His Story Needs No Revision


Journalism, particularly newspaper journalism, is sometimes referred to as “the first rough draft of history.”  This phrase is usually attributed to Philip Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post.  It’s a useful phrase because it is flattering to journalists to know that their work is important and meaningful, but also a reminder that their work is inherently imperfect and in need of later revision.  Particularly under deadline pressure, it is impossible to know all the relevant facts and potential angles of any story.  Unavoidable and expedient choices and compromises must be made.  The saying came to mind when I recently read Psalm 33:10-11, which says:

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
            he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands forever,
            the plans of his heart to all generations.

As I’ve written before, total objectivity is “theoretically impossible for anyone but God Himself.”  The best any news reporting can do is cover a tiny piece of what happens in the world, screening it using whatever judgment they decide to use, and applying imperfect ethical standards.  As I’ve also written, “The dots of the pointillistic narrative are never the full picture and sometimes aren’t the right color.”  Thus is the “counsel of the nations” – incomplete by necessity, biased by choice, and morally imperfect by nature.

In contrast, what God says is true is always true, unlike the 24/7 news cycle where truth is constantly under revision.  The “counsel of the LORD” contains everything we need to know about His plans, is designed by His choice to benefit those He loves, and morally perfect because His nature is holy.  If better counsel existed, He would know about it.  His counsel reliably informs us about how He wants us to view the events of the world, rather than the other way around.  His plans frustrate and overcome the “plans of the peoples”, rather than the other way around.

When Jesus said on the cross that “it is finished,”[1] His payment for our sins was complete.  He lived a perfect life in our place, so that He could be a perfect sacrifice and atone for all the sins of His people in all times and all places.  This was not a rough first draft, but the flawless consummation of God’s plan for salvation “to all generations.”  Jesus made no flawed choices for the sake of expedience, and His work can be trusted at all times.  Whatever you see in the news today, the Good News of the kingdom of heaven is more important, more trustworthy, and provides comfort for your soul.

His Story is the first draft, but it is also the only draft because none other is needed.  His Story needs no revision.

Therefore:
Our soul waits for the LORD;
            he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
            because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
            even as we hope in you.” – Psalm 33:20-22


[1] John 19:30

When Bad Things Happen to the Greatest Disciples


Did Jesus fail John the Baptist?  John was identified as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’”[1] prophesied by Isaiah.  John publicly announced the coming of Jesus, and soon baptized Him, then watched the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and heard the voice of the Father declare Jesus as the Son.[2]  Was testifying publicly about Jesus and His miracles John’s mission in life?  If so, why did John find himself in prison, unable to preach in the open?  As Matthew’s Gospel records, Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler of Galilee and Perea, had John arrested for criticizing Herod’s immoral relationship with his brother’s wife.[3]  While under arrest, John began to have some doubts about Jesus and sent messengers to Him, saying “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?[4]  To John, his circumstances didn’t make sense and he reached out to Jesus for an explanation.

Matthew, in preparing his gospel message, intentionally placed this question from John to Jesus after a long section about followers of Jesus meeting opposition and persecution in the world. If you have time, read Matthew chapters 10 and 11 now, or keep reading here and I’ll quote key verses and ideas as we go, starting with these:

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” – Matthew 10:24
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” – Matthew 11:11

I think Matthew was making several points, starting with this: living like Jesus does not mean Christians will avoid uncomfortable circumstances, including criticism and/or persecution.  Circumstances are not always a sign we’ve done something right or wrong. In Matthew 10, when Jesus said “a disciple is not above his teacher” the context tells us that what He meant was that His perfect life and obedience led to the cross, and if we are like Him we can’t expect to be treated better than He was.  Still, we may be tempted to think that if we live the right life, if we preach the truth of the gospel perfectly, if we do everything we should, then we will not be like “sheep in the midst of wolves,”[5] but loved and admired by the world.  By moving right to the story of John in the next chapter, and saying “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist,”  Matthew is saying that not even the greatest disciple of Jesus who ever lived was exempt from the warnings of chapter 10, including “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you sin their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” – Matthew 10:17-18

Even the very best lives and preaching meet opposition, perhaps even more opposition from those who have no interest in the kingdom of God.

Second, by placing these stories side-by-side, Matthew shows that John the Baptist is an example for us when we have doubts[6].  In prison, John had doubts, but did not give up on Jesus.  If Jesus was who he said He was, then not only the warnings of chapter 10 apply to John and us, but also the assurances and instructions:

When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” – Matthew 10:19
What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” – Matthew 10:27
Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” – Matthew 10:31

John sent disciples to Jesus not to ask for rescue or to complain, but to confirm whether He really was the Messiah.  When we have doubts, we can also seek and find comfort.

Third, there is always more God is doing than we are aware of.  Instead of commenting directly on John’s prison situation to John’s messengers, “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.[7]  In other words, Jesus was doing everything the Messiah should be doing, and even with John sidelined from public ministry, the kingdom of God was advancing spectacularly.  John had the information needed to believe and should not be “offended” by his unexpected circumstances. God remained in control of the situation.

