JESUS THE GATE, Part 1

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Know That Voice

Have you ever bumped your knee or elbow and found yourself rubbing the spot to decrease the sensation of pain? Little did you know that you are doing the best thing you could do at that moment. Neuroscientists Melzack and Wall tell us why. They say that the sensation of pain can be blocked on its journey to the brain by a ‘gate’ in the spinal cord. When we rub the injured knee, that message speeds to the gate some ten times faster than the pain message and blocks the latter from carrying on to the brain. Nothing gets through unless it goes through the gate. I remember learning about the gate theory some years ago and it intrigued me then as it does now.

So when Jesus begins talking in John chapter 10 about a gate in the sheep-pen of life, my ears perk up. Do yours? He says that life is like a great sheep farm. It’s a little humbling when we find out which characters portray us. We are the sheep. It reminds us of a similar metaphor used in the most famous of Psalms, where we hear, “The LORD is my shepherd…” (Psa. 23). Here in the gospel, Jesus places himself in a provocative role in the picture of sheep, shepherd, watchman, pasture, sheep pen, gate, and thief. We see the drama: fearful sheep needing tender care, a good shepherd who provides guidance on the path to pasture and protection from danger, and a thief whose intention it is to steal the sheep, kill them and destroy the farm.

In an unprecedented move, Jesus describes himself as the scene’s unpretentious inanimate object, the gate. But he immediately expands our awareness of the significance of that role. The gate provides for the sheep an authentic entry point for their Shepherd. It directly affects their acceptance of the Shepherd’s leading in their lives, and it opens only for that one Shepherd. The Shepherd, a character Jesus shares with the Father, is intimately involved in the lives of his sheep, those who “listen to his voice”, “know his voice” and “follow him”. In contrast, the thief may attempt his dastardly deeds but cannot lure these sheep to follow him for two reasons: his voice is not the one they trust, and the gate protects the sheep from foolishly following the thief to their demise.

So I want to scrutinize this concept of Jesus the gate. No metaphor can adequately portray every aspect it intends to describe, but there are some intriguing facets worth exploring. Not the least of these is the ability of Jesus to incarnate as so many roles in the sheep farm analogy. He is gate; He is also Shepherd, pasture, fodder, rescuer, redeemer, and guide.

Our response today, I believe, is to learn the unique quality of the Shepherd-gate’s voice. Listen to him speaking today to us. Strain to hear every nuance in that voice. Learn to love it, obey it, turn only to it when other voices call. Come to know that voice as the one and only. That gate is the source of our protection, our true freedom, and the daily entry of the Shepherd into our lives to take us places we could never go on our own.

So open up that Bible of yours; or find it a mere click away. Read through the tenth chapter of the gospel of John. Go slowly, savouring every word of Jesus recorded there. Take time to let his voice imprint on your mind its unique quality. You are coming to the voice of the Eternal One and it must not be rushed. Then pray to him. It may be nothing more than the ba-a-a-ing of a lamb, but he has ears for his sheep and he is listening. Nothing is more important right now than getting to know that voice.

 

 

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JUST HUMAN

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Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán was finally caught on Saturday. Captured in his high-rise condo in Mazatlán, the world’s most powerful drug lord must now face Mexico’s justice system. Years of profiting off of the illegal trade of cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroine around the world must be accounted for. But will the courts succeed in bringing justice?  Will corruption enable the powerful captive to continue his trade behind the walls of his prison? Or will he escape again like he did in 2001?

Thinking about this case leaves me feeling a little surprised. I wonder how one man can have become so immune to the damage he has inflicted on countless lives, and not feel remorse. He seems to have become dehumanized by the very business of which he is ‘lord’. Yet, as one article describes it, “the cartel has transcended the man” (Thompson, G. & Archibold, R.C. (Feb.25, 2012) El Chapo’s arrest unlikely to break Mexican cartel,  www.nytimes.com). His business will carry on with or without him.

Think about that word ‘dehumanize’. It’s a worrisome word. Not that the drug world is the only environment in which the corruption occurs. The word conjures up visions of the worst of humanity’s crimes—Nazi concentration camps, wars, slavery, sweatshops. Perhaps thinking of its antithesis is a better place to start. What does it mean to be truly human?

