A NEW CREATION, Part 5

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New Heart and Spirit

Have you heard the story of the woman who received a heart and lung transplant and discovered a few other things came along with it? She observed a new craving for beer, green peppers and chicken nuggets, among other things. Later, upon meeting the donor’s family, she discovered those tastes had been the preference of the young man whose heart she had received. Sound too strange to be true?  Can memories of preferences be embedded in cells like the heart and be received by transplant recipients? Maybe.

God is recorded in Scripture as using this concept of epigenetics to teach us an important truth: he describes the heart as the core and centre of our being. He describes it as diseased, weakened, hardened. It is not able to function as He designed it to function. We have a problem, and it affects every aspect of our lives, every relationship we embrace. We need a transplant.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh,” God declares (Hebrews 10:16). It’s an intriguing image– this earliest notion of organ transplant; but why the extreme undertaking? What is it about our ‘old’ heart and spirit that needs renewing? What does He mean by ‘your heart of stone’?

Imagine ourselves as babies. We don’t have any memory of those earliest days, but all the same, they were real. Very early on, our parents or caregivers began to see in us the emergence of the great human flaw. From the start we began to assert our own will, hardening our hearts to the injury it caused to those who loved us. When we were old enough to talk we shamelessly began using the word, “No!”

The drive for self-preservation made us senseless to the needs of others, especially those closest to us. By the time we reached adolescence if we had not yet put up some barriers in our heart toward others, this stage would accomplish the deed. We became hard-hearted toward unfair teachers, authoritative parents, backward peers, and anyone in general who put obstructions in our way. We began to realize that God, the sovereign of all, was the greatest threat to our selfish lifestyles and we hardened our hearts to Him. The disease was intractable. Like living oaks submerged under sediment and removed from the effects of oxygen, our hearts became petrified. Flesh became stone. The living, moving, pliant organ of relationability was replaced drop by drop in a stony cast; the form remained but the function dissolved. Shakespeare’s description fit our condition, “ ‘tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart.”

This metaphor of the heart like a petrified rock lends insight into a further problem. The word ‘petrified’ has another meaning. We use it in hyperbole to describe excessive fear. “I was petrified to walk alone at night!” So we observe that not only are our hearts under the influence of selfish autonomy, but also of a deep fathomless fear. Hard hearts are lonely, fearful hearts. Do you agree?

When God, who is the very spirit and embodiment of love, gives new hearts and spirits there is another amazing change that happens. Love begins to flow through our metaphorical veins. (“There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts our fear”–I John 4:18). How can we get our names on the waiting list for this essential transplant?

By saying “yes!” to Jesus. Acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God, that His death brings us forgiveness and His resurrection brings us eternal life, signs the release of permission for our new heart. And it comes with a bonus. God includes Himself with the new heart. He becomes closer than the very DNA of our being. He will never leave us, and we will never leave Him. The new heart also gives us a new craving to know Him better and to love Him and others more thoroughly. Now that’s a guarantee worth signing up for. It’s a choice we will live for eternity and never regret. It’s time to give this offer some thought…

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A NEW CREATION, Part 4

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New Covenant

The eerie honking of wild geese grew louder and more distinct that early morning. The sea’s still surface merged seamlessly into pale sky. Standing on the dock at Crescent Beach we felt surrounded by the vast spaces above and below us. The honking increased causing us to turn toward the sound. Like deer caught in the grip of car headlights we froze as dozens of geese in one perfect v-formation surged toward us, flying only meters above our heads. Their passing left us breathless. The honking faded and then subsided as the body moved along on its essential autumn journey. We felt like we had witnessed a covenant between God and His creatures in that aerial display.

