On January 23, 1943, the USS Dorchester set off on a transport mission with over 900 soldiers, seamen, and civilians on board. The vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat two weeks later. In about 20 minutes, the ship was sunk. As the abandon ship signal sounded and passengers scrambled for the limited lifeboats and flotation devices, four men gave up their own life jackets in order to guide others to safety, tend to the injured, and administer last rites. When they had done all they could do, the men linked arms on deck to pray and sing hymns as they met the fate they had sacrificially chosen for themselves. These men were chaplains; a rabbi, a priest and two Protestant ministers. Their selfless actions were certainly courageous and a Distinguished Service Cross, a Purple Heart, and a Special Medal for Heroism were posthumously awarded to each of the men.
Stories of such great courage can make the virtue of courage seem out of reach for the ordinary person. Courage, we may think, is for the soldiers, the firefighters, the undercover cops, etc. and Christian courage, if such a thing exists, is for the biblical heroes and the martyrs, the likes of Joshua, Daniel, the Three Youths in the fiery furnace, Ignatius, and Polycarp.
While I acknowledge that these are good and true examples of courage, I caution us against limiting our definition of courage to include only those who face imminent physical danger. Courage deals primarily with our response to fear, and fear is a universal phenomenon. Our common everyday fears deal with our reputation, our health, our sense of agency and purpose, our plans for the future, our hopes for ourselves and our families, our perception of the world around us, and a myriad of other things big and small. And these fears require courage. Though few of us are called to lead armies or take bullets, we are all commanded more frequently than any other biblical admonishment, “Do not be afraid.” Courage, then, is an essential Christian virtue.
To be clear, this commandment does not require us to ignore our emotions, choke down our concerns, or feign some blind optimism. In many situations, fear is unavoidable, and that isn’t all bad.
At its best, fear can send us warning messages: press the brake, study for this final, be careful how much you share here. One could even argue that these warning messages are part of the God-given purpose of negative emotions, ultimately intended to remind us of our reliance on God.
However, we can also give ourselves over to our fears such that fear becomes our master. The spiritual warning message, “Rely on God,” becomes, “Rely on safety and comfort.”
The “Do not fear” command, then, speaks not against acknowledging fear, but against serving fear as Lord. The language of Psalm 23 illustrates this:
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The psalmist acknowledges the evil present in the dark valley, yet he continues his walk with courage. Why? Because he trusts in the presence of the Lord. He finds comfort in God’s rod and staff — His position as both king and shepherd. Thus, Christian courage is not turning a blind eye to fear; it is looking fear dead on and saying, “Christ is with me.”
It is this courage, founded on a dependence in the presence of Christ, that enables us to face our everyday fears. Our reliance on Christ is our common courage — the courage that it takes to confess a sin when you’re afraid of how others may respond. To speak up on behalf of the outcast. To listen to someone who sees things differently. To reach out to a hurting neighbor when you’re unsure what to say or do. To love your family when the marriage is rocky or the kids “hate” you. To live and work with intention when you feel like checking out. To trust your purpose in God’s Kingdom even when your body and mind aren’t capable of all they once were. To pray and believe even when you feel like every prayer returns unanswered. To face failure, unemployment, a diagnosis. This is not the courage of the war hero. This is the humble courage of the ordinary.
One of the most monumental steps humanity has ever taken was when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. What had previously only been the stuff of dreams had now been accomplished for all humanity: humanity had finally made it to the moon. In Armstrong’s own words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But as monumental as that step was, it is only a small picture of a far, far greater human step: when Jesus ascended into heaven and stepped into the presence of God.
According to Acts 1:3, following his resurrection, “[Jesus] presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days….” It was on the 40th day after His resurrection that Acts 1:9 tells us, “as they were looking on, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
It sounds very weird to us. None of us have ever seen someone ascend into the clouds like this, but let’s not let the weirdness of this keep us from understanding the tremendous significance of what it means.
