Friday, July 31, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

My (Second) Favorite Place on Earth

(From the Judson Journal, August, 2009)

I just got back from a week of ministry at Camp Lake Louise (one of our two American Baptist camps in Michgian). It was amazing, as always, to see God’s beautiful creation, to sit around a campfire singing His praises, to preach the Gospel to young people, and to just take some time away from the “never-slow-down-not-even-for-a-second” world in which we all live. I love Lake Louise, and the few summers in my life that haven’t included a trip up there have seemed, in some sense, wasted.

In describing my week to my pastors’ peer group this morning, I excitedly declared that Lake Louise is my favorite place on earth. Two of them responded, “You need to get out more.” I don’t exactly know what that means, but seeing as how my top five favorite places also include my back yard and Judson Baptist Church, where I sit right now, I think I can conclude that those fellows just don’t get it.

You see, Lake Louise isn’t my favorite place to be because it’s more impressive and awe-inspiring than any of the others I’ve seen (e.g. the flashing lights of the Las Vegas strip, the majesty of Pictured Rocks, the Atlantic Ocean stretching out into infinity). It's beautiful, but not the most breathtaking thing in the world. No, it’s primarily because of all the things that have happened there—all the memories I’ve made, all the turning points—that I love this little camp so much. I first explored the cabins and woods of our northernmost ABC camp when I was five or six years old. Since then, I’ve been there dozens and dozens of times for camp programs, retreats, and events as a camper, a counselor, camp pastor, and speaker, as well as the guy who drops by at 2 AM one night to propose to his girlfriend.

That’s right, it was at Lake Louise that I asked Erin to be my wife (she was on staff at the time) on the beach with an almost-full moon shining down on us. Last week, a hundred feet away from that spot, my son took his first three steps (his new record is fourteen at Poxson Park—another of my favorite places, even though it’s less than nothing compared to Central Park or Yellowstone). And Lake Louise was even instrumental in my call to ministry. Yeah, that’s what I meant, Reverends, when I called a run-of-the-mill Baptist camp my favorite place on earth.

And yet, we can also over-emphasize the importance of certain places. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard young Christians instructed to mark the exact place and time that they “made a decision for Christ” so that they’ll always remember how real their faith is. Write the date and place that you invited Jesus into your life on the flyleaf of your Bible, they say, and then if the devil tries to tell you you’re not a Christian, you can open that Bible up and point to the date and think about the place and say, “I decided to follow Jesus on August 4, 1983, at Lake Louise Baptist Camp, so I belong to Christ!”

Now, I have nothing against noting the setting of our being born again (assuming that we remember it wasn’t something we did, but something God did). I don’t even have a huge beef with the extra-biblical “Decision Card.” But I’m afraid my colleagues are dead wrong to point to their own “decision” as the rock on which their faith is built. I don’t know about you, but I make decisions all the time. Decisions to eat better and lose weight. Decisions to get up early in the morning and ride my bike every morning (actually pulled that off every day a couple summers ago). Decisions to be kinder and more forgiving. But if there’s one thing that all my decisions have in common, it’s that they are subject to cancellation, revision, waffling, and compromise. I’d rather not rest my eternal destiny on one of my decisions.

Thankfully, I don’t need to. I look not into my heart, into my past, or even at my success in living the Christian life as the assurance that I am bought and paid for. No, I look away from myself entirely.

When I presented the Gospel to the kids at Lake Louise last Thursday (John Calvin’s birthday!), I had prepared an overly elaborate PowerPoint slide to illustrate just this point. I had spent all week laying the groundwork for this, letting the kids see how they had broken each of God’s laws and how we as a human race had exchanged the worship of the True God for the worship of self and idols. On the screen, a red heart with the word “GOD” on it was switched for a stone heart with the word “Idols.” That means that if anyone tells a sinner that he can find salvation by looking into himself or into his heart, all he’s going to find are idols, a broken law, and condemnation. To find salvation, we must look outside of ourselves to Christ dying on the cross for our sins. (Click here to download the PowerPoint).

When we’re born again, Christ not only takes our sin and gives us His righteousness, he also takes away our idolatrous heart of stone and gives us a new heart of flesh. But even then, Christians still have a sin nature and are still influenced by the world and the devil. And when those three enemies try to tell me that I’m no New Creation and that my identity is wrapped up in my rebellion, the last place I want to look for reassurance is into myself. After all, I have no delusions that I’m as righteous a Christian as St. Paul, and look what he said about himself:
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18-24, ESV)
If Paul had been unsure about his salvation and someone told him to look at his own life as confirmation of his “decision,” he’d be in serious trouble. Now, if someone told him to remember the moment of his conversion, he’d be getting warmer, but only because his conversion wasn’t hinged on a decision that he made. Rather, Jesus Christ knocked old Saul off his horse, humbled the heck out of him, struck him blind, and then created faith in Paul when the scales fell away from his eyes. As Paul continues in the very next verse of Romans 7: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24b-25, ESV)

I love Lake Louise. Whenever I’m there, the memories come rushing back, my stress and my struggles seem to melt away, and I feel so close to God. But my salvation wasn’t secured there. Nobody’s was. Not even the kids who put their faith in Jesus Christ last Thursday night. For that, we look elsewhere. As Martin Luther said in a sermon at Wittenberg: “When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell; what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where he is there I shall be also!’”

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

2 reader comments:

E. said...

Such an important distinction to make--the within versus without. It's funny that I never even ran into this "looking within yourself" mode of salvation until I starting going to Baptist churches. This was never a discussion in my Lutheran upbringing. But that appeal to look inside ourselves, touted by Oprah and other feel-good gurus is so entrenched in people (especially people who watch a lot of TV) that it can seem insurmountable. I know so many people who would nod and say "yes, yes" to everything you say here, Zach, and to every sermon you preach, and yet they still don't really get it, they still hold these self-centered ideas of who we are, who God is, and what our role is in our salvation. I guess you just have to keep chipping away at the layer of autonomy and self-centeredness in which people are encased. Your sermon illustration last week of the trowel and the sword could be modified for you as a preacher; you surely hold the Bible in one hand and a chisel (or pick axe) in the other. :)

mike wittmer said...

This is a good reminder that what is most meaningful in life is our relationships. It's not really about the place but about what happened there--the memories we created with the most important people in our lives.