Like that instinctive law of nature that directs geese on their seasonal journeys, God has laws to which we are bound. Beyond external laws of nature we find ourselves also responsible for moral laws—we must live in society with others, respecting them as we respect ourselves. Deeper still, are God’s laws of relationship with Him. Ancient Hebrew culture was founded on the law of Moses. Yet, even those laws were somehow external to the people. Generations had to be constantly reminded to do this or that, and to refrain from other things in order to fulfill God’s standards for right and wrong. It was an impossible task. No one can keep up a façade of obeying laws that are external to their natural bent. There needs to be a reconstruction of the human psyche, a transplant of sorts, a creation of instinct that gives people an internal compass.

Behold the new covenant. No more guilt-laden do’s and don’ts. No more ritual this or lip service that. Jesus says his life sacrifice is the ink in which this new covenant is written. It’s both costly and free. It’s not a contract of convenience, but a covenant of love—God loving us from the inside out.

“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds” (Hebrews 10:16). Do we understand what this means? It means we are given a sort of instinct implant, a graft of God’s love onto our hearts and minds. . It’s not a contract of convenience, but a covenant of love—God loving us and us loving Him in return. It means we can finally be the authentic people God designed every one of us to be.

We’ve come about it the long way around. We’ve each of us rebelled against God’s rule, we’ve habitually fallen short of the mark and we’ve brought more suffering on ourselves than was necessary. We’ve injured our consciences, hardened our hearts, and forgotten how we were created to fly.

Now there is a tender covenant in which we are invited to partake. It only requires us saying yes to the new and no to the old. He knows what we need and He is waiting almost breathlessly for the nod from us to proceed. His love covenant will fill our hearts and minds, and lift us up off the ground.

“…Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:21).

So let’s embrace the new covenant. The old one was weary of trying to teach us to fly. We need hearts touched by the Father’s grace of forgiveness, the Son’s sacrifice and the Spirit’s loving presence to inspire us. Only then will we rise like wild geese and soar on wings like eagles. You are invited into the covenant. Are you ready to fly?

A NEW CREATION, Part 3

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New Name

Has anyone ever asked you to ‘pass the Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incisis’? It might be a while before they were able to fork the tomato they wanted onto their burger. Apparently, five hundred years ago, this was the name Europeans used for the vegetable (or is it a fruit?). Thankfully, it was eventually shortened to Poma amoris, and is now known as the tomato. That’s easier on the tongue.

Names are our way of identifying things by their characteristics. They are a verbal tag  attached to a mental picture we pull up when we think of that name. But sometimes that tag isn’t entirely accurate, memorable, or convenient. For that reason, some famous people have changed their names. Do you remember Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu? She is perhaps better known as Mother Theresa. Or how about Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli? That’s Joseph Stalin. See why they changed their names?

It’s interesting how God is in the habit of renaming people too. Abram (‘exalted father’) becomes Abraham (‘father of many’). The Hebrew patriarch Jacob (‘supplanter, heel-grasper’) is renamed Israel (‘prevails with God’). The disciple Simon (‘he has heard’) becomes Peter (‘stone’). It’s as if God wants people to know something about themselves that He already knows. He wants to change the way they define themselves because He sees so much more than they do. When God plans to work in the lives of individuals, names change, characters change, destinies change.

In a powerful moment prophesying the church age, Jesus has a conversation with his disciple, Simon Peter. He asks him what he has heard (notice the allusion to the meaning of the name Simon). Then abruptly, almost interrupting the answer, Jesus queries, “Who do you say I am?” When the disciple applies to Jesus the titles of “the Messiah” and “the Son of the living God”, Jesus commends him. He says, you have heard this, Simon the hearer, not from men but from God the Father. The influence of others must take a back seat to what you hear from God. Now it’s time for you to have a new name. I am the Rock of Ages; you will be called Peter, a stone. I am Christ; you will lead the way for those who will be called Christians. I am about to overcome Hades; you and countless others will benefit by accessing the kingdom of heaven.

