The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 1

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Childlike Trust:

The most extreme thing any of us will ever do with our lives is not climbing Mount Everest. It will not be accomplished through transporting, transfiguring, transplanting or transgendering ourselves. It cannot result from changing our diets, changing our spouses, changing our habits, or changing the energy source for our vehicles. None of these attempts are radical enough. We need something bigger, deeper, broader and more difficult—maybe even impossible—to challenge the furthest limits of what we call extreme.

John Mark, the first century author of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark, shows us how Jesus’ early disciples discovered the singularly extreme life of Jesus. People have investigated the life of this unforgettable Man since that time and have discovered something both attractive and daunting: Through a collection of paradoxes, Jesus calls people—at least, those who choose to follow Him—to an (almost) impossible paradigm. Some have called this paradigm the ‘upside down kingdom’ because of its antithetical value system compared to that of world culture. What does this (almost) impossible paradigm look like? Join me as we explore thirty-five verses in twelve parts from the middle of Mark chapter ten to begin to understand Jesus’ invitation to build truly extreme lives.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10: 13-16).

Simple trust. This is the message Jesus sends to any who would call themselves His followers. In this passage, we find Jesus’ disciples appointing themselves ready-made bodyguards for Jesus. They had begun to develop a picture in their minds of how the Messiah and His followers could establish God’s kingdom on earth. It would take power, planning, and mobilization of resources—all those things they had seen the Roman Empire using to conquer the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and beyond. They were on the lookout for threats to their mission. This day, the threat was coming from the fluff and rubble of society, a group of common people who had brought their toddlers to Jesus to be blessed, as a father would bless his offspring.

“Shoo! Away with you!” the disciples began to crow at the small cluster of families. To those who resisted, the disciples began using harsher rebukes. Didn’t these people understand how important Jesus was?

Notice Jesus’ reaction to His disciples’ misinformed deterrence of the children and their parents. He is “indignant”. He is perturbed, incensed and decidedly intolerant toward His disciples’ misconception of His mission. Jesus’ message and mission is not based on the paradigm of worldly power. To participate in God’s kingdom, responds Jesus, requires one to become “like a little child.” Not like a bodyguard, or a militant crusader? Not like a business organization, or a rising political party? These all have self-developed resources based on personal power and the desire to expand it. All a child has is simple trusting dependence.

A child looks to her caregivers with complete faith in their care. She learns that her trust must result in obedience—even when it doesn’t make sense from her limited perspective. She can’t have candy for breakfast, and she must go to sleep at bedtime; joy comes from relationship, and pain is an opportunity for comfort. A young child lives, feeds, breaths, and cries for help in complete trust of father and mother. This is the image Jesus wants to impress on His disciples’ minds and hearts—on yours and mine.

Be like little children, He counsels us. Imitate them. Let God truly be your Father in a way you have never experienced before. Everything else is the fluff and rubble of worldly kingdoms. This is the upside down nature of God’s extraordinary kingdom: The last will be first. Leaders will be servants. To live we must die to self. These are not options; they are the signs and necessary features of those who have been given an entirely new life by His transforming Spirit. This is the life of those who have been ‘born again’ and who have a new lease on life.

So go ahead. Come to Jesus in a new way today. It’s never too late. Experience the radical life of living as a child in the family of the Everlasting Father and find what it’s like to be a baby again—this time a baby by choice.

(Photo Credit: By Walter J. Pilsak, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19631163)

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 23

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‘Sin and Shin’

The Vulcan hand salute is well known by Star Trek lovers. What few might know, though, is that Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. Mr. Spock) borrowed the hand gesture from a Jewish priestly blessing, a blessing he had seen as a child performed in an orthodox synagogue. The blessing shapes both hands to represent the Hebrew letter Sin/Shin representing the initiating letter of God’s name, El Shaddai—Almighty God. It recognizes God’s omnipresence and His genius for affecting the lives of people.

“Always, everywhere, God is present,” observes A.W. Tozer, “and always He seeks to discover Himself to each one.” How does El Shaddai, the Almighty God, affect people’s lives—your life and mine? How does He discover Himself to each one? These are the questions the psalmist explores as he pens the stanza he entitles with the Hebrew letter ‘Sin and Shin’,

“Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word. / I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil. / I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law. / Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. / Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble. / I wait for your salvation, O LORD, and I follow your commands. / I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly. / I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you”(Psalm 119:161-168).

