ROMANS 13

DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02

What’s Natural

Ever played the game Tribond? Given three words one must guess the bond between those seemingly unconnected words, like: What do a car, an elephant, and a tree have in common? Pause and think. They all have trunks. That was easy. Now here’s a harder one: What do beauty, disasters and resources have in common?

Natural. All three can be described by the adjective ‘natural’. Natural is a catchword that invokes something primeval; it describes what occurs without human intention or interference. The environment is natural when we have neither removed anything from it (like old growth forests) nor added to it (like fish ladders or high-rises).

We find the concept discussed in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, an epistle in which the Apostle Paul exposes the central truths of Christianity. But here, ‘natural’ refers to human nature.

“The hour has come,” alerts Paul, “for you to wake up from your slumber, because we are nearer now than when we first believed.”

He’s speaking to Christians, the early believers who were still trying to discover how their faith would affect their lives, and how a right view of God would transform their minds. But anyone who is willing to learn can glean from what he says.

“The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:11-14).

Paul is bringing us to a crossroads of the natural. He’s exposing the false assumption that whatever is natural must be good for us. Remember the poison dart frogs of South America? The Golden Poison Frog (P. terribilis) contains enough toxin to kill ten to twenty people. That’s natural.

He shows us that we, in fact, have access to two streams or paths of human nature. One, described by darkness, is the natural bent we were born with, and bent truly describes this nature. It’s a contortion or deformation of what we were designed to be by nature. It consists of a destructive tendency to abuse our consciousness – the ability to be aware of truth; to abuse our reproductivity – a gift given us by God, the sustainability of our species; and to abuse interpersonal relationships – healthy social interactions. It is characterized by self-absorption and oblivion to the above abuses.

The other nature is … well … supernatural; it is the truly human nature modeled by Jesus Christ and made available only when we invite His Spirit into our lives. This nature is described by light, decency and daytime. It is clothed and in its right mind. This nature is available by the superhuman determination of God to rescue us from our self-destructive tendencies.

Yes, both paths are natural. The desires of the sinful nature are most easily accessible, but they are gratified at the expense of our true humanity. Ask anyone who has helplessly observed a family member self-destruct under the influence of drugs, alcohol, the sexual revolution, the gender revolution, eating disorders, materialism or other natural choices. It’s staggering.

The work of the Spirit of God in our lives, on the other hand, means that God takes His own nature and makes it second-nature to us. It happens by degrees, don’t get Paul wrong. Those who open themselves to this path of the crossroad don’t become perfect immediately. We obey and grow, and then we stumble and fall back into the old ways. But Jesus helps us up. He forgives us and gives us the strength to try again. It’s sometimes two steps forward and one step back, but the trend is forward.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect,” says Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers (and sisters), I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But 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.”

That is how we change from being controlled by our flesh-nature, to being natural-born children of God. Which path does it move you toward?

(Photo Credit: “DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02” by Tim Ross – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg#/media/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg)

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ROMANS 12

This 1888 photo released by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston shows Helen Keller when she was eight years old, left, holding hands with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, during a summer vacation to Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. A staff member at the society discovered the photograph in a large photography collection recently donated to the society. When Sullivan arrived at the Keller household to teach Helen, she gave her a doll as a present. Although Keller had many dolls throughout her childhood, this is believed to be the first known photograph of Helen Keller with one of her dolls.  (AP Photo/Courtesy of the Thaxter P. Spencer Collection, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, New England Historic Genealogical Society-Boston)

PERSPECTIVE

Until she learned sign language, Helen Keller behaved more like a wild animal than a little girl. Deaf and blind from infancy, Helen’s perspective on life had been limited to processing information she could glean from her remaining senses of smell, taste and touch. Little made sense to her and life was chaotic.

However, when Annie Sullivan became Helen’s teacher everything changed. Chaos turned to order; life began to make sense. Introducing language in the form of hand shapes made onto the palm of Helen’s hand began the breakthrough. Helen started to make the connection between the signs made on her palm and real life objects, eventually understanding more challenging abstract concepts like emotions and ideas. Understanding her world gave her a new perspective and enabled her eventually to become a prolific author, speaker and political activist.

The twelfth chapter of Romans gives us an even more amazing story of how chaos can be transformed into order. It all begins with understanding an important characteristic of God: His mercy.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, “entreats the apostle Paul,” in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

It comes down to how we think about God. This thinking must be based on fact, and Paul says the fact that God is merciful is the fact that can drive transformed thinking and effective living. It is not about us creating a god to fit our emotions and desires or our predetermined thoughts and ideas; if we are honest we have to admit the purpose of that kind of thinking is only to justify the way we want to live.

Christian pastor, author and editor A.W. Tozer observes “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” If our thoughts about God are true and substantiated by His Word, we become authentic.

