The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 15

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The Highs and Lows of Obedience.

The chronicler of Hebrews eleven is not yet done with Moses. “By faith,” he goes on to relate, “(Moses) kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.”

If these verses are characterized by anything, it would be by skillful understatement. They summarize the culmination and turning point of 400 years of Hebrew slavery under the iron fist of the Egyptians. They chronicle God’s plan communicated to Moses and the Hebrew people through specific commands and the miraculous outcomes Moses’ obedience released. God’s call expressed through God’s commands becomes a game-changer for God’s people. What we are told in less than 50 words is not meant to tell us the whole breath-taking story, but to plant in us the seed of the idea that obedience to God’s call puts people on God’s path. A later writer would call it “a highway”, “the Way of Holiness”, and a way not for “wicked fools” but for “the redeemed…and the ransomed of the LORD” (Isaiah 35).

There is a pattern here, a rhythm of contrasting opposites that is not meant to strip the complexity of relationship with God into easy platitudes; rather, it is meant to paint us a picture showing us two things. It shows us that obedience to God brings people out of death into new life. And it shows us that God fills that new life with a complexity of experiences, like a spectrum of colours with a myriad of tints and shades of those colours.

In the first case, God Himself determines who will escape the culture and cycle of death enslaving all humans. His determination is not based on deific fancy, but on His perfect knowledge of each person’s choice to obey Him or not. For Moses and the Hebrews, the direction to obey the unprecedented command of bloody doorway-smearing was beyond the paradigms of either Hebrew or Egyptian culture. The Hebrews obeyed God and lived. The Egyptians hardened their hearts to the command and experienced heart-wrenching death. God is the God of life. Only as we submit to Him do we find we are released from death into eternal life.

Secondly, we see that obedience to God is a path of many tints and shades—of highs and lows—of apparent successes and of seeming failures, of soul-deep wounds and breathless joys. The Hebrews’ victorious escape from Egypt’s oppression was an unimagined high. They travelled and camped for several days, boldly rejoicing in their good fortune of escape, following God’s cloud-and-fire leading. Then suddenly they found themselves huddled enmasse at the shore of the Red Sea, hemmed in by Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Hebrew hearts plummeted in fear and disbelief as they watched a hopeful situation deteriorate and go south. Yet God was present and working through this dark hour. God sent a storm that churned and divided the sea, and commanded the Hebrews to cross the dry seabed throughout the dark and stormy night. They obeyed and the crossing of the Red Sea, followed by the flood-water repulsion of the Egyptian pursuers, became a faith-builder for the Hebrew people for generations to come. It, more than any other single event, would remind the people in later dark hours that God is faithful. He delights to create a spectrum of colour out of shades of darkness for those who follow Him.

God’s call into fullness of life for all people is always and without exception embedded within the paradigm of command-and-obedience. The Hebrew experience becomes a picture for all God-followers; like the Hebrews’ first Passover event, we must daily stand behind the protection of a doorway marked with blood-stains—those of Christ whose obedience paid the redemption price for our sins. Then we must step out and obey His overarching command to live lives of love and holiness in order to access God’s path for us. His path will take us safely through every obstacle and dark night, through every high and low of human experience.

Obedience is essential. Only as we trust Him and obey Him will we recognize that His call brings us blessing. So listen to God’s call and obey Him. Then include yourself in the song of Moses who sang, “O LORD…In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling…You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance—the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established. The LORD will reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 13:15,17,18).

(Photo Credit: By Ben Njeri [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)

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Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 6

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Is Not Rude.

A lump of clay is rudimentary. It is the raw material of something more. When it had been part of the riverbank, its form had fit its function. It was a wall against spring rains swelling the creek into a riotous rush, threatening to overrun the edges of field, forest, and even city. But as a lump, washed from the bank and carried downstream, clay no longer assumes its natural function. Clay smears, smudges and muddens everything it touches. It stains clothing, clumps annoyingly on boot soles, and gets wedged under fingernails. It is rude.

