“A Baptism Story”

Stories are powerful. A good story reaches across cultural boundaries and draws us in. For better or worse, stories are the primary tool that popular culture uses to communicate its version of life, love and reality. It’s almost as if the attraction of a good story is written into our DNA, and when we fall under that spell, our walls and preconceptions weaken. We learn without realizing it, and we are persuaded without an obvious argument. For Christians, stories hold great significance. Much of the Bible is written as a narrative, and Christ himself often used stories to teach. There is one story in particular, that every believer carries around in his or her back pocket that is uniquely special to each individual, and that is our personal testimony. The question is, are we making proper use of it?

Growing up in evangelical Christendom, I learned that testimonies had special power; the more dramatic and sensational they were the better. Good testimonies got you an audience. Great testimonies made you a minor superstar. The two main components of a good testimony were grievous sins in your past, and a miraculous, dramatic conversion. Those points were so well-reinforced that on at least one occasion, I remember a scandal where a person got caught padding his testimony like a bad resume, adding a couple of sins that weren’t actually there. You may now pause to ponder the irony for a moment.

The problem was, of course, that I had a lame testimony. No dramatic story of conversion. I was a pastor’s kid saved at a young age, so no big sins from which God called me. In fact, my own conversion was so non-eventful that I don’t remember the specifics. Have no fear, it actually happened, the problem is that I was at the altar in so many camp meetings and revivals that I didn’t even know which time counts as the first. Not the sort of stuff that gets you called up to podium on last night of revival, right?

And don’t get me started on my baptism. Most people are baptized in their home church, with family and friends around as they declare their intent to be a Christ-follower. Me? Not so much. I was baptized as a preteen, in the muddy Greenbrier River at camp meeting. For some reason that now escapes me, none of my family was there. In fact, I barely knew anyone in the group, including the pastor that performed the baptism. To make the whole situation a little more awkward, when my turn arrived, it came to the attention of some of the more motherly individuals in attendance that I lacked the proper footwear, and they insisted that I borrow some. So, I was baptized by strangers in a muddy river wearing a borrowed pair of girl’s flip flops. Inspiring, isn’t it?

Years later, I began to entertain the thought of a redo. This time I would be baptized the right way. Family, friends, video testimony, inspirational music, heated baptismal – the whole nine yards. That of course, is not really the way that baptism is supposed to work. I don’t think there is such a thing as baptism upgrades. What matters is that we meant what we were saying when our heads dipped under the water. In time, my mind changed as I began to love my baptism story for what it is, one small example of the larger way that God has worked in my life. In the awkwardness and foreignness of being isolated from the normal support structures that many people take for granted, in the loneliness of having to walk alone, and even in the uncertainty and sense of impermanence that comes from existing in an environment that belongs to another. It all just somehow works.

The lie that I had long believed is that my story wasn’t powerful because it wasn’t sensational. Without in any way diminishing those that have been saved dramatically from grievous sins, we need to recognize that the grace of God is no less present in the lives of those whom He kept from sin, than it is in those whom He brought out of sin. Furthermore, the obvious changes that happen at the beginning of a believer’s journey are only part of the story. While being saved from alcohol and drug abuse or promiscuity are truly miraculous expressions of God’s grace, its slow work over time – the grueling hammer and chisel of the Holy Spirit refining and purifying deeply entangling sins – is a story that must be told as well. Sometimes it’s much easier to stop doing the “big” sins, than it is to make a thousand small choices daily to be changed in the “little” things, and it is only by God’s power that it ever happens.

One of the most powerful assurances for our faith is the ability to look back in time and appreciate that “though I once was blind, now I can see.” Every believer should be able to do that, looking back one, two, five, or ten years. It’s a reflection of a living and breathing continual work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not enough to simply remember that 45 years ago God helped you to stop drinking. How has he changed you in the past year? Through our own confidence in God’s life changing work, we have a launching point to share more than just sensationalism, but the real, down-to-earth reality of a God who helps us become something vastly greater than ever we could be on our own.

That’s why I love my baptism story. To me, it’s weird and unusual, with a ting of painful awkwardness. But, it’s my story, which God is writing. It reminds me that often He doesn’t want things to happen the way we think they ought. He likes to keep us on our toes and out of our comfort zones, because that is when we know best that He gets the credit for the good that results. Though I may have at one time thought I needed a baptism redo, He continues to remind me that the work represented in that ceremony is real and genuine and continues to this day in spite of all the ways that I have thrown a wrench in the gears or gotten off course.

I hope that you truly appreciate the story of grace in your life, whether or not it is over-the-top dramatic, or just simple and profound. It is a story that needs to be told, and a powerful personal expression of what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It is confirmation of the simple fact that there are no mundane stories of grace. When God transforms a life, it is a truly spectacular show.

