Living While Dead

Our church regularly performs Infant Dedication, a ceremony in which the parents dedicate themselves publicly to raise their child as a Christian and the congregation dedicates itself to supporting the parents in this holy work. Parents choose a special verse for their child, one intended to guide them in the ways of Christ through their lives. Psalm 23:1, Jeremiah 29:11, John 3:16, and Philippians 4:13 are popular.

This is a difficult time for our family, with me retiring from active duty in the US Army and us relocating to a new state. Our friends face conflict; one father berating himself for being chronically impatient with his children and another for spending so little time with his. Several couples have become empty nesters in the past few years, and miss their children painfully. Many friends have reached middle age, doubt that their current work is meaningful, and don’t know what to do in the second half of their career. Perhaps a long forgotten baby dedication verse would give us all hope…and peace.

We all struggle with who we are, and with finding our place in the world. A young lady in my employ yesterday told me that she doesn’t need validation, but of course she does; we all do. Another explains and defends herself with almost every other phrase. Many people are emotionally crushed by the slightest insult, and others react angrily to the smallest correction. Relationships rupture over words spoken harshly or misunderstood. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are independent, and that we want to be. Too often we go through life alone.

The fires of our ambition consume our youth, our marriage, and our children’s most tender years, leaving us sitting alone in dark rooms with the walls covered in long forgotten accolades. The frost of our greed freezes our compassion into the ice of indifference, leaving us using people to get things rather than using things to bless people.  My uncle is selling the family business, one which has lasted for generations. He said that over the years he has spent a lot of time building it; too much time.

I do not know if I was ever formally dedicated as a baby, and certainly don’t know the verse if I was. If I could go back in time and select my own Infant Dedication verse, it would be Galatians 2:20.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

This verse describes a progression; first Paul is crucified with Christ, then he is raised with Christ to live the life of Christ on this earth. In light of this truth, how should Christians live?

The Dead have no future, but Christ entrusts His future into the hands of the Father

When we are crucified with Christ, we give up all of our hopes and dreams for the future. We walk with Him, learning to follow His lead, and eventually He begins to reveal our future to us. He never gives us the whole picture at once, but divulges a little bit at a time, just enough for us to take the next step. God’s word is a lamp to us (Psalm 119:105), but ancient lamps are not like modern flashlights; they only illuminate a few feet ahead. With each step forward in faith, we see the next step.

What we find is that the God who made us gives us a better future than we had hoped for, but shorn of the poor priorities and sinful desires. If we delight in Him, He will give us the desires of our heart (Psalms 37:4). The Lord will not honor selfishness and ingratitude, but His plans will be full of excitement, fellowship, work, and love. We will suffer, but we will prevail. God gives us a future far more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. Fully following Jesus is the greatest adventure.

The Dead don’t struggle with who they are, but Christ knows who He is, the Son of God.

There are two reasons for Christians not to struggle with our identity; we are dead to sin and self, and we are sons of God. Charles Spurgeon famously said,

“Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.[1]

The natural man is morally impoverished; unwilling to seek God and unable to be righteous (Romans 3:10-11). Every part of the moral nature of unregenerate man is corrupt. Never believe that man is inherently good; always understand that he is evil. Our disease is so bad that death to sin and self is the only cure, and so we are crucified with Christ. If we are dead to ourselves, why do we struggle with our identity? Does a corpse struggle with who he is? Do the dead try to make themselves look good to those around?

When we are raised with Christ, we receive His Spirit. Whatever goodness we think we have is not the point; Jesus’ goodness is what matters. The Son was morally perfect. His validation derived from the promises of Scripture and from the love of the Father and Holy Spirit, and our validation comes from the same place. We love others as Jesus loved them, but as His trust was not in men, neither is ours. Jesus’ love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, and His self-control become ours (Galatians 5:22-23).

Despite the Spirit of Christ in us, we continue to sin, both by both omission and commission. Paul describes this pitiful state in Romans 7; sin is so organic to us that we cannot shake it on this side of heaven. Nevertheless, since we are crucified with Christ, the hold of sin on our hearts weakens and one day we will be forever free. We need not struggle with our identity because we gain His identity. Day by day Jesus makes us more like Him (Philippians 2:12).

