A description of Christians from Marcus Aurelius’ era (how do we measure up?)

ancient romeIn 130-ish AD a famous letter was written to Diognetus (probably the tutor of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius), describing Christians and their character and conduct in the world. As we enter a time of New Year’s reflections, let’s glance at this description and compare it to our own personal formation and influence in today’s world. The ancient letter states:

“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by and persecuted yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.”


The Saint in St. Patrick’s Day

Kiss_Me_I_m_Irish_2St. Patrick’s day will soon be upon us, replete with green-clad revelers and rivers of green beer. For some it will be a time to flaunt their Irish roots and for others it will simply be another excuse to party. However, there is a deeper significance to the holiday than merely kissing red-heads and drinking beer.

St. Patrick’s day commemorates a hugely courageous Christian missionary.

Born in Britain in the fourth century, Patrick was kidnapped at sixteen years old by Irish raiders and forced into the gloomy, ill-fed life of an Irish herdsman. After six years of servitude, he managed to escape and return to England where he promptly followed a calling into the priesthood. After his ordination in 417 A.D. he made the startling decision to return to Ireland to minister to the very people who had enslaved him. Claiming that God had told him to “set the captives free” in Ireland, he devoted his life to reaching the Irish villages and chieftains with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ultimately seeing many thousands of people begin following Christ.

As with all historical figures, there is significant legend surrounding St. Patrick’s exploits, such as the stories of how he drove poisonous snakes out of Ireland and used the Shamrock to illustrate the Trinity, but those stories shouldn’t detract us from his true passion and ambition.

Honest studies of St. Patrick’s life reveal a man who knew how to live fully present, engaged in the world around him. He didn’t convert the island of Ireland by preaching sermons at its citizens but by building authentic, counter-cultural, Christocentric communities that transformed Ireland into one of the centers of European Christianity.

This week as you pinch the people who forgot to wear green, let’s pause to be inspired by the bold, selfless life and legacy of the real St. Patrick, AKA “the lion of Ireland.”

The end and the beginning

throwing starfishIn the end it’s all about the “one.”

Today will be my last official Hole in our Gospel posting, and I think the most appropriate way to end is with Richard Stearns’ own words. He writes: “In the end God works in our world one person at a time. The hungry are fed, the thirsty are refreshed, the naked are clothed, the sick are treated, the illiterate are educated, and the grieving are comforted, just one person at a time.”[1]

These are important closing words because after spending more than twenty weeks together reading about the dire state of our world we could be tempted to lose heart. We could compare our puny resources with the monstrosity of global needs and feel that our best efforts will still fall woefully short.

Or we could go the opposite direction.

We could recognize that while we can’t save everyone we can save one.

Although we can’t sponsor every child we can sponsor some.

We can’t water the whole world but we can irrigate a region.

We can do our part.

My hope for every Grace Church and non-Grace Church reader is that we would end this particular reading program both broken and resolved, limping under the weight and yet breathlessly excited to make a difference.

Several weeks ago I reminded you of the oft-quoted starfish story, wherein a small boy chose to rescue the stranded starfish that were within his reach even though he knew he could never reach them all.  Let’s be that boy. Let’s carry God’s heart like we never have before. Let’s care at an unprecedented level. Let’s evaluate our time, talent, and treasure and commit to using all three for the glory of God and the needs of humanity.

When people come looking for us let’s be found along the seashore chucking starfish as far as we can possibly throw them.

[1] Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson: 2009): 257.

How to change a bad perception

mirrorHow do you change a bad perception to a good one? (And, no, this isn’t the beginning line of a cheesy joke—it’s actually a very important question)

If perceptions have grown dubious or negative, how do we change them?

I hate it when people draw inaccurate perceptions about me. And even more than that I hate the fact that people’s perceptions about me become their reality about me. This is true even when their perceptions have no bearing in truth.

What a person perceives me to be is who they will believe me to be.

It makes sense. I do it with you too. I read into your facial expressions and your actions or inactions and I draw certain conclusions that shape my perceptions about the kind of person you are. The frightening thing is that sometimes I’m probably wrong and I might be holding inaccurate beliefs about your life and character.

I hope this is what the non-Christian world is doing with us Christians. You’ve surely heard and experienced the grim statistics about how far out of favor Christians are falling with the general population in our world today. You’ve no doubt been on the receiving end of someone’s skepticism or mockery in regards to your claims of salvation or faith.