Let’s look back into the Genesis record of God creating the first humans. Do you remember how it’s put?

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” That’s in the very first chapter. There’s much to be gleaned from observing beginnings. God’s impression of the unique creature we call Homo sapiens was that ‘it was very good’. So what is it that was good? What is it that makes us fully, uniquely and by God’s design human? And sadly, what is it that weakens, damages and even dehumanizes that design?

Something about God’s image, imparted to us humans at our creation, defines the core of our God-imparted humanity. It’s something central to our being that can flourish or be diminished as a result of choices we make. Something that describes us as fully human, or else be described as inhuman, dehumanized, inhumane.

We are charged with the enterprise of ruling the earth. God, Ruler of the Universe, makes earth a domain where His highest creature, man, will rule much like his Maker. So how does God rule?  With indifference, impotence or noninterference? Or with benevolence, wisdom and power? Those with a correct understanding of how God describes Himself in His Word observe that His attributes detail the perfect ruler—all-knowing, all-loving, all-wise and all-powerful. He rules with complete justice.

I submit that we, as image-bearers of God, are called to implement our humanity primarily by the practice of justice. Within every relational ecosystem we best express our humanity by being just. A just human is truly human. And a just human reflects the image of God.

So how do we practice justice? By ensuring that drug lords like El Chapo go to prison? I don’t know about you, but I’m not in that line of work. However, does this release me from the responsibility of practicing justice?

Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”  While the practice of justice is integral to real humanity, it’s a skill many of us have failed to develop. We need to relearn it. We need to seek it. It means looking out for the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely and the socially outcast. It means putting ourselves into situations of discomfort for the sake of those who are hurting. We may have to delve deeper than we’re used to in order to find someone in need of justice. This is what it means to “love your neighbour as yourself”. There is nothing passive about it. But then again, there was nothing passive about God creating us “in his image”, was there?

So we have a task today, do we not? We must begin to learn what it means to be just. It’s not an academic subject, though; so don’t spend too much time in the books over it. It’s exceedingly practical. It might mean listening to your neighbour’s complaints, shoring up your side of the fence that’s causing them some grief. Or it might mean sponsoring a child through Compassion Canada. It might mean stepping back from your enjoyment of buying inexpensive clothes made in China, or chocolate harvested by child-prisoners in Uganda. It might mean voting to allow a recovery house to be built in your neighbourhood, or being honest on your tax return. You get the idea, and so do I. Now it’s time to get on with it. It’s a high calling, but we were created for it: get out there and be just, human.

(Photo credit: Eduardo Verdugo (AP)

A NEW CREATION: Conclusion

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You. Results. Health. Guarantee. Discover. Love. Proven. Safe. Save. New.

Did you catch those words? According to studies done on the psychology of advertising, these are the ten top words to use if you’ve got something to sell.

What do these words tell you about us as people?

I read in those ten words: relevance, trustworthiness, relevance, trustworthiness, hope, relevance, trustworthiness, trustworthiness, relevance, and hope. We want a product that fits our situation, can be relied upon, and that gives us something no other product has fully been able to do before. We’ve been disappointed far too often in the past by promises that were not fulfilled. We’ve become jaded, wary, and cautious of what we will buy into. Do you think those words only apply to our culture, and our generation?

Have you noticed something about the past nine parts in this series on ‘A New Creation’? Of course there has been the repetition of the word ‘new’: new song, new thing, new name, new covenant, new heart and spirit, new compassions, new commandment, new life, and a new and living way. But looking deeper, have you seen the relevance, the trustworthiness and the hope each of these aspects of a new creation evoke? We must admit, God’s message to people is timeless. It’s relevant, it’s trustworthy, and it gives us something nothing else can: it gives us real hope.

I’ve been reading an article comparing the atheism of Richard Dawkins to that of his predecessor, Friedrich Nietzsche. The author attempts to show that Dawkins’ basis for hope in a godless existence is shallow compared to Nietzsche’s. Yet the latter’s self-described hope consisted in accepting only the tragic nature of life; and ironically Nietzsche suffered an emotional and intellectual breakdown in the prime of his life that left him insane, insensible and wretched. His ideology had left him hopeless. Not a confidence-inspiring advertisement for ‘life after God’, is it?