Dead men don’t have ambition, and Christ’s only ambition is the will of the Father

Dead men no longer want the praise of men; they no longer wish to be in the history books. Napoleon said that “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever”, and that is the mantra of modern man. If there is no eternal life, earthly fame is indeed fleeting, but it is also meaningless. Glory has no benefit over obscurity if the end of both is the grave. If there is eternal life, goodness and not fame is what matters. And we know that there is eternal life.

Our dreams of personal glory must die when we are crucified with Christ. They must be replaced with dreams of God’s glory and obedience to Him. Our desperate striving to be better than everyone else, or at least feel ourselves equal to everyone else, give way to a burning desire to discover how good God is, and to share Him with others. The Creator is the ground of all reality; the root from which all else grows. The universe and everything in it are utterly dependent upon Him. All beauty, power, and goodness in the cosmos emanate directly from the Lord. He is worthy of an eternity of praise and a thousand lifetimes of study. The ambition of the Christian is to become like Him.

During His earthly walk, Christ’s ambition was to perfectly follow the Father, thinking, saying, and doing everything that He asked so that the Father would be glorified. The Christian has the same ambition. Some people will accomplish this as kings and presidents, others as cab drivers and secretaries, and still others as soldiers and doctors. Most people will glorify God as moms and dads. No role is better than any other; obedience is what counts. The lies that money, fame, and power are proper goals, that we should always be striving for more, and that one man can be better than another sucks days from our lives and life from our days.

Ultimately, God gives His people something far better than history books, in which other men decide the measure of each life, and which few people read. He gives us eternal life. In eternity, people won’t need to read about us; we can tell them our story ourselves.

Dead men don’t need stuff, and Christ only had the stuff that He needed to accomplish His mission

“You can’t take it with you”, “You are born with nothing; you die with nothing”, “naked you came from your mother’s womb and naked you shall return (Job 1:21)” are only three of the many ways of saying that in eternity, possessions don’t matter. Yet we buy more and more, filling our homes and emptying our wallets in the vain pursuit of happiness from things. When our homes overflow, we rent storage units and buy bigger houses for furniture, clothes, toys, computers, and hundreds of other things that we rarely use. Life is made of time, yet we spend time paying for our stuff, cleaning our stuff, moving our stuff, and storing our stuff. We break relationships when people misuse our stuff, and feel superior to others because we have more stuff. We are no different than the rich fool; one day while we are building bigger barns, our souls will be required of us (Luke 12:16-20). We think that we own our stuff, but in truth, our stuff owns us.

To crucified with Christ is to lose all of your stuff, and to be raised with Him is to live free from slavery to possessions. Like all material beings, Jesus needed material things to live on earth. But He only had what He truly needed to accomplish His Father’s mission. Jesus spent time with people, not things. To be crucified with Christ is to do the same.

Are you moving to a new location? Don’t sell stuff; give it away. Are you shopping for something new to make you feel better? Leave the mall and take a walk in a park instead. Did water damage ruin the stuff in a storage unit that you haven’t opened in years? Thank God for freeing you from those possessions.

Conclusion

The Lord is our Shepherd, God has wonderful plans for us, God loves us, and we can do all things through Christ. All those verses contain beautiful promises suitable to start a young life. But Christians young and old are also crucified with Christ, and He is living His life in us. If we understand these truths; if we live while dead, we will be more like Him forever. That is the most beautiful promise of all.

[1] David Dancing Before the Ark Because of His Election, http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2031.php

A Witness Carol

In his famous work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly businessman who learned the true meaning of Christmas. Three important characters in the transformation of Scrooge from sinner to saint were the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future.

The book of Hebrews is written by a Jewish believer to several Jewish attendees at a Christian church in the first century, some of whom followed Jesus and others who probably did not. Due to increasing persecution, the Jews in this church seemed to be wavering in their commitment to the Lord. The purpose was to encourage these people to renew their Christian commitment. In Hebrews 11 the writer reminded his readers of some of the greatest men and women in Hebrew history, noting that they completed their life-race in service to God, and reassuring his audience that they would as well. Hebrews 12 remarked that these heroes of old form a great crowd of witnesses which would help contemporary saints stay faithful to the Lord. The focus of the race is Jesus Christ, the length is our life, and the plan is to finish together.

