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?

Man Enough to be a Mom.

by Aaron Alford

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Painting: Henry Ossawa Tanner – The Annunciation.

 

The angel Gabriel stands before a teenage girl named Mary. He has just announced to her the most important news in the history of mankind. A Saviour is to be born, the very Son of God, and she has been chosen to be his mother. All of salvation history, from Adam through to Malachi, has come to this point. God has made a people for himself, led them like a shepherd, slowly revealing to them his true character, making them to be a light to the world. He has sent them judges and kings and prophets, all in the hope of readying them for his ultimate plan of salvation from sin and death: the gift of his own Son, the Saviour of the world, the eternally begotten Word who shall live, suffer and die as one of them, and who will at last be raised from the dead into glorious life.

But for now, the angel stands before a peasant girl, and awaits her reply. 

Not even this angel who lives eternally in the presence of the Almighty can know what will happen if the girl says No. He simply hopes with his whole being she says Yes. Many kings and prophets who have gone before said No to the call of God, or at the very least tried to run from it. Eve herself, graced as she was to walk with God in the Garden, chose selfishness.

Though she’s been graced with a life that has prepared her for this moment, there’s still no reason she couldn’t refuse. She, as much as any before her, has a free will, to choose the good or not, and now everything hinges on her answer. The angel knows all of this, but of course you couldn’t tell by the look on his face. He simply smiles, and waits for her answer.

She takes a breath, holding everything the angel has told her in her heart. Finally, she speaks.

“Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done unto me as you have said.”

And every angel in heaven breathes a sigh of relief, and a cry of jubilation.

This, obviously, is simply my imaginative conjecture on what happened in that moment so long ago, but the truth remains that at one point in history, God’s plan of salvation came down to the Yes or No of one girl. I’m sure we could have an interesting debate about what God might have done if she had said, “No, thanks!” but that’s not the point I want to make here. 

In a culture that has a particularly difficult time sorting out what it means to be a man or a woman, where our ideas of fatherhood and motherhood have been tainted by our own experiences of our own imperfect moms and dads, it can be a controversial and misunderstood thing to refer to God as “Father” or even as “He”. God, of course, is beyond our understanding of male and female. Indeed, the ideas of male and female originate from God himself, so both characteristics are fully and completely within his nature.

But for some reason, God chose to reveal himself in terms of a Father. So what does that mean for us? If God has chosen to identify as “male”, at least in terms of his fathering actions and attitude, could it be that we as humans are meant to identify as female? 

Sex, as it is meant to be expressed in marriage, is a man and woman embracing in a mutual act of love and self-giving. A husband offers himself to his beloved, and new life is created and born into the world through the loving consent of a mother. If God has ordained this as the most basic method of the continuation of life on earth, there may be something here we should pay attention to in terms of our spiritual lives and our relationship with God the Father.

Gentleman, we need to embrace our feminine side, because the world is in desperate need of some bearded moms!

I’m sure we’ve all had a “church chuckle” about being called the Bride of Christ, but it may be time to give a little more thought to this feminine aspect of our relationship with God. What does it mean to think of our spiritual lives in terms of the actions of a wife and mother? 

Mary said Yes to the Holy Spirit, who planted in her the Word of God. This Word, after nine months of quiet nurturing, was born into the world for the salvation of humankind. Like little Mary, we must be open to the work of the Holy Spirit. In every moment, we are in some sense standing before the angel Gabriel, and being given a chance to let the Lord plant in us the seed of his Word, to receive him in an act of self-giving love. And we are free to accept or reject his advances.

But first, of course, we need to be quiet enough to hear that angel’s greeting in the first place. We need to set aside our own agendas and shut up long enough for the Gabriel in our lives to get a word in edgewise! We must create spaces for intimacy. To quietly ponder, as Mary did, what is happening around us and what God may be doing. Then we need to embrace the simplicity and courage with which humble Mary received God’s Word to her, listening and responding with a humble “Yes”. Then, if we nurture the Word which the Spirit plants, in the fullness of time God will bring that Word into the world through us. We will see the fruit of the Father’s work in our lives and in the world around us.

What an awesome invitation, and what a staggering responsibility! God himself, in his vast humility, awaits our humble reply. Such a reply requires absolute trust, a determination of heart to trust in the Father’s providence and character, and a willingness to let go of our desire to control or predict the outcome. After all, Mary could never have predicted that she would give birth to her son while surrounded by cattle, but even then she trusted in God’s character and will. She was a model of courage and faithfulness we as men would do well to imitate.

So what is your answer? Will you face the Father with fear, or faith? Will you run like Jonah, or show the simple trust of Mary? More than that, can you receive this word with the love and care of a wife and mother? Will you patiently nurture that which God has planted, without rushing towards an early delivery? Can you say right along with the mother of Our Lord, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done unto me as you have said.”

Are you man enough to be a mom?

 

Beards In Action: Bringing It Home

During our recent ‘Beards In Action’ outreach experience, I had the pleasure of getting to know my new friend Jake. He came down from Portland, Oregon to serve with me and my fellow YWAM worker Chris Whitler, along with other workers and volunteers here in Modesto, California. We spent a lot of time time ministering to and building friendships with the local street community in some of our regular places of ministry, including  South Ninth Street. South Ninth Street is an area just outside of the city limits where there are several  low-income, residential motels. Here there are people dealing with a variety of issues, including addiction, prostitution, and all kinds of hurts and hang-ups. With Jake and our other official Beards In Action recruit, Josh Seehorn, we shared meals with people on the street, served coffee, and created spaces where we could sit with people and share our lives. As one of the hosts of this trip, I have to say how awesome it was to see our Beards In Action volunteers dive in and be a blessing to people. The following is a recap and reflection on that week from Jake.

