The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 8

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Astonished and Afraid.

“They were on their way up to Jerusalem with Jesus leading the way,” continues the Gospel writer John Mark, “and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. (Mark 10:32).

The road following the Jordan River valley southward toward Jericho and Jerusalem was little more than a narrow path tacked onto the side of a rocky hillside. Jesus was leading the way because it was single file width here. There was little talk. One misstep and a traveller would be slipping and tumbling down the steep rubble toward the riverbed and it would be a long hot climb back up to the path. So there was time for reflection.

Jesus was reflecting on His journey’s goal: Jerusalem, where the necessary step of His redemptive plan for humanity would take place—His painful, wrath-absorbing execution. The disciples were perhaps reflecting on Jesus’ words at their last rest stop, “the first will be last, and the last first.” What did Jesus mean by that? He was an astonishing teacher and they forever seemed to be one step behind Him in understanding what He was all about. His view of the kingdom of God was almost impossibly opposed to everything they had been taught. If religion, wealth, and ambition were barriers to entering God’s kingdom, how did one enter it?

The crowd following behind the disciples was the last in line, and we’re simply told they were afraid. What fears motivated their reflections? Were they afraid of the consequences to Jesus returning to Jerusalem where the religious leaders had made it clear they would kill Him? Were they afraid of the implications of being associated with this wanted man? Were they afraid of their own inner turmoil as they thought about their own failings, and of Jesus’ statement that it is impossible to save oneself from the eternal consequences of those failings? They were afraid, yet they followed, perhaps from a distance, both attracted and repelled by the teachings of this strange man.

There must have been a widening in the path, because we’re told Jesus now stopped to say something to His twelve disciples. Perhaps the path rose up to a plateau from which the temple mount of Jerusalem could be seen in the distance, and on this wide plateau the disciples could gather around Him and hear what He had to say. Perhaps the following crowd had slowed its pace back on the narrow path and had fallen far behind. This message was for His twelve close friends only.

Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had predicted His own execution. The gospel-writer John Mark records at least three other times when Jesus had revealed to His twelve disciples the traumatic twist His death would take. He had used words like ‘suffer’ and ‘rejected’, and one of those times His close disciple Peter had tried to rebuke Him—to say, ‘Impossible! You are the Messiah! You are the promised Leader of God’s glorious kingdom!’

Yet Jesus was again repeating His prediction, adding this time the betrayal aspect that would shock at least eleven of the twelve disciples. And for a third time Jesus also revealed that His death would be only Part A of the great redemptive act God’s love had planned for humanity; Part B would be Jesus’ resurrection—His conquest of death’s mortal grip on life. But it all seemed to go over their heads again this day. They were silent.

And that is often how we are when Jesus wants to speak into our hearts and lives. We’re astonished or we’re just silent. We’re distracted by visions we’ve created in our own minds about how life will unfold, how success will come our way, how things will pan out. But Jesus still speaks. He takes you and me aside and speaks into our hearts through His Word, the Bible, telling us what we need to know for today to give us hope and strength. There may be suffering in our day, but there is always the rising out of the dust of that suffering because of Jesus and the life He offers. So let’s step aside with Jesus today; let’s read His Word and hear His voice. Let’s respond to Him through prayer and then step back onto the path with Him as our leader. That’s what Jesus is offering.

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 5

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Profits and Losses

A “profit and loss statement” explains Investopedia, “is a financial statement that summarizes the revenues, costs and expenses incurred during a period of time.” It explains that revenue (the ‘top line’), subtracts the costs of doing business, and ends up by stating the difference, known as net income (the ‘bottom line’). Very well. That makes sense, even to those of us who have no business savvy. In order to identify the bottom line we must account for costs necessarily incurred in the running of the business.

