Bearded Gospel History: Josiah Henson

JOSIAH GRAPHIC (1)

by Aaron Alford

Born into slavery in 1789, Josiah Henson grew up witnessing human cruelty at its worst, and the fact that he grew up to become a truly remarkable Bearded Gospel Man is a miracle in itself.

When he was still a very young boy, little Josiah had an image etched in his memory which would stay with him the rest of his life: his father coming home close to death, his back mangled, blood streaming down his face. A slave owner had sexually assaulted Josiah’s mother, and when his father came to her defence, he was severely punished for laying hands on a white man. His ear was cut off and he received one hundred lashes, all of this done to the delight of a watching crowd.

Years later his father was sold, taken from his pleading family, and Josiah never saw him again. Such transactions were commonplace, and rarely was any thought given to keeping a family together. Husbands were routinely taken from their wives, mothers from their children. The threat of your family being separated at your owner’s convenience was constant. When Josiah was still a young man, his family was torn apart for a second time when his brothers and sisters were sold at an auction, one by one, as he and his horrified mother looked on. Josiah was sold, taken from his mother’s trembling hands. It was only after his mother desperately pleaded with her new owner that he eventually purchased little Josiah some time later, reuniting mother and son.

Josiah grew to be an invaluable asset to his new owner, showing great leadership and frugality as a foreman on the plantation. As horrific as the conditions of slavery were, Josiah, at first, refused to attempt an outright escape. He was proud of his position and achievements, which to some degree blinded him to his truly desperate situation. Besides, it was all he’d ever known. Ill-treated and despised as he was, longing for true freedom, he was convinced he could purchase it for himself rather than become a fugitive slave. Adding to this was the fear of what happened to fugitive slaves who were caught.

It was during this time that Josiah heard the gospel for the first time. John McKenny was a baker and part-time preacher who was known as an “upright, benevolent Christian” who despised slavery and who refused to use slave labour in any of his business dealings. One Sunday, Josiah heard this man preach, and was overwhelmed by the message given. Josiah later wrote of this event:

The divine character of Jesus Christ, his tender love for mankind, his forgiving spirit, his compassion for the outcast and despised, his cruel crucifixion and glorious ascension, were all depicted, and some of the points were dwelt on with great power; great, at least, to me, who then heard of these things for the first time in my life. Again and again did the preacher reiterate the words “for every man.” These glad tidings, this salvation, were not for the benefit of a select few only. They were for the slave as well as the master, the poor as well as the rich, for the persecuted, the distressed, the heavy-laden, the captive; for me among the rest, a poor, despised, abused creature, deemed of others fit for nothing but unrequited toil—but mental and bodily degradation. O, the blessedness and sweetness of feeling that I was loved!

Though still a slave, Josiah’s inner life was transformed. “Swallowed up in the beauty of the divine love, I loved my enemies, and prayed for them that did despitefully use and entreat me,” he later wrote. Led by this divine love, Josiah himself, while still a slave, became an ordained Methodist minister at the age of 22.

He wed a woman named Nancy, and they began a family. Still convinced that he could obtain his freedom through “legitimate” means, Josiah eventually struck a bargain with his owner to purchase his freedom for $450 dollars. Josiah had been able to put the first $350 down, and a contract was written that he would purchase his freedom when he had paid the last $100. But when he at last raised the hundred dollars, he realized a treachery. The legal note had been changed: a zero added to the 100. His freedom would now cost him not 450 dollars, but a thousand dollars (over $24,000 in 2015 rates).

It was then Josiah realized he would not obtain his freedom by any legal means. It would be years, however, before he and his family had an opportunity for escape. At last, as Josiah was facing being sold and separated from Nancy and his four children, he arranged an escape plan. Facing a harrowing journey that threatened his family with starvation and capture, Josiah and his family traveled from the Southern U.S., up through the Northern states, and eventually Canada.