In the Bible, clouds often symbolize God’s presence. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, clouds covered the mountain (Exodus 24:15). When Moses entered the tent of meeting, a pillar of cloud would descend and the Lord would speak with Moses (Exodus 33:9). But when Jesus ascended, he did not merely enter a tent or go up a mountain. He went into heaven itself, the true place where God resides.
The ascension has tremendous implications, not just for Jesus, but for all who identify with Him. Let’s consider some of the blessings that come to us from the ascended Lord.
The ascension gives us confidence before God.
Once a year on the Day of Atonement, Israel’s high priest would enter the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle to offer a sacrifice before the Lord (Leviticus 16). As he entered, he would be wearing a breastplate with 12 stones on it, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel (Exodus 28). In this way, year after year, the priest would represent the people and bring them into God’s presence, providing a covering for their sin.
But according to the book of Hebrews, Jesus is our great high priest. Unlike Israel’s earlier high priests however, Jesus has offered a perfect sacrifice, once for all time, and appears before God as our priest forever. And because Jesus is human, He is able to represent us before God. We can say that as Jesus appears now before God, He carries us on His heart, and has our name on His lips. This gives us great confidence before God, because our security before God is as secure as Jesus himself.
The ascension gives us courage on earth.
As the ascended Lord, Jesus is seated “…far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). What this means is that Jesus is not just Lord over the church, or in our hearts, or over the spiritual realm; Jesus is Lord over all creation – every time period, every person, every nation, and every realm. The rulers of this world may think they are at the top, but they would be wrong. Whether or not people recognize it, Jesus is the King of kings to whom all are accountable.
This is the courage and boldness the apostles and the early church had as they proclaimed Jesus in the face of persecution and opposition (Acts 4). Since our Lord is the Lord over all creation, we need not tremble before any power or any circumstance, come what may. We must not shrink back from faithfully and boldly following Jesus in every sector of life without compromise. And because Jesus is the ascended Lord, we may do this no matter the pressures or opposition we face.
The ascension gives us comfort in sorrow.
One of the frustrations we may feel with our leaders and those in authority is that they seem so unrelatable. They don’t know what it’s like to be one of us. How can I trust them to represent what’s best for me? But when we find leaders who have gone through the same things as we have and can truly sympathize with us, we find ourselves placing our hopes and trust in them. They know what it’s like, and they know what we need.
The ascension of Jesus gives great comfort for those who feel sorrow. In Jesus, the Son of God became flesh and lived like one of us. He fully experienced the traumas and scars that come from life in this broken world (Hebrews 4:15). And when He ascended, He did not leave His flesh behind but took it with Him, forever identified with humanity. So for those who bear the scars of life, take heart, because the One who rules the cosmos is one who bears scars.
The ascension gives us hope for our future.
When God created our first parents, Adam and Eve, He made them in His own image and entrusted them to rule over creation with care (Genesis 1:27-28). Humanity was intended for greatness, but with the introduction of sin, we have fallen terribly short of the glory that was supposed to be ours. Even our best moments are still tainted in some way by brokenness. It is a great tragedy, because we were made for so much more.
But in the ascension of Jesus, we see a glimpse of humanity as it was intended to be. When we see the ascended Jesus, we see a picture of our future. In their book, The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God, authors Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow explain:
“The ascension of Jesus is the ultimate rags to riches story. A child born in a barn becomes the king of the world. But it is not His story alone. It is the story of the restoration of humanity. The story of Jesus is the story of His people. All believers participate in this rags to riches story. We ascend to become who we were born to be.”
The ascension of Jesus is good news for humanity. Just as the Son descended to earth in the person of Jesus so that God might again dwell with humanity, so He ascended to heaven that humanity might again dwell with God––forever and ever, amen.
