THE D.C., GOD AND YOU, Part 5

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Strength in Weakness

‘I am in solid stone yet I move. I am weak enough to be broken with your hands; however, I am strong enough to break steel. What am I?’ This riddle is meant to tease our minds with concepts of weakness and strength; we see they are not always the opposites they appear on the surface to be.

We have been engaged in exploring one man’s response to the dominant culture (D.C.) of his day, finding grains of truth to apply to our lives two and a half millennia after him. Some things just never change. Hezekiah has heard his aggressor challenge him with words of arrogance, ridicule and atheistic logic. Now the Assyrian field commander, mouthpiece of the king of the barbaric and ruthless Assyrian empire, is voicing his next verbal assault.

“How can you repulse one officer of the least of my master’s officials, even though you are depending on Egypt for chariots and horsemen?” (II Kings 18:24). In other words, ‘You are incredibly weak; why bother resisting?’

We hear that message loud and strong coming from our D.C. too, don’t we? If we listen to atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris we will hear it blatantly. If we listen to pop culture music and view current blockbuster films we hear it slightly masked. And if we step into our local high school or university we will simply feel it. All the ‘evidence’ points to the logic of humanism. To resist seems impossible. The D.C. has a way of making faith look foolish.

How did Hezekiah handle his D.C.’s thwarting goad? His response, at first glance, may sound like he is giving in to cultural pressure. He admits his weakness.

He concedes, ”This is a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace, as when children come to the point of birth and there is no strength to deliver them.”  That’s quite an image he paints: Pregnant women laboring to deliver but weakening after hours and days with no success. The picture is daunting. That scenario will deteriorate into both maternal and fetal death unless there is some intervention.

This admission of weakness stands at the door to one of the great oxymorons of our faith. When, and only when we come humbly before God, admitting our debilitating weaknesses and inabilities to succeed, God is faithful to act on our behalf. It is as if He wants to be absolutely sure He is honouring the gift of free will with which He endowed each of us, before stepping into our lives. We must toss out the belief that we are gods before we have space for Him as God of our lives. He will not share the honour.

The apostle Paul describes a similar experience, having wrestled with submitting to the reality of his own weakness. He explains:

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Cor. 12:8-10)

We, like Hezekiah and Paul and countless other God-followers, take comfort in Christ’s promise that He is enough. His grace is enough. Our weakness is the perfect environment for His strength to do something of eternal significance through us. It takes faith, it takes a mind set on things above, and it takes resolve to put our weaknesses into the hand of God and rest there.

By the way, what is ‘weak enough to be broken with hands’ but ‘strong enough to break steel’? The answer is, water. Sometimes weak can be incredibly strong.

THE D.C., GOD, AND YOU, Part 4

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Where is Your God?

Adrianne Haslet-Davis knows what it’s like to have her support knocked out from beneath her. Surviving the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing incident, the dance instructor woke up after surgery minus her left foot. The sensation of numbness was piercing; how does a dancer dance on one foot?

The besieged King Hezekiah of ancient Judah knows that feeling too. The mighty empire of Assyriah has surrounded his city. The threat is very real. The field commander’s words are designed to undermine the foundations of his confidence. The enemy’s voice drips with sarcasm as he addresses Hezekiah.

“…You say to me, ‘We are depending on the LORD our God’ – (but) isn’t he the one whose high places and altars (you) Hezekiah removed…?” In other words, your fanatic worldview has left you void of resources. You haven’t a leg to stand on. You have no access to God. In fact, you have no God.

Haven’t we sometimes heard that same challenge? Hasn’t strafe from cultural censure attempted to damage our faith? Karl Marx shoots his dart – “Religion is the opiate of the masses” –  and Robert Heinlein aims his – “Religion is a crutch for weak-minded people”. Atheist Richard Dawkins and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura have repeated fire using that latter quote. We may even rephrase those questions ourselves at times of difficulty, asking ourselves, ‘Does God even hear me? Where is He now?” The dominant culture (D.C.) around us sets its point of equilibrium excluding God. It communicates that the concept of God puts the teeter-totter of our lives out of balance – tips us too far one way or the other. It recites failures and excesses of those for whom religion has justified terrible acts upon humanity. We are tempted to believe them, to keep our faith hidden, silent, and ineffectual fearing their challenge might be true.