In many stories of slavery and escape, this would be the happy ending. For Josiah Henson, however, it was just the beginning. Father Henson saw that many slaves who had escaped to Canada did not know how to begin a life of true freedom for themselves, and found themselves in living situations which were subservient and economically servile. So he began to teach trades and life skills to the community in which he found himself.

He would eventually return to the United States to assist other fugitive slaves in finding their freedom. He began a trade in high quality Canadian Black Walnut lumber, hiring and training many former slaves, and finding great success in exporting it to Great Britain. Throughout this time he continued to preach the gospel and work tirelessly as an abolitionist. In 1865, at the age of 76, he lived to see slavery abolished in the United States. Seventeen years later, at the age of 93 (an age he would never have reached had he remained a slave), Father Josiah Henson passed away peacefully in Dresdon, Ontario, Canada in 1883.

Father Henson is inspiring example of what it means to not only help people find freedom, but to equip people for freedom. So often we are content with an illusion of freedom rather than freedom itself, substituting grace for law and dynamic action and risk-taking for a comfortable (if constricting) status quo. Josiah settled for none of this. He risked his life not only for his own freedom but for the freedom of others. In his freedom he sacrificed what could have been a content and relatively easy life for the service of others. He traded the oppression of slavery for the freedom of servanthood. Thank-you, Father Henson, for your living witness to this truth. It is for this kind of freedom that Christ has set us free.

For Father Henson’s full story, I highly recommend reading his autobiography. It is a truly exciting tale, and contains fascinating insights into a remarkable time of history. “Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life / Truth Stranger Than Fiction” is available as a free ebook or pdf download from many sites, including this one: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/49129 

Bearded Gospel History: Saint Denis

by Aaron Alford

Denis

A good preacher can preach a sermon right off the top of his head. A great preacher can preach a sermon with the top of his head right off.

I would like to introduce you to just such a preacher: Saint Denis. This Bearded Gospel Man would hardly let something as inconsequential as decapitation keep him from preaching a message of repentance. (John the Baptist. What an amateur!)

Born in Italy some time in the third century AD, Denis was a missionary bishop. He was sent along with two companions (one a priest and the other a deacon) to evangelize Gaul (modern France), then part of the Roman Empire. The gospel had taken root there, and the Church of Gaul had even enjoyed a level of comfort and privilege for a time. But times changed with the rise of Emperor Decius. Decius saw himself as a reformer of the glorious Roman religion and its political system, and sought to completely exterminate Christianity from the Roman Empire. He wanted citizens faithful to gods and country. A Christian’s loyalties, however, were first and foremost to one God and his Kingdom. This was simply incompatible with Decius’s ideal of patriotism.

While the average Christian was given an opportunity to renounce their religion, priests and bishops were simply executed. This persecution, preceded as it was with a time of relative ease, took a great toll on the Church, and many recanted. The Church of Gaul was dwindling and suffering.

Along with his missionary brothers, Denis bravely went forth, eventually arriving in Paris. These friends powerfully communicated the Gospel in word and deed, and many came to believe in the Christ whom Denis preached. The love and fearlessness these friends displayed was bringing new life to the Church of Gaul.

But these conversions did not sit well with the local pagan priests, and soon Denis and his friends found themselves in the clutches of the Roman authorities. By some accounts the three were scourged, racked, and thrown to wild animals. Surviving these ordeals, still true to their King and his Kingdom, Denis and his friends at last faced the Roman sword.

One can only imagine what was going through Denis’s mind as he watched his friends meet their death. True as he was to the Kingdom he preached, he may well have been praying for the repentance and salvation of his executioners. Perhaps he was thinking, “This would be a perfect time for a sermon!” Odds are this was exactly what he was thinking, for it seems that mere decapitation could not keep him from preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Legend says that when the soldier’s blade separated his head from his body, Denis calmly picked up his head and started preaching. He then walked down from the hill of his execution, proclaiming a message of repentance to everyone who would listen. Needless to say, getting people’s attention was not a problem. Finally, after about a six-mile sermon, Denis set down his head and died.

