Thoughts from abroad

In the shade of the back porch, the thermostat reads 95 degrees.  Our summer is almost over – in just a couple days we will load up the car for the nth time and make the thousand mile trek back to Jackson, MI, our home (for one more year) at the New Tribes Bible Institute.  It has been an incredible summer.

As if our time reconnecting with friends and family throughout Texas was not enough, we had the opportunity to join my (Jim’s) family on a vacation that took us through Italy, and briefly, to Paris and London. There is nothing so humbling as seeing buildings that pre-date America be described as “relatively new.”  And to sit beneath the really old sites, like those at the Forum in Rome, was almost overwhelming.

This summer has also provided me with some down time to think about what has become a repeated observation during our travels.  I have been studying through the book of Hebrews as preparation for our next semester, but one passage continues to stick out at me.  In the midst of his explanation about the nature of the ministry of Christ, the author pauses to warn his audience:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14, ESV)

There is a similar passage in 1 Corinthians 3.  Paul, while addressing a severe dysfunction in the unity of the Corinthian church, explains that spiritual truth can only be discerned by spiritual people, and laments that he could not address them as such.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV)

Both passages suggest that the Christian life is meant to have growth.  In the same way that it would be abnormal for an infant to remain an infant instead of growing into an adult, it is against the nature of a believer to remain a baby in the faith.  Of course, perpetually childlike believers are common, and commonly ignored, for reasons Paul described – we live in the flesh.  But this summer, the metaphor took on a deeper meaning for me.  As Rachel and I traveled throughout Texas and Europe with our four-month-old son Hudson, we noticed some profound differences between his trip and ours.

The Duomo dominates the Florence skyline. Milk dominates Hudson's thoughts.

Some aspects of being a baby are pretty nice.  You sleep when you’re tired, which is most of the time.  When you’re not sleeping, you just make some noise and mommy shows up to feed you.  Once you’re done, someone changes your diaper.  When you go somewhere, you’re either carried or put in a car seat.  Sometimes your car seat is attached to a stroller.  You don’t really care, since you’re probably asleep anyway.  You never worry about your needs being met, because the plans are always made with you in mind. Life as an infant is pretty easy.

But as a baby, you don’t know that you’re missing anything.  The richness of your surroundings is never perceived, because your focus remains on the foundational aspects of life.  Maybe a hint of some deeper purpose creeps into your mind when your heart bursts with joy at the sight of mom or dad, but maybe you just have gas.

Diaper change at the Colosseum.

Did Hudson know that the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) bounce of his stroller was his dad’s feeble attempt to navigate two thousand year old cobblestone streets next to palaces built by emperors? Was he aware that just beyond his closed eyelids marched hundreds of years of the world’s most important art?

While I peered out at the Colosseum trying to figure out whether I should be in awe or despair at the enormity of the ancient architecture and the horrendous events that unfolded there, Hudson was busy filling his diaper.

Of course the list goes on.  No one is surprised at Hudson’s lack of interest in anything not related to Rachel because he is a baby.  Babies need help to eat, and to be calmed down when they are startled, and to be rocked to sleep; but they grow.  They learn to use their hands so they can put food in their mouths.  They learn to walk and to go places without your help.  They don’t stay babies.

This is the spiritual tragedy that Hudson so easily relates.  We have men and women who have been given new life by the blood of Christ, but never mature into members of the body of Christ.  They go to church as if they were consumers looking for the best deal.  “I’m not being fed,” they claim. The word of God is opened and expounded in their hearing, but never contemplated.  The delivery wasn’t right.  I prefer another translation.

And the tragic part is that we have members of churches who are content to experience the spiritual life vicariously through pastors and other church members, being physically present before an awesome God yet never even attempting to contemplate the ramifications of the encounter.  They think that they have a part in the experiences of those around them, but they remember nothing.

Rachel and I are about to start our third semester of training with New Tribes Mission.  My hope for us this year is that we will not be content to ride on the coat-tails of our teachers and rely on their experience and appreciation of our majestic God.  I hope we can grow beyond a focus on the foundations of faith and learn to open our eyes to the richness and beauty and depth that Christ proclaims in His word.  May we, like Hudson, continue to grow.

Trevi Fountain, Rome
Tower Bridge, London
View from the cemetary, Vernazza, Italy
The beach at Monterosso, Italy
The Colosseum, Rome