A Song for September

As I sat down to write this update (which is wildly overdue, apologies to those of you who weren’t sure if I was still alive… I guess the title should really be “A Song for August/September/First Week of October” but the meter/alliteration gets thrown off) I started making bullet point lists of all the things we’ve done this fall. Things have been crazy since the students moved in (nearly two and a half months ago now!) – we’ve had large groups, small groups, bible studies, gospel encouragements, one-on-ones, book clubs, corn mazes, hay jumps, haunted houses, wood fires, clothing fires (it’s a long story), and so, so, SO much caffeine. Like, probably a dangerous amount of caffeine.

But something about it kept coming out wrong – it always sounded hollow, one-dimensional.

My granddad passed away on Christmas day four years ago. I still remember the last time we got to see him. It was Thanksgiving, and he – a man I’d always identified with impossibly strong bear hugs and superhuman swimming abilities – looked frighteningly frail. He couldn’t walk anymore, he was in pain most of the time, he could barely speak.

And twice after every meal he had us sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the chorus goes like this:

“Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see – all I have needed Thy hand has provided; great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

To this day that image of my frail, needy granddad depending on Jesus is what I picture when I think about what it really means to be a Christian. In the middle of his suffering, he knew who his Father really was.

Why did I just throw you into that story? Because one of the biggest things that’s been driven home to me in my first few months of the internship is that, in my heart of hearts, I sing that song something like this:

“Great is my faithfulness, great is my faithfulness; morning by morning new service you see – all thou hast asked for, my hands have requited; great is my faithfulness, now give me my fee!”

I was going to just report to you all the successes we’ve had at Arkansas RUF. But my heart is constantly bending the work I do in ministry into a new source of justification for me – a new reason for you to like me, a new reason for God to give me what I really want. The truth is that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no deceit or shadow due to change. There is not one student who is benefiting from RUF apart from the active, living Spirit of God.

We’re growing in both our weekly large group and small groups. I love my students; they’re a constant source of joy and laughter for me. The one-on-ones I’m having are finally starting to shift from pure small talk to matters of importance. I’ve seen the ways that the students are being transformed into the image of Christ.

There have been times that have been really hard. Leaving my Auburn family behind is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Homesickness and loneliness are the surprising bedfellows of a job that’s centered around people.

In both cases, it is because God’s faithfulness to me is greater than I ever imagined.

God works by His Spirit, through His Word, with power, for the building of His church. He works using broken and crooked sticks like me and Mike; He works in far better ways than we could ask or even hope for. Please join me in praying that He continues that work here at Arkansas, that He will continue His work in my heart, and above all that we would learn what it really means to delight ourselves in Him.

Soli Deo Gloria,

James

P.S. Cause I know y’all love pictures, here’s a few from the various things we’ve been up to over the past few months.

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We took roughly 40 students from Arkansas to Fall Conference this year – a weekend filled with friendship, paintball (aka the opposite of friendship), the Gospel, and fire. Even though it was 75 degrees outside.
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Freshman bible study is one of the highlights of my week – every Tuesday afternoon we get together and open the Bible to learn from Jesus. (and then we head over to another highlight of my week: Chick-fil-a)
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Arkansas RUF large group! Every week on Wednesday night we gather to sing, hear the Word preached, and fellowship together.
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The Story of You, Me, Abraham, and Everybody

 

The Nameless Devourer

Mike (my campus minister) recently gave me this incredibly insightful article from the Hedgehog Review. The author, Wilfred McClay (a history professor at the University of Oklahoma) makes a really compelling case about a phenomenon you’re probably intimately familiar with, even if you don’t necessarily know it by name:

Guilt.

We live, McClay argues, in a society more wracked by guilt than any other society in history:

“In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects yields increasingly to human understanding and manipulation, and in which human agency therefore becomes ever more powerful and effective, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, also steadily expands. We like to speak, romantically, of the interconnectedness of all things, failing to recognize that this same principle means that there is almost nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.”

He goes on to illustrate the claim:

“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could. Although if I did so, I would be a well-meaning fool like Dickens’s ludicrous Mrs. Jellyby, who grossly neglects her own family and neighborhood in favor of the distant philanthropy of African missions. Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.”

We’re all aware that things aren’t as they’re supposed to be. We know that we’re not quite who we’re supposed to be. If someone were to put the thoughts that ran through our head on a daily basis on a billboard, we’d immediately pack our bags and move to Syberia. We know the world definitely isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Heartbreak, famine, war, violations of human rights – they’re just wrong.

