Journey to Jesus

As this academic year ends, I’d like to tell you (with his permission) about one student’s journey to faith in Jesus.

Toward the beginning of the year, Mat liked Christianity and its premises, but admitted that he was somewhat on the outside looking in.  Then, after returning to his apartment, he realized he lost his checkbook on campus.

Understandably upset, he returned to campus and ran into another student who could tell he was upset.  After Mat filled her in, she offered to help him look for the checkbook even though she barely knew him.  Although they were not successful, the student said she would pray for Mat and that really struck him.  He felt like God was becoming real in his life, the very thing he’d been hoping and praying for.

Two days later, on Sunday, he found a Facebook message from one of his fellowship’s leaders saying that the wallet was found and already back in his campus mailbox.  Beyond being relieved, he again saw God at work and becoming present in his life.

A few days later, though, doubts began to set in.  ‘Was that really God?  Or, was it just a coincidence?’  Mat continued to read his bible and connect with Christians on campus, but still, he hadn’t made a decision to follow Christ personally.

I can remember one meeting with him where I asked what was holding him back.  He reflected for a moment, then said, “I’m not sure.  It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing, but I’m not really sure what they are.”  And so, I continued to pray with and for him for God to keep reaching out to him.

Perhaps a week ago, Mat and I met again for lunch.  This time, something he said made me think that his relationship with Christ had changed.  “Wait a second,” I said.  “Has your relationship with Jesus changed?!”

He then reminded me of a conversation we had where he shared about a Mark Driscoll sermon he heard a month or two ago.  The sermon, from Luke, said that at some point we need to be satisfied with the evidence we have and make a decision to embrace Christ personally.  Although Mat didn’t become a Christian when he first heard the message, he really thought about it and eventually decided he needed to ‘go all in’.

Although there were no ‘fireworks’ or a clearly-defined moment of faith, something very dramatic has happened to Mat.  Like Christ said, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).  It’s been so exciting to see God’s faithfulness to Mat and watch his journey to Jesus.

He also understands that, in some ways, the journey is just beginning.  Thankfully, he’ll have a break from classes this summer, so we’re planning to meet together regularly to see what it means to be a disciple and keep growing in Christ.

It’s such a privilege for me to play a small, but real, role in the lives of students like Mat.  Thanks for your prayers and support that allows us to journey alongside them!

In Christ’s love,

Bryan & Sharon

Quick prayers and praises:

  • praise God for His work in Mat’s life and pray for that work to continue.
  • praise God for a phenomenal year of reaching students for Christ.  We saw so many changed lives and watched the students reach out with passion to their classmates!
  • pray for our summer: we will host a new bible study on 2 Timothy in our home and meet with many students individually for discipleship. Pray also that God gives us wisdom as we help campus leaders plan for the fall.  Also, many new students and residents will be coming to town, so please ask that we connect with them quickly and start forming relationships with them.
  • Pray also for me and our student leadership team as we plan for our fall ‘Intermed’, our gathering of students/professionals for worship, teaching and fellowship.  It’s a great opportunity for me to invest in many of our key leaders, and, for them to get hands-on experience that will prepare them for future investment as they become healthcare providers!
  • Finally, pray for this fall’s incoming students.  We are praying for many Christians, skeptics and seekers that we can encourage on their own journeys to Jesus.

Ministry Seen & Unseen

This past month was another excellent month of ministry.  Here are a few of the highlights.

Engaging those on the journey

Not everyone I (Bryan) interact with on campus is a Christian.  Increasingly, God is giving me opportunities to talk to students still trying to figure Jesus out.  Recently, I’ve been meeting with one student who shared that, while he thinks that Christianity’s central message is true and sees much good in it, his faith is still “like a jigsaw puzzle with a few missing pieces.”  I told him that I will pray for God to bring clarity and encouraged him to join me.  Please pray with us!

Leadership transitions

With this year’s leaders starting to study for boards, we have now seen leadership transitions at all our area campuses.  I’ve been meeting with many of them to help them develop, and implement, a strategy specific to their campus and am always available as questions come up.  I also check in with our leaders to help them stay focused on the vision and maintain balance among their key priorities.