How does Hezekiah respond to the bombardment of Assyriah’s verbal assault on his foundation of faith? He runs. Not literally, but he sends a message to his spiritual guide and it sounds like he’s been hit in the foot by shrapnel. Listen.

“It may be that the LORD your God will hear all the words of the field commander, whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent to ridicule the living God, and that he will rebuke him for the words the LORD your God has heard. Therefore, pray for the remnant that still survives” (II Kings 19:4).

Hezekiah understands he needs help. He needs support from someone of like faith who can help him deal with the challenge, ‘Where is your God?” He echoes the enemy’s question by asking his guide to appeal to “your God”. The challenger knows Hezekiah has torn down high places and altars; their charred remains litter the surrounding hills.  He suggests Hezekiah has destroyed his own access to God. The Assyrian commander’s provoking interrogation leaves Hezekiah wondering.

The D.C. of today can cause us similar dismay. It is the first to point out the failures of organized religion, the weaknesses and hypocrisy. We extrapolate that to mean our own faith is an ineffectual prop, not worthy of broad universal application.

What Hezekiah needs help noticing is the error in his aggressor’s assertion: the fallen ‘high places and altars’ were never designated by God as His places of worship. In fact, he had forbidden their construction and usage. They were a form of god-manipulation without His endorsement. Hezekiah needs to see that rather than proving his God is absent, it illustrates God’s justice: no artificial worship succeeds for long.

Let’s take comfort from that thought. The trappings of idolatry, like the hypocrisies within religion will all fail. We are not religion loyalists – we are sons and daughters of Almighty God. Where is God? He is within us. He is behind, before, beside and beyond us. Never let the D.C. confuse us into thinking otherwise.

THE D.C., GOD AND YOU, Part 3

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Not Alone

Prison guards sullenly led Dmitry into the head guard’s office. Sacks of letters littered the room, all addressed to the prisoner. The head guard was enraged. Who were all these people, writing from around the world? How did they know this prisoner was incarcerated for preaching Christ? Why did they care? Dmitry’s response was simple.

“These are my brothers and sisters…They are praying for me.”[1]

If only King Hezekiah, leader of the tiny kingdom of Judah in the sixth century B.C. could have heard those words. What an encouragement it would have been. And yet, he knew the principle. When under attack, look for allies.  With Jerusalem under siege by the mighty and ruthless empire of Assyria, Hezekiah’s first response has been to humble himself before God Almighty. The proud boastings of Assyriah’s supreme commander have been daunting, but Hezekiah knows where ultimate power lies: in God alone.

Now the enemy taunts him with the rejoinder that Hezekiah’s allies are nothing more than a “splintered reed of a staff” – not worth leaning upon. It could have been quite discouraging if Hezekiah had let it.  Sometimes we find ourselves in a similar position when the dominant culture (D.C.) of our day seems to be attacking everything we stand for.  Ever felt alone in a group where connections are everything and cliques abound? Ever been the single nay vote against accepting a policy you know will ultimately harm someone? Ever had to speak up when a superior directs you to embrace dishonest procedures?

The record of II Kings (19:2) chronicles King Hezekiah’s action at such a time. After humbling himself in sackcloth before the LORD (see Part 2), Hezekiah finds his closest, most trustworthy friends, and sends them in search of Isaiah, God’s mouthpiece of the day. The friends are carefully chosen. Hezekiah knows some allies are fair weather friends; they are as Assyriah’s commander has judged – unreliable in times of trouble. But these friends are faithful. They too have humbled themselves before God and wear the outward sign of sackcloth. They take seriously the charge to find the prophet Isaiah to ask for help.

When the battering ram of this world’s D.C. seems to be more than you can withstand and you fear you must give up and give in, remember: you are not alone. When inward accusations seem to have the final word on the verdict that you have been deserted, listen: you are not alone.

