“I don’t ever want to lose my zeal for you, God. Don’t let me get old and lose my passion. You know I would die for you.” It was an angry prayer, full of young, self-righteous determination. Even though I prayed it quietly from behind the closed door of my bedroom, it was a more of a declaration than a supplication.
It was the early morning of Saturday, July 27, 1996, and my parents had just returned from an important meeting at the church. I had been up all night. We all had. Just after midnight—as we had finished packing our last bags for our early morning departure—the report came across the TV. I remember how the news felt in my stomach. Pipe bombs were going off in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. It was my first remembrance of that kind of terrorism in my country. And it was exactly where my family was heading that morning with my youth group. We were going to spend the week passing out Bibles at the Olympics—mostly in Centennial Park. A group of church leaders and parents had gathered at the church in the aftermath of the bombing to make a decision on whether or not we would continue with our trip. Only hours after the shocking terrorist attack it seemed prudent to them to cancel our trip entirely.
I was 17. Only a year earlier I had accepted God’s call to ministry. I was lining up my life down the barrel of rigid obedience, believing with all the wind, piss, and vinegar that comes from young, zealous religion that following God would certainly mean risking it all—even death. I could not accept their decision to cancel the trip over concerns for safety. “What about Paul?” I demanded, “Would he have been worried about safety? What about Stephan?” I’m sure I rattled off a few more names from the legacy of Christian martyrdom, closing with Jim Elliot, of course. I still have my Bible from that time where I underlined Philippians 1:21-26 so hard that morning that the pen tip tore through the page. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. These adults had lost their passion—their commitment—to really following Jesus. So I thought.
As I sit, twenty years later, poised for the excitement of another Summer Olympic games, I have a much different conclusion about that decision. It was the right decision. It was the decision I would make now if I had been in their position. Even though hindsight quickly revealed an incredibly calm completion for the Atlanta Olympic Games, they had to make their decision in a matter of hours within a particular context of knowledge. I know, without a doubt, that I would now make the same judgment that my parents and those other adults did that Saturday morning.
But admitting such invites a deeper concern. Have I, in my adulthood, lost my passion for following Jesus with reckless abandon? Have I outgrown Jesus’ revolutionary call? I don’t think I have. I don’t feel like I have. I just believe that I understand the sacrifices of radical obedience in a different way than what I did when I was 17 (and really wanted to go to the Olympics). Indeed, part of my bristling from that decision was because I failed, in my youth, to understand how God works out his will within community. When our own desires and pursuits are at great odds with those that God has placed in our lives, it’s dangerous. Wisdom and obedience are not mutually exclusive in our pursuit of Jesus. I also understand now that there are costly, living sacrifices made every day by those seeking to follow the little way of Jesus—some just as worthy as a martyr’s death. Radically following Jesus can be just as much about choosing to live as it is choosing to die. The call to come and die might mean death, but it will always mean living differently. Maybe Paul’s words to the church at Philippi have more to do with the glory of our sufferings—not the matter. And for Paul, in both life and death, Christ must get all of the glory.