Monday, February 27, 2012

Letting God be God - a brief review

In calling myself a Christian I voluntarily place myself within a group of roughly 2.1 billion people who constitute the largest single religion in the world.  But Christianity is not one monolithic and cohesive religion.  In the 2000 years since Jesus lived those people who became his followers have divided and sub-divided many times.  The three major groups within Christianity are Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, and each of them has sub-groups.  As a Protestant Christian I am in the tradition that is known as Reformed.  This is the religious tradition that David Cornick briefly surveys in Letting God be God.

The person whose work was the catalyst for a Reformed understanding of theology was John Calvin.  Calvin, along with Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, were the three dominant theologians of the Protestant Reformation.  They were united in their commitment to bring the church back to the Bible as the first and foremost revelation of God to his people.  They believed that the Bible taught that salvation in Christ was God’s gracious gift, received by faith.  But their thinking diverged on topics of relatively lesser importance, such as the way each of them understood the Lord’s Supper.  Their theological legacy continues today in the Reformed, Lutheran and Baptist traditions of Christianity.  Cornick’s book is an exploration of several of the ways the Reformed tradition is distinctive from other forms of Christian belief.

Cornick first gives a brief history of the development of Reformed theology, including a discussion of other early theologians within the tradition, and the tradition’s development and use of confessions as a means articulating its beliefs.  He notes that being Reformed does not mean adhering firmly to a designated framework of beliefs, where all Reformed Christians live and breathe within rigid theological boundaries.  There are a number of ways to organize and state beliefs that are accepted by differing denominations of the Reformed tradition, including the Heidleberg and Westminster (Larger and Shorter) Catechisms, and the Belgic, Westminster, and Second Helvetic Confessions. 

Rather than using what is popularly understood as the “five points” framework of the Canons of Dort as the overarching form for Reformed theology Cornick uses the model of a relational understanding between God and his people.  In turn his chapters describe “a speaking God and a listening people,” “a choosing God and a chosen people,” “a Holy God and a worldly people,” and “a loving God and a catholic people.”  In using a relational understanding Cornick emphasizes the way in which Reformed theology embraces God as God, a God who calls people to be his own, nourishing them on his word, and sending them to serve him in the world. 

The book’s title is what first drew my attention to it.  The idea of “Letting God be God” is something that I have gradually learned in my own spiritual journey, an idea that I continually find my self praying for as the best way to live my life.  If God is truly God, and I believe he is, then I most certainly am not.  But being human, even one who has received God’s precious grace in my life, I continually struggle against God.  This is the essence of sin, i.e. choosing to live according to my own will rather than the will of God. 

In Reformed theology I find that God is sovereign, and it is to his glory that I should live my life.  I find a theology that both nourishes me deeply, encouraging and challenging me to live faithfully in the world.  Cornick writes, “Reformed spirituality, with its grounding in the sovereignty and providential love of God, invites believers to see themselves as players in the ‘theater of God’s glory’, to allow God’s story to continue in them.” (106) 

No church or denomination is perfect, Reformed or otherwise, but in its confessions and persistent drive to ground theology and the life that flows from it according to the truth of Gods word, I feel very comfortable placing myself in a long line of people who have called themselves Reformed.  Cornick has written a book which, along with others such as On Being Reformed by I. John Hesselink and What is Reformed Theology by R.C. Sproul, can help people seeking their place within the Christian church learn if the Reformed tradition is the place where God is calling them.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Recently I had one of those mildly embarrassing moments when I ran into someone I knew and could not remember their name.  And it happened twice.  Within two minutes of each other.

It may very well be that I was the only one who was embarrassed.  Throughout the conversations that we had I was scanning my mind to recall their names.  I don’t know if they were aware of my efforts to recall the names as we were talking. 

To my “credit” neither person was someone who was a close friend, or whom I saw often.  The first was the mother of my older daughter’s best friend while that daughter was still in high school.  The girls didn’t hang around too much after graduating in 2005.  I run into the mother once in a while at work and she always asks about my daughter.

The other person was the mother of a young man who was in my Scout Troop when I was a Scoutmaster.  That boy left the troop in 2000, so that is a relationship that goes a bit farther back, and which is also more distant because I hadn’t seen the mother for a number of years afterward and she only began working in the hospital where I work one or two years ago.  And I only see her there very occasionally.

Funny thing is that we all wear name tags at work but in neither case was their tag visible to me in a manner where I could read their name and work it into the conversation.  My good-byes to them were friendly but not personal.  And I did remember both names about 30 minutes later. 