In Hebrews 11 we given a list of those who were faithful, all of whom faced sieges of one sort or another. The first verse of the next chapter gives us this encouragement:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witness, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…” Running with perseverance implies difficulties; yet realizing we are not alone, that a great body of like-minded followers of Jesus surrounds us like an ethereal cloud from heaven, can spur us on.

King Hezekiah of Judah discovered it; Dmitry of Uzbekistan knows it; you and I must come to realize it. The accusation we hear that we are alone is a lie. So rise up; let’s find our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Church, and give and take strength from the Body Christ has designed to work together. Isn’t it good to know we are not alone?

 


[1] Story of Dmitry originally written in the Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter, Mar. 2014. http://www.persecution.net/nlintro.htm

THE D.C., GOD, AND YOU, Part 2

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Rebellion Against Pride

Kim Jong-un was elected into power by unanimous vote with a 100% turnout rate last week. It has the ring of a fairy-tale come true. North Korea must be very proud to have the peaceful, unified, single-minded support of its people behind its leader. Or is it all as rosy as it seems?

The Korean Central News Agency insists the vote reflects the people’s “absolute support and profound trust in supreme leader Kim Jong-un”. And yet, internment camps, North Korea’s Gulags, are filled with those who dare to dissent; few ever escape or find release from these camps outside of death.

The dominant culture (D.C.) inside the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is one where complete veneration of its young dictator is the standard expectation. The sense of pride and power emanating from the tyrant is reminiscent of the sixth century B.C. Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. It may also remind us of the pride flaunted by some elements of the Western world’s D.C.

“On what are you basing this confidence of yours?” challenges the ‘great king’ of Assyria in a message to the people of God. ‘Might is right’ the D.C. parades. ‘Power makes morality defunct’ it flaunts. Liberalism and pride replace all other values, decrying, “On whom are you depending that you rebel against me?”

We are surrounded by segments of a similar D.C. in our society. We are fed the palatable lie that we each are gods; flaunting our rights regardless of how destructive to self and others it may be, is the new law of the land. Confidence in God’s standards is not only passé, it offends the new gods-oriented society. The D.C. demands we respond with peaceful, unified, single-minded support. Dissenters beware! they boast.

Have you ever wondered how to respond to such pressure? Have a look back at the book of II Kings.  What did King Hezekiah, leader of the tiny remnant of God’s people, do? How did he respond to a similar confrontation with the D.C. of his time?

”When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the LORD”.  Sounds like a meltdown? Not so. In those days, to express an awareness of need before God was to tear one’s clothes and dress in rags. It demonstrated authentic humility. It communicated awareness that superficial trappings of power, symbolized by fine clothing, are paltry compared to God’s sovereignty. Tearing the clothing denoted non-reliance on one’s own might. It said, “I am powerless before this threat. God, help the one who humbles himself before You!”

It’s a response worth noting, don’t you think? It’s worth thinking about these two opposing traits: pride and humility. The one thinks only of self, of its pleasures, and of methods of manipulating events to its liking. The other bows before its Maker; it submits to the values and instructions for living, trusting the Almighty One will bring ultimate good out of the situation for those who submit to Him.

We are faced daily with choices that draw us one direction or another. The D.C. pulls us toward pride. God calls us to humility. As we stand in line at a check-out stand, as we choose how to use the day’s leisure time, as we communicate with those around us, we choose pride or humility.

The more difficult choice will always be humility. Like Hezekiah, we will need to be deliberate in our response. We will have to come into God’s presence (we call that ‘prayer’) and be authentic in our humility. It can happen anywhere: in that check-out line, in the moment before choosing to be served or to serve, in the breath before speaking with those around us. They seem like simple acts but they confront the spirit of the age that says ‘pride and power are yours’. Will you fall prey to pride or will you defy it?  God calls us to rise up and rebel against it. Dissenters arise.

 

THE D.C., GOD, AND YOU, Part 1

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Whose Are You?

Five spritely Navions darted overhead in formation. Their harmonizing rumble drew us out-of-doors to see the graceful and powerful display. On board each plane were some of our community’s most precious possessions—our daughters. Girls in our town were being invited to experience a thrilling encounter with flight: aviation’s call to consider a career in the skies. For some of those girls, this day would mark the beginning of a dream, the seed of a plan for whom the sky is no limit.

