THE ‘LOWER GAZA’ OF OUR LIVES

israel-palestinian-conflict-gaza-construction-1

The conflict in Gaza has taken a new twist. Hamas, the Islamic Terrorist Organization, has been making secret inroads into Israeli territory through underground tunnels. An expansive labyrinth of passages connecting bunkers, weapon stores and rocket-launching sites lies deep beneath the war-torn surface of the conflict zone. If this hidden invading infrastructure is ignored, the Hamas charter to “obliterat(e) … Israel” will be one step closer to being realized. The trouble is, the tunnels often begin beneath structures used by civilians – hospitals, schools, and UN safehouses.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we hear of underground invasions like this. It’s often the way the enemy works. The ‘Lower Gaza’ we may discover encroaching on our lives often digs its first trenches just below the surface of good things in our lives.

For instance, our relationships with other people are unquestionably the highest good God has given us on this earth. And yet, we often find certain relationships bring out the worst in us; we discover veins of jealously, vents of anger, shafts of impatience and a mother lode of other unpleasant characteristics in ourselves through our relationships. If we fail to envision scenarios in our own lives that illustrate this tendency, perhaps we haven’t woken up to the reality of the danger yet. The tunnels are there. Weapons are stored there. Rocket-launching sites are poised to explode under our smooth exterior unless we deal with the source of the problem.

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you:” begins a first century apostle of Jesus, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:5-9).

It’s so easy to say we have fellowship with God – to suggest that we are in right relationship with Him and therefore He approves of our lifestyle. But the Spirit of God here explains, through John’s pen, that fellowship with others – that is, pure, loving, light-giving relationships with those around us – signifies whether we are truly living in fellowship with God. It’s a rewording of the greatest commandment, to love God and to love our neighbour. One demands the other.

Are we honouring our parents? Do we treat them respectfully, recognizing the strengthening role they’ve played in our lives, regardless of their faults?

Are we loving our neighbour? Do we initiate friendly and helpful relations with those who live closest to us, regardless of the offensive actions or remarks we may have overheard?

Are we forgiving our family members? Do we meet them with a fresh appreciation each day, in spite of a history of hurtful hostilities or frustrating foibles?

Are we deliberately shedding light in our day-to-day interactions with work and school colleagues, friends and acquaintances, rather than slandering or manipulating them to our advantage?

Few relational interactions occur in our daily living without something of our natural pride and selfishness coming into play. These are the underground inroads of darkness that can occur in our lives if we ignore the signs. These are the hidden shafts of our old nature that burrow into our lifeblood like a tick under our skin. Unless we choose to shine the revealing light of God’s truth onto these loathsome tendencies, admit they are sins, and accept the costly forgiveness Jesus has provided for us, we will be living a lie. We’ll be walking time bombs, smoldering fuses, hapless hypocrites.

Let’s not be oblivious of the dangers of “walk(ing) in the darkness”. It’s time for a thorough assessment of whether we’ve allowed anything less that truth to be our foundation; we want to truly live in the light, be in fellowship with God and with one another. Let’s commit to exploring the possibility that the enemy has been making hidden inroads into our lives. Let’s ask God for help in this area, joyfully accepting “the blood of Jesus, his Son, (that) purifies us from all sin.” Let’s get on with walking in the light.

Advertisements

PIGMANIA

IMG_1417

Pigs have become as good as gold. The goddess Demeter demands them on her altars, the prevalent Greek and Roman cultures happily acquiesce to the ritual feasts, and local farmers are willing to plunge their hands into the proverbial pot of profit. Popular spirituality is like that: it caters to disguised pleasures. The trouble is, the Jewish community has been distinctly forbidden to eat or touch these ‘unclean’ animals, according to the Torah, never mind be involved in supporting pagan worship rituals. So when Jesus enters the scene in the remote Gadarene area east of the Sea of Galilee, he is stepping on rocky ground. This is pig-farming territory, and the locals don’t want to hear any moralizing from zealous Jews. It’s like inviting yourself onto a grow-op and asking to have a look around to set up your picnic; the locals are not going to be happy about it.