Regardless of how historically precise this account of his martyrdom may be, there is no doubt Denis was a passionate preacher with a deep and abiding love for Christ. At a crucial time when the Church had suffered the double blows of comfort and persecution, Denis revived and reinvigorated the Church through his faithful proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. So here’s to Saint Denis, a Bearded Gospel Man who stands heads above the rest.

BGM Interview: Jared Brock

Jared Brock Standing

Jared Brock is the co-founder of Hope for the Sold and the author of a new book entitled A Year of Living Prayerfully – How a Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life. In it, he chronicles his 37,000-mile pilgrimage around the world. It’s available at livingprayerfully.com (where you can read the first two chapters for free). You can also get the ebook for just 2.99 from now until May 29th. And if that’s not enough, you can get the audiobook for free at Audible.

You describe your journey as a pilgrimage. In a few words, how is a pilgrimage different from a trip or vacation?

No mojitos were involved! Christians in the Middle Ages used to go on pilgrimages – they set aside the things of earth to focus on things above – but somehow we lost the tradition along the way. I wanted to experience a little piece of the Medieval times, I guess. Unlike a cruise or an all-inclusive, pilgrimage fuses travel with spiritual meaning.

What was your scariest moment in this year of living prayerfully? Or when did you find yourself praying hardest?

The scariest moment, hands down, was North Korea. There’s a tradition on New Year’s Day where everyone goes to the palace and bows before the bodies of the two dead leaders, which are stuffed in glass coffins. Long story short, I refused to bow, and instead whispered the Lord’s Prayer seven times in the heart of Pyongyang.

What was the funniest moment?

I saw this guy at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which is a place of huge reverence. He was leaning over a pulpit, with one hand on his head, and his head resting on the wall. He was praying fervently, getting louder and louder. I moved in for a closer look. His prayers reached a fever pitch. And then I realized that he wasn’t praying at all. He was screaming at someone on his cell phone.

Is there a moment from your journey that most stands out to you? A moment of joy or awe or peace?

I was granted an audience with Pope Francis and got to have lunch at the Vatican. That was pretty unforgettable. Twice during our meeting, he asked me to pray for him. I loved that: here is the spiritual leader for a billion people, and he recognizes his need for a power greater than himself. The Pope gave us rosaries as gifts, and they were stamped with his papal insignia: “Lowly, but chosen.” He’s entitled to a massive papal palace, but he lives in a spare room in the guest house and eats his meals in the cafeteria.

You spent time on an all-male island of Orthodox monks. What stood out to you most about that experience?

The lack of women! There hasn’t been a woman on Athos in over a millenia. They even forbid female animals (they import male-only animals.) But honestly, it was incredible to sleep in monastic cells in 1000-year-old monasteries. So much history and tradition, and deep spirituality. Getting up at 3AM for prayer was tough, and the food was terrible, but the memories are amazing.

In all your journeys, where did you see the most impressive beard?
(Aside from yours!)

Probably the monks on Athos, particularly at the Vatopedi monastery. They averaged maybe 8-9 inches apiece. That said, there’s a painting at Grand Lavra of this famous Athos hermit who – apparently – had a beard so long that he didn’t wear clothes. If I had to pick, I’d say that Sam Brinkley probably has the greatest beard in history.

In some of my own travels, having a beard has actually helped me connect with someone in a foreign culture. Was there a moment on your journey when you were most grateful and/or proud to have a beard?

I’ve also noticed that I get “randomly checked” at airports and borders at lot more, too. My favorite beard moment on the trip was in North Korea. I had just arrived, my passport had just been confiscated and I’d been assigned a “guide” (guard), and we were driving from the airport to Pyongyang. One of the female guides hovered over me and stared at my face. “Can I help you?” I asked. “Korean women don’t like men with beards,” she said. Nice to meet you, too, I thought. Apparently I was the ugliest man in North Korea.

What was the most unexpected thing you learned from your pilgrimage?