Can we transfer this template to the spiritual realm for a moment? Analogies are never perfect, but they can help clarify some hard-to-get concepts at times. Let’s try. Recall, we’ve been tramping through a segment of the Gospel of Mark. We’ve been listening in on Jesus’ interactions with townsfolk and observing Jesus mentoring His disciples in a practicum of sorts. Jesus has corrected His disciples’ misguided intuitions about entering the kingdom of God: the disciples are prone to ward off children in preference to welcoming the wealthy and powerful. Jesus does the opposite. It’s beginning to dawn on the disciples that Jesus is describing an almost impossible paradigm when He asks them to follow Him.

“We have left everything to follow you!” exclaims Peter, perhaps in more than a little exasperation. He’s referencing the ‘cost of doing business’ with Jesus and he hasn’t yet determined what that means in his own life.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions)…”

There it is. Jesus has expanded the boundaries of the cost of doing business with Him. He has listed comforts, relationships, and career. Following Him, He says, costs everything—everything a person has ever counted dear. He’s depicting it to show that it is an impossibly expensive paradigm by human standards. But wait. Without stopping for breath Jesus uncloaks next quarter’s revenue—next statement’s top line; it shows a revenue expanded a hundredfold. What?

One hundred times the joy of community family life, a 10,000% increase in the richness of relationships, the broadest scope of reach with an otherness perspective—all result from this core change of priorities. But don’t be misled. Jesus is not saying, ‘Put a twenty in the offering plate at church and you’ll get a $200,000 bonus from your employer at Christmas.’ It’s not hocus-pocus or a prosperity gospel that He’s offering. For one thing, you will have noticed Jesus has explained that with the expanded revenue comes an expanded cost in the form of persecutions. For another thing, He’s interested in developing the richness of character-based inner lives, not superficial material prosperity.

What Jesus is saying is that when we remove from first place in our hearts all those things and people that compete with our love for Him, and put Him first, He will fill our hearts with more than we are capable of having on our own: more love, more emotion, more appreciation, more thankfulness, more joy. The list goes on. He enables us to love our spouses more deeply, care for our parents more joyfully, raise our children more holistically, enjoy His creation more fully, and even participate in our careers with more authenticity than we ever could before. We no longer need to go in search of ever-increasing extremes of stimulation and adventure in order to find satisfaction in life. We are free from the bondage of the ‘bucket list.’

However, with this new outlook and inner transformation, we will also find ourselves clashing with the spirit of the world in a way we never experienced before. Culture that rejects the supremacy of Jesus is necessarily antagonistic toward His followers. History depicts the persecutions against Christians quite clearly. Even today, in countries around the world, followers of Jesus are targeted with varying amounts of antagonism, harassment, oppression and outright persecution. It is no surprise to Jesus, so let it be no surprise to us.

There is a cost to doing business with Jesus. This is why the rich young ruler, mentioned earlier in Mark’s gospel, walked away with a fallen face. He was unwilling to risk losing his material wealth for a less tangible reward. The disciples, too, had begun to recognize the cost, because Jesus does not (in accounting terms) ‘cook the books’ to hide it. And we must understand this cost for ourselves. Jesus is adamant. He wants followers that come to Him with eyes wide open. And as we accept the reality of the profits and losses that come with following Him—an almost impossible paradigm—He promises to fulfill our God-given ambitions: our deepest and truest hopes and desires. Now that’s an investment.

(Photo Credit: Paychex)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 3

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Love.

We left the rich young man after hearing Jesus give him the terrible diagnosis of his life: in order to follow Jesus he must discard his competing loyalties. In his case it was wealth. In our case it can be any one (or more) of a vast number of things: anything that puts something else before our loyalty to Christ.

But let’s go back one step in this story. The young man has just claimed he is living what he considers to be a good enough life; he maintains he has kept all the requirements of the Jewish Law. He wants confirmation from this rabbi that he can claim eternal life as his just deserts.

How does Jesus respond? Here in Mark 10:21, Mark describes Jesus’ reaction from a point of view that invites us right into Jesus’ heart. It is a moment that deserves our full attention, because it is the story of humanity in a nutshell. We, too, each live our lives by an ethical scale of sorts; we have either transposed it from the principles that our families, our traditions or our society have established, or we have created it from an eclectic collection of any of the above. We may even claim we reject any concept of right and wrong, but honestly, we don’t live that way do we? We all live by some internal classification system of right and wrong.