When the Apostle Paul addends his list in I Corinthians 13 to include what love is not, he declares, “it is not rude.” What does this mean? Is it just another ‘thou shalt not’ that adds to the negative impression many have of what it means to be a person of faith? If it’s just about tiptoeing around other people’s compulsive sensitivities, surely we are culturally beyond that sanctimonious Victorian-era of priggishness, are we not?

Yet there it stands: “Love…is not rude.” No apology or explanation. What did Paul mean? Firstly, Paul didn’t actually use the word rude, because the international language of trade was not, of course, English. The word he used was a word with a negative prefix added to it—the way we add prefixes to words to make them mean the opposite—like: a-symmetry, mis-understanding, and il-logical. The word he negativized was from the verb ‘to form.’ He made it into something like de-form.

“Love,” Paul writes to the new believers in Corinth, “does not deform.” Love does not deform, twist, warp, disfigure or besmirch others—either in actions or with words. It does not muddy the waters of truth, smear others’ reputations, or stain the purity of others’ minds with its clinging insinuations.

“Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,” Paul elaborates to another budding group of Christ-followers, “but only what is helpful for building others up, that it may benefit those who listen.” Unwholesome talk is a part of rudeness. It must go. But as with many aspects of being formed with the character of Jesus and living with integrity, the void it leaves must be filled with something Christlike. It’s like taking that messy, muddy, clay and bringing it into the craftsman’s studio. It must be dealt with on the potter’s wheel. It must be thrown, centred, pushed, pulled, squeezed, pressured, collared, shaped, raised, smoothed and inspected (my potter friends can confirm if these actions will make something of usefulness and value in the process of their craft).

“Finally,” Paul expands in an epistle to a third young assembly of believers, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Bringing love into the workrooms of our minds is where rudeness is reshaped into grace, disrespect is molded into consideration, and impropriety is transformed into high and noble conduct. Love is applying the beauty and grace of Christ to the raw material of our hearts and minds so it can work its way out through our mouths and hands and feet. It is centering our worldview upon the eternal truths of God’s Word. It is submitting ourselves to the hands of the Great Potter to see what He will create.

Paul was right. Love is not rude. It is too vast and inclusive to be bound by the sorry restrictions of rudeness. The Holy Spirit, the one Jesus designated to counsel and supply wisdom to His true followers, is present and perfectly qualified to do His recreative work in us, so let’s work with Him. We have love to become.

(Photo Credit By Siim Sepp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=328890)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 17

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‘Samekh’

Kim Peek could read two pages of an open book at one time by splitting his vision. Using his unique savant skill, Peek was able to memorize more than 9,000 books while he had an IQ rated at only 87. It seems that the prenatal development of his corpus callosum—the tissue normally connecting the two hemispheres of a brain—had somehow been arrested, leaving him with a condition known as ‘split-brain’. The surgical operation to produce this condition is called corpus callosotomy, and is used to reduce epileptic seizures. It seems to accomplish its purpose, but it comes with the strange side effect of dis-integrated actions. In one instance, a split-brain individual was documented as finding himself pulling down one pant leg with his left hand while pulling up the other pant leg with his right because of dueling desires to undress and dress. There are difficulties with being double-minded.

In ‘Samekh’, the fifteenth stanza of Psalm 119, the Psalmist tackles the dilemma of double-minded thinking. He is appealing to God with deep intensity a prayer borne out of experience. He has felt the sting of opponents whose double-minded treachery has traumatized him. Perhaps he has even felt the influence of succumbing to their faithless double-dealing deceptions. The old King James version begins by translating his words as, “I hate vain thoughts…” Actions begin with thoughts, and none of us are immune to surrendering our minds to moments of low and ignoble imaginings in the hidden arena of our thoughts. Hatred against this most base indication of human degradation is appropriate. There is something in each of us—the vestige of a memory—that knows we were created for true and noble thoughts; we cringe when we recognize how far and how easily we can slip from the single-minded, undivided loyalty to our Creator and His calling.