Ministering to couples, together

One of the greatest joys Sharon and I have in ministry is working together.  In addition to one couple we’ve already been meeting with for pre-engagement counseling, Sharon and I will be meeting with another medical student and her fiancé for pre-marital counseling.  Please pray that God gives us wisdom as we try to wisely “speak into” these relationships with God’s truth and grace.

Under the hood

If our ministry were a car, its body would be our ministry on campus.  It’s the essence of what we do and the part everyone sees.  And yet, like a car, its performance ultimately depends upon what lies “under the hood” – the engine, the transmission and other crucial, yet largely unseen, parts.  In our ministry, the engine and transmission are our council, campus laborers and supporters.  I’d like to lift up the hood for a moment and give you a quick peek inside.

Over the past few months, our ministry council, responsible for providing accountability and reaching our campuses with me, has lost two of its six members due to time constraints.  While these two members will continue serving on campus, they simply don’t have enough time to play a larger role in the ministry.  Please ask God to raise up additional members, and especially a chairperson.

Campus advisers are volunteer healthcare providers who are willing to share their lives with students as they journey through their training.  They provide encouragement, mentoring and a living example of what it looks like to walk with God in medicine.  Just this past week, I enjoyed an extended meeting with Jefferson’s campus adviser where we caught up on what we’re doing there, the leadership transition and how we can work together to see God’s work thrive there.  Quiet moments like these are vital to the campuses’ ongoing health.

Finally, our supporters are so crucial in providing the prayer and financial infrastructure that makes it all possible.  We received a major encouragement this past week when a significant donor committed to a sizable monthly gift, freeing me up to focus on the core work of our ministry.

Regardless of the particular role God has called you to play, if you’re receiving this update you are part of our team, a vital, if hidden, piece of what lies “under the hood”.  We want you to know that we see, and appreciate, all that you do on our behalf.

Warmly,

Bryan & Sharon

PS Beyond the requests in the update above, please pray for:

  • Summer gatherings, and times of discipleship, we’ll be having with those students who are staying around.
  • Details to come together for an overnight, fall retreat.  A great way to help new students get plugged into their campus groups up front!

New CMDA Student Newsletter

This month, CMDA is rolling out our new monthly student newsletter.  You’ll find a link to our Life Support Podcast, which currently features an interview with Dr. David Levy, a neurosurgeon who’s learned a lot about the impact of praying with his patients.  He’s written a fantastic book on this subject called Grey Matter, which I can highly recommend.

@MedTweet: Investing In Others

Look around you and pray.  What one person can you invest in this week?  What one step will you take to make it real?

Reaching Out, Going First

I love August – warm weather, blue skies, and the buzz of students returning for another academic year.

Yesterday, one of our healthcare campuses held its annual “Activities Fair” outside on the quad.  Every club on campus was represented: the surgery and pediatrics clubs, the pro-choice group, and all the religious organizations, including our own.  No doubt aided by the free ice cream and dancing bears, everyone was having a great time.

It was fascinating to watch reactions as people walked by our ‘booth.’  Some people, clearly not interested, bounced away from our table as if it were a magnet with a charge opposite to their own.  Others, smiling, came right over and told us they had been looking for “the Christian group.”

As I later reflected on the afternoon, I found myself thinking that these two groups rarely interact.  And, thinking that it’s a shame.

There are many reasons for this that we can’t explore here, but how do we begin to overcome it?  How do our fellowships start to attract people who are normally repelled by them?

One clue may lie in a third, smaller group at the fair yesterday.  I’ll call this group “friends of the fellowship.”  These are people who, for one reason or another, aren’t part of the group, but know someone in the group.  In most cases, that “someone” took an interest in, and built a relationship with, them.  And so, even though they aren’t attracted to our message, they are attracted to us.  We had a number of people like this come up and talk with us yesterday, something I thought was a great sign.

A key takeaway, then, from the activity fair is this:

We need to take the first step in building strong relationships with people who disagree with us.  Like Christ, who left heaven for earth without invitation (or a “friend request”), we need to take initiative with those around us.

In all honesty, we’re not very good at taking the first step.  We’re (albeit quietly) afraid of being rejected, and so a lot of times we don’t reach out to people who are on a different spiritual wavelength than us.