But when we try to do something about it, we run into this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario that McClay observes. Our good efforts actually end up heaping more guilt on our heads. No matter what I do, I can’t help everyone, and I usually I can’t even help people in the way they really need it. I’m not enough.

The worst part of our situation is that in our post-Nietzsche, post-Freud culture, we’ve lost even our vocabulary to express guilt. Guilt, after all, is a problem with your relationship to something else – you owe someone something. But Freud said that guilt was an accident of biology and sociology, and Nietzsche said that God was dead, and so the West struck both terms from our cultural dictionary. These days there’s nothing to owe and no one to owe it to.

Now the only word we can use to describe our position is shame. “There’s just something wrong with me.” Everyone feels that, when they’re honest. But really, they’re two sides of the same coin: shame looks inward and says “I’m not supposed to look like this,” guilt looks outward and says “I’m supposed to be like that.”

Even though we’ve repressed the categories of guilt, responsibility, and God (even in the supposed “Bible Belt”, these categories might be expressed on Sunday but have no operative power for the rest of the week) we have not actually managed to escape them. Julian Barnes, in his book Nothing to be Frightened Of, describes the sense of wrongness that often strikes us in our most honest moments:

“Only a couple of nights ago, there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitch-forked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist shouting “oh no Oh No OH NO” in an endless wail, the horror of the moment – the minutes – overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of self-exhibitionist pity. An inarticulate one, too: for what sometimes shames me is the extraordinary lack of descriptive, or responsive, words that come out of my mouth. For God’s sake, you’re a writer, I say to myself. You do words. Can’t you improve on that? Can’t you face down death – well, you won’t ever face it down, but can’t you at least protest against it – more interestingly that this?”

This is what Charles Taylor describes as the “haunted” quality of Western society, the acutely felt absence of the god we threw away – a void that seems unwilling to be filled in, to leave us alone. Paula Fredriksen says “the biblical god… seems to have taken up permanent residence in Western imagination… [so much so that] even nonbelievers seem to know exactly who or what it is that they do not believe in.”

So everyone, regardless of if they have a name for it or not, is struggling to answer the accusations of a guilty conscience. We can’t get rid of them any more than we can get rid of those echoes of transcendence – or the feeling that there’s supposed to be transcendence – that Barnes describes. So we try to medicate. Some do it by working as hard as they can at something – career, school, even religion – to try and satisfy the voices. Others (as McClay observes) try to find a loophole in playing up their status as the victim – “It’s not my fault, look how I’ve suffered – you can’t hold me accountable.” Everyone is busy trying to escape.

I see this in college students all the time. Ironically, this sense of desperation is the thing that compels some students to stay at the library all night and others to stay at the bar all night. They’re both looking for someone to say “It isn’t true. You’re ok.”

But even if you literally find someone who will tell you that, the insidious mutterings of a shameful, guilty conscience don’t quiet down.

This, McClay argues, happens in part because we have exorcised the idea of an economy of sin from our vocabulary and minds. No one needs to be forgiven because there is no sin. No one has to atone because no one needs forgiveness. No payment is necessary because there is no debt. Nietzsche hoped this would lead to the abolition of guilt; instead it has transformed it into an unnameable, silent devourer of our souls.

The Story of Abraham

The story of Abraham starts in the 12th chapter of Genesis and runs through the 25th – so a little more than a fifth of the book is devoted to him. In the beginning, Abraham is called Abram. He doesn’t know God, he lives with pagans. But God calls him out from everything he knows with a simple promise, “Go, and I will make of you a great nation.” And Abram goes.

This first act of faith is almost immediately met with failure. As they journey through Egypt, Abram tells his wife, Sarai, “If they know that we’re married, they’ll kill me so they can take you. Pretend you’re my sister.” On the surface, this doesn’t look like that big of a deal. Abram is just being shrewd, right?

Well, not really. God has already promised that he’s going to bring him, safely, to another land. He’s promised that He’s going to make him into a great nation. So what Abram is actually saying is “Sarai, this god isn’t really going to protect us. We need to be practical.” He’s calling God a liar.

In spite of this, God makes a covenant with Abram, giving him a new name, Abraham. He swears by Himself that He will give Abraham a nation of children, that everyone will be blessed through him. In this midst of this conversation we have the famous declaration, “And [Abraham] believed Yahweh, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

What’s the very next thing that happens? Abraham and Sarah decide that there’s no way God can come through on that promise. Sarah is just too old. So she gives him her handmaiden, Hagar, to have a child with. It’s a disaster, Sarah and Hagar hate each other, and eventually they send her and the child away.

That’s a second time Abraham just says “God can’t do it. He can’t keep his end of the deal. We gotta help Him out.”

