The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm, Following Jesus: Conclusion

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“Then they came to Jericho.” The gospel writer Mark concludes his tenth chapter by relating Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem by way of Jericho. It’s no coincidence. Jesus has been illustrating for His followers the impossibility of humankind’s journey toward God without divine intervention. And now here is Jericho—Jericho, the city of impossible barriers.

The wall surrounding the Jericho of a millennium before Jesus’ time had been at least 14 metres high. It had presented an impossible barrier to anyone wanting to enter Canaan by that route. The inhabitants of the walled city were healthy, wealthy, and rather protective of their impossible barrier. Yet, as the story—and the Afro-American spiritual—goes, that barrier “came a tumblin’ down!” God had required His people to trust Him and to follow His instructions in order for the barrier to crumble.

But this was now Jericho of more than a millennium later. The city had been rebuilt a number of times. The Roman Empire owned it now, and Jesus was merely passing through its cobbled streets enroute to Jerusalem. His disciples and a large crowd surrounded Him, trying to hear a word from this unusual Rabbi.

A blind beggar sat by the roadside that day. From his perspective a crowd was a good thing: more opportunity to coax sympathetic passersby to contribute to his empty bowl. There might be enough to buy himself a proper meal if the crowd was generous. But even as the coins clattered into his bowl, Bartimaeus heard a name coming from the lips of many of the people; “Jesus.” Was this the reason for the throng? He had heard of the miracle-working man who had walked on water, healed the sick, and brought mad-men back to their senses. Many said these stories were impossible, but were they?

“Jesus, Son of David,” Bartimaeus began shouting, “have mercy on me!”

“Shut up, old man!” the nearest travelers hissed as they dropped their coins into his dish.

“Son of David,” Bartimaeus persisted, “have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped.

And in that moment, the sound of old Jericho’s impossible walls beginning to crumble echoed in Bartimaeus’ ears. Would Jesus help a blind begging nobody like him?

“Call him,” Jesus commanded one of His closest followers.

“So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road” (Mark 10:49-52).

One man’s impossible barrier was demolished that day. The obstacle that had hounded this poor beggar was suddenly removed at a word from Jesus. Bartimaeus’ entire identity was transformed by that word, and he was free to do…anything now. Bartimaeus could have found his way home, taken up the family business, become a wealthy man, and built a high wall around his home and business. Never again would he be humiliated by self-important almsgivers. But instead, we’re told, he followed Jesus.

None of the gospel writers tell us any more about Bartimaeus. We’re left to our imaginations in his regard. We know he followed Jesus, and that is enough. We know Bartimaeus’ faith was in some way a part of the alchemy that Jesus used to break down this man’s most restricting barrier. And we know Bartimaeus took the opportunity to ally himself with Jesus. Perhaps that is all we need to know.

Maybe it makes our own personal stories more able to parallel Bartimaeus’. We all have barriers that keep us from following Jesus. Many of us have heard of things that have even turned us off of religion for good. But Jesus makes sure He passes every person’s way. Everyone gets the opportunity to call out to Him personally. Everyone with an ear open to hear Him has the chance to ignore the crowd, get past the distractions of their own barriers, and come to Him when He calls. And in that moment, with not much more than a micron of faith, we each have the opportunity to entrust ourselves to Him, to let Him heal us in His own way, to enable us to follow Him. The impossible paradigm is no longer impossible because Jesus calls us. It is His voice, His redeeming work, His limitless life that gives us what we truly need: relationship with Him. The impossible has become possible.

(Photo Credit: By RichTea, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13637163)

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Part 11

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Quest of the Inner Ring.

The ten were indignant. They were incensed. They had heard the presumptuous request of James and John claiming first rights as the highest ministers in Jesus’ new sovereign state that they had envisioned. A hubbub of low murmurs was growing into exclamations of disbelief as one by one the other disciples heard of the audacity of their two fellow apprentices. They were disgruntled because of the ‘Inner Ring.’

C.S. Lewis talks about the phenomenon of the Inner Ring as an unwritten system determining who is inside and who is outside of an exclusive group. This quest to be part of an inner group of any type—whether of money-laundering drug lords or of trend-setting coffee shop dabblers—attracts each of us.

