“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.”
Christians are pro-life, at least the vast majority of them are. Some more liberal traditions may have a mix, but for the most part if you meet a Christian, they are very likely to be pro-life. Some may think this is a recent development. Maybe it was in the early 1970's when the abortion debate was raging and various states had different laws. Twenty states had legalized abortion in one way or another prior to Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. A few states had almost no restrictions on abortion. Since 1973 many Christians have protested, prayed, and lobbied in an attempt to limit abortion or make it outright illegal. But, was that the beginning of the pro-life movement? The short answer is, "not even close."
The reality is that the pro-life position of Christians goes back to the beginning of Christianity. That is to say it goes back almost 2000 years. It could be argued that the origin of a pro-life perspective predates Christianity, indeed, it does. But that is not the purpose of this post.
Hilarion was migrant worker in the first century and he wrote a letter to his wife in 1 BC expressing his love for her. Included in the letter were instructions on what to do with his wife's unborn child,
"If-may you have good luck!-you should give birth; if it is a boy, keep it; if it is a girl, throw it out." (Jeremiah Johnston, Unimaginale, 26).
Wow, that is harsh, not to mention sexist. It certainly offends our modern sensibilities, but at the time it was common practice. It wasn't that long ago that such a practice was common in Communist China. The Romans of the first century didn't value women, but boys could provide for the family in ways that women couldn't at that time. Further, girls were expensive. It was more than economics, it was cultural too. Nevertheless, the practice would leave baby girls exposed to the elements and to nature in general. Wild animals would often come at night to devour babies who had just been born. This practice of exposure was common enough and it was not frowned upon. In addition to the practice of exposure, there were very dangerous methods of abortion as well. Often the mother would be left severely damaged or even dead. Sharp objects and poison were common abortion methods (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity).
Many babies were "thrown out," exposed in the first century, and most of them were girls. First century Christians rightly found this practice appalling. It would be nice to say this is no longer an issue, but this kind of thing has been practiced throughout the centuries and we are but a breath away from this being allowed in the United States today. Not only are their laws in some states that allow abortion on demand up until the point of birth, there are people like Peter Singer who have been promoting the legal disposal of babies who have been born for many years. He isn't that much of an exception. Governor Northam of Virginia (a pediatrician) has promoted something similar. That's it though right? No, former president Obama voted for a bill that allowed survivors of abortion to be left to die when he was still in Chicago. There are more, many more!
Christians, from the inception of the church have been concerned about the life of children. Jesus set the tone when he welcomed children so he could bless them (Mark 10:13-15). Christians were known early on for going around and saving children from exposure, from wild dogs and animals who would kill and eat the children that were thrown away in the first century. While Christians don't always get it right, over the centuries they have been known for running towards the sick, the lame, and dying.
Christians are and have been pro-life because that is the example that Jesus set, because all humans are made in the image of God, and because they are called to be a voice for the voiceless. This is not a rejection of a person's general autonomy or rights, in face one might argue those are the very reasons they are pro-life.
My friend Eric, a pilot for a commercial airline, offered to bring me to Israel. Eric is one of my training partners at the gym where I do Jiu Jitsu. When he first offered, I thought he was asking me to watch his kids at my house while he went. Then I thought he was asking me to watch his dog (my son has a dog watching business). Then when he clarified, I said, “you want me to come?” He said yeah! That was a couple of years ago, I think. Now I’m writing this on the plane ride home. We went. It still cost me quite a bit and we are sacrificing in our finances to make it happen, but it was worth it. It didn’t ruin my life, but it might ruin yours, if you go.
Israel is a unique place. It is roughly the size of New Jersey (the state) and in the north you have an area called the fertile crescent that is green and lush with vegetation. In the south, you have the Negev, and it is hard to exaggerate how harsh of an environment the Negev is. Sometimes you look out your car window and can’t see anything growing for what seems like miles upon miles. No grass, no trees, no vegetation. Of course, you also have the dead sea in the south as well. It is dead, and there is literally nothing that lives in that water…nothing!
Yet, in this narrow strip of land you have the major trade rout connecting that part of the world. One would think the importance of that has faded, but this trade route and the resources, especially those in the fertile crescent and the location of the Jezreel valley, have brought conflict because various nations want that land. The conflict between modern day Israel and the Palestinians who inhabited the land when the nation of Israel was established in 1948 wages on. Of course, it isn’t just about the land, there are religious implications as well. Megiddo has been rebuilt because of conflicts 26 times, as recently as World War 1 and as far back as the 15th century BCE. It is also the place mentioned in John’s Revelation as the place where Armageddon will take place when Jesus returns.