In response, God comes back and says “You’re going to have a son, he’s going to come from Sarah, and I will make him into a great nation.”

There’s the story of Lot, of Sodom and Gamorrah. And then as Abraham is still journeying, right before Isaac is about to be born, he runs into a powerful king name Abimelech. You know what he says to him?

“Sarah? Oh yeah, she’s my sister!”

Abraham has seen God deliver him out of this exact situation. He’s seen God cause a woman who was way too old to get pregnant get pregnant. He’s seen Him literally rain down hellfire and brimstone and destroy two cities. But he still says, “I don’t know if the Lord is going to keep his promises.” That’s three strikes. He should be out.

Instead, Yahweh delivers them from Abimelech, and Isaac is born. God never abandons him.

What’s that Got To Do With Anything?

I tell the story like that because sometimes we’ll just gloss over stories in the Old Testament. Sometimes we make the patriarchs out to simply be paragons of virtue (they’re not) and other times we just don’t understand what’s going on. But every story in the bible is significant – both because they are true and because they are meaningful.

How does the story of a man who lived 4000 years ago have anything to do with the modern, guilt wracked West?

Paul also records an abbreviated story of Abraham. In the fourth chapter of Romans, he says this:

“In hope, [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness.”

Now, if you’re like me, you’re tempted to ask, “Um, Paul? Did you even read Genesis? No unbelief made him waver? What are you talking about?” But it’d be ridiculous to say that Paul was making a mistake or had forgotten about those other pieces of the story. Paul had been a rabbi, “a Pharisee of Pharisees.” We know that he would have had at least the pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) literally memorized.

He hasn’t forgotten. He’s telling us something.

Paul’s letter to the Romans plays out like a court case. The first three chapters of the book are the prosecution of the whole human race, and they contain some of the most crushing words ever penned. Paul says that everyone knows the truth, and everyone suppresses it in unrighteousness. That even the religious people – anyone who’s ever said the words “That’s wrong” – stand condemned by their own standards. “No one is righteous, not even one.” Jew and Gentile have earned the wrath of a holy God.

In other words, Paul’s saying that all those crushing accusations – the constant, overpowering guilt – it’s not an accident of biology or sociology. It’s the truth.

But thankfully Paul doesn’t stop there.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

This is something radically different than all out ways of attempting to quiet our consciences. It doesn’t play the victim and say “There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s not my fault!” But it also doesn’t say, “Earn this! Fix this!”

Every waking hour of the Westerner’s life is spent trying to justify himself or herself. But Paul says “Listen, the only way you’re going to be justified – to really have things made right – is through faith in Jesus. He did the things you were supposed to. He paid the penalty you were supposed to pay. And because of that you can be clean.”

Look at Abraham’s new story. If we just consider what he he did, we’d be right to call him a blasphemer. He say to God with his actions, “You aren’t who you say you are! You can’t do it.”

But Paul, telling the story of Abraham’s life in the context of what Jesus has done, says “Abraham is spotless. There’s not a trace of his failure. There’s no more sin. Not because he did something good; only because he believed God.”

Our Story, Too

Paul then goes on to tell us:

“the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for Abraham’s sake alone, but for ours also. “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

If you’re like me, you’ve got a story that, if someone told it in the way I just told the story of Abraham – you know, only highlighting the flaws – you’d spend the rest of your life hiding from society. How can there ever be relief for people like us, when we know that the voice of our guilt is right? We can try to do better, but as C. S. Lewis said, “No man has ever known exactly how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.” We can try to deny that there’s anything wrong, but we know it’s not true.

Paul says Jesus justifies us.

“Justification” is a word you’ve probably heard a lot if you’ve spent any time in Christian circles. It means two things happen: first, Jesus takes away all our sin, and second, he gives us his righteousness. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, it’s received by faith alone.

That’s the Christianese way to say it. Here’s what it really means:

The only perfect man who ever lived – the one who always loved the poor and always obeyed his parents and never blew up at anyone he loved and gave himself for everyone and defended the helpless and opposed the unjust and was full all the time of grace, mercy, and truth in perfect balance – he looked at you, the sexually idolatrous, angry, spiteful, petty, immature, greedy, proud, unjust, rude, hateful, fake, needy you.

And he said “I love you.”

And because he loved you he paid your debt. That guilt you’ve been trying to work off? The constant feeling of being lacking? He paid for it. It literally cost him his life.

And because he loved you he said “When God looks at you he’s going to see me. The perfect one. His son.” That’s what Paul’s talking about when he said “it’s counted to us”. The Father looks at our record and he sees Jesus’ perfect life.