–Thomas Hersman

“The Cross and the Antihero”

One of my favorite movies of all time is the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with John Wayne and James Stewart. It provides an engaging contrast between the two classic ideas of the hero and the antihero. Jimmy Stewart’s character is a young, idealistic lawyer, the epitome of truth, justice, and the American way. John Wayne is a practical, rough-around-the-edges cowboy who can fight, shoot, is tough enough to survive the frontier, but he lacks his counterpart’s idealistic ambitions. At the story’s climax, the anti-hero has what it takes to kill the bad guy, while the hero gets all the credit. (Sorry if I spoiled the plot, but it came out in 1962. You’ve had plenty of time to see it.) The anti-hero archetype is becoming ever more preferred in popular culture. Is it simply that we relate to a flawed character acting heroically, rather than the polished perfection of the classic hero? Perhaps, but I think it reflects something deeper in our hearts, a desire to be good, but not too good. We want to be moral enough to live with ourselves, but we still want to enjoy a vice here and there. In short, we want to be moral, but not holy.

The difference between holiness and morality is subtle. Christians often conflate the two ideas, because for us, they are related. However, that is not always the case in the broader world of ideas. Thus, we should start by observing that while morality is system based, holiness is Scripture based. Getting back to our example of the anti-hero for a second, we can see that we might be right to describe him as moral. He has as code of honor that guides his life, and while it permits violence and drunkenness, it still drives him to save the life of an innocent man and to act unselfishly at times. Under his personal code, to observers, he exist as a good and moral man, especially in contrast to the villain. By itself, a moral code is simply a way to reason about right and wrong from a particular set of governing principles, and that leaves plenty of ambiguity about the particulars. For instance, consider situation ethics which claims that any moral command of Scripture can be violated if done out of love. (Through a misapplication of Matt. 22:36-40) When love as an abstract idea takes priority over the specific moral commands of God, our standard of right and wrong extends from our own rationalizations rather than objective truth. However Scripture gives us a moral law, not merely moral guidelines. They may be traceable to the principle of love for God and others, but they are still laws the Christian must follow. Questions about why God gives a moral standard, are secondary to the simple fact that He gave it and we must obey. As Christians working through tough ethical questions, we may use observations from some different ethical systems, but only in the context of applying God-given moral law. Absent a Lawgiver, any ethical system falls prey to the biases of cultural pressure, and the corruption of sin. Always, those ethical systems degrade into reflecting man’s current condition rather than transcending it.

Of course, the Christian life is about so much more that simply following an ethical system. Christians are called to holiness, which is not merely an ethical system, but the process of becoming like Christ. The pursuit of Holiness is life-long and comprehensive. It starts the moment we are Saved, and continues to the gates of Heaven. (2 Cor. 3:18) Holiness by design does not permit us to hold back any part of ourselves. It is an all-or-nothing deal. Everything we do and every decision we make traces back to the pursuit of becoming like Christ. Holiness creates a personal threshold for living that no moral system can (or intends) to achieve. To be moral, in contrast, is a more easily attainable label that comes without the lifelong “daily cross.” (Luke 9:23) Like the anti-hero, a moral person gets to be the good guy, while remaining “true to himself.” Being moral may not always be sunshine and pink unicorns, but it’s much more comfortable and easily achievable than forsaking everything to follow Christ.

It should come as no surprise that while popular culture often accepts a version of morality, it scorns holiness. Man wants to believe of himself that he is a good person, but he wants to write the rules under which that belief is validated. Christianity subverts that goal. In addition to the rise of the antihero, those attitudes are evident in popular culture’s depiction of dedicated Christians. The go-to characterization is to simply label them all hypocrites, but a more subtle subversion comes through the portrayal of Christian morality as too wooden, too literal, and simply ill-equipped to handle the complexities the real world, just as Jimmy Stewart’s idealism wasn’t enough to win a gunfight. While some of this bad publicity may well be earned, it is not simply the case, as claimed by the fake Gandhi quote, that the secular world has a problem with Christians merely because they aren’t enough like Christ. The sinful heart recoils from the idea that we must sacrifice ourselves to become the people God intends for us to be, and attacks it with ridicule and scorn.

When a believer adopts these attitudes, we don’t have to look far to see the devastating results. Aiming at morality rather than holiness allows a person to love, but not sacrificially, do good, but not only good, be counted a Christ-follower, but still fit comfortably in society. It means that some sins are okay because they are a part of the authentic me. Even if it turns out that I need reworked here and there, I never have the discomfort of being transformed. Ultimately, we become our own anti-heroes. We still get to credit ourselves for being the good guy, and for being heroic, while embracing the ways in which we willingly fall short of God’s intended plan.

Holiness results in morality, but being moral does not make one holy. Only the Holy Spirit working in our lives can do that. The question is what path will we choose? Will we be made into heroes or anti-heroes?

