While standing on the front porch of the Ray house, I could not help but imagine the ensuing battle in the nearby forests and cornfields. With little effort, I could easily envision soldiers fighting hand-to-hand. I could smell the exploding powder. I could hear the percussive cadence of the small arms, punctuated by the cannon blasts and the persistent shouts of thousands of frightened men as they ran into bloody fields.
The Ray family, however, did not have to imagine. They heard, saw, and smelled the event from their bedrooms, their basement, and their porch. Undoubtedly, they felt the concussive explosions translated through the soil beneath them. They could literally sit in a rocking chair and see the back-and-forth tide of uniforms and sweat, just as easily as I can drink a glass of iced tea while watching a documentary on the History Channel in my living room. Soon enough the battle would infringe greater upon their lives as their house was transformed into a hospital. Gray uniforms. Blue uniforms. Homemade clothing. All stained with the crimson blood of injury and death.
Reflecting on the events, of course, brings application as I realize we are not that far removed from the situation; there are people alive in the Missouri, today, who were born while Civil War soldiers were still telling stories about their experiences in battle.
But not only do are we close to the event, in the sense of passing time, but in circumstance, as well. I understand that we, too, are sitting in our houses on hot days as war is being waged in 360 degrees around us. The war, made up of small and large battles here and there, brings many casualties and fatalities.
Like the Ray family, in August of 1861, we can crowd ourselves into our cellars - as millions of unborn humans are murdered, as government officials force anti-Biblical opinions on their constituents, as media-stimulated youths gun down dozens of strangers in a theater or on a college campus, as people who dare expose their Christian beliefs, through nonaggressive statements, are castigated by amoral atheists, anarchists, and evolutionists.
Make no mistake: the Civil War was a turning point, a defining moment, and a tragic episode in the history of our modern world. The War on Christian Values is no less turning, defining, or tragic. As we recline in our La-Z-Boys, sleep on our memory foams, drink our diet sodas, and wile away on facebook, the blasts of these spiritual battles are spraying shrapnel into our Christian faces. As we relax, rebel yells are being shouted into our Christian ears. As we mind our own business, the ground below our Christian feet is shaking. One might think the sheer volume, the eye-stinging smoke, and the sulfurous and coppery stench would be enough to waken us from our apathetic stupors.
It would be wrong to compare ourselves with the great apostle Paul. Certainly most of us would come out of such a comparison – a contrast really – with a bleak opinion of ourselves.
In Philippians 1, beginning with verse 12, Paul writes, “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ [or “my imprisonment in Christ] has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.”
“[M]y circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel…” Another version uses the phrase “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. Friends, the word “advance” is a military term that refers to the movement of an army into enemy territory. As the soldiers move forward, they clear the obstacles, open the roads, drain the swamps, and build pontoon bridges so that the whole army can advance unhindered (I wish I knew more about my grandfather’s experiences in the Seabees during World War II.).
Think for a moment about the long chain of events that led to this moment. It started in Acts 21 when he went to Jerusalem to make an offering in the Temple. Unfounded rumors spread that he had brought a Gentile into the sacred precincts. That led to a mob scene where Paul was severely beaten and would have been murdered if the authorities had not stepped in and arrested him. Eventually he was sent to Caesarea to stand trial as a Roman citizen. There he was held without bail for two years, narrowly avoiding being murdered by a group of 40 cutthroats who vowed not to eat or drink until they killed him.
Meanwhile he gave his testimony to Felix, the Roman governor, who listened attentively and then kept Paul in confinement, hoping for a bribe. Still later he testified in chains before King Agrippa. Eventually he was put on a boat with other prisoners and sent to Rome. But the boat never made it, eventually sinking during a violent storm on the Mediterranean Sea. Paul and other survivors were washed up on the shores of Malta where a serpent came out of the fire and bit him. Finally he was brought in chains to Rome where he was kept under house arrest for two years, awaiting trial before Caesar. Meanwhile his opponents spread rumors about him, attempting to destroy his reputation and ruin his ministry.
That’s the background of Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:13. As he looks back on all of this, he sees clearly that everything happened for a divinely-ordained purpose – the false rumors, the riot, the beating, the arrest, the four years of confinement, the public misunderstanding, the ruining of his reputation, the slanders, the whispers, the accusations against his name, the shipwreck, the snakebite, and his house arrest in Rome. All of it now is clearly seen as part of God’s plan to bring him to Rome at precisely this moment in precisely this situation so that he would be where God wanted him to be. Adversity is a part of the God’s Providence in Paul’s life!
We could spend hours making a list of adversities that Christians experience every day in our world, in our nation, in our state, in our city, and in our own personal lives. Maybe it would even be to our advantage to list them out, just as Paul did, in order to see the things the God has brought and is bringing us through. The gospel is advanced when we, through our circumstances, cause our brothers and sisters to more greatly trust in the Lord and “have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.”
Awake, oh sleepers! Lift your miserable bodies from your comfortable resting places, don your spiritual armor, and pick up your shield and sword! Walk together through the flaming missiles of deceit and evil. Take the high ground. Deny all advantage to the enemy. Defend and offend.
With God as our commander, we must ready ourselves with the ammunition of faith, aggressively fight the good fight, trumpet the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and conquer death in our unashamed response to the Gospel. No longer can we afford to be neutral eyewitnesses to the carnage. No longer can we afford to watch from a distance. No longer can we lean on our scabbards while the enemy blatantly fires darts in the direction of our narrow path. Through our struggles, God is glorified!