Surrounding Israel are enemies some of which have specifically stated their goal to extinguish the nation of Israel from the face of the earth. That’s not an exaggeration.
Yet, the home of the Jewish nation is also the destination of hajis and pilgrims of the Muslim and Christian faith as well. As a person walks through the old city of Jerusalem they are confronted with this stark reality rather quickly. The Dome of the Rock where a Muslim Mosque sits and is said to be the sight where Muhammed ascended to heaven is also the traditional sight where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac and God provided a replacement. All of that is within a stones throw or two from the wailing wall (what is left of the west wall of the temple built by King Herod some 500 years before the time of Christ and destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans). Let’s just say all the necessary ingredients for conflict are present and everyone walks just a little on edge.
More could be said about the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and other things. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which these things are constantly present in Israel. Yet, Christians, Jews, and Muslims flock to this place year after year to complete their spiritual haji. My friend, Rula, lives in the old city and acted as our tour guide for two days during our trip. She is Arminian (not Jewish and not Palestinian). She speaks 4 languages fluently and can get around Jerusalem well. By the end of our time with her, she was calling me haji Johnny. Haji is generally a term used for Muslims who have completed a pilgrimage but is sometimes used more broadly. She, like a lot of people there, makes her living by working in the “haji” industry. The Catholics have made an industry out of burial sites, the site of Jesus birth, and many other “holy sites.” People come not only to see historical sites, but to touch the place where Mary spilled breast milk and a rock turned white. They touch or even lay on the rock and pray to Mary asking her to cure their infertility. Many claim it works including a friend of Rula.
Pilgrims and hajis don’t come just to see the sites, they come for miracles and spiritual experiences in their lives. Many flock to the site of Jesus’ baptism and get baptized and rebaptized in the Jordan river so they can gain some kind of “spiritual experience.” All of this is problematic to say the least. The relics of the Catholic church and the sound of John Tutsel’s voice are all but faint in the background.
There is certainly not anything wrong with experiencing spiritual highs as you stand in the synagogue that was built on top of the synagogue where Jesus spent time preaching, reading the sermon on the mount as you sit on top of the mount of beatitudes, or standing at the shore of the Sea of Galilee just behind Peter’s house and think about Jesus calming the storm or walking on water. It all happened their and it changed the course of eternity…literally. But, there is nothing magic about that dirt or that water or that air. It’s all just dirt, water, and air. It’s not the same dirt, water, and air that graced the feet and lungs of Jesus. And even if it was, so what. God doesn’t hear your prayers better if you are putting your hands on the wailing wall as I did (I even prayed) and His power to do miracles are not determined by geography. God’s work is grounded in history, but He is not limited by history. If you seek a spiritual experience in the Holy Land you might find it, but what about when you are sitting on the plane going home? What then?
If you are looking for a spiritual experience that will sustain your spiritual walk, don’t go to Israel. Don’t get me wrong, there is something amazing about visiting the Holy Land. I hope to go back, and I hope it will be sooner rather than later and last longer than this short trip. I hope you will get to go as well, but for the right reasons and with the right expectations. The truth is, God isn’t just at work in one magical location, He is at work wherever you live and wherever His people live. God works in the midst of your infertility, He works with the reality of your relationships, their financial struggles, your brokenness, and so on. Israel is a broken place and a site of conflict throughout world history. God is at work in your life, you don’t need a trip to Israel to experience the redeeming power of the cross and the empty tomb. Heck, we don’t even know for sure where the empty tomb is. Is it the Garden Tomb as many protestants believe or is it The Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Maybe it’s neither of them. Wherever it is, we have eye witness testimony in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament that confirm his resurrection and you have access to that. Further, you have access to the Holy Spirit who has sealed your eternal life.
My trip to Israel did bring to life Scripture in a new way as I stood close to the place where Jesus experienced the temptation by Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just worship Satan. It brought to life the realities of the land and culture in which Jesus lived and worked, where Abraham obeyed God with Isaac, where Simon of Cyrene is through to have helped Jesus with the cross or where Jesus ascended to heaven. My trip grounded the historical reality of God taking on human flesh, living, dying, and rising to life, but the emotional high will fade. I will forget some of what I saw and experienced and I will return home to pay for my trip, help coach my son’s baseball team, go to the gym, and prepare sermons every Sunday in my local coffee shop. Just like I did before I left. I will see God continue to work in Lakewood, Colorado and in my own family and among my friends.