A number of years ago I heard a sermon, where the preacher said something about names.  I don’t remember what the preacher said specifically but the lesson I did learn, at least the lesson in the sermon for myself, was that it wasn’t acceptable to believe that “I’m not good with names.”  People matter, their names matter, and for me to have good relationships with people and to value them as individuals it is important for me to know and use their names. 

Our names are the key way in which we are identified in the world.  I’m Brad.  In one circumstance I may be Brad, the runner, and in another Brad, the occupational therapist, and another, Brad, the Scoutmaster.  And there are many more adjectives describing who I may be in different places, but at the core there is always my name, Brad. (More formally Bradley, which used to be only the province of my grandmothers but now is finding wider application…go figure!)

And one day Brad will pass from this earth.  I will no longer exist, and at some point memory of me will likely pass away as well.  I know the names of my grandparents but not all the names of the generation before them.  And I can pass that knowledge on to my children but who knows how long they will carry it?  For how many future generations will my own name be remembered? 

It really doesn’t matter to me that my name is remembered long into the future.  I hope to leave this world with a legacy of faith in Jesus, shaping the faith of my descendants and others my life has touched.  And I hope that their faith leaves a similar legacy.

And another reason, a much better reason, that the memory of my own name doesn’t matter to me is because my name, and my person, matter to God.   

The Bible is full of the names of people.  Some are very familiar and well-known to us while others are obscure.  Some are easy to pronounce and some, perhaps many more, we stumble over at best when we read and speak them aloud.  Some of the people named in the Bible give us good models of making God-honoring choices in their lives, while others provide just the opposite. 

And then there are others that are merely listed.  We read just their names and we know virtually nothing else about them.  The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are full of names and very little else.  They list the genealogies of the Jewish people, beginning with Adam, continuing through the twelve tribes, even including Saul’s genealogy twice.  Ezra 2 and 8 are also primarily genealogies of the exiles returning from Babylon.

One of the things we learn from the genealogies of the Old Testament is that individual people matter to God.  They matter in life and they matter in death.  God saw fit to preserve in his word the names of a great many people.  They are the names of his chosen people.  The record of them reminds us that through the work of God we are also joined into his people.  And one day we will be joined with all of God’s people, his people of the past, present and future, in eternal praise. 

I forgot, temporarily, the names of those two people I began this post with.  But I remember them now and I expect to remember their names, and to use them, the next time I see them.  And I will also continue to work on learning the names of those people I expect to meet tomorrow, and next week, and on into the future. 

And my greatest hope is that perhaps through an act as small as a remembered name that they may come to know and love deeply the person who holds the name that stands above all names, Jesus, the Christ.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Freethinker or free thinker?

Like many states, the one that we live in, Minnesota, has a program where people and groups can volunteer to clean up the trash that collects along the side of a highway.  The responsible person or group organizes a clean-up about three times a year, picking up litter and leaving it in large trash bags that the state then collects and disposes of.  Last week as we were returning home from a trip to Wisconsin we passed one of those signs that tells who is responsible for cleaning up one portion of the highway within our county.  The two-mile section was taken care of by the Rochester Area Freethinkers.

This was a sign I had seen many times before, one that I had thought about a little bit.  In my mind I had assumed them to be some sort of group that was primarily atheist in its intentions.  My curiosity being pricked, I went on-line and visited their website, which provided this definition:     

“A Freethinker is someone who strives to base their opinions and beliefs on facts.
As opposed to basing them on hearsay, dogma, superstition, or faith.
Faith is the opposite where you suspend rationality and the need for evidence.”

Reading that definition I think I can reasonably conclude that the essential premise of atheism, i.e. that God, if he/she exists, cannot act supernaturally, may not be their primary value but clearly underlies that which they choose to believe, as well as what they choose not to believe.  Investigating a bit further I learned that Freethinkers are practitioners of Freethought, which had a particularly strong base in Wisconsin as Germans immigrated there in the 19th century.

So on the one hand the Freethinkers have facts and reason, which they uphold as proofs against faith in the other hand.  Looking at faith in greater depth, beyond the definition given above, where is faith as defined by what it isn’t, we have these definitions:
1. Confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2. Belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
3. Belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
4. Belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.
5. A system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.
6. The obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.: Failure to appear would be breaking faith.
7. The observance of this obligation; fidelity to one's promise, oath, allegiance, etc.: He was the only one who proved his faith during our recent troubles.
8. Christian Theology: the trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ and the Scriptures by which humans are justified or saved.