Worldly regimes, observes the psalmist, tend to be fundamentally opposed to faith. Eventually, all ideologies—even those founded on rights and freedoms—degenerate into special, privileged interest groups using government power for opportunistic reasons. The God-centred worldview and practice of believers becomes abhorrent to worldly regimes, whose laws, bemoans the psalmist, “persecute me without cause.”

Yet something unexpected occurs within the man or woman of faith, something that has happened throughout history, regardless of the believer’s age, race, sex, or socioeconomic status when faced with persecution for their faith. They stand and rejoice in the Promise of God.

For one thing, God’s intentions for people are not to persecute them but to bring them good. God doesn’t rule by external pressure but by internally transforming people who joyfully submit to Him. His plans are to give us hope and an eternal future. This, says the psalmist, is the source of the believer’s joy. Persecution takes on as much importance as a tiresome insect.

For another thing, a relationship with God is based on reality, on deep, enduring truths, rather than on the falsehood, corruption, folly and situational ethics to which earthly rulers fall prey. God is the author of truly righteous laws because He made us and understands the core of our being.

More than that, God’s law is a law that produces in its adherents a deep, penetrating peace because it brings people into alignment with God’s ways—that which C.S. Lewis terms, ‘the grain of the universe.’ “Nothing,” insists the psalmist, “can make th(ose who love God’s law) stumble.” “Nothing,” concurs the Apostle Paul, “shall separate us from the love of God.”

How does a person access this uncommon relationship with God? By pursuing human law, by depending on personal rights, freedoms and identity? No. The psalmist says he waits; he follows, he obeys, and he loves everything about God. His confidence is not in his own devotion; it is in God’s devotion to him. God creates, God initiates the human-divine relationship, God loves, and God provides the salvation believers all come to recognize we need.

Which brings us always back to Jesus Christ, God-fully-contained-in-a-man, the One who personifies the “law” about which the psalmist cannot stop praising. Hearts that tremble before Jesus, who rejoice in Him, who love the core truth of Him and take Him as their sure salvation are hearts fully at peace. Come to Him and find the peace that breathes, “…all my ways are known to you.”

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 22

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‘Resh.’

If there is one thing God has communicated to us humans, it is that we matter. The most relevant piece of information we will ever be able to grasp is that you and I are immeasurably loved and valued by Him.

“(Our) shared core hunger,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for the New York Times, “is for value…We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It’s what he calls ‘The enduring hunt for personal value’. James Gilligan, who authored “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” after studying human violence for over 40 years, began to observe “the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners…why they assaulted…someone. Time after time they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me’.”

As the psalmist moves into the third-to-last stanza of the interminable one hundred and nineteenth psalm, his singular petition is that God—who has embedded an element of His own worth into each person—will express the ultimate act of valuing human life: to preserve it indefinitely.

“…Preserve my life according to your promise,” the psalmist appeals. “…Preserve my life according to your laws,” he adds, and “…Preserve my life, O LORD, according to your love.” What does he mean by promise, laws, and love as the mechanisms of preserving life—the psalmist’s life, or yours and mine for that matter?

Firstly, the promise the psalmist references goes back ages to the time of Abraham. Abraham was God’s handpicked individual to begin a nation and race of people to whom and through whom God would speak. At God’s chosen time some 1500 years later, when strange prophecies like a virgin birth came together with others in fulfillment, Jesus was born from that race. The promise made to Abraham was, in short, “You will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promise of blessing was fulfilled not at Jesus’ birth, but at His death and resurrection, because with that moral ransom paid, Jesus made the eternal preservation of human life available to every person on this planet. That was the promise. That is what is available to each of us who have accepted Jesus as our ‘ransom-payer’; we will find eternal life with Jesus on the other side of this life. That is how the promise preserves lives.

Secondly, the laws the psalmist references go back fewer ages to the time of Moses. Moses was God’s handpicked individual to lead the nation that Abraham had fathered into the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses was also given the daunting task of teaching the nation that God is a God of integrity, and that He can only be in relationship with people who respect God’s authority to require that integrity to be developed in them. The laws were commands God clarified through Moses, commands like: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet.” Those two commands alone were enough to make it pretty clear that every human on planet earth was incapable of obeying God completely. That was fine because it turns out that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Consciousness of sin leads us to do one of two things: rebel further against God and make a grab for complete freedom from God’s presence, or submit to God in humble repentance, accepting God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus, and access to His presence for eternity. That is how the laws both condemn and preserve lives.

