Life More Abundant?

by Ralph Blair  

This is the text of Ralph Blair’s keynote at connECtion2oo6, the summer weekend gatherings of Evangelicals Concerned, held at Kirkridge Retreat Center on the Appalachian Trail (June 2-4, 2006) and on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon (July 27-30, 2006).

Jesus told some Pharisees: “Unlike those who come to butcher my sheep, I’ve come that they may have life more abundant.” (John 10:10)

What’s life more abundant? Do you have any opinions‘?

Okay. Enough of your opinions! What’s my opinion?

Okay. Enough of my opinion!

Who cares about opinions on life more abundant! They’re irrelevant. Life more abundant isn’t made up of what we might make up.

Was “Who cares!” your response when I asked for your opinion? When I asked about my opinion, I did notice some people rolling their eyes and mumbling “Who cares!” What did that mean? It meant: Some naughty people can get the words right for the wrong reason.

Back in the 1920s, some prominent ministers and Bible scholars were asked to contribute essays to an anthology to be called My Idea of God. Here’s how J. Gresham Machen began his essay:

  • If my idea of God were really mine, if it were one which I had evolved out of my own inner consciousness, I should attribute very little importance to it myself, and should certainly expect even less importance to be attributed to it by others. If God is merely a fact of human experience, if theology is merely a branch of psychology, then I for my part shall cease to be interested in the subject at all. The only God about whom I can feel concerned is one who has objective existence, an existence independent of man.
  • But if there be such a really and independently existent Being, it seems extremely unlikely that there can be any knowledge of Him unless He chooses to reveal Himself. … I reject, therefore, the whole subjectivizing tendency in religion that is so popular at the present time.

Subjectivism is still the suffocating air that chokes us. At a recent meeting of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, Tony Campolo cautioned them: “You have no right to be a spiritual leader if you haven’t read Scripture. … If we don’t recognize this, we don’t know squat.” Sure enough, a subjectivist who didn’t know squat, piped up: “I thought this was a spiritual progressives’ conference. I don’t want to get validation from something other than ourselves.”

Anne Lamott strikes a blow against subjectivism when she says: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

But if Satan can quote Scripture, so can subjectivists—Right and Left. A philosopher asks: “Do we really let the Text [of Scripture] govern our seeing … or have we become more captivated by the stories and texts of a consumerist culture?” (James K. A. Smith) Augustine warned us long ago: “If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it’s not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” And the closer it seems to us that Scripture inconveniences or corroborates what we already think, the more likely we’ll yield to the temptation to projection.

If, as a Christian heterosexual, one reads that the Bible calls for treating all as one, herself, would wish to be treated, might there not be a temptation to twist the text when it comes to gay activists? If, as a Christian homosexual, one reads of this Golden Rule, might there not be a temptation to twist the text when it comes to Right-wing homophobes? If, as a Christian heterosexual, you read that the Bible forbids homosexuality, do you have reason to look further into this? If, as a Christian homosexual, you read that the Bible forbids homosexuality, do you have reason to look further into this?

How long are our lists of Bible verses we deem particularly inconvenient to, or particularly useful for, our own special pleading?

Consulting only ourselves—even in the self-servingly selected opinions of others—we can come up with all sorts of notions on an alleged life more abundant. But no matter the seeming diversity, it’s all locked up in a closed circuit of self-referenced, self-centeredness. Since the self sets itself up as its final arbiter, the loop is loopy, but it’s inescapable. Self-deluded, though, we assume that we ourselves constitute the locus of life, even life more abundant. But only with Word from Outside our world—can chattering to self be countered by the clarity of Truth: We need much more than self!—our Maker said so. (Gen 2:18)

Two sociologists have talked by phone to teenagers and their parents in 3,000 American households and followed up with nearly 300 face-to-face interviews. (Christian Smith) Their focus was religion and spirituality. Most of the teens identified as Christian and half of them said faith was very or extremely important to them.

What do they think about abundant living? They think: “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

Is the central goal of your life to be happy and feel good about yourself? Now don’t spin your response in order to be happy and feel good about yourself!

“Happy Birthday!” “Happy New Year!” “Have a Happy [day]!” “Happy Hour.” Could these be hints that happiness is but an interlude?

Do you realize that this obsessing over being happy and feeling good about ourselves has been around for fewer than four hundred years? (Darrin McMahon) By the mid-19th century, Thomas Carlyle had had quite enough of this nonsense. He wrote: “Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has had his head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and divine laws ought to be ‘happy.’” George MacDonald, in The Hardness of the Way, warned: “To make a man happy as a lark, might be to do him grievous wrong.”