Here’s where people like you and me come in. We are ordinary folk. We have not only the names given us by our parents but also names we call ourselves, names we perceive others call us: ‘handsome’ – ‘plain’, ‘powerful’ – ‘weak’, ‘successful’ – ‘failing’, ‘remarkable’ – ‘insignificant’. The list goes on. You know the names you call yourself, and I know mine. I’m guessing we tend to believe the latter rather than the former of each pair. We fear the name fits and we cannot escape it. Or in those moments when we believe the more favourable ones, our arrogance gets us into trouble.

Take heart. God is bent on expressing his creativity in us. He, the Rock of Ages sees us as chips off the old block, as pebbles through which He wants to build something magnificent. Listen to what He says.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give … a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17)

A new name. The One who knows me better than I know myself, has given His life to redeem mine, has great things in store for me and has a new name for me. Good-bye mistaken identities. Farewell false persona. Hello authentic epithet. The promise to overcome the old and embrace the new is just what I need. How about you?

 

A NEW CREATION, Part 2

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New Thing

Have you ever had a moment of insight when you realized you were wrong? When having spoken up you now see you should have remained silent? When you mentally held a position you now understand as faulty? Have you ever moved in a direction you now regret was a misstep? We may euphemize those events as ‘learning experiences’ but sometimes they hound us. We feel trapped by them, chained to them, unable to escape their berating whine, “failure!”

There is only one fresh wind of truth that can blow away the unrelenting guilt of memories like those; there is just one source of water that can refresh the wasteland of souls sick with regret.

“Forget the former things”, counsels God; “do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18,19). Can you hear the fresh excitement in His voice? Did you see the exclamation mark after the phrase ‘a new thing’? God knows that the wasteland of our failures and regrets is a place in which only He can do something new.

A young man sits silent and thoughtful in the darkness. Blinded by a freak on-the-job ‘accident’, he has been waylaid on his journey and has had time to think. He who had been passionately occupied by his profession’s calling now finds himself withdrawn from that world; he refuses food and drink. He needs to think about his life. What he sees is not pretty; he has been wrong about a lot of things. The worst part of it is that he, self-proclaimed protector of the faith, has actually been at cross-purposes to the God he has so jealously been defending. Now he sees his passion for what it is: self-conceit, violence and foolishness. He sits there in despair, his life a wasted desert of regret.

But God is not finished with him yet. Another man, a simple follower of the risen Jesus, is directed to the house in which the young man is quartered. In the name of Jesus, that name of which his former hatred had impelled him to such violence, his sight is restored and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. We are told his immediate response is to be baptized, and following this his life takes a significant change of course. This is the apostle Paul, who devotes the remainder of his life to furthering the spread of the good news of newness in Jesus.

Ever wonder how he dealt with his regrets? He had on his conscience the death and persecution of scores of early believers. How did he escape the entrapment of paralyzing grief over past mistakes? He tells us.

“(God’s) grace to me was not without effect”, he explains (I Cor. 15:10). The grace of God’s forgiveness is the new thing that the gospel of Jesus offers each of us. How do we embrace this newness and find release from the draining imprisonment of self-reproach? Paul tells us that too.

“One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13,14).

When God makes a new thing available to us, we must forget the old. He is delighted to be done with our failures; we can be too. The new thing in our lives is his Spirit, made available through His Son, making our dead places alive and verdant. Why waste time on regrets? Let’s stop dwelling on the past. Press on toward the goal. Let’s embrace the new thing He is doing in us; everything is different now.

 

A NEW CREATION, Part 1

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New Song

God is in the habit of creating. There is no limit to the new ideas, plans and projects to which the Ancient of Days applies Himself. We may be tempted to think the Genesis account of earth’s beginnings leaves God perpetually resting after creating this physical world. But is that impression correct? Is it possible for One whose character is so creative to cease creating? Isn’t that what gives hope to this decaying world—that the old will be replaced by something new?  The Creator’s new projects are mentioned throughout Scripture like jewels embedded in granite, needing to be mined. They are just waiting to be exposed, extracted, and treasured.

The Psalmist sings, “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD” (Psalm 40:3).