When Jesus proceeds to exorcise a regiment of demons from the unhappy local madman (see July 18/14 posting) He is making a unilateral decision: He is evicting them from their human host and authorizing the devilish spirits to transfer their accommodation to the herd of local pigs. It makes sense, really. The pigs are putting on pounds just waiting for the day they will nod their heads[1] to become fodder for the Greek gods. Perhaps Jesus is making a subtle point that worship of gods other than the true God is demon’s territory. One is fitting for the other.

Suddenly, the pigs rush headlong into the sea in a mad fit of uncontrollable abandon, and the locals are not happy. In fact, we’re told that when the townspeople see the ‘madman’ dressed and his right mind, they’re response is fear. They are afraid of One who can cure a madman of his madness. They sense His power exceeds that of the Greek gods; like the demons, they are afraid Jesus will demand more of them than they are prepared to give. So they do what many of us have done when we sense Jesus is a little too close for comfort: they ask Him to leave.

We’ve done that too, haven’t we? There have been times we’ve sensed that if we submit to Him in this or that area of our lives He’s going to turn things upside-down on us; nothing will be the same. We’re afraid He’s going to spoil the profit, take away the pleasure, or make us feel guilty about some of our behaviours. So we ask Him to leave. We shut our ears to His words; we close our eyes to perceiving His presence. We breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve escaped.

The amazing thing is that Jesus doesn’t force His presence on anyone. Having returned the willing ‘madman’ to his right senses, Jesus leaves the remaining townsfolk in their chosen pigsty. Everyone ultimately gets what he or she asks for. It must sadden Him immensely to see that only one person there in Gadara is willing to be healed mind-and-soul this day, but it is how the people want it.

This anecdote is not just a chronological event in the life of Jesus. It’s historical, yes, but it’s much more than that. It contains within it a living message for you and me today. It’s an invitation. Jesus is stepping out of His boat onto the shore of each of our lives right now. He’s standing, sensing the needs each of us have in the deepest depths of our soul. Many of us, like the masses, will react in fear. We’ll push Him away, and He’ll respect that. We’ll lose the greatest opportunity that this day will ever bring us. Or, we can be the one-in-a-hundred that senses He is our only hope – that beats the odds of our stubborn will and humbles ourself before Him.

“Stay, Jesus. Do for me what only You can do. I’ve had enough of pigmania.” A prayer like that is all it will take to begin to replace our pop-culture spirituality with worship of the true and living God.

 

[1]Greek sacrificial ritual included pouring water on the pig-victim’s head, causing it to ‘nod’ its head in agreement with its imminent sacrifice on the altar.

ONE-TRACK MIND

IMG_1524

So Jesus has orchestrated a death-defying trip across a squally sea, teaching his followers something important about faith. Remember? In four little words (“Where is your faith?”), He teaches them that circumstances do not determine faith – relationship with the ever-present Jesus does. Faith is the certainty that Jesus is with us and for us regardless of evidence that seems to indicate the opposite.

It’s idyllic weather for sailing now — flat calm waters and a steady breeze. His followers like that – we do too, don’t we? It’s a relief when the sun is glistening off sparkling waters and the wind is in our sails. We love those times when we can bask in the sun and dry off our trouble-sodden robes.

But it soon becomes obvious that Jesus has His eyes set on the far shore. He has something or someone in mind and He will not be sidetracked by the appearance of this holiday atmosphere. His followers have yet another lesson to learn today about faith and God’s compassion to bring people to wholeness.

The rocky shore draws nearer and one of the disciples hops out of the small wooden vessel in knee-deep water to draw it ashore. Jesus has barely stepped onto dry land when a commotion erupts from the cliff-side crevices above. A wild man, naked and bleeding, hurtles himself hell-bent toward them, shrieking, vestiges of broken chains trailing from his ankles and wrists. The storm of his frenzy sends a chill through the disciples’ backs and they begin to scramble back toward the boat. But Jesus is standing calmly, waiting, even inviting this strange caller.