When Malcolm Muggeridge was long past his teenage years, he wrote: “I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness, that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”

Unhappiness can be an advantage—and not only because, if you’re depressed enough, you won’t have the energy to kill yourself. Paul knew that trouble can produce patience and patience can build character. (Rom 5:3f) We develop under duress. I remind my clients that, but for their having had some trouble, they’d never have come into therapy where they learn the coping skills they’re now using every day.

About now, some of you may be wondering: Is he saying there’s something wrong with trying to be happy and feel good about ourselves? Yep. But don’t we have a right to be happy? Nope. And if we did, who’d enforce it? Unless we change our minds about a need to feel happy and a right to be happy, we’ll set ourselves up to be even more unhappy than we would be otherwise.

But, you say: Shouldn’t we try to feel good about ourselves? Not necessarily. But, you say: That’s why I’m in therapy—to get more self-esteem. Sociopaths are full of “self-esteem”! But, you say: You’ve been doing psychotherapy for ages. Haven’t you been trying to give your clients more self-esteem to feel good about themselves? Nope. And unless we change our minds about a need to feel good about ourselves, our not feeling so good about ourselves will be even harder to bear.

It’s not only in a teenager’s still developing frontal cortex that thinking gets tricked into impulsive neediness to be happy and feel good about self. It’s not only teenagers who put too much time, energy and money into trying to get happy and feel good about themselves.

But the problem isn’t low self-esteem; it’s self-centered self-esteem.

Think about how you think about you. It’s with your brain. Think about your judgment that you don’t measure up. Your judgment is in your brain. That’s why you don’t feel good about yourself—you think (in your brain) that you don’t measure up. So (in your brain) you think you need more self-esteem. But if you think you, yourself don’t measure up, why do you think your judgment measures up? And why do you so esteem your solution to be in more self-esteem?

You think you’re—what?—Not cute enough, not bright enough, not important enough, not liked enough? So you upset yourself irrationally assuming that others’ brains must be thinking the thoughts that are in your brain. That’s stupid! They’re not using your brain! Maybe you’re not so bright, after all!

It’s all about you, is it? Then your self-esteem is rather high! Others are as obsessed with your thoughts as your thoughts are?

Is it really so hard to imagine that others aren’t losing sleep over your thinking you’re not enough this or that? If you ever did get your wish and they thought of you as being all you daydream of being, they would begin to lose sleep over that. Then, sleeplessly tripping over their own thinking about their not measuring up, up against their thinking that you do measure up so impressively, their jealousy would not add up to the flattering opinions you covet.

Why do gossip tabloids sell so well? The self-doubting lick their plates of all the dirt that’s dished on the rich and famous they so upsettingly envy. Yet the more we make, the more we spend. The more we get, the more we want. And in all that “getting” we never get enough—because we don’t “get” it!

Don’t we know that the more we fantasize unmixed bags of riches and attention, the more we set ourselves up for disappointment? Don’t we realize that the more we get of the inevitably mixed bags of riches and attention, the more our unrealistic expectations for unmixed bags cannot but disappoint us?

But, you may say: I don’t want to be rich or famous. I just want to feel better about myself. “Is that so wrong?” That little word “just” (as in “I just want … whatever”) gets inserted when we’re trying to distract from all we’re trying to do but can’t admit.

So you “just” want to feel better about yourself. Well, that’s not exactly true, you know. What you’re really trying to do is convince yourself that others feel better about you than you do. When you worry about how you’re “coming across,” to whom do you think your “coming across”—to yourself? Actually you are. But, not realizing that the only one who’s seeing the “you” you’re worried about is you, you worry that others are thinking about you as you are thinking about you.

Suppose you were going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island. It’s a nice island but you’re all by yourself. There’s you and the birds and the fish. Your worries over how you’re coming across would now be over, right? You’d still not think you’re cute or bright enough, but that wouldn’t bother you because you don’t care what birds and fish think about you.

But you don’t have to go to a deserted island. Your brain is empty enough—of other people. And your brain is where your “you” is marooned. Nobody’s going to board your brain. So your secret’s safe inside your skull. Self-esteem problem? Solved! I’ll send you a bill.

