Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 5

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Does Not Boast, Is Not Proud.

“That’s one small step for man,” the granular transmission of Neil Armstrong’s voice wavered, “one giant leap for mankind.” It was 1969 and Armstrong’s Teflon-booted feet had just stepped onto the surface of the untrodden moon. What was happening here? Was this project to put a man on the moon the natural expression of the ingenuity, curiosity, and wonder of the human species, or was it something less lofty? Critics view the Apollo 8 mission as an exorbitant and meticulous tactic in the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union to claim national superiority—to boast of being the best. Billions of dollars were spent to fortify that boast. Armstrong’s address implied more than a giant leap of scientific progress for all of humanity; it boasted supremacy.

National arrogance notwithstanding, what is it about boasting and pride that is a problem? The term ‘pride’ is commonly used in today’s culture with an almost virtuous ring to it. Merriam-Webster explains that the word has undergone semantic drift (an “evolution of usage resulting in changed meaning”). But there is something timeless about I Corinthians 13, something unabashed in maintaining, “love…does not boast, it is not proud.”

Biblical synonyms for pride are arrogance, conceit, and haughtiness. To be proud is to esteem one’s self-importance higher than one ought. But what do we mean by “ought”? Is there a higher authority than a person’s own judgment of herself, some higher bar that calls us to better choices, more authentic living? Bump up against an arrogant person and you will immediately experience the angst of an existential principle being violated. Why? Because you will recognize a proud person’s lack of love for his neighbour.

God is all about love. He is the full expression of love. “It’s,” explains Chris Webb (‘God-Soaked Life’), “his essential nature.” Having created our world as an articulation and demonstration of that love, God put an innate infrastructure within us that is synchronous with love. God’s purpose and focus in this universe is to create a community of unparalleled love through which He Himself lives, moves and has His being. We must love—we are made for it.

“(T)he crucial question is not whether we love or not;” explains Webb, “in the end we cannot escape our own nature. We will love. We’re helpless to do otherwise. No, the crucial question is this: what will we love—and what will our loving do to us and to the world around us?”

So our discomfort with pride—if we will admit it—is that it twists the proper focus and expression of love—the love that God designed us to have. It focuses love on oneself ultimately. Pride wants to lift up self, to put it on the plane of something to be worshiped, and to be unhindered in its behaviours as a deity would be. Boasting is merely the verbage that expresses the inner fomenting of pride.

The Apostle John comments on the problem of twisted love and its attendant pride and boasting. He warns, “—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:16,17).

It’s like turning on a lamp only to have the bulb flash, crackle, and then suddenly burn out. Have you experienced that? Some have called it the Edisonian-equivalent of a supernova. The flash and destruction of the light bulb is not a random, unexpected phenomenon; what has happened to the light bulb is a result of what has been happening inside the light bulb over a long period of time. Electric current passes through an incandescent bulb’s thin filament wire to produce heat and light while the filament becomes imperceptibly thinner. At first this thinning is just gradual, but over time the current flowing through the thinning tungsten filament produces heat that exceeds its operating temperature. In the case of our in-house ‘supernova’, the wire melts, a gap in the circuit is created, and a ‘tungsten arc’ flashes out the bulb’s final burst of light.

The thinning of the bulb’s filament is like pride. At first it’s almost unnoticeable. A thought here and there arises in our minds telling us ‘we are in control. We are the source of our power, our abilities and our successes. God may be out there, but we’d rather be independent of Him.’ Over time, though, there is a sort of runaway effect. The more we replace the presence of God with ourselves, the more we imagine our lives as self-determining, and the less we attend to our need for God to sustain us. Our filament-like souls become thinner and more fragile, but we are too busy thinking of the brightness we are creating.

Pride and boasting must be replaced with humility or we will self-destruct. God is love. He calls us to be filled with Himself but His love is only accessible if we come to Him in humility. The author of I Corinthians 13 recognizes that. He is giving us operating instructions for our human lives. When he explains that love “does not boast (and) is not proud” he is trying to help us see into ourselves and discern this uncomfortable truth. So let’s look at this aspect of our lives today and, God helping us, choose humility.

(Photo credit: By No machine-readable author provided. Dickbauch~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=583483)

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PSALM 106: WHOLENESS, Part 4

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Humility Remembers, Pride Forgets (v. 6,7)

“We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly. When our ancestors were in Egypt, they gave no thought to Your miracles; they did not remember Your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.”

Fast-forward three millennia:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Those are not the words of someone who has failed to remember. They are the recollections of Michael Jordan, considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time. What Jordan is admitting, is that he has unique limitations that have required him to invest many extra hours of practice in order for his body to accurately remember how to perform tasks well. This self-awareness, or humility, is what allows him to remember.