Like Abraham, your story changes from “The False” to “The Faithful.”

He loves the real you. Not the you in your daydreams – the one who’s always on top of work and the social ladder. He loves the one who still feels like a failure, who doesn’t do anything the way they planned, who is still daily struggling to even believe he really loves you. He loves the you who wakes up thinking “I can’t believe I did that again.” He loves the you who never gave him a reason to love you.

And because he switched your stories – not you – there’s nothing you can do to lose that. That’s justification. You can stop trying to prove yourself. You can stop trying to find a loophole for your guilt. There is a way you can be right with God.

That’s the only medicine for the shamed, guilty world we live in. It’s the only way we can have peace. There is nothing to do except believe.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy, and eat! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”


Note: This is the first article in a series I’m doing on the three governing principles RUF seeks to communicate: the truths about Justification, Sanctification, and Scripture. More to come!

Prayer Update: Students are about to come back (or move in) here in a day or so! Please pray that God will bring people from all sorts of backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences to hear about and know Jesus! We’re going to be having bible studies on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and Large Group on Wednesday, and we need prayer for everything we do!

The Call of Beauty

The Christian life is one that is marked by calling.

Throughout the history of redemption, God acts first. In creation, He does not simply reshape existing matter into something else – He calls everything into existence out of nothing. He begins his covenant family not by responding to a group of people who are desperately seeking him, but by summoning Abraham out of his ancestral home. Jesus does not wait for his apostles to come and find him, but rather seeks them out in the places where they work and calls, “Leave your nets, come follow me.”

In fact, this personal, God-initiated calling extends not only to the foundations of the church in certain parts of history, but to every individual life: “For those whom He foreknew he also predestined to be conformed into the likeness of His son, in order that He might be firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30, ESV)

I’ve felt a lot like Abraham for the past few weeks. Not because I’m the patriarch of a new people, but because Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham was called to go to a place, “and he went out, not knowing where he was going.”

On July 1st, I moved into my new house in Fayetteville, Arkansas, roughly 750 miles from the place that I’ve called home for the past five years. It was an adventure – first I didn’t have a bed or hot water, then almost as soon as my family left my phone broke completely (while I still didn’t have internet in my house!). I had to use a physical map. (Non-millennials are probably rolling their eyes about now.)

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I’ve been thinking for a while – what in the world possesses someone to up and move like that? To leave behind everything they’ve known and go to a place where they know practically no one?

There are two pieces to the answer, I think. The first piece is beauty.

What do I mean? A long time ago, philosophers philosophized (as philosophers are known to do) that everything human beings do, they do sub specie boni – roughly translated “under the guise of the good.” In other words, people always do things because they think there’s a good in them somewhere. A person plants because he wants to eat; a man steals because he wants to enjoy. Everything we do (even the bad things) we do for the sake of perceived good.

But as western thinking progressed, many people pointed out that human beings, quite frankly, aren’t that rational. We usually don’t use syllogisms to decide what we’re going to do. In fact, the term rationalizing describes what we’re doing when we’ve already decided what we want.

So what drives us to do things? Not, I think, rational assessment, but the vision of some beauty. Think about the word attraction – it literally means “something that pulls you closer.” The thing that pulls us toward ministry is the vision of the gospel changing lives, the hope of seeing the wounds of the brokenhearted bound up, of seeing the New Jerusalem come in fullness. All that beauty is the beauty of Christ himself.

But that is only half the equation. The other piece, you might have guessed, is calling.

If two people are in love and one person gives up everything – finances, family, familiarity – to be with the other, we say “Wow, how romantic.” But if one person gives up all those things to be near someone who has no idea that he exists, we say “Um, dude, that’s a lot creepy.” What’s the difference in these two scenarios?

Calling.

It isn’t enough simply to see the beauty in something; we also have to be called to be involved with it. Many people have spoken of God’s will like a pair of walls – it stops you from going too far off the right or left, but you can kind of bounce around in the middle. Some parts in the middle might be “better” or others “not as good,” so you’d better take some time to discern the will of God before you make any of your decisions.

Now, I’m not advocating for carelessness here. Galileo once said “I cannot believe that the God who endowed us with rational minds also intended for us to forego their use.” But the idea that God lets us “bounce around” through better or worse experiences (with the subtext that the more faithful we are at “discernment” the better our experiences will be) simply isn’t biblical. On the contrary, He says that not even a hair can fall from our head without His permission. He does not work all things together for our good reactively, but He decrees all things from before the foundation of the world for His glory and our good (Ephesians 1).