When I was as the Taize community in France, we would pray before breakfast, before lunch, and after supper. Each prayer time started with 8 minutes of quiet, to “maintain inner silence in all things so as to dwell with Christ.” Prayer used to be about me just asking for things. One-way communication is a speech or a monologue – prayer is a dialogue, a conversation, a “trading of hearts”, as Spurgeon put it. Prayer is a constant communion with Christ.

How can someone make prayer a bigger part of their life?

Some people think that prayer is a dish, but it’s actually a buffet. If you eat the same food every day, you’re going to get sick. If I just said the same few sentences to my wife every day, our marriage would fall apart. Prayer isn’t about religion, it really is about relationship. It’s interesting, I’ve been to the spot where the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Did He launch into the ten theological points of prayer? Not at all – He just started praying the Lord’s prayer. We learn to pray by pray. Start small- with a few minutes of silence each day. Pray Shalom – peace – over the news, and whenever you’re stressed. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything pray” – use worry as a reminder to talk with God. Like any relationship, it takes time to build, but it’s well worth the journey.

You can read all about Jared Brock’s round-the-world adventure in his new book, A Year of Living Prayerfully. Check out the book’s video trailer, and download the first to chapters for free, at LivingPrayerfully.com. 100% of author royalties are donated to missions and ministry, so don’t be shy about grabbing copies for friends and family.

On Being An Ass.

by Aaron Alford

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It can be frustrating to be yourself. Exhausting even. Especially if you’re me. I try my best to live with integrity, with purpose and with humility, but half the time I fail. (And yes, saying “half the time” is being generous.) I fail, and I feel unworthy and lost and ashamed. I’m stubborn and stupid and sometimes it seems like I’ll never get my S-H-High Tea together. In short, I feel like an ass. Can you relate to this feeling?

I don’t like being an ass, but I’m coming to terms with being an ass. Not that I want to remain an ass, but I’m learning that, thank God, being an ass doesn’t exclude me from God’s Kingdom. In fact, his Kingdom is full of dumb asses. And sometimes God can use a dumb ass to bring Jesus into the world. There’s a story of just such an ass in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus sought out a young colt (the foal of an ass):

…“Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it. If any one says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street; and they untied it. And those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said; and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their garments on it; and he sat upon it. And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” -Mark 11:2-10 (RSV)

It’s interesting to look at that account from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is usually the most succinct of the gospel storytellers (he charges like a race horse through his gospel account, telling his story in just sixteen chapters), but here he spends an unusual amount of time on a seemingly small incident that preceded the famous ‘Triumphal Entry’. It’s not just that the disciples obtained the colt (the foal of an ass) in an unusual way, possibly a kind of holy thievery even, but that Mark feels the need to spend so much time on the process. In other places where Jesus commands his disciples to do something, the gospel writers will simply state that they went and did it, but here Mark more or less repeats the whole thing. It’s almost like the dumb little ass is the star of the show!

So let’s look at this colt (the foal of an ass) for a minute. He’s still young, and he’s tied with a rope. He’s not in a stall, he’s simply tied up alone in the open street, possibly neglected and uncared for. In fact, he’s never even been sat upon. Asses are pretty much good for one thing in the context of the ancient world: carrying people or carrying stuff, and this one has never been used for either. Maybe he was considered too young, or too small, or too stubborn. Whatever the reasons, he’s standing there, useless. There he remains until a couple of disciples of Jesus show up, free him of his bonds, and bring him to the Lord. It’s there and then that, for the first time in his young life, the dumb little ass is used for his intended purpose: to carry Jesus.

There’s another significant story in the Bible about a dumb ass being used by God. It’s the story of Balaam (and his donkey, who was, literally, not so dumb):

 So Balaam rose in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. But God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the ass, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. -Numbers 22:21-31 (RSV)

My favourite quote about this story comes from one of my favourite artists, Rich Mullins:

“I had a professor one time… He said, ‘Class, you will forget almost everything I will teach you in here, so please remember this: that God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and He has been speaking through asses ever since. So, if God should choose to speak through you, you need not think too highly of yourself. And, if on meeting someone, right away you recognize what they are, listen to them anyway’.”