In a much larger sense, every one of us finds ourselves at some point allying ourselves with something bigger than we are, because we are drawn to belong. We collect in groups and we become, in some ways, like the group. Groups become known as sub-cultures, and the strongest group receives the dubious title of ‘Dominant Culture’—we’ll call it here the ‘D.C.’. It embodies the collection of values and behaviours practiced by the group that wields most power in that society. The concept is old; it goes way back, as far back as people have lived in societies. In fact, there is reference to it deep in the book of Second Kings, about one-quarter of the way into the Bible. It reads like it comes straight out of today’s D.C., and is intriguing. It gives us some ideas to think about and a few tools to manage our relationship with the D.C. of our time.

A little background might help. It’s about the sixth or seventh century B.C., and the Jewish homeland has been ravaged, internally by godlessness and externally by invading nations. The northern group of Jews has been carted off by the Assyrians and will become known as ‘the ten lost tribes’. Only Judah remains, and most of these people have taken refuge in the ancient city of Jerusalem because the mighty empire of Assyria is now besieging them. King Hezekiah has tried to appease the Assyrians by stripping Jerusalem’s temple of its gold, silver and other treasures. He thinks the assailants might be content with trinkets. But Assyria is hungry for more; it wants people and it wants land. It wants to assert its dominance. Can you guess who is the D.C. in this story? As the retinue of the supreme commander of Assyria stands boldly at Jerusalem’s gate, the onslaught begins. It’s a verbal one, and it’s intended to bring King Hezekiah to his knees in defeat. I think we have a thing or two to learn from Hezekiah’s response to this cultural onslaught.

We are told, “Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings…He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him…and the LORD was with him;” That’s a eulogy worth repeating. In fact, those attributes – trusting in and holding fast to the LORD, and persevering in following Him – are not obsolete. They are foundational to a solid, God-honouring life. Read them again. Would it be true to say that embodying those attributes could be more important than anything else we do with our lives? What would it take to move us from where we are now to being described by those words: trusting, holding fast, not ceasing to follow God? Do we want that kind of branding?

What set Hezekiah apart as a unique man among his peers was the object of his worship. Who do we worship? What or who is it in our lives that we honour as having the power to significantly alter and improve our lives?

As we begin to explore how we ought to relate and participate in the D.C. of our day, this is where we must begin: we must dig deep and ask ‘who do we worship?’ and ‘are we unswerving in our commitment?’. Think about it. Talk to God about it. As we move forward, this foundation will have everything to do with the outcome.

JESUS THE GATE, Part 4

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Myth Dispelled

The myth of God as indifferent superintendent explodes. Elaborating on his metaphor of sheep and shepherd, Jesus teaches us something vital about Him. We learn how He views His role in this drama of humanity with which He so closely identifies.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10: 11-15)

Jesus here expands on the story of the flock of sheep. He moves Himself into the role of shepherd to contrast Himself with other leaders. His audience is familiar with the self-serving religious leadership in their cultural community. They are also accustomed to the indifferent superintendence of the political leadership of the ruling empire. They, like we, are more than a little disillusioned by the lack of authenticity in people who claim to care.

Jesus steps boldly forward here describing His leadership as uniquely good and caring. He is saying that He and only He truly loves people. He likens Himself to a shepherd who puts his life on the line to protect his sheep from the wolf. The hired hand doesn’t care any more for the sheep than that they provide him with income. The wolf surely cares nothing more for the sheep than as objects to be devoured. Only the good shepherd takes ownership of truly caring for the intrinsic value of the sheep. Jesus even foretells His own sacrificial death in this analogy. The good Shepherd stops at nothing to ensure the safety of His sheep. Imagine someone loving you so much they would die for you to ensure your survival. Do you know anyone like that?

We need reminding that the scenario of the human condition includes a bully whose sole purpose is to destroy your life and mine, for eternity. He’s not the only fool, either. We’ve all taken a major misstep. A man in tune with the truth of our condition once said, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Did you hear who it is that must bear the brunt of our human rebellion? ‘The LORD has laid on HIM’—Jesus—‘the iniquity of us all’. Jesus, the good Shepherd takes the rap, pays the consequences, so we can be back in the sheepfold. Jesus has such sympathy for our situation He gives of Himself to give us back something we failed to realize was lost: the ability to choose to return to Him.

