Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Jesus the Christ
Jeremiah Small was a student who attended the Torchbearer Bible Schools, the family of schools where I am privileged to teach on a regular basis. Jeremiah was teaching in Iraq until last week, when he was killed by one of his students, before turning the gun on himself. An e-mail I received from one of his friends remembers Jeremiah this way: He did much more than spread the gospel, he trained individuals to seek truth. Seeing truth is something that Jeremiah did unlike anyone else. He committed his whole being to knowing God and wrestled to know his character with exemplary diligence and faith. In this news video Jeremiah’s dad speaks of his son’s life, of his passion to live life generously, courageously, fully, even if such commitments meant a shorter life. He was 33.
I was moved by reading the perspective of a Kurdish student in this article from the Kurdistan Tribune, where he wrote: In the classroom he taught his students a love of Literature and Humanities and encouraged them to always look for truth and seek knowledge; he spent all of his energy and time teaching, mentoring, and giving. Most importantly, he encouraged his students to pursue education as a way of giving back to their community; he was himself a servant leader and wanted to see more servant leadership in our country.
In the community he was a faithful and friendly expatriate. He cared for Kurdistan’s nature, environment, traditions, and way of life. A camera slung on his shoulder, you could spot him walking down of Mawlawi Street in his Jili Kurdi with his colleagues and students during Nawroz. He was no regular teacher; he was a mentor with immense God-given capabilities.
Our world is obsessed with economics, upward mobility, and security. Here’s a man who cared for none of these things. Our world is filled with arrogant pontifications, both political and theological, with acidic language becoming so commonplace that my soul’s nearly numb. Jeremiah, it appears, didn’t care about any of it. He just got on with loving the people around him, challenging, serving, blessing. On the day I read of his death, 60 minutes had yet another stories about hundreds of boys abused by priests, making me nearly throw up. Jeremiah met people and helped them become whole. His death comes right in the midst of this Lenten season when I’ve left behind any writings about politics and divisive issues in order to focus on one single question: What does it mean to identify fully with Christ? Jeremiah’s life and death shed light on the answer:
Following Christ means emptying oneself. This is what sets the gospel apart from everything else I’ve ever seen. Real faith is not some path to upward mobility, or downward mobility either for that matter. Real faith means so fully identifying with Christ that we, like him, empty ourselves of self-seeking, self-promotion, self-preservation. Philanthropy gives off the top, out of the margins. Philanthropy’s good, but it’s not the Christian life. Christ gives everything, lavishly pouring out his very life for a broken humanity, and then invites us to follow His example, noting that only those who are pouring their lives out will really find the life for which they were created. This is paradox. This is the core of the gospel. In an age where the core’s gone missing, where the gospel has become “self improvement” instead of self-emptying, Jeremiah’s example shines.
Following Christ means loving. One of his students wrote: For me personally, Jeremiah Small was both a teacher and a friend. After my parents, he contributed the most to my personality and knowledge. He taught me how to turn my vision into reality and challenged me to be diligent, observing, meek, organized, and detailed.
He was also a great friend outside of the classroom; we went on numerous hikes, trips, and other outings. God knows I would not be who I am today if it was not for him and what he presented to me. I am sure hundreds of his other students feel the same way.
Jeremiah’s life and ministry of loving his students deeply, sacrificially, unconditionally, stands in stark contrast to too much of what passes for Christianity these days. I’m chastened, humbled, challenged, by his example of delighting in his students and serving them tirelessly, for this, in the end, is the essential ingredient to making God’s good reign visible in world. I see this love in my daughter and her work as a teacher in Germany. I see it in friends who are caring for spouses and parents during their last days. Would to God that all of us would grasp that this simple posture of sacrificial love, of delighting to serve the other in Jesus, is the most powerful force on the planet.
But alas, the pricetags have been switched, and the Christian machinery of the West has created a “faith” that adds activities, books, radio stations, camps, and the endless words of sermons to our lives, without necessarily calling people to empty themselves, follow Christ, take up their cross, and love deeply. The results are loud – but not pretty. Thank God for the Jeremiahs of the world who, without fanfare, are getting on with the work of serving and loving in Jesus’ name. May the death of Jeremiah cause their tribe to increase.
O God of life;
You call us to pour our lives out as a sacrifice, promising that those who “lose their lives” for your sake will find them. Thank you that Jeremiah found his life, found his true voice, found deep joy, by emptying his life. Now, having paid the fullest sacrifice in his service to you, I pray that the example of his life will continue to “preach Christ” for generations to come, and that we who knew him in life, or only just now in death, would follow you fully as a result. You point us to the cross, and now Jeremiah stands beside you, counted among the millions who’ve gone before to show us the way. This is our hope and joy.