I believe that the Freethinker would only object to definitions 3, 5 and 8.  And while they may agree with the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1, which is a definition of faith based on what it is rather than what it isn’t, they would not find any comfort in it.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

 Another thing that it appears Freethinkers are opposed to is dogma.  Here is a link to a dictionary definition of dogma.  Moving briefly to pop culture I want to cite a quote by Steven Jobs that circulated widely after his recent death, where he said this:

“Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking.”

I’m not so convinced that dogma in and of itself, or as Jobs phrased it, “the results of other people’s thinking,” is an inherently bad thing.  To me he certainly seemed happy to see his own thinking permeate the computer industry, shaping aspects of the entire industry according to his particular vision for it.

And I believe there is much that is based in dogma of one kind or another that the Freethinkers would agree with, such as the thinking that guided the Founding Fathers, particularly in establishing the Bill of Rights, which allows Freethinkers in this country the right to publicly express their views free of the threat of oppression.

This isn’t a blanket defense of dogma, for there certainly has been much evil done in the world that has been driven by dogma, such as the fascism found in Nazi Germany and the twisted variants of Christianity that condoned the Spanish Inquisition and the crusades. 

Yesterday, as I left my house to run near dawn, the waning moon hung low in the sky, with the barest sliver in view.  And as I heard the honking of geese, I turned my head to see a group of nine flying north towards their summer habitat, as improbable as that seems in mid-February. 

All around me there was evidence of creation, a creation that can not be fully explained by objective facts.  And neither can the intricacies of creation be fully understood by the testimony of the Bible.  But the Bible does testify to the Creator, who created this world for his pleasure, placing within it a people he could lavish his love on. 

I can’t prove that the Bible’s claims are true, outside of the testimony of my own story and where God has been actively involved in my life.  I do have the faith of Hebrews 11, and I trust in the promises of God, promises that find their fulfillement in the finished work of Christ on the cross.

The Freethinker, or any person who does not have faith in God as made known in Christ Jesus, may feel that they are free to live and act in the world as they see fit, believing in whatever ethical structure suits their fancy.  I thank God that he has revealed himself to me in the person of Christ, and that he has filled me with the presence of his Spirit.

In Galatians 4:8-9 Paul writes:

“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?”

Accepting the grace of God, by faith, allows me to think freely, and to know fellowship with my Lord and Savior, now and forever. 

I have many friends who are not Christians and if you are one of them and reading this blog, or any non-believer reading this blog, then I would encourage you to seek that which can not be known objectively but is certainly real, more real than anything that has ever existed, which is the deep and abiding love that God has, and offers, to you.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ministry by the Book

What is the model, or models, that one should use when engaged in church leadership?  And how are those models to be shaped?  These are the questions that Derek Tidball addresses in Ministry by the Book: New Testament Patterns for Pastoral Leadership

Some people would say that the New Testament is primarily about Jesus and the Good News, and that it was never Jesus’ intent to establish anything like what we know as the church today.  Tidball holds a different view, believing that throughout the New Testament there are things to learn about early believers in Jesus, how they lived and related to one another and their culture, and which can modeled by the church today.  He works his way through the New Testament, identifying 14 different patterns that may be followed by pastors and other congregational leaders. 

In most of the books he identifies both a specific circumstance of the church and then outlines an associated ministry pattern found in the local church.  Examples are “Mark: ministry in an oppressed culture,” with “The ministry of kingdom emissaries” and “Hebrews: ministry in a faltering church” with “The ministry of a reflective practitioner.”  Exceptions are for the letters attributed to Paul, which he subdivides with the themes “ministry in an infant church,” “ministry in a maturing church,” and “ministry in an aging church” and Jude and 2 Peter, which are combined as “ministry in an endangered church.”  In the concluding chapter he discusses implications of the ministry patterns for individual pastors, congregations and denominations.

