Monday, February 25, 2013

Peace When Possible, Truth No Matter the Cost

As the saying goes, “Doctrine divides”.  Indeed this is true.  In light of this fact, many have viewed doctrine as a hindrance to Christian love and shy away or even rebuke those who desire to probe deeply into doctrinal matters.  However, some things merit division.  That is to say, we are not under any biblical or godly obligation to maintain unity at the expense of truth.  "No Compromise" was the theme of last week's Ligonier Ministries National Conference; a ministry that has been a great blessing to me and I am better for having attended it for a second time.  

The Bible is full of stories where God sent prophets to demand that His people “come out and be separate” based on the word of God.  The Bible is the basis of all sound teaching and Christian doctrine is nothing more than all things that God has revealed concerning Himself, the nature and destiny of mankind, our need for God, what God has done in Christ for all who believe, and what God demands from believers by His Spirit.  Doctrine, therefore, is not something reserved for the cold calculations of stuffed shirts in an academic ivory tower.  Doctrine is God’s safeguard for mankind, a light for the true believer, and the growing passion of everyone who is in Christ.  And since the time of the Apostles, no one has exemplified a God-honoring zeal for doctrine quite like that great North African: Athanasius of Alexandria.

As a young man, Athanasius attended the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), acting as the secretary to his bishop.  Forget whatever you've heard about that gathering if it didn't also include the fact that these participants were mainly priests and bishops who bore in their bodies the proof of their devotion.  This was not some pristine assembly the affluent, arrayed in golden garments and finery.  No, these men were the scarred and mutilated representatives of Christians and whole churches that had been tortured, looted, and martyred because they would not trade the truth of God’s work in Christ on their behalf for the temporal pleasure of “peace” with the Roman Empire.  This scene deeply influenced young Athanasius who saw firsthand the price of devotion to the Christian faith and a refusal to compromise even a “jot or tittle” of the Holy Scriptures.

Athanasius was eventually made bishop over Alexandra and served for 45 years.  However, 17 years of his tenure would see him exiled—not once or twice—but five times.  He was not forced out of his church and city for misconduct or moral failures.  His “crime” was that he faithfully proclaimed the doctrine of the Incarnation (that Jesus was God in the flesh) at a time when many who called themselves Christians did not believe the scriptures on that issue.  Athanasius believed in the deity of Christ and taught on the doctrine of the Trinity when it was unpopular to believe that Jesus was truly and fully divine.  Because he believed that only God could save sinners and that Jesus was God, he suffered as members of his own church and churches in his home city went back and forth between two doctrines.  But Athanasius was resolute in affirming scripture and refused to compromise.  He was known, therefore, as Athanasius Contra Mundum “Athanasius Against the World” and I am indebted to him for the name of my blog among other things. 

Athanasius deserves a spotlight because the very doctrines that we take for granted in our churches today are the very ones that God strengthened this man to defend and preserve at a time when false doctrine might have overcome the church entirely.  For sure, we recognize that Christ is ultimately the protector of all truth entrusted to the Church.  However, it is proper to recognize that God, through the Holy Spirit, uses human agents to achieve that goal.  Athanasius’ example has been a lighthouse for the Church throughout every generation since.  The much-celebrated generation of the Reformers like, Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli sit on the shoulders of a mighty African giant whose example of Christian courage inspired them to stand firm during the great doctrinal struggles of their day. 

May the Lord grant us grace to stand as Athanasius did in his day and three Hebrews before him, Contra Mundum, “against the world” and for the doctrines that honor Jesus the Christ.

(A great book on early theologians and their contributions to the faith is the work edited by Bradley G. Green's Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy published by IVP Academic).  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Haiti Missions Trip Recap 03: Now the Circle is Complete

It’s been about two months since my missions trip to Haiti via the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Missions Board.  The memories are forever etched in my mind as are the faces of families that were blessed by God through our efforts.  The video clips recently uploaded to Lott Carey’s YouTube channel have inspired me to write one last time from a more personal angle than previously shared on this blog.  For those who don’t know…

Both of my parents are from Haiti.  So, although I was born in New York City and am a U.S. citizen, I am also 100% Haitian-blooded.  I was raised in a Haitian-American section of Queens, NY named Cambria Heights which to this day remains predominantly inhabited by persons of Haitian descent.  According to the wisdom and providence of God, He saw fit to have me spend my high school years in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, between the years of 1988 and 1992. 

The first few years were extremely difficult for me.  I remember even when boarding the plane from JFK with almost every stitch of clothing and possession I had, I was still in denial about the move to Haiti.  I could not come to grips with the idea of moving.  “People want to move from Haiti to the U.S.”, I thought to myself.  “Who would want to move from the U.S. to Haiti?”  I was sure that my parents would see the folly of their thoughts and sometime in August, I’d be back in Queens getting ready to attend Archbishop Molloy High School.  But instead, I was stuck in Haiti. 

People who visit Haiti often return to the States and tell everyone how being in Haiti made them feel so grateful for all that they had previously taken for granted.  But living in Haiti proved a very different mindset for me.  I hated Haiti.  I was embarrassed by the half-completed home I was living in.  Mortified by the lack of consistent running water and shocked at the idea that I could flip a light switch or press a button on the TV or radio and nothing happened (we had daily blackouts lasting 12-18 hours on average), I hated my life. 