“Come out!” Jesus commands, as the man careens toward Him. A light of recognition seems to ignite in the lunatic’s eyes and he sends himself prostrate at Jesus’ feet in silent entreaty. Jesus has identified the man’s deepest conflict and hears the silent prayer whispering from this madman’s soul. The man has been beset by a legion of demons holding him captive to their mad commands. Jesus knows all this at a glance; He knew it on the far shore when He purposed to make this day’s sailing trip. Jesus is here to release the man from his captivity because the man is finally at a point where he is willing to be helped. He is ready to be released from his hellish existence. So Jesus commands the demons come out of their now-unwilling host, and they must obey Him.

Can we relate? We may not be demon-possessed like the Gadarene madman, but haven’t we found ourselves ensnared in lifestyles that have held us mercilessly captive? Small temptations have turned into crazy compulsions that leave us lonely, disillusioned, and, if we will admit it, living a hellish existence. The identity we have sought through promises we’ve believed from this world has turned into a lie. What we thought would be gain has been nothing but loss. The chains that hold us captive have been tightening around our souls, constricting the life out of us.

This is our moment; Jesus has come and is here. He’s made the trip specifically because He hears that silent cry deep inside each of us. He’s waiting for us to fling ourselves at His feet acknowledging that He alone can save us from our self-destructive lives. We must choose to accept His methods if we want to be released, though. It will mean obedience to Him, humility where we have been proud, and submission to His will rather than our own. Is it worth it?

The Gadarene man thought so. Released from the prison of his inner demons we’re told he was found, “sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind.” When it was time for Jesus to leave, the man wanted to go with Him. But Jesus had a better plan. The man was to go home and tell his family and friends what God had done for him. He was to live out his newfound faith where others could see that the transformation was more than skin-deep. He must have been true to that calling, because the next time Jesus visits the area He finds four thousand people clamouring to meet Him. Many of those will become followers too.

Jesus has a one-track mind when it comes to transforming lives. We will not leave the same people we are when we come to Him. He wants to remove the lies, the chaos, the chains, and the wounds. We must be willing for that change to occur. We won’t get our own way anymore, but we will be given a path to follow that will be better than anything we could have devised ourselves. That is what Jesus’ love for us is all about. It’s about transforming us so we can have one-track minds too. All it takes is a silent prayer.

KISSING THE FEAR OF DEATH GOOD-BYE

IMG_1333

A squall tumbles headlong onto the lake and the sailboat is being swamped. The boatload of ex-fishermen has seen storms before, but never one like this. Raging waters are coming over the gunwales and the small sailboat is listing at a crazy angle. One thought rises in the minds of the men: they are about to face death! Their greatest fear is being realized this very moment .

It’s something each of us must face sooner or later – our own death. Most of us succeed in tucking the disturbing thought into the deep recesses of our minds, but that won’t change the dreadful reality of our own mortality. Some of us have experienced the piercing pain of losing a loved one firsthand. Some of us are more aware than others of our own imminent death. What may be the most common response of those facing this universal milestone in life is fear.

The men onboard the careening boat know fear; they feel its icy fingers clenching their hearts as wave after wave of the heavy seas crash into their vessel. Like foolish schoolboys they suddenly remember their sleeping passenger and tumble over one another to get to Him.

“Master, Master!” they cry, waking Him from his deep slumber. “We’re going to drown!” they bawl over the howling of the wind. The fear in the voices and eyes of the motley crew touches Jesus and he takes notice. He loves these followers of His, but they are so slow to learn.

We’re like that too, aren’t we? Whether we admit it or not, we fear death too. We’ve learned it from others around us – the skull icons we see around us so commonly in the marketplace are a bold front designed to mock death, but we just can’t seem to conquer that persistent ubiquitous feeling of fear that rises in us at unexpected times. Ian McCormick, the young New Zealander who encountered a near death experience in the soon-to-be-released film, “The Perfect Wave” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8DOyx8OjUo) admits feeling fear as his body succumbed to the poison of a deadly jellyfish attack. We seem to believe we deserve to feel and express fear regarding death; nothing else is more extreme in this life than death – of course we are fearful!