“I believe that in all (people)’s lives at certain periods,” explains Lewis, “and in many (people)’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

What is wrong with that?” we may ask. Aren’t Inner Rings natural groupings of like-minded people? Lewis gives two reasons why the quest—the unbridled passion— for the Inner Ring destroys all who follow it. Firstly, he says, “ Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” Secondly, he adds, “As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want…The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”

This was the situation facing Jesus as He saw His disciples break into bitter complaints over the blunt request of James and John to be in Jesus’ Inner Ring. Jesus saw the pride and selfishness that plagues humanity erupt in all twelve of His disciples—each of them willing to sacrifice all to enter that elusive and exclusive camaraderie with power. He could see into the future where each of the twelve would have spiralled into solitary self-absorbed chiefs grasping for their version of desired dominance, all in Jesus’ name.

So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus is showing His disciples, and all of us who attend to His words, that the desire to be “great”—to be in the only truly significant Inner Ring—is the best good a person can pursue. But here the similarity to all other Inner Rings and all other artifices of greatness disappears. This Inner Ring can only be entered by loving. Loving, explains Jesus, is the motivating force behind this quest, and serving others is the external outworking of that love. Jesus gives Himself as the prime example of One whose eternal greatness is revealed by His serving heart, by actions which would culminate in giving his life “as a ransom for many” out of sheer love.

We must love by serving others. Our serving is not to be out of mercenary interest but out of the greatest of loves existing in this universe: out of God’s love for us. This is the great purpose for which God created us in His image, to be individuals eternally expanding as co-operators with the expansive love of God. God’s love for us, in us, and through us becomes the identity with which we are known. We become lovers (not in the shallow, amorous, illicit sense—but in the deep, compassionate, self-sacrificing sense) of others. It is the natural outflowing of God’s love.

What Inner Rings do we pursue? Jesus is calling you and me to see them for what they really are: poor replacements for the one true relationship for which we are made. Child of God, come to the One who loves you as you are, then go out and serve others so they can come home to Him too. The quest for this Inner Ring is your calling.

(Photo Credit: By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51964834)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 10

Glory.

The disciples had been thinking about glory. They had been dreaming about it, savouring the taste of its pleasures in their imaginations, and they had begun talking about it. They had even mentioned it to Jesus, hoping to guarantee and entrench their position as founding investors in the ‘Messiah Project.’ They had dictated their request to Jesus, saying, “Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” They were probably caught off guard by the piercing light in Jesus’ eyes as He stopped everything to answer them.

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

Jesus’ question directed to the brazen brothers was rhetorical. Asking them, “Can you drink the cup I drink…?” was similar to his earlier statement, which could be rephrased as another rhetorical question: “Can a rich person enter the kingdom of God?” Jesus didn’t need an answer from them, because He is able to plumb the depths of all history—both past and future—and see the answer displayed in the life of every person who has or ever will populate this planet. Jesus knows the answer is ‘No!’, not by themselves. No one, rich or poor, who depends on their own resources or methods, can enter the kingdom of God. We’ve shut the gate by our core pride and selfishness, and by our failure to give God the unique position in our lives He deserves. We can neither enter the kingdom of God nor endure the task for which Jesus is the solely qualified contestant. The ‘cup’ (and the ‘baptism’) that Jesus refers to is His redeeming death. Only Jesus meets the perfect standard for humanity, and only He can sacrifice His life to pay the kind of death penalty 100% of humanity legitimately owes God.

Jesus doesn’t argue with the self-confident duo. Rather, knowing that His death, His resurrection and His later ascension would be necessary prior to the gifting of His Holy Spirit to all of His followers, Jesus prophecies the suffering His disciples will face. “You will drink the cup I drink….” reminds us that every one of His twelve disciples would face untimely deaths or extended political exiles directly as a result of their faith. And yet, every one of them would be sustained with an inner strength not of their own, but as a result of the indwelling divine comforter and strengthener, the Holy Spirit. Jesus saw that future.

Jesus also saw the lives of every one of us—of you and me—who would one day rest our lives in His redeeming hands. John—one of the emboldened brothers—later records a prayer Jesus prays for us, that we might be set apart by truth and love and unity together with the Godhead and with each other.

“Father,” Jesus prays, “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24). The incomprehensible and unattainable goal of eternal glory is Jesus’ idea, planted deep within each human heart. But this hope has become impossible to reach because we’ve muffed it. We’ve tried to reach it our own way—our proud self-sufficient way. Then Jesus, gracious re-creator that He is, takes immeasurable suffering onto Himself so that the Father can see us as perfect—perfectly prepared for a glory we can only imagine in our wildest dreams. The impossible dream becomes possible because of Jesus, who models endurance, the kind of “endurance,” says William Barclay, “(that) is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.”