So here is Jesus, God in the flesh, the One whose character is the basis for all moral excellence —listening to this young man’s proud assertions that he has followed moral law to the letter. How will He respond? –By congratulating the young man? –By slamming him for his pride? –By laughing at him?

We’re told, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This is how Jesus looks at each of us. We may prattle on about how good we are, or we may keep silent about our personal convictions. We may regularly leave hints for others to observe and come to the conclusion that we are pretty good people. Or we may march in parades proudly displaying our ideologies and daring others to contradict us. It doesn’t matter. Jesus still looks at each of us and loves us. Does that mean He condones our self-made rules for living? No.

Jesus knew that not many days after this meeting with the rich young ruler He would be walking the path from Jerusalem’s Praetorium, his back in bleeding shreds from a scourging, his scalp dripping from the piercing, humiliating crown of thorns. He would be walking toward the most egregious form of execution the Roman Empire could devise, and He would be taking the punishment the totality of humanity deserves for the crux of our moral flaw—our hatred of God and His sovereignty. He would be buying our freedom from an eternity of self-destruction each of us face upon our own deaths. And it was in this knowledge that Jesus looked at the rich, self-satisfied young man and loved him.

What do we do with this? How do you and I respond to this same Jesus who even now looks at you and me, and loves, loves, LOVES us? This is the quintessential issue of life. Nothing else matters but this. Jesus knows about our foolish attempts at morality (mostly used by us to earn a sense of self-esteem). He knows only His ransom-paying death and death-defying resurrection can supply us with the eternal life we all ultimately long for. And He longs to love us into His kingdom of eternity.

But it comes down to this: Do we look at Him and love Him in return?

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 19

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‘Pe’

There is a mantra, a cliché, a rumbling reaction whenever an ideological conflict arises between members of society. The most vocal insist their rivals are motivated by nothing less than ignorance and hatred along with a good dose of hypocrisy. Any expression in opposition to their voice is routinely termed harassment and is dealt with sternly. These are the current buzzwords. They are emotionally charged words intended to hijack and shut down all dialogue through the shaming of any dissenters. This is twenty-first century western society, and if you don’t agree, you must be one of the ignorant, hateful bullies out there.

It was not much different three millennia ago. The psalmist who wrote ‘Pe’, the seventeenth stanza of the longest Psalm, felt it. He understood that following the precepts of the eternal God—principles and standards for human flourishing—was not politically correct. He felt the oppression both from external sources and from his own internal bent toward selfish autonomy. But was he a perpetrator of ignorance, hatred, and harassment?

“Your statues are wonderful;” the psalmist begins, “therefore I obey them. / The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. / I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. / Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. / Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. / Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. / Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. / Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.”

Firstly, the psalmist recognizes that his faith is based on understanding—on reasoning and on thinking rightly about God, himself and the world around him. “The Bible,” explains theologian Timothy Keller, “teaches that faith is not only compatible with reason, but that it consists of, requires, and even stimulates profound thinking, reasoning, and rationality.” Christians are deeply committed to truth. So while Christians may need to discern the nuances and applications of truth in difficult areas, they are more likely to be committed to embracing truth than to hide in ignorance. All truth is God’s truth, and “exists,” explains John Piper, “to display more of God and awaken more love for God.”

This brings us to the second challenge. Are Christians defined by hatred? The psalmist describes people of faith as “those who love (Yahweh’s) name.” Jesus expands on that by summarizing God’s Law as “Love the LORD your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.” And the evening before His death Jesus reiterated His foundational command to His followers to “Love each other.” So, just as with ignorance, the accusation of hatred is neither founded nor representative of people who live by faith. A Christ-follower’s life and beliefs may be different from and unpopular with that of the culture around her, but it is not a result of hatred.