No, our Father calls us not by personal divine revelation, nor by leaving us to guess, but by first telling us what is good (Micah 6:8) and then by leading us through the circumstances in our lives. The gifts and talents we have are from Him. The things we delight in are from Him. The opportunities that arise – and the doors that shut – are from Him. Nothing ever goes “off script.”

That’s the reason I can be confident I’m in the right place right now. It’s the reason I can be confident that (even if I never live to see it) what I’m doing here will end in the most beautiful way we can imagine – the new heavens and the new earth. It’s the reason I can know that even someone as bad as me can be used to point the narrow way that lead to Jesus. We have a Father who is good, and a Father who is sovereign.

There’s a little bit of danger in writing about calling when you’ve been called to vocational ministry. Even if we don’t admit it, we often operate with an old Medieval distinction between the holy and the secular, the idea that a clerical life is somehow more noble than, say, a farmer or an engineer. But this is not a distinction that the scriptures make – to the contrary, we are each called to use the gifts we have been given to the benefit of the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8), and to do all things for his sake (Colossians 3:17).

I haven’t found a more beautiful illustration of this than the one C. S. Lewis penned in The Great Divorce. As Lewis and his guide make their way through heaven, they come across a parade for a woman:

“‘Is it?… is it?’ I whispered to my guide.

‘Not at all,’ said he. ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’

‘She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?’

‘Aye. She is one of the great one. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’

‘And who are these gigantic people… look! They’re like emeralds… who are dancing and throwing flowers before her?’

‘Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.

‘And who are all these young men and women on each side?’

‘They are her sons and daughters.’

‘She must have had a very large family, Sir.’

‘Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.’

‘Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?’

‘No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.’

‘And how… but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat – two cats – dozens of cats. And all these dogs… why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.’

‘They are her beasts.’

‘Did she keep some sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.’

‘Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.’

I looked at my Teacher in amazement.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’”

“Sarah Smith” is probably the most generic English name Lewis could think of. She didn’t cure cancer or end slavery. But because of her life in Christ, her every interaction was infused with beauty and meaning, as the love of Jesus flowed through her and into the people – even the animals – around her.

I doubt it seemed glamorous at the time. In fact, Sarah Smith probably never thought of herself as anything more than a housewife. But the truth is not that there is no fruit in the things we are doing – the truth is that we have weak eyes. We cannot see the extent of those concentric waves. But one day, Jesus will restore our sight.

On that day we – pastors and roadworkers, doctors and office workers, lawyers and hairdressers –  will look back on the rocks and thistles we have journeyed through, the thorny fields we have tilled by the sweat of our brows, and find that the whole landscape has been changed into unimaginable beauty. We will find our frustrations, longings, and pains all had a purpose. And we will find that the One who can use ordinary bread and ordinary wine to feed his people in a supernatural way has also used ordinary work and ordinary love to build the impossibly beautiful kingdom of God Himself.

He who called you is faithful. He will surely do it.

Prayer Update: Please pray for me as I’m in a new place, which is gradually becoming a new home! Pray for me as I continue to build relationships with our awesome students, pray for me and Mike as we make all kinds of administrative decisions for the fall semester. Pray that God would open doors for us to come into contact with freshmen and students who feel like they are on the outside. Pray above all that we would be a group marked by the unity and love that flows out of being adopted together by Christ.

Fundraising Update: Thanks to God’s goodness and your generosity, I’m done fundraising for my first year! Of course, what that really means is that it’s time to start fundraising for year two. I have to raise roughly $36,000 each year, so if you’re already supporting me, please don’t stop; if you’re considering supporting me, please do!

The Vanguard of Heaven

Jesus changes everything.

I’m sure we’ve all been to a number of orientations over the years. Whether they’re for a new school or a new job, in my experience they typically have one thing in common: mind-numbing boredom. I’ve spent hours and hours in a cramped room listening to corporate videos extol the virtues of the company founder and days in the Alabama July heat wandering from contrived university talk to contrived university team-building exercise, wishing the whole time I could just go home.

Orientation for RUF was an entirely different experience.

Marx once called Christianity “The opiate of the masses,” a wish fed to the downtrodden in order to keep them complacent. “There’ll be a pie in the sky by-and-by,” the saying goes. “There are those who are so heavenly-minded that they serve no earthly good.”

Numerous Christian theologians and philosophers have pointed out over the past few centuries exactly how wrongheaded these conceptions of Christianity are. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity:

“A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.

It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

As the one who does “far more than we can ask or even imagine,” Jesus does not simply reserve the full goodness of himself for the day that we see him face to face. By the power of his Holy Spirit, we become agents of change and redemption in this very moment, the vanguard and first fruits of the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven.