If you go to Israel and expect the emotional and spiritual high that will last you the rest of your life, you will be chasing another experience in a week, month, or year. It will ruin your life. If, however, you go to Israel in the hopes of grounding in history the work that Jesus has already done in your life because of the cross and resurrection and gaining insight into the Biblical narrative, then by all means have a good trip.
The picture is a group of guys in Tel Aviv Israel that I trained with during my trip to Israel. In fact, I'm still in Israel, I leave to come home tomorrow. I came to Israel with my friend Eric (front left), he is one of my Jiu Jitsu friends. He is not just a friend, he is one of my main training partners. We push each other to become better practitioners of Jiu Jitsu, that is why we found time while in Israel to train. I have a plan for my training and a discipline that goes along with it. I don't train flippantly and I don't just do Jiu Jitsu when I feel like it or when it is convenient. I bet there are things in your life where you have developed a discipline and commitment like this. If there isn't, there should be.
There is something far more important than Jiu Jitsu, in fact there are several things, but one of them is my spiritual life. My guess is that you would probably place the same value on your spiritual life that I do on mine. But if that is true, then I should have a plan and a disciplined approach to my spiritual life that is at least equal to the level of planning and discipline i put into Jiu Jitsu. Do you have a plan for your spiritual life, or do you just hope it will happen?
Yesterday (when I started writing this) was Sunday. Normally on Sunday I am in the pulpit preaching a sermon I have been working on for at least a week. There is significant spiritual benefit in preparing and delivering a sermon. I spend time every week digging into God's word exegeting Scripture and examining how it should be applied to my life and the lives of the people who will be hearing the message. Obviously this is part of my job, but it also pays significant spiritual benefits. So, what happens when I'm not preaching and I'm not even at church like I was yesterday? Do I get to "take a break" or a "vacation" from doing what is important and necessary for my continued spiritual growth and development?
Most of the time, even when I am on vacation I will attend church, even if it is in a place I don't know anyone. Yesterday was not a day where I could do that given the nature of this trip. BUT, I didn't take the day off from my spiritual life. In addition to visiting the "Mount of Temptation" in Jericho where Jesus was tempted by Satan and meditating for a few minutes on what that temptation must have been like for Jesus, I listened to two sermons by Chuck Swindoll (one of my favorite preachers of all time). Church is an important part of my spiritual life even when I am not preaching...perhaps more so when I am not preaching. Nevertheless, it is not the only spiritual practice and discipline I have.
I recently checked something off my bucket list that wasn't even on my bucket list until this last year. I completed a 1/2 marathon. Honestly, it sounds almost silly. How do you complete half of something? It almost sounds like a consolation prize, like I didn't do the whole thing, I only did 1/2 of it. Of course that isn't quite true. I completed the whole thing, all 13.1 miles. Here is the thing, I didn't win, I didn't even win my age division. I'm not even that passionate about running. I once hated running but I've made friends with running because it helps me in other areas of my life. So, I did it, I completed a 1/2 marathon taking a modest 7th place in my age division out of 34 and 48th overall out of 230. I set a goal of finishing a 1/2 in 2019 sometime last fall. I don't really remember when I set the goal.
To some this might be a huge goal, but it wasn't the first running goal I set. My first goal was to run a mile...I thought that would be enough. I accomplished that goal and set a new goal to run 5 days a week and get up to three miles (a 5k). I did that. As time went on my goals grew little by little. Some were time goals. I had a goal of running a mile in under 7 minutes and I did that last year. I have a new goal, I want to beat 6:39 (my current mile record) and run under 6 minutes. That's an aggressive goal for me at age 45, but I think I can get there. As time went on my running grew stronger and my goals grew marginally larger. I'm probably never going to win a 1/2 or any race of any real importance, but who knows. What's my point? Let me explain.
Some of my professional life has been spent in an atmosphere that pushed big goals, huge goals, even "God sized goals." While I can surely appreciate the intent behind that approach, it never really worked for me. Maybe it's a personality thing, but I bet there are other people with my personality. I had a hard time reaching these giant goals and often felt like a failure. In fact, I was often told that even if not in so many words. Let's be honest, I did fail to reach a lot of those goals. I still set goals, but I do it different and maybe this will help you.