When the psalmist admits that he, his people and his ancestors have failed to remember God’s goodness, he is admitting that they have missed the mark, ‘done wrong’, even sinned. That’s a heavy weight of moral liability to discover. The psalmist observes that ignoring God, omitting to consider Him in the busy-ness of life, giving no thought to the reality of His sovereignty puts people in a morally bankrupt position. He is saying that it’s not just the things we do that we are responsible for, but also what we don’t do or don’t think.

‘…gave no thought…did not remember’.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? With little imagination we can see the psalmist describing our generation as much as his own. We too quite regularly fail to give thought to God’s presence in our self-absorbed, opportunistic approach to life’s challenges. We’re too busy thinking of other things.

We remember others’ offenses against us. We remember disappointments life has dealt us. We remember every trick we’ve learned to ensure we can satisfy our cravings and desires. But we often fail to remember the depth and breadth, scope and sequence of God’s active involvement in our lives.

Regarding our recollections of God, someone once observed that ‘humility remembers; pride forgets’. It is pride that draws our attention away from God’s steady, faithful involvement in our lives as we slip into self-reliance and self-gratification. In contrast, humility admits we have weaknesses and needs that only God can heal into wholeness. It is humility that compels us to resolve to remember God’s resources. His miracles, His kindnesses, His attributes and character traits not only tell of His strength, but also imbue strength upon those who rehearse them. As we determine to put Him foremost in our minds, to soak in the knowledge and experience of Him, to be permeated by thoughts of Him, we become whole and complete people.

His foremost commandment is for our good: To love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind is to bring remembrance of Him into every aspect of our lives and through this find fulfillment.

Father, forgive my failures to remember You as I ought. Love of self keeps finding ways to usurp the rightful place You deserve in my heart, soul, strength and mind. Your miracles and many kindnesses are all around, within and without, if I have eyes to see them. Help me determine to remember You. Help me practice moment by moment to acknowledge Your sovereign and good presence in my life, no matter the circumstances.

Photo Credit: “Chain basketball hoop” by Flickr.com user “The Jamoker” – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamoker/179322157/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

KINGDOM OUTLOOK: Part 1

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New Vision (Matthew 3)

We all need vision. I don’t mean eyesight, although that helps. We all need a purpose in life, a raison d’etre, a sense of accomplishing something beyond ourselves that makes an impact on this world. And sometimes, when we’ve been on track and life is going fine, we suddenly find everything turning topsy-turvy; we don’t know what we’re about anymore.

John is feeling that. He’s been on task for thirty years, carrying the mantle God placed upon him years ago. He knows he’s a forerunner of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and he wants to discharge his assignment thoroughly. He speaks with the authority of one who is confident in his role. That’s where we find John near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. And that might be where we find ourselves – not in John’s role, but ensconced in our own routines. We know how we like to spend our free time, how to transition to our work roles with the least amount of discomfort, and how to maintain a sense of purpose in our lives. We believe we’re justified in our lifestyle choices because we think they reflect who we uniquely are.

John is the epitome of unique; his role has become a sort of cross between a boot camp sergeant and a campaign GOTV coordinator. He’s as abrasive as coarse-grit sandpaper, stripping layers of self-satisfied complacency off anyone who dares to come within earshot of him. The Jordan River has become a cold-tank dip-stripper, a platform for calling the masses to repent, revamp and revise. Even the pious he calls a “brood of vipers”; no one is safe within a furlong of the man. Until he meets Jesus at the river.

“Baptize me”, Jesus requests. Stunned, John tries to deter him. John’s baptism has been one of repentance, of admission of sinfulness and broken relationship before God. John knows this man is unique; this Man is God-in-flesh goodness – for Him there is not one iota of a thought, word or act from which to repent. John has no idea how to proceed. He has no blueprint from which to draw. He’s being asked to step into a role of ministry for which he is entirely unprepared. He becomes hopelessly aware of his own sinfulness, inadequacy, and ineptitude.

“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he questions.

That’s a good question. It’s the kind of question we must ask Jesus too. It’s a request for vision, really. It’s a new level of humility that sees Jesus moving us constantly into new phases of our remaking; the vision we have of the cameo for which we’ve been cast needs rejigging. Jesus will not let us settle into routines of complacency when once we’ve heard and responded to His call. His kingdom is too vast for that. His vision for our transformation too far exceeds our own hopes for what we will become to let us settle for mediocrity. Jesus explains it in simple terms.

“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is explaining that He has a plan for this world. It’s a good plan and many will benefit by it. It will mean listening carefully to what He calls us to do. The spirit of the law is always more subtle than the letter of the law, but it is the Spirit, not the letter, that gives life.

