The Example of Josiah: Serving God Without Hope of Reward

King Josiah Cleansing the Land of Idols, by William Hole

A while back, I wrote a research paper on King Josiah, and ever since then he has been one of my favorite Bible characters.

Josiah came to power in the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 640 BC. This is a long time after the time of David and Solomon: the kingdom had been divided for almost 300 years, the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, and the Southern kingdom isn’t too far behind—a long series of mostly unfaithful kings (including Josiah’s father, Amon) have led Judah away from God, and before long, Babylon will begin to conquer them.

This is the situation when Josiah comes to power at the age of 8. Even though he’s young, and even though he had a wicked father, the Bible tells us that in 2 Kings 2.22 that Josiah was a good and faithful king: 
“He did right in the sight of the LORD and walked in all the way of his father David, nor did he turn aside to the right or to the left.”
According to 2 Kings 22, in the 18th year of his reign, Josiah begins a project to repair and restore the Temple, and during the construction project, the book of the law is found. Scholars and commentators disagree on exactly what this means, but basically, the Law of Moses has been found—either the entire Torah (the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy), or at the very least, the Book of Deuteronomy on its own. Either way, what this means is that the Law of Moses, the covenant that God made with His people and the laws He gave them to follow, has been found and is read to King Josiah for the first time. It shows just how bad things had gotten under Josiah’s wicked father that Josiah apparently hadn’t been exposed to the Law before now!

A covenant is an agreement or a promise made between two parties. In God's covenant with the Israelites, God promised to be their God and protect them, and in return, the people were to be faithful and obedient to God’s commands. When Josiah hears the words of the Law, he tears his clothes because he realizes how unfaithful Judah has been—they haven’t followed the commands of the Law of Moses, and they’ve worshipped gods other than Jehovah. In short, they haven’t kept up their part of the bargain.

So Josiah sends to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of the LORD—what does God say about the situation? Huldah responds in 2 Kings 22.15-20, but it isn’t good news:
“‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.  
But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. 
Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’’ 
And they brought back word to the king.”
So basically, God says that for all their wickedness, the people of Judah will be punished, but because Josiah humbled himself before God, he won’t have to witness the destruction of his country and will die before it happens.

Put yourself in the place of Josiah: what do you do next? No matter what you do, it’s too late for Judah and they’re going to be punished for their past sins after he dies. It seems like whatever he does doesn’t matter, because the same negative consequence will happen either way. What will Josiah do next?

And this is why Josiah is one of my favorite Bible characters, and why he is such a good example for us: even when he knows that there’s no reward coming his way, he still does the right thing because of his devotion to God.

In 2 Kings 23, Josiah goes out and reads the Book of the Law in front of all the people and along with them, reestablishes the covenant with God. Then, he sets about in a systematic way to make things right. He goes throughout Judah and even into the northern territory of Israel and does away with unauthorized worship practices, destroying idols and pagan altars and getting rid of idolatrous priests. He removes the mediums and spiritists from the land as well, and also re-institutes the Passover feast:
“For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.”
Josiah does all of this despite the knowledge that Judah is going to be punished no matter what, and sure enough, after Josiah is killed in a battle against Egypt, Judah is quickly overthrown.

•    •    •

Josiah’s life underscores how important it is to serve God because we love Him, not because we’re hoping to get something for doing so. I think a lot of times people get the idea that as Christians, we spend our lives doing good things for God and that He then pays us back by letting us go to heaven.

To be clear, the Bible does speak of heaven as a reward and the hope of heaven should help to motivate us to keep going, especially when times get rough. But if the only reason you’re serving God is so He’ll pay you back with heaven, then you really have the wrong perspective on things. Serving God will seem like a chore and, before long, you’ll trick yourself into thinking that God owes you something, when He really doesn’t at all.


Reflections on Graduation, Youth Ministry, and Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams is a documentary film from the 1990s that tells the story of two kids from the projects in Chicago who play basketball and hope to use their talents to make it to the NBA and ultimately, change their lives. It is a brilliant and poignant film, and touches on a lot of heavy issues like race, poverty, and drugs, but it also has a bearing on this particular idea.

Near the end of the film, William Gates, one of the two main characters of the film, goes in to talk to his high school basketball coach, Gene Pingatore, at the end of his senior year. Pingatore coached for St. Joseph’s, a private Catholic high school with an expensive tuition, but because William was a basketball phenom as a freshman, he was able to receive a scholarship. William had a good career, but a devastating knee injury prevented him from being the player that everyone expected him to be.

The particular clip I’m talking about starts at the 30.51 mark in the video below, and runs until about 33.05:

As Gates walks out of the coach’s life, Pingatore chuckles and remarks, “Well, another one walks out the door and another one comes in the door. That’s what it’s all about.”

