Minimize Neither Joy Nor Sorrow

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There are no small sorrows or insignificant joys. To be considered small means to be compared to something else. But how can the experience of one heart be compared to that of another? Are any two lives the same?

Yet we have this tendency to trivialize our experiences. We minimize our sorrow because we think others have it worse. We minimize our simple joys because we think others have it better. But to what can we compare these experiences?

We have vague notions about what kinds of experiences warrant an appropriate reaction. The loss of a family pet or a relationship is not to be compared with the loss of a spouse or a child, so we think. But what if the experience is the same, emotionally speaking? And if it is, might there be a purpose?

C.S. Lewis once said that pain is God’s megaphone. We ought not shame ourselves when a sorrowful experience produces an extreme emotional response. God knows us intimately. He knows exactly the right way to pull our heartstrings. He knows exactly what to give and exactly what to take away, so as to render and orient all of our hopes and dreams toward Him first.

Now it may be that, in our immaturity, our reactions are unwarranted at times. It may be that we throw a fit over spilt milk. Nevertheless, the proper response is not to minimize our emotional reaction, but to understand it. Our measure of grief is proportionate to how much we have depended upon the thing which we are grieving. It is important to discover this about ourselves!

“In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.”

Ecclesiastes 7:14 KJV

God desires to bless us in Himself, but we are predisposed to distractedness and idolatry. If God is to bless us, He must be our first love. He must be the apple of our eye, as we are His. This love gives us our bearings in a broken world. This love serves as a foundation. God uses both our sorrow and joy to gain our attention.

In like manner, God delights in showing His lovingkindness to us in the seemingly mundane. We find it silly to be especially moved by the mild act of kindness from the friend at work or the unexpected patience and understanding granted by a spouse.

God as our Great Physician does not strategically break our bones in vain. He breaks so that He may re-set. He reduces before He restores. Likewise, God, as our Great Father does not bless us with simple joys and pleasures in vain. He delights in surprising us with His tenderness and love. When we ask Him for bread, He does not give us a stone.

If we are to grieve, let us grieve fully. If we are to rejoice, let us do so vibrantly. God has provided both sorrow and joy to teach us of His love. When something hits us so tenderly, let us explore it.

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Everybody Wants a Word From God Until They Hear What He Has to Say.

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Everybody wants a word from God until they hear what He has to say.

Most of us have a visceral longing to be understood and an idea of what kind of person it is that we want to be. But getting to know ourselves is an uncomfortable process, because every new piece of information expands our perception of reality, and we rarely let go of our presuppositions without a fight.

The scriptures speak often of God as a Potter who moulds us like clay. We relish the idea of being formed into a more beautiful shape. But any clay with a mind of its own knows the incredible pain caused by the powerful hands drowning and pounding it then carving and burning it to realize an emotional and creative vision. Transformation is painful, and we are so quick to avoid it.

We like the idea of being made better, but we discover that it is difficult to endure the manufacturing process.

When Christ first encounters a fisherman named Simon, He says to him, “You are Simon (which means “shaky”) but I call you Peter (which means “stone”). There was nothing necessarily in Simon that would lead to this conclusion, but Christ saw him for who he would become. And He knew what travail and duress would have to be endured for Simon to realize this identity in Christ.

There is a powerful scene in which Christ tells Peter the manner of His earthly mission- that He will suffer and die and then eventually leave the earth. Peter, mindful of his enjoyable earthly experience of Christ, challenges Him. Christ rebukes him saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.”

Peter had not yet understood the nature of Christ’s ministry. To fully realize His role as the savior of mankind, He would have to suffer and die, resurrect from the dead, ascend into Heaven (leaving them), and then send His Spirit to embody those who would receive of His salvation. Christ told His disciples that it was better for Him to leave, for when He left He could send His “Comforter” (the Holy Spirit) who would guide His people into “all truth.”

