A few weeks ago as I sat in my office one lengthy Monday afternoon, I began mulling over how mundane the day seemed. After the flurry of activity and business of Christmas and New Year’s and everything church-related that entails, that particular Monday just seemed incredibly ordinary. And then I discovered that it was the 53rd anniversary of Jim Eliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youdarian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCulley making first contact with the Waodani (Auca) Indians. They’d spent years preparing for that particular day, yearning to bring the knowledge of Jesus Christ to people who had never heard of Him, even 1,923 years after His death. Three days later they would die upon the ends of Waodani spears, becoming the most famous missionary martyrs of the 20th century.
After realizing that my very common day was the anniversary of a very significant day in missions history, I set to work researching and writing down on my calendar events that are significant in church history. When the neon lights of progress are constantly flashing around us, the faithful glow of the saints of God easily becomes obscured or forgotten.
Eric Liddell died yesterday. Polycarp dies tomorrow. Both men served the Lord with faithfulness and integrity, holding fast to what they understood the Word of the Lord to say. His stand cost Liddell the potential to medal in three Olympic events. Polycarp’s stand cost him his life. Through both of them Christ was exalted as being greater than fame, success, and avoiding great physical suffering.
Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna in the late first and early second centuries and studied under the Apostle John. Advanced in years, Polycarp was arrested for refusing to sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor. Theopedia.net describes the scene:
Amidst an angry mob, the Roman proconsul took pity on such a gentle old man and urged Polycarp to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord”. If only Polycarp would make this declaration and offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue he would escape torture and death. To this Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Steadfast in his stand for Christ, Polycarp refused to compromise his beliefs, and thus, was burned alive at the stake.
Eric Liddell was famously portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. Although the Olympic schedule was published several months in advance (and not during the journey to France as the film depicts), Liddell forfeited his spot in three Olympic events because of his refusal to run on Sunday (the 100 meters, 4×100 relay, and 4×400 relay). Before the 400 meters final he was given a slip of paper with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30 on it: “Those who honour Me, I will honour” by an American trainer. Running with the paper in his hand, Liddell set a new world record.
After the games, Liddell sailed for China as a missionary. Rather than flee the country at the beginning of World War II, Liddell stayed and was put in an internment camp for foreigners by the victorious Japanese armies. A prisoner exchange was negotiated for the release of some of the captives and Liddell was placed on the list to be released. He gave up his place in the exchange so a pregnant woman could escape the strain of being a prisoner of war. Liddell died in the interment camp of an inoperable brain tumor. He was not a martyr; the tumor would have been fatal either way. But one need not be a martyr to be worth remembering.
These two men are part of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. Though they may have died, they are not dead. They are with the Lord, having finished their earthly race. And we have been left with their legacy of faithfulness to imitate. I see in Polycarp a tenacity to cling to Christ at the cost of his own life. I see in Eric Liddell an uncompromising steadfastness, even when most people would think him an unpatriotic fool. These men give me something to aspire to. And they remind me that God is faithful to transform the hearts of those who were once His enemies into people who count it a joy to live and to die that their Savior might be made much of.
Widipedia “Eric Liddell” “Polycarp”
“Pure Gold” by David McCasland
This song was the title track of one of the few CDs we had growing up in my house. My distaste at the slow, piano-driven melody meant that I never bothered to listen to the words. Even had I listened, I’m not sure my twelve year old mind could have grasped the deep and heartening truths found in it. Having now experienced more of the joys and the sorrows of the journey, I can indeed say there is a joy in it all.
And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing. (Acts 19:19-20)
One troubling thing I see in my heart is that I love conviction and hate change. It’s not to hard to find a convicting sermon to listen to. But when all the words have flowed past me and it’s time to walk out the doors of the church, it’s tantalizingly easy to believe the lie that my feeling of conviction is true holiness and unqualifyingly pleasing to the Lord.
We’ve been moving through Acts at Cornerstone, and travelled through chapter 19 a couple of weeks ago. It’s most famous for a bunch of cocky itinerant Jewish exorcists getting the smack-down put on them by a demon and a mindless riot in which people wind up chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” for two solid hours without knowing why. But the centerpoint of this passage is the dramatic conversion of many of Ephesus’ practitioners of black magic. They burned the bridges to their former life by destroying everything they owned that was associated with the occult. From this, my pastor asked a question of our congregation: “What bridges do you need to burn in your own life?”
Now, there isn’t a direct connection between what the new Ephesian believers did and what most of us in the congregation needed to do. The Ephesians were involved in a profession that was completely incompatible with their newfound love for the Lord. You cannot practice Satanic arts and love God.
Some bridges need to be burnt. There can be no going back now that the new nature has taken hold of my heart. Other pathways only need to be forsaken every once in a while, so as to prevent them from becoming too important. If our happiness or our growth in the Lord has become dependent upon those things, their path has become overgrown and needs a good slash-burning to clear away the deadwood.
