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One of the truly great blessings in my life is having friends who are older and wiser. Some of these dear friends were my professors when I was a student at Wheaton College (1969-71, B.A.) and (1971-73, M.A.). One such friend, Dr. Alan Johnson, taught me in several classes. A very memorable one was a class in apologetics. We met at 8:00 a.m. three times a week. I sat on the front row asking many, many questions. (By the way, one of Alan’s TA’s some years later was Michael Gerson, the well-known speech writer and adviser to President George W. Bush.)
I was engaged in direct evangelism with students at Northern Illinois University when I took Alan’s course in apologetics. This was the early 1970s and there were lots of questions. Dr. Johnson was a great source for me at the time. I really soaked up his class.
In 2010 Alan edited a great book, How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals (Zondervan). I did Chapter One, not because it is a great chapter but because my last name put me first in the alphabetical order of the essays. (I sometimes loved being asked a question first in class and sometimes I wished my name began with W or Y.)
Today and tomorrow Alan Johnson speaks about missional-ecumenism and our ACT3 ministry. He has been a great advocate, donor and consultant to me since we began this work in 1991.
Last year a Barna Group study used a series of questions to determine the Bible knowledge level of people in various US cities. It was no surprise that the cities with the highest rate of Bible knowledge were in the South and Southeast. The cities with the lowest percentage of people with Bible knowledge were in the Northeast and the far West, with the Midwest a little more in between the two extremes. None of this data surprises me at all based upon what I know about churches, people and the various subcultures of America.
Here is the question I’d like to see surveyed: “How much does knowledge of the Bible equate with the greatest virtues of the Christian life – faith, hope and love?” What does Bible knowledge mean in terms of involvement with the least and the poorest among us? What does it mean for marriage and family life? What about prayer and contemplation? Sadly, it is my broad experience that many places where Bible knowledge is highest people are far more unlikely to understand that it means to follow the Jesus who is revealed to us in the Gospel narratives of the New Testament.
I realize my observation is biased, at least a little. I also realize that more hard data might reveal something different about people in the areas where Bible knowledge is fairly high but there are some facts to back me up. First, some of the highest divorce rates are in high Bible knowledge-based areas where Christians generally have a higher divorce rate than non-Christians. One can account for this in various ways. One is to realize that Christians are more likely to get married than to live together without marriage thus they are more likely to get divorced. Yet the sad truth is this – divorce among Christians is very high and we all know this is true.
It is also quite revealing that in areas where Bible knowledge is high desire for Christian unity is very low. Denominational and tribal sectarianism is much stronger in the “Bible Belt” than in other parts of the country. I know this because I grew up in the Bible Belt and I spend quite a bit of time there as well.
I can draw one conclusion from these observations. (I am sure there are more.) Knowledge of the Bible does not necessarily create places where love for Jesus is high and where non-Christians deeply respect Christians because of what they know and how they live it out day-by-day. Something is not right when so many people know things revealed in the Bible but find ways to avoid living out the truths they seem to know, at least at a level of some intellectual comprehension.
God wants to show us his love for us in the circumstances he providentially arranges for our lives to be lived in. When all is right and rosy in our lives, it is quite easy and natural to arrive at this conclusion. God has blessed me; he must love me. Yet, as all of us who live in this world know, life is not always lived in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. We have troubles and they are never in short supply. If pleasure and ease are the barometers of goodness, it is far from evident in our natural sight that a good and benevolent God rules the universe when there is so much pain and suffering in it for the creatures he has made. By faith, however, we are shown the sufferings of One Man as the very content of God’s love for us. This is Jesus Christ, who through his suffering and resurrection offers to unite us to the life of God. In and with our Lord Jesus Christ, then, God demonstrates his mighty love for us in our weakness, pain, and suffering. I want to share briefly with you how in the trial of living with a disability, God has endeavored to show me that he loves me, and I hope, through me, to show how he loves all people.
