The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 2

hands

The Call to Be.

          Does God call people? We have said that God is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us is invited. That assumption alone may need to be explored further because for many people, ‘a conversation’ is the last descriptor we would apply to our experience of God. Let’s begin with something simpler then. Can and do people—normal people, people like you and me—hear God calling them?

We’re looking at what the writer to the Hebrews exposes in his eleventh chapter survey of historical characters who heard the call of God and responded. It begins with creation and spans several thousands of years pulling characters from the pages of the Old Testament who not only heard God’s call, but also responded. Why explore these examples of ancients who heard something they attributed to God? Firstly, if the same God who revealed Himself in the past reveals Himself today, you and I don’t want to miss out on the experience that makes earth-living worthwhile. Secondly—as will soon become apparent—those who heard God’s call and responded rightly became fortified by faith—a prerequisite for living beyond this life. And thirdly, hearing and responding to God’s call has an effect on God Himself—a mind-shattering connection we may never before have considered.

“By faith we understand,” begins the historical account, “that the universe was formed at God’s command so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

Picture creation if you can as the singular germination of matter. All that we see today—from viruses to invertebrates, from subatomic particles to solar flares, from constellations to coronary arteries—all of it traces its emergence from nothing other than the energy of God’s voice. “Without Him (and before this moment) nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). He called and we fledglings of matter became. He commanded and we obeyed.

This is our historical beginning: God called all matter into existence—into being—and it was. From that first dawn of matter appearing from nothing but the rush of energy released by God’s call, we learn that God created humankind—called and breathed us into existence. It is the grandest and most personal example of Einstein’s formula. “So God created man in his own image,” explains the author of Genesis, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Vast amounts of intrinsic energy sustain our existence for one purpose: to exhibit His likeness. And in some mysterious way we please God by reflecting Him.

What do we make of this? How does this revelation inform the way we think about God’s call and how we ought to respond to it? We do not need to understand Einsteinian formulas to realize that God’s call is powerful; it has the potential to alter things. God’s call has the capacity to release into our lives hope and help, comfort, compassion and God-honouring living. Most of all, God’s call releases His own Spirit into our lives to make us the kind of people He first envisioned us to be. God’s call fortifies His hearers with Himself.

Don’t worry about not hearing that call with ears designed to catch the vibrations and sound waves of other created matter—God is not created matter, and His voice is much more than a collection of sound waves. His call must be heard primarily with the heart—a humble heart—with sympathies willing to shed every ear-numbing layer of pride that plagues our species. We have each heard His call to be—to exist—and obeyed it at our moment of conception. Now we must utilize faith to hear His call and live our lives in ways that exhibit God’s likeness.

And what is the epitome of God’s likeness in human form? Jesus. Jesus is God incarnated into human existence to enable us to visualize what a life perfectly responding to God’s call looks like. More than that, Jesus is God’s plan to rescue us from our foolish selves, to bring us back from the brink of self-destruction, and to give us ears to hear and hearts to respond to Him.

So let’s start with the baby step of faith that accepts that the universe was formed at God’s command—at God’s call. There will be more, but for now let’s begin to ‘hear’ that ancient call and commit our existence to our Great Creator for His good pleasure. Because nothing comes from nothing.

(Photo Credit: http://www.heartlight.org)

Advertisements

Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 5

bulb.jpg

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)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Part 11

Royal_Albert_Hall_-_Central_View_169.jpg

Quest of the Inner Ring.

The ten were indignant. They were incensed. They had heard the presumptuous request of James and John claiming first rights as the highest ministers in Jesus’ new sovereign state that they had envisioned. A hubbub of low murmurs was growing into exclamations of disbelief as one by one the other disciples heard of the audacity of their two fellow apprentices. They were disgruntled because of the ‘Inner Ring.’

C.S. Lewis talks about the phenomenon of the Inner Ring as an unwritten system determining who is inside and who is outside of an exclusive group. This quest to be part of an inner group of any type—whether of money-laundering drug lords or of trend-setting coffee shop dabblers—attracts each of us.

“I believe that in all (people)’s lives at certain periods,” explains Lewis, “and in many (people)’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

What is wrong with that?” we may ask. Aren’t Inner Rings natural groupings of like-minded people? Lewis gives two reasons why the quest—the unbridled passion— for the Inner Ring destroys all who follow it. Firstly, he says, “ Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” Secondly, he adds, “As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want…The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”

This was the situation facing Jesus as He saw His disciples break into bitter complaints over the blunt request of James and John to be in Jesus’ Inner Ring. Jesus saw the pride and selfishness that plagues humanity erupt in all twelve of His disciples—each of them willing to sacrifice all to enter that elusive and exclusive camaraderie with power. He could see into the future where each of the twelve would have spiralled into solitary self-absorbed chiefs grasping for their version of desired dominance, all in Jesus’ name.