It is a noble thing indeed to be used by God, but, thankfully, it requires no nobility on our part. It’s the One we carry and the One we speak of who is noble. When we try to speak in the strength of our own eloquent words, we usually end up sounding like a braying jackass. When we shut up and let God speak through us, well, we can still sound like an ass, but at least by God’s grace people will understand us.

When that colt (the foal of an ass) went riding into the city, carrying Jesus himself, no one was looking at the little donkey. Their shouts of honour and praise were not for the dumb little beast of burden. But I bet when the disciples threw their cloaks on the ass’s back, he must have felt a certain glow of dignity, a humbling sort of pride, for carrying this Most Excellent passenger. The little colt (the foal of an ass) had never before been used for his intended purpose, and now here he was, carrying the King of Kings.

So it is with us. We find our purpose and our dignity when we are what we are meant to be: beasts of burden, carrying Jesus, being a servant.

So don’t worry about being an ass. Jesus knows what you are, and he loves you anyway. He knows you’re stubborn. He knows you’re kind of ugly. He knows what you sound like when you try to speak for yourself. But he’s chosen you. He sent his disciples to you to set you free of the ropes that bound you. He brought you to himself, and he clothed you with dignity. His burden is light, and it is his great pleasure to use an ass like you to carry him into the world.

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Rich Mullins talks about asses:

What you sound like when you think you’re being eloquent:

Much of this post was inspired by/plagiarized from a blog entry I happened to stumble on here, quoting a sermon by Fabio Rosini: http://oursundaygospel.blogspot.com/2015/03/march-29-th-2015.html

Hipster Hate and the Bearded Man

by Aaron Alforda6f965536fdee4911834c31293bf2691

Ah, the Hipster. You are so much cooler than the rest of us. How we love to hate thee.

You love old things in a way that seems to be a finger in the air to modernity, and you have an iPhone 6 1/2.

You purchase your western shirt at the thrift store for five dollars, and the plain white v-neck underneath it at Pretentious & Co. for 50.

You smoke American Spirit cigarettes because they’re all natural, destroying your lungs with no chemicals added.

You speak passionately about societal issues without lifting a finger to solve anything.

You feel superior to everyone around you, and it shows.

And, perhaps worst of all, you wear your facial hair ironically.

The Bearded Man finds this offence most egregious, because he does not want to be perceived as one of “them”. The Bearded Man should wear the beard simply because he likes it. But the Hipster, oh the Hipster! You know that moustache looks strange on you, and you know that we know it looks strange on you, which is why you call it “ironic”. But we both also know that you kind of think it actually looks cool, in a non-ironic sort of way. It hearkens back to the time of gentlemen, but now you’ve added a self-referential awareness that no gentleman would have had in the first place. It’s all so meta it’s just exhausting.

You are pretentious and self-righteous. You are the very embodiment of everything we despise. For all of these reasons and for so many more, we are allowed to hate you. And boy howdy does it feel good to hate you.

But there’s a catch, a catch that makes us hate the Hipster all the more: Hipsters hate Hipsters!

I’m definitely not the first person to write about this phenomenon, but it would seem that, hated as the Hipster is, he is everywhere and he is nowhere. I’m pretty sure I know one when I see one, but no one self-identifies as one. If no one claims to be a hipster, then what exactly is a Hipster?

A while ago I was in the midst of a conversation about said Hipsters, light-heartedly talking about what I hate about them. I was taken aback when my friend said, “But aren’t you a Hipster?”

I was a little offended, but the evidence was there: I like old-timey styles. I wear vests. I like wearing suspenders. Sometimes I wax my moustache into a handlebar. I’ve even worn a bow tie a time or two (though my beard length makes that somewhat pointless).

“What makes you not a Hipster?” my friend asked.

I’d always thought I was styling myself after a kind of bearded CS Lewis, but suddenly I was confronted with the truth: I was a Hipster! My defence was I didn’t love these things ironically, as “they” do, but I didn’t really have an answer beyond that. My only real justification was I shop at thrift stores not because it’s cool, but because I’m actually poor.