In other words, the ministry of Christ would only take it’s intended form once those who knew Him deepest would endure the pain of temporarily losing Him. But God the Father delights in delegation, and when He sent His Son to save the world from our sins, He always intended that the ministry of Christ would be perpetuated by Christ’s disciples who, being empowered by the Holy Spirit, would become the literal body of Christ. Thus expanding the ministry of Christ exponentially.

Christ’s death was like the death of a seed that would resurrect into a fruit-bearing tree, with every piece of fruit dying a similar death (as it were) that would lead to further fruitfulness.

But Peter, in his earthly estimations, was not yet able to see this dynamic. And so the Lord of Glory kindly rebuked him. And after Christ ascended into Heaven, He sent His Spirit unto His disciples. And on that day, Peter became the rock on which Christ’s church (His body) was established when he preached on the day of Pentacost (which was un-coincidentally Shavuoth, the Jewish celebration of harvest).

Had Peter continued to savor the immediate pleasures of His earthly time with Christ, He never would have tasted of explosive and perpetuating nature of Christ’s ministry.

That is the process for every work of God. It is always bigger and more dynamic than any man could imagine. And it is always perpetuated through a process of transformation that brings with it a profound degree of discomfort and pain.

There is hardly a greater pain than death. In the face of death, people often encourage themselves by ensuring that their loved ones are “in a better place.” Now, it is between the deceased and God as to where the soul of their beloved has sojourned.

We have all been to funerals. When a sincere man or woman of God passes on, the believer has no doubts as to where they have gone. They so clearly lived for Christ, and we deem it fitting that they would be spiritually united with Him in death. But we have also been to funerals of another variety. When people eulogize their now-dead loved ones, who lived in total contrast to God, and assure the grieving family that they are indeed in a better place.

Well, as I said, that is between the the deceased and God. We comfort ourselves with this wishful thinking. But why would a person, who has no desire for the things of God, be magically ushered into His presence in death? Perhaps this is where the Roman Catholics derived their idea of Purgatory. For they felt that a sinner would require a process of preparation to fit them for their celestial communion.

My point here is not to cause a grieving loved one to fear the state of their beloved’s soul, but to unpack that notion of preparedness.

The lump of clay or block of wood cannot embrace a process of fierce reshaping or piercing carving so long as it savors its amorphous identity.

Identity is a lofty concept, that I won’t attempt to unpack here. But it’s important to consider our own perceptions of identity. I tend to think that our identity, as it stands in this moment, is informed by things that are both engrained and inscribed.

I mean that our identity is engrained in the sense that there are things about ourselves that we must never compromise. Our relationships with other people eventually reveal to us which things we are willing to part with for the sake of that fellowship. But we all have certain qualities that are never to be parted with.

What makes you tick? What gives you energy? What puts you in your element? God has engrained in you a unique set of desires and characteristics that you must never disregard. It is not easy to decipher which of our attributes are fundamental to our unique identity. But we all possess them.

But our identity (yet to be fully realized) is also rooted in the affects of our upbringing, our past experiences, and our imperfect nature. Our relationships with other people serve us by highlighting both our strengths and our weaknesses. In one sense, we must defend ourselves from those who dismiss our engrained qualities (and allow more supportive persons to encourage us), and in another sense we must let others shine a light on our lesser qualities.

We can consider these lesser qualities by measuring them to a certain moral standard. We may find that we are hardwired to paint, write, engineer, teach, or pursue some other creative endeavor or to connect with others in a particular social dynamic. But we may also find that we are hardwired to be selfish, antisocial, squeamish, or arrogant. The former qualities pertain to an engrained nature. The latter pertain to a nature inscribed by our experiences and our imperfect natures.

In consideration of our identity, we often savor the wrong things. Every strength has a corresponding weakness, and it is easy to rationalize our inscribed weaknesses as being in part and parcel with our engrained qualities.

So what does this have to do with wanting to “hear a word from God” or to become a better version of ourselves?

There are fundamental qualities to wood or clay that make them fit to be transformed into works of art. Michelangelo saw King David within the block of marble and realized his duty to set that form free. Christ saw Peter, the zealous servant of and mouthpiece of God, in the wavering and overzealous Simon.