What was true in the first century Roman Empire is true today; Christians are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses helping them to complete their race. I was driving north on 395 towards DC a few weeks ago and was thinking about our church. There is good teaching, but people need more than knowledge about living for Jesus, they need power. Hebrews 11 and 12 discuss the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds each believer as he walks along the journey of life. This cloud gives believers power to live for Jesus. Our cloud of witnesses gives us power through:

  1. teaching and example
  2. resources in the physical world
  3. encouragement
  4. fellowship
  5. accountability
  6. bearing one another’s burdens

Many people are in our cloud of witnesses, and we are in the cloud of witnesses for many others. There are three types of witnesses in our cloud, Witnesses Past (those leave the world before we enter it), Witnesses Present (those who are in the world at least partly in the same time that we are), and Witnesses Future (those who enter the world after we leave it). There is one other category, Witnesses to Others, because while others may be witnesses past, present or future to us, we are the same to them. We need to prayerfully consider how we serve those roles in the lives of those around us.

Witnesses Past

Too often we read the Bible only from our own perspective, as 21st century AD Westerners looking over the shoulders of 10th century BC Middle Easterners. In our better moments we read it (as best we can) from the point of view of the recipients, as 10th century BC Middle Easterners. Occasionally we try to grasp the perspective of characters in the story, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and their relationships to each other.

To Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph fell into the “witnesses past” category. He would never have been in Egypt had Abraham not left Ur to journey to Palestine and Joseph served God faithfully after being sold as a slave to Potiphar. Moses was able to accomplish all of his amazing work in establishing Israel as a nation because Abraham followed God from Ur to Haran and Joseph followed him into success in Egypt.

Moses was a “witness past” to everyone in 11:32. As the leader of the Exodus and the Lawgiver, he influenced Israel in their path towards God in countless ways. The judges could not have defended Israel if Moses had not led the people out of Egypt nor could David have ruled as her king. If we consider how Moses, and all of these people, spoke after their deaths, as Abel did in 11:4:

How can we speak after our earthly death?

  1. Our teachings speak through whatever we say and write.
  2. Our example speaks in the lives of anyone who has seen us live, whether our biological descendants or others we have influenced. This is especially true if we are written about.
  3. Our work speaks through the institutions that we have influenced.
  4. Our decisions speak to those who follow us by directly influencing them.
  5. Our body speaks in the Better Country.

Witnesses past include family members who went to glory before we were born. They also include great Christian thinkers, leaders, preachers and writers from yesteryear. When I ask audiences who they would include as Witnesses Past, many mention great grandparents, famous writers such as C.S Lewis, and famous preachers such as Charles Spurgeon. Others note William Wilberforce and Martin Luther. None of these men were perfect, but they all assisted contemporaries and descendants as they ran their race to Christ.

Your cloud includes people who are walking with you, but also includes those who have gone before. How have you received help in your Christian race from those who have gone before you in your cloud?

  1. Who have you known that has had the greatest impact on your Christian life?
  2. Name someone who you have not known, who died before you were born but is not in the Bible, who has had a great impact on your Christian life.
  3. What did they do for you? (Teaching, example, resources, encouragement, fellowship, accountability, bearing burdens, something else?).
  4. Do you recognize all of the ways in which these people helped you to win in your race towards Christ?

There is another way in which Witnesses Past help us succeed in our race toward Christ. Sometimes understanding the Bible is difficult because the gulf between the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean basin and the modern Western World is too great. Rather to trying to jump the cultural, linguistic, temporal and geographic chasms between America in the 21st century AD and Mesopotamia in the 21st century BC, for example, we may have more success if we break our study into steps. When faced with a cryptic passage in Romans, for example, we may first review the work of Matthew Henry (17th century AD), then Thomas Aquinas (13th century), then Augustine (4th century) and finally Romans itself (1st century). Often members of our cloud of witnesses who lived in the past can illuminate our questions today.

Witnesses Present

The writer of Hebrews used ancient heroes in Hebrew history to encourage his readers, but many of the people in the list were “witnesses present” to each other. Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac lived at the same time as a family and encouraged each other towards godliness (11:8-12). Abram and Sarai shared fellowship and encouragement on the long road from Ur to Haran and then to Canaan. She followed Abram faithfully as he obeyed God’s leading. He provided resources from the flocks and she used them to meet the needs of their family and servants. When they made foolish decisions, such as when Abram lied about Sarai being his wife and Sarai gave her handmaiden Hagar as a concubine to her husband, they endured.