So glory falls into our laps too, somehow, by some impossibly creative means only God could have designed. It’s glory now—seeing with amazement how increment by small but steady increment the Holy Spirit is building character within us just like Jesus’ character. And it’s glory later—once this life is done and we enter a new aspect of living called ‘eternity’, we will reflect the Lord’s glory perfectly. In the meantime there will be the cup to drink, the cup of suffering that comes upon each of us in varying degrees simply because we are humans living in a fallen world. But even this suffering, borne with grace and faith in our Saviour, will become wisdom and patience and lead to an even greater faith in the One who suffered immeasurably for us. So come to glory, divine glory and human glory. Come to Jesus.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 9

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Puppet god?

The disciples were silent. Conversation among the twelve had risen and fallen like the undulations on the hilly landscape around them until Jesus had pulled them aside for a rest stop. Rather than refreshing them, Jesus had for a fourth time predicted His imminent betrayal and execution. That was a conversation-killing moment.

Their minds may have been racing but their tongues were silenced as they struggled to make sense of Jesus’ forewarning. ‘How could this terrible reversal be true?’ they must have wondered. Their understanding of the ancient Scriptures had led them to believe the Anointed One—Messiah—would be a conquering leader, the sovereign of a mighty and glorious kingdom; their historical subservience to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans—to any earthly nation—would become but a distant memory. What glory! But this: the death of their leader, could it happen? They were speechless. Unbelievable or traumatic news often has that effect. For others, disturbing news opens the very floodgates of speech. Adrenaline can loosen tongues; words—long pent-up thoughts and feelings—rush out in unheeding cascades. This was the case for James and John, two of Jesus’ closest friends.

“Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”

“What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”

“Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” (Mark 10:35-37 The Message).

It seems the two had been listening to Jesus. They had heard him say that those who had invested time and energy to follow Jesus would not fail to earn profits on that investment. It didn’t take much more than ambitious collusion for the two to agree that what they wanted was their share of the power and prestige when Jesus, by their interpretation, imminently overthrew the Roman Empire.

But their hearing had been more than a little selective. They had failed to take into consideration Jesus’ teaching and consistent modeling of humility and servanthood. This, not sought-out honour, was the criterion for sharing in the glory of God’s kingdom. James and John had been with Jesus when He had explained, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).

To their credit, it seems they recognized the sovereignty of Jesus and had unflinching faith that He was the long-awaited Messiah. They might even have been beginning to grasp the truth of His claim to be the Son of God—the eternally existing all-powerful One. Their request was a prototype prayer, of sorts. But they were missing a very important piece of the equation.

“Prayer,” explains Timothy Keller, “ is not a consumer tool. It is a Refiner’s fire.”

This is a good thought for us to ponder if we want to learn from James’ and John’s experience with Jesus. The request of the brothers illustrates our own tendency to develop a consumer mentality in our relationship with Jesus. When we defend our selfish prayers with the explanation “Jesus wants me to be happy!” we’ve short-changed ourselves. The divine plan for humanity is to be recreated in the vast completeness of Jesus’ likeness: not just happy, period, but happy and wise and good and just and compassionate and sensitive and true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable and excellent and…and the list goes on. It is inexhaustible. This is the eternity for which God created us, and—as the disciples would discover—for which Jesus would die for all humankind.

Jesus is not a puppet god. He’s not a genie in a bottle waiting to receive our wishes as his commands. He’s the One who offers us far more than that. He offers us escape from our selfish selves and entrance into a life of acceptance and companionship with Him as little by little He makes us like Himself. He wants us to approach Him with confidence knowing that He wants and will ensure our greatest good. So rather than saying, “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us,” we can ask, “Jesus, what would you have us to do today, in this situation, that would best glorify You?” Then listen for His answer.

(Photo Credit: By John Leech – http://posner.library.cmu.edu/Posner/books/book.cgi?call=937_A138C_1850, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1064389)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 8

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Astonished and Afraid.

“They were on their way up to Jerusalem with Jesus leading the way,” continues the Gospel writer John Mark, “and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. (Mark 10:32).