Simon had engrained qualities (as God had made him) that needed to be set free, forming him into Peter, a foundational stone fashioned and hardened from a miry clay.

We all want to be that raw stone fashioned into a work of art and utility, and we are all engrained with unique qualities fit for that purpose. But there is a painful transformation process that must take place.

This process prepares us. When we ask God to give us a word, He will tell us things that we don’t want to hear. When we ask Him to make us into something better, He will challenge all of those inscribed qualities with which we identify.

Consider your utmost desires. Are they integral, or are they shaped by the psychological impressions and hurts of your youth? We often don’t know what we actually desire. We pursue relationships, professional endeavors, hobbies, or other lifestyle choices that feed our assumed needs.

But when we submit our own wills to the God who knows us and Who sees us for what He envisions, we are (in our natural state) unable to receive what He has planned for us.

So when we ask God to guide us in a relationship, or a job, or hobby and the like, we must consider that he has intended for us a higher calling- a better relationship, job, or hobby that is unobstructed by our former pains, insecurities, and temporal desires.

Death is not a prerequisite for Divine fellowship. That fellowship is nurtured in a gradual devotion on earth (or Purgatory, if the Catholics have it right). There is a preparation process that must occur to ready one (however imperfectly) to realize true fellowship with God.

In like manner, if we are asking the all-knowing and wise God to order the steps of our life, we must be prepared for Him to carry out the grueling process of preparing our desires (in spite of past experiences) to be ready to receive the wonderful gifts that He has for us.

God desires to mould you into the very best version of yourself. You, like Peter, possess those qualities. He has engrained them in you. But you have many other of desires and impulses that contradict His design for you.

So when you ask God to give you a word or to make you into something greater (who He wants you to be), remember to ask that He also prepares you to receive those gifts He has for you, be it a personal transformation, a relationship, or a lifestyle. That He gives you the discernment to know the uncompromisable, engrained parts of your nature and the strength to part with those inscribed things (with which we so strongly identify) that He might help you to realize His vision as opposed to our own.

And when we ask God for a word, let us not forget to consider the words He has given us already. Christ tells us that if we love Him, we will obey Him. Furthermore, He tells us that if we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness that all of these things (or temporal needs) will be added unto us.

Sometimes we ask God for a new word because we’ve found that the words already given are difficult to follow. The psalmist tells declares that the in God’s presence is the fullness of joy and elsewhere, that the joy of the Lord is His strength.

How do we receive the presence of the Lord which gives us joy and strength?

Worship.

Going With the Flow (Upstream)

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“People gave up [the spirit of jazz] to make money. … God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money. You could spend a million dollars on a piano part and it won’t make you a million dollars back. That’s just not how it works.”

-Quincy Jones in an interview with Vulture

When I was younger, I gravitated towards people who were passionate about the things that I liked. But as I got older, I realized our relationships to those things were different — that we liked the same things for different reasons. Then I became drawn toward people who were passionate about anything in particular. I enjoy seeing their eyes light up. People come alive when they’re passionate.

Trendiness doesn’t bother me, but phoniness does. I think phoniness is one of the most odious things in all of existence. It’s like the marriage of hubris and falsehood. Sometimes people happen to like things that are popular. Sometimes they like them because they are popular.

I’m particularly fascinated by people who vigorously pursue interests in spite of the fact that they are unpopular. There is often a courage or blissful ignorance in this. Then again, the internet has changed this in a big way. People are passionate about all sorts of bizarre and obscure things, and they’re not alone anymore. I think that’s usually a good thing. But sometimes it’s a terrible thing. The only thing more odious than phoniness is brazen passion for morally grotesque and unsavory things.

Sometimes its easy to get pulled away from our passions. We may even forget that we loved them at all. Like a father or mother neglecting their children, or a man forgetting why he ever loved his wife. Our attention is limited, and when something is important to us, we have to feed it like a flame. The excitement comes and goes.