Thinking about God’s mercy changes us fundamentally; we become moved by God to live our lives in gratitude to Him, willingly subordinating our desires to His. We even find ourselves becoming merciful as we focus on His modeling of that compassionate characteristic. Love, compassion and forgiveness are tied tightly to mercy, and these traits will follow as close companions so that our nature becomes very different from what it once was.

Having a perspective of God’s mercy is an important crossroads for living. Without it, we merely conform to the pattern of the world – we become selfish, proud, willful, and rebellious to God’s claim on our lives. With it we are transformed with a renewed mind, a submissive will, and clean living bodies. Try it, says Paul. Test it and see if you approve of God’s will. In view of God’s mercy, you will find God’s will to be good, pleasing and perfect.

That’s quite a promise. There’s only one way to find out if it’s true: think on God’s amazing mercy toward yourself and others. See whether that won’t transform the most important thing about you. Perspective is not something – it is everything.

(Photo Credit: “Hellen Keller holding doll with Ann Sullivan 1888” by Family member of Thaxter P. Spencer, now part of the R.Stanton Avery Special Collections, at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. See Press Release [1] for more information. – NWI.com Multimedia. “AP Photo/Courtesy of the Thaxter P. Spencer Collection, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, New England Historic Genealogical Society-Boston. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hellen_Keller_holding_doll_with_Ann_Sullivan_1888.jpg#/media/File:Hellen_Keller_holding_doll_with_Ann_Sullivan_1888.jpg)

ROMANS 11

A crystal-clear sky on any night is always a joy to behold. But if you are on the Chajnantor Plateau, at 5000 metres altitude in the Chilean Andes and one of the best places in the world for astronomical observations, it could be an experience that you’ll remember for your whole life. This panoramic view of Chajnantor shows the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) against a breathtaking starry night sky. In the foreground, we can see some of ALMA’s antennas, working together. The plateau appears curved, because of the effect of the wide-angle lens used. ALMA is the world’s most powerful telescope for studying the Universe at submillimetre and millimetre wavelengths. Construction work for ALMA will be completed in 2013, and a total of 66 of these high-precision antennas will be operating on the site. At the moment, the telescope is in its initial phase of Early Science Observations. Even though it is not fully constructed, the telescope is already producing outstanding results, outperforming all other submillimetre arrays. In the sky above the antennas, countless stars shine like distant jewels. Two other familiar celestial objects also stand out. First, the image is crowned by the Moon. Second, outshone by the glow of the Moon, it is possible to distinguish the Milky Way as a hazy stripe across the sky. Dark regions within the band are areas where the light from background stars is blocked by interstellar dust. This photograph was taken by ESO Photo Ambassador, Babak Tafreshi. Babak is founder and leader of The World At Night, an international project to produce and exhibit a collection of stunning photographs and time-lapse videos of the world’s landmarks with a backdrop of the most beautiful celestial wonders. ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA. Links  More about ALMA at ESO Joint ALMA Observatory  ESO Photo Ambassadors

Arrogance vs. Humility.

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).

These are the crowning words of chapter 11, the pinnacle of the letter to the Christians of first century Rome. But how often do we hear, read or even speak words like these in our everyday lives: emblazoned in national newspapers; discussed around tables at Starbucks or barbecues in back yards; texted, tweeted, face timed or messaged?

Rarely, if ever.

Why is it that the most significant truth and reality of life is often pushed to the sidelines and even ignored? Perhaps it is not ignored. Perhaps more people think thoughts like these than would admit to anyone but their closest friend or family member.

I heard a clip on the radio yesterday. People were given opportunity to read entries in diaries they had written as youths. One woman read out her entry, which asked deep questions about life and God: What is the meaning of life? Is there truly a God who is all-powerful and all-loving, able and willing to connect with me? As she read those words, the audience began laughing raucously in the background. Their laughter was not spiteful but seemed to be a demonstration of their being entertained. They thought it was funny that someone would consider God.

There are several themes in Romans 11, but the synopsis of God’s matchless wisdom is the epitome. To consider the vast gulf between how God thinks and how we think is perhaps the greatest crossroad we can come upon. To contemplate God’s great otherness with humility, and to breathe words like those in Chapter 11 in awe is one path. The other path is really just arrogance. It is ignoring, discounting, abusing, rejecting, or even finding entertainment in the concept of the greatness of God. It is making the assumption that we completely understand the full range of existential possibilities, and concluding we know God doesn’t exist. Isn’t that a bit presumptuous?

In most other areas of life arrogance and egotistic conceit are objectionable and offensive. Somehow, though, asylum is granted when God is the object of abuse.

And God’s response?

According to Romans 11, God has, is and will be doing everything possible to communicate His love and mercy toward every one of us. He wants to graft each of us into the “olive tree” of His Life. Why?