Lastly, the circumstances of our lives may be what inspire others to better follow Christ, although it may be invisible to us.  Therefore, our patience and faithfulness in those times, or even the way we express and deal with doubt, can be a powerful witness.  As “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” John saw his audience as those coming out to see Him and be baptized.  From this perspective, being in prison made John feel useless or like a failure to his calling. What had he and/or Jesus done wrong?  But God (see related post on these two words), through Matthew’s Gospel, saw John’s audience as all future generations, who could be encouraged that even the “great” John the Baptist faced criticism, persecution, and even doubt.  John may have thought his purpose was to keep preaching publicly, but instead his example benefits other believers in ways that his freedom couldn’t.

Faith Over Circumstance
Don’t let circumstances determine your faith and willingness to serve Christ.  In Matthew 10, Jesus said political and religious leaders, and even our own families, will resist Christ in us.  Often, they will appear to succeed.  Also, some will tell us that when things aren’t going our way, we need to “have more faith”, “pray harder”, “go to church more”, and convince God to improve our situation.  They argue we need to fix something we’re doing and our circumstances will improve.  But this is not the message of John’s story, and Matthew made sure of that by the way he wrote it.  There is no record of Jesus or Matthew telling John the Baptist why he was suffering and in prison, or that he could do anything about it.  Jesus only asked him to trust.  However, when John was ultimately beheaded[8], he met Jesus face-to face again, but fully glorified, and I believe John understood.  There is always more to our circumstances than we can see or comprehend, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”[9]

If even John the Baptist was not exempt from the warnings of Matthew 10, neither are we.  But also, if John could trust his Lord and Savior to love and provide for him, we can too. Odds are that nobody reading this will face what John the Baptist faced, but his story helps in whatever circumstance God asks us to glorify Him in.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it…And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”” – Matthew 10:38-39, 42


[1] Isaiah 40:3, quoted in Matthew 4:3.
[2] Matthew 3:16-17
[3] Matthew 14:3
[4] Matthew 11:3
[5] Matthew 10:16
[6] Also, I recently posted an example from the life of Jeremiah the prophet.
[7] Matthew 11:4-6
[8] Matthew 14:10
[9] Romans 8:28

#CrucifyHim (a Good Friday parable)


How often have prominent public figures had to walk back, clarify, or disown public comments in response to a social media protest?  A recent Pew Research poll showed that only about 25% of American adults use Twitter, and about 25% of those people write 97% of all Tweets.  Yet, journalists, politicians, executives, individuals, and others often feel they need to bow to Twitter and other social media or be “cancelled.”  I’m not sure which is more worrisome, that so few largely anonymous Twitter users have so much power, or that even U.S. presidents sometimes yield to them.

Paradoxically, while the pandemic has shaken many people’s confidence in authority, at the same time some worldly authorities are claiming more power, having failed so miserably to manage the pandemic and its ripple effects.  To me, a lesson of the pandemic was: “See all these things people trust in?  They can all be torn down overnight.”  It has left a lot of people shaken.  Those we used to trust aren’t trustworthy, but where else can we turn?

The authorities respond: “Just give us more power and we will try again, but harder.  Ignore the evidence and trust us.”

The authorities of Jesus’ time were pretty lousy themselves.  In the greatest abuse of authority in history, they killed Him on a cross on Good Friday, humiliating Him publicly for all of history to see.  The rebel Barabbas was released by Roman political authorities instead of Jesus because of the cries of an angry mob stirred up by a few Jewish religious authorities jealous of Jesus’ appeal and resentful of His claims of authority.  Astonishingly, it’s not entirely unlike Twitter.  In modern times, the mob wouldn’t even need to show up to have Jesus killed, the “influencers” would just have to start #CrucifyHim trending and people would follow along just to be seen holding the popular view.  If Jesus’ message of love and hope for mankind died with Him, where can we turn?

Fortunately, we have Easter, where Jesus responds: “You hit me with all the power you have, and it wasn’t enough.  Even the grave cannot hold Me.  I rose from the dead and now sit at the right hand of the Father, in the place of ultimate authority.  The tomb is empty.  Observe the evidence and trust Me!

Jesus is risen indeed!

The stone that the builders rejected
            has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
            it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
            let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Save us, we pray, O LORD!           
            O LORD, we pray, give us success!” – Psalm 118:22-25

“No reserve, No retreat, No regrets” – History Bit for April 9


At the young age of 25, American millionaire and philanthropist William Borden died in Egypt on April 9, 1913.  Despite never making it to the mission field in China, Christianity Today once called him “the most influential missionary of the early 20th century.”  Borden’s story has inspired Christians and missionaries ever since.

As an heir to his family’s fortune from silver mining, William Borden had many opportunities in life, yet shortly after high school he became interested in missionary work.  Some said he was “throwing himself away,” but while a student at Yale, he quickly gained a reputation for his sense of purpose and dedication to Jesus.  He established a Bible study and prayer group that eventually included about 1,000 of Yale’s 1,300 students.  Off campus, he funded the Yale Hope Mission in New Haven with his own money and was often seen with widows, orphans, homeless people, and drunks, providing for their needs, and telling them about Jesus.  It looked like God was preparing him for a fruitful future as a missionary.

