Letter to Stephen

Sunday, July 24, 2011

To our cherished son,

You are our fourth child, but the blessing of new life remains a glorious miracle. God has already given us three children to care for and to teach and it has been a joy to watch their personalities unfold. We are so excited to behold another life—to be there at the very first breath and to watch as that blue little squirming body becomes the form of a new person: you. We are privileged to watch as your life unfolds before our eyes, as you grow from babyhood to boyhood and eventually to manhood. It is our prayer that God will use us to set your feet on the road that leads to Him. We will be with you at the beginning of your journey, but we pray that you will continue on much farther than we will be able to go.

We are naming you Stephen Latimer Lionheart, but first and foremost remember that God calls you Christian. We hope that you are proud to carry the names of two such courageous martyrs, but the name we most want you to live up to is the one God places upon you at your baptism.

Your first name is Stephen, after the first martyr, a man who is repeatedly described as being full of faith and the Holy Spirit. He was one of the first “deacons” chosen to minister to the needs of the new Church while the apostles prayed and studied and wrote what would eventually become the New Testament. Adversaries of the fledgling Church, envious of his wisdom and power, resorted to deception and slander, bringing forth false witnesses to accuse him. Standing on trial surrounded by those hostile to Christ, Stephen’s face was like that of an angel as he gave his great defense. Starting at the time when God chose Abraham and continuing through to the construction of the Temple, he related the acts of God. He especially emphasized God’s steadfast faithfulness to His people even though Israel turned away time and time again. When Stephen concluded his sermon by rebuking his accusers of the same unbelief, they stopped their ears and gnashed their teeth. As the stones began to fly, Stephen gazed into heaven and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Just as Jesus did, Stephen died with forgiveness on his lips. This was the beginning of the Great Dispersion, the first persecution of the Church. As Christians were scattered everywhere, the word of God went with them and the Gospel was spread to the four corners of the world.

The second name we give you is Latimer, in memory of that venerable old English Reformer. Hugh Latimer was the most eloquent preacher of his day, yet at the same time his message was always practical. Open and frank, his ready humor and keen wit endeared him to British people everywhere. He was not a theologian, nor did he do well in administrative roles. Instead he was filled with a love of the word of God and a desire to preach that word, simple and untainted, to all who would hear. To Latimer the reformation was not so much about theological doctrines as it was a return to a life of obedience to God’s simple commands. A hostile audience never intimidated him; he would boldly and directly preach admonitions that people needed to hear—whether they were peasant, bishop or king. Passionate and earnest, he could always speak straight to the heart of his audience.

Latimer was born at the end of the 15th century, an age of ignorance and superstition. Too poor of health to become a farmer like his yeoman father, he was given a good education, attended Cambridge and entered the church. Much like the famous Martin Luther, he sought peace for his soul in ardent devotion to the church and her traditions and customs. All he found was guilt and shame. Then a man named Thomas Bilney, known by some as “the first English Reformer,” pointed him to the words of God in the Bible. At last finding peace, grace, and forgiveness, Latimer turned away from his yearning for a life of monastic solitude to face a nobler life of energy and action in the world. Filled with a new love for God’s word, he began to preach with an irresistible eloquence that did much to spread the Reformation throughout England during the days of Henry VIII and Edward VI.

But when Mary I became queen, she set out to undo through persecution all that had been done in the past 24 years to further the cause of the reformation. She quickly restored the Pope’s authority and began to silence, one by one, the voices who sought to reform the church in England. Latimer was one of the first to be summoned. He could have escaped, and there were those who urged him to do so, but he saw that his duty was clear and he trusted God to see him through the trials he knew lay ahead. He was tried at Oxford in April of 1554 alongside Cranmer and Ridley, but none of them would recant the beliefs that they knew to be true. All three were excommunicated, condemned as heretics and sentenced to death.

On October 16, 1555, Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake side by side. Both remained true to the very end. As the flames were kindled at their feet, Latimer said to his companion:

“Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”

And indeed, that candle never has been put out. Once again the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church and the doctrines which Latimer had taught and for which he had died were more sincerely cherished. The fearless deaths of these men, rather than silencing the reformation, firmly established it in the hearts of those who witnessed their faith.

Your third name is Lionheart, perhaps an unexpected one to go with the names of two men who gave up their lives instead of fighting for the causes they believed in. But fighting battles is not usually the way God’s soldiers win. As Christians, we are called to follow the Son of God who went forth to war by laying down arms. On the day He gave up His spirit on the cross so many years ago, the Enemy thought he had finally vanquished God. But Satan’s moment of exaltation turned out to be the moment he was forever conquered. And now there can be no defeat for Christians. Even in death, we triumph. Of course, it is our prayer that you will live a long, healthy and happy life and we hope you never have to face the kind of deaths your namesakes did. But as you live your life, even if it is in peace and safety, keep your focus on eternity. Being fearless of death, being scornful of the petty delights of this life that some find so important, and being ready to turn the other cheek instead of defending yourself is what really takes the courage of a lion.

When the pastor asks us at your baptism, “What is the Christian name of this child?” we will reply, “Stephen Latimer Lionheart.” Signs and symbols and seals will mean nothing to you and you might even cry as the water drips off your new little head. Even so, you will be brought into the assembly of the saints and it is our prayer that the lion-hearted saints of Christendom rise again in you. As you live with a will to die, even the lord and prince of hell will not be able to stand against you.

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