Although I was already a professing believer in Christ, I hated Him too.  I was disillusioned by the God that I thought loved me: how could He love me and let me go through all of this?  Why was I surrounded by so much pain and poverty?  I was in what appeared to be a lose-lose proposition: I hated the fact that I had left so much in New York to live with so little in Haiti.  But at the same time, I knew I couldn’t complain too much because by comparison with the misery around me, I should be feel fortunate.   I wondered as I wandered in circles in my nearly pitch dark room with no light but the moon and the far away flickering lights on the mountains, “Does God really care?”

To be sure, there were some bright spots here and there.  My friend David Prosper kept me sane with faithful friendship, insightful thoughts, and brilliant imagination. And then there was a loving community of missionaries that took a liking to me, first among them was my high school principle, Mr. David Bitner.  

I was taught the scriptures in school and while it fascinated me to learn directly from scripture (I went to Roman Catholic schools prior to QuisqueyaChristian School (QCS) and only had religion text books), it increased the gap between me and God in a weird way.  The God I read about in the Scriptures was transcendent but imminent.  Like the sun in the sky, He was actually so far above and beyond me and yet just as present as the heat around me—especially the Haitian sun!  But my experience in Haiti between June of ’88 and January of ’91 had me believing that I was experiencing the eclipse of God’s love. 

Somewhere in the middle of my junior year, a true Godsend in my life, formerly Rebecca Nelson (a daughter of missionaries herself) had shared a scripture passage with me:  Jeremiah 29:11-13, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

It was at that time that things started to make sense.  I realized that my time in Haiti had forced me to truly seek God out in ways that a comparatively comfortable life in the States probably wouldn’t have.  Somehow, in the middle of my anger at God for engineering or at the very least allowing the circumstances of my life, I hadn’t stopped believing in Him despite my confusion about His ways.  When I read all of Jeremiah 29, I realized that the chapter itself was a letter from Jeremiah to those Jews who were in exile.  “I’m in exile too!” I thought to myself.  It was the first time that I could see the God speaking to my life directly through the pages of scripture.  Although I was in another country that I didn't want to live in, I had the assurance that God did care.  After all, He had one of His prophets write a letter to persons who were in my shoes.  And He cared enough to ensure that the same letter would be preserved to the very day that I needed its instruction and encouragement.  
My assumptions about God and my expectations regarding how He would govern the life I handed over to Him were wrong.  To be truthful, I’m not sure I really understood God’s rulership over my life as a Christian.  I knew He was saving me from Hell… but that was about it.  The idea that God would radically rule my life without any attempt to appeal for my consent never occurred to me.  I never thought to myself, “Why would an infinitely wise God need my advice as to what I thought was good for my life?”  Instead, I assumed that God should do the things that I wanted Him to do and be for me whatever I thought He should be so long as I was a good boy and was basically moral. 

What a joke.

My basic problem with God was a lack of trust.  I didn’t truly believe that He was out for my good.  I looked at circumstances and made the common but drastic mistake of trusting my own calculations.  When I did the math and the numbers didn’t make sense, I assumed that God was wrong.  It never occurred to me that the way I was looking at my life was wrong… or that comfort and pleasure were wrong goals… or that the Christian life shouldn’t include a cross to bear.  I was “wise in my own eyes” and had the nerve to accuse God of wrong doing.  It’s a testament to His grace that He didn’t kill me.  Trust me, if you knew some of the things I said to Him and thought I had about Him in those dark hours, you’d agree.  But God is so merciful.

The team I traveled with to Haiti saw firsthand and I was reminded of the spiritual giants that the common Haitian believers are.  Often with holes in their shoes and unbearable heat, these people trust God with a faith that shames those of us with climate-controlled sanctuaries and padded pews.  They sing with fervor and easily listen to hour-long sermons with great intent because they are wise enough to cling to God.  Their difficult circumstances have made them wise beyond our learning and it was good for me to be reminded of that.

I think it was Wednesday, December 5th that I saw my brother John in Haiti.  He came to guide me on my way to visit my parents for a few hours with permission from Kathi Reid and Team Leader Tony Taylor.  But on my way to see my parents, I had the pleasure of seeing my old Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) colleague (Robbie Pruitt) and the honor of speaking to his 12 grade Bible class at QCS.  The experience was surreal.

I was standing in clothes I had packed for construction work that were sullied with the dust from transferring between 3 Haitian buses or “tap-taps”.  I was speaking to the Senior Class of 2013 almost 21 years since I had been a senior in what was Miss Sharon Bressler’s classroom where I had both Civics/US Government and Bible class from Mr. Bressler (the Epistle of James).  I was challenging the class to total commitment to God and faithfulness to His word and the pursuit of godly mentors and Christian fellowship.  And I was sharing my own struggles while in Haiti with my reflections on Jeremiah 29 and how God used that one chapter to completely revolutionize my walk with Him. 

I look back on that day and those few minutes with awe and fondness.  Symbolically, it represented a completed circle: the faith of those missionary families like the Bitners, Bresslers, Shingledeckers, etc. was is now fully transferred to me in that I had the opportunity to serve the same nation where they were serving when the Lord used them in my life.  I know that the work of my hands will glorify God by encouraging the faith of a family in need that is calling out to God for the bare necessity of shelter.  My teammates and I will always share the comfort and honor that comes from being used by God in that way.  But those moments back at QCS reminded me of how much the Holy Spirit has impacted my life through self-sacrificial believers in Christ who abandoned their own comfort for the glory of God amidst suffering and extreme inconvenience.