So John does baptize Jesus after all. He dips Him into Jordan’s cool waters, not quite understanding how it will fulfill all righteousness, but obeying anyway. Time seems to stand still as Jesus rests submerged underwater. But as John lifts Him up, water streaming off His face and hair, heaven seems to open before them. The very Spirit of God descends and lights like a dove on Jesus’ shoulders and the Father’s voice thunders His approval.

We most likely won’t experience what John did; no two lives are the same. God has a way of working in your life and mine that mimics none other. But if we are faithful to listen carefully for and to His voice, to accept the quirks in life as opportunities to obey Him, He will fulfill all righteousness. He will use us in ways we would never expect, giving us new vision for each new step.

Are we just on the cusp of faith? He knows that. Are we long-time followers of Him? He knows that too. Is our vision of Him too small for the idea we’ve had in the past? He’s happy to help us with that. Trusting Jesus means admitting we don’t know exactly how this life works, how to make the most of opportunities and relationships, or even how to find God. It means entrusting our deepest selves to His plans, even if they look like a change of plans to us. He is faithful. He will do it if we will grasp what He offers. It’s all part of the kingdom outlook.

ONE-TRACK MIND

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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.

THE D.C., GOD, AND YOU, Part 6

Whose Side is God on Anyways?

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Ever had a door slammed in your face? Or maybe it was angry words spewed toward you with the intent to hurt. Perhaps it was worse. Those moments snatch your breath away in disbelief. You wonder what went wrong in that relationship, and if it will ever be right again. Perhaps you even felt a little hurt or angry with God that He didn’t prevent that conflict from happening. ‘Whose side is God on anyways?’ you may have wondered.

Our friend and co-sojourner Hezekiah faced a similar proverbial door-slamming too. The Assyrian king’s commander had boasted: we have more power than you, you are alone, you cannot access God, and you are too weak to resist. Now came a declaration and claim that took Hezekiah’s breath away.

“Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this place without word from the LORD? The LORD himself told me to march against this country and destroy it” the besieging commander informed Hezekiah (II Kings 18:25). God is on our side, he was boasting.

The dominant culture (D.C.) of our day makes those same claims. It associates itself with varying causes endorsed by its current god, ‘self rights-irrespective’: this god is at times irrespective of others, irrespective of common sense, irrespective of dignity, virtue, or wisdom. It requires all opposition be destroyed, and at times it feels like it is succeeding. We may come away from a D.C. interaction asking ‘Whose side is God on anyways?’

That’s a good question; it might be helpful if we ask another question: “Does God take sides?”  When it comes to claiming the right to have divine backing for our ventures, we need to be very careful. The arrogance that seems to accompany that mindset is a dangerous thing. At risk of distracting us from our main object, let’s take a look at one other reference from the Old Testament (Joshua 5:13-15). Joshua, leader of the Hebrew nation, is called by God to take the chosen people into their promised land. Jericho, gateway city of the D.C. of the day, stands in opposition to Joshua’s goal. As he approaches a certain vantage point, he comes face to face with someone described as a divine Commander, celestial sword drawn.

Joshua asks the obvious question, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

The mysterious officer responds simply, “Neither,” then adds, “But as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Our clue that this person is otherworldly and most likely an epiphany of Christ comes from Joshua’s reaction. He does not argue. He does not demand God represent his interests. He just falls on his face to the ground in reverence, and the Commander accepts his worship.

“Take off your sandals,” the Chief of the host of heaven commands, “for the place where you are standing is holy.”

How does this help us today, when the D.C. of our day arrogantly claims divine backing, when we wonder whose side God is on? It seems we had better leave that sort of arrogance to the D.C. and embrace humility instead. The place on which we stand in holy ground, because it is ultimately God’s ground. It’s His earth, His heaven, His universe. He is not a puppet to be manipulated into doing our will. In that sense, He is not on anyone’s side.

He is on His side, and the question we must ask ourselves is, “Whose side am I on anyways?” Will we take up our own version of claiming divine backing and arrogantly butt heads with anyone in our way? Or will we humble ourselves before our ever-present Maker, barefoot, prostrate before Him, taking His lead on how to face those in-your-face, door-slamming encounters with the D.C.? Our loyalty is not to be to our own cause, but to humbly submit to God’s.

“This is the one I esteem,” says the LORD. “He who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” No need to tremble before the arrogant words of the D.C. We are called to tremble before the Word of God, Chief of the host of heaven, the Almighty Prince of Peace, Jesus.

THE D.C., GOD AND YOU, Part 5

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Strength in Weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE D.C., GOD, AND YOU, Part 2

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Rebellion Against Pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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