It comes across rather callously: it’s as if the last four years meant nothing to the coach; Gates was just a player on a team, a piece he manipulated for a few years, and now it’s time to use the next piece.*

•   •   •

Last night I went to Farmington High School Graduation to watch five seniors from our church walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.

As a youth minister, I’ve now been with the church here long enough that I have worked with some of our teens for several years—all the way from sixth grade through their senior years. All that time invested into students can stir up a lot of bittersweet feelings—I am proud to see how they have developed and matured and what they have accomplished, and am excited for what they will go on to do. At the same time, I am concerned about the trials and temptations they will face, the decisions they will make, and ultimately, whether or not they will remain faithful. I can’t help but wonder about things that I could have done differently that perhaps would have impacted their spiritual growth in a better way, and I wonder if I could have taught or exemplified a particular point of Christian discipleship more effectively.

Graduation is also a bittersweet time because I know that my relationships with my students (in a sense, I guess they’re not mine anymore) always change when they go off to college. Sometimes we get closer (which is a joy), a lot of times we drift apart somewhat as we don’t spend as much time together, but always there is a change, and I’m not a big fan of change.

To sympathize a bit with Coach Pingatore from the clip above, there are the realities of youth ministry (and coaching)—as kids graduate and move on, other kids do come into the group, and you have to devote efforts and attention to them as well. If spend all of your time focusing on the students who have already left, then you neglect the ones who are still around. But at the same time, I can’t just chuckle about it and laugh it off the way he does. New students come in, but they don’t replace the ones who have left as if they are interchangeable pieces.

As the summer ends and my graduating teens ultimately move on, I watch them from a distance, cheering on their accomplishments and praying for God’s guidance in their lives. But to me, they’re still my kids: I’ve poured too much of myself into them for them to be anything else.

•   •   •

*For the record, Pingatore did not like the way he was portrayed in the film and ended up suing the directors. He might actually be a great guy who invests a ton in his players; it didn’t come across that way in the film.


Funny Things You See On Facebook: Christian Counseling

The sidebar of my facebook page is always cluttered with advertisements which are supposed to be relevant to me in some way, but never actually are. They are, however, occasionally a source of great humor.

Today one of the ads was encouraging me to get my Christian Counseling degree (in as little as one year!). That’s not so strange I guess, but I was a little surprised by the choice of picture used to illustrate such a degree program—what appears to be the back of a leg tattooed with a picture of Jesus.
I haven’t taken any counseling classes yet as part of my degree program, so I confess to being ignorant here—is getting a Jesus calf tattoo part of the degree program, or is the tattoo something that the counselor suggests to his client as part of the counseling process?

Any assistance you could give me would be appreciated.

UPDATE: However the tattoos are used in the context of counseling, apparently it is also acceptable for them to be on the back of the neck.


Unity and Restoration in Churches of Christ Part 1: A Historical Primer

Churches of Christ, of which I am a part, are a group of autonomous congregations of believers which have historical ties to the American Restoration Movement of the 1800s. This movement, led primarily by men such as Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone (and thus sometimes called “The Stone-Campbell Movement”), sought to strip away man-made traditions and restore the Church which they read about in the pages of the New Testament.

Alexander Campbell
Although the restoration of the New Testament church was seen as important in its own right, it was also viewed as a means of bringing unity to a fragmented world of denominationalism1: if Christ-followers of different varieties could all just agree to follow the beliefs and practices described in the New Testament, then the elusive unity among His disciples which Jesus prayed for could finally be achieved. To an extent, it worked, as thousands of people left their respective denominations and linked up with the new movement, wanting to be known only as Christians and recognizing only the authority of the Bible.

Sadly, this unity did not last. Restoration congregations began to divide in the late 19th century, and in 1906, the U.S. Census recognized a formal division between Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ. It has long been held that the primary causes for this division stemmed from disagreements over missionary societies and instrumental music in worship, but in Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America, author Richard Hughes makes the argument that these issues were merely symptoms of a greater problem, and that the seeds of division were actually sown decades before, and can be traced to the thoughts and perspectives of Alexander Campbell himself.2

According to Hughes, Campbell’s twin goals of unity and restoration3 were, in many ways, mutually exclusive. To illustrate:
  • If Person A places a great deal of importance on unity, he will be more likely to overlook the fact that Person B does not completely agree with and follow the teachings and practices of the New Testament. Unity is upheld, but restoration is diminished.
  • On the other hand, if Person A places a great deal of importance on restoration, the fact that Person B does not completely agree with and follow the teachings and practices of the New Testament will be a major issue that will prevent full fellowship. Here, restoration is upheld but unity is diminished.
Hughes argues that Campbell’s failure to fully think through the implications of unity and restoration enabled him to always cling to both goals despite any inherent tension between the two, but that his followers inevitably divided into hostile groups which focused on one of those concerns to the neglect of the other.4 Ultimately, those who held up unity as being of primary importance became the Disciples of Christ following the split of 1906, while Churches of Christ maintained a primary focus on restoration.