Recently my wife Liz and I attended the Advice and Aid banquet celebrating 30 years of coming alongside women who find themselves in the often-difficult realities of an unplanned pregnancy. For many years Christ Community has linked arms with Advice and Aid, and we continue to look for ways we, as a local church community, can be more involved and supportive in our advocacy of the unborn.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Pope Francis compared elective abortion justified by prenatal fetal maladies to Nazi eugenics. Pope Francis made the point that today we are doing the same thing the Nazis did although our destruction of the unborn is “practiced with white gloves.” (WSJ, June 18, 2018)
I am grateful for the courage and moral clarity of Pope Francis and I only wish more spiritual leaders would speak out in our troubled times. Although I have spoken out many times before on the matter of abortion, I want to again make it crystal clear where I stand and where Christ Community stands when it come to the destruction of the unborn.
I believe legalized elective abortion on demand is the most grievous injustice of our time, both in its unconscionable evil, as well as its massive scope. The numbers of the unborn that have and continue to be destroyed through legalized elective abortion is staggering. Somewhere around 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since 1973. The landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision has unleashed an unimaginable holocaust of human destruction.
Behind much of the current cultural and political polarization lurks a wide and fundamental divide between those who assert “reproductive rights” of women and those who assert the “right to life” of the unborn. Many “pro-choice” advocates say they want abortions legal yet rare, but the inconvenient truth is the abortion holocaust continues to be driven by a relentless government lobby and a highly profitable death industry.
As followers of Jesus, one of our most compelling stewardships is to seek justice and to care for and protect the most vulnerable among us. While we must up our game in confronting other grievous injustices in our time, we must also keep in mind the most vulnerable human beings are those in the womb.
The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is erected on a faulty legal, scientific, and a moral foundation. In a recent Christianity Today article, Matt Reynolds lays bear the judicial malpractice of Roe v. Wade:
“Taking the life of an unborn child is a sin against God and man. Roe, by contrast, is an offense against America’s democratic order, a renegade ruling utterly untethered from the text, logic, structure or history of the Constitution it purports to enforce. Supporters and opponents of abortion ought to find it equally indefensible.” (Christianity Today, October 2018, p. 28)
The legal architects of Roe v. Wade discovered a right to privacy as well as created an arbitrary determinate of personhood around the idea of fetal viability. The arbitrary line of fetal viability established in 1973 has been scientifically debunked as fetal viability is now seen much earlier in human development. Clearly, on scientific and moral grounds, the most compelling line of personhood is conception, not viability.
And even if there was a question as to when human personhood begins, with so much on the line, would we not be wise to err on the side of caution? Abortion on demand has provided a legalized mirage of a bankrupt situational morality. Let’s be clear, just because a human court deems something legal, does not mean it is morally right in God’s eyes. Clearly, this was the case for America’s dark history of racism where humans of African descent were legally deemed less than persons.
The Holy Scriptures remind us that every human person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic worth and value. The Bible points to God’s sovereign involvement in our lives even before we are born. In Psalm 139, we read David’s words of rapturous wonder,
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
The Bible’s advocacy of the unborn is anything but silent or clouded. Yet the moral confusion, obfuscation, and willful blindness of our cultural moment in regard to abortion is glaringly seen when, on the one hand the medical community pulls out all the medical stops to save a wanted premature baby, and on the other hand is performing a surgical abortion snuffing out the life of an unwanted baby.
In the midst of so much moral confusion, it is my prayer that we might, both as individuals and as a faith community, have moral clarity, compassion, and courage. So how should we respond to the ongoing holocaust of the unborn? How might we be Christlike advocates of the unborn?
- First, we need to have moral clarity and conviction that elective abortion on demand is wrong and unjust.
- Second, we need to pray for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens to change and for the end of the legalized slaughter of the unborn.
- Third, we need to look for ways we can care and support women who have had abortions, as well as those who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion recovery services, adoption services, and organizations like Advice and Aid need our prayerful and generous financial support.
- Fourth, we need to consider ways we can work through legal and political processes to change abortion laws and to seek the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
- Fifth, for some, advocacy of the unborn will mean lawful protest.
