Do I Want to be “Makarios”?

Do I Want to be “Makarios”?

by Marie Notcheva

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Practically speaking, the fifth chapter of Matthew is one of the most difficult in the Bible. While the theology behind the Beatitudes and Christ’s instruction on how His followers are to conduct themselves is not difficult to grasp, the unattainable standard of holiness He sets forth in this passage has endless implications to the Christian’s personal life – as well as discipleship in the counseling room.

The Beatitudes are counter-intuitive, because some of the states of being Jesus is calling “blessed” we would instinctively avoid. We might be ok with being gentle; and we certainly like to think of ourselves as hungering for righteousness, but mourning? Being persecuted, or slandered? Poor in spirit? What’s “blessed” about that?

The word used for “blessed”, makarios, does not mean “blissfully happy or contented.” Also used seven times in Revelation, (and twice to describe God in 1 Timothy), Jesus is after something much more than temporal warm, fuzzy feelings here. Makarios , from the root mak (large or lengthy), and denotes “the nature of that which is the highest good” (Vine’s Concise Bible Dictionary) and referred in Greek both to the state of the gods, or later, to the upper crust (elite) of society who had achieved material blessing presumably by upright living.

Now, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. He reverses our understanding of what it means to be ‘blessed’. The elite in God’s kingdom, the “makarios”, are those at the bottom.

Is this what we want when we sign on as Christians?

The Blessing of Humility

Throughout the Gospels, Christ makes the cost of discipleship clear. However, Matthew 5 is a concise glimpse not so much at entrance requirements for outsiders; but a declaration of a present reality – what already characterizes the true Christ-follower. Each of the beatitudes is characterized by a type of humility. Perhaps Jesus’ opening statement, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is the most intriguing – what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Why would I want to be poor in spirit? What is He getting at here?

Spiritual poverty, like material, is characterized by a lack – not having something. Someone who is truly poor, like the beggar of Luke 16, is utterly incapable of helping himself and is awaiting crumbs. Spiritually bankrupt and without anything to offer before our Creator, God values those who seek Him realizing they have nothing of their own merits to offer. Being “poor is spirit” means being able to sincerely say, like the Pharisee of Luke 18, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is the opposite of resting in one’s spiritual pedigree, good works, or ministry accomplishments.

It is the beginning of the understanding of grace.

When beginning discipleship with a new believer, or counseling for a specific issue with a more mature Christian, this is a good starting point. Most of Matthew 18 (and Christ’s instruction to His followers generally) hangs on this first statement – recognizing our own spiritual poverty and brokenness is the beginning of a relationship with God.

The question we need to wrestle through then becomes, “Is this something that I really want?” The problem is, if we are honest, we want some of the glory for ourselves. Of course, we want to be counted as Christians; but how do we really react when mourning – does it challenge our faith, or do we count ourselves ‘blessed’ to have the God of all Comfort on our side?

Checking our Reactions in Persecution: Our Hearts in Anger

After demonstrating His priority on humility in the first part of the chapter, Jesus turns His attention to interpersonal relationships. This is where meekness and Christ-like humility is truly put to the test – it is easy, after all, to be meek, humble or gentle if living on a desert island (or in a convent). But in the messy world of jealousies, rivalries and petty gossip, can we really “rejoice” for being persecuted? Or, if provoked to anger, are we able to see that as seriously as murder? Christ is after heart attitudes here, demonstrating that anger and lust are as serious before God as their logical conclusions (murder and adultery).

What’s so difficult about this chapter is that no one is capable of living up to this standard – apart from Christ Himself. It continually reminds us that our thoughts are as loud in heaven as our shouts, and that God expects our responses to be rooted in humility. Often, people are suffering because of someone else’s sin. When someone continues to hurt us without remorse, it is almost impossible not to want to strike back. This is a good starting point in counseling (including counseling ourselves) to deal with the sting of betrayal or being slandered.