I set reachable goals. Goals that take work, require effort, discipline, and will stretch me, but they aren't usually GIANT goals. They are goals where I can see the path to completion. I can see how those goals could be accomplished or at least I can see a general idea of how I can reach those goals. That's what I did with my running and I have increasingly begun to do this with other areas of my life. Honestly, in some ways I've been doing it for much of my life. Setting a goal to run one mile eventually and somewhat unintentionally led to me running a 1/2 marathon. Setting a goal to simply complete a half marathon led to me performing at a much higher level than I thought possible. I thought I would average 10 minute miles and I averaged 8:36. I haven't set a new goal for a marathon, that still seems like a huge goal for me. I am considering it. I am thinking about whether that really helps me with other physical fitness goals in my life and whether or not I want to put in the training. That said, I have almost certainly not run my last 1/2.
What is your next goal? What modest goal can you strive for in your spiritual life, in your physical fitness life, in your vocation where you can see the path on how to get there? Don't wait, set a modest goal today and maybe it will lead to something unimaginable down the road.
Thom Rainer recently posted a blog called, "The Painful Reality of Church Shoppers." In it he references a pastor who talked, perhaps even vented a little, about the the reality that June seems to be "National Church Shopping Month." Grace Fellowship in Lakewood, where I serve as Lead Pastor, has certainly experienced that. In fact, I am the pastor who posted that lament in the Church Answers community. We've experienced this phenomena on both ends, we have had people from our church go shopping as well as people shopping our church who had been at another church. I called that post a lament because it is certainly that in a variety of ways. To be clear, there are good reasons to go "church shopping." That said, there are a lot of bad ones, probably more bad than good. I'm not going to address the good reasons to go church shopping.
The title of this post is a little misleading. There are a number of blog posts written about what you should look for in a church and I don't think we need another one, so I am going to take a different approach. I will give you one thing to look for in a church, but more important than that are some things not to do.
First, I want to tell you about a couple in our church who has been there since 1964...yep, you read that right. They started attending 55 years ago. This isn't a rural community with limited options, Lakewood is the 5th largest city in Colorado and borders Denver. In fact, my home address comes up on Google maps as Denver. There are mega-churches, big churches, and small churches not far from us (a lot of them). The options are plenty. Why are they still at Grace Fellowship? I promise it isn't because they agreed with every decision, because the worship was the best available, or because the preaching was amazing (I hope its good though). It wasn't because Grace had better programs than anyone else. While I have often gotten somewhat veiled answers when I have asked I think I can safely infer that they believe a biblical community isn't one you leave because something didn't go your way, because someone didn't give you enough attention, because you disagreed with someone in leadership, or because there was minor difference of opinion related to a peripheral theological issue. I think I can safely say that they believed growing together in a community of believers where people knew the hurts, sorrows, and even sins of one another was part of remaining faithful to God and to the bride of Christ (the church). Perseverance is an essential part of spiritual growth (Hebrews 10:32-39). This couple isn't the only long time couple at Grace, but they have been there the longest. Several other people have been there for 10, 15, 20, and even 30 years. Don't get the wrong idea, we have many who have been there 6 months, a year, or a few years as well.
They have been around through several pastors, two of them were 20+ years each. They have seen the church move, remodel, acquire debt, pay off debt, and much more. They have watched as others have left because the pastor was "too Calvinistic" (this wasn't me by the way), because the pastor didn't call, because the church didn't take my ideas about remodeling, because the children's ministry had a slightly different philosophy, because they didn't like the pastor's social media posts, because, because, because. Yet they found reasons to stay and it has been good for them and for the church!
So, what do you look for in a church? You look for one thing, you look for a church where you can stay. Sure, they should have orthodox theology. The preacher should be faithful to the text. The worship should be God honoring (that doesn't mean it is great, there is a difference). However, the preacher doesn't need to be Matt Chandler, John Piper, Charles Swindoll, or the one of the 11 disciples of Jesus (leaving Judas out). The worship doesn't have to be Elevation, Hill Song, or a bunch of hired guns/guitars. They don't need to have a fog machine or not have a fog machine or whatever. Your kids don't need to love it, they need to learn to be faithful to a community of believers, just like you do.
Our little church in Lakewood will never put on a show like Red Rocks (just down the street) or have a climbing wall in the kids area (like Red Rocks). I don't begrudge them, good for them, I hope they preach the gospel!! What we do have is a church that works hard to live up to its 3 core values of having a Gospel Impact (we preach Jesus), Generosity (we work hard to be generous with what God has given us), and Growth in Community (we work hard to love people well and spur one another on toward love and good deeds).
Before you go church shopping, don't ask if there is something better, ask if you can stay where you are and contribute to the church you're in. Sit down with the pastor and try to find a way to stay rather than finding a reason to leave. It will be better for you and the church.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.