When the ideological leaders of Jesus’ day refuse to believe his deity, Jesus has a few words for them. He gives them the true picture of human existence (John 5:16-47):

  1. The Father and the Son are the sole givers of human life, which does not end in the grave.
  2. The moment defining our ‘life after grave’ future lies in what we do now with Jesus. Do we hear his voice and live? Or do we refuse to come to him to have life?
  3. Jesus will not judge the latter—that will be done by the ideology in which they trusted.
  4. The former, entrusting themselves to the Giver of life, will find their hopes realized.

So what we do now with Jesus is incredibly relevant to us. Becoming a new creation is for the here and now, but it is also for the then and there of eternity. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The new heart and spirit are built for immortality. The new covenant goes beyond the grave. The new name gives us an identity fit for eternity. And the new song has unending ages in which to be sung.

The great true irony of life is that only when we humble ourselves to accept a new life outside of ourselves do we become the creatures we were designed to be. That’s what God’s creative love does, and it’s a guarantee you will find nowhere else. So, go on. Reach out to the Hand that’s reaching out to you, and become a new creation.

A NEW CREATION, Part 9

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New Way

The views on that wintry day were breathtaking.  The patchwork valley and silver ribbon of river far below lay silent and still. Snow-crusted blue mountains backed by glacier-covered peaks furnished the backdrop. The exhilaration that comes when effort is matched by like reward was ours. We had climbed the snowy trail for two hours up the mountain. Sometimes gently uphill, other times down then steeply up again. We had donned gaiters and boots with crampon-like cleats for gripping icy sections. We had followed trail-markers, obsessively scanning for metal markers spiked into trunks, or orange ribbons gaily hanging from tree branches. And now we were at the top. Granola bars and thermoses of hot drink were joyfully drawn from daypacks to toast the view, the journey, and the end of the uphill trek.

There are so many parallels in daily living to the Way of God in our lives. That wintry hike reminds me a lot of the New Way made available to us through Jesus Christ.

He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The way to the Father is “a new and living way”. Jesus offers to indwell us with His very life. No metaphor can do it justice, but sometimes an illustration can help us visualize it a bit better.

The Path Itself: That day, covered in snow, the path was a bit obscure. It blanketed dirt, boulders, and underbrush alike. We did observe bootprints of other passersby, a confirmation that someone else had trodden the path—but were they going where we were? It was those trail markers that gave us the best guidance for the real trail. As long as we kept sight of them, we were good. The ‘new and living way’ has markers for us too; God’s Word is so powerful and timely when we read it and follow its wisdom and directives. It will lead us upward, ever closer to Him, and protect us from falling away from Him.

Our Footwear: Our warm socks and rubber-soled boots allowed us to persevere on that day’s hike. As we follow the way of Christ, an appreciation for the love of Christ becomes the source of our ability to persevere. Just as our cleats gave us traction on icy patches, our faith in Jesus and his relevance for every issue in our lives is what enables us to keep from slipping.

The View: Of course, the journey in itself was stimulating. A healthy body, clean snow transforming a west coast forest trail, and great company was good. But the view at the top was stunning. When we finally see Christ in all His glory it will be a mountaintop experience; until then, prayer brings us moments of that glory—not only answered prayer, but also adoring, worshipful prayer and hopeful, petitioning prayer.

This way is one-of-a-kind. Don’t be duped by other ways. There is no substitute for Jesus himself, the way, the true way and the living way. Do you want Jesus? Put on your boots and step out on today’s journey with Him.

A NEW CREATION, Part 8

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New Life

There was no morphine for the pain. There were no antibiotics for the infection. The discomfort of his dehydration could not be remedied by intravenous saline. There were only herbal remedies, and these had proved ineffective. As he lay there dying, one hope came to his mind, hazy with fever; he tried to whisper it, but by then his throat was so swollen no sound would escape from his parched lips. So he died. His family buried him in the customary way, and life for everyone else would have just carried on if it weren’t for his friend.