The road following the Jordan River valley southward toward Jericho and Jerusalem was little more than a narrow path tacked onto the side of a rocky hillside. Jesus was leading the way because it was single file width here. There was little talk. One misstep and a traveller would be slipping and tumbling down the steep rubble toward the riverbed and it would be a long hot climb back up to the path. So there was time for reflection.

Jesus was reflecting on His journey’s goal: Jerusalem, where the necessary step of His redemptive plan for humanity would take place—His painful, wrath-absorbing execution. The disciples were perhaps reflecting on Jesus’ words at their last rest stop, “the first will be last, and the last first.” What did Jesus mean by that? He was an astonishing teacher and they forever seemed to be one step behind Him in understanding what He was all about. His view of the kingdom of God was almost impossibly opposed to everything they had been taught. If religion, wealth, and ambition were barriers to entering God’s kingdom, how did one enter it?

The crowd following behind the disciples was the last in line, and we’re simply told they were afraid. What fears motivated their reflections? Were they afraid of the consequences to Jesus returning to Jerusalem where the religious leaders had made it clear they would kill Him? Were they afraid of the implications of being associated with this wanted man? Were they afraid of their own inner turmoil as they thought about their own failings, and of Jesus’ statement that it is impossible to save oneself from the eternal consequences of those failings? They were afraid, yet they followed, perhaps from a distance, both attracted and repelled by the teachings of this strange man.

There must have been a widening in the path, because we’re told Jesus now stopped to say something to His twelve disciples. Perhaps the path rose up to a plateau from which the temple mount of Jerusalem could be seen in the distance, and on this wide plateau the disciples could gather around Him and hear what He had to say. Perhaps the following crowd had slowed its pace back on the narrow path and had fallen far behind. This message was for His twelve close friends only.

Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had predicted His own execution. The gospel-writer John Mark records at least three other times when Jesus had revealed to His twelve disciples the traumatic twist His death would take. He had used words like ‘suffer’ and ‘rejected’, and one of those times His close disciple Peter had tried to rebuke Him—to say, ‘Impossible! You are the Messiah! You are the promised Leader of God’s glorious kingdom!’

Yet Jesus was again repeating His prediction, adding this time the betrayal aspect that would shock at least eleven of the twelve disciples. And for a third time Jesus also revealed that His death would be only Part A of the great redemptive act God’s love had planned for humanity; Part B would be Jesus’ resurrection—His conquest of death’s mortal grip on life. But it all seemed to go over their heads again this day. They were silent.

And that is often how we are when Jesus wants to speak into our hearts and lives. We’re astonished or we’re just silent. We’re distracted by visions we’ve created in our own minds about how life will unfold, how success will come our way, how things will pan out. But Jesus still speaks. He takes you and me aside and speaks into our hearts through His Word, the Bible, telling us what we need to know for today to give us hope and strength. There may be suffering in our day, but there is always the rising out of the dust of that suffering because of Jesus and the life He offers. So let’s step aside with Jesus today; let’s read His Word and hear His voice. Let’s respond to Him through prayer and then step back onto the path with Him as our leader. That’s what Jesus is offering.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 7

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Inversity.

“But many who are first,” concludes Jesus, “will be last, and the last first.” His disciples have just finished walking through a morning of following Jesus. He is not an easy man to follow. Anticipating His next move is about as easy as understanding quantum theory—and “I think I can safely say,” explains Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

This ‘first-last, last-first’ paradox is Jesus’ summary of all that his disciples have experienced that morning. He’s trying to explain, ‘Every interaction we’ve had with people has displayed the disparity between what God esteems and what people prize. It has illustrated the reality that God’s value-system is fundamentally inverse—upside down and opposite—to what humankind naturally values.’ People live by maxims that Jesus says reveal their beliefs regarding how to get ahead, how to come out first in life. But these maxims, rather than moving toward God’s kingdom, glory, and true human fulfillment, move them step by inevitable step away from Him. First in earth’s economy is last in God’s. God puts stock in what has true and lasting significance. Take a look at how God’s stock is inverse to human maxims:

Human Maxim #1: ‘Reinforce the Survival of the Fittest motto.’ Human pride is given virtue status, while the weak, the unwanted, and those who are an inconvenience to society are sacrificed for the sake of others’ personal rights.