Sometimes passions leave us for a very long time and then emerge in a reckless fashion. Sometimes new passions emerge out of nowhere — like the man who got struck by lightning and became a musical virtuoso. Sometimes lightning strikes us literally, and sometimes it strikes us figuratively. But it’s exciting when it strikes us. It’s like falling in love all over again. There’s no greater high on earth.

People used to wage war in defense of unbridled love and honor. Think of the Trojan wars. Now wars are often waged for profit but under false pretenses. Now the phonies wage the wars. Thank God we still have heroes to fight them. Passion always wins out.

Žižek says, “If you have reasons to love someone, you don’t love them.” This isn’t to say that we cannot compile lists of things we like about someone. Desire is guttural. Reason isn’t what drives us. We’re too irrational for that. I like that notion of Žižek’s. It’s certainly spared me from making decisions based on convenience. (Not that living life outside of our passions can ever really be convenient. It’s rather frustrating to day dream all the time in vain.)

As I get older, I become passionate about more things. But I’m becoming much stronger at forsaking the things I don’t genuinely care about. In many respects, I think I’m becoming less of a phony. If I can look back on my life one day and know that I was genuine, I’ll at least die half-satisfied.

Part of this process of being less phony is realizing that I don’t have the energy to pretend to care about things I’m not passionate about. Part of the reason I’ve become more passionate is that I’ve realized there’s an immutable quality to my genuine interests.

Jung believed in a notion that we don’t choose our interests so much as our interests choose us.

“Do things you enjoy but can’t explain.”

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A great deal of our life is seemingly arbitrary, but arbitrary is not to say without purpose. I’ve thought long and hard about purpose my entire life. I’ve learned that living without purpose will asphyxiate you just well as obsessing too much about purpose. I believe there is a cosmological and objective component to purpose, but I also believe that there is a specific component.

The objective component pertains to direction, as in, toward light or darkness (and ascertaining what that entails). The specific pertains to our individual role therein. It’s a role we won’t always understand, but we’ll know that we are fulfilling a specific purpose when we’re in our element– in a state of flow or of being “turned on.”

I’ve also learned that striving too hard to change things will ruin you just as much as making no effort to change anything at all. This is what I mean about the immutable qualities of genuine interest. We should strive toward transformation with regard to objective notions — to become better and less evil. But we should learn how to decipher those [amoral] things that are integral to our individual nature and seek to refine them. Even when society or circumstances try luring us away.

I’ve also learned that we often fail both by being too hard on ourselves and by not being hard enough on ourselves. It’s crucial to hammer-in the importance of pain and sacrifice with regard to discipline. But it’s equally crucial to contextualize our weakness and offer ourselves grace. Sometimes it is graciousness that helps the tired or aching heart to beat. Nothing maims passion or drive like discouragement. Grace is like a salve.

The notion that interests that have selected me has reshaped my view of reality and my relationship with it. The more I understand being on an archetypal level, the more I understand what captivates me and makes me tick.

What composes the self? Is it genetic make-up and circumstantial upbringing? Is it divine fingerprinting? What parts of the self are ironclad? Which parts are malleable? It’s for this reason that I think it’s important to study psychological archetypes and to consider my own life in light of a narrative structure.

Everybody is living out a story. It’s important to reflect very deeply on all of the variables that led us to this exact moment, be it a predicament or a parade. Jung would surmise that our narrative goes deeper than that. That it is embedded in our subconsciousness.

I hardly understand it, but I think he’s right. I’ve met a lot of hippy types who talk about “going with the flow.” But going with the flow isn’t always a good thing. A dead fish or a piece of trash in a stream go with the flow. The refining of the self is inherently one of going against the flow. “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life.”

But there is a a sense in which “going with the flow” is necessary. I don’t quite no how to explain it. But it is like a beckoning. Like a siren that leads you upstream. But not the sirens of Homer that led to opulence and death. Rather, sirens like the sound of a spring breaking in a desert place. Sirens like a star leading to Bethlehem.