Hughes’ perspective is interesting and I think it does hold some merit, but I think he takes it too far. Certainly there is an element of tension between the ideals of unity and restoration, but to say that the two are mutually exclusive and that Alexander Campbell sowed the seeds of division because he was incapable of grasping this idea seems to place great limitations on Campbell’s universally-renowned intellect.

What seems more likely is that Campbell’s subtle understanding of the connection between unity and restoration was not adequately disseminated to the majority of the people he influenced. Not understanding how the two ideas could be reconciled, his followers later tended to group around one or the other, as Hughes rightly suggested. And it wasn’t a problem which was limited to the late 19th and early 20th centuries—many people today still struggle to reconcile the concepts of unity and restoration.

But I do believe that such a reconciliation is possible, and can be clearly seen through the example of J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, who lived roughly 100 years after Campbell. More on that in the next post.

• • •

1A note on ”denominationalism”: there is a strong historical perspective in the Restoration Movement that laments the disunity in Christendom as evidenced by the countless denominational groups that exist. Churches of Christ aim to be undenominational in the sense that they seek to be nothing more (or less) than the New Testament Church, and because of this, members will sometimes react strongly to the notion that the Church of Christ is “just another denomination.” Of course, regardless of intention, to denominate literally means “to name”, and at least in that sense Churches of Christ are a denomination, as they have persistently and somewhat rigidly applied that specific name to themselves. From that perspective, it is hard for anyone unfamiliar with their core beliefs and goals to think of the Church of Christ as anything other than “just another denomination.” I wish more of us understood this.
2Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 22-26.
3To be more accurate, Hughes, 45, suggests that unity and restoration, while important, were not Campbell’s primary concern. Rather, as a postmillenialist, “Campbell’s ultimate concern was for the kingdom of God, the millennium on earth. In Campbell’s mind, unity was merely a means to the millennial dawn, and restoration a basis for unity.”
4Hughes, 46.


Reading Scripture as an Immigrant

One final perspective from Steeped in the Holy on Bible reading (p. 32-33):
“The third approach to Scripture—and the one that I believe is most useful for preachers—is that of the immigrant. When we come to a new country as an immigrant, we expect things to be different. We may have to learn a new language, or at least new vocabulary; there are different social expectations and cultural mores. To fit in, to belong, we have to adopt new clothing, accents, lifestyles. We never lose the culture of our homeland, but the longer we stay, the more aware we are of the differences. And as an immigrant, we invest in our new country; we develop relationships. We come to call it home. 
When we approach Scripture as immigrants, we come expecting to inhabit this new world. We explore it as insiders, learning the culture and language not as observers but as practitioners. We are necessarily invested in int, with head and heart and sould. It is not enough to have technical skill or academic disciplines: Immigration demands our participation and commitment as people, practitioners, of faith. With such an approach, we cannot help but live what we preach. We live it from the inside. And in this living the text from the inside, in being immigrants and becoming resident, we find that Scripture itself challenges us. It demands certain beliefs, certain actions, certain faith of us. We cannot approach it this way and remain unchanged. And, if we are luck, we fall in love—not just with our new home, but with the God who inhabits it.”
I appreciated these words and the description of this perspective compared to that of the tourist and scientist.


Reading Scripture as a Scientist

More good stuff from Steeped in the Holy (p. 32):
“The second approach to Scripture, beloved of academicians, is that of the scientist. When we approach a country or culture with the primary intention of studying it objectively, we focus not on the tourist attractions, but on the minutiae of daily life. We observe, catalog, define, dissect, and analyze, frequently relying on the input of our professional peers. We are curious, fascinated by uniqueness, looking for patterns and connections to our own cultures. We plan to write papers and books, to share the knowledge we have uncovered, and to return home as ‘experts.’ 
When we approach Scripture as a scientist, we focus on knowledge, putting the details together as a coherent whole. We explore the historical context, social structures, reliability of texts, issues of translation, and links with other texts. We turn to concordances, commentaries, and theologians for expert advice, and at the end of it all make a claim about what the text ‘means.’ The experience is, to a large extent, objective, and while faith may bring insight, it may just as easily be thought to cloud our interpretation. Our stance is that of a disinterested observer.”
A good word, especially for theology students and similar types.