I got a full taste of that beauty last week.

Sixty-three newly-minted RUF Interns made journeys from everywhere across America to the Westin hotel in Atlanta, recently graduated but feeling like freshmen again. “Will they like me? Will I fit in? What if I don’t make any friends?” It’s amazing how quickly all our insecurities can come flying back to us when we simply change locations.

As leaders in RUF, we’ve been trained over the past few years to especially keep a caring eye out for the outsider. “Love the foreigner,” our God tells us, “For you were foreigners in Egypt.” As we walked into the large conference room for the first time on Monday afternoon, we all came, in some sense, as outsiders. It’s entirely normal in our society for outsiders to avoid one another – but in the space of a few hours, something else happened.

We realized we were family.

We all gathered together the second night to sing hymns together – not because anyone had told us to, but because we wanted to. We reminded each other both of the hardships of life and God’s promise that he will never leave or forsake us. We, in song, confessed to one another our many weaknesses, but also Jesus’ perfect provision for us. We thanked our Father for his over-abundant blessings to us. And when we were done, we realized that we’d just had a small experience of eternity.

Because we’ve been adopted into the family of God, even something like orientation – with all the drudgery of filling out tax forms and learning to read income and expense statements – becomes a place full of beauty. You see, whether it’s sitting across from a friend you’ve literally just met and being able to share some of the darkest, most painful details of your life in what feels like perfect safety, or long conversations shouted over a crowded room about the beauty that you find in knowing who God is, the church is in the business of bringing heaven breaking into earth in the here and now.

At the same time, we are still in a world “groaning with the pains of childbirth.” On Thursday we got the news that a bus from a church in Huntsville had flipped over, that people had been hurt and killed. In the middle of the lobby we begged our Father to be merciful and good and caring – to be the same as He has always been. As soon as we raised our heads, we saw one of our new friends being taken out of the hotel on a gurney – and we went right back into prayer there in the middle of the lobby. (Praise Jesus she’s doing well and was able to come back to the hotel that night!)

The wedding party is gathered. Everybody is standing around and the whispers have started – they’re talking and sharing their stories about the bridegroom and the things that he has done for all of them. The ways he’s been good. The ways he’s been beautiful. There’s an almost palpable air of anticipation as everyone begins to realize: he’s coming. It’s almost time. Soon He’ll be here.

The beauty of the gathering is offset by the longing for the one reason we’ve all been gathered to begin with. But our longing isn’t a hopeless one: it’s a sure one. We long in the context of the confident knowledge that one day, some day, someday soon, we will turn and we will see the thing that we have all been waiting for: Christ himself, in all his beauty and glory and majesty, robed in His Gospel, standing in front of our own eyes! And then everything that has been wrong – all the death, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the heartbreak and loneliness – will be gone forever!

Our hope begins here and now. In our homes, in our churches, in our small groups, in our workplaces – wherever the men and women who have been united by faith to Christ Jesus go, there the “fair flowers of paradise extend their fragrance ever sweet.” Today we see in part and know in part – just a little while longer, and we will know fully. Until that day, Christ calls us to gather the rest of his guests in to his table – to feed the physically and spiritually hungry – to do for them what he has done for us.

And because He loves us, in every place in His kingdom – far as the curse is found – the dawn of heaven breaks.

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Intern Family

Prayer Requests:

 

  • Please pray for me and my fellow interns as we fundraise. We believe that our Father is the one “who owns the cattle on a thousand hills” and that he will provide. Consider partnering with us as we seek to bring the Kingdom of Christ here on earth.
  • Please pray for the students we’re going to come into relationships with. Pray that God would bring them to us – or send us to find them – and that his Spirit would use even our fumbling words to communicate the beauty of the gospel to their hearts.
  • Please pray for our prayer lives. The author of Hebrews calls us to “exhort one another every day, so long as it is called ‘today’, so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We are so weak that we need the power of the Spirit before we are even capable of remembering to cry out to Him.

 

 

A Report from the Beach

Every year, over a thousand students from RUFs all over the country gather in Panama City for a week of teaching, worship, friendship, and soul-crushing defeat on the volleyball court. It’s a time to rest, unwind from the stress of exams, finally get some vitamin D, and have our lives reoriented by the gospel.

This year, I got to attend Summer Conference (or SuCo, if you’re hip with the lingo) with the University of Arkansas. In addition to getting to show off my peerless volleyball skills (below), I had the opportunity to meet, connect with, and serve a number of my future students.

