One of my dearest friends in the world is a pastor in Cuba. He and his congregation prayed for our oldest son as he was undergoing cancer surgery some years ago; our son is well and I will be grateful for the rest of my life.
My pastor friend has had many opportunities to leave Cuba over the years. He would undoubtedly be an enormously popular and successful pastor in America if he chose to relocate here. But he has remained on the island of his birth despite horrific opposition and persecution.
He sent a group of us a video just before Thanksgiving, wishing us well and assuring us of his prayers for us during the holiday season. Watching him on the video, I was shocked by how much weight he has lost. The food shortage in Cuba, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has brought even more suffering to his small nation. Once again, I considered the price my friend pays to obey God’s call on his life.
And I wondered if I would do the same.
Faith during a blizzard
A Christian pastor in China was recently imprisoned and fined for refusing to join the state-supported church. A mob attacked the homes and shops of Christians in Egypt. Terrorists slit the throats of three Christians in Indonesia and beheaded a fourth.
Pew Research Center reports that government restrictions on religion have risen 65 percent since 2007, when Pew began its survey. The level of social hostility has doubled over this time.
In Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, John M. Barry reports that Williams (1603–83) was the first to call for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a metaphor Thomas Jefferson would later employ to historic effect. Barry notes that Williams was also the first to call for religious freedom “in a political sense” and to “create a government and a society informed by those beliefs.”
For this commitment to religious freedom, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony determined on October 6, 1635 to banish Williams. If he returned, they had discretion to imprison, flog, or brand him. They could also have cut off his ears, removed his tongue, and executed him.
The next January, they sent soldiers to arrest him and place him on a ship bound for England, where he would face imprisonment or worse. Williams was forced to flee through a blizzard, where a group of Native Americans found and sheltered him. He later made his way to Narragansett Bay, where he established the city of Providence in an area we call Rhode Island. There he founded the first Baptist church in America in 1638.
Some years ago, my wife and I visited this historic church. I was reminded again of the courage exhibited by its founder and so many others who paid such a high price for beliefs I express freely today.
What caused Roger Williams and so many other Christians to risk so much for their faith? Would I be willing to do the same? Would you?
“The channel through which all good flows”
This week, we are discovering practical ways to experience Christ more powerfully during the Christmas season. Yesterday, we focused on the necessity of sharing Jesus’ love with others in order to experience his love more personally and fully. Today, let’s think about the courageous power inherent in intimacy with the King of the universe.
E. M. Bounds wrote: “Prayer is the channel through which all good flows from God to man, and all good from men to men.” As a result, he added, “He is the wisest man who prays the most and the best.” (For more, see my latest video, “What does the Bible say about the power of prayer?“).
One result of this “channel” is that intimacy with our Father deepens our love for him and strengthens our resolve to serve him. The more we know him, the more we will say with the prophet, “How great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!” (Zechariah 9:17). And the more we love him, the more we will choose to be faithful to him at any cost.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein stated: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us “why we are here”: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” The more we glorify him, the more we enjoy him. And the more we enjoy him, the more we will pay any price to glorify him.
The lifestyle that empowers our faith
How can we glorify and enjoy Jesus more in this season when we celebrate his birth? Writing for First15, Craig Denison notes: “Just as God’s chief desire is for relationship with you, your chief purpose in life is relationship with him. There is no life apart from him.”
In Luke 10, Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (v. 39). By contrast, Martha “was distracted with much serving” (v. 40). Jesus told her that she was “anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary” (vv. 41–42a). He then stated, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 42b).
Craig cites this passage and asks, “Do you feel like you’ve chosen the good portion, or does your life feel anxious and troubled?”
He then quotes Jesus’ statement in John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” Jesus wants us to “abide” with him, not for a few moments at the start of the day but all through the day. The branch bears fruit by staying attached to the vine. There is no dimension of its life apart from the vine.
In the same way, Craig notes, “We don’t leave our time alone with God and then go out into the world without him. He isn’t contained to a place or time. His presence is everywhere. Everything we do is an opportunity for relationship with our Heavenly Father.”
As a result, “Sitting at the feet of Jesus isn’t a time of the day. It’s a lifestyle.”
Will it be your lifestyle today?