With this caveat in mind, we read a newer version/translation of the stanza to say, “I hate double-minded men, but I love your law. You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.”

Why does the psalmist contrast double-mindedness with loving/hoping in God’s word? It sounds like he’s comparing apples to obelisks. We might need to begin by exploring and defining double-minded thinking.

Double-mindedness is a mindset of dualism that separates life into disconnected categories. Relationships, work, leisure, goals, desires, character and behaviour all stand apart from one another, and may be manipulated to achieve whatever an individual desires. There is no regard for any integrated whole to the sum of the parts of that individual’s life. If one were to investigate this kind of life more thoroughly, one would find inconsistencies and illogical, indefensible reasoning, a foundation crumbling from within. Double-minded thinking causes people to reject truths that annoy them and imprecate “Ignorant!” to deflect reality from piercing their souls.

Whereas, loving God’s revealed truths—His principles for living, His solution for our rebellion and His goals for our future—is the epitome of single-minded wholehearted thinking. It provides an integrity for our lives. It gives cohesion and logical coherence to everything we think, say and do. Only God can provide true single-mindedness. He does it by directing us to “Fix (your) eyes on Jesus,” to “Set your minds on things above…with Christ,” and to “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves…(but to) do what it says(!)”

This is why Jesus is quoted so many times as prefacing His remarks with the phrase, “I tell you the truth.” It is because He intends us to pay close attention to His words, to mull over them, to discuss them with other people and wrestle with the concepts until we can incorporate them fully into our lives. His words make us people of integrity and are the only remedy for double-mindedness.

“I will give them singleness of heart and action” promises God to the body of people He considers His children. What a promise! Let’s reach out and embrace Jesus, accept the gift, and embody the trueness He longs to impart deep into our being.

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 15

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‘Mem’

Comparison provides context. In Jonathan Swift’s classic tale, Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver observes “a royal personage inspiring awe among the tiny Lilliputians because he was taller than his brethren by the breadth of a human fingernail.” In this case, the character Gulliver—of gigantic proportions compared to his miniature captors—sees from his perspective the diminutive physical differences that constitute ‘royalty’ by Lilliputian standards as nothing compared to his own human size.

In the same way, the writer of Psalm 119 uses comparison in this thirteenth stanza labeled ‘Mem’. He uses it to help him register the impact of knowing the boundless, enduring existence of God (especially as extolled in the previous stanza, ‘Lamedh’) in contrast to ignorance of God.

‘Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. / Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. / I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statues. / I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts. / I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. / I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. / How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! / I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path” (Psalm 119:97-104).

Did you hear the comparisons: ‘wiser than’, ‘more insight than’, ‘more understanding than’ and ‘sweeter than’? Let’s look a little closer. God’s message to humanity—His word recorded as Scripture and the person of Jesus communicated throughout those Scriptures—is of vastly greater significance than the difference between Gulliver and his Lilliputian governors. The psalmist observes that God’s Word and presence gives him a wisdom advantage not only over his enemies, but also over the wisest of his teachers and leaders. The gospel message of God’s love for humanity has transformed him from the inside out. God’s presence has moved his choices toward an unimagined wholesomeness and given him a greater appetite for virtue than for the sweetest things this world can offer. How is it this change has happened?

An even more ancient writer than the psalmist put it this way. “I kept thinking, ‘Experience will tell. The longer you live, the wiser you become.’ But I see I was wrong—it’s God’s Spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty One, that makes wise human insight possible’ (Job 32:7,8).

God’s Spirit, the breath of the Almighty One, in us? Impossible as it seems, that is the psalmist’s prayer and the gospel message in a nutshell. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” That is the outcome of Christ’s work: His dying to ransom us from our perishing, His resurrection to lay the foundation for our eternal life, His ascension to the heavenly throne of glory, and His indwelling in us to enable us to experience the glory of true humanness as God intended it.