The friend arrived by everyone’s reckoning four days too late. He had missed the final rites, the cave-side burial, and the wailing lament of the mourners. He had missed the final moments when the unspoken hope of the dying man might have been voiced. Instead, he was greeted with the family’s accusation.

“If you had been here, (our) brother would not have died.” They believed he could have prevented their brother’s death somehow, but with his death that hope had evaporated. Taking their friend to the burial site they showed him their brother’s tomb, a stone-blocked cave, cold, silent and hopeless. Deeply moved, the tears began to flow down the friend’s cheeks and sobs shook his shoulders. There was no doubt he had loved the brother, but death had had the upper hand.

“Take away the stone”, he said. And then called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

Do you remember the story now? The authority of Jesus’ command broke the spell of death. Lazarus’ life was returned to him and his family was overcome with joy.

Jesus’ claim to be “the resurrection and the life” is not idle talk. He chose to perform this miracle for this one family to illustrate for all what he offers every person on this planet.

“He who believes in me will live, even though he dies….Do you believe this?” he asks you right now. He’s talking about something more significant even than our earthly lives. He’s talking about that part of us that was designed by him to be eternal—our spirit. The sin that came into the world with our first parents, Adam and Eve, has brought mortality to our spirits and we desperately need a resurrection. His miracle illustrated for those people, in that community, what he would accomplish on a much grander scale with his own death, burial and resurrection: a new eternal life for anyone who chooses to believe and accept it.

What is the new life like? It’s full of hope, for one thing. No more fear of death; our bodies will eventually fail us, but that physical death is a great doorway to the eternal life Jesus has given us.

The new life is also full of love. We have a new ability to love God; to do what pleases Him also pleases us. We want to use our lives to further His good plans, to bring Him glory and honour. We also have a new ability to love people around us; not just our friends and family, but even our enemies. We find ourselves called to give up our own desires in order to bring good to others’ lives, to help them find new life in Christ too.

I like the end of this story found in John chapter eleven. Jesus’ command brings Lazarus back into the land of the living, but he’s shuffling out of the tomb because the grave clothes are still binding him. Strips of linen still entangle his hands and feet and his face is still covered in a grave cloth. Jesus wants his friend to live fully. Death has no place for a man given new life. The old rags have to go.

“Take off the grave clothes and let him go,” commands Jesus. He’s talking about you.

 

A NEW CREATION, Part 7

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New Commandment

Elmer hated everyone, especially Christians. To terrorize and instill fear was his chief aim in life. Until 2006 Elmer was a guerilla commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); killing, displacing people, and wreaking havoc on lives was an everyday occurrence.

What were you doing in those years leading up to 2006? Might hatred ever have expressed itself in your life? Through gossip? Through harsh words or violence to those closest to you? Through envy when others enjoyed possessions you could never afford?

In a pivotal moment of Elmer’s life, hiding in a cave from government soldiers, God revealed Himself to him.  Trying four times to commit suicide as a solution to his problems, he was stopped from expressing his self-hatred by overt messages of God’s deep love for him. When Elmer finally surrendered his life totally to Jesus, a deep transformation occurred. He began to love.  His family recognized it. His colleagues recognized it. His enemies recognized it. He was under a new mandate: to love others.

Elmer’s life-change is neither an incidental nor coincidental occurrence in the movement known as ‘Christianity’. It is the very core of what Jesus came to earth to do two thousand years ago. Listen.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34,35). The new commandment replaces a ream of old ones. Tradition had layered an oppressive accumulation of do’s and don’ts upon the people of Jesus’ culture, which failed to conceal their core condition: they were characterized by anything but love.

Can you relate? Do you sometimes surprise yourself when something comes out of your mouth that sounds downright nasty? Where did that come from, you wonder? Or maybe in a moment of tension you erupt into violent action. Did that come from me, you ask? I ask myself that at times. I think if we are honest we will admit we need that new commandment. Whether we ever followed the old Judeo-Christian ethic or not, we know we are not essentially lovely people. Our consciences have tried to tell us that over the years, and, not knowing how to solve the dilemma, we have ignored and silenced the worrisome admission. Besides, we have never killed anyone. We’re not like Elmer.