Before I enter into this discussion, however, it will be prudent to describe what the understanding that God shows us his love in our sufferings is not. It is not to render sufferings not sufferings at all. It sounds very pious to speak saccharine platitudes that minimize the troubles we experience, but this is really an affront to God’s goodness and it denies the nature of reality. Suffering, death, disease, and decay are evils in and of themselves. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and he despised the shame and humiliation of the cross. If this is the case, why then does God send these things to us? The miracle was that though Lazarus was dead and Jesus was abandoned by his friends and forsaken by the Father, God was there, bringing life from death and reconciliation from alienation! This is God’s way. He marches right into the teeth of the darkness and makes it work backwards, bringing good from evil. If we understand this, we understand the miraculous transaction by which he turns the tears of our lives into joy by carrying us through them together with himself. This is why Christians are not insensible to the pain like Stoics or grieve like pagans who have no hope when we encounter the troubles of life in a fallen world. Jesus is alive and in his glory. Even in the midst of the deepest valleys, then, we have joy and hope because the one who has already marched through the darkness is with us, leading us through it into the light.
Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is the disease that has profoundly affected my life. It’s a progressive neuromuscular disease that affects the skeletal muscles and cardiovascular systems. I could walk until I was 12, but I’ve been in a wheelchair ever since. The disease is quite debilitating and usually results in death by the middle 20s. I can no longer manage most major life functions on my own, but I’m now 28 and, by all accounts, still doing remarkably well. Humor, stubbornness, perseverance, and hope characterize my mental mood and outlook at most times, but some days I respond to the crosses of my physical condition and prognosis and the attendant trials of absolute dependence on others, social isolation, and the difficulties or outright impossibilities of pursuing certain career and life opportunities with selfishness, frustration, fear, and melancholy. That being said, I am grateful and thankful for my life and feel very blessed by God to live the life I live.
How has God uniquely shown his love to me in my weaknesses and trials? I feel that perhaps by constitution I have a tendency toward being a solitary individual. In some ways, of course, my lone wolf ways are exacerbated or could even be caused by my disability, but physical limitation is one of the surest ways we discover how much we need others. When conscientious family members, friends, and strangers respond with care to the needs of a dependent individual, that person experiences in a profoundly unique way the grace of being loved, for in direct proportion to the level of his dependence on others, he knows the privilege of receiving love that is given regardless of his ability to benefit those who love him. This is the kind of love with which God loves us, especially since we are sinners unable to truly love God without his own help. In this light, God is always preaching the Gospel to me when people love me by assisting with basic needs I cannot meet myself. My mother, the friends in college who were always so willing to come to my rescue in times of need, or take me to a party, or care for me on a Christian retreat, my youth pastor who always made sure I had a ride to church, and so many others have been the best messengers of God to me.
Secondly, God has made his love known to me in my muscular dystrophy by richly supplying strength in the midst of every weakness and struggle. Like the Apostle Paul, I have come to know that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness and that his grace really is sufficient. My time living on my own as a student at the University of Missouri really put this to the test. In the midst of uncertainties regarding healthcare workers and coverage and scrambling to find help often at the last minute, nearly perpetual cold feet from bad circulation, bodily discomfort from problems with medical equipment, and, of course, the daily grind of being a full-time college student in the midst of these unique challenges, I not only survived three years of this but I thrived and had the best time of my life. God met all of my needs and gave strength I did not possess to endure difficulties that sometimes pushed me right to the brink of giving up and going back home. I can only attribute my success in that endeavor to One who is mighty to save and empower those who trust in him. Since I graduated, the victories of grace have not seemed so dramatic, what with mounting frustrations about the continued progression of my disease, unemployment, being single, and living at home in my late 20s, but the strength of God continues to buoy me, bringing joy and hope for tomorrow that defies my natural understanding.
Thirdly, in a unique way, those who suffer and bear weakness in their bodies testify powerfully to the hope of the resurrection. As is the case with the dependence I spoke of that leads us by necessity to the cure for isolation that is love, so it is that those who are most visibly touched by physical brokenness both are invited themselves and invite others to enter into the healing of broken creation and triumph over death that is Christ’s resurrection. Ours is a crooked witness that preaches fullness and restoration by way of emptiness and brokenness. I think this is perhaps why “normal” people often respond with discomfort to people with disabilities. People don’t want to be reminded that even those who are supposedly “whole” are ultimately just as weak and frail and subject to death as those of us who can’t hide it in any way. But, as has been my theme in this reflection, there is grace even in the problem because it is part of the solution. Christ received wounds to bring us healing and died to bring life to the world through his resurrection. Living as a Christian with physical brokenness, then, I am given the privilege of participating in Christ’s work of redemption by bearing witness to it in my body. This has a benefit for myself in moving me to cling to Christ, and I hope that it has the same effect on others.
