Friday, September 24, 2010

Our Good Friend, Barnabas

-->This is a short story written about the person of Barnabas found in the book of Acts. 

Written from the hand of John Mark (see Acts 15).  c. 61

Yesterday, my good friend, our good friend, was taken from us. I write this letter with great sadness as our friend, Barnabas was taken outside the city gates of Salamis,  and cruel men took him and stoned him. 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 the home where he was staying, and 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 Savior's trial, they would barely let him get a word out and when he tried, they would strike him with a strong fist to the face. 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. I have heard from others that many inhumane tortures were done to him prior to the stoning. Three days hence, a traveler found his body and brought it 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 his body were some of the writings of Matthew that Barnabas 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 that he did for so many. Barnabas was unlike most men. He was generous and had a tremendous 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. If you asked of Barnabas, you always received. 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 work for those days.
Barnabas greatly loved children. He was a giant of a man and gentle, and you would often find children hung around 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 one 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 and of them being beaten or being thrown into jail, but I guess I just didn't really believe that that really happened. Now, when a large group of people had surrounded us and were threatening our lives, my knees grew weak, and I am embarrassed to say,  I vomited all over myself. That seemed to calm the crowd down as they laughed at my misfortune, 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 both Barnabas and Paul.
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 carried a tremendous sense of 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. He yelled that 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 them again.
I remember that day well. Barnabas stared at me. He focused on my face and we locked eyes. Admittedly, it was as if I was in Perga all over again and I was terrified. Why was he staring at me so fiercly? As he looked at me, his eyes glistened with tears 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, but I have 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 and met Barnabas at the docks the following day. Because of that man, I found the courage to follow my Savior.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Dragons We Are

C.S. Lewis illustrates a person "losing themselves" in an inventive manner in one of his early books. Some of you know it because it comes from his classic series The Chronicles of Narnia. In the third book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is the story of a boy named Eustace. Early on we meet Eustace, but there is something different about him compared to the other children—he’s very selfish, often complaining and overall bothersome to the others. There’s something missing for him and you see that piece of him clearly in comparison to the other children.  Simply put, Eustace is a broken soul.
Through a selfish adventure in which he goes off by himself, he learns a difficult lesson. One evening he wanders off and he comes upon a dragon's lair. In the cave, he finds a treasure guarded by a dragon. As he sits there staring at this treasure, he begins to devise ways in which he can steal these riches for his own. He accomplishes his task, and as he slips on a stolen bracelet, he slips off to sleep. As he awakes, he discovers a surprise:

He was surprised at the size of his tears. They also seemed strangely hot; steam it went up from them. But just as he reached the edge of the pool two things happened. First of all, it came over him like a thunderclap that he had been running on all fours—and why on earth had he been doing that? And secondly, as he bent towards the water, he thought for a second that yet another dragon was staring up at him out of the pool. But in an instant he realized the truth. The dragon face in the pool was his own reflection.

Amazingly, because of his wayward actions, he had become a dragon and as he lived in this new skin, he began to detest this strange life. Overtime, he began to realize some things about himself. He began to discover how harsh and cruel he was and had become. He was not a friend to his friends and as he walked around in these dragon scales, he wanted a change. Slowly but surely, he began to realize that he acted like a beastly dragon when he once was human. The curse he was, he had now become.

He wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see the others had not really been friends that all. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed.

But this is not the end of the story. Eustace has a remarkable transformation in which parallels what needs to happen to each of us. In his frustration, he longs to be himself again, a newer self, more friendly and caring of others. The central character in the Chronicles of Narnia is Aslan the Lion. He is the figure of Jesus in the the Narnia books. In his great tale The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis describes the first time the children hear about this Aslan, the Great Lion, who is the Christ figure in the book. The children are at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who have had dealings with Aslan.They tell the children about this Aslan, the Lion:

"Is---is he a man? Asked Lucy.
"Aslan, a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor beyond the sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion-the lion—the great Lion."

Ooh!" said Susan. "I'd rather thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver "If there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."

"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

In this story of Eustace, this great lion Alsan intervenes and goes to the young boy who has been transformed into a dragon. Almost as if playing a trick on him, Aslan tells Eustace to scratch off his skin, perhaps then he can become a boy again. Eustace begins to tear away at his scales and even though it feels good like itching a scratch, as the skin comes off, it quickly reappears. He does this three different times and Eustace soon realizes that his skin is impossible for him to remove. In frustration this boy-dragon demands of Aslan in how many times he must attempt to tear this skin away and become the boy he once was.
However, Eustace soon realizes that it is only Aslan who has the ability to change him. The only way in which he can ever be himself is to let Aslan remove the scales. It is a perfect picture of what we must all undergo to overcome our own selfish and sinful bent. Only Jesus can do that work for us.

The very first tear he made it was so deep that I thought it had gone right in to my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh, but it is such fun to see it coming away. He peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been… and then I saw why, I’d turned into a boy again.

This deep tear in the heart is what we all need to happen and only Jesus can wrench out from our hearts that selfish impulse which lies there. To genuinely be unselfish is innately unnatural for all of us, and it is only Jesus, who just as with Eustace, can turn us from dragon to child. As St. Augustine pointed out: Man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible. This is the life of the dragon. We must all go through such a transformation and if we don’t we will continue living as dragons—truly alone and with only thoughts for ourselves and living in genuine unhappiness. No different than what Jesus demands, we must all become like children again:

For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, "I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God's kingdom. (Matthew 18:2-5, The Message)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Dream to Know Jesus

One of the more interesting ways in which a friend of mine began his life as a Christian was through an exceptional dream. 