Reading Scripture as a Tourist

From Steeped in the Holy: Preaching as Spiritual Practice by Raewynne J. Whiteley (p. 31-32):
“The easiest way to approach this world of Scripture is as a tourist. When we arrive in a new country as a tourist, we usually want to visit the famous sights: the major monuments, great museums, natural wonders. We take photographs of key places, we learn enough of the language to deal with our basic needs, but mostly we rely on guidebooks and interpreters. We steer clear of discomfort, and, on returning home, relive our memories through photographs and reminiscences; we temporarily gain new perspectives, but they are soon overcome by ordinary everyday living. 
When we approach Scripture as a tourist, we do exactly the same thing. We work our way down the list of must-see sites, the popular and the well-known. We take snapshots of our favorite Bible verses, and quickly move on from anything that makes us uncomfortable. We learn just enough of the language to deal with the basics—Christ, prophet, miracle—and leave the rest to the experts to worry about. And we return home, excitedly talking about what we have seen, but the excitement soon wears off and we go back to life as it had always been.”
A good perspective, I think.


75 Servants, 75 Guests, 75 Years: A Recap

This past weekend at the Farmington Church of Christ, in honor of our 75th anniversary, we had a special event called 75 Servants, 75 Guests, 75 Years.

Basically, the first part of the plan was to meet together as a church family on Saturday and serve our community through a variety of projects:
  • Mowing lawns
  • Free Car Wash
  • Bagging and carrying groceries at IGA
  • Washing windshields at gas stations
  • Providing clothing and food free of charge
  • Making lap quilts to take to widows
  • Hauling brush
  • Picking up trash from the side of the road
  • Helping move furniture
Our goal was to have a minimum of 75 people from our church show up to work (hence, the “75 Servants”), and that goal was met—I counted almost 90 names on the sign-in sheet, and I know some people who were there neglected to sign in. The things we did weren’t exactly earth-shattering, but we hoped to have a positive impact on our community through service, and to show God’s love to those we came in contact with.

I know that our lawn-mowing crews made a particular impact. One lady who had been unable to take care of her lawn due to health issues was so appreciative that she described the men who came to cut her grass as “angels.” Another woman and her husband who had just had a new baby and gotten behind on yard work were so thankful to have that taken off their to-do list.

I had the privilege of working at our car wash (with a bunch of middle schoolers…let me tell you about that someday!), and enjoyed the puzzled looks on people’s faces as I tried to explain that we weren’t accepting donations—we just wanted to serve them. One man had come to get his car washed after running into some of our folks at a gas station. He asked what other kinds of projects we were doing and when I told him, he said, “That’s really cool.”

After we finished our service projects, we headed back to the church building to get everything cleaned and set up for our Friends & Family Day on Sunday, which was the second part of our big weekend. Keeping with the same theme, our goal was to have 75 Guests for worship Sunday morning, and toward that end, our members had been inviting friends, family members, and neighbors for weeks (and also some people that we met on Saturday).

I was overwhelmed by the response on Sunday. We ended up with 85 guests, and a total of over 300 in attendance (which is a big number for a church of 170-180!). We then had the privilege of witnessing one of our guests give his life to Christ in baptism, and afterwards we invited all of our guests to share a meal with us. I don’t know how many stayed for the meal, but I know our fellowship hall was packed.

It was a great weekend. I was humbled by the work done by our church family at work on Saturday, and to see the results of their willingness to invite others on Sunday. And perhaps I was most pleased that a bunch of people who are trying to follow Jesus were able to spend a weekend “going about and doing good” like He did. 

What an encouragement!


A Problem in Our Preaching

From David Buttrick in A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching:
“But the truth is that most of our pulpits, Protestant and Catholic alike, have read scripture but then preached a psychological personalism for the past four decades, with sin as psychological dysfunction and salvation as inward good feeling.”
Is it any wonder that a distorted message leads to distorted disciples?


Baseball: Designed to Break Your Heart

A. Bart Giamatti, Major League Baseball’s seventh Commissioner and a formidable scholar (having previously served as the President of Yale University), once famously said about baseball:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.
Giamatti knew what he was talking about. A lifelong Red Sox fan, he had the unenviable task of overseeing Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from baseball, and then suffered a fatal heart attack eight days later.

I find Giamatti’s words to be true in my own experience as a baseball player, fan, and amateur historian. As a player, the joys of fielding ground balls and taking batting practice were gradually overshadowed by the political squabbles of battling for playing time with coaches’ sons and the increasing awareness that I was never going to get a shot at the Big Leagues. As a fan, the majority of my childhood was spent rooting for Atlanta Braves, the winningest team of the 1990s, and yet, looking back, it is not the hundreds and hundreds of victories that I remember but the failures in the playoffs year after year. And as an amateur historian, the stories that most readily spring to mind tend to be the saddest ones.

It is some of these stories that I would like to share, on an intermittent basis, as part of a new series. Designed to break your heart or not, I love baseball, in large part because of the poignancy of its illustrious history.

Hope you enjoy them.

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