Speaking of thrift stores, it was two days later at the local Salvation Army when a man walked up to me and said in a thick, English-As-A-Second-Language accent I couldn’t quite locate, “Escuse me, I like you style. You look bery, um, cool. Like, um, don’t be offended, um, what is the word? Hipster?”

I smiled and sighed and sunk my bearded chin into my chest. There it was. Proof positive, from his strangely accented mouth to my own ears. I was a Hipster.

“Thanks,” I said, my pride getting a bit stuck in my throat as I tried to swallow it.

This revelation got me doing some self-evaluation. What is it that I hate in the Hipster? Pretentiousness? Hypocrisy? Their sense of superior coolness? Well, let’s see.

Pretentiousness. That’s the one where you want people to be more impressed with you than they should, when you try to put forth an image that gives people the impression that you are smarter, more cultured, more important or, at the very least, cooler than you really are. Yep. Gotta admit I have that one.

What about hypocrisy? Yes, pretty sure I’ve got that one well covered, too. I’m sure I have it by the very fact that I think I don’t. First rule of Hypocrite Club? Don’t admit you’re a hypocrite!

Feeling superior? Lordy, Lordy. Never do I feel so superior than when I’m standing next to one of “those” people. Stupid Hipsters.

If you can relate to any of this, then you guessed it: you might be a Hipster, too. Just name any aspect of the hated Hipster, or any group of people you find distasteful for that matter, and if you take off your sunglasses and stare deep into their reflective lenses long enough, you will have to admit to finding it in yourself. Let he who is without pretension cast the first stone.

Biker Dude who hates Hipsters: You are a Hipster.

Redneck-and-Proud Dude who hates Hipsters: You are so very a Hipster.

Guy Who Runs a Website About Facial Hair: You’re so Hipster it hurts.

It seems there has always been someone in society we love to hate. Before the Hipster, there was the Yuppie. Before the Yuppie, the Hippie. Before the Hippie, the Beatnik. And before the Beatnik… the Hipster. It all comes full circle. I suppose it doesn’t take too much digging to figure out why there’s always somebody to look down on. I don’t have to deal with my own flaws if I think that someone else’s are worse than mine. What was it That Guy said about splinters and logs?

Speaking of That Guy, he did exactly the opposite of what we are so prone to do. Rather than labelling people and finding reasons to despise them, he saw their individual humanity and loved them. More than that, he happily accepted the derogatory labels others put on him: Drunkard. Glutton. Sinner. He let himself be hated to the point of accepting death.

So, it would seem that the moment we hate someone, or feel disgusted by a certain cultural group, or merely look down on someone, that is the moment they look exactly like Jesus. Conversely, it’s only when we can admit our own hypocrisies and failings that we can be delivered from them.

Does this mean we can never have a laugh at how ridiculous the Hipster can be? Perhaps not, as long as we have the humility to admit we’re laughing at ourselves. Because, Lord, help us, we’re all Hipsters in need of a Saviour.

The Gospel Life: A Path to a Scary Place (why you might not want to follow Jesus)

by Aaron Alford

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Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was eager to get his feet wet in missionary work. He was passionate and knowledgeable about what he was getting into, and eager to really do the work of a missionary. He was not interested in the kind of “missions as tourism” trip that is becoming more prevalent in the Church these days. He wanted to go where there was real need, and real darkness, with a mind to pursuing missions as a long-term vocation.

His parents, however, who are Christians themselves, were not so excited at the prospect. When he told them of his dreams of missionary work, he was met with baffled confusion.

“Why would you want to go somewhere dangerous?” they said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” was his response.

I would like to be gracious with his parents. No parents want to see their child, even their adult child, in danger, but their response really got me thinking. It seemed to me that their response was indicative of a common attitude in North American Christianity, one that I can’t say I’m immune from myself, and that is the desire to stay safe. But as I look more closely at that desire, I realize it’s completely incompatible with the Christian faith.