Looking at His followers, Jesus feels for them. Their fear is destroying something in them that has only recently begun to grow. Like a tender plant sprouting between rocks on a mountainside, their faith is almost invisible against the massive overshadowing cliff of fear. So He rises, steadying his sandaled feet on the flooded deck of the little boat, and speaks a word of reproach to the elements of nature; the waters become eerily calm, and He turns quietly to His disciples.

“Where is your faith?” He asks them. Jaws drop open as the disciples look around at the glassy sea. What Jesus has done for the disciples, is a picture of what He does for us every day. His presence is the greatest reality we can know as mortals. Fears have no place in the hearts and minds of those who call themselves followers of Jesus. The fear that we might face dangers that could destroy us is a lie unworthy of the seed of faith He has planted in our hearts. His love is the only cure to drive out our fear; it will replace our fears with the calm of His peace. He promises to never leave us, not even through the experience of our own physical death.

“For I am convinced,” admits a follower of Jesus who would later die for his faith, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).

It’s time to kiss the fear of death good-bye. We have Jesus as our ever-present companion and He will enable us to face death with jaw-dropping peace. We can believe that.

WHY FAITH IS MORE THAN RIDICULED

IMG_1519

“Faith,” ridicules atheist Richard Dawkins,“ is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” And he believes it.

Richard Dawkins is more than puzzled by faith; he is affronted, aggrieved, and exasperated by it. It seems like he is determined to stamp out the flame that continues to smoulder and flicker around the world as if it were as dangerous to public safety as a peat fire. He’s not alone. For some reason a large portion of this world’s inhabitants find it necessary to abuse and mistreat the concept of faith. Why is it? More than that, why are followers of a first century Jewish teacher the targets of so much aggravation? From northern Nigeria to North Korea, from Pakistan, India, and Egypt to Columbia and Cuba, the community of Christian faith is considered fair game for abuse.

To many, faith seems to epitomize weakness, cerebral impotence and servility. In contrast, natural man longs for power. The charm of power (intellectual, financial, political, or self-determining power) despises faith. Friedrich Nietzsche described the mindset of anti-faith with his “will to power” philosophy that created the ‘Ubermensch’ concept; the ‘Over-man’ or ideal man would epitomize everything material man could become: powerful, ruling without the need for mercy, completely divested of spirituality, Over-man would be free of the restrictions of morality and ethics. This is where we in the Western world have embraced the anti-faith worldview. For many, the idea of faith is preposterous: Dawkins and many others consider faith to be both ridiculous and ridicule-worthy.

Why? — Because at its essence, a life of faith must be at cross-purposes to the ambition for power. Faith looks at the evidence and agrees with God that all power on earth is an endowment from Him – the power to live and to breathe, to think and to investigate, to make and to change – everything comes from Him and falls within His dominion. We haven’t the ability to truly control true power. Not in spite of the evidence, as Dawkins believes, but because of the evidence, people of faith relinquish power. They have no need to grasp that which will not last – they have a hope that they have been given something of lasting and indestructible value, though it is unseen now.

Perhaps what irks those without faith is twofold: Firstly, Christians accept the claims of Jesus’ exclusivity – He is the only way, the only truth and the only life, holding sole rights in granting access to God the Father. And secondly, His followers refuse to bow to none other than Him. While the likes of Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-un, and extremists in almost every Muslim nation have attempted to decrease the world’s population of Christians, nothing seems to deter the faithful. Not even death.

The ancient writer, Habakkuk, spoke in timeless vernacular comparing the life of the faithless man with the life a man or woman who believes he or she is complete in Christ. Of the former, the prophet says, “He is arrogant and never at rest” (Hab. 2:5). The ambition to obtain power leaves the Over-man restless; he must find a scapegoat on which to take out his frustrations and aggressions – the concept of faith and the people of faith will be easy targets.