In our lives, Witnesses Present may include our families, our friends, our parents, contemporary Christian writers, pastors, and other leaders, and many others. They teach us, exemplify right behavior, encourage us, give us fellowship, hold us accountable, and bear our burdens. Sometimes the Lord brings people into our lives just once to encourage us, protect us, and otherwise serve Him. We may never see these people again on this side of heaven, but they are important members of our cloud of witnesses at that time.

Who is in your current cloud of “witnesses present”? How have they helped you in your race towards Christ? Have you thanked them? How do you need them to help you in your race towards Christ? Have you asked them? Gratitude is one of the most important Christian virtues; are you grateful for your Witnesses Present?

Witnesses Future

The readers of the book of Hebrews would recognize the great prophets of old such as Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah in Hebrews 11:33-38. In Israelite tradition, young men would ask such great prophets to teach them and gather together into schools of prophecy (Hebrews 6:1-7). Such Men of God would thus mentor younger men, literally becoming part of their cloud of witnesses as they helped each other in the faith.

Military leadership training highlights the importance of mentorship, both formal and informal. Young officers are told to seek leaders that they respect to mentor them in the art of war. Young men of yesteryear would find skilled craftsmen and ask to be their apprentice so that they could learn a trade.

Who are people in your life that you would like to be more involved in your cloud of witnesses? These are people that might mentor you in the faith.

Who are people in your life that you would like to be a greater part of their cloud of witnesses? These are people that you might mentor in the faith.

How should you approach them? What should you say? Do you have space in your life for them? Do they have space in their lives for you? Even if they cannot give you time, what can you learn from their example? What about their writings or other works?

Another question is what should you give up to make space in your life to improve your cloud of witnesses? Are there bad activities? Are there good activities that take time away from the best activities? Are you taking care of your physical body, including getting good sleep, healthy food, and plenty of exercise? Psalm 101:3-4 says “I will set no wicked thing before my eyes…a perverse heart shall depart from me”, implying that even family or friends, if they insist on practicing evil, should lose their influence on you, though you continue to care for and pray for them.

Witnesses for Others

The heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 thought of the future as well as the present and the past (11:20-22). They had an eye to what their sons would do, both returning to Canaan and following God as a mighty nation when the time came. They blessed their children through teaching/example, resources, encouragement, fellowship, accountability, and bearing burdens, but they also blessed them by guiding them in what they needed to do in the future. Thus they recognized that while others were in their cloud of witnesses, they were in others cloud of witnesses, and these great men intentionally helped them.

Who are you in the cloud of witnesses for? Whose witness should you be? How are you helping them in their race towards Christ? How should you be? If you are a mentor to others, do you have a special time and place set aside for them? There is an inexpensive restaurant near my house that I use for meetings and mentoring. My preferred time is 0700 on Saturday mornings, early enough that my family is still asleep and I don’t take time away from them.

Conclusion

The Christian life was never meant to be lived alone. It was never meant to be lived only with people of your own age, and it was never meant to be lived only with people in your generation. The cloud of witnesses that helps each believer extends from time immemorial in the past to eternity in the future. As we focus on Jesus throughout the race of our lives, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Even on earth, witnesses past, present and future help us in our walk towards our God.

The Long Shadow – How to Follow a Superstar

A Tennessee democrat who was firmly committed to the Union, Andrew Johnson had a distinguished career as congressman, senator and governor of his state. Hoping to send a message of reconciliation to the rebellious South, Lincoln chose Johnson as his vice president in 1864. Johnson’s debut on the national stage went poorly, with a rambling and perhaps drunken speech when he assumed office in March 1865. Lincoln followed with a masterpiece, his Second Inaugural Address. Little did anyone know that in only six weeks, at one of the most crucial times in American history, the rambler would be President.