If we were totally pleased with ourselves, we’d be bored, self-satisfied prigs or self-deceived? Would you want to repeat the second grade—assuming you’ve mastered second-grade work? Where would be the flow in that? Do you want to settle for a self-satisfied existence when there’s so much more to experience? Do you want to be oblivious to your real need for self-improvement?

Happiness is not based in happenstance. Happenstance gets interpreted. So, challenge your interpretations of happenstance. You may need to change your mind, for any happenstance in this world isn’t what it should be. This world is fallen and it can’t get up on its own. Look around you. Look at you. Look at me. Nothing is as it should be. And if we expect it to be anything other than a fallen world, we’ll trip ourselves into even greater disappointment, disillusion and despair.

Unless forewarned that unrealistic expectations produce pain and frustration, we’ll not be forearmed. Our response, then, can be angry nihilism and defensive cynicism that only exacerbate our problem.

Ideas of abundant living are loaded with expectations. So we’d better try to make sure that our expectations are realistic.

This world is filled with lies that pass as promises of abundant living. So, no wonder there’s so much disappointment, disillusionment and despair. And no wonder there’s so much subsequent frustration, anger and cynicism.

We have more material abundance than people have ever had in the history of the world. Yet, as an economic historian notes, we also have all this resultant impatience, addiction, obesity, family breakdown and despair. (Avner Offer) There’s an obvious longing for something more. The longing, itself, should be a clue to look elsewhere for life abundant.

Can Celine Dion’s “Belong” perfume really bring the belonging wannabes want? Can a Porsche really be “A body built for sin [and] seduction manifested in sheet metal [while] the unmistakable curve of its roofline arches past taut, muscular hips”? Can Ralph Lauren really be “The Ultimate Experience”—even after changing his name? “The Ultimate Experience: Lipschitz!” And the latest in chic is toilet paper—black toilet paper. Its promoter’s breathless claim: “In a design sense [it means] irreverence, … breaking] rules and set[ting] new ones. Culturally, deep down, [it] invites people to break down whatever might be limiting as common sense.” (Paulo Miguel Pereira da Silva) Says another fashionista who needs to get a life: it “sounds so Halston, so balls of cocaine.” (Miles Redd) And some folks think the question is one-ply or two!

Another failed approach to abundant living is the reductionism of identity politics and pride—segregating spirits of separateness and paranoid preoccupation with “us” versus “them”: nationalistic, ethnocentric, race centric, sex centric. Pride points fingers of blame. Identity politics identifies personae non gratae. These self-obsessing people self-servingly mobilize around their self-centered politics and self-righteous pride while those self-obsessing people self-servingly mobilize around their self-centered politics and self-righteous pride. Isn’t that a nice picture of community!

`Of course, each of us is so much more diverse than we pretend to be in “identity” posturing and pretensions of pride. A Nobel laureate assails “the violence of identity [that] sees human beings as members of exactly one group.” (Amaartya Sen) Ironically, the most divisive demands for “diversity” focus on such one-dimensional identity. Are we really little or nothing but Hatfield or McCoy, Sunni or Shiite, Hutu or Tutsi, black or white, Catholic or Protestant, woman or man, gay or straight? How is a human being’s identity exhausted in Aryan Nation, Queer Nation, Sinn Fein, the JDL, the ADL, al Qaeda, the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan or the Crips?

The Hebrew sage said “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov 16:18) That’s because pride is so often a posturing that props up a contrived self-confidence. Preoccupied with anxieties of missing the mark, pride misses the point and self-destructs.

A myopic identity was not the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. But when he spoke out on behalf of people outside “his own” group—as he did on Vietnam—the NAACP, The New York Times and others attacked him for diverting attention from the struggles of “his own” people. But he had a heart for all people. So did his widow. Coretta Scott King spoke out for the welfare of lesbians and gay men—much to the consternation of many around her, including one of her daughters.

Christians can be tabulated by race, gender, sexual orientation or what-have-you, but a Christian’s identity is “in Christ”, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free and no male and female.” (Galatians 3:28) Identified “in Christ,” we’re to love even our enemies. Our identity crises are resolved in our identity in Christ in whom we can live out Christian discipleship in diversity.