One of the strengths of Tidball’s approach is in identifying the characteristics of the church and then exploring the ministry pattern appropriate to it.  In “Matthew: ministry in a divided church,” the pattern is “The ministry of wise instruction.”  In particular, Tidball discusses the role of the scribe within the Jewish community and Matthew’s tendency to portray them negatively, following that with a discussion of how the knowledge of a scribe could be used more positively to build up a community of believers.  He includes a word of caution on those characteristics that leaders could easily carry to excess, including ostentation, authoritarianism, fanaticism and legalism. (35-36) 

Another strength is Tidball’s commitment to stay close to the biblical text and resist reading into it more than is actually there.  This was particularly evident when talking about ministry gifts and the differing roles in which they may be used.  He knows that the text gives a general description of certain roles, such as deacon, elder and bishop, but points out that it does not give a lot of specific information about particulars, such as the clear limits to those roles or the establishment of a church hierarchy, which as is found within nearly every Christian denomination.

I acquired this book by accident.  It was on the early draft of a syllabus for a course on church leadership.  I bought the book and when the final syllabus came out it was no longer among the required texts.  And that, in a way, was a gift, for I was able to read it for my own learning, rather than reading an assigned portion of it and then completing a required project with the information. 

I take from it a greater understanding of the circumstances of the early church and the different ways in which God was active in meeting those needs, and hope that I can discern some of those circumstances within my own congregation.  And as I read of the different leadership patterns I recognize that I am stronger in some areas than in others, which perhaps will allow me to cultivate the varying gifts of the congregation, so that we can provide, to the best of our ability, the presence of God in the place where he has gathered us.   

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Old Ideas

The past few days my family and I have spent in Milwaukee, the city where I grew up.  We came to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.  The big events were a meal at my brother’s home yesterday, and then worship with a short reception afterwards this morning at my dad’s church, followed by lunch at his favorite pizza place at noon.  Everyone wasn’t able to come but we had members of four generations and it was a good gathering for us.  With the exception of my family, all who gathered have now returned home, with home being as near as Milwaukee’s suburbs and as far as New York City. 

So this evening, in the quiet, I browsed through a copy of a magazine I only skim at my mom’s place, the New Yorker, and I saw an ad for a new CD by Leonard Cohen that caught my eye, Old Ideas. 

Cohen is, I believe, an acquired taste.  About 25 years ago I tried to acquire it, buying one of his albums but never really “getting it” and eventually discarding the album.  I’m not intending to grasp Cohen’s music now but what really caught my attention in the ad was the CD’s title, as well as the title of several of the songs on it. 

As I said, the CD is called Old Ideas.  The songs listed in the ad that drew my attention are Darkness and Going Home.  These titles all come together as I think about worshipping in my father’s church this morning. 

Worship opened with an announcement by the pastor to the congregation.  He shared with the congregation the sudden death of a church member, someone whom I understood that most of the church knew, someone they expected to be gathered with them each Sunday.  He was just 57 years old, had fallen in his home, and was found dead. 

After sharing this news the worship service began.  In addition to the preaching of the word and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there was also a baptism this morning.  In that hour or so of worship we took notice of new life, in a four month-old girl receiving the sacrament that marks the church’s claim on her, and we took notice of one member reaching a milestone of a long life.  And we were reminded of life’s tenuous nature, in noting the passing on of a familiar face, once ever-present and vibrant and now not to be seen in this world again.  And we were gathered around the Lord’s Table, sharing in that sacrament that serves as a sign and seal of God’s promises to his people. 

We live in the 21st century but need to be reminded that the ideas, the promises that God has made clear in his word, may be thought of as “Old Ideas” but that they are also very real promises, promises without any “expiration date.”  In John 1:4-5 the Evangelist writes,

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The opening message from the pastor this morning reminds us that our life may end at any time.  In his word God promises us that his light shines…always.  It shines in our celebrations.  It shines in our grieving.  And his most profound promise is that through his son that all of us who gather in his name, who gather around his table, will one day be “Going Home” to that place he has prepared, where we will be gathered with Jesus, our Lord and Savior, forever.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hugo Black: A Biography

While I appreciate the convenience of searching out information in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, one of the things gained in the online experience, rapidly finding the precise topic in question, is at the expense of something lost from handling the hard-cover volume of something such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is unexpectedly stumbling upon something that captivates your attention, when all along you were looking for a different topic. 

Such was my recent experience at our local public library.  I was searching the shelves to see if they had a biography of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth.  Sadly, they didn’t.  But as I then wandered through the “B’s,” to my complete surprise, I stumbled on Hugo Black: A Biography, by Roger K. Newman.  Feeling as if I had discovered a rare prize I grabbed the volume and headed off to find my family and the check-out line.  And it is a rare prize indeed.

