Friday, July 31, 2009

A Story: Our Good Friend, Barnabas

This is a short story I wrote about one of my favorite characters in the New Testament, Barnabas. It is written from the perspective of John Mark, the writer of one of the four gospels.

Yesterday my good friend, our good friend, was taken away from us. Through a letter, I've learned that outside of Salamis, cruel men took Barnabas and stoned him. The letter told much of what had happened. Barnabas had been preaching in that city about the gospel of Jesus Christ and a group of men from the synagogue in that town accused him of blasphemy. Without even a trial, they stormed into his the home where he was staying before daybreak, pulled him out of bed, not even giving him a chance to put his proper garments on and set him before the council in Salamis. Reminiscent of our Saviour's trial, they would barely let him get a word out and when he tried, they would strike him. Not much else is known after this incident of the trial. They imprisoned him for two days, and then they must have secretly took him outside the city gates and murdered him there. Three days hence, a traveler found his body and brought him back to the city. This man had found him with his face nearly unrecognizable. The only reason they were able to identify his body, was because lying next to him was the writings of Matthew that he had re-written with his own hand. There in Salamis, that small fellowship gave him a proper burial. My heart is broken because my friend is gone.

As I sit here and write, I remember so many good things he did for so many. Barnabas was unlike most men. He was generous and had a great amount of wealth but he shared equally with all. I do not know much about where he came from—I know that he was born into a wealthy family and would often sell a piece of property or offer a generous gift to someone who was in need. He was a person whose word was always true; when he said he would do something for you he would do it whether that meant sharing the Scriptures with you or even one time, I remember, one of the women in our fellowship had been sick for many days, and he went and tended to her children and her chores for those days.

Barnabas loved children. He was a giant of a man and gentle and you would often find children hanging off his big back as he gave them rides as if he was a horse. He loved to be around children, sometimes even more then with others. When we had a gathering, and after the Lord's supper had been shared, we would often not be able to find him. After looking for a while, he would be outside and we would find him playing some game with a handful of children.

Of course, I will never forget him, because in many ways he saved my own life. I had joined Paul and Barnabas on a missionary trip-- really I was too young, but I thought I knew everything and that I was invincible. We entered the town of Perga and even after a day we began to be ridiculed because of our message about Jesus. I grew very timid. To be frank, I was terrified. What would they do to us? Both of them had told me stories of others who shared the gospel of beatings or being thrown into jail, but I guess I just didn't really believe that that had happened. Now, when a large group of people had surrounded us and were threatening our lives, my knees grew weak and I vomited all over myself. That seemed to calm the crowd down, but for me, it opened my eyes and I grew cowardly. I wanted to go back home—I didn't want to continue and so I abandoned them both.

It was over six months later that I saw both of them back in Jerusalem. By this time I had felt awful for what I had done. I had learned of their hard work and the dangers that they had faced. I carry tremendous guilt because really I had not deserted them as much as I had forsaken my Savior. I resolved I would never do such a thing as that again. It was a couple months later and Barnabas and Paul had decided to venture again to Cyprus. I wanted so much to show both of them that I could be trusted and so I went to Antioch and asked if I could join them. Paul immediately barked at me that he would never let me go with him again. He reiterated over and over that I had failed them both in my cowardice. I not only jeopardized my own life, but theirs as well. Paul was furious with me for even bringing it up. Barnabas was trying to calm him down with his big but quiet voice, but Paul's strong words continued and he maintained that he would never let me join him again.

Barnabas stared at me. He focused on my face and we locked eyes. Admittingly, it was as if I was in Perga all over again and I was terrified. Why was he staring at me? As he looked at me, his eyes glistened and he turned to Paul and spoke words that I will never forget and ones that haunt me still. “Paul, perhaps you have given up on John Mark. I will not. You take Silas and go to Tarsus. John Mark and I will journey back to Cyprus.” That was it; that was all he said. But his words were solid and strong. I had never heard him speak with such forcefulness and with such conviction. Paul did not say a word, he just nodded twice and as he left the room he placed his right hand on Barnabas’ shoulder. His eyes too began to moisten because he knew that he would never see his friend again.

As we left, we did not speak for a good hour. I knew I needed to give Barnabas some room to think. Now that I much older, I have learned that even though it is good to make sacrifices, it does not take away the sharpness of the pain. I had cost Barnabas his friend and in that silence I seemed to hear him say that it was okay, not maybe good, but okay. Barnabas was a good man, easy to be with even when you were difficult. Through him, for the first time I genuinely was learning forgiveness. Not until now do I understand what that was. I did not deserve a second chance, but forgiveness was at hand, and I accepted it. Because of that, I found the courage to sail to Cyprus the following day.

What I've Been Reading

Our critical day is the not the very day of our death; but the whole course of our life. I thank him that prays for me when my bell tolls, but I thank him much more who instructs me how to live.

-John Donne

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What I've Been Reading

Simply reading the Bible, I encountered not a misty vapor but an actual Person. A Person as unique and distinctive and colorful as any person I know…I marveled at how much God lets human beings affect him. I was unprepared for the joy and anguish---in short---the passion of the God of the universe…I had lost the force of the passionate relationship God seeks above all else. The people who related to God best---Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah---treated him with startling familiarity…They treated him like a person.