“Party-n-play” is cyberspace lingo for another approach to abundant living—sex hook-ups on drugs. Here’s some sad nonsense from a recent issue of the Gay City News: “These days, the streets are about all that’s left. With the ongoing targeting of gay fun spots like the baths and sex bars, and general tamping down of our sensual enjoyment, it almost seems about time for another uprising. New York, alas, is no longer Fun City.” (David Noh) The writer whines over the loss of what he calls “that incredibly free period from the Stonewall Rebellion (1969) to the earliest reported AIDS cases (1981). … a time in which gay men were all inventing themselves daily in an unchecked atmosphere of seemingly limitless sexual opportunity.” Talk about the naïveté of nostalgia!

Such stupidity seduces tens of thousands of gay men into multimillion dollar “circuit parties” from Fire Island to Palm Springs, replete with plenty of mind-altering drugs, booze, sex and STDs.

Well, if abundant living can’t be found in the self or in self-esteem or even in a prideful self-writ-large, and if it can’t be found in subjectivism or sensuality or the sex-excess of “ the circuits” or even in a silly surplus of stuff, maybe abundant living can be found in—spirituality?

“Spirituality” shoppers pick-and-choose brands of “spirit” as they pick-and-choose everything else—to suit themselves. But didn’t we notice how abundant living cannot be found in oneself or by one’s self?

“Spirituality” as a leisure-time activity is popular—with or without “organized” religion. But it’s not that some people want disorganized religion—only that they want to organize it around their own ideas—as did that young “progressive” who sneered at Campolo’s urging that we take our cues from Scripture. They’re oblivious to having swallowed the spirits of the times that they then upchuck as their own stuff.

Others do go to church—for entertainment: Bach with “smells ‘n bells” and sherry or Rock with “praise ‘n worship” and Pepsi. A worship consultant notes that, sadly, worship today seems to be for “individual happiness.” (Sally Morgenthaler) And, I guess, spirituality shoplifters will settle for nothing less.

One social critic says he’s “been reviewing Christian videos, reading Christian books, and looking at Christian education material [and he’s] been struck with how so much of this Christian material says nothing about Jesus Christ.” (Gene Edward Veith) Why would it? What Jesus Christ calls for is not what many “spirituality” seekers are seeking.

Gloria Gaither chides “praise and worship” leaders who “go through the Psalms to pick out a few positive lines here and there.” She points out that “most of the Psalms is beating the chest and lament and ‘I don’t know if God exists’ and ‘I don’t know where He went’ … Finally the psalmist resolves a few things—and we’ll find one little line and have it on the screen by Sunday morning. But,” she asks, “What right have you to take his line that he paid for if you don’t know what he paid to get it there? … To just walk in on Sunday morning and start with the punch line? I don’t think you have the right.” She’s right.

In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a humiliated Oscar Wilde pondered: “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?” Francis Schaeffer said: “It’s a mistake as Christians to act as though trusting the Lord and tears are not compatible.” Ira Stanphill puts it poetically: “He washed my eyes with tears, that I might see.”

Tears and broken hearts of grief, remorse and repentance are fundamental to life more abundant. But this isn’t what so much of pop culture expects—Christian or secular.

In one of their favorite hymns, Comanche Christians of the Southern Plains sing: “Jesus is going to bother us, because Jesus is so good he won’t let us rest.” Do you think that hymn will catch on in many church circles these days? “Jesus is going to bother us”? “He won’t let us rest”? These Comanche Christians sing the abundant life of Jesus’ bothersome and restless discipleship.

Jesus upsets our assumptions, priorities and “family values.”

Jesus’ parents, distraught over not knowing their young boy’s whereabouts in the big city, finally find him at the Temple. They ask why he’s given them such a scare and he replies matter-of-factly: “Didn’t you know I’m here on my Father’s business?” (Lk 2:41-47) Luke says they didn’t understand what he meant. So how do you think they felt? Grieve, Mary and Joseph, and grow into life more abundant!

When the wine runs out at a wedding in Cana, Mary asks her son to help out. Jesus’ reply: “Woman, what’s your concern to me?” (John 2:1-10) In English, that sounds disrespectful. In Aramaic it isn’t. But it does imply some distance between them, for “‘mother’ is precisely what he did not call her.” (F. F. Bruce) How do you think she felt? Grieve, ma’am, and grow into life more abundant!

And there’s Martha, trying to live up to another Martha’s close attention to making home entertaining “a good thing.” But her sister Mary’s no help, reclining at the table, listening to Jesus’ every word. When Martha turns to Jesus for support in getting Mary to help out, what does Jesus say? “Martha, Martha, you’re busy with things that don’t matter as much as what Mary has chosen.” (Lk 10:38-42) How do you think Martha felt—even with the gentleness of Jesus’ rebuke? Grieve, Martha, and grow into life more abundant!

