Outside the Spotlight

unsplash_5252bb51404f8_1What comes to mind when you hear John the Baptist’s name?  If you picture a camel hear-wearing, locust-eating, wilderness dweller, you’re in good company.  John was all of those things, but there’s more to him than what our culture would deem quirky behavior.

John’s ministry was marked by a profound understanding of his purpose.  He readily admitted, “I am not the Christ,” and declared, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I” (John 1:20; Matthew 3:11).  On more than one occasion, he spotted Jesus and remarked, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36).  One of his most well-known statements summarizes his mission and explains his methods: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30).

My mom and I attended the Living Proof Live event in Cincinnati this past weekend, and Beth Moore defined greatness in a way that made me think of John.  She said, “A great person is someone who takes the spotlight and places it on the greatness of God.”

By that definition, John would certainly be considered great.  It doesn’t take much study of his life and ministry to realize that he was constantly pointing people to Jesus.  John used his influence to say, “Look at Him” instead of the ever-so-tempting, “Look at me.”  This sense of purpose was rooted in an accurate understanding of self and Savior.

Knowing who he wasn’t enabled John to have a clearer grasp of who he was.  He wasn’t the Savior.  He wasn’t the promised Messiah.  He wasn’t the One who could take away sin.  He wasn’t the light.  But he was a witness to the One who was and still is all of those things.  John’s purpose in life wasn’t to be in the spotlight, but to reposition it so others could see the true Star in all His glory.

John’s ministry had a unique place and purpose in salvation history, but his example is one we can emulate right where we are.  The specifics differ as to how and where each of us does this, but what we are to do is the same across the board: let Christ take center stage, and keep the spotlight on Him.

This may not seem like an appealing way to spend our lives because it’s the antithesis of everything our culture tells us is important.  We’ve been trained to think of greatness as personal achievement and accolades, but true greatness recognizes Ultimate Greatness and make sure He is always in the foreground.  There’s only One who deserves the spotlight and the very best use of our lives is making sure others know all about His.

Charleston and the Blood of Jesus

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Tears ran down my cheeks.  I have to confess, it caught me by surprise.  It’s not that I didn’t care, because I did.  I had watched the news, read the articles, and even talked about it with my husband.  But there was something I hadn’t done up to this point.

I hadn’t seen a picture.  When I did, I saw a wife and mother of three with her arm around her college-aged son – a baseball player.  Seeing a photo of one of the victims for the first time made it click – this is real.

My eyes burned until a tear finally spilled over the edge.  His mom is gone.  Yes, the tears came because I hurt for this boy, but they continued for another reason.  I thought about losing my own mom, and I realized that I’ve worried about things happening to my loved ones, but never because of their skin color.

The tears kept falling, now coupled with a sinking feeling in my stomach.  It was the first time I stopped to consider how being born white in the United States has shaped my experience.

Members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC were killed last Wednesday night because of their skin color.  Husbands lost wives and wives lost husbands because they were black.  Children lost fathers and mothers because of their race.

Horrible isn’t a strong enough word.

I recognize that there are layers to issues like this one.  It’s complicated to talk about, especially with so many political, social, and historical matters tangled together.  Because there’s quite a bit I don’t understand, I’m tempted to remain silent.  But I’ve come to the realization that, although I don’t understand everything, I do understand something.  And it’s time to speak up.

According to our nation’s Founding Fathers, it’s a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.”  Christians must go a step further and affirm Scripture’s teaching that all men are created by God in His image (Genesis 1:27).  Regardless of age, race, gender, or creed, we are all divine image bearers.  Furthermore, all who are in Christ are part of “a chosen race” – a group of people linked, not by culture or natural lineage, but by a bloodline stronger than that of any earthly family (1 Peter 2:8).

When Jesus died, peace with God and with others became a reality.  That which stood between fellowship with God and unity with others was abolished as Jesus made “one new man in place of the two” and reconciled “both…to God…through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).  Jesus’ crucifixion dealt the deathblow to the racial enmity stemming from the false belief that knowing God was only for the Jews.  Paul’s message to the non-Jewish church in Ephesus was that they too were “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19).  The blood of Jesus defines us more decisively than the blood that runs through our veins.

When people are devalued in any way for any reason, believers don’t have the option of indifference.  Non-Christians are fellow image bearers, and Christians are our brothers and sisters.  Our response to hatred should be an accurate reflection of our transformed identities because the blood of Jesus also motivates us more persuasively than the blood that runs through our veins.  How else could victims’ family members look at the gunman and offer words of forgiveness in the midst of unspeakable pain?

The tears haven’t stopped, but we grieve as those with tremendous hope.  The events of last Wednesday will be seared on our nation’s memory for years to come.  Prayerfully, they will be the catalyst for a drastic change that foreshadows a coming day when diversity will never again bring division, but will be an eternal testimony of a God who shed His own blood to save people from every bloodline on earth (Revelation 5:9-10).

Fill in the Blank

Life is full of unknowns.  We make plans, set goals, and dream big, but the reality is that so much lies beyond our reach.  Right now in particular, my life feels like it has an extraordinary amount of uncertainty.  With plenty of major details up in the air, I’ve never been more aware of my own lack of control.  In short, life today has a lot of question marks.  There are several blanks yet to be filled in.

From God’s vantage point, though, there are no question marks, there are no blanks to be filled in, and there are no details up in the air.  The God who upholds the universe by the word of His power invites me to face the unknown, not with anxiety, but with confidence in who He is and in what He’s said.

Because there are uncertainties scattered throughout my daily life, I’m in danger of entirely overlooking everything that isn’t in question.  In other words, if I’m not careful, the reality of a lot of unknowns translates into living as if there are only unknowns.

