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)

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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.”

 

THE PERFECT ENVIRONMENT FOR PRAYER

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Pastor “L” found himself being struck repeatedly with his own motorcycle helmet as angry Buddhist extremists surrounded him. False accusations flew at him like blows from his attackers. This is one of the risks of being a believer in Christ in the country of Sri Lanka. What perspective does that reality engender in Christ-followers like him?

“We are not afraid”, explains another pastor. “If persecution comes, it comes. God will give us strength to face it. We don’t pray to avoid persecution; we pray for strength to face it.”[1]

This is an aspect of prayer we in the ‘west’ have yet to embrace. We tend to pray to avoid persecution, to evade difficulties, to be insulated from trials. Perhaps we have something to learn about prayer from our brothers and sisters in less spiritually hospitable countries around the world.

James, pastoral leader of the early Christian church in the first century A.D., had a few thoughts on the matter that echo our Sri Lankan brother’s words. He enjoins, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers (and sisters), whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt…” (James 1:2-6)

The process of maturation in this life as a believer in Christ is tightly tied to trials; this connection is dependent not so much upon the difficulties themselves as on our reaction to them. It’s about attitude. We “must believe and not doubt” that God remains good and loving even while we experience trouble. He is willing and able to help us persevere in the midst of our various difficulties. This is an integral part of the transforming, life-changing process of becoming like Jesus, our perfect role model.

Here’s where we can learn something. Praying comes naturally enough in the midst of difficulties. The classic soldier’s prayer in the trenches of war illustrates it well enough. “Save me from this, God, and I’ll…” We’ve done it ourselves. But this is praying to avoid persecution. We need to move ourselves a step further in our faith. The intent and content of our prayers needs to move from asking God to miraculously change externals, to requesting Him to miraculously change us. When in distressing situations we may pray to have our fears replaced with peace, our anxieties with courage, our weakness with strength, our doubts with faith. This is the process God uses to refine us, make us complete, not lacking anything.

Are we there yet? Not likely. Then it behooves us to make the changes necessary to our prayer lives. God’s purpose is not about keeping us safe. It’s about making us good, and that is no small task.

As the Narnian character is said to have observed, “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Difficulties are inevitable in this life. How do we use them? Are they thorns in our side, causing us to whine and bemoan our plight? Or are they opportunities to draw us closer to our King of kings, becoming people of strength, of perseverance, and of goodness?


[1] This quote comes from The Voice of the Martyrs, Oct. 2013 Issue, Around the World, Sri Lanka

 

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 9

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 9

Matthew 5:10

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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E.M. Bounds once said, “God’s highest aim in dealing with His people is in developing Christian character…begetting in us those rich virtues which belong to our Lord Jesus Christ…not so much work that he wants in us…not greatness. It is the presence in us of patience, meekness, submission to the divine will, prayerfulness. And trouble in some form tends to do this very thing, for this is the end and aim of trouble.”

O that irritation we call trouble. And O when that trouble is in the form of persecution. We in the West know little of it, really, but our brothers and sisters around the world know plenty. The persecuted church is in agony right now.

In India, Hindu extremists target Christians with false accusations, beatings, rapes and murders. Manini is recovering from a brutal attack and sharing her testimony with new believers.

In Laos, Hmong believers are being forced out of their villages and face discrimination in jobs and education. Chan spent thirteen years in prison for his involvement in a house church.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram terrorists are burning church buildings and killing Christians by the hundreds. Monica is awaiting surgery to repair injuries from a machete attack.

In Colombia, FARC guerillas are increasing violence against Christians. Children Marcela, Jeffrey and Lyda were left orphaned when their parents were killed for running a Christian school for local children.

And in Eritrea raids on churches result in arrests, beatings and incarcerations. More than two thousand of our brothers and sisters are imprisoned, many in shipping containers.

These, declares Jesus, are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Theirs is eternal reward and comfort. Theirs is heavenly glory. The apostle Paul, who knew something of persecution, expands on the experience by saying, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Cor. 4:17,18).

Seeing persecution through eyes fixed on the unseen brings perspective into view. Prayer is the implement most suited to this task. When forces of evil target the body of believers, only the prayer of faith can see blessing. Perhaps this is that to which Jesus refers when he concludes His ‘Lord’s Prayer’ with the petition “deliver us from the evil one”. Satan is at the nucleus of any attempt to destroy the body of Christ. While physical persecution is a tool, the evil one really wants to destroy souls. Praying for deliverance must not be superficial. We must pray not only for physical relief but also for spiritual strength. The persecuted need prayer to maintain courage, faithfulness, forgiveness and inner peace.

Until God calls us to experience persecution, we have a task. We must lift up in prayer our brothers and sisters of the persecuted church. Sharing in the trouble will allow us to share in the blessing.

(For more information on praying for the persecuted church, visit The Voice of the Martyrs at http://www.persecution.net/)