A new song inspires us. Songs are expressions of our deepest feelings, moods, impressions and hopes. This song is unique. It is God-given; it is God’s truth corroborating our hearts’ longings. It is ‘a hymn of praise to our God’. This song articulates the relevance of God’s awesome qualities to our existence. His goodness is good for us. His being gives significance to ours. His power empowers us to experience life in a new way; His joy becomes ours. Praise of His attributes bursts from our hearts and fills our mouths.

It’s a ‘new song’, which implies it replaces an old one. What decaying song doesn’t need replacing? Haven’t we had enough of the mournful dirges chanting incessantly in our minds, telling us life is hopeless, we are hopeless, and everyone about us is hopeless? This song speaks refreshingly of the truth; that we are precious in the eyes of the all-seeing God, that his plan redeems us from all hopelessness.

It’s a song that will impact ‘many’ when we sing it faithfully. The ears of this world are filled with distracting noises clamoring for attention; yet the song of God will pierce through the commotion, touching hearts tender to His tunes. But how can they hear it unless we sing it?

‘Many will see’. This song, unlike any other, opens many eyes. It enables hearers to see. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psa. 119:105). The lyrics of the song become illumination guiding the lives of those who accept that light.

And finally, it is a song that prompts, fuels and inspires a response. Some will turn away from that song. They will plug their ears, turn up the volume on the world’s clatter, and walk away; the song inspires both fear and trust, and some are ready for neither. Yet, many will ‘fear and put their trust in the LORD’. The song will resonate with something deep within that says, ‘God is sovereign. I will entrust myself to Him come what may’. The Greatest of composers wrote this song to fill heaven’s spaces with those that respond ‘yes!’

Will we be the choristers, minstrels, and troubadours that wake each day singing the new song? Will we keep caroling it as we connect with loved ones, friends, coworkers and colleagues? Will we continue to sing it even as we face our own challenges, troubles and sorrows? “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”. Let’s ask Him today to put the new song in our mouths.

ON GETTING THOROUGHLY WET

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Part 2 (continued from Part 1)

          There’s really only one command, and ironically it is impossible for us to obey. He says we must love. We must love God and we must love each other. And every one of us knows we just cannot do it. There’s always something that stands in the way, someone who is unlovable or who has hurt us unforgivably. Something that whispers we are not good enough for God or for this new Life. And so while we long to be drawn into the real life of Jesus’ invitation, we fear we are unable. We haven’t the strength to hoist ourselves up onto the precipice of that lively, lovely moving scene. We fear we will fall struggling into a sea that will swallow us up. Like Philip we resign ourselves to being on the outside of the unfathomable Life of the Father and Son.

But Jesus won’t leave it at that. Just start to love, he urges. Put aside the false security of the one-dimensional life. Give up the old pride of staying dry; let yourself get wet. Like a new swimmer begin by dipping your face into the sea of God’s realm. And as the last of your breath bubbles away you will be surprised by a new source of air; the Father will give you his Spirit, the Counselor, the Spirit of truth who will enable you to live this new life. He will be the spring and source of the love and obedience you need. And heedless of the air you used to depend upon for living, you will draw everything you need from his Spirit. You will be swept off your feet with nothing but his Life to keep you from sinking into the abyss you feared would swallow you.

Philip finally understands. He shows up twice more in the inspired narration of Scripture, each time one stroke deeper in the sea of faith. Jesus has gone to the Father as he said he would, and Philip’s life has changed. We see him chosen as one of seven godly men of the early church who were described as “full of the Spirit and wisdom.[1]”  He has moved from paddling about in the shallows of passivity to active faith-inspired living; initially, he and the other six are entrusted with food distribution for Hebrew widows. Later on, after jealous Jews martyr one of the six, Philip moves on to Samaria to minister in the ghettos. Having dived into deeper waters the Spirit within him urges him further on. He finds himself traveling a desert road impressed upon him as the site of his next adventure. By no coincidence his path intersects an Ethiopian ambassador seeking answers to life’s biggest questions. With Spirit-inspired wisdom Philip unveils the way, the truth and the life for the diplomat who is ready to dive into this new Life too.