Rehearsing Scripture, however, reminds me of all I can know for sure.

No matter what, God is good. 

God is loving. 

God is faithful. 

God is compassionate. 

He is with me. 

He goes before me. 

He surrounds me. 

He upholds me.

As I call to mind these realities, the question marks and blank spaces appear less formidable.  They are brought into proper perspective in light of all the truth that surrounds them.

What’s going to happen to a sick relative?  I’m not sure, but I do know God is good. 

How will a friend cope with financial struggles?  I’m not sure, but I do know God provides. 

When will a difficult relationship begin to improve?  I’m not sure, but I do know God redeems.

A shift of focus from the unpredictabilities to the guarantees increases my confidence such that it outweighs my concerns.  Whether or not all of my questions get answered or all of the blanks get filled in becomes secondary to knowing and believing the One who authors the story.  And what He’s already written is proof enough that I can trust Him as the rest of it unfolds.

A Seat at the Table

I spent last week in Honduras serving alongside nine others from my home church and approximately 30 more people from congregations around the United States.  Our trip was facilitated by Baptist Medical & Dental Mission International (BMDMI), an organization with an established presence in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Nepal.  We flew in and out of the capital city, Tegucigalpa, but we served in Erandique, a village located about eight hours by bus southwest of the city.

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Nearly 1,800 people visited our clinic in Erandique and received dental, medical, optical, and pharmaceutical care in addition to clothing, food, and shoes.  I worked with children in the village and enjoyed making crafts, playing, singing, and teaching three Bible lessons.  Upon our return to the Tegucigalpa area, we visited Good Shepherd Children’s Home, a vital ministry of BMDMI that tends to the academic, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual needs of Honduran children who have been separated from their parents for one reason or another.

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Last week memories were made, experiences were shared, and lessons were learned.  As I expected, I was reminded of God’s heart for people, the importance of caring for others, and the call to participate in God’s work around the world.

Perhaps the most significant lesson I learned, though, wasn’t one I anticipated.  Nearly four dozen Americans representing different denominations and parts of the country teamed up with Honduran believers to serve their neighbors, and it was a powerful example of the unity we have in Christ.  It reminded me of Paul’s words to a Christian audience in Philippians 1: “You are all partakers with me of grace” (Philippians 1:7).

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When I read those words, I can’t help but picture a large table with a plentiful spread of delicious food.  It’s as if Paul points out the main dish and asks, “Have you tasted this?  It’s amazing!”  And our emphatic response is, “I know!  I’ve never had anything like it!”

As believers, we’ve tasted and seen God’s goodness (Psalm 34:8).  We’ve been adopted by God into His family, and now we have a permanent place around His table (Ephesians 1:5).  That lady sitting next to you with different political preferences?  She’s family.  That man sitting across from you with outspoken theological convictions?  He’s family.

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There is absolutely a time and a place for healthy dialogue about our differences, but even then we can’t lose sight of what binds us together.  What would it look like to truly celebrate all we have in common?  What would happen if we rejoiced – even obsessed – over our shared experience of grace?  Can you imagine the depth of fellowship?  Rather than fretting over the diversity at the table, let’s unite in our marveling at the miracle that any of us has a place around it at all.

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“Life is about one thing,” wrote Ann Voskamp, “Coming to His table and inviting as many as you can to come feast with you on the only Living Food.”  By the grace of God, last week I was privileged to invite others to the table while enjoying the fellowship of those already around it.  Both were immense blessings.

Free at Last

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many opponents of slavery rallied together in hopes of ending servitude and segregation once and for all.  According to the History channel, these individuals, known as abolitionists, were committed to “the immediate emancipation of all slaves” regardless of the cost.  Men and women like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman took incredible risks in order to encourage and support slaves while fighting for their liberation.

Borrowing terminology reminiscent of this period in our nation’s history, John Starke said, “Idols are slave traders disguised as abolitionists.”  This provocative imagery isn’t meant to downplay the plight of the oppressed, but instead to emphasize the severity of idolatry.

An idol is anyone or anything we expect to be and do what only God is and does and thus treat as only God should be treated.  People, passions, pursuits, and pleasures all become idols when we look to them to provide ultimate meaning and total satisfaction.  God warns against idolatry throughout the Bible with the most explicit instance topping the list of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

In addition to being an affront to God, idolatry harms those who practice it.  The reason for this is simple: idols always fail to deliver what they promise.  The prophet Isaiah asserted, “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit” (Isaiah 44:9).  Instead of providing joy, purpose, satisfaction, and value, idols eventually leave us with a sense of despair, aimlessness, emptiness, and worthlessness.  Our futile idol worship perpetuates feelings of insignificance because “those who make [idols] become like them” (Psalm 115:8).

Since, like Starke claims, idols entice us with freedom before duping us into bondage, it’s important we make every effort to avoid deception.  By removing our idols’ disguises, we recognize them as imposters and can act accordingly.  Idols, like posing abolitionists, may say, “I’m here to guarantee your freedom,” but knowing their true identity allows us to respond emphatically, “No, you’re not!”

Sadly, many of us have bought into idolatry’s fraudulent claims again and again.  Because we’ll often do anything or go anywhere if it might mean temporary satisfaction, we’re always susceptible to idolatry’s pull.

Recognizing our idols as counterfeit gods is necessary but insufficient in avoiding future bondage.  As – if not more – important than our ability to spot pretenders is our capacity to identify the real thing.  Our idols’ promises are fulfilled, not by them, but by our true Liberator.

The question is, will we recognize the One who came to set us free?