-Phillip Yancey, Disappointment with God

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Things Aren't Always What They Seem

When I was about thirteen years old we made our first trip as a family out to Delaware. It would be my first time going to the ocean. When it came to vacations, we had a tradition in our family, in which, we could get a few magazines or books at Kroger right prior to going. I remember vividly what I chose. I got a bunch of books on sharks and shark attacks. The trip was long and I read each book, cover to cover. When we did arrive, I fell in love with the ocean; each day of the vacation you would find me swimming. On one of our last days, I became more courageous and swam out further into the ocean. I was just wading in the water, floating around, and enjoying one of my last days of vacation. I was way out; in fact, I was probably a good twenty yards away from the nearest swimmer. But I noticed something odd. As I looked down the entire beach front, everyone was coming out of the water. I thought, What's going on? Just then, I saw and heard the lifeguard shout through his speaker phone, “Everyone out of the water! Everyone out of the water! Sharks! Sharks!” I had never heard more frightening words. I turned around and sure enough, swimming out near a tanker further out were about a dozen fins. Immediately, I swam toward the shore as fast as I could. Only one problem though, all I could think about was all of those shark attack stories I had read as we drove out to Delaware. In particular, I remembered that sharks most often attack in shallow waters when their prey believe that they're safe. I kept pumping my arms; kicking my legs; and finally, without a scratch on me, I crawled up onto shore. Just then, standing above me was the life guard and into his speakerphone he yelled, “False alarm. Just dolphins.” After that, I don’t think I swam anymore before we left to go home.

Sometimes, things aren't what they seem. This is the case when it comes to the Trinity. You think you know God in one way and he turns around and changes things a bit. This was especially the case with first century Jews. They grew up on the words, “The Lord is One.And that was and is true; but it’s not the whole truth. In the first century, the doctrine of the Trinity threw everybody for a loop, and to this day, it does the same. So why is the doctrine of the Trinity so important? Why do we even wrestle with this ultimately mysterious issue? Why not just leave it to the theologians to argue over? The Trinity is so very important because it is the starting point with our view of God. When one doesn't come to at least a rudimentary grasp of the Trinity, their view of God is, at best, shallow and worse, profane. But let's make no bones about it, the doctrine of the Trinity is very difficult to get your hands on or your mind around. It's nearly impossible to put in words. As you know in the early church, the church had to come to grips with what they believed and so, they wrote out different creeds to tell others what they believed, and did not believe. Believe it or not, there is one such creed concerning the Trinity; it is called the Athanasian Creed. One part of it states, “As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensibles, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty; And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.” As you can see, words fail us. Clarity is difficult to find.

We must remember that this doctrine is something our little minds can never fully understand. We must come to the point that we know that God is limitless and we are finite. Yet we have a problem with this; as creatures of the 21st century we want to know everything. In the world, there is some much knowledge that runs about and we have a sense of entitlement that we should know all that there is to know. I like what Dorothy Sayers had to say on the topic. Listen carefully, "Why do you complain that the proposition God is three in one is obscure and mystical and yet acquiesce meekly in the physicist's fundamental formula, ‘two P minus PQ equals IH over two Pi where I equals the square root of minus one’ when you know quite well that the square root of minus one is paradoxical in Pi is incalculable?" There are many things within the Christian faith that fall under the realm of mystery; two, would be, the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ and God’s providence. The doctrine of the Trinity is no different. And this is the great problem that many believers face; if we don't understand it, we won't believe it.

So how can we explain this difficult belief of ours? How do we explain to someone that we believe in one God but three “Persons?” We have all heard different analogies of explaining the Trinity. When our boys were young we bought them a childen’s book that attempted to explain the Trinity as an apple. The Father is the skin of the apple. He is our protector. The Son is the flesh of the apple. He is the one who makes us strong. The Holy Spirit is the seed or core. He helps us to grow. We must, however, remember that all analogies fail when it comes to the Trinity. In fact, all analogies lean toward some kind of heresy. Why? Because God can not be analogous. If you could compare God to an egg, what would that say about him? It is impossible to compare God to anything. Actually, the only thing we can compare him to is us. We are the only thing he made in his image. And yet even we are a faint comparison to the living God. Analogies can be helpful but we must always keep in the back of our mind that they are flawed.

Perhaps just plain words are better descriptors. I like how C.S. Lewis pictured the Trinity. He saw that God, who is triune in nature, as someone who is “super-personal.” We can't even imagine such a person; again, only we ourselves are somewhat of a similarity. I like that phrase he uses, super-personal; God is personal to an extreme. Without being schizophrenic, he is so personal that he can have fellowship with himself! Actually he is more than a person. Meditate on that for awhile. I believe there can be a comfort and an excitement that one can find in such an understanding. One day we will all stand face to face to this ultimately personal Person. More importantly, today we can have a relationship with that Person. That is a joyous and exciting thought!