Yesterday, I was impressed when someone approached our table, said she was from the pro-life group, and asked if we wanted to be part of a debate later this year.  Although we probably differ in some pretty foundational areas, I came away thinking, “we need to be more like that.”  We need to say “hi, I’m [whoever]” first, take an interest in people and make them feel welcome, and talk about things that go deeper than medicine and the weather.

As the year begins, you and your fellowship have a special opportunity.  This is a fresh beginning – forming relationships with incoming students, and, turning over a new leaf with ones you already know.

In God’s wisdom, almost everyone who meets Jesus will meet him through one of us.  As Paul puts it, we “are a letter from Christ… written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Corinthians 3:3).  When people meet us, it’s supposed to be like receiving a letter from God!  Depending on how we represent him, they may either want to open it and peek inside, or, scribble “Return to Sender.”

Let’s this bring this in for a landing by making it personal and practical.  First, are you and your campus fellowship willing to start moving outward, to “go first” in forming relationships with people who disagree with you?  If you are, great!  That’s by far the most important step, and one we’ll need to keep re-engaging.

But once we’re open to it, we need to actually do it.  Grab a few others to pray and make it happen.  Maybe it’s coffee and junk food for the first-years before their first exam.  Maybe it’s making a point of introducing yourself to everyone you can.  Or maybe it’s asking another club to join yours for a clinic or an outreach sponsored by your school.

Whatever you decide, I pray that you will seize the opportunity of these first few weeks by ‘going first’ and calling others in your group to join you.

No Script, Just Jesus

Just yesterday, we held our first Summer Medical Institute (SMI) Philly outreach for the year.  Based in Philadelphia’s second poorest community, we offer free health screenings and discuss spiritual matters with anyone and everyone who wants to.

Although we held four hours of training the day before, including what to say when we knock on doors and how to address spiritual concerns, we came away with a profound sense that there’s really no script for this kind of thing.  In all honesty, that can be kind of scary, and all of us had some level of anxiety even though most of us have done it before.

After all, following Jesus can land you in some pretty interesting situations.  Like a community hair salon, where we wound up spending our entire afternoon.

At first, I’ve got to admit, it was a little awkward.

Although the owner had invited us to come, when we opened the door we discovered other members of our team were already there due to a change of plans.  No one on our specific team had ever done the screenings we were about to offer.  Demographically, none of us looked like we belonged there, something that was not lost on the salon’s patrons.  And, as a guy, I felt a little out of place.

But, there we were, and we weren’t about to miss the opportunities God had put before us.  So, with hair dryers blazing all around us, and our interpreter as our primary ‘lifeline’ between us and the Spanish-speaking customers, we started screening anyone who was interested.

Our last interaction turned out to be our best one.  “Maria” (not her real name) is a woman in her early forties, and she was clearly worried about her health.  Although she had been seen by a local clinic, she was not getting adequate services for her high blood pressure and GI issues.  Without getting into all the details, she had been eating just once a day to avoid embarrassment at work.  And, as the single parent of a two-year-old, she was scared about what would happen to him if her health didn’t improve.

Although we weren’t able to do much for her medically on the spot, we did connect her with Esperanza, the local, Christ-centered clinic that will provide excellent care for her.  And, even though she wasn’t ready to discuss spiritual concerns deeply in a public setting, she responded to our offer of pastoral follow-up, even requesting a worship service in her home.  Only God knows how Maria’s story will end, but our team left encouraged, knowing she will receive thorough, compassionate follow-up.

So, although the day didn’t unfold anything like we expected it to, God’s script was better than ours.  And that’s exactly what we needed to see – practically – on our first outreach.  Strengthened by that experience, we’re resolved to trust Christ for every interaction we have over the next three weeks.  If there’s any ‘script’, it’s Him:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Although you may not be participating in a medical outreach today, I know that you, too, have situations that seem uncertain, areas in your life where you’d like a script but don’t have one.

What would it look like to give up control, and follow Christ alone, in your context?  Why not take a moment now and pray about it as a small beginning?