Lastly, and perhaps just as counterintuitively as my other points, God has demonstrated his love for me in the midst of muscular dystrophy –something that would seem in conventional understanding to move me to place my hopes entirely in the spiritual and otherworldly realities of life after death—by showing me the goodness of bodily and worldly existence. Though perhaps my time in the body and in the world on this side of the resurrection will be short, it will be spent as an embodied creature, and, in spite of the difficulties of this existence, it has been given to me as a gift in which to taste and see that the Lord is good. What is more, the life of the world to come will be life in the bodies we currently have and in the same physical world we currently inhabit, though as they will be when made incorruptible and cleansed from all the effects of sin and death. This means that even now, as I enjoy the gifts of the Lord in a broken body and a broken world, I am receiving a foretaste of the glories of the new heavens and the new earth. In spite of the sufferings, in spite of the travails of the world, if we are in Christ, we always have more of the joy of the Lord in the land of the living ahead of us than behind us. We have all come through shadows and we all will go through the darkness on the way there, but may we all be given the grace to see in the depths of the shadow the supreme value and glory of the light that is already shining and will only grow brighter!
- Jamie Stober describes himself as a newly confessional Lutheran theologian of the armchair variety who is looking forward for the opportunities coming up ahead on the pilgrimage that is the Christian life. He loves Jesus Christ and wants to serve him with his whole being. But his life is profoundly challenge by a disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a form worsens more quickly than other forms of muscular dystrophy. Duchenne muscular dystrophy is caused by a defective gene for dystrophin (a protein in the muscles).
My good friend Tom Tollet is an elder in a Baptist church in Memphis (TN). He is a faithful Bible teacher who became one of the best friends my late mom and dad had in their final years in Tennessee. He served for many years with FedEx and now operates his own family business. The following reflection was sent to me some time ago and I now use it with permission.
As I prepare to teach from Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” I meditate on how the Lord was a friend of sinners while preaching an uncompromising Sermon on the Mount. How do I do that today? I suspect it won’t exactly look like August 1st.
I understand the call to defend marriage and oppose the power plays of certain city mayors, but doesn’t it seem like we simply respond in kind to the opposition ….power for power, rhetoric for rhetoric, manipulation for manipulation? In other words: did August 1st have the aroma of Christ? I’m sure Mike Huckabee would say: don’t be a disciple of mine but of Christ. But do we recognize the difference that makes in attitude and action?
When Christ dined with Publicans and prostitutes or asked a favor of a Samaritan woman, “the Disciples Who Don’t do Anything (quite right)” were clear in their attitudes saying: “you don’t belong in polite society;” while Jesus said with His whole being “but you do belong in My society. I came seeking lost sheep.” The Perfectly Holy One came to them in humility and self-giving. How did He do that? While pointing out that the Law’s demands were even greater then we imagined, He personified grace that overwhelmed by its abundance.
Did August 1st smell like this? Or did it smell of the glandular reaction of James and John who said “how dare they oppose the Lord. Shall we call down fire from heaven? (If not brimstone, how about calling down mighty political or economic power?)
Yes, encourage those brothers and sisters who are “persecuted” for righteousness sake. But always ask: “what is the message I’m sending to sinners?” I must realize that the answer to that question must come by hearing as they hear… feeling what they feel.
Imagine the difference if America had a deep and wide testimony of Christian grace to the gay community comparable to what the European Christians had to the Jewish community as the Nazi threat arose. No compromise of the truth but also no absence of love.
Imagine the voice that says: he hired the disabled, and also the gay and did it sweetly. He trained us that we must respect others and work hard to serve others, but he never forgot that we were people. No one wept so sincerely with me when I lost my partner to cancer. No one so modeled a joyful love of life and of others.
Times are dark and complicated. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Oh I don’t just mean in Kingly judgment. Come before then in me, here and now as a friend of sinners.
Dr. Norberto Saracco is the senior pastor of a very large church in Buenos Aires. He is also the president of a seminary with 8,000 students. Norberto has also been actively involved in the Lausanne Movement for many years. Norberto and I met through the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation, which I have led for several years now. He has attended both of our gatherings in Mundelein, both in 2013 and 2014.