Immediately “espn.com” flashed into my mind. I didn’t try to think of anything. The knowledge that it had become a hinderance was just there. I love sports, and the NFL playoffs are an provide an endless smorgasbord of opinion articles to read and videos to watch. The next thought after the minute answer of espn.com was a quick denial of “That’s not true, Nate. It’s not an idol and it’s not something you need to get rid of.” The first thought is divinely-sent Spirit-produced conviction. Before I could think, before I could try to hide behind my invented complex reasonings to justify how much of my time away from work was spent reading transitory, fleeting opinions about things that don’t even really matter, the Spirit struck. And that was immediately followed by a self-protecting reflex that would try to justify whatever pattern I was living.
But understanding the problem isn’t enough. And imagined change isn’t holiness. That’s like joining the “1,000,000 strong against abortion” Facebook group and calling yourself a pro-life activist. As we talked about the sermon and “burning bridges” at my Community Group that night, we discovered that everyone’s overgrown pathway was media-related. And then we resurrected an assignment I had at TMC–a total fast from media for a week. No television, no movies, no internet apart from work-related emailing/research, no music, no recorded sermons.
It’s so ingrained in me by habit to wake up, turn on my computer, and check Gmail and Google Reader that I had to stick a note on top of my computer to remind myself of the fast. Instead I’d pick up my Bible and read or just sit and think. And that’s the purpose of doing a media fast. Silence and stillness were the rule of life for the first 6,000 years of human existence. Laborers in the fields worked without iPods, with only their own thoughts and the sounds of nature to keep them company. Pastors studied in absolute quiet as they wrote out their sermons without the aid of a movie score in the background. The Lord works in stillness. He brings clarity through quiet. And in the constant business and noise of media-driven life, it’s hard to hear what He’s saying.
All of us were surprised by what we learned by media fasting. I was surprised to discover how much more I can actually do that I thought I could. It is amazing what the mind can still absorb, even when it’s tired. Redeeming the time means redeeming all the time, even that tired hour before bed. And the funny thing is, I was a lot happier working harder longer than when I formerly grasped the easy entertainment offered to me.
It’s one thing to fast from media for a week, it’s another to work to keep the path clear of debris that naturally wants to build up. Media isn’t a bridge to be burned, it’s an enjoyable footpath that needs tending. Just like stopping at conviction instead of following through to change, it’s easy to modify my behavior without ever touching the heart. I feel like I should make some insightful point here about what rules and limits I’ve put on myself to make sure I don’t slide back again. I don’t have one, because I don’t have any rules and limits. Instead, I’m going to assume that the Holy Spirit and my love for the Lord is enough to keep things in balance. Some bridges need to be burned permanently. But others, others just need a little watchful tending.
One of the joys of my current position in ministry is that I get to go disc golfing (“frisbee golfing” to the terribly unsophisticated) with members of the youth group two or three times a week. I was first introduced to the sport about eight years ago through some members of my church. I would play every couple weeks in high school, the time pressures of college and dorm ministry relegated my faithful JK Champion Valkyrie driver to the furthest reaches of my closet.
During the last few months, frisbee golf has become the main point of contact between me and the members of the youth group outside of our church setting.
Disc golf is played much like “normal” golf, except by throwing frisbees instead of hitting golf balls. Specialty discs are made for frisbee golf, with thicker rims and heavier plastics to increase distance and resistance to wind. There’s a tee box that you throw off of, and a basket that you must throw your disc into (picture below). Professional players can consistently throw discs in excess of 500 feet. We’re not exactly professionals on the Cornerstone Youth Group Disc Golf Circuit. It has been a challenge to transition out of a discipleship-heavy, relationship-driven ministry as an RA at TMC to a position that is driven by teaching and finds me spending long hours behind a desk in a solitary office. And yet, I cannot believe that teaching and relationships cannot be blended together in a church environment. Which, is probably a better situation because the people doing the teaching are also doing the discipleship. My pastor’s sermons mean more because I see the life he lives in the words he speaks. It certainly is harder to get to know people when you don’t live next door to them, but difficulty isn’t supposed to stop the growth of the kingdom of God.
The more of a friend I become to the youth, the more they will hear what I have to teach on Wednesday nights. We rarely talk about anything spiritually-oriented during our disc golf games. There’s far more taunting over bad shots and laughter over the bizarre characters we meet and talk of music and Boy Scouts and pranks I pulled at Masters than anything. And that’s a beautiful thing. Because as we laugh at how the Grim Weeper tree on hole 10 ate my drive, I know that there’s more going on than just a frustrating disc golf shot. It isn’t a waste of my time to disc golf instead of write or read. Because the gospel exists inside of life, and is meant to be experienced in everything under the sun.
1 Thessalonians 2:8 says, “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” That really is the impetus for interpersonal ministry. It’s about the gospel and life, because the gospel is not a stagnant, intellectual belief but a controlling manner of life. Life and words serve to feed off of one another to increase the power of both. The more I see how those who teach me live, the more I pay attention to what they have to say. And the more I hear what they have to say, the more I’m confronted with who I ought to be.