Really, if the goal of your life is to remain safe and secure, why would you ever choose Christianity as your religion? Why would you put your faith in a God who offered himself to torture and crucifixion? Especially when that God says, “Take up your cross and follow me”? Why be part of a movement which is, arguably, most effectively spread through the martyrdom of its adherents?

I mean, there are plenty of other religions of which you could be part, should you desire to live a safe life. Buddhism is pretty rad. They’re generally pretty zen. There’s plenty of self-improvement, and a strong inclination toward letting go of the worst aspects of yourself. You don’t even have to be a full-on Buddhist. I know people who, though they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhists, follow some of the principles of Buddhism, and they’re great people. People I want to learn from, even. There are probably plenty of Christians who would make excellent Buddhists.

I’m no expert in world religions, but I’m pretty sure Sikhism doesn’t involve following a god to his violent death. They’re monotheistic, they have a strong moral code, with an emphasis on selflessness and hospitality. They even practice baptism. All of that, and they have amazing food! Definitely a plus on the food side, if you’re a fan of curry.

There’s also Islam. If you love Jesus, you get to keep him in this one. You even get to keep the idea that Jesus will return someday. Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet, they just don’t believe he was actually crucified. Most Muslims believe he was taken up to heaven before the crucifixion, so that he would not have to suffer. Consequently, it might be easier to follow a Jesus who didn’t actually suffer when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Perhaps the ultimate death-free religion is one that barely qualifies as an actual religion at all. This one’s founder didn’t have to meditate for hours or endure undue hardship. Instead he wrote science fiction pulp novels and died in secrecy while living on a big ranch in Southern California. Before that, he spent several years sailing around the world on his private yacht. So maybe Scientology might be a better fit for you. They too have a strong focus on self-improvement and feeling good, so that’s nice. (I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re poor, however. All that self-improvement can cost a lot of money!)

So if you just want self-improvement but aren’t really into suffering or being in scary places, why on earth would you be a Christian? Especially when you have all these other options? With that in mind, I would urge you, if you’re just not that into self-sacrifice unto death, or suffering in general, to please consider another religion. At the very least, please feel free to stop attending Church services and instead sign up for an enrichment class at your local community college. Really.

Even Jesus himself would beg you to reconsider following him. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter Nine, he says:

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Later, in chapter fourteen, he is being followed by a great many people, and it seems he decides to thin the herd:

“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.’”

Christ himself would urge you to really give all of this serious consideration before committing to following him. He would ask you to make sure you get a good look at the big picture before you put that “NOTW” bumper sticker on your car.

Because if you’re not going to follow Jesus to the cross, then guess what: You’re not following Jesus at all. You may possibly be on the path he walked, but you’re sitting in the middle of it, having a nice little picnic, and probably getting in the way of the more serious hikers.

If your Christianity does not include the option of pain, of actively pursuing self-sacrifice, if it does not include a mandate to go into dark and dangerous places, then your Christianity is devoid of Christ himself, and you should probably consider aligning yourself with a more comfortable belief system. To paraphrase Jesus: Don’t take up residence in a house you’re not going to finish building.

If, however, you would like to be swallowed up into an infinite, wildly dangerous Love, then follow the One who is not safe, but who is Very Good. Follow the One who will demand absolutely everything from you, the One who will call you to suffering and death. Follow the One who will set your soul ablaze with an all-consuming fire, with a Love which will indeed burn, burn, burn. Follow the One who will lead you to lay down your life for the lowest of the low. Follow him when he leads you into suffering. Follow him when he leads you to share in the pain of your neighbour. Follow him into death. Because here’s the other part of suffering: The joy you will experience will be much greater than, but directly linked to, the amount of sorrow you let in. That’s true not just for the next life, but for the one you’re living now. So take up your cross, and follow him not just to death but also to resurrection. Follow him into unspeakable joy.

Wherever he leads you, following Jesus is always a path to a scary place. Why would you want to follow a God so dangerous as this? Indeed, why wouldn’t you?