And finally, the psalmist references the LORD’s love which covers both the span of eternity and of creation, of which this planet is a mere blip in time. God, who is three persons in one—Father, Spirit, and Son—exists in a unity described by perfect love. He is completely fulfilled in the expressions of love that bind the Trinity unsparingly, perfectly, and completely together. Yet somehow—in the greatest mystery of the ages—as God created the universe, He made humankind the pinnacle of His loving creative expression. To be in loving relationship with Him was the purpose God embedded into every man, woman and child. We are created in such a way that our greatest joy and fulfillment comes only through loving Him in return.

The psalmist was right. The promise, the laws, and God’s love, are the essential components of God’s great gift to us: the preservation of our lives for eternity. He values us immeasurably. He wants us to be in continuing existence with Him—in future bodies created to last forever—long after these present shadows of bodies have ceased to be preserved. So dig out a Bible. Begin again to pour through its pages and find out how God valuing our person is tied to His intention to preserve us for eternity. Come to this sanctuary of preservation.

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 21

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‘Qoph’

Distraught. That’s how the psalmist sounds as he pens ‘Qoph’, this fourth-to-last stanza in his epic 119th psalm. Anxious. Something is deeply troubling him. Further along he gives a few more details of his dilemma, but he avoids the kind of details that might tempt us to discount his anxiety as an obsolete cultural anomaly. Perhaps he knows how endemic anxiety is in many a culture, in every era, in most people. Perhaps he is giving us clues to lead us to find the kind of relief he has found. Listen to how he puts it.

“I call with all my heart; answer me, O LORD, and I will obey your decrees. / I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. / I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. / Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your laws. / Those who devise wicked schemes are near, but they are far from your law. / Yet you are near, O LORD, and all your commands are true. / Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.”

It doesn’t take much for us to see that, according to the psalmist, relief from anxiety comes from the LORD. Let’s explore that a little. Who is the LORD, what do we know about Him, and how can He help—not only with anxiety, but also with every dilemma that we face?

‘LORD’ is the English term for the Hebrew name Yahweh by which God refers to Himself. The psalmist understands a few things about Yahweh—the LORD—that come into play as he composes this psalm-prayer. Rather than an impersonal cosmic force, the psalmist understands that the LORD is a personal, relational Being whose essence is expressed to humankind in the form of His Word. His Word is not only Scripture—a body of writings including the Law, poetry, historical records, promises, prophecies, and later the Gospels, epistles, and more prophetic writings—but most succinctly in the form of Jesus, who is called “the Word”.

The LORD loves people and He engages in meaningful dialogue with people because it brings Him joy. Through His Word He expresses His eternal views and expectations as far as we are concerned, because they are for our good. He hears and answers those who cry out to Him. He even holds Himself accountable to making and keeping promises with people because He wants to give us hope and a meaningful future. He is not far off (as those who don’t know Him imagine), but is near—nearer than our worst dilemmas, our most overwhelming anxieties, or our most daunting enemies.

And as the psalmist comes to this point—the nearness of the LORD—we can almost hear the soul-deep sigh of relief the psalmist breathes. This is it: the nearness of the LORD is what God’s Word is ultimately about. The psalmist only grasps a small piece of it, but he knows that God’s nearness—His presence—is the key to human flourishing. He is also aware that God’s nearness is on a very different plane from the nearness he experiences from “those who devise wicked schemes.” The nearness of human dilemma, of anxiety and trouble is trifling compared to the great nearness of God to those who call on Him with all their heart.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” asks the Apostle Paul a millennium and a half after the psalmist’s time. “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Then he answers, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced 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 8:35-39).

The love of God that is expressed Christ Jesus—also known as ‘God-with-us’—is the prescription for our greatest anxieties. The nearer we draw to Jesus through prayer, through exploration of the Scriptures, and through a determination to obey His commands of love, the more we will sense His great nearness. It may mean “ris(ing) before dawn” and even staying awake “through the watches of the night (to) meditate on (God’s) promises” rather than yielding to anxiety, but it will be worth it.