“Look, here is water”, interrupts the Ethiopian. “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” he demands. And another new believer is submerged into the Life of God. The story of Philip’s life is as unique as that of the Ethiopian and countless other followers of Christ. Yet each is the same. Each makes a choice of no return that initiates them into the adventure of a lifetime; each surrenders himself in careless abandon to the engulfing Life of God finding himself more and more alive with each stroke in the Great Sea.

The picture of life we thought was all there was has enlarged and exploded into something vaster than we could have imagined. Jesus’ hints to his disciples and to us have begun the eternally unending expansion of our experience within the boundless Life.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” The self-sacrificing work of Jesus on the cross opens the door of the wardrobe, pulls us into the enlivening picture of the Divine One’s Life. There is nothing passive here, no end in sight and no limit to what adventures lie ahead of us. Go ahead. Jump in and get thoroughly wet.


[1] Acts 6:3

ON GETTING THOROUGHLY WET

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Part 1

           “Eustace rushed toward the picture. Edmund, who knew something about magic, sprang after him, warning him to look out and not to be a fool. Lucy grabbed at him from the other side and was dragged forward. And by this time either they had grown much smaller or the picture had grown bigger. Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but real sea, and wind and waves rushing up to the frame as they might to a rock. He lost his head and clutched at the other two who had jumped up beside him. There was a second of struggling and shouting, and just as they thought they had got their balance a great blue roller surged up round them, swept them off their feet, and drew them down into the sea.”[1]

          Do you long to be swept into a world where every sense is enlivened? Where the flatness of your life’s picture explodes into a breathtaking reality? Where Someone, the source of all life and living, draws you into the surging sea of authentic life? C.S. Lewis’ scene from his Chronicles of Narnia reveals something that stirs within us a longing. What is it about this picture-painting description, like the famous wardrobe, that whets our appetite for real life? He describes the magic of being drawn into something so alive and magnificent and active that everything else becomes passive and dry in comparison. He’s not only talking about Narnia. He is chronicling a world, a domain, a realm that Jesus calls, ‘the way, the truth and the life’.

“To see the Father would be enough for us,” moans the passive Philip as he tries and fails to understand Jesus’ teaching. The Master has been talking about going away, about returning to the Father, and Philip just cannot follow his train of thought. Jesus’ eyes pierce the thick fog of his disciple’s thoughts. How should he explain the unexplainable to these followers of his?

“Don’t you know me, Philip…? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,”[2] responds Jesus. He goes on to describe how his being, his speaking, and his living coalesce with the Father’s. “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”, he continues. The disciples struggle to understand.

Jesus is revealing a mystery that is the picture frame of a scene more alive than Lewis’ characters have been astonished to experience. He explains that our frail human attempts at living lack the breadth and height and depth of the life God designed for us. We know that; deep inside us we know that more than we know anything else. There is nothing about our paltry attempts at living life that parallels the God-life. What we think we’ve heard is that the breathtaking Life of God, more alive, more active and more thrilling than we can imagine beckons us. It’s true. Like a splash of cold water on a sweltering day Jesus describes the unimaginable. He paints a picture of the meshing of his life and his Father’s life as inseparable, as one, and then he invites us to join the vibrant melee. And as we step up to the edge of that picture and reach out hesitatingly to touch its gilt frame, he promises that we will be swept into the very life of God.

How do we get in on this crazy, impossible invitation? How do we become new to a life unlike any life we’ve ever known? Jesus has already anticipated those questions and he puts it in language the simplest can understand. Believe me. Love me. Obey me. There’s the catch, you say. How can I believe Jesus? How can I love someone I’ve never met? What will he ask of me that I must obey? Initiations into mysterious exclusive associations leave me feeling wet and chilled… (continued in Part 2)


[1] Lewis, C.S. Voyage of the Dawntreader

[2] Segments from John 14