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” answers the apostle Paul. “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” he extols. We know that God is merciful, and we know how He expresses mercy to us through Jesus’ redeeming work, but why He wants to be merciful to us – we don’t really know. “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” These are rhetorical questions. The answer is: None. Not one of us know the full extent of who God is, beyond what He has chosen to reveal to us through His Son Jesus, and His Word, the Bible. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

These four verses bear repeating. They are full of grace and truth, and have the power to truly transform us if we lay them as the foundation of our thinking. They become the path upon which we step out each day in confidence that God is for us; He is wise enough to give us good advice on how to live.

Let’s do something with those words in Romans 11 so we think about them today. Write them on a sticky note. Save them on whatever device works for us. Memorize them. They are words of life and hope because they require us to humbly think about the infinite greatness of God. It’s a crossroad worth stepping into, and the path upon which it leads us is out of this world.

(Photo Credit: By ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org) (http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1238a/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

CROSSROADS, Part 10

800px-Hue_of_Wildfire_Smoke

Smoke or Sunlight.

Satellite photos don’t lie. Draped like a thick brown blanket over the land and seascape of the coast, smoke has invaded my town this week. Phrases like ‘air quality’ and ‘wildfire’ circulate through news stories and are the subject of everyone’s table talk. We think there is still blue sky and sunshine above it all, but we have little evidence from the ground to prove it.

The crossroads explained in Romans chapter Ten describes something similar to the strange phenomenon of smoke in the air we’ve just observed. The apostle Paul (58 A.D.) quotes Moses (c.1400 B.C.) as saying that there are two ways of organizing our lives. One way is to try to live by a set of rules (even if those rules include one that says, “There are no rules”). This way causes people to be caught up in a perpetual search for meaning to life. Some try to “ascend into heaven” – looking to things like astrophysical explorations, astrological predictions and ozone depletion solutions for meaning. Some try to “descend into the deep” – thinking that finding answers to earth’s carbon fuel shortages or marine pollution problems will provide meaning to life. We can each fill in the blanks of ways in which we have observed ourselves or others have tried to explore the reaches of human possibilities to make life meaningful. It’s all a smokescreen though. It’s a smoggy tabagie of ideas that distract us from seeing, smelling, and tasting life the way God intends us to live.

God’s way is to live by one word. That word is not some distant intelligence from outer space or inner earth. Paul says, “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” He’s talking about our attachment to Jesus as our one and only hope. Of course, as the Son of God, Jesus is vast. He is transcendent – beyond what we will ever be able to fully fathom. He is higher than the highest sky and deeper than the deepest sea. But He is also imminent – He is ‘God with us’, content with nothing less than His Spirit living within us. His purpose is to fill us completely with love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. “Against such things,” says Paul in another letter, “there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23).

It is ironic that those who choose not to follow Jesus use, as their reason and defense, the rationale that ‘following God is just a bunch of rules.’ Jesus says differently.

“My command is this,” says Jesus, “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14).

This way is no smokescreen. It’s as clear as a blue summer sky, minus the pall of this world’s confusing vernacular. We are to love God first. Then we are to love others truly – not pandering to their self-destructive demands, but laying down our lives for them in so many practical ways each day. We are to model joy by finding satisfaction in the presence of God even in the midst of our suffering. We are to experience peace, even when life takes away everything this world says counts. We are to express patience by giving others the space to grow even when it looks like they are making a mess of their lives and ours. We are to be kind, even when we think others don’t deserve it. We are to be good – something that only comes by spending much time with God. We are to be faithful to God, rock-solid followers in spite of our human inconsistencies. We are to be gentle – soft-spoken, tenderhearted toward others. And we are to practice self-control – doing as we ought, not as we sometimes feel like.

I’m not saying that science, environmentalism or any other intellectual pursuit in itself is wrong or futile. God made matter, so it’s all His and it’s all good. But it can be abused. It can be smoke and mirrors if we depend upon it for our ultimate meaning in life. The juncture we see in this chapter of Romans is a division between the smokescreen of a human-initiated search for life’s purpose, and the clear light of Jesus’ presence when we confess with our mouth “Jesus is Lord”. That’s the difference. That’s the crossroads. When we’re in the midst of the smoke we don’t always know it, but when we take the bold step to move out of the smoggy atmosphere of faithlessness, the view is stunning. The air is clean and clear, and we can see for miles.

I want the fresh air of life with Jesus. I want whatever comes with it, even if it means having to live a life of real, sacrificial love instead of a ‘self-realizing’, self-identifying, and self-serving existence. I want to believe in my heart, live out with my life, and confess with my mouth that Jesus is Lord every moment from here on. Are you with me?

(Photo Credit:  By Wing-Chi Poon [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)