Hugo Black is primarily recalled as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court (the Court), serving from 1937 to 1971.  I had a little prior knowledge of him from when I read The Brethren, in the early ‘80’s and then later, from reading both parts of William O. Douglas’s autobiography, first The Court Years, and then several years later, Go East, Young Man.  The Brethren gives a behind-the-scenes account of the Court, year-by year, from 1969 through 1975.  This was a turbulent time for the Court, both in the nature of the cases it handled, such as school desegregation and freedom of speech, as well as for the makeup of the Court itself.  And Douglas was inextricably linked to Black, both through the generally similar leanings they had legally and politically, and the fact that they served on the Court together for 32 years.

Newman has written a comprehensive account of Black’s life, reporting not just the facts of what happened during his 85 years of life but also giving context to these events, describing how they came about and how they shaped his most enduring legacy, his work on the Court.  The biography moves through his life in five sections, beginning with his early life and legal practice, which was primarily in the area of personal injury, then addressing his ten years as a US Senator, and finally his career an the Court, dividing it into three phases. 

Black became a lawyer almost by accident.  He had tried medicine, intending to follow one of his brothers, but learned in the course of one year of medical school that he didn’t have the temperament for some aspects of medical practice.  He then tried law school, gaining admission outside of the requirements, including the absence of an undergraduate degree.  As he gradually developed a legal practice he supplemented his income through doing background investigations for insurance companies.  He also found part-time work as a municipal judge, handling traffic court in the morning and returning to his own practice in the afternoons.

Early in his legal career he developed political aspirations and he quickly joined any organization which he felt would have a future benefit.  This included joining the Ku Klux Klan.  While he publically considered his Klan membership to be little different than any other fraternal organization, and he was a member of quite a few, it was essential to his election to the Senate.  In 1926 roughly one-half of all registered voters in Alabama were Klan members and the person who functioned as his campaign manager, in every way but job title, was the head of the Alabama Klan.  Black did not parade his Klan membership as a reason for people to vote for him but he did speak with Klan chapters in nearly every place he made a campaign stop.  

His membership in the Klan was a public issue several times during his career in Washington as a senator, but not to the point that it interfered with his work as a legislator.  An astute politician, he soon resigned his Klan membership, and the Klan itself declined so sharply that by 1932 it was essentially irrelevant to his re-election campaign.  Black’s membership in the Klan was the one aspect of his past that I believe he truly regretted.  None of the “values” of the Klan, if they can be called that, seems to have shaped either his legislative or judicial career. 

At the time of his retirement from the Court, Black’s 34 years made him the third-longest serving Justice in its history.   He served with five Chief Justices and during the service of six US Presidents.  His service included the New Deal, World War Two, the cold war and the campaign for civil rights.  Each of these, and many other matters, came before the court while he was a member.  Sometimes he was in the majority and other times not.  The issues of law that were perhaps dearest to his heart concerned the Bill of Rights, and in particular the First Amendment, which reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As I reflect on the three divisions Newman gives to Black’s service on the court, i.e. early, middle, and late, I find myself thinking in terms of time.  Black, and his views on the application of the First Amendment, was ahead of the times, with the times, and behind the times.  He was an “absolutist” regarding free speech, writing in one opinion,

“Ultimately all questions in this case really boil down to one – whether we as a people will try fearfully and futilely to preserve democracy by adopting totalitarian methods, or whether in accordance with our traditions and our Constitution we will have the confidence and courage to be free.” (490)

And this type of thinking, that speech that was completely free of influence by any branch of government, shaped his legacy.  He was adamantly opposed to all attempts to restrain speech, be it as either written or spoken word, and I believe that he stood as a necessary corrective to the excesses of the Cold War.  Throughout his career he was passionate about understanding the both the precision of word choice as well as the intent of the Constitution’s authors, and then applying that intent to the issues of his time.  This passion, or its direction, seemed to shift in the later part of his career, as he disagreed with the idea that certain actions, such as non-violent public protest, could be construed as speech, finding instead that those actions were mere infringements on property rights, and therefore criminal conduct.  His late thoughts on these issues put him at odds with the rulings of court members he had previously been allied with, such as William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall.

Black was a very well-read person and much of his thinking was shaped by his reading, particularly that of Thomas Jefferson, as well as ancient writers in Greek and Latin, such as Plato, Cicero and Tacitus.  He was also familiar with the Bible.  He was known to teach a large (100+ students) Bible study at a Baptist church before he was elected to the Senate and he occasionally cited the Bible in his personal correspondence. 