Although change doesn’t happen overnight, as we trust God with each small decision, we can look back and see big changes, often in a relatively short time.  I pray that you will join me in the adventure God has planned for you today.

Faith Flags: Off-label Use

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of “faith flags“, a short statement in the course of normal conversation that identifies you as someone who values spiritual things.  Faith flags are primarily intended to open the door to spiritual conversations with patients, neighbors, or others who are spiritually-receptive but not Christians.  (It’s important to mention, as always, that the goal is not to manipulate people, but to create opportunities for honest, deeper discussion).

While faith flags are great conversation starters with those who are on another page spiritually, they also have another, ‘off-label’, use: they’re great for meeting other Christians in a secular environment.  A few days ago, for example, I mentioned an upcoming summer medical missions trip to my dental hygienist.  When she asked more about it, I said,

“We go door-to-door, offering free health screens.  Then, we talk about spiritual things if people want to.”

With real interest, she replied, “Well, I’m very spiritual.  I think a lot of people would do much better if they got to know Him.”

As I could talk (she was cleaning my teeth!), I discovered that while she was a Christian, she hadn’t been going to church.  While we didn’t have the time to talk about the details, and I had just met her, it was clear that something difficult had happened at her former church, and she hoped to find a new one.  I simply mentioned that I would pray God leads her to a new church.  Although our time together was brief, I think it meant a lot to her just to have someone listen with understanding and offer hope in the form of prayer.

Then, it was time to go.  The rest is up to God, but I left with the joy that I had been a part of his work.

As you think about your next few days, how can you plant a few faith flags that may help you discover other Christians where you are?

Lessons From Palm Sunday

Yesterday was Palm Sunday.  Many Christian traditions don’t emphasize this event in the church calendar, but I’m thankful for others that do because they give us an opportunity to reflect on important moments in the life of Christ, and, what they mean for us today.

What can Palm Sunday remind us of as we follow Christ in his ministry of healing?

To answer that question, we first need to understand what Palm Sunday is all about.  Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ final approach to Jerusalem (see Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19), the royal city, while his disciples praised Him, hoping he would be the Messiah and King spoken of by the Old Testament (see Psalm 118:25-26; Zechariah 9:9, for example).  As a sign of their hopes for Him, the people laid their cloaks and palm branches down in front of Jesus.  Not everyone, though, was pleased: the religious leaders, or Pharisees, told Jesus to silence His disciples.  And, just a week later, Jesus would be crucified as the nation rejected Him.  This made Jesus deeply sad, and He wept for the people who would so soon turn on Him (Luke 19:41).

So, what can we learn?

First, Palm Sunday is a call for us personally to remember that Christ is our King.  Before we can offer Him to others, we need to ask where we stand in our relationship to Him very practically.  Are there areas of our lives where we’ve grown cold or disobedient to Him?

Second, Jesus’ sadness over those who were rejecting Him is a powerful example for us.  It’s easy to harden our hearts to those who reject Christ.  Or, perhaps you find yourself getting callous to patients who are non-compliant.  Maybe you’re frustrated with colleagues who ridicule or dismiss your faith.  But Jesus cared deeply about those who hated him the most because He saw the destruction their choices would bring (see Luke 19:42-44).  It takes work and reliance on God, but we need soft hearts toward even the most difficult people around us.

Finally, Christ’s kingly entrance into Jerusalem, and the different responses He encountered, remind us that matters of eternity are before us every day.  Ideally, as we care for patients, interact with staff on the floors, run into classmates and talk with people at the checkout line, they see in us a picture of the Coming King and have an opportunity to make a choice for Him while there’s still time.  Out of love for God and others, are we willing to take a risk and point them in His direction?

Feel free to share your own reflections on Palm Sunday in the comments section.

Serving In Academic Medicine

In a previous post, I said I’d share some takeaways from our two speakers at our local healthcare retreat.  This is the first of those two posts, and it concerns the message given by Dr. Smith (name changed to keep a lower profile), who works at a local teaching hospital.  I think you’ll find his comments helpful as you think about serving Christ in an academic environment.