In some ways the psalmist’s comparison only lifts the edge of the page to a whole new story for us. There is really no comparison between the best of what the world can scrape together and the life Jesus offers. It’s not a new, improved and better life. It’s a whole new way of living. So cast off the feeble ties with which this Lilliputian world is trying to hold you down. Rise to a life filled to the fullness of God Himself. Know the One who is Wisdom Himself.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #23

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Prayer of Repentance and Return to Loyalty to God (Paraphrase of Psalm 137)

Hard as it is to bear, LORD, it is a good thing when we finally realize the bondage to sin we’re in. Only when we compare it to the freedom of life in Christ can we see the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Like finding ourselves captive to terrorists and required to entertain our tormentors with songs of joy, is the realization of the trouble sin has brought us.

As we begin to see there is no true joy in godless living, we are struck by waves of homesickness for your kingdom, LORD; we long for the joy of Your presence, Father. We’re in a foreign land and the songs we thought we could sing stick to the roof of our mouths.

May I never forget to bring You into every nuance of my day, Father. My highest joys come from living in close communion with You. Protect me from falling back into the clutches of sin.

Help me burn those bridges, LORD. Make haste to destroy the influence of evil, the source of so much sorrow in the lives of the proud and the wounded. You are our only hope.

(Photo Credit:Cell 18 of old city jail in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico; By Tomas Castelazo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6634393

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 27

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Saving Self.

Everyone loves a hero, don’t they? Heroes make us feel like there is hope for our species. Deep inside, we want to believe we are heroes just waiting for the opportunity to reveal our true selves—like Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent—bursting from our commonplace garb, revealing our altruistic selves. But altruism, says psychology, is nothing more than one of three evolutionary survivals: survival of the fittest (meaning ‘oneself’), survival of the genes (meaning ‘one’s children or close relatives’), or survival of the species (meaning ‘humanity in general’). This cynical view strips humanity of its soul making us nothing more than animals at best and machines at worst. So we struggle, wondering whether there really are any heroes, whether there is any hope for our species.

The gospel writer, Matthew, brings us to Chapter 27, the second-to-last chapter in his biography of Jesus Christ. In the first 26 chapters he has recorded Jesus healing the sick, restoring the socially outcast, reviving the dead to life. Jesus has drawn from His limitless resources as Son of the All-Powerful One to bring healing and hope to those in His daily walk who, by faith, are willing to be healed. But an antagonism to Christ has been slowly revealing itself. There was the edict of Herod, upon hearing of the Bethlehemic birth of one “born king of the Jews”, to kill all infant boys in Bethlehem; there was Satan’s devilish oppression of Jesus during His forty-day fast in the desert; there were the religious leaders who attempted to put obstacles into Jesus’ path wherever He journeyed and who plotted his murder; and there was Judas Iscariot’s greed-inspired betrayal of his Lord bringing about Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

And as Jesus, naked, torn and bruised by the Roman soldiers’ merciless beatings and floggings, hung suspended on his cross, the cruelties took voice; the oppression culminated in the hated-filled accusations flung at him by other cross-hanging prisoners, by passersby and by the religious icons of His day.

“(S)ave yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”

“He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God’”

What was the crux of these angry and hateful charges? The general mob and the ruling social religionists were expressing a twisted ideology of heroism. Real heroes, they claimed, save themselves first. Real heroes always submit to the three evolutionary survivals, all of which are based on self-centred considerations. And real heroes conform to our ideas of what supernatural power should look like. In other words, if you really are God in human flesh, Jesus, you’d better behave they way we expect, or else leave our lives, our neighbourhood and our planet up to us.

What they never expected was that this Son of God was the embodiment of altruism itself. He was following God’s agenda, not mankind’s. He was saving us at the expense of His own life, taking on the full weight of God’s just wrath against a rebellious species. He was and is the Hero we all need more desperately than we often know.