God Stock #1: ‘Man looks at outer appearances, but God looks at the heart.’ In contrast, God looks deep into our hearts to see what we really think and believe about Him. This criterion is what will ultimately determine fitness for eternity. He knows that pride is the surest means to self-destruction ever invented by mankind. God wants people to reach their true and glorious potential as creatures made in His image, but it can only be accomplished by heart-deep humility.

Human Maxim #2: ‘Use whatever power you have to be above as many other people as possible.’ This maxim says you must get the best education, snag the best jobs, take the best vacations, invest your money in the vehicles that have the best monetary returns, ensure your children rise above other people’s children in opportunities and life experiences, and then use social media to communicate to as many people as possible that you have done the above.

God Stock #2: ‘Invest in the human spirit, the organ that is capable of responding to relationship with God.’ In contrast, God says, use whatever power or resources you have to enable yourself and others to connect with your and their Maker and Redeemer. This glorifies God and is the only vehicle for true human joy and flourishing. Then, keep quiet about the part you’ve played in God’s tremendous project. God knows, and that is enough.

We could go on. The list of human maxims—the best-laid plans o’ mice and men—without fail falls short of the glorious plans God puts stock in. This is what Jesus means when He says, “many who are first will be last, and the last first”. And yet, there is hope for us. He says many as if to leave a gap open for us to slide our fingers into before the inevitable happens. He wants to offer us an opportunity to escape the mad maze of human maxims we so easily slip into. He is constantly doing this, inviting us to be last in the eyes of the world, to come to Him for rest from the maxims, and to trust Him that He will ultimately work all things out for our good. And today is where we start.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 6

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Receiving the Gift

Wages, explains theologian Timothy Keller, are inherently different from gifts. To receive a wage, one must simply do an amount of work equal to the compensation. It’s an objective and transparent process. To receive a gift is more complex; accepting a gift means submitting to a narrative that may require a change of perspective.

For instance, if we perceive certain people to be dishonest or manipulative, we will be cautious about accepting a gift from them. In order to accept the gift we would have to have a change of heart, to believe we had misread them, or that they had now become genuine and generous. We must be certain that their gift will not be a Trojan Horse. Or, imagine a scenario where we had experienced class disparity; a gift offered might be seen by us as a slight, pointing to our inability to provide for ourselves. We’ve heard the classic explanation for refusal of this kind of gift: “I don’t take no charity!” In order for us to receive this gift, our pride would have to be replaced with simple thankfulness.

So while Christians commonly exult in spreading the news that God is the great giver of gifts (like salvation), there is a paradigm shift that must happen in an individual’s heart and mind in order for him or her to accept this news as good. If we look closely enough, we might even consider it an almost impossible paradigm shift.

In our passage in Mark 10 that we have been exploring, Jesus has been talking with His disciples about the criterion for entering ‘the kingdom of God’; Jesus explains that He Himself must be preeminent—first priority—in the life of anyone who wants to enter this kingdom. Then He offers the gift.

“No one who has left …(everything)…for me and the gospel will fail to receive…eternal life” (Mark 10:29,30). It is no coincidence that Jesus connects His matchless preeminence (“I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end!”) with the reception of the gift of eternal life (“…whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”). They are both impossibly puzzling, inexplicable, and even peculiar. We are cautious about terms like preeminence and eternal life in the 21st century.

Perhaps hearing a definition of eternal life will help us. In John’s Gospel we get a chance to eavesdrop in on Jesus defining eternal life in a conversation with His Father. “Now this is eternal life:” He considers, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” What? Eternal life is simply knowing the Father and the Son? Intriguing. What is it about knowing them that transmits an extension to our mortal lives both now and beyond the grave?

Jesus helps us understand that too. He claims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”

Knowing the Father and the Son is the ultimate of network connections. If we know, have an integral relationship to, and connect on the deepest level with Jesus—who is the essence of Life—we become recipients of that life. His life extends to us something like a pregnant mother’s life and breath extends to her as yet unborn infant. It’s a sort of divine contagion, a breath-taking ride from the depths to the heights, a simple truth available only to those who simply trust Him.

Yes, the eternal life Jesus offers us is truly that, a gift. It is freely offered to each of us. But in another sense it is the most difficult gift to accept—not because of the nature of the Giver, but because of the nature of the getters. We are impossibly stubborn, too narrow-minded or broad-minded for our own good, and stuck in the mud of our unbending notions. Only His Holy Spirit can help us escape our almost impossible selves and say as one old sinner once said, “Lord…help my unbelief!”