Passion is like a siren. But it is also like a wavelength. In that sense, going with the flow entails accepting something that is integral to your nature and never letting it go. Unless it feels right to let it go. But the specific light must always be subjugated by the objective light.

“Music is emotion and science. You don’t have to practice emotion because that comes naturally. Technique is different. If you can’t get your finger between three and four and seven and eight on a piano, you can’t play. You can only get so far without technique. ”

-Quincy Jones

Loveless Generalizations

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You are bad at most things. We all are. What is something you are absolutely terrible at? Or better yet, what is something terrible that you cannot stop doing? How do you respond to yourself in your failure? It probably depends on your frame of mind. Some days you effusively coddle yourself with emotions, while other days you castigate yourself with proverbial floggings.

I was talking with two of my nieces and my nephew the other day. My nephew Cash is the youngest. His sisters were perpetually lamenting what a bad child he was. His oldest sister Halina was especially frustrated. Some children are probably bad most of the time, but Cash is not one of them. I explained to his sister that he is not a bad child, but simply a child who sometimes behaves badly.

I asked her what was something that she once did badly but now did well. “Swimming,” she answered. I asked her how she became a better swimmer. “My daddy taught me.” And so I asked her if her daddy ever told her what a bad swimmer she was. She explained that he certainly had not but had actually encouraged her along the way, praising her for small improvements. Then I asked her if others referred to her as “Bad Swimmer Halina” back when she did not swim well. Of course they did not. That one particular void of success had not defined her.

So why is it that you expect your brother to behave better when you tell him what a bad child he is all the time?” She began to see my point as well as her young mind could. I was trying to help her to see something that many of us have so much trouble seeing even into adulthood. That is, the human brain likes to generalize because it helps to reconcile our feelings.

It would take a great deal of deep consideration for my niece to understand the many variables leading to her brother’s misbehavior. Among simple human badness would be boredom and a desire for attention, both stemming from his role as a youngest sibling with no brothers. Furthermore, in her momentary frustrations with her little brother, she becomes emotionally too blind to even assert what are his copious redeeming qualities.

She begins with a failure to comprehend her brother’s context and adds to that an emotional filter that prevents her from seeing her brother as anything but the troublemaker he is to her in that moment (or comparable prior moments). In that moment there is that which feels true to her, and her brain, autonomously as it were, creates a typecast generalization of her brother that reconciles that particular reality.

I think we can forgive my niece for not fully having learned this lesson. But what is the excuse for the rest of us?

Love is a discipline that demands immense courage. Love demands courage because it is itself a quest for understanding the nature of its object. My niece absolutely loves to swim, but a swimming pool is deadly if one is not studious regarding its dangers. To master swimming demanded of her a particular humility which undergirded her process of acquiring patient understanding.

She had to not only discover the nature of water, but of gravity, of her own buoyancy, muscular strength, and propensity for experiencing fatigue. In other words, a love of swimming demanded a knowledge of complex relationships amongst body, mind, and matter. It was not enough to keep herself afloat with mere volition. And if such a willpower is possible, it would no doubt demand much more discipline and understanding than doggy paddles or breaststrokes.

This is true of anything we love. Do you love to draw, or sing, or dance, or lift weights, or spin records? What are those things unto which you have subjected yourself? When the endeavor proved itself difficult, was it the discipline that needed adjusting or was it you and your relationship to the discipline?

This is of course true of all relationships. This is why I am nauseated when people seek to humanize their animals. There is something fundamentally grotesque about seeing dogs, genetic wolves, treated like human children. Any good dog trainer will essentially encourage to lead your dog  with the assertive calmness of an alpha wolf. In other words, a good dog trainer will encourage you to patiently pursue an understanding of your pet’s hidden and rudimentary nature.

“A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

Proverbs 12:10 KJV

Furthermore, our love for other human beings demands this steady and humble discipline- this courageous quest to pursue understanding for the benefit of the objects of our love and affection. But this discipline needs not to be one saved for only the people of which we are most fond. This way of thinking ought to become an all-encompassing discipline of the spirit and the mind.