A Missouri democrat who came to national prominence investigating fraud, waste and abuse on the Committee of Military Affairs during the Second World War, Harry Truman had earlier served as farmer, haberdasher, judge and US senator. With President Franklin Roosevelt in declining health and many expecting that he would not survive his fourth term, the party looked for a vice president who could succeed in the top job. Eighty-two days after the Inauguration, Roosevelt lay dead, and Truman took the top job.

Johnson struggled during his presidency, continually battling Congress on civil rights and other issues, being impeached by the House, and retaining his job by only one vote in the Senate. Historians have judged him to be among the worst presidents. Truman could never compete with the wildly popular Roosevelt, and did not try. He stuck to his agenda and his style through the atomic bomb, economic upheaval, strikes, the war in Korea, and the start of the Cold War. Though his approval rating was 22%, the worst ever, in the final year of his presidency, Harry Truman is now ranked among the best US presidents.

Many have considered why Johnson failed and Truman succeeded in their quest to follow a superstar. Johnson had the disadvantage of following a relatively young and still healthy president who no one expected to die. He also had to rebuild the nation. Truman’s ascension to the presidency was expected, but he had to stabilize the world. This article attempts to help leaders know how to follow predecessors whom others consider to be superstars.

Publicly Acknowledge Reality

1. Your predecessor is loved; do not be perceived as diminishing that in any way. If you do, you, not he, will be diminished.

2. Charles de Gaulle is the most famous man credited with saying “The graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men.” While it is true that the world will not collapse with the loss of any individual, it is equally true that no one is replaceable. Each person’s combination of knowledge, skills, personality, and industry is unique. Don’t even try to replace a predecessor.

3. However, many people could do any given job competently. Your job is not to replace a superstar, but to use your unique attributes to move the team and the organization to the next level and face a new set of challenges.

4. No one, no matter how good, can or should stay in a job forever. New times call for new people. Lincoln had an excellent plan for bringing the United States back together after the Civil War, but Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders in human history. Judging from his performance at Yalta, it is not clear that Roosevelt grasped how the world would be after World War 2, and not clear that he had a sound plan.

5. There are some people in the organization who do not consider your predecessor a superstar. No one is loved by everyone. No matter how good you are, you are not loved by everyone either.

Transition

1. If your predecessor is a real superstar, he will be sad to leave the people he has worked with so well. However, he will not impair your transition.

2. Once she is gone, she will not interfere in the organization. She will stay gone unless asked to assist.

Your task

1. Maintain the advances of your predecessor. Andrew Johnson kept Lincoln’s rough outline for gently bringing the South back into the Union, although he struggled against a vindictive Republican congress. William Taft advanced, albeit imperfectly, Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. Neither tried to turn back the clock.

2. Move the organization ahead to meet new challenges. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, but Joshua led them into the Promised Land. Moses’ task was great and his results were legendary. Joshua’s task was also great, and his results also stood the test of time.

3. Know and use your own style. You will fail if you try to mimic someone else. You have strengths and weaknesses just like she does.

4. Improve your strengths, improve your weaknesses, and use your staff to help compensate. Andrew Carnegie, the American steel magnate, famously opined that the key to success was to surround yourself with good people.

5. Leaders are beloved by their troops because they love their troops. You must care for your people more than you care for yourself. The Chinese military writer Sun Tzu wrote

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.”

6. Leaders are respected because they know their job better than anyone else, and work hard.

7. Leaders are followed because they know where the organization should go and how to get there.

8. As you are accomplishing your mission, enjoy your job and your team. They will not enjoy you if you do not enjoy them.

Anticipate a Positive Future

1. Make sure that your team knows that while their beloved leader has moved on, the team’s future is bright. It is your job and theirs to make the future better.

2. If your predecessor is a real superstar, rather than someone who is interested primarily in himself and his legacy, he will want your tenure to be even better than his, because he wants the best for the organization. The group’s well-being is more important to him than his own.

Conclusion

Some may argue that Andrew Johnson had no chance to succeed following Lincoln, and that the best he could have done was to be a placeholder until the next president came in and the magic of Lincoln had faded from public memory. However, as the examples of Truman and Joshua prove, capable men can succeed in the long shadow of superstars.

You may be following a superstar, but no matter how good, his or her time is over, and yours has begun. You have been placed in this new role by your superiors, and by powers even higher. You must respect and appreciate the past, but you must shape the future. Now all that remains is to do it.