Let’s do as the psalmist does. Let’s call on the LORD with all our heart today. Let’s read His written Word, obey His commands, meditate on His promises, and enjoy the communion we have with Him who is so closely present here with us. “You are near, O LORD.”

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 20

 

IMGP0068.JPG‘Tsadhe’

Get rid of religion and the world will finally be at peace’ say some. ‘There are no moral absolutes; even if God does exist, it is narrow-minded and socially repressive to believe his way is the right way’ they continue.

Let’s stop for a moment. On the surface these statements seem to have merit, but let’s go deeper. The great social experiment of Communism has sought to eradicate religion. According to Stéphane CourtoisThe Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, no less than 94 million deaths have occurred under the regimes of China, the USSR, and other communist countries which determined, among other goals, to get rid of religion. It would be difficult to support the ‘no religion—no conflict’ thesis based on the results of communism.

And take another look at the ‘no moral absolutes’ premise; isn’t insisting there are no moral absolutes a statement insisting a morally absolute claim? It is fallacious to use an argument already undermined.

Perhaps the better approach is to be open to exploring God’s existence. See what the Bible says about Him, about His right to be sovereign, His expectations for humanity, and His unfailing involvement in people’s lives. Take on the role of objective investigator. The psalmist does.

“Righteous are you, O LORD, and your laws are right. / The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy. / My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words. / Your promises have been thoroughly tested, and your servant loves them. / Though I am lowly and despised, I do not forget your precepts. / Your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true. / Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands are my delight. / Your statutes are forever right; give me understanding that I may live” (Psalm 119:137-144).

The psalmist is awestruck as he considers the absolute integrity of God. His very first word in the Hebrew, ‘tsadaq’, describes a character trait of God known as righteousness. Righteousness means ‘to have a just cause’, ‘to be in the right’, ‘to be just (in conduct and character)’, ‘to bring justice’, ‘to be proved right’, and even ‘to make someone else righteous’.

Our human concept of justice, equity, and rightness comes from this foundational divine trait featured in the psalmist’s prayer. What the psalmist is considering is that God does nothing from arbitrary whim; having the advantage of omniscience, everything that exudes from Him comes from His eternal innate sense of justice. Think on that thought for a moment. Consider the breadth of the justice that is embodied in God, the one eternal Being. An eternity of justice—the extremity of its reach—is contained in the One the psalmist breathlessly addresses as ‘LORD’, Yahweh, the Great I AM. And so, from His being right and righteous flow actions that are equally right. Similarly, His standards and expectations for His creatures (us) are completely right.

This concept challenges the pervasive worldview of Moral Relativism which says ‘There is no objective standard. I can live the way I want. What works for me is what counts.’ But is this philosophy one that can be truly lived with integrity? Extrapolate that worldview to its extremes and we would find society breaking down, selfishness–not tolerance–pervading the human race. Anything less than mercenary egocentricity would not be consistent with the philosophy.

But accept the initially more challenging worldview—that God exists, reigns in justice, loves us immeasurably and knows how our lives work best—and we find we can live with complete integrity. By increments we learn to trust God’s character to be fully righteous, to appreciate how trustworthy His ‘statutes’ are. Seemingly contradictory and impossible commands like “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you” prove God’s wisdom as we learn to obey them.

Jesus lived the perfect example of a life of integrity by unflinchingly obeying His heavenly Father’s precepts. The task prepared from eternity past for Him to accomplish involved submitting Himself to an unjust earthly execution, and—more importantly—accepting an immeasurable weight of divine justice against humanity’s rebellion. In doing so He bought back every individual’s life from an eternal separation from God—an eternity where Moral Relativism would reach its full and horrible potential.

Remember the last part of the definition of God’s righteousness? It was ‘to make someone else righteous’. Here, In Jesus’ role as substitute penalty-taker, God grants us a concession in an eternally binding covenant; we become completely right in His sight—not by what we do but by humbly accepting what Jesus has done once-for-all for us.

So today, as we think rightly about God’s righteousness, everything changes for us. See if thankfulness doesn’t begin to surge through our souls, love for the One who loves us doesn’t grow greater every day, and integrity doesn’t become our defining trait of character. All because of ‘tsadaq’.