-Aaron (aka ‘The Proprietor’)

 

 by Jacob Johnson

During the beards in action week, I had the pleasure of getting to know some awesome bearded men, and serve alongside them. It was a great time to see ministry firsthand and learn different ways of engaging with people.

I had some great experiences seeing folks like Evelyn light up every time she saw Chris and Aaron. I was able to see the positive impact that these guys have on her and many others lives. Another great experience was learning the story of Bob – he was a 9th street resident at one point, and seeing the growth he has experienced was really special. The pieces of love, patience and God’s grace that Aaron exhibited by being a support and friend with him during difficult times was also an amazing testimony.

These stories of Christ’s work in people’s lives are powerful and ones I hope you can experience in some form. While these significantly shaped my experience, I was also able to form a clearer idea of what it means to be a Bearded Gospel Man (and that I want to be one!), and how I want to incorporate that into my life in Portland, not just during a weeklong Beards in Action trip.

I was struck by watching others during the week and how easy it is to love people. With a little bit of intentionality, striking up a conversation with a complete stranger and engaging with them can be a powerful ministry (if you have a beard, chances are you are friendly!). I have incorporated this into my life at the gym, a place I frequent but haven’t previously used to build relationships. I got to meet Mike the other day, because he has a beard and is awesome. We could be friends for no other reason than being the only two bearded dudes in the joint! Or the basketball guys I have gotten to know, who have affectionately started calling me “Beardsie” and “Fear the Beard” because of my mad basketball skills. (I wish…but probably because I have learned their names and am encouraging when they make their jumpers, even though I keep missing mine! Hey, I am a “defensive specialist” –  but I digress.)

Another aspect of being a Bearded Gospel Man looks like consistency. During the Beards In Action week, I learned the powerful ministry that can come with consistency. I was able to see the ministry of serving coffee on a weekly basis and the opportunities it creates for relationship building. I learned that relationship building takes time, but being intentional and consistent are small steps of kingdom building. That mentality also helps me downplay the idea that I need to do something grand, which can keep me from doing anything. A small conversation could be all that is needed.

It was a great trip and I hope this recap has been an encouragement about living out your Bearded Gospel Man-ness. If you need more encouragement – come next year! I hope to see you and your beard there.

The First Day.

by Aaron Alford

(photo: The Garden Tomb, Israel)

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No light could be seen from inside the cave. The cold air held the scent of rock and moss and the lingering odour of bitter herbs. The silence was palpable, hovering in the tomb like the Spirit on the face of the deep.

A body lay on the stone shelf, its unnatural stillness betraying any illusion of sleep. For all the beautifying shrouds so carefully wrapped around it, and the precious blossoms placed upon the swaddling cloths, this was a corpse. His friends had done their best to dress the wounds, in some unreasoning and unspoken hope that even in death these wounds might heal, but the reality remained, and they were gruesome. He looked as though he had been mauled to death, and the truth was not far from it. It had taken hours to dress his wounds, long enough for tears to give way to silence and the quiet business at hand. Finally, his mother had wiped the blood from his face. She caressed his pallid brow, placed the last shroud upon his head, and kissed him through the veil.

There was evening and there was morning, and evening and morning. The third day.

The cold air of night lingered inside the tomb, and the ground was cool to the touch. All was still, but for the movement of a beetle, and so silent that its footsteps could be heard as it skittered across the wall.

Then in that silence, a breath.

Light filled the cave like lightning, and for a moment cast a deep, black shadow beneath the feet of the beetle.

The lungs which had sat silent since Friday resumed their interrupted rhythm of rising and falling. The man sat up on one elbow as the white cloths fell gently from his body. He took a deep draught of crisp, cold air, and smiled. The scent of the cave delighted him, especially the scent of myrrh emanating from his burial shroud. He stood, and he seemed to be clothed in robes made of light itself. He turned and looked at the burial cloths. He smiled again, noticing the faint imprint his form and that flash of light had left on them. The shrouds were wrinkled from the absence of his body, and he remembered something his mother had told him about making his bed. He folded them neatly and placed them on the stone shelf. The blossoms which had adorned the edges he arranged in an impromptu bouquet. The beetle came to inspect them. He held out his finger and the bug crawled on, and he surveyed the beetle as the beetle surveyed his scars. The marks, which had seemed so horrible only an hour before, practically glowed now with beauty.

He set the beetle back down, turned to the sealed mouth of the cave, and walked through it.

His face welcomed the sun, and his eyes took in every bright colour of the garden. Each leaf seemed to be the purest idea of the colour green. Each flowering blossom’s morning dew shone with the glow of a newborn. Even the ground beneath his feet seemed to blush with the ruddy warmth of a new mother. The world was alive, re-created, resurrected.

And as he walked from the tomb, in the cool of the morning, the stone rolled back from the crevice of its own accord, and the sun stole into the cave like the dawn of the first day of creation. And he looked, and saw that it was very good.