How many of the world’s ailments would be pacified if we sought better understanding of ourselves, of our loved ones, and of all those around us? We are so very quick to dismiss others with blanket generalizations (labeling, name-calling, and so on). We so often do this even to bolster our own conflated sense of self-aggrandizement and piety. But even the densest of us have regard for the plot in which the villain is a multi-dimensional figure. Such stories resonate with us because they are true. Everyone is multi-dimensional. Some are just much more difficult to see beneath the surface.

If we operate with this assumption, that every person originates from a context which is chock-full of complex variables, then we will be much quicker in seeking to understand them. This will create opportunities in which to influence others to become better, but moreover it will drive us to transcending levels of human thought and existence. Love, like all disciplines, shapes us. Like a spindle shapes wood on a lathe.

“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

1 John 4:12-13 NASB

Expectant for Advent

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What stirs up emotional longing within you? You could be an expectant parent awaiting the arrival of your firstborn. Maybe you are daydreaming about or patiently awaiting a new relationship or job. Perhaps you have not taken time for yourself in an awfully long time, and you are planning some time away. Whatever that longing is, stop right now and eagerly consider what sensations are pouring through your body when that longing is fulfilled.

Are you relaxed? Is your heart racing? Are you filled with purpose?  Do you feel a fire burning on the inside? I know you have had this feeling before, and I know that you have probably spent a great deal of time and mental energy in your life seeking after those feelings.

So many of the fantastic things in life are mundane. The objects of our greatest longing are often common, but our experience with them is new and so makes them feel unusual for a time. I suspect that a great deal of our unhappiness occurs because we take so many things for granted. And so we set our sights constantly on things that are new or different from our norm. It is as if our heart stops due to boredom, and we must be electrocuted every now and again.

Because fantastic things become mundane, we require frequent reminders. Have you ever considered why you celebrate a birthday? The only thing more common than birth is death. Why must we celebrate one’s birth every year? Does it seem odd when you see so many loved ones gathered around an infant simply because it has survived its first twelve months on earth? Many people refuse to celebrate birthdays as they get older, because the celebration has come to mean something different. It becomes a reminder that they are closer to death and thus further from birth. Except for centenarians. I imagine they celebrate every birthday, as it would become a novelty to continue chalking up the years.

The truth is, every year of life ought to be celebrated. Life is the most incredible of all miracles. The newness of an infant’s life reminds us of that. That is why we admire so much those who remain in their old age dignified, but young at heart. That is to say, they have kept the good parts of their youth and parted with the negative. Furthermore, we admire this because we are so accustomed to the inverse. Some of the most insufferable children I have ever known have been adults.

The Christmas season is one which produces in many a deep sense of longing. I suspect that most of this is nostalgia. In a time where tradition is so often subverted, Christmas remains (for now) an almost unanimous vestige of folk tradition. This nostalgia is not always associated with warmth. One may even feel nostalgic for the stressful elements of the season. For many, that is the mark of time with their families.

Although Christmas is a decidedly Christian holy day, it is interesting to consider not only its secular ritualistic roots, but also its secular practice. Like several Christian holy days, Christmas borrows heavily from folk traditions of old. This provides a carry-over into the secular members of modern-day Western society. It provides context for common ground in a sacred context. Because of this, many disagree as to what “Christmas is all about.”

As a sacred tradition, Christmas is a day of remembrance for the incarnation of the Son of God. It is a birthday celebration but an inherently unique one. The Child born that night in Bethlehem would go on to become the very first human in history to conquer death and live forever. Yet we do not celebrate His birth each year out of novelty to tally up the years. There is a sense in which a birthday celebration reminds us of how spectacular is our very existence. Christmas is a birthday celebration that reminds us of something much deeper.