Back when I was in college, I met Shunyuan; he was Taiwanese and in his residency to become a physician at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Shunyuan began attending our little Bible study that we held into the wee hours of a Friday night—just a couple of 20-some-year-old guys who were hanging out and talking about the Bible as it pertained to our motley lives. Shunyuan had grown up Buddhist and I wasn’t ever quite sure why he would show up every time we met. His beliefs were different than ours and he let us know that, and yet each Friday he would show up and be ready to share his own thoughts, often questioning why we followed this person of Jesus. Even though he had grown up religious, at the heart of it, he was an atheist. He really did not believe anything. That was okay for us; we needed someone to add some flavor to our group and to challenge our own thoughts and ideas, and he would often have some tough questions for us.

However, this unbelief part all changed one day. One morning he woke up out of a beautiful and terrible sleep, and his life was entirely altered. Shunyuan had a dream one fall night that dramatically changed him. The dream was fairly straight-forward:

He recounted a couple of days later to us, that in the dream he was swimming in the ocean with his daughter who was about six. His daughter meant everything to Shunyuan. A few different times, when we would openly share about our lives, he would tell us that he would not know what to do if something ever happened to her. His daughter meant everything to him. 

In this dream he had, his daughter and him are swimming in the ocean, and out of nowhere, a shark attacks his daughter, tearing off her right arm. Shunyuan pulls her ashore and as he sees the blood pouring out, as a doctor he knows that if he does not tend to her quickly, she will bleed to death. He sees how dire the situation is and he grows pale because there is no way to stop the bleeding. The love of his life is going to die and he begins to cry profusely into the sand. As he looks up, he sees a man walking toward them. A strange thing happens: immediately, he recognizes that this person is Jesus and as he fixes his eyes on him, Shunyuan realizes that Jesus knows his true heart—that Shunyuan does not want to have anything to do with him, even to the point of rejecting him. Again, because of this, he grows hopeless because he believes that Jesus will not heal his daughter, which now he believes and knows that he can do. He believes that Jesus will just continue to walk down the beach and do nothing. However, Jesus does the opposite of everything that Shunyuan thinks and walks up to his daughter, touches her arm and everything is restored. Without looking back at Shunyuan, Jesus wanders off down the beach without a word.

At that moment, Shunyuan woke up and began to trust that Jesus truly was the Christ. Shunyuan began to “believe” that Jesus was the Savior, his Savior and that he could do remarkable things.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Messy Journey to Simply Believe

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

In any journey, you have to start somewhere. Believing in Jesus also has a beginning. Whatever you want to call it -- giving your life to God, becoming born-again, following Jesus, being saved—the Christian journey starts off by believing. A believer is someone, well…who believes. What’s a dictionary say about that word, “belief?” It defines believing as simply the mental act, condition or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? I like to think of it as a change of mind. I once thought this; now I see it this way. This is what believing is—it’s little more than changing your mind.  

As an example, a case in point of this occurred in our home some years ago. By far the food that Julie and I enjoy the most is Thai. Up to that point, the most risqué thing our boys ate was something called the Ultradog; it’s a unique and messy hot dog from a place here in Grand Rapids called Yesterdog; it’s coated with onions, chili, cucumber shavings, ketchup and mustard (yeah, I know it sounds disgusting, but you’ve got to try one). So one Saturday evening we decided to introduce this southeast Asian cuisine to our sons. Micah, at the time was probably five, and immediately and emphatically expressed his disapproval. “Yuck, no way! Gross!” After finally getting him to the restaurant (yanking and pulling and bribing) and then finally making him take a bite, he bellowed, “Hmmm…This Thai food doesn’t taste half bad!” His mind and taste buds had been transformed. He changed his mind about how tasty Thai food actually was. Put simply, he began to believe in the goodness of Thai food.

Believing in God on one level is similar and is a pretty simple process if you think about it. Whether you are a ten year old at a Bible Camp or the member of some long-lost tribe in Kenya who’s never even seen a book, let alone a Bible, the process is no different:
  • You hear and understand that God exists.
  • Your life is confronted about who you are through the story of the cross.
  • You acknowledge who you are as a sinner and who God is as a Redeemer.
  • You begin to believe in God and begin to believe that He can take away your sins.
God made it easy and straight forward in starting a relationship with him. For some of us, it happened when mom came in our room when we were six and prayed for us at our bedtime and then asked us if we wanted “Jesus to come into our heart.” For some others, it happened in high school or college, an arduous intellectual process in which we needed all the facts lined up, and all the apologetics made straight in our mind, and we then made a mental transformation in our belief system. And then for some of us, we were deep in our own broken world, had made a total mess of our lives, maybe we were going from bed to bed or from drink to drink, and saw only one way out and that was the way of Jesus. Believers come in all different shapes and sizes; perhaps they have been Christians for 40 days or as long as 40 years.

There are many ways in which God reaches out to each of us. Often, he is quite imaginative in his approach. Jesus is so in love with us that he will do whatever it takes to be near us, close to us, in relationship with us. There are many ways in which he captivates us and I have heard countless stories and the many different ways in which people come to faith. 1) A guy hands you a tract on the subway. 2) It's late at night, you can’t sleep because of that stupid nasal congestion, and you’re flipping through the channels and you come upon some television preacher. 3) You are all alone in another town on a business trip for three days and on the second day you open up the bedstand table and begin flipping through the book that lies in there. 4) A friend opens up their life to you about Someone who has made a dramatic difference in their life. Many years ago when I was living in Chicago, I heard Joseph Stowell comment during a sermon, “God is like the Canadian Mounty Police…He always get his man.” And in doing so, he comes up with some of the most normal and most odd ways in bridging that gap.

Next time, I will tell you a fairly remarkable story on how one person began to "believe" in Jesus, and overtime God began to bridge this gap from not believing to at least believing just a little bit.