Several weeks ago a friend who works as a nurse in one of our large hospitals said to me: “We don’t have health care in this country any more, we have a health industry.” Here is how she began to explain what she meant—patients who have no means of payment are often sent home early; patients who have good insurance are kept longer than they need to be. Health care has become all about profit. My wife received excellent care during a recent minor surgery—but I couldn’t help noticing how lavish the facilities were. The frills push the price up—but help to compete for paying customers (note the term “customer,” not “patient”).
Education appears to be following the same course. Colleges and Universities dump down their curriculum and develop majors that attract students whether those majors are either academically or professionally profitable. They, too, are in the business of adding frills that increase the price in order to attract “customers”—cable TV in the dorm, cafeterias replete with variety, etc. We have even had the appearance of for-profit colleges. A recent prospective student repeatedly referred to our institution’s “customer service” and described the education we offer as a “commodity.”
We in the church have not escaped this tendency. We are called to be the people of God who live in covenant relationship with one another centered on the worship of God through word and sacrament. Instead we have often become purveyors of programs that provide various services in an attempt to attract people. The commitment of those attracted by these “ministries” often goes no further than the service they receive. Some years ago a local funeral home bought a church near by. I say “funeral home,” but it became an “event” center. The establishment would provide service for any life event you wanted to hold there. This arrangement may be fine for an “event” center, but it is not good for the church. We are not there simply to get numbers or “make a profit” by giving you whatever you want.
God was not moved by the “profit motive” when he sent His Only Begotten Son—“For God so loved the world, that he gave . . .” Perhaps his people should be more concerned about following his example.
My wife Rosa had a dangerous, life-threatening delivery with our oldest daughter. We were in Sierra Leone. Although I was in the operating room, the attending lady physician, a colleague and close friend, would not look me in the face—her face was pale and her lips were tightly pursed. God told a godly African woman, known as a prayer warrior, to go and pray when she heard Mrs. Cockerill was in labor. God answered that prayer, and we have been thankful ever since. Some mission boards require missionaries to have several hundred prayer partners before they can go to their place of service. God invites us in Scripture to pray for our needs, for the needs of others, and especially for those engaged in his service. We know that God is not limited by our prayers, and yet sometimes we pray and ask others to pray because we feel that the more people who join us in prayer the more likely God is to answer.
When we turn to the eleventh verse of this passage (2 Corinthians 1:3-11), we are astounded: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11 ESV). Paul urges the Corinthian believers to pray for his deliverance and the furtherance of the Gospel, not so that God will answer, but so that they will increase the number of those who give thanks when God does answer! Paul is so confident of God’s answer that he is sure it will lead to thanksgiving! God chooses to act through our prayers—and sometimes not to act if we do not pray—because he wants us to know that He is answering! He wants to draw us close to himself through his gracious action and our grateful thanksgiving. What a privilege to pray aright (praying aright may be a topic for another day), to witness God’s answers, and to give thanks.
Today Rosa and I stood at the graveside of our dear missionary friend Ruth Pierson, with Chuck, her husband of more than 40 years, and her family. It was a bone-chilling, dreary Michigan day with about a foot of snow on the ground. How good it was to hear Christ’s words pronounced by the minister: “I am the resurrection and the life,” and to know that the chill of death has been removed forever for those who await his coming. By his passion he has melted the cold hopelessness of life without God.
Ruth and Rosa had much in common. Fort starters, both served for three years in Sierra Leone as single missionary nurses, then came home, got married, and took their husbands back with them–Ruth brought Church and Rosa brought me. Rosa always looked forward to the times when we could visit with Chuck and Ruth.
It was a joy to fellowship with our many missionary friends who came to celebrate Ruth’s home going and to share our memories of her. Her faithfulness reminds us that the only life worth living is a life of trust in and obedience to Christ. Ruth has finished her course, kept the faith, and heard Christ’s “well done.” Her life beacons us to run the race with perseverance until we finish well!
Let’s leave mangoes alone for awhile. I’d like to comment about the wonderful trip Rosa and I had to Ephesus last summer. We went with friends who were very familiar with the city. After flying from Istanbul to Izmir, we took the train to Selçuk, the modern town closest to ancient Ephesus. As we walked from the train station, we passed the ruins of a late Roman aqueduct, pictured above. As you can see, storks have taken advantage of some of this aqueduct’s remaining columns to build their nests. For more about our trip, click on the “Ephesus” page given above.
So much for mangoes, what about Melchizedek. Melchizedek is that guy who appears to Abraham in Genesis 14. In Psalm 110:4 God declares to the Messiah, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The writer of the Book of Hebrews takes up the challenge of explaining who this Melchizedek is. After three years in Africa, Rosa and I moved to Richmond, Virginia, where I did a Th.M. and a Ph.D. in Biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary. I was looking for a thesis topic–or, actually, I was looking for an advisor. I decided that Professor Mathias Rissi would be the best advisor for me. So I asked him to suggest a topic for my Th.M. thesis. He suggested that I compare Melchizedek in Hebrews 7 with 11QMelchizedek, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And so was born an interest in Melchizedek and a love for the book of Hebrews that came to fruition in my doctoral dissertation–“The Melchizedek Christology of Hebrews 7:1-25.”
Mangoes. It seemed fitting to begin this blog with “mangoes.” I don’t remember ever seeing a mango until I arrived in Sierra Leone, West Africa, September 2, 1969. Rosa and I had just been married on August 15. I’d been ordained to the ministry on August 17. Here we were in Sierra Leone. When we woke up the first morning in Freetown, we heard a child’s voice outside saying in Sierra Leonean Krio, “they done come from the United States of America.” By September 4 we were in the town of Kamakwie, about 175 miles from Freetown, in our house–which was in the middle of a mango grove. I would develop a love for those mangoes, and a love for the country where I first tasted them, the country of Sierra Leone.