 

 

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A one-picture summary of my lifelong relationship with sports
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Me and some of my students

It’s an incredible thing to be around welcoming people. We all have an instinct that that’s what the church is supposed to be like – people who have been united together in Christ who love one another and invite even the stranger into their fellowship. But because we’re still people struggling with the sin that naturally flows up out of our hearts, we tend to grow cold and unwelcoming toward the outsider. We enjoy comfort.

That week, Mike, his family, and the students who make up RUF at the University of Arkansas were the body of Christ to me. I instantly felt like I belonged, like I was part of the family.

More than that, I was reminded that Jesus has not stopped being good. Even though my heart is always questioning it – after seeing his tender mercy and loving kindness a thousand times over – he hasn’t grown tired of confronting my stubbornness with his gentle correction. Summer conference was a time both of humbling, as he reminded me that I am helpless to make even a single person hear the good news, and of hope, as he reminded me that he is the one who calls, that he is faithful, that he will surely do it.

Please pray for us! All the intern class of 2017 is headed to Atlanta next week for orientation. Pray that it would be a time of being recentered on the gospel, that we would build loving community with each other, and that we would delight in who our Father is. Pray for us as we fundraise, that God would open up the doors and paths and windows necessary for his Kingdom to go forward on campuses all around America. Most of all, pray that the Holy Spirit would be at work, both conforming His church more and more into the image of Jesus and calling people who do not know him to himself.

In Him,

James

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An intern wears many hats. And glasses.

A New Hope – Visiting Arkansas

It took me at least a week to realize why I felt so different after I visited Arkansas.

A few weekends ago I made the long trek out to the north-western tip of Arkansas to visit Fayetteville, the home of the University of Arkansas. It’s about a ten hour drive (not including time for stops) from Auburn to there, so I loaded up on podcasts and caffeine and hit the road before dawn.

Most of the trip is pretty unremarkable. Everything looks pretty much the same until you hit central Arkansas, where everything turns flat and dusty. But something happens as soon as you hit Highway 49, the last turn before arriving in Fayetteville. With no notice whatsoever, flat earth transforms into the foothills of the Ozarks. Rolling hills and plummeting valleys adorn either side of the highway. The sky looks bluer somehow, and the color palette changes from earthy greens and browns to steel and lavender. It feels like something out of Lord of the Rings.

It’s absolutely gorgeous.

The whole weekend was a blur of new faces and places. I finally got to meet my campus minister, Mike, his wife, Deanna, and their family in person – one of the first things I remember is their youngest son, Peter, giving me a bear hug the way only a two year old who’s arms can’t quite reach all the way around your legs can. We ate together and laughed and talked.

I’m only now realizing how strange it is to have a total stranger come from seven hundred miles away and immediately treat him like family. I take for granted just how supernatural the church is.

The next day we went around the city – first the farmer’s market, then around campus, the RUF office, downtown. We stopped in a used bookstore that was more like a maze than a shop. I think I ate better that weekend than I have in my entire life. That night, I got dinner with some of the students, which lead to a night of frisbee and volleyball and a display of my spectacular lack of dexterity.

I hit it off with a good number of the guys (all of whom are cooler than me). There’s a refreshing honesty in the students – a lack of that pretence of nonchalance that comes with pretending to be cool.

Underneath everything, I felt welcome and wanted in a way that I never have before. I came back to Auburn practically sleepless, but feeling awake in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. I felt like I brought something back with me.

A recent conversation with one of my dear friends in Auburn brought me back to this passage from C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm:

“It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good [things] that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life – in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and social experiences – we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and deprecating all other occasions by comparison. But these other occasions, I suspect, are often full of their own blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of his glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been looking forward to the RUF internship for a long time. I’ve been preparing for ministry for what feels like my whole college career. I dearly and deeply love the ministry that has meant so much to my life here in Auburn.

But what I hadn’t realized is the way I’d swallowed the old lie that “it’s all downhill from here.” Auburn is the place I’ve experienced more joy, growth, and sense of belonging than anywhere else I can remember – so much so that I subconsciously began to assume “nowhere else can be as good as here.”

Which translates to “Jesus actually won’t be good to me all the time.”

I came away from Fayetteville with two realizations: first, that Jesus is alive and working on Arkansas’ campus. You can’t put a group of people together like the ones I met that night – people who are so different but also so loving towards each other – unless the Holy Spirit is changing hearts naturally full of hate into ones that look like Christ. Second, our Father is good – and good to me – all the time. His generosity overflows the boundaries of what I can hold. And he is not limited to the Auburn/Opelika area.

I’m not saying we only know that Jesus is good when he makes our lives easy and enjoyable. He’s called us to take up our crosses and follow him, to be refined as gold in a fire. Sanctification is often – and probably normally – a painful process. Even in the midst of heartrending tragedy, he is still good, merciful, loving, and kind.