And thirdly, how does the psalmist address the accusation of hypocrisy? “Direct my footsteps,” submits the psalmist, “according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” The psalmist recognizes that integrity occurs when understanding and love inform action. Authentic living is the result of ceding God’s authority over our lives and then making choices that are in alignment with His sovereignty over us. Hypocrisy is either the result of saying ‘God is in charge’—but then living as if we are, or else of saying ‘There is no God and no basis for morality’—but then expecting others to abide by our subjective beliefs about ‘rights’. Both worldviews are foreign to Christianity.

The psalmist verbalizes for us that faith is the kingpin for right living. By faith we are given understanding, by faith we are enabled to truly love, and by faith we walk according to the light. These are not in, or by, or of ourselves, but as a result of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus who epitomizes truth, love, and authenticity. The more seriously we embrace faith, the less prone we will be to engage in ignorance or hatred or hypocrisy.

Photo Credit: MeghanBustardphotography

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 16

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‘Nun’

Taking the ‘path of least resistance’—also known as the principle of least effort—is the brain’s natural impulse to choose the easiest route. Art Markman, cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, suggests that the path of least resistance is also a dead end to finding solutions to difficult problems. “Our memory drives us back to things tried and true” says Markman, even if those solutions no longer work for today’s problems. For instance, the ‘white lie’, used in the past to escape interpersonal consequences for seemingly ‘unimportant’ issues, becomes a major dead end to developing a long-term relationship like marriage. Markman suggests three solutions to combatting the principle of least effort: “expand the information you have in memory, re-frame the creative problem, and change your collaborators.”

The psalmist pens a lyrical yet strangely parallel message in ‘Nun’, his fourteenth stanza of Psalm 119.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. / I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws. / I have suffered much; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your word. / Accept, O LORD, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws. / Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. / The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts. / Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. / My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (Psalm 119:105-112).

The psalmist seems to apply Markman’s three points to the ancient yet common human dilemma of breaking out of the rut of life. Look carefully and we see the psalmist’s formula: Scripture as a directive resource, eternity-informed living, and God as collaborator.

Step One. The truest way to break out of our comfort zone and see the world and ourselves in a new way is to take God’s Word seriously. The psalmist recognizes God’s Word as the only light to truly reveal wise living, and he takes an oath to bind himself to it; he is fully cognizant of the restraint this will put on his future decisions, but he understands the principle of freedom-producing restrictions. A mindset of keeping God’s decrees—summed up by Jesus as firstly loving God wholeheartedly and secondly loving our fellow human beings as creations of God—expands the information in our memory as to be a powerful decision-making resource.

Step Two. Eternity-informed living is the most radical way to re-frame our problem. Earth as the stage wherein we access God’s mercy through Jesus’ sin-paying ransom for us is the most profound and far-reaching innovative thought to ever hit our species. The hope offered us not only sets our sights on a glorious afterlife, it gives us strengthening support in our present hardships.

Step Three. Make God our number one collaborator. God’s approach to human living is radically different than our natural bent. Read the gospels and see if the way Jesus lived and taught wasn’t counter-cultural to the nth degree. A commitment to listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture and through the life of Jesus will force us to consider things from a completely new perspective. Yet the psalmist recognizes God is not only the perfect collaborator; He is ultimately Master and Lord. Our autonomy must bow to His authority. Then and only then will we experience the strange oxymoron that dying to self produces full, flourishing life.

Bowing to the deep innate drive to satisfy self is nothing more than the path of least resistance, the principle of least effort. Bowing to the Almighty Creator resists that path. Obeying God’s Word, accepting Jesus’ authority, and inviting His Spirit to indwell us is the beautifully releasing restraint that guides us to be truly human for eternity. It’s a choice—a challenging, breath-taking, leap-of-faith choice—but it’s infinitely more satisfying than the old life. Come; join the resistance.

Photo Credit: Mr. Arif Solak [[File:Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey.jpg|thumb|Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey]]