As a person who processes many things theologically I was a bit surprised by the absence of theological reflection in this biography.  Black was active in his church during the period of the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy, something that may not have directly affected his congregation, being Baptist, but certainly must have been known to them, and plausibly shaped any preaching and teaching from the Bible during that time.

Newman worked on this biography for many years, conducting extensive interviews with Black, his family and his friends, and he also did extensive research from Black’s archived writing.  I can only conclude that a theological dimension is absent from the biography because it was essentially absent from Black’s life.  As a person who is himself preparing to teach a large group on a chapter from the Gospel of John I can’t fathom effectively teaching a Biblical text that is not also deeply believed in by the teacher.  So I am at a loss to grasp how someone of Black’s intellect and ability was able to read and to teach from the Bible but appear to not also be shaped by it throughout his life. 

Newman wrote this biography in 1994, eighteen years ago and twenty-three years after Justice Black died.  I believe it holds up well as a comprehensive overview of the life and work a man who spent nearly 45 years in service his country, to the best of his ability as he understood it.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in 20th century US history, the history of the Supreme Court, or with openness to doing as I did, i.e., stumbling across something both unexpected and interesting, and finding within it a glimpse of the effect that one man can have in the world. 

While he may have passed through the world as a person who was not explicitly a Christian, those of us who do claim that identity may be reminded through the example of Black’s life that little things, perhaps not noticed overtly by the world but still shaping that world, may yet have profound effect for the kingdom of God. 

May we continue to faithfully follow the one we call both Lord and Savior, trusting the results to his most capable hands.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

He Still Speaks

This morning I had the opportunity to read the Bible aloud for the congregation during worship.  The passage I read was Hebrews 11:1-19.  Over the last few days I read it aloud at home several times, so that I would be somewhat familiar with it and not stumble over any words or phrases as I read.  As I did this preparation I found that one phrase, verse 4b, just seemed to linger in mind when I was done reading.  It says,

            “And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

In looking back to the first part of the verse we see that the author is talking about Abel, whose offering to God in Genesis 4, was found acceptable by God.  The intent of the author of Hebrews is that Abel, who has been dead a very long time, continues to “speak” to people of his faith in God.  In making his offering he demonstrates that the giving of our best back to God is something that pleases God.

The fuller reading that I did mentions a number of other people from the Old Testament who had faith in God, including Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob.  Each one of them was long-dead at the time Hebrews was written, and none of them were perfect models of holy living, and yet each of them, in their own way, continues to bear witness to God. 

And that brought this question to my mind:

Who are the people whose lives have testified to their faith and whose examples still speak to me? 

Here is one example.

In 1986 or ’87 I had a brief acquaintance with a woman named Trudy.  I don’t recall how it came up that she was a Christian but in conversation one day she mentioned that she was going to be praying with another person that day.  Again, I don’t recall the specifics, or the timeline, of our discussions over 2-3 days but she knew that I wasn’t a Christian, at least not in anything but the most nominal sense.  And the fact is that my faith was so nominal that I didn’t even know it.

As she went off to meet this other person for prayer Trudy said that she “would pray for me.”  I don’t recall my response but I do recall what I thought, which was “Whatever.  Suit yourself.”  The circumstances that brought us briefly together changed and I never saw Trudy again.   

Moving forward in time, to October, 2000, God worked powerfully in my life, and faith in him became a real thing, something that remains so today.  In the intervening 11 years I have occasionally looked back on my life, to the times before the fall of 2000, and seen places where God had been evident in the circumstances of my life but I was completely inattentive and disinterested.  The brief connection with Trudy is one of them. 

I have no idea how long she prayed for me, whether it was just that one day or if it became an ongoing prayer of hers.  I like to think that she carried on and prayed in the manner that C.S. Lewis describes in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  Lewis wrote that he was often uncertain how long he should carry a particular prayer concern, but that he was certain that any particular day was not the day to stop praying for that concern.    

Trudy was one of those people whose name belongs aside all of the others of Hebrews 11.  She was a person who bore faithful witness to her Lord and Savior, and by whose example God continues to speak to me today.

Throughout history there have been people with faith in God, people who have given witness of that faith to those around them.  Some of their names are in the Bible, such as the ones I mentioned above.  Others are in the history books, such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Bonhoeffer.  And still others are in the pews, sitting next to us each Sunday.

Who has God placed in your life to shape your faith? 

And through you, who is God speaking to?

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.