But sometimes the ways that he reminds us that he is good is simply by blessing us until even our insensible hearts can’t deny that “[our] cup runneth over.”

He’s given me a renewed sense of hope – hope that I am not leaving the best behind, but that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” And that hope “is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly trust in Jesus’ name.”

August can’t come soon enough.

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Two of the fantastic people I got to meet that weekend: Hunter and Abbie Bailey. Hunter is the pastor at Christ Community Church, the church I’ll be attending in the fall.

Prayer and Financial Update:

I finally got in my official budget from RUF: I have to raise $35,000 each year in pledges. Right now, I’m at $21,500 pledged+received for my first year! So close, and yet also so far. If you’re able, would you consider partnering with me to continue bringing the gospel to students who desperately need it? Information about how to give can be found under that little tab up there that says “Support James.”

Please pray for the students at Arkansas – that the ones who know Jesus would continue to be renewed in their whole being after the image of Christ, and for the ones who don’t to be brought into an encounter with Him with Spirit-opened eyes and ears. Pray for Mike and Deanna and their children, and all the chaos and beauty that comes with family life. Finally, please pray for me as I finish up my time in Auburn, say hard good-byes, and move into a new phase of life!

A Story of Grace: Why I Want To Be An RUF Intern

“No matter what happens, the gospel is still true, and Jesus still loves you.”

The words physically shook me in my seat. It had been an awful time in my life. Over the past semester I had experienced heartbreak, then the loss of an unborn sister, then the death of my grandfather – and I felt numb. My prayers had dried up, my heart felt like a lifeless chunk of rock. I was fighting the ever-encroaching sense of being utterly alone, my soul had moved past crying out “Why are you sleeping?” and had begun to simply assume that He wasn’t listening.

Then those words – spoken as part of a joke to begin a sermon (it was what he always told – and now I always tell – guys when trying to convince them to ask a girl out) – acted as the vessel by which the Holy Spirit burst through the walls my stony heart was attempting to build, to proclaim to the eyes of my soul that Jesus was not who I thought he was – just another person who would hurt me by not wanting me – but “The King of Love, whose goodness faileth never.”

I went out of Large Group with new breath in my lungs and a song in my heart.

As I was thinking about the reasons that I want to be an RUF intern, this old story of mine – I was a sophomore at the time, which feels like lifetimes ago – captured the heart of it. As far as I know, Joe (our intern at the time, who was preaching) never even knew the way that the Spirit used his words to comfort me in such a way that I still remember it regularly.

We often think about Christianity – and the success of ministry – in terms of conversions. When was I saved, and how many people come to faith as a result of my witness? But that image of ministry is simply not the one the Bible gives us. The beauty of the bride of Christ – which is the splendor of Christ himself – is not portrayed primarily through the event of conversion – that event is merely the prologue to a much longer book. If we are in Christ, then he has begun a good work in us – and he is also bringing it to completion. The brilliant testimony to his love is shown to the world as he makes us look like him.

We are ones who are “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.” Our hearts are often cold, our gazes often wavering, our affections often misplaced. We tend to major and minors, and neglect the weightier matter of the law – namely, justice and mercy. And it is for this reason that Christ appoints in his church men to act as his undershepherds – broken and crooked sticks though they be – to point the narrow way which leads to him.

RUF specifically has done this in my life, and the life of my friends. In fact, it seems strange to call them “friends” – we feel more like family. We laugh together, cry together, fight, forgive, and pray together. Christ has bound us all up together under the same name, so that we can truly look at one another and say “You are my brother, you are my sister.”

Above all, there is the constant whisper of the Spirit that comes through all these things: “You see? I am more beautiful than all you could ask or even imagine.”

The Holy Spirit has given me a longing to be part of seeing the Church grow and flourish in the same way that I have under the care of Auburn RUF. He’s given me the gifts I need (and the often stern reminders that they are gifts from Him, not my own abilities, lest I think I have some grounds for boasting) and opened the doors forward, so that I can know that this call is from Him. And that is why I want specifically to be an intern with RUF.

But I can’t do that without your help. The Father has appointed his children to be the means by which his stories of grace come about. Some of you can give financially, some can’t. All wealth belongs to God, who “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” – He has given it to some, that they might bless others, but not to all, so that we might learn to love one another in different ways. But I desperately need all of your prayers. The Christian life is not one of independent triumph but but desperate, limping dependence on Christ at all times. Would you join me in begging our Father to continue weaving these stories into the lives of His children?

“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”