–Thomas Hersman

“As One Hotdog Sharpens Another”

Proverbs 27:17 wisely observes (it’s a proverb, so you know it’s wise), “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Visualize that for a moment. The blade of an ax against a file, sparks fly, but the result is a razor edge. The idea is that the friction of opposing ideas, and the challenge of spirited discourse results in both participants becoming better for the experience. My how that has changed! Think for a second. How many people do you know with whom you can have a spirited disagreement on meaningful subjects (no, sports don’t count) and still remain good friends? The irony of it all is that with social media, we are communicating more with a greater number of people, but meaningful discourse appears to be at an all-time low. While that may permit comfortable living with unquestioned ideas about what is true and the way the world is, are we ultimately better off as individuals and as Christ-followers?

Certainly, we all have seen this done wrong, and perhaps that is why our instinct is to avoid disagreement at all cost. In 2 Timothy 2:23-26 Paul cautions Timothy against entering into “foolish, ignorant controversies.” That is a warning that all Christians ought to heed, but many have not to the detriment of the entire church. Contextually, we can identify the object of this passage as those who adopt a conceited, argumentative attitude, who have no desire to know the truth, and who simply want to argue for the sake of arguing. They do not have their own, fellow Christians’, or the church’s best interests in mind. Basically, they are what we might call a “troll” today. No good ever comes from the strife and contention they stir up.

Scripture calls us to unity in Christ, and I believe it is a mistake to think that unity means avoiding all disagreement. True unity is found in love that transcends differences, rather than simply pretending that they aren’t there. Strong relationships use differences to sharpen one another, to the betterment of individuals and the enrichment of our understanding of the truth.

Though our society and our churches pride themselves in valuing diversity, it seems to me that most people surround themselves with like-minded individuals because we much prefer continual affirmation, to facing probing questions about what we say and believe. Consequently, we’ve replaced “iron sharpening iron” with one hotdog sharpening another. We go through the motions, consuming the reciprocal admiration and affirmation from our circle of friends, and never face the challenge of examining our beliefs from different perspectives. Intellectually, we’re just a couple of limp hotdogs flopping against each other.

The natural question then, is what does it matter? Why should we care what our fellow members of the Body of Christ believe as long as they love Jesus? Being heavily influenced by popular culture that tells us to stay off important topics with friends, most of us are tempted to fall to the path of least resistance. I believe that has fostered a prevailing hostility toward worldview thinking in the church. Like a muscle that withers from lack of use, we have gotten to the place where scriptural reasoning has been replaced by simple emotions. It’s so much easier to say “I feel,” than it is to say “I believe, and here is why…” We react with negative emotions when faced with challenges to our own worldview, and we feel the need to glaze over ideological differences with friends out of fear that it will strain relationships. Most of us never learn to have a civil dialog that remains centered on ideas, avoids personal attacks, and remains a positive experience.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole lot of talking going on, but in most cases it’s not a true dialog. Modern social media has made it easier than ever to fire off our thoughts and ideas into the ether while the target of these ideological mortars remain ambiguous, and we shield ourselves from rebuttal. It’s not a dialog, it’s just people lobbing shots at each other. This is a problem that predates social media, however. It’s also why we have two gazillion different Christian denominations, because we aren’t all that good at disagreeing agreeably. Growing up in Evangelical Christendom, often all I ever heard about different denominational beliefs were strawmen and caricatures. Mind you, I’m not talking about heresies here, but doctrinal beliefs with a long and healthy tradition of Biblical thought. I still know people that believe that the entirety of Christianity’s problems can be solved by eliminating Calvinism, Arminianism, or Baptists. The opportunity to actually dialog with people of differing beliefs changed my perspective even if it didn’t always change my mind. I have learned to respect those who have come to their beliefs honestly, through much thought and prayer, and from them gained knowledge that enriches my own understanding of God’s truth. Therein lies the problem that many denominationally entrenched people face. They don’t want the discomfort of adjusting their worldviews due to a new perspective. To protect themselves they prefer to go on believing that Baptists are all just a bunch of sinning reprobates or Arminians are all trying to earn their own salvation. In my experience, the more I dialog with Biblically informed, thoughtful Christians from different ideological perspectives, the more common ground I discover that would remain obscured if we just sat in our corners lobbing insults at each other.

Truth comes from God and his Word, and a Christian’s understanding of that truth is shaped by the community of believers. In an ideal world, everyone would read the Bible and come to the exact same conclusions, but that has never been the case. As the church progresses through the decades, there are movements and ideas that take root. Some of these have merit, and some, even when possessed by well-meaning people, are inferior and even harmful. The only way that we have to weed out bad ideas is to compare the alternatives, and with the light of Scripture, choose the better option. The dialog of ideas is part of that process, and without it, worldviews stagnate, and bad ideas fester.