So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus is showing His disciples, and all of us who attend to His words, that the desire to be “great”—to be in the only truly significant Inner Ring—is the best good a person can pursue. But here the similarity to all other Inner Rings and all other artifices of greatness disappears. This Inner Ring can only be entered by loving. Loving, explains Jesus, is the motivating force behind this quest, and serving others is the external outworking of that love. Jesus gives Himself as the prime example of One whose eternal greatness is revealed by His serving heart, by actions which would culminate in giving his life “as a ransom for many” out of sheer love.

We must love by serving others. Our serving is not to be out of mercenary interest but out of the greatest of loves existing in this universe: out of God’s love for us. This is the great purpose for which God created us in His image, to be individuals eternally expanding as co-operators with the expansive love of God. God’s love for us, in us, and through us becomes the identity with which we are known. We become lovers (not in the shallow, amorous, illicit sense—but in the deep, compassionate, self-sacrificing sense) of others. It is the natural outflowing of God’s love.

What Inner Rings do we pursue? Jesus is calling you and me to see them for what they really are: poor replacements for the one true relationship for which we are made. Child of God, come to the One who loves you as you are, then go out and serve others so they can come home to Him too. The quest for this Inner Ring is your calling.

(Photo Credit: By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51964834)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 10

Glory.

The disciples had been thinking about glory. They had been dreaming about it, savouring the taste of its pleasures in their imaginations, and they had begun talking about it. They had even mentioned it to Jesus, hoping to guarantee and entrench their position as founding investors in the ‘Messiah Project.’ They had dictated their request to Jesus, saying, “Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” They were probably caught off guard by the piercing light in Jesus’ eyes as He stopped everything to answer them.

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

Jesus’ question directed to the brazen brothers was rhetorical. Asking them, “Can you drink the cup I drink…?” was similar to his earlier statement, which could be rephrased as another rhetorical question: “Can a rich person enter the kingdom of God?” Jesus didn’t need an answer from them, because He is able to plumb the depths of all history—both past and future—and see the answer displayed in the life of every person who has or ever will populate this planet. Jesus knows the answer is ‘No!’, not by themselves. No one, rich or poor, who depends on their own resources or methods, can enter the kingdom of God. We’ve shut the gate by our core pride and selfishness, and by our failure to give God the unique position in our lives He deserves. We can neither enter the kingdom of God nor endure the task for which Jesus is the solely qualified contestant. The ‘cup’ (and the ‘baptism’) that Jesus refers to is His redeeming death. Only Jesus meets the perfect standard for humanity, and only He can sacrifice His life to pay the kind of death penalty 100% of humanity legitimately owes God.

Jesus doesn’t argue with the self-confident duo. Rather, knowing that His death, His resurrection and His later ascension would be necessary prior to the gifting of His Holy Spirit to all of His followers, Jesus prophecies the suffering His disciples will face. “You will drink the cup I drink….” reminds us that every one of His twelve disciples would face untimely deaths or extended political exiles directly as a result of their faith. And yet, every one of them would be sustained with an inner strength not of their own, but as a result of the indwelling divine comforter and strengthener, the Holy Spirit. Jesus saw that future.

Jesus also saw the lives of every one of us—of you and me—who would one day rest our lives in His redeeming hands. John—one of the emboldened brothers—later records a prayer Jesus prays for us, that we might be set apart by truth and love and unity together with the Godhead and with each other.

“Father,” Jesus prays, “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24). The incomprehensible and unattainable goal of eternal glory is Jesus’ idea, planted deep within each human heart. But this hope has become impossible to reach because we’ve muffed it. We’ve tried to reach it our own way—our proud self-sufficient way. Then Jesus, gracious re-creator that He is, takes immeasurable suffering onto Himself so that the Father can see us as perfect—perfectly prepared for a glory we can only imagine in our wildest dreams. The impossible dream becomes possible because of Jesus, who models endurance, the kind of “endurance,” says William Barclay, “(that) is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.”

So glory falls into our laps too, somehow, by some impossibly creative means only God could have designed. It’s glory now—seeing with amazement how increment by small but steady increment the Holy Spirit is building character within us just like Jesus’ character. And it’s glory later—once this life is done and we enter a new aspect of living called ‘eternity’, we will reflect the Lord’s glory perfectly. In the meantime there will be the cup to drink, the cup of suffering that