Of the latter, Habakkuk observes, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). Faith will be both the cause and effect of those who live within its parameters. It will embolden its bearers to rely completely on the indwelling power of the Spirit of God to accomplish anything of value in this life. It will find hope and love to be its partners, perseverance to be its mentor, and humility its guide. The people of faith will find Jesus more than sufficient as they face the ridicule, scorn, and attacks that come from those who grasp at and are in the clutches of ill-gotten power.

If you are one of the faithful ones, don’t give up. Let ridicule and worse come. As the writer of Hebrews advises, “Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, ‘He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith” (Heb.10:35-38). Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

(Photo Credit: S.D.Hitchman)

OVERCOMERS

Rob_Ford_Mayoral_Candidates_Forum_June_2010_(crop)

OVERCOMERS

Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto, Canada, says he has a disease. He says it’s an everyday battle that he’s going to have to deal with for the rest of his life. It’s a disease that makes him do things and say things that he says he doesn’t like, or at least that he knows others don’t like. He’s been in detox for two months because it has scandalized his job as caretaker of the city. What Ford wants to do now, he says, is to buck this tendency, stem the tide, staunch the flow, and get back to the job of running Canada’s biggest city. He’s got to do that if he wants to be re-elected.

What Rob Ford might not realize is that he’s not the only one with the disease. I don’t mean the substance abuse disease, although that can be a symptom of the bigger thing. I mean the capital-D Disease every one of us deals with every day of our lives – the mind-altering, word-influencing, action-impacting disease that has infected us all. Let’s not deny it. Ford tried denials and they worked for a while, but eventually all the evidence comes in and it’s not pretty. The lies can never ultimately stand up to the Truth: something nasty has inoculated its DNA into the nucleus of our soul and demanded we conform to its instructions. It has been referred to as the “pattern of this world” and it’s the great Disease that possesses every person on this planet.

That’s the problem at the root of every ill we experience, isn’t it? Every unkindness we find ourselves executing, every lie we defend ourselves telling, every selfish choice we support ourselves constructing is a symptom of the Disease. It has a name, though it’s unpopular in the social and political climate of today; it’s called evil. We recoil at the sound of that nasty little four-letter word; it’s so antiquated, primitive, and mythical-sounding. Surely we enlightened post-modern thinkers of the scientific age are not bound by the concept of evil. Are we? Of course, watching the first five minutes of the evening news illustrates for us every day, in many ways, that something dark and foul is happening in this world that most of us don’t like. For the sake of argument, just now, let’s give it the title ‘evil’.

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world”, advises the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Roman believers. He knows the human condition. The pattern of this world is the formula for rising to power on the ladder whose rungs are pride and selfishness. It is the convention that crosses all cultures and eras. It is the suggestion, obscure or blatant, that we are masters of our own destiny; that pride and selfishness are laurel wreaths we ought to wear without embarrassment; that the concept of God is a definition we can mould to accommodate our ladder-climbing, self-grooming agendas. Look around. On billboards, placards, best-selling book titles and parade banners; are the words ‘pride’ and ‘self’ used with embarrassment, or flaunted? This is the pattern of this world. The popular rhetoric is a blast of cologne but beneath it wafts the odour of Disease.

In contrast, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”, Paul offers. He doesn’t mean read one more book, take one more class, or add one more degree to your curriculum vitae. He’s going back to the earlier shocking proposition, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God”. He uses the loaded term ‘sacrifice’ because it is a slap in pride and selfishness’ face. He uses ‘living’ to show us that this is what real, exuberant, fulfilling life means. He uses ‘holy’ to show that there really is an objective standard for our behavior – we don’t make the rules after all. And he uses ‘pleasing to God’ to contrast our foolish ladder-climbing ambition that leads us anywhere but up. There is only one way to renew a mind that has inherited the human genome, that has been imprinted with the pattern of this world, the bent toward evil. It’s extreme. It is outside the box of thinking we consider normal. A renewed mind is one that has submitted to the mercy of God, the redeeming work of Jesus, and the filling of the Holy Spirit. The book of Romans is overflowing with this theme and it’s worth delving into, if we have a mind to do it. Do we?