May I also encourage you to make it a priority to see the recently released movie, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. This movie is not easy to see, but it captures the barbaric horror of abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell, and I pray it serves to awaken a nation to the white-gloves holocaust that continues unabated.
With humility and hope, may we heed the timeless words of the prophet Micah, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”
“Every human being is involved in a desperate
attempt to narrate himself into a safe place.”
– Richard Powers.
I do not know who Richard Powers is or why he wrote this, but he is right about me. If I get to be in charge of things, especially my life, I will most certainly narrate my story away from conflict. Away from risk. Away from pain. Away from suffering. Toward comfort. Toward ease. Toward safety.
This creates a significant problem for me, especially if I want to have anything to do with God. Spend about two seconds reading the Bible or looking at the world, and it is painfully obvious: God is investing very little energy into narrating anyone’s story toward safety.
Think about the implications of this. God wants something for you, for me, other than safety. This means that all of the energy I am spending trying to get somewhere safe is a waste. God is narrating the direction of my life away from safety, away from comfort, and toward somewhere else.
Where? Where is God taking me? Where does God want to take you?
That question is why Jeremiah has become the prophet guiding me in my current life. God forced Jeremiah into a life he didn’t want; a hard life, a life of suffering and persecution. A life where the primary thing Jeremiah had to do was tell his city—including his friends and his family—that one day they were going to be destroyed. They had abandoned God, so God was abandoning them.
Not surprisingly, Jeremiah offers to quit the vision of life God has for him many times. Fortunately for us, God told Jeremiah to write down these moments, to record his life and his prayers so that we could listen in on what happens between Jeremiah and God when Jeremiah tries to grab control of his life and narrate his story into a place of safety.
My favorite moment is in Jeremiah 12:5. Jeremiah is ready to quit the hard, painful, difficult life God has put in front of him. So God asks Jeremiah a question:
So Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men,
What makes you think you can race against horses?
It’s such a God question.
Jeremiah is just trying to keep it together. His life is hard—people want to kill him. The people he lives with hate him. His hometown is embarrassed by him. And on top of all this, he knows the city he loves—Jerusalem—will be destroyed one day. War and violence are coming. Jeremiah is limping along, struggling to walk, to stay on his feet. And so God asks Jeremiah another simple question—one question that is simple, but which we rarely ask ourselves:
Jeremiah…what do you want? Do you want it easy? Do you want it safe? Do you just want to limp along in life, like everybody else? Do you want to embrace mediocrity?
Or do you want salvation? Do you want to run with horses?
Again, I come back to Richard Powers’ statement: “Every human being is involved in a desperate attempt to narrate himself into a safe place.” And all the human beings said, “Amen.”
That is my problem. Because salvation, in the Christian sense, is not about becoming a moderately improved human being. It is not about sinning slightly less than I used to sin. God calls us to something impossible. Not to struggle along, limping in life. Rather, He calls us to a life that runs with horses.
Most days, I don’t want that. When I think about the life ahead of me, a life filled with challenges I never asked for and don’t want, I want to quit. I want out.
Then I hear God’s question to Jeremiah turn to me. Tim, if you are ready to give up in this footrace with men, how are you ever going to live the life I have for you? How are you going to become the person I am going to make you into—a person who will run with horses?
Don’t you want to be someone who can run with horses? I really hope your life’s ambition is not to be like everybody else, to find a safe and easy life and never put anything on the line. I hope you want to grow and become the kind of person only God could make you.
The place to start is to understand where God is taking us, and it is not to safety. God is not creating in us a slightly improved human being. He is not making us slightly less judgmental or prideful. No, God has a far more significant vision in mind for us. C.S. Lewis laid out God’s vision for who we are to become:
God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature…
And apparently, a way God produces that in us—in me, in you, in Jeremiah—is by narrating our lives into danger. Into suffering. Into pain. It is in the places where we would never narrate our stories that we get our wings. It is in those places God teaches us to not just run a little faster but to begin to run with the speed of horses.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]