But aren’t we? Jesus confronted religious leaders of His day who insulated themselves with a similar self-righteous attitude. He said pride is hatred. Lack of forgiveness is hatred. Thinking harsh thoughts of others is hatred. It’s a disease that goes deeper than we ever imagined and we all have succumbed to it, try as we might to hide it.

But Jesus brings it into the open. He did it for Elmer and He does it for us. Listen to Him. “Love one another”. It’s an impossible command except for one critical point. He is willing to inhabit us, bringing His expansive love along as a resource for our transformation. His love enables us to love.

Elmer’s family found that out. So did the Christians He used to persecute. Even his compatriot FARC guerilla soldiers found that out and are continuing to do so daily. Elmer is a different man now.

How does this relate to us? First, we’re not very different than Elmer. We’ve had episodes of hate, just in different ways (or we have had fewer opportunities to express it fully like him). Would you agree? Second, we too can be transformed, as he is, to whatever degree we choose to surrender to Jesus. Did you know that, I mean, really know that? Jesus is love, and He wants to love others through us as He is doing today through Elmer. This new commandment is a win-win situation if we will only choose to obey it. Let’s give Jesus the chance to prove He can do it in us. What is there to lose other than something that was consuming us anyway?

(The story of Elmer can be found in the Feb. 2014 issue of The Voice of the Martyrs magazine)

A NEW CREATION, Part 6

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New Compassions

A crowd lies between the woman and Jesus.  In her hopeless situation she has finally come to see that he is her only hope–everything and everyone else has failed her. But the mass presses in on all sides; it is impossibly thick. In her condition she has barely the strength to walk, let alone push through that rabble. When a man of importance arrives he is able to push aside enough of the throng to make his way to Jesus. The woman tries to seize the opportunity to follow in behind him but the crowd crushes close in and she is left out.

An unexpected hush in the crowd allows her to hear the man’s earnest entreaty, “Please come…” and Jesus turns with him to go the other way. At this change the crowd‘s pressing lightens for a moment, and the woman, hardly knowing what she will do, slips between the people toward Jesus’ retreating figure. She catches a glimpse of his flowing robes and presses forward.

She reasons, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Stumbling through the crowd a few final paces, she reaches out, her fingers lightly brushing a corner of his cloak.

Like lightening, a surge of power flows into her weak body.  Warmth and vigor course through her and the pain and suffering of twelve long years instantly disappear. She feels free, and well, and strong.

At her touch, Jesus immediately turns around asking, “Who touched my clothes?” All eyes turn to him, but he is looking directly at the woman. She feels her blood run cold in fear. What if he is angry? How could she have been so bold and presumptuous?  How did he know she had touched the merest corner of his cloak?

I love this next part of the story. I love the vulnerability of the woman and Jesus’ response to her. Knowing she cannot hide from this miracle-working man the woman falls at his feet, and, “trembling with fear, (tells) him the whole truth”. His reaction?

“Daughter, your faith has healed you Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

No condemnation. No anger. No reproach. Just compassion. Just overwhelming love, acceptance, and recognition of the incredible value of her faith in Him. He blesses her with peace and freedom and release from suffering.

It reminds me of a beautiful passage in the somewhat obscure Old Testament book of Lamentations; “I remember my afflictions and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Did you hear that? Read it again. His compassions are unfailingly new every morning. Regardless of our troubles, our disappointments, the messes we make and the hopelessness of our situation, God finds new ways to express his compassion to us every day.

Doubt and fear threaten to crowd out our awareness of His compassion, but it is always there waiting for us. It’s long past time to give up seeking other avenues for help; they leave us impoverished and merely extend our suffering. Look to Him. Reach out and touch the slightest access of Him you think you can reach. He feels your need and His compassionate power will engulf you and meet you where you are. Not only that but He is more than ready to be a Father to you, to call you ‘daughter’ or ‘son’.  Are you ready for that kind of compassion? He is.

(You’ll find this amazing story in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5, verses 24-34. Google it and enjoy it in its original version!)

(Credit for photo: the guardian.com)