Praying for those who persecute us and loving our enemies is the hardest thing Christ has ever called us to do, but He declares it our greatest good. This is His definition of what it means to be blessed, although it is an intangible and often unappreciated blessing to us in this world. Taking a close look at how God defines blessedness (versus the short-sighted way we often see it) will help us and our counselees redefine our priorities and gain the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

Biblical Counseling Thrives in the Land of the Eagle

June 13, 2016

BC-Albania

by Marie Notcheva

BCC Staff: For this post, Marie interviewed Tim Pasma, Brad Brandt, and Sue and Blair Alvidrez  in order to share with us how biblical counseling is growing in Albania.


“As a young person, reading about Albania fascinated me because the nation claimed to be 100% atheist,” said Timothy Pasma, Senior Pastor at LaRue Baptist Church in Ohio. During the Communist regime, neighboring Romania and Bulgaria also outlawed most religious practice; and following the Soviet model, atheism was taught in the schools. Christians were imprisoned and killed in many places behind the Iron Curtain, but in 1967 dictator Enver Hoxha made Albania the first constitutionally atheist nation in the world. Most churches and mosques were destroyed, and there were reports of believers being sealed into wooden barrels and rolled into the Adriatic Sea.

It wasn’t until after the collapse of Communism in 1991 that the first missionaries were allowed into Albania. Little did Pasma imagine that a generation later, he would have the opportunity to visit – as part of a team providing training to novice biblical counselors.

From Grace Fellowship, with Love

The prelude to the biblical counseling movement in Albania came in 2007, when Grace Fellowship Church (pastored by biblical counselor Brad Bigney) sent Blair and Sue Alvidrez to Albania on a short-term mission trip. Later, after settling down in Lushnjë, Albania in 2010, Blair and Sue became the first certified biblical counselors in Albania – due to the Skype-based supervision of Brad Brandt and Tim Pasma. This connection led to Brandt and Pasma travelling to Albania to speak at biblical counseling training conferences arranged by Alvidrez. Along with Pastor Genci Cesula, Senior Pastor at Grace Church, and the collaboration of several Albanian pastors and missionaries, Blair established Koalicioni I Këshillimit Biblik Shqiptar (Albanian Biblical Counseling Coalition). The ministry now has a website, replete with counseling materials, training videos, and an Albanian-language blog.

“Biblical counseling is definitely catching on,” according to Alvidrez. He and his family now live in the capital city of Tirana, where he works with Cesula to disciple and train other pastors seeking certification.

“Many people said at first, ‘This is never going to work here’,” Blair noted, since there is an aversion to talking openly about one’s problems.

“One big hindrance is gossip,” added Sue. “No one wants to tell people their business. But word got out, and now we have people on waiting lists.”

Several Albanian pastors have submitted their exams and are nearing completion of their biblical-counselor certification. In addition, pastors’ wives are helping both with counseling and book translation. Word is spreading even beyond the borders of Albania: one church in Kosovo now also stocks translated biblical counseling literature, and pastors from Skopje, Macedonia, will attend the next training conference.

“Psychologized” Counsel

One of the difficulties of equipping believers to counsel is the influx of psychologized counseling theories. As is the case elsewhere, the sufficiency of Scripture in matters of soul-care can be confusing to well-meaning counselors who believe secular psychology must be blended with the Bible. Pasma says that psychologically based counsel is definitely gaining momentum in Albania. “Many of the missionaries come with an integrationist view and don’t like what we’re doing,” he said. “We had one man attend a conference who was very well-versed in ‘Christian psychology’ – he was almost hostile to what we were teaching,” Pasma recalled.

In Balkan nations, including Albania, the Church has been traditionally viewed as a house of worship, but not what Pasma calls “disciple-making institutions,” where people seek help for issues. “[Albanians] generally don’t see a meaningful connection between church and life.” In such a context, secular counsel makes more sense. Nevertheless, because of the conferences in Durrës, Tirana, and Korçe, interest in ministering the Word has grown, and relationships with schools and medical clinics have been established. The Christian-run ABC medical clinic in Tirana has sent employees to sit in on teaching sessions about anxiety and depression and have asked Alvidrez and Cesula to send them biblical counselors. The Alvidrezes have also been asked to help counsel at their daughter’s high school in Tirana.