A teacher of the law told Jesus he’d follow him anywhere. Jesus told him to reconsider his offer, for, he said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” (Mt 8:19f) Another would-be follower asked him: “Let me first bury my father.” Jesus replied: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Another asked him: “Let me first bid my folks good-bye.” Jesus replied: “You can’t move ahead by looking back.” (Lk 9:59-62) How do you think these would-be followers, no doubt thinking they were being reasonable, felt at his replies? They probably hurt their feelings, got angry and maybe mumbled something like: Well then, to hell with you, Jesus!

Do you think Jesus demanded too much of these guys? Hadn’t he said: “Come to me for rest, all you who labor and are heavy laden”?

Well he did promise rest for all who were weighed down with legalism but were, nonetheless, serious about serving the Lord. Yet, remember: He added something about a yoke? (Matt 11:28f) A yoke is not for rest. A yoke is for work. The yoke he invites us to slip our necks into is for sharing the load with him so our work is eased, not erased.

And didn’t he add something about “your soul”—rest for your soul, your deepest self—you yourself? That’s the rest we need. A Bible scholar explains: “None of this implies that [following Jesus] is not extremely challenging or demanding.” (Craig L. Blomberg) Another notes that, for Jesus, ‘the way that is easy’ (7:13) leads to destruction, not to rest.” (Donald Hagner) He says that the rest of which Jesus speaks here “anticipates messianic [ultimate] blessing with regards to one’s relationship to God.” Jesus calls for a dedicated disciple, not a “drowsy chaperone”.

Christian rest doesn’t rest in feelings. It rests in the deep blessings of life more abundant, even when persecuted for Christ’s sake, falsely accused, humiliated, grieving, literally poor and longing for justice. That’s what Jesus outlined in beatitudes of Kingdom living. (Mt 5:3-12)

In following Jesus, as we see, we must be ready to be wrong. That can be rough. And it’s not always what Chesterton called “the shining silence of the scorn of God.” It can be a point blank blast!

How do you think Jesus’ followers felt when he turned to them and commended the faith of a military officer of the goyim? He said emphatically: “I’m telling you the truth, I haven’t found anyone in Israel with such great faith as this man’s. I tell you: Many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at The Feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the offspring of the Kingdom will be thrown outside, into darkness, where there will be weeping and the angry gnashing of teeth.” (Mt 8:5-13) That’s the sober, but abundant, life of Jesus’ upbraiding discipleship. Grieve, you narrow nationalists, and grow into life more abundant!

How do you think the disciples felt when their exasperated Master asked: “Have I been so long with you guys and you still don’t get it? You still don’t know me?” (John 14:9) Grieve over this, and grow into life more abundant!

How do you think James and John felt when, responding to their “brilliant idea” to pray down firepower on unbelieving Samaritans, Jesus shook his head and said: “Let’s move on.” (Luke 9:51-56)

How do you think that wealthy young man felt on finding out that following Jesus wouldn’t be on his own terms? He’d come to the “good teacher” in high hopes of an agreeable word. But he went away in grief. And don’t you think that Jesus, too, grieved that day? (Mt 19:16) But Jesus didn’t chase after him.

How do you think Peter felt when his well-intentioned protest at his Master’s talk of dying at the hands of the authorities was met by Jesus’ rebuke: “Get out of my way, Satan!” (Mt 16:23) Grieve, Peter, and grow into life more abundant! How do you think Peter felt when his faith didn’t keep him afloat in front of his buddies and Jesus? (Mt 14:30) Grieve, and grow into life more abundant! And how do you think he felt when, having accompanied Jesus into Gethsemane, he nodded off and woke to Jesus’ sad question: “Couldn’t you watch with me for even an hour?” (Mt 26:36- 46) Later, when he heard that rooster crow for the third time, how do you think he felt? We’re told: He wept bitterly. (Lk 22:62) Grieve, Peter, and grow into life more abundant!

How do you think the beloved disciple and Jesus’ mother and the other women felt as they watched in helpless horror as Jesus suffered and died? Was their life, abundant, there, at the foot of his cross?