After graduating Yale, Borden turned down attractive job offers, choosing instead to study at Princeton Seminary, intending to minister to Uighur Muslims in China.  He finalized his plans and set sail, stopping in Egypt to study Islam and Arabic in preparation.  However, he contracted cerebral meningitis in March 1913 and died a few weeks later on April 9.  Did God take him too soon, before his work was done?  Borden didn’t seem to think so.

After his death, family reported that in his Bible were written the words “no reserve”, referring to his willingness to put everything aside for Christ, then later “no retreat”, after turning down job offers upon graduating Yale, and finally “no regrets”, apparently written shortly before his death.

Skeptics deny this note exists, citing “no evidence.”  However, friends and family claim to have found the note, and testimony is evidence.  Even if the note doesn’t exist, he still made the choices he made, living a life which declared that the salvation given through Jesus Christ was worth more than all the earthly benefits a young millionaire could have.

Skeptics may also say Borden, and God, failed because Borden’s life didn’t go according to his plans.  What was the point?  But as they say, the LORD works in mysterious ways and His plans are not always our plans.  Borden impacted many during his days at Yale before leaving for Egypt, and by events he couldn’t control, he may have become a better witness for Christ by death than from living as a missionary.  In his will, he left his fortune to several Christian agencies, including China Inland Mission, which named Borden Memorial Hospital in Lanzhou, China, in his memory.  Seized by the government in 1951, the hospital is now the Lanzhou Second People’s Hospital, but locals know its history.

During his short life, William Borden lived with a dedication to Christ that continues to inspire believers over a century later.  Even though he never made it to China, his testimony made it there and provides hope for persecuted groups and those who Christ calls to serve them.

Having all this world could offer, he chose to live for the next world.  Engraved on his gravestone in Egypt are the words “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”   Even if the note is just a legend, “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets” summarizes the life of William Borden well. 

Interested in more History? Select “History Bits” from the “Blog” drop down menu at the top of the page.


Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Whiting_Borden
https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2017/february/forgotten-final-resting-place-of-william-borden.html
http://home.snu.edu/~HCULBERT/regret.htm

The Meaning of the Bible in Sign Language


As a hearing child of deaf parents myself, I was thrilled earlier this week to see the movie CODA win best picture, deaf actor Troy Kotsur win best supporting actor, and Siân Heder win for best adapted screenplay.  CODA stands for Children of Deaf Adults and the story centers around Ruby Rossi, a hearing teenage girl who is an amazing singer but is the only hearing member of her family.  There are good lessons in the movie about overcoming differences and obstacles through some compassion and creativity.

It was a great movie but be aware: “Mr. Kotsur used the versatility of sign language to enhance Frank’s dialogue, which is sometimes salty enough to push the limits on the movie’s PG-13 rating.”[1]  There’s one scene in particular where Frank Rossi embarrasses his daughter Ruby in front of a boy with some improvised, erotic sign language.  Versatility has negatives but also positives…

My last post, focused on love, showed how multiple words for love in Greek conceal layers of meaning when translated to English.  After watching CODA, I was reminded of an example where the expressiveness of sign language also adds layers of meaning beyond spoken English. (maybe spoken English is just a bad language?)  Not all sign language is the same – there are many dialects – but the sign for Bible I use is actually two signs: “Jesus” followed by “book.”  Every time I sign what I would just speak as “Bible,” there’s a reminder built right in that the Bible is a book about Jesus.  From start to finish, the Bible is a record of why He needed to come, what He was like when He did, and what His followers should believe, know, and do.  Jesus Christ is described right in the sign for Bible!

But there’s still another layer.  In the book of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul defends his ministry saying that his message needs to focus on “Christ crucified”[2], not on performing miracles to those who want signs and impressing with fancy speech those who love wisdom.  To sign “Jesus”, I touch the middle finger of my right hand to the palm of my left hand, then the middle finger of my left to the palm of my right.  What does that signify?  It’s an expressive reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the nails that were barbarically driven into his hands.  Thomas, one of the 12 main disciples of Jesus, said after the first Easter that he would not believe Jesus had risen from the dead “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side.”  Eight days later, Jesus presented Himself to Thomas and said “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  To which Thomas replied: “My Lord and my God!”  (John 20:24-29).  I don’t know if this was intended by the person who created the sign for Jesus, but it may be a liturgy recalling this encounter, reminding us that Jesus was crucified, yet lives!

So, whenever you think of the Bible, think of it in sign language where every single time you sign it, there is a reminder that the Bible is the book about Christ crucified.  After Thomas declared who Jesus was, Jesus responded: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Every time I sign “Bible,” it testifies to those who have not seen Jesus of what He has done for them.


One Last Thing
By the way, to sign “book” you place your hands together flat, palms facing each other, in front of you, then open them as if your hands were the front and back of a book.


[1] Jurgensen, John. “Troy Kotsur of ‘CODA’ Wins Best Supporting Actor Oscar.” The Wall Street Journal, 27 March 2022.
[2] 1 Corinthians 1:23

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