The Big Picture – The Church as Part of Life

As in any postmodern culture, Albania faces its own set of problems that many would deny have spiritual implications. Pastor Genci Cesula cites both depression and marriage problems as being among the biggest counseling issues, but also includes pornography “addiction” on that list. Sexual immorality is becoming much more visible than it had been previously, and without a grounding in a Christian-Judeo heritage, morality becomes subjective. Assisting national believers to establish a growing, dynamic Church that is seen as relevant is a formidable task.

Both the American and Albanian pastors have tried to communicate that “church” is not a building; it is a body of believers interconnected and involved together in all facets of life. “Biblical counsel isn’t just ‘giving answers’, nor is it an ‘American thing’,” Brandt explained. “We want to help them to see what God has designed the Church to be—how to live as disciples of Jesus. It is exciting to see how God is raising up people all around the world who are hungry to learn the biblical answers to [problems in] their lives and heartening to see the dedication of His people all over.”

Albania, which means “Land of the Eagle,” is being renewed in strength. In Scripture, the eagle is a symbol of strength and being able to bear much weight (Ex. 19:4; Deut. 32:11). In fitting metaphorical fashion, Albania has risen in just one generation from oppressive atheism and tyrannically-induced poverty to one of the strongest Christian environments in the Balkans. Due to the unwavering work of Albania’s new generation of pastors and biblical counselors, the country is indeed “rising on wings of eagles” as new believers make His Name known.

“Me Before You” and Hollywood’s Culture of Death

“<em>Me Before You</em>” and Hollywood’s Culture of Death

 

by Marie Notcheva

Me Before You

On June 3rd , a “feel-good” movie designed as a ‘dramatic romance’ opened in cinemas nationwide. Being somewhat out of the pop-culture loop, I first heard of it when a European friend posted a disability rights activists’ petition to boycott the film on social media. The main character in “Me Before You”, Will Traynor, is an extremely wealthy, good-looking, educated British man who is left a paraplegic by an accident. Despite having a loving family, access to the best rehabilitative therapy, and a devoted caretaker, he decides to end his life at Dignitas, a Swiss euthanasia clinic.

Louisa, the caretaker, forges a strong bond with Will and tries to talk him out of it; but to no avail. Ultimately most of the main characters in the movie – including his family – cave in and support his “choice” to end his life, which Will has decided is no longer worth living. Amid swelling, emotionally-evocative music, he follows through on his plan. Pro-life activist Stephanie Gray wrote, “[Will’s family] all encourage, facilitate or are actually present at Will’s suicide the way he wants it.”

The Message 

“‘Me Before You’ literally romanticizes a death wish,” said Tom Shakely, executive director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network.  The main character, despite being in a far better situation personally, economically, and even physically than many disabled people, concludes that he is better off dead than to face the challenges he’s been handed. This is a slap in the face to the many physically disabled people who live productive lives, contribute to society and honor God in their circumstances. (I have a wheelchair-bound friend in Albania who organizes Christian camps for the disabled and shares the Gospel with anyone who will listen; and, despite Albania being far less handicapped-accessible than Britain or the United Sates, Klodi is rarely without a smile or kind word.)

Does this film really portray handicapped individuals? Worse, has the value of human life become so cheap that Hollywood presumes to tell the disabled they should feel worthless? Ben Mattlin, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, wrote in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune:

“Make no mistake: Quadriplegia is hard, and it can be tempting to give up. Like Will Traynor, the paralyzed heartthrob in the movie (played by nondisabled actor Sam Claflin), I rely on constant assistance from paid aides and family members. It’s nearly impossible to find a job, let alone a restaurant or store without steps or with an accessible restroom. It’s a good thing I’m positively bursting with self-confidence and know I do want my life to continue. But how many of those who are struggling to maintain self-esteem, who feel unsure of their right to exist, possess the courage and sheer chutzpah to withstand the invidious message that they’re better off dead?” (Emphasis mine).