Make no mistake, He’s heavily invested in your life. Don’t ever accuse Him of being distant, disinterested, or careless of you. That’s the wolf’s lie. Perhaps it’s been easier to label Him with those tags that to accept that they may in fact describe you. It’s worth considering, isn’t it?

So we see four points in Jesus’ sheep-gate metaphor: Followers of Jesus learn to distinguish His voice from all others; it is life-changing (Have you heard it?); Jesus is the only fodder that can nourish our spirit to live into eternity (Have you eaten it?); Jesus is singularly peerless in providing true life (Do you want it?); and only Jesus truly cares for us (Do you choose to accept it?).

Interesting theme running throughout, isn’t it? Did you hear it? Jesus is uniquely and closely involved in the lives of people. He is the means by which God reveals His interest, participation, and attachment to people’s lives. He’s the only Shepherd that’s just dying to spend eternity with a bunch of sheep.

JESUS THE GATE, Part 3

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Full Life (John 10:7-10)

The poor bloke in the jump suit ahead was hanging from the airplane’s wing strut some fifteen hundred feet above ground. He had taken the ground school. He had learned how to land with a roll, parachute trailing behind him. He had even learned how to step out of the safety of the plane’s mid-air fuselage, one foot on the landing gear, hands on the cold wing strut and push off for the static line jump. But when the time came to obey the jump instructor’s command, his feet obeyed but his fingers would not let go. So there he hung mid-air, dangling.

Some choices in life are like that. We call them benign, a word which is sometimes good, but not always. When we think about life experiences, though, some choices leave us hanging between doing nothing, and experiencing real significant purpose.

Some choices in life seem, on the surface to be benign, yet go on to be revealed as causing great loss. Do you remember the philosopher Nietzsche a hundred or more years ago who had some interesting thoughts on ideals for humanity? He said, God doesn’t exist, so let’s design the perfect man and leave objective values out of it. Seems benign enough. But when Adolph Hitler grasped those thoughts and chose to put them into practice, institutionalized eugenics ravaged Europe annihilating some millions of people. That choice was significant for many.

Jesus says, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The enemy of mankind is a thief. He wants to take away the full, abundant life God designed for every one of us. Let’s face it. He wants to steal hope. He wants to kill any possibility of us having a relationship with Jesus; he wants to destroy life and love, freedom and joy. We can fairly safely call that malevolence. He likes tempting us to make choices that seem benign.

But in the metaphor of the shepherd, sheep, and thief, there is only one gate. There is only one authentic access point for full, abundant life. The thief is a liar, and speaks with a glittering forked tongue. He wants to make sheep believe the shepherd’s pasture either doesn’t exist, or is extremely bland, mundane, and irksome. He uses every trick in the book to keep the sheep from even approaching the gate. He says there is no Shepherd. He says the pasture is his way, the exciting back way out and over the wall. He dulls the sound of the pasture’s quiet waters with his raucous laughter.

But the thief’s manipulations do not change the gate or the pasture. They are truer than any reality the sheep will ever know. Those sheep that have chosen to go the gate way have found the pasture more satisfying than the thief’s paltry offerings. The pasture is life-giving, and the Shepherd’s presence gives a peace that is beyond comparison.

Of course we are more than sheep. We have minds that can wrestle with deep issues, solve extensive problems, and imagine great wonders. How do we take this analogy and really live in it? How do we enter the pasture? How do we come and go from sheep pen to pasture and back?

Start with a prayer. Address Jesus. Speak to Him your questions; open your heart to Him. Ask Him to lead you every step of the way. Ask Him to protect you from the lies of the thief. Voice to Him your commitment to avoid the thief’s lures, and be willing to take the gateway, narrow as it may seem. Read the Bible like it is your only hope for finding pasture. Then find others on the same path with Jesus and live life in community with them. Commit to living life this way every day, and see if the metaphor is true.