It was the week before Memorial Day. I was backpacking in the wilderness of Yosemite when I inadvertently crossed paths with a bear cub. Hearing a growl I knew the she-bear was only seconds away, and sure enough, she came crashing through the bushes. I ran as fast as I could but she quickly began to close in. I could hear her grunting and growling, and the pounding of her paws grew louder as she gained on me. Just as she was about to tackle me, jaws snapping, claws slashing, I flung myself into a rushing river, and escaped over a small waterfall. I was soaking wet and the contents of my backpack were all but ruined, but I was safe…
How I wish I could claim that story instead of the one that actually happened. I was backpacking in Yosemite the week before Memorial Day—with two pastor friends from my home congregation. And I did get thoroughly soaked in a rushing river—but it was no death-defying escape from a bear. I was attempting to cross the river on a large tree trunk when I began to teeter, forty-pound backpack and all, then slipped and fell backwards into the freezing water. I could barely keep my head above the turbulent, though not-so-deep, river. Eventually, I managed to plant my feet and walk my way out of the chest high white water to the other side of the river. That is the real story and of course my two pastor friends enjoyed telling it to all my buddies at church!
While the first story of my wilderness mishap sounds scary, exhilarating and maybe even slightly heroic, the real one is embarrassing, even a bit humiliating. It’s a human foible to present ourselves as more capable, more noble, more heroic and admirable than what we really are. (Did you ever see an elephant or a goldfish trying to demonstrate its coolness to the rest of the herd or school?)
From earliest childhood we begin to imagine ourselves as the heroes of our own narratives. That impulse can become sinful if we deceive ourselves into believing and/or promoting our own inflated self-images and stories. Despite all the fears today over poor self-esteem (or perhaps because of them), we find it natural to do just what the Scriptures admonish us not to do: think of ourselves “more highly than we ought” (Romans 12:3). And whether or not we recognize that tendency in ourselves, we see it clearly enough in others. It’s easy to be skeptical about their claims, expecting that they will invariably be “putting their best foot forward.”
The result is a cynical society in which it’s difficult to believe much of what we hear. We are accustomed to athletes exaggerating their feats, business people fluffing up their résumés, politicians twisting truth … and even Christian leaders stretching their credibility by describing their efforts “evangelastically.”
As the head of a Jewish mission, I am keenly aware of the tension regarding expectations to look good. I find myself having to fight the propensity to want Jews for Jesus to appear more noble, diligent or successful than what we truly are.
While on the way to Yosemite, I stopped at a Starbucks and happened upon two Christian couples who were excited to see my Jews for Jesus van. One said, “I hear that thousands of Jews are coming to Christ in Israel. Is that what you are seeing in Jews for Jesus?” I had to explain that while we are encouraged by the opportunities God gives us to meet and talk with many Israelis, we only see a handful coming to Christ at any given time. I wish I could say differently, but I can’t.
It takes a great deal of patience, courage and endurance to remain faithful in Jewish evangelism in Israel or anywhere else. Opposition is strong, rejection is constant—and if we depended on excitement over how many people we actually see receive Yeshua to keep us going, we’d soon run out of gas. During our recent month-long witnessing campaign in Israel, we prayed with five Jewish people to surrender their hearts to Jesus. (See Announcements and Prayer Requests) More than one thousand Jewish Israelis gave their contact information to hear more about Jesus. A small percentage of them want to meet with us personally after receiving the promised literature. But that is to be expected when working with people groups that missiologists describe as “gospel resistant.”
Last month we conducted our usual campaign in New York City and a special campaign in London for the Olympics. As usual, our campaigners were enthusiastic and experienced the joy of the Lord as their strength. But it wasn’t easy. It is always difficult to stand up publicly for the Lord, and our missionaries and volunteers have to fight weariness and discouragement. We need you to hear and know this, so you can care and pray more effectively for the work of the gospel. Being transparent and honest with our struggles takes careful commitment and trust, but it is a far better way to communicate with our friends and supporters than sounding a note of Messianic triumphalism.
When I fell into the river on this most recent backpacking trip, instead of leaving me cold, wet and embarrassed, my pastor friends took the occasion to show extra love and care for me. All of my reading materials had been ruined through my fall into the river, so they shared theirs. I meditated on far more Scripture than I had planned to, because Pastor Paul had brought many pages of photocopied Bible passages. I also ended up reading Building Below the Waterline (no pun intended), a book by Gordon McDonald that Pastor Terry had brought.
Reflecting on the course of his life, McDonald observed that one benefit of aging is a keener awareness of just how extensive our sin really is. That awareness can protect us from our own pretenses and help us to see our fellow sinners through eyes of grace. I want to cultivate that awareness before I am too old to reap the benefits. I want to be the kind of person who can smell my own sin long before others do, and not think more highly of myself than I ought. I want to face head-on the temptation to make myself appear better than I am. Don’t you? So doing not only helps a person give grace to others, but it makes it easier to receive grace as well.
I didn’t enjoy making a spectacle of myself by falling into the river. But what was more memorable than my momentary embarrassment was how these two men demonstrated such love and care for me—and how God spoke to me through it all. It would seem that being weak and vulnerable can turn out to be far better than appearing strong and competent.
The Bible says, “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ…” (2 Corinthians 2:14). Too often we imagine that triumph as a royal procession in sparkling raiment rather than what it truly is, a following in the footsteps of the Pierced One. We have to remember that even when Yeshua heard the hosannas of the adoring Jerusalem crowd, He was on His way to the cross. So are we.
To take up our cross and follow Jesus requires us to walk in humble reliance upon Him. It is not a posture of proud triumphalism but rather a vulnerable commitment to a road of suffering and weakness; yet it is a road that always leads to triumph in Him. Let’s remember to choose that triumph over triumphalism each and every day.