And how “abundant” was the life of the Man of Sorrows as he wrestled with Satan in the desert of temptation, dealt with religious leaders bent on entrapping and killing him, coped with self-centered disciples, wept over Lazarus, wept over Jerusalem? The one who knew himself to be The Life—wept! (John 14:6) “Jesus wept!” (John 11:35) Isn’t that shortest of all Bible verses one we should take more to heart? It’s Cynthia Clawson’s favorite Bible verse. She’s even written a poignant little book about it.

Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Was his life, on Good Friday, life more abundant? His death wasn’t fair! God’s grace isn’t fair! So there he was: on the cross—fulfilling the Law: loving the Father and all his enemies with all the love he had to give!

In Jesus, we see that abundant life doesn’t involve only the tears and heartbreak of loneliness, misunderstandings, abandonment, betrayal. It’s also the tears and heartbreak of all the dying we can do. The abundant life is the abandoned life—life abandoned in Christ! The Gospels repeat no saying of Jesus more than this one that he lived out even unto death: “Whoever wants to save his life, will lose it. Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” That’s the exchanging of life that will be lost anyway, for life that cannot be lost in any way.

Do you and I lose our lives for Christ’s sake? How? When? Where? Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew what it was to die daily for Christ. Finally, he died, stripped and twisting from a Nazi gallows at Flossenburg. He’d often said: “When Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die.”

MacDonald warned: “You will be dead so long as you refuse to die.” Coming into Christ is exchanging the fatal death in which we find ourselves for the new life of daily death from which we’ll be raised in Christ. Said Lewis: “Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.”

Living abundantly is dying abundantly. Dying abundantly is living abundantly. Yet we’re told that churchgoers live longer than non-churchgoers. Shame on us! Said Charles Spurgeon: “It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices whose lot is to be consumed.” Tell that to body sculptors and nip ‘n’ tuckers!

Some Christians are thrown into prison and tortured and killed for their witness for Christ. Others are sent off to labor camps with up to three generations of their families—all for their professing of Christ. They don’t outlive their non- Christian neighbors. It wasn’t for nothing that Jesus said that his coming brings swords, not peace. (Mt 10:34ff) From the earliest days, persecuted disciples have taken joy in being thought worthy to suffer for Jesus. (Acts 5:41) Do we?

Some in today’s persecuted church ask that we not pray for their persecution to end. They ask, instead, that we pray that they might be faithful through it. And some of them pray that American Christians experience more persecution. Why? Because, they say, persecution makes for better disciples and brings revival. It wasn’t for nothing that a watchword of early Christians was: “The blood of the martyrs is the semen of the church.” (Tertullian)

The great Welsh revival of a hundred years ago was prayed into Wales by Evan Roberts’ repeatedly praying: “Bend me, Lord! Bend me! Bend me!” In preparation for taking the Gospel to the uncharted jungles of Ecuador, a young missionary, who would be martyred there, searched his heart, asking himself if he was, indeed, “ignitable” for God. He prayed for deliverance from “the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be aflame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul—short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived. … Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.” (Jim Elliot)

In the wake of those prayers and reports of our brothers and sisters being tortured and killed, aren’t we a bit embarrassed for complaining we’re persecuted here when we’re wished “Seasons Greetings” instead of a “Merry Christmas”? Aren’t we a bit ashamed of all our whining that “we don’t feel safe” unless everything’s politically correct and all our churches are officially “welcoming and affirming”? Don’t we know that the abundant life is still the life of the cross—Christ’s and ours?

Minorities are mistreated. Both churches and secularists have not been kind to gay people—especially to evangelical Christians who happen to be gay. So, it’s understandable we’d want “a safe place.”

But our main concern should not be for our safety. We, as Christians, are not called to be safe. We’re called to love. And to love is dangerous. Our Lord’s love cost him his life. Why would our love cost us so much less? Said Lewis: “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” And as EC is neither Heaven nor Hell, EC can’t really be all that much of a safe place. So let’s be as safe as we should be: safe and sound!

And one thing that’s sound is that the Lord, our God, isn’t that safe! Foolishly, we try to shut up all the wild and rushing Winds of God’s Spirit. We try to contain them within our little spiritual safety deposit boxes, to be released in a day of trouble. We can try—but to no avail.

The Lord the sage reminds us to fear if we would even begin to know anything, is no domesticated deity of our design, at our disposal, (cf. Prov 1:5, et al.) And don’t tell me the sage doesn’t mean “fear”, but means merely “awe”—as though awe is, somehow, a safer posturing than trembling in humility at our weakness and doubling over, horrorstricken, at our shameful negligence of the tender heart of Love Himself.

