as I pray to the Father throughout the day in Jesus' name . . . as much as I try to - as best I can - follow his teachings and emulate his life . . . I feel where I most fall short is in knowing Jesus.

What a concept . . . knowing Jesus. We say we're in relationship with him, yet knowing someone who lived and died 2,000 years ago . . . who lives now as spirit but not in the flesh . . . well, let's just say it's not easy. We say he lives within us, but what does that mean? If he lives within me, isn't it important that I know him as deeply as possible? In the Sunday School class of which my wife and I have been members for over 10 years, we often discuss Jesus . . . the nature of this divine/human person . . . his relationship with the Father. Yet I never get a strong sense in these discussions that any of us feels we know Jesus very well. We seem to have a lot more questions than answers, and even our answers feel pretty tentative.

Praying to the Father - as Jesus taught his disciples to do - I feel much more in relationship with the Father than the Son, yet Jesus told us that to know the Son is to know the Father.

Well, that states my dilemma, as far as I can express it.

That leads me to the purpose of this blog post - and the series of posts that will follow it.

I've decided that one key focus of 2015 for me will be seeking to know Jesus better. I started quite a journey a little over 44 years ago, in the fall of 1970, when - as a sophomore at Oklahoma Baptist University - I lost the "faith" with which I had grown up.

Thank God! And I mean that literally, because I am convinced beyond doubt that it was God who caused me to shed that shallow understanding of "faith" that I brought with me to OBU. The day I lost my "faith" (those quotes are intentional, because what I called faith wasn't really faith at all) was the day God started dealing with me, leading me on a journey that has lasted until now and will, I trust, last the rest of my life.

It has been a remarkable journey, and I can see God's hand leading me in so many ways over those 4+ decades. But, as I wrote at the beginning of this post, something's missing. I just don't feel I know Jesus as well as I should know him. Don't get me wrong - I'm not questioning my salvation, I'm not questioning the existence of my relationship with him. I'm simply recognizing that this relationship needs to go much deeper. Truth be told, we could probably all say that about a number of relationships in our lives, whether divine or human.

So this is another step - actually, more like another path or another trail - on that journey with God. My intention in writing this series is not to preach or teach or even inspire. My main purpose in writing all of this down is to discipline myself to keep moving on this journey and to ultimately know Jesus better than I do now. Inviting you to "eavesdrop" on my thoughts and discoveries along the way will help keep me on track. If you happen to find some of these things helpful in your own journey, so much the better.

I'll be focusing in, of course, on scripture, especially the Gospels; I'll also be looking at other sources - books, articles, etc. - that might help add context to my understanding. But, truth be told, this series is a work-in-progress and will probably remain so as long as it continues. In other words, I'll figure it out as I go along. It won't be a smooth, straightforward path; more likely, there will be a lot of zigs and zags along the way. (If you were to see my study, you would understand - neat and organized is not my way!) It should almost go without saying that prayer, too, will play an important part, and I'll try to share that part of the journey as best I can.

How long will this series continue? I don't know; could be a few weeks, could be a year; could be two posts, could be a hundred; it all depends on where God leads me.

Before proceeding to part 2 of this series (in the next week or so, I hope), I need to make one thing very clear. I am not a theologian or anything close to it. I am not a preacher. I am a layperson whom God has blessed with opportunities for serving him - nothing more, nothing less. I have never been to seminary, never had any formal theological training beyond basic Old and New Testament survey courses in college. My dad had a Th.D.; I'm not my dad, though I certainly aspire to the example he set, for I never knew anyone of greater faithfulness and grace than my own parents.

So why is it important that I seek to know Jesus better? Because it is my deepest conviction that it is in Jesus Christ that God fully reveals himself and that he wants us to know him - not just know about him but know him. Though the direction of my prayers may cause me to feel more in relationship with the Father than the Son, my knowledge of the Father is limited - according to Jesus - to the extent of my knowledge of the Son. God created us for relationship with him. Simply, I want to know Jesus better to draw nearer to God in all aspects of his triune personhood.