But don’t think for a moment that Jesus was suffering from a psychosis of self-injurious behaviour. There was something in the horrific death that would benefit Jesus. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him…and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” What was that joy? It was the joy of enabling people like you and me to be back in right relationship with God; it was the joy of giving us a real choice of heaven over hell; it was the joy of filling eternity with eternal-living humans who finally realize their true potential as worshipers of the living God and as accomplishers of tasks more satisfying than our old cursed world could ever supply.

So let’s come to the cross of Jesus today. Let’s see Him as He truly is, the hero of our souls and rescuer of our lost humanity. Let’s invite His Spirit into our lives today; and let’s live out a continuation of His mission of loving God and loving others well. That’s what Jesus’ heroism is all about.

(Photo credit; By yorkshireman – http://pixabay.com/de/kreuz-gespeichert-strand-ring-631002/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39762052)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 25

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The Seen and the Unseen.

Our world is full of mysteries, of things we can’t see, of things we don’t know or can’t fully understand. We don’t generally like unknowns, though, so we tend to do what we can to fill in the blanks, to have the information we need to make our decisions, to live our lives.

This is the basic premise of our western philosophy of human reason: we are faced with a world of external and internal mysteries—from forensics to finance, from meteorology to astronomy to astrophysics, from psychology to sociology—and we use our human capacity for reason to solve these mysteries more or less successfully. We do it by using the known to help us explore the unknown; we employ the seen to envision the unseen.

We ought not be surprised to discover, then, that God’s plan for the world from the moment of its conception would include both the seen and the unseen. He Himself is Spirit, invisible to eyes like ours, eyes designed to capture only objects within the physical realm. Yet, His plan involved expressing Himself in human form for roughly thirty-three years—a tiny blip on the map of human history—using that moment of His visible presence to explain the millennia before and after it when His presence has been invisible to human eyes. He expects us to use our God-given aptitude for reason to fill in the blanks so that our lives are congruent with reality—the reality that He still exists, He still inhabits our world even though He is unseen by us just now.

In Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel we are given a glimpse of how the seen and the unseen are going to cohabit in our world until the time God brings a conclusion to this era.

In this chapter, Jesus tells a parable. He describes a scene, a social panorama of in-group and out-group members, of people today we would call ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The ‘have-not’ individuals are described as wounded and needy people. They are those who are hungry and thirsty, strangers, disenfranchised, impoverished, sick and unfairly imprisoned. The ‘have’ individuals are us, you and me.

Jesus explains that in each of our lives we will rub shoulders with people who, in comparison to us, will be ‘have-nots’. They will have fewer resources than us, fewer social or emotional supports and less financial freedom. They will have suffered under more unjust systems, or they have been more carelessly treated by society as a whole than we have been. How we treat the ‘have-nots’ of our world matters, because Jesus says He sympathizes and identifies with them.

“Whatever you (do) for one of the least of these brothers of mine,” explains Jesus, “you (do) for me.” In fact, caring for others’ needs is both descriptive and prescriptive of accessing a full and eternal relationship with our Creator. Listen:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

This doesn’t negate the need for us to accept Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on behalf of us—that was the purpose of his 33-year sojourn on earth. But having become ‘righteous’ in God’s eyes as followers of Jesus, we must show proof of our faith extending into every part of our lives. We must live out our redeemed lives, giving of ourselves to our unseen Master by serving His precious ‘brothers’, the needy in our world.

We can’t excuse ourselves from reaching out to our needy neighbours, the hurting and hungry world of people around us. We can’t expect amnesty from responsibility stating that Jesus is ‘unseen’ in our generation. Jesus tells us to open our eyes. Loving Him and serving Him by loving and serving the needy go hand in hand. There’s no excuse for being short-sighted, is there?

(Photo Credit: By Nevit Dilmen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3894055)