I really hope the mockery is wrong. I hope we’re not giving anyone in our corner of the world cause to doubt the sincerity and validity of Christianity. When they truly experience who we are, I hope their perceptions change.

Indeed, sometimes that’s the only cure for a false perception.

I am hopefully confident that true Christians will show the world such a blend of winsome grace, earnest conviction, and mobilized compassion that we could never again be perceived as anything less than genuine followers of Jesus Christ.

The Hole in our Gospel Reading Program Chapter Twenty-One: Why We’re Not So Popular Anymore

Down with the glorified self

Working in Los Angeles County can be hazardous to one’s health. I’m not talking about the high-speed freeways or the frantic pace of life, but rather the cultural atmosphere that insists on glorifying “self.”glorified self statue

Here in the entertainment capital of the world, we are obsessed with beauty, success, and fame, and we can sometimes forget that Jesus didn’t call us to build our own name but to glorify His.

It’s human nature to assert and exalt self, and indeed each of us carries an innate longing for significance; however, the biblical pathway for a significant life is found in giving one’s life away. Jesus said, “Whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25b). This doesn’t mean that we are relegated to lives of obscure insignificance—quite the reverse. It means that no matter how broad our influence or our audience becomes the motivation of our life is ever geared toward pleasing God and serving people.

In the classic Christian book Hinds Feet on High Places the water droplets in the waterfall sang a unique song that revealed the extreme delight that they had discovered as they rushed downward from the heights toward the waiting villagers below. They sang, “From the heights we leap and flow, to the valleys down below.”

The song of the water droplets is our mantra too. We don’t exist to build monuments to self but to descend with delight in service to the Lord. As we increasingly embrace this serving, giving life we discover that we are closer than ever to living the life we have always dreamed of. When we partner with Jesus in loving and serving the world, His love begins to permeate our soul and it leads us into the discovery of “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).waterfall

Wood-eating ants

As 2011 winds down I have a New Year’s question to pose to you. If someone were to use your life for a preaching platform, would you be able to hold up his or her weight, or would you collapse like the stump I recently tried to stand on?

Before the opening session of our recent men’s retreat, I went for a walk in the woods to pray, and I spied what looked like the perfect platform to stand on. It was a huge stump of a massive tree that had been cut down close to the ground, and I thought it would be fun to use it as a mini-stage to think and pray from.

Description: This image shows a Carpenter ant ...
Image via Wikipedia

Unfortunately as I leapt on top of it, my feet sank several inches in to a mushy, ant-infested mess. The massive tree trunk had been devoured from the inside, and despite its impressive appearance it was a hollow shell that folded under the slightest pressure.

My little stint on the stump got me thinking.

  1. Am I living a hollow life, or is there enough substance in me to support the work that God is trying to do in and through me?
  2. Do I have any hidden areas that still need to be confessed to a safe, appropriate person?
  3. Are there any wrongs in my past that I have yet to make right?
  4. Are there any wood-eating ants chomping on my character from the inside out?

I think these are good questions, and I think the end of the year is the perfect time to ask them. As we move together in to the blank page of a New Year, let’s do what it takes to build lives that are solid all the way to our core.

The 5th Gospel

StJohnsAshfield StainedGlass JohnTheBaptist Paul
Image via Wikipedia

British Evangelist Gypsy Smith said, “There are five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian, and some people will never read the first four.”

The Apostle Paul expressed that sentiment this way, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.” (2 Corinthians 3:2)

What letter are people reading when they study your life? How much of the love and nature of Jesus Christ has been incarnated (embodied) in YOU? When I’m really honest with myself I have to admit that I probably incarnate a lot less of God’s heart than I think I do. People might think I’m a nice guy. They might think I’m a decent Christian, and they might even admire some of my family dynamics, but I wonder if my presence in their life stirs any hunger to touch Christ.

Only a divine touch on our lives can inspire in others a hunger for the divine. Does that make sense? Me being a really great guy will not draw anyone to Jesus. People won’t convert to Christianity just because Christians are the nicest people (and by the way, we SHOULD be the nicest people because we’re living for others not ourselves). People will convert when they sense and see the reality of Christ lived out in His people.

You and I are the 5th Gospel. Let’s spend so much time with the hero of the other four Gospels that when people read our lives they will be infatuated and drawn to Him.