At this point, I wish I could insert the entire text of 1 Corinthians 13, because everything that I have said here is a moot point if it’s not done out of love for one another. Without love it’s just a whole lot of obnoxious noise. Love dictates everything we do, and gives us the discernment to know what is appropriate, when it’s appropriate, how much is appropriate, and if a particular relationship isn’t strong enough for healthy dialog on controversial topics. It takes a high level of maturity to be able to set aside emotions, and to realize that a critique of one’s ideas is not the same as an attack on another’s character or an insult to their intellect. However the power of one friend sharpening another is that there is an implication of familiarity, and a mutual understanding and respect that allows two people to interact, not just two ideologies. When that happens, the end goal is not to win an argument or prove how intelligent we are, but to learn, to be enriched, to find ourselves wiser for the process, and ultimately, better able to live our lives for the Glory of the Risen Lord.

–Thomas Hersman

“Righteousness, the Greatest Act of Patriotism”

It is the weekend of July 4th, and it should come as no surprise that my attention would be upon the commemoration of Independence Day. Have no fear, it’s not politics that I have in mind. I am thinking rather of a timeless observation, given to us by Scripture, and understood by many statesmen of the past. The single greatest thing that a person can do in service to his or her country is to live righteously.

In the history of nations, countless attempts to evoke the passion of patriotism include calls for bravery, courage, and sacrificial service. After seven years in the military, I became well acquainted with them. However, I wondered then, as I do now, if we are purposely leaving out a crucial, albeit inconvenient part of rendering service to country. Scripture observes that, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34) Many of the great minds present at this nation’s founding were strongly aware of the necessity of virtue as well as the particular vulnerability to corrupt character that exists in a self-governing society.  Samuel Adams wrote in a letter to James Warren:

“While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”

Washington reminded the American people in his farewell address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”

These men, while intending that this nation not entwine the power of government with the organization of the church, understood that it was up to the church to maintain the people’s moral compass and cultivate their character.

Scripture often warns of the dangers of an unrighteous king. We are reminded in Proverbs 16:12 “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.” This, of course, was directed toward a monarch, but consider the implication for a nation where the power that was once reserved only for kings is now shared by citizens. The average person now bears a much heavier burden of upright character to govern his or her nation wisely. It is in that spirit, I believe that Paul Harvey often observed. “Self-government doesn’t work without self-discipline.”

I don’t know how beneficial it is to speculate on the precise mechanism for how the character of a people results in their own success or failure. Is it God directly altering the outcome of that nation for good or bad, is it simply the cause and effect of moral behavior, or is it both? Certainly, the founders believed that God intervened on their behalf. Patrick Henry famously spoke of “the holy cause of liberty,” and “a just God who presides over the destinies of nations.” Similarly, Washington often credited his unlikely success to Divine Providence, even going as far in a letter to General Nelson as saying:

“The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”

Conversely, Thomas Jefferson feared God’s judgement upon the nation for tolerating slavery and presciently wrote:

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever…”

Lest you are at this point preparing to grab your Bibles and crucifixes to storm D.C. and spray-paint the Ten Commandments all over the National Mall, we must resist the idea that way to spread righteousness or virtue in a society is through political activism and the imposition of external moral standards upon those with immoral hearts. Certainly, that idea is not given in the New Testament. (Rules were different in the Old Testament with an absolute theocracy). The primary influence of the church upon society was always meant to be from the inside out, changing lives one at a time. That’s a lot harder than using political maneuvering to impose laws that last only as long as the religious right maintains 51% of the popular vote. If the church looks into society and sees sin, corruption, and rebellion to God’s laws, the first place it needs to look next is inward. The basket in Matthew 5:16 under which we’ve hidden our light is not a lack of willingness to be involved in politics, it’s a failure to live righteously in view of others so that their attention will be turned to God.

In this nation, the label Christian has come to mean less and less, as the church continues to acquiesce to the darkness around us, rather than purposing to shine thorough it with righteous lives at whatever personal cost. Whether it is the public immorality of those churches (so-called) that openly embrace the wickedness of secular society, or the quiet immorality secretly tolerated in the pews of conservative churches, because “he is such a good tither,” the best thing for ourselves and for our nation is that we repent and return to living lives for God’s glory and in accordance with His Word.

Many Christians in America feel a growing angst regarding the future of the church’s place in society and the questionable status of the liberty we’ve so long enjoyed. I can’t tell you that if you will do this one thing, God’s going to fix it all. I don’t know what His plan is for the future, or what role He’s designated for us. One thing I do know, no plan, scheme, political platform, party, or candidate can save a nation whose citizens despise virtue and celebrate unrighteousness.

Dear fellow Americans, this July 4th, I pray that you will join me in the single greatest act of patriotism that any person can commit. Let us purpose in our hearts to be changed from the inside out into a righteous people that do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God. (Micah 6:8)

–Thomas Hersman