God has much to say about evil, including how to rise above the daunting disability the disease of evil has wreaked in each of us. Did you know He loves us? Did you know the sacrifice Jesus has made on our behalf was so that we can overcome the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into? Have you sensed the optimism and hope He offers when we’ve finally become sick and tired of the Disease of evil? This message is for all of us.

Looking deeper than Rob Ford’s admission of disease helps us avoid pointing the finger; he has failed the people of Toronto, but if we’re honest, we’ve each failed someone too, haven’t we? Detox isn’t going to be able to help any of us with the big-D Disease we’ve got. Dealing with that has got to be the job of the Good God, and we must comply with his prescription if we ever want to get well and overcome this thing. To be overcomers, we need to overcome evil with good, and God is the only one who can empower us to do that. Now that’s a battle worth winning, for goodness’ sake. Are you with me?

(Photo Credit: Shaun Merritt, Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

REVELATION: CONCLUSION

358px-Luxembourg_Bankmuseum_Tuer

Invitation (Rev.3:19-22)

It is 1973. Several employees of the Kreditbanken in Stockholm, Sweden are being held hostage in the bank vault. Surrounded by the wealth they are on payroll to protect, the employees begin to react in increasingly strange ways over the six days of their incarceration. Rather than embracing the efforts of the police who have come to their aid, the hostages reject the assistance offered them, and side with their abductors. They have become emotionally attached to their kidnappers through a psychological phenomenon now known as the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ or ‘capture-bonding’. Their bonding to their captors has made them unwilling to invite or accept help from true rescuers.

As Jesus concludes his final message to the seven churches, he speaks of the need for captives to invite help. See if you can hear it.

“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

We might say we have one scenario and two kinds of people on earth: all of us are captives to sin; some believe we don’t need God, and some believe we do. The greatest piece of Literature on earth supports this synopsis. Those of us who believe we don’t need God are prone to refute the facts. We will ignore, argue, or blatantly discredit God’s Word, God’s followers and even God Himself in order to support our worldview. We think our value as prime eyewitness of our own life experience establishes credulity in our case.

But the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ tells us differently, doesn’t it? It describes a phenomenon where victims can lose the ability to correctly understand the situation. Kidnappers are seen as confidantes, rescuers as rivals. Satan, humankind’s worst enemy has availed himself of this phenomenon and duped us. We have bonded with this enemy-captor and cannot see clearly through the fog. Those of us who believe we do need God have made a choice to trust the facts presented in the Bible regardless of our Stockholm syndrome predisposition.

Jesus is not giving out this invitation. He’s asking for it. He’s saying, ‘I’m waiting here to be invited into the core of your being. I’m ready to be the honoured guest of your heart, to take over the leadership of your life.’ It’s an invitation we need to make on a daily basis, to acknowledge Jesus as Liberator, Confidante, and Sovereign. He will not intrude; He waits for our daily invitation.

The Christian life, as described here by Jesus the Redeeming One, is an upwardly spiraling coil: Jesus’ deep love for us is communicated — we respond by inviting Him to generally transform our lives — He communicates specific areas in our character that need changing — we ignore, balk, or procrastinate — He rebukes us, offering us the discipline we desperately need — we submit, obey and find peace in His presence — we invite Him deeper into our hearts — He draws us (metaphorically) upward; and the cycle repeats.

If we find ourselves today in step four, the ignoring, balking, procrastinating stage, Jesus’ message today is for us. We’ve allowed ourselves to be capture-bonded back into the old ways, but Jesus is near; His discipline is for our good and He is only an invitation away from drawing us further up and further into His plans to transform us. Those who take this step He calls overcomers. That’s a good thought, isn’t it? Let’s call to Him; He’s only an invitation away.

Photo Credit: WIkimedia Commons