The Gospel Life: A Holy Family

by Aaron Alford

AQM-MINI-W

“A Quiet Moment”, by Timothy Schmalz

Recently I heard a message that made me think of something I’ve always taken for granted. Christians accept that Jesus, as the Son of God, was incarnate of the flesh and born of Mary as a human being. But how much thought have we given to the life he chose to lead after his birth and before his public ministry?

As we look through the Old Testament, we see many prefigurements and foreshadows of the miraculous birth of Christ. In the book of Judges, an angel appears to a barren woman and proclaims to her, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son.” Her child, Samson, is dedicated to God even before his birth, and is raised according to the vows of a Nazarite.

Hannah was also thought to be barren when she prayed for the gift of a son. God heard her prayer, and she gave birth to Samuel. In gratitude for such a miraculous birth, Hannah gave her child to the Lord’s service, and Samuel, who would become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, grew up in the Temple.

In the New Testament we see John the Baptist, another child of remarkable beginnings, whose mother Elizabeth was well past the age of conceiving. He too is dedicated to God, and lives a life quite apart from the world. Most scholars agree that he would have been part of the desert monastic community of the Essenes.

Yet Christ himself, the most miraculous of all miraculous births, dedicated to God though he was, did not grow up in the Temple, nor did he take the vows of a Nazarite or live a life of monastic asceticism. As far as we know he did not spend any significant time as part of a community such as the Essenes. It certainly would have been a valid choice for him to be set apart in such a way, and perhaps would even have been an asset to the ministry he would begin later in life.

But this was not the path he chose for himself. Instead he lived most of his life in complete averageness in the unremarkable town of Nazareth. For thirty years (give or take), he lived a quiet life among family and friends who knew him simply as Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter.

Why?

Of course we cannot know every reason, but I believe one reason is that he came to show us just how holy and beautiful a thing a family is. Christ was not made holy by being separated from a family, but instead made the family itself holy by becoming part of it.

Not only did he become part of a family, but in his infinite humility he subjected himself to all that being a son entails. He learned to walk by holding Joseph’s pinky finger and wobbling toward his mother. He learned to talk from staring into his mother’s eyes and listening to the strange sounds coming out of her smiling mouth. Perhaps he learned patience by watching his father at work, carefully crafting his wooden creations, smoothing out each line and correcting each corner. Perhaps he learned grace by watching his mother bring a warm meal to the family down the street who had fallen on difficult times. Joseph was not a priest, and Mary was not a prophetess, but Jesus’s first earthly experience of love came in the embrace of Joseph and Mary. Perhaps he learned to love, just as he learned to walk and talk, by watching the way Joseph and Mary gave of themselves to one another.

“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” -Luke 2:51,52

In the life he chose to live, in his obedience to his earthly parents, Jesus assures us of the sacred calling that being a mother, a father, and even a child is. Mary too, in pondering “all these things in her heart” points to the high calling of parenthood.

There are many exceptional people and Christian saints who overcame less-than-perfect and even horrible childhood and family situations to become great examples of love and faith, but there are many more who were able to become exactly who God intended them to be because of the families in which God placed them. It’s in a family where we learn virtues such as sound morals and Christian doctrine, and perhaps these are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about what we want to teach our children. The most important thing, however, the first and best among anything else a child can learn, is love, for love is the source of all that is holy. Not only must we teach children honour and courage, but we also have to live out grace and humility before their watching eyes. When Joseph fell short and asked his wife’s forgiveness for an unkind word, little Jesus was watching. It is in seeing this day-to-day vocation to love —the calling of every family— that children remember the delectable scent of holiness. They will remember it just as warmly as your home made cookies, and they will want to live in it. That kind of love can make a saint out of anyone. So what saint may you be raising?

As a parent, you have been given the highest and holiest of callings: to teach another human being to love. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t back down from the task. God himself has assured us not only of the sacredness of the vocation, but his faithfulness to meet us there. He will give you the grace to live it, if you have the humility to accept it. No family is perfect, but love can make any family a Holy Family.