In accordance with Biblical prophecy, the grown-up Jesus would not begin His earthly ministry until a prophet would come to prepare the way for Him. That prophet was His cousin, namely, John the Baptist. We are told that when Mary was expecting Jesus she visited for several months with her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting her son John:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

Luke 1:41-45 NASB

Before he was even born, John the Baptist longed expectantly for the coming of Christ. As both men grew up, John would go on to begin a ministry of baptism, wherein He foretold of the coming of the promised Messiah. In his first recorded [post-natal] encounter with Jesus he shouts:

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 NASB

Even this notion of being excited about a Savior, despite the unparalleled magnificence of salvation, has become mundane to us in the present day. But in John the Baptist’s day, it was felt as something exponentially more profound. For centuries God had spoken to His people through His law and His prophets. Both foreshadowed the coming of a Messiah who would fulfill them both and save mankind from their sins. Then there was silence for some four hundred years. The people of God were desperate for a voice of prophecy to arrive.

John the Baptist enters as the first voice of prophecy in four centuries. He knew of his role as Christ’s forerunner ostensibly before his own birth. I imagine him being nearly overwhelmed with excitement upon seeing Jesus. While his fulness of Spirit and unique role in history may have amplified his excitement, every sinner can look to Christ with the same expectation.

This is the significance of Christmas. God made man. Man became estranged from God through our nature made corrupt by wrong-doing. God prepared a means by which man could know fellowship with God. The birth of Christ is the fulfillment of promise. No matter how typical or insignificant it might feel to us, no matter how much we might take it for granted, we celebrate Christmas to remind us of the kindness and mercy of God toward us.

To know Christ is to remember His work in the past, to seek His work in the present, and to look ahead to His work in the future when He returns. On Christmas we celebrate the fact that He came at all. As we consider Advent, let us ask God to fill us with the expectation of John the Baptist, to be overwhelmed with that sense of longing and excitement. Let us take this season of remembrance as a time to remind us afresh of the magnitude of our gracious God’s profound love for us, His people. He gave His Son to bring hope unto the world!

Invisible Oppressors

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“The scribes… were saying, “[Jesus] is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.” And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.”

Mark 3:22-27

The wisdom of Jesus is remarkable. In this particular exchange He is, on the surface, defending the origin of His power. In doing so, He goes on to say a great deal more. A prominent lesson to be inferred here is that internal divisions disrupt unity and pave the way for inevitable defeat. There is strength in numbers acting in solidarity with one another, but when those numbers are broken off into factions there is vulnerability. Jesus teach us also that it takes the greater strength of one to overcome the great strength of another.

Throughout history, civilizations have always been vulnerable to external and internal forces  which have been represented as foreign governments or rulers, business corporations, and political or religious ideologies. Much is said these days regarding the individual person or group’s perceived experience of “oppression.” The blame for societal oppression is often placed on racial, gender, religious, or economic groups. While injustices do occur within these parameters, it seems to me that the majority of systemic injustices are rooted in issues of class and/or ideology.

The human brain likes shortcuts and will seek to ascribe a familiar face to a threat. It could be said that our greatest enemies are those that are invisible to us in our day-to-day. The class ruler or the ideologue makes use of this tendency of the human brain and so seeks to persuade the members of a society to cast blame unreservedly on their own peers (based on superficial identifiers) in an effort to divide them into factions. Once divided, they are more easily brought unto the heel.

The irony of this, of course, is that the members of a society will waste their time bickering or warring with one another all while unwittingly being subjected to shared injustices. There is strength in numbers, and we take on our enemies by “binding the strong man.” but we are so often weakened by division.

While we can draw these lessons from Christ and apply them to our experience of earthly injustices, Jesus is referring more directly to spiritual tormenters. Every human being is alienated from God because of their sin. This alienation renders us vulnerable to Satan and his kingdom- the enemies of our souls. This sinful nature is what drives humanity to act unjustly  in the first place.

Because our sins alienate us from God, they set us on a course to hell where we will forever remain alienated from Him. There is no earthy life or afterlife to be truly cherished unless the terms of this alienation are rectified. Jesus came to earth to do just that. When He died on the cross, He bore the punishment of our sins. He bore injustice that He might justify us before God. When He resurrected from the dead (for death is a curse for sin for which He was not worthy) He made it possible for us to be made spiritually alive- to be restored to our fellowship with God.