The Culpability of American Media

There has been much outcry about this film from disability advocates and anti-euthanasia groups, but I fear that they are like a voice calling out in the wilderness, drowned out by the culture at large. The ethical implication of euthanasia, often called “mercy killing” by its advocates, was so taboo until recently that it was rarely considered a viable moral option. Now, it is being debated (and even implemented) around the world as a “patient right.” American film culture, by glorifying this horrible tragedy, is partly responsible. As of June 2016, six states allow physician-assisted suicide to “mentally-sound, terminally ill” patients, as does the Netherlands where euthanasia practices are reported to be non-consensual at times. (“Physician-assisted suicide” is an oxymoron, as doctors are required to take the Hippocratic Oath to heal, and not to kill, before being licensed.)

Hollywood’s morbid fascination with euthanasia is not new. Me Before You is eerily similar to the 1981 film, Whose Life is It Anyway?, which also depicted a post-accident quadriplegic determined to end his life. However, two stark differences stand out: in the earlier film, the hospital administrator staunchly opposes the main character’s decision on moral grounds. In 1981, it was considered acceptable to “put to sleep” one’s aging dog; but mercy killing a human being was still a moral taboo. Secondly, the earlier film was dark and serious. Me Before You is a product of Hollywood’s modern  ‘culture of death’ which has been so white-washed that comedies are made about abortion (2014’s “Obvious Child”; 2007’s “Knocked Up”); and now we have a feel-good romantic drama about euthanasia.

American movies, unfortunately, are the unrealistic standard by which many young people worldwide set their moral compass. Whether we want to admit it or not, impressionable students are debating the relative morality of euthanasia versus quality of life in medical schools around the world – largely because it has become a “gray area” in American culture – in less than one generation. Hollywood has a tendency to grossly misrepresent and inaccurately portray entire people groups (such as American evangelicals in Soul Surfer; now the disabled in Me Before You); but people in other countries really believe our films represent American culture. (Case in point: just try and convince a Bulgarian teenager that American teens don’t all drive sports cars and carry Gucci purses, ala Mean Girls).

What is Our Response?

Obviously, Hollywood does not deserve anyone’s support at the box office for making films about disabled people offing themselves. Signing petitions to end “disability death porn,” as one activist group has termed it, is fine. But the Christian response is to influence the culture to the dignity of human life; to reignite the value of men and women made in the very image of God. This is the matter of principle, the point of discussion at which we diverge from mainstream culture. Human life is sacred. Here, it seems The Dove Foundation (considered the authority on “family-friendly” film reviews) colossally missed the point on Me Before You:

“Regrettably, despite the good cast and themes of love, devotion, and the love of life, strong language and sexual situations and comments prevent us from awarding the movie our Dove ‘Family-Approved’ Seal.”

Wait, WHAT??  They were more concerned with cleavage, “shirtless men in a few scenes,” betting on horses and swearing than with the glorification of suicide? When a shirtless man concerns us more than a suicidal man, our ‘Christian priorities’ are out of whack.

Every suicide is a tragedy. What Hollywood doesn’t show is the horribly painful ripple effect suicide has on the relatives, friends, and even strangers left behind. A year ago, I sat in a church for the funeral of a 15-year-old classmate of my son, and watched tears run down the face of another teen boy who had barely known him. For unknown reasons, the child had taken his own life and left a community reeling in shock. The effect would have been no less if the boy had been handicapped; terminally ill; or had Down’s Syndrome. Instinctively, we know how precious life is. I regularly interpret for terminal cancer patients (who do not look glamorous or attractive as the characters in The Fault in Our Stars, by the way). These men and women cling to life with tenacity, wanting to spend every possible moment with their loved ones. This is humanity. This is putting “you” before “me,” not the other way around.

Counseling any suicidal person (pre-emptively or remedially, after a failed attempt) is never easy, and their problems should never be minimized. This certainly applies to physically disabled individuals as well as any other depressed person considering suicide. But the truth is, most disabled individuals arenot depressed or suicidal, and they resent Hollywood’s condescending portrayal of them. Me Before You is a prime example of how far Hollywood has ventured from the sanctity of human life, and cries out for the truth of the Gospel (the Person and work of Jesus Christ) to give redemption and meaning to human suffering. The tragedy of films such as this is that they romanticize suicide; snub the Sovereign Creator; and reduce the moral and spiritual capacity of human beings to the level of animals.