To begin with, Dr. Smith emphasized that he strives to be, first and foremost, a Christian rather a physician who’s also a Christian.  In an environment where everybody has a title, simply bearing the name of Christ well – and finding your identity there – is what really counts.  This is also in contrast to being a Christian Nice Guy, a (genuine) believer who smiles and does whatever you ask him to, but fails to live courageously and clearly for Christ.  In both cases, the courage to live distinctively comes from finding our value and security in what God, not the people around us, say.  This is much easier said than done, and something we need to come back to routinely as we preach the gospel to ourselves moment-to-moment.

Dr. Smith has also found the academy to be a great place for sharing his faith, both directly and indirectly.  Physicians serving in this environment typically wear a number of hats, which affords opportunity for interactions not only with other Christians, but also with patients, students and residents, colleagues and staff who do not share his faith perspective.

Here are a few specifics that I found insightful:

  • In general, working hard and being competent (not necessarily the brightest or best) are important.  This not only honors God, but gives you a platform for talking about God when the opportunities arise.  No one will want to hear about Who you serve if they don’t respect how you serve.
  • Patients.  Patients are often at a place of physical vulnerability, which often creates an openness to spiritual discussion.  Physicians should be ready to discuss these things with permission and respect, but also boldness.  Spiritual histories (see below) are often a great starting point in this regard.
  • Students, residents.  While on service, Dr. Smith often has medical students and residents with him as he sees patients, presenting key opportunities to offer not only clinical, but spiritual, instruction.  He always takes a simple spiritual history, something he is ready to justify by pointing to the scientific literature, which shows that dealing with spirituality results in better health outcomes, is desired by most patients, and is in accordance with medical “best practices.”  Dr. Smith also uses specific teaching times to talk about these matters, and will invite students/residents to pray with/for patients who show interest in spiritual matters.
  • Colleagues, supervisors.  Again, character and competency are especially important here since respect won’t come through being further along in your training.  Boldness and risk are required since academic physicians have a reputation for being negatively inclined toward faith.  As an example, Dr. Smith shared how he’s going to hand out an appropriate Christian book to one of his colleagues and see what God does with that.
  • Staff.  Often, you’ll find other believers among staff who can challenge and encourage you.  Dr. Smith, for instance, learned that two janitors were already sharing Christ with some of his patients, which really spurred him on to be more straightforward himself.

The specifics of any particular calling within academic medicine vary greatly, so these tips are starting points that need to be thoughtfully applied.  At the same time, they are great guidelines that should be relevant in most situations.  If God is calling you to serve in the academy, He can use you there to make a powerful impact.

Healthcare Toolbox: Declaration of Forgiveness

It’s time to open again our Healthcare Toolbox, which contains practical tools for following Christ in our daily practice of medicine.  With a little adaptation, I think you’ll find that these tools have a far broader application, too.

Today’s tool is the Declaration of Forgiveness, which I came across while reading “Gray Matter” by neurosurgeon Dr. David Levy.  The book chronicles his journey from being an agnostic to gradually incorporating faith into his practice, and the amazing results he’s experienced.

By way of background, when Dr. Levy senses that a patient is troubled, or, that his/her complications are inexplicable based upon medical considerations alone, he tries to explore other, non-medical causes.  Since our spiritual and physical health impact one another greatly, dealing with these non-medical factors is part of providing excellent clinical care.

After explaining this connection, and clearly asking if they would like to talk about these things, a provider can ask if there are people they need to forgive.  If there are, the provider can help them talk to God about it right there.  He/she can walk them through significant wrongs that were committed against them, releasing the offender for each one, remembering that God alone is Judge.

After that process, Dr. Levy mentions that troubled relationships are usually a two-way street, and gives his patients a chance to confess their own failings and be forgiven by God.

Sometimes his patients’ symptoms are healed, other times they improve, while sometimes no discernible change takes place.  But in nearly every case, his patients experience new hope, improved relationships, and a desire to connect/reconnect with God.  It’s simply part of the bigger picture in providing whole-person care.

Obviously, as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Levy’s situation may be different than your own.  No doubt, there are particular obstacles that need to be faced, and overcome, wherever you find yourself.  But coming alongside patients and helping them set aside bitterness may be a key part of their treatment, and the Declaration of Forgiveness is one practical way to help.