Even after this fellowship is restored Christians are still affected by the evil nature of these bodies in which we dwell. With God’s help we fight against this sinful nature all of our lives. The sin has influence in our lives, but it no longer has power to subdue us and to formally separate us from God. Because of that, it removes the power of Satan in our lives. Jesus Christ is greater than the “strong man,” and He gives us authority in Himself to oppose our (invisible) spiritual enemies and to subdue them. Our individual fellowship with God must emerge into corporate fellowship with other believers. God invites us into His kingdom and calls on us to spread His Gospel that others all the world over might know such freedom.

 

You Must Embarrass Yourself

david-dancing-before-the-lord

“…Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart. …and said ‘How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servants’ maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!’ So David said, ‘It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me ruler of the people of the LORD, over Israel; therefore I will celebrate the LORD. I will be more lightly esteemed than this and will be humble in my own eyes….”

2 Samuel 6:16b, 20b-22a NASB

King David was well-known for his charismatic and intense spirit. He was called a man after God’s own heart. We can learn a lot from his life, both in terms of what to do and what not to do. Not everyone is going to match the vigor of David’s spirit, as we are all gifted differently with varying temperaments. But there is one area in which we must all strive to be like him, and that is in our willingness to embarrass ourselves.

I’ve recently been sharing my thoughts on Christian evangelism. In my last post I discussed how evangelism is obligatory for Christians. I received some thoughtful feedback on the matter. One reader discussed his personal struggle with pursuing evangelism. In summation, he said that his reluctance to evangelize is informed by an avoidance of personal risk derived from the social intimidation that comes with the thought of being negatively associated with certain Christians.

The Scriptures have much to say regarding this matter. Jesus told His disciples that if others rejected them, it was actually Jesus who they were rejecting (Luke 10). He says also that the world will know they belong to Christ when they see the love that Christians have for one another (John 13). Jesus says also in His famous Sermon on the Mount:

“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:16 NASB

In other words, if we love God we will be driven to love others and to good works. When the watching world sees the love we have and the righteous deeds we perform, they will know that we are of God. When we are pursuing and living for God, our lives become a window to nonbelievers into the person of Christ. Our love for God will motivate us to obedience and will stir in us a love and compassion toward others. Our love for others will draw us toward sharing the Gospel with others. Many will reject us! But is not us they reject, but Christ- provided we are living according to Christ’s teachings.

If nonbelievers reject the message, we need not be ashamed for sharing the message. It is God who, as the Psalmist says, “illumines [our] darkness” (18:28b). So long as they are in darkness, they will respond as those who are in darkness. We do not help them to see the light of Christ by covering it to avoid their (or our own) personal discomfort. The Gospel will change them. We must never change the Gospel.

Jesus also tells His disciples to “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14). Being a disciple of Christ will require personal sacrifice, often in the form of personal discomfort. Fortunately, we have as our example One Who gave His body willingly to be tortured, stripped, and crucified for the sake of our salvation. There is no sacrifice too great to make on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds us of the suffering he endured for the Gospel. He counted as gain everything he lost for the sake of Christ. And everything he gained, he esteemed as dung (Philippians 3:8). He spoke of his evangelical pursuits as a race for which he exercised great discipline to win (1 Corinthians 9). His prize was to fulfill the work of Christ.

These Scriptures present to us a great personal challenge. Are we willing to esteem God above all others? Jesus says that to follow Him, we must proverbially hate everyone and everything else in comparison (Luke 14). It is only by this estimation that we can ever publicly shame ourselves to live a life of overt praise as David did. And it is only by this estimation that we be made willing to endure personal discomfort and any other more severe manner of sacrifice.

The call to evangelism is first a call to total love for and surrender to God. When He is the object of our affections, no earthly shame will matter. Do you love God this way? If not, ask Him to tune your heart to sing His grace. As the hymnist Robert Robinson writes:

“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.”