Yirah—translated “fear” or “awe”—reminds us of the uncontrollably Holy Presence. So you tell me: Isn’t the Holy Presence the most overwhelming, stop-whatever-you’re-doing-right-now, knee-buckling, pay-full-attention phenomenon there could be? The Psalmist’s paradox is: “Rejoice and tremble!” (Ps 2:11)

Recalling the Spirit-saddening sin of his forebears, Paul pleaded with Ephesians that they not inflict such grieving upon the Spirit. (Isa 63:10; Eph 4:30) Shouldn’t we turn pale at the pathos of God’s Spirit?

Jesus could tell his disciples, in one breath, to fear this One who could utterly destroy them, and in the next breath, tell them not to fear this One who cares about every sparrow’s fall, for He counts each disciple as worth much more than many sparrows. (Mt 10:28-31)

Susan asked about Aslan: “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

The Lord is not our lapdog. The Lord is the Lord! And the Lord is our Friend. As our Friend, He’ll tell us the truth. He’ll tell us what we need Him to tell us. And He’ll do it in love and for our good and to our Father’s glory. Nonetheless, it can be hard to hear—and so something to fear. It was not for nothing that the Psalmist said: “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him.” (Ps 25:14) A moral theologian adds: “There is no riskier vulnerability than to live in friendship with God. … Any friend of God is called to faithfully embody the ways of God in the world, even to the point of suffering on account of them. There may be grace and glory in being a friend of God, but there is also clearly a cost.” (Paul J. Wadell)

What’s the cost? Our all.

In a gospel song by Ira Stanphill, Jesus says to a would-be follower: “If just a cup of water / I place within your hand, / Then just a cup of water / is all that I demand.”

But, of course, here, “all” means all—all to the one who shares from his own cup and all to the one who shares in that cup. And “all” means all to him who gives the Water of Life freely, and yet cried out from the cross, “I thirst!” And we’re told that to him who so values both giver and receiver, that little cup of water is worth eternal life! (Mt 10:42)

Yet, we’ve been given much more than a cup of water. Each of us is 60 percent water? Water: Hydrogen that came with the Big Bang and oxygen that came in explosions of stars. Our own beginnings were “In the beginning!” Our coming was with a Big Bang! And then, sifted through stars and embraced in an ever-expanding environment made just right for our thriving from the very first—fourteen billion years ago—here we are today. How’s that for belonging?

But it’s better than that. For into the stardust of us, God imprinted His image. And it gets even better. For into the mess we all made of ourselves—and from the very beginning—God chose to come in his Son to die that we might live in Him. Even in the book called Lamentations, we read of God’s everlastingly faithful love that is “new every morning”! (3:23) Psychological research shows that’s exactly what we need.

In his book on the psychology of happiness, Dave Myers states that “The point cannot be overstated: Every desirable experience—passionate love, a spiritual high, the pleasure of a new possession, the exhilaration of success—is transitory.” No wonder Samuel Johnson said “Hope is, perhaps, the chief happiness this world affords.” But, thank God, there’s nothing transitory to life in the Transcendent One! And ultimately, He’s our Life More Abundant!

The Psalmist spoke of “the wide place” of God’s salvation into which he was set—even in the midst of all sorts of this world’s troubles. (Ps 31:8) And Christians tell of a growing joy in the Lord: “Sweeter each day, sweeter each day, His love grows sweeter each day.” (G. T. Speer)

Ever more joy in Christ, beyond the now, is the witness of a pastor, crushed by a semi and declared dead at the scene. But an hour later, medics found him breathing again. In that interval, he says, he saw the “luster and intensity [of a light that] continually increased. … Each time I stepped forward, the splendor increased. The farther I walked, the brighter the light.” And it was the same with the music. (Don Piper)

Lewis had something of this in mind at the end of his Chronicles of Narnia—after the deadly train wreck. “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

“We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” (T. S. Eliot)

Yet, as Christina Rossetti reminds us: the road of life winds uphill—all the way to the very end. Well, isn’t that the only way to get to the mountaintop. And our Home is in the Mountains of Zion, by way of Mount Calvary.

On the very first page of The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren says: “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. … You were born by [God’s] purpose and for his purpose.”

It’s not about you and it’s not about me. It’s about God, in Christ. And because it is about Him, the only Life who is, we who are in Him, can go on, forever, growing into Life More Abundant. So hunger and thirst for Him: The Way, The Truth and The Life—More Abundant!

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