We recently put the video of this year’s public meeting of this gathering on our ACT3 page. It is over 100 minutes long and is worth watching. Besides Norberto you will see and hear Fr. Robert Barron, Fr. Thomas Baima and me. Dialogue from each of us, and the audience, follows.
When Norberto was in Mundelein in September ACT3 sat down with him for a personal interview. Today I share this interview for the first time. Since Norberto is a close, personal friend of Pope Francis, having worked with him in evangelism and prayer in Argentina for a decade, you will find his comments most interesting. You will also see why I am so thrilled with this man the world has come to know when he was selected to be Pope Francis on March 13, 2013.
Today’s post includes the only public Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation meeting that we had in September. Twenty-six people, thirteen Catholics and thirteen Evangelicals, prayed, shared, discussed and debated (in the very best sense of a charitable debate). We learned from one another and some of the brightest moments were late at night in informal times. We agree we will meet again and we will add a day so we can continue to pursue love and build trust. We believe the kairos moment for our concerns is right now.
After an opening private dialogue on Thursday, September 11, we shared a meal together. Then we invited seminarians and local friends to come to the campus for a presentation. The dialogue that follows our presentation includes responses from people who, as you will quickly see, were not screened. Some questions were asked and some “sermons” were preached. The questions are quite good. The sermons, well you can respond as you watch these folks speak.
The two major presenters in the event were Fr. Robert Barron and Rev. Dr. Norberto Saracco. Fr. Thomas Baima and I introduced the speakers, responded to their address and led the dialogue. This video runs 106 minutes so it is very long. You might want to mark this post and come back to it when you have an evening to watch it. I believe it is well worth seeing in full.
Tomorrow I will post an interview ACT3 Network did with Dr. Sarraco. I believe you will find this short interview amazing so watch for it on Tuesday, December 9.
Advent began last Sunday, November 30. I had the joy of preaching, and leading the divine liturgy, at Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream, Illinois. This is the audio of my sermon based upon the lectionary Gospel text in Mark 13:24-37. I pray that this sermon will encourage you in your worship, edification and spiritual transformation during this wonderful new beginning to the church year.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and at the King’s College (Empire State Building), in New York City. This means that Kreeft, a Catholic, teaches at both a Catholic and an evangelical college, making him very unique in so many ways. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 67 books.
I have never personally met Dr. Kreeft but value his writing and teaching as highly as that of almost any contemporary Christian philosopher and thinker. I require students of mine to read his work because he is among the very best when it comes to popular Christian thought that is serious and practical at the same time. Once a Reformed Protestant Kreeft is today a devout Catholic. But he has never lost his love for the catholic church. He has some of the most insightful things to say about missional-ecumenism of any writer I know today. A friend sent me a two-minute audio clip that underscores his vision of unity wonderfully. I could not agree more after listening to this short audio. I hope that you will also listen and then pray accordingly. What you will hear is a major voice for unity speaking the truth clearly and simply.
If I were to pick three highly skilled biblical scholars/exegetes, who also profoundly understand science (two of them – McGrath and Polkinghorne – have a PhD degree in hard science), to speak clearly about the way to properly read the Book of Genesis then I would pick these three theologians. I have met two of them and have read all three for decades now. Perhaps no debate has more unnecessarily divided the church than the raging debate over science and Bible. In particular, it comes down to this: “How do we understand Genesis?” My own thinking has changed about this question, in fact several times over the course of my lifetime. I would now line up well with what these three orthodox and confessional Christian ministers/teachers say in this outstanding video.
In some ways this is one of the most helpful and important videos that I have ever shared on my blog. I hope you will take the twelve minutes needed to watch it carefully. This video should not only disabuse you of the many numerous bad ideas about reading Genesis but it will also help you seek for deeper unity with Christians who disagree over these issues of interpretation. No early Christian would have debated these points in the way we do today. Witness, for example, St. Augustine’s reading of the Genesis story as one example. Those Christians who debate that one view of Genesis is right and faithful are way off when it comes to confessional and faithful understanding of the biblical story itself.
You can read a host of names into what I am saying here but the most obvious is Ken Ham, the apologist known for his literalism about Genesis. He is simply wrong. Worse yet, he is dangerously wrong because he ends up dividing us quite unnecessarily.