Thursday, November 28, 2013

Remembering the “Yearning to Breathe Free”

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”   -- William Bradford

Bowing to worship and give thanks to their Creator was a fitting beginning for the Pilgrim Fathers when they arrived on the shores of North America on November 11, 1607.  These Puritans, so named for their separatist life, had suffered much from religious intolerance in Europe.  Now, they hoped that their perilous 65-day voyage across the Atlantic to North America would satisfy their “yearning to breathe free” to worship and serve the God to Whom they had entrusted their lives.

"The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor" - W.F. Halsall
Throughout world history, many various people groups have embarked on perilous trips much like the Puritans, some across rugged mountains and others across arid deserts or stormy seas in hopes of finding freedom and opportunity in a new land.  The descendents of Abraham migrated to Egypt to escape drought and famine (Genesis 47).  Two centuries later, numbering approximately 2 million, Abraham’s descendents were miraculously led by God and His humble servant, Moses, through the Red Sea and arid desert to escape slavery of Egypt and to establish a new nation under God.

Today, one can read news reports of the migration of refugees on many continents. For example, in Asia as a result of the war in Syria, an estimated 100,000 have died and more than 2,000,000 Christians and Muslims have fled.  Many Syrian refugees have migrated into the same region through which Abraham once migrated on his way from present day Iraq to modern day Israel. 

This Thanksgiving, I am reflecting on the manner in which God led our Pilgrim Fathers to come to America and establish civil laws that would eventually grow into our Constitution.  My reflection on American history has ushered in a time to reevaluate the freedoms I often take so lightly and which are being eroded by decisions made daily in Washington, DC.  Contemplating people groups now living under tyranny, and considering the prospect of an America in which our Constitution is being ignored or displaced makes me all the more thankful for a God Who will not be thwarted in His purposes by any human actions.  But I am also thankful for those among our leaders who stand up to honor God by humble and unselfish service to our country in both military and civilian roles. 

And so, on this Thanksgiving perhaps you would join me in thanking God for His many provisions if you live in America or another nation in which the basic freedoms are granted.   We can pray also for wisdom for world leaders, both in our country and abroad.   The decisions that they have made and are making will determine the trajectory of the future of our lives, and whether we will continue to have at least some of the freedoms for which Americans have fought and died in the past 250 years.

Source:  WORLD Magazine, Nov. 16, 2013
Perhaps you would also agree to join me in learning more about the Syrian refugees, or another group of displaced people, to pray for them, and to learn of ways to help those who are directly involved in providing assistance.   WORLD Magazine reports that numerous NGO’s, including World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, are ministering to the needs of refugees not only in practical material ways but also in order to meet the deeper yearning for freedom within their souls.

This Thanksgiving, being thankful to God for our country and asking Him to direct us in ways that provide appropriate assistance to people groups in deep need can cause us to be renewed and refocused toward things that really matter.   We can be directed from our own selfish tendencies and the tendency to relax in our comfort zones, and instead to reflect on the great cost of freedom that was paid by our forefathers, many of whom yearned to breathe free to worship the One Who had purchased true freedom for them on Calvary’s cross. 

Estimated Number of Syrian Refugees
 (UN High Commission for Refugees)

As I reflect on past generations who have made great sacrifices because they yearned for both spiritual and political freedom, I wonder if our yearning today has turned from God Who alone can meet our greatest needs to the federal government which offers to satisfy our needs.  But, as we remember the assassination of President Kennedy this month, we ought to remember one of his famous challenges:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”  Every invitation from government to take over responsibilities formerly handled by individuals, families, and communities is an invitation that comes at the price of a loss of freedom. 

A case in point is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which promised health insurance coverage for all Americans, but at the cost of a loss of individual control over patient-doctor relationships and choice of a policy that best fits one’s needs.  Furthermore, the ACA will legalize the collection of extensive personal information to be stored in huge government databases.   Perhaps most unsettling is the numbing effect that expanding government services can have on the people of a nation, particularly if the services are not intended to provide temporary help coupled with a help toward gainful employment and financial independence. 

The toxic effects of prolonged welfare and other government programs on individual freedom and personal initiative can be inferred in the case of Greece which is experiencing dramatic increases in HIV transmission and infections associated with increases in prostitution and intravenous drug use.  The report, based on a World Health Organization study in 2011 includes mention of a number of deliberate self-infections with HIV “to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes."  It is worth reflecting on regretful ways in which people seek to meet the yearning within to “breath” what only Heaven can supply.

In conclusion, the “yearning to breathe free” of our Puritan Fathers which eventually brought “a new birth of freedom” in the founding of our great nation is a cause for much reflection on this Thanksgiving Day, 2013.  May our reflections lead us to offer thanks and praise to God for His provision of political and spiritual freedom in Christ, and to renew our commitment to be a testimony in words and in actions on behalf of these freedoms.  Our testimony is especially important in today’s world in which America’s freedoms are being threatened.  Her beacon of liberty which had once shone brightly, even if imperfectly, is growing dimmer toward the multitudes across the world who look to her for hope.  The call of God recorded in II Chronicles 7: 14 outlines our only true path to breathing free:

And My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

As a historical example of how Americans once applied the spirit of this call to humility and confession, I close with an excerpt from President George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Proclamation” presented on October 3, 1789:

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks…

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Marvelous Stewardship of a Roman Centurion

One need only to consult the daily news for evidence of the erosion of moral standards and values in America.  Consequently, there is no longer a moral consensus of what were once considered fundamental rights of each American citizen-- the right to freedom of speech, to bear arms, to have private property, and to hold religious convictions in the workplace.  Even within Christianity there seems to be less devotion to the institutions of biblical marriage, the home, and the local church.

Photo of the Sign from President Truman's Desk (with slight modification)
May I suggest that the crumbling foundation of moral standards and values can be traced to the failure of individual accountability and responsibility within the moral and civic structures ordained by God—namely, the family, the local church, and the government at the various levels?  Increasingly, our leaders are sacrificing their moral virtues for acceptance within a “fraternity of mediocrity” where each individual blends in and becomes entangled with the collective view of what is politically correct.  

Once a person belongs to the collective, “safety in numbers” becomes evident.  The old adage that “one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel” certainly applies here.  Any emerging rot of corruption can grow and fester within a corporation, church, or government agency while individuals responsible are hidden or insulated from accountability and justice.   Instead of reporting and bringing to justice the individuals suspected of such crimes as extortion, taking bribes, sexual abuse, or failure to enforce laws, members of the collective make excuses or shift the blame.  As a result, the reputation of businesses, churches, and educational institutions decline.  Many are placing their hopes in our ever-growing federal government to administer rights and entitlements while ignoring God and the importance of the fundamental rights and responsibilities that He has clearly revealed in Scripture.

The progression I have described is explained by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1: 21-22 when he declares that ...even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools….  This loss of a thankful and reverent spirit toward God and His Word were the root cause of the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).  When our thankfulness and reverence toward God are diminished, individual integrity and responsibility needed for strong leadership are undermined.   Consequently, families, communities, and nations deteriorate as the crumbling of civilizations throughout biblical and modern history testifies. 

However, in the midst of each sad chapter of history, God’s unique blend of mercy and justice has also been at work.  Over and over, God’s grace pierces the darkness through one or a few men and women with humble hearts who show reverence for Him.  These heroes realize they are stewards of the grace of God and of the opportunities God affords to them (1 Corinthians 4: 2).  Many have been the spark that ignited spiritual revival and cultural renewal.  Several biblical characters who come to mind are Noah, Abraham, and Joseph; and in the New Testament, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary of Magdalene (Luke 8: 2).

Recently, I’ve been interested in a character described in Luke 7: 1-10 who embodies the qualities that Christ desires among leaders, and all of us who strive to be responsible stewards of the opportunities God affords us.   We are not given his name; only that he was a centurion in the Roman army stationed in the town of Capernaum (Luke 7: 2).  Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army, and this particular centurion was apparently in charge of an outpost under the authority of King Herod Antipas.  [This Herod is the same king who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist and participated in the trial of Jesus.] 

A Roman Centurion
Although Roman soldiers had to possess outstanding character to achieve the rank of centurion, Luke reveals another outstanding trait of this centurion.  Centurions often discharged their duties with little regard for personal needs of their subordinates or subjects.  However, Luke tells us (7:2) that this centurion was deeply concerned for one of his servants who, according to Matthew’s account, was paralyzed and in great pain (Matthew 8:6).  The centurion’s genuine affection prompted him to seek immediate help for the servant in a way that reveals yet another unusual character trait.

According to Luke, the Jewish leaders in Capernaum held the centurion in very high regard.  Meanwhile, the centurion had become aware of the miraculous healing power of an unusual Jew named Jesus.  So, he decided to make his request for Jesus’ healing power by sending a polite request to Him through his Jewish friends.  These friends gladly conveyed the centurion’s request to Jesus along with a statement of  their deep respect for the him by saying, He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue (Luke 7: 4-5). 

The manner in which the centurion conveyed his request to Jesus to heal his servant was even more unusual for a Roman.  As a result, Jesus marveled at him, saying …not even in Israel have I found such great faith (Luke 7: 9).  What caused Jesus to marvel at the faith of this Gentile?  I believe the answer paints the portrait of one who exemplifies responsible stewardship of the opportunities God affords.

First, Jesus marveled at the origin of the request for healing of the servant.  It did not originate from a Jewish countryman, but rather, from a Roman soldier—a Gentile.  This centurion was not a member of the chosen nation Israel to whom, as Paul would later write, was given... the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises… (Romans 9: 4).  Yet somehow, this non-Jew believed Jesus could bring relief to his servant from paralysis and pain.

Second, Jesus marveled at the messengers chosen by the centurion to carry his request.  It came to Him by way of Jewish elders who were somehow willing to serve as intermediaries between two unusual parties-- a Gentile centurion and a radical, Jewish troublemaker.  Only God could orchestrate such a scene in which representatives of His “chosen people” would carry a message of faith no less from a “pagan Roman” outside the Jewish nation to a heretical Jewish rabbi whose legitimacy and power they questioned!  

Third, Jesus must have marveled at the sense of urgency, devotion, and compassion on the part of the Jewish messengers toward this Gentile officer (emphasis mine):

And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, "He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue (Luke 7: 4-5).

Jesus discerned from the earnest plea of the Jews that the centurion had won their affection by the manner in which he had been discharging his duties in Capernaum.  The centurion’s Roman superiors had entrusted him with the authority, military might, and material resources to control the lives of the Jewish population in his charge; and, to make their lives miserable if they did not submit.  However, this centurion had invested his authority and the resources of Rome with an apparent gentleness, kindness, and helpfulness that had won the hearts of his Jewish subjects.   The centurion is a portrait of responsible and benevolent stewardship of the resources and authority vested in him. 

If Jesus had begun to marvel because of the origin of the centurion’s request, the messengers who carried it, and the urgency with which they delivered the message, Jesus must also have marveled because of the content of a second message from the centurion, one conveyed to Him by friends of the centurion while He was on the road to the centurion’s home.   Knowing that Jesus was coming, the centurion expressed his misgivings about Jesus coming inside his home:

Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.   For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes; and to another, 'Come!' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it (Luke 7: 6b-8).

From in this second message, Jesus could sense that the centurion was a man of humility, of great faith, and of understanding (wisdom) in regard to the larger order of God’s kingdom.

Jesus must have deeply cherished the centurion’s humility, conveyed in the words …I am not worthy… (Luke 7: 6b).  Both Peter and James teach us that God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5: 5; James 4: 6).  A humble heart provides the “good soil” for our soul and spirit that the Word of God can grow within (Luke 8: 8) so that we can …receive the word implanted, which is able to save [our] souls (James 1: 21).  In light of this, I believe that the humility demonstrated by our centurion is a fundamental virtue of a godly steward.

Jesus was amazed not only by the centurion’s humility, but also to a fruit of that humility; namely, his great faith.  The centurion not only believed that Jesus could restore his paralyzed servant but that Jesus could do so from any distance.  Such amazing faith!  And Jesus was joyfully amazed.  I would have loved to see the expression on Jesus’ face when He declared, …not even in Israel have I found such great faith (Luke 7: 9).

Finally, we see in the centurion’s message to Jesus an understanding of the larger order of things—things that are both visible and invisible.  This centurion understood that he was but one “cog” in a much larger authority structure within the mighty Roman Empire.  Specifically, he understood that the quality of his role as a steward depended upon his obedience to his superiors and to his ability to exercise rightful authority over his subordinates—i.e. he understood his place in the “chain of command.”  Stewardship of authority demands both willing acceptance of our orders and provision of accountability toward those who serve under our charge.  Instead of pointing fingers to deflect responsibility, those who do not exercise responsible stewardship must be held accountable.

Not only did the centurion understand the “visible order of things” but he also seemed to integrate this visible, earthly order with a faith in the “supernatural order of things.”  We can see this faith in his analogy between his own power within the authority structure of the Roman system and Jesus’ power within the larger, invisible, spiritual realm.  Perhaps Jesus sensed that the centurion’s heart was receptive to the essence of a message once given by the prophet Isaiah (6: 1a-2) concerning the two realms over which His Father rules (emphasis mine):

Thus says the LORD, ‘Heaven is My throne,
and the earth is My footstool…
For My hand made all these things,
Thus all these things came into being,’ declares the LORD.
‘But to this one I will look,
To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.’

We will not know this side of heaven whether the centurion was saved through faith in the atoning work of Christ.  However, Luke’s account as we have seen reveals the centurion’s progression of faith, a faith first nurtured by his gracious stewardship of authority over God’s chosen people.  This responsible stewardship allowed mutual respect between the Roman and the Jews, and paved the way for God to bring the Jewish elders to the feet of Jesus with the request to heal a paralyzed servant.  Finally, God’s grace enabled the centurion to believe in the unseen supernatural order of God’s kingdom based on the analogy of his authority within the Roman government.

The centurion’s humility and faith which amazed Jesus presents a portrait of good stewardship for us today just as it provided a remarkable testimony to the unbelieving Jews of his time.  For God had placed the centurion in center stage of a drama in which his faith enlisted the Jewish elders into the role of carrying a message of humble saving faith to the only One Who could bring ultimate healing.   Jesus had the power not only to relieve the physical paralysis and pain of the centurion’s servant.  Jesus could also overcome the spiritual paralysis and pain of God’s chosen people represented by the centurion’s Jewish messengers—and, ultimately, for anyone who would believe among the Gentiles!  Indeed, Scripture later records the role of another faithful centurion whose name is recorded in Acts 10.  God used this centurion whose name was Cornelius to reveal His plan to bring the Gospel of His saving grace to the Gentiles.  I wonder if the beloved centurion of Luke 7 and Cornelius were acquainted.

In my own small way, I too am amazed at the life of the Roman centurion.  Even though he lived in the midst of a pagan, Roman culture, he exercised faithful stewardship of his responsibilities and resources.  Therefore, he cancels my excuse not to strive to be a faithful steward of my responsibilities and opportunities as salt and light in our current needy culture.  Even though our earthly institutions and authority structures are crumbling, all of us are accountable as stewards of the Good News of the coming kingdom of Christ.  May we pray in the manner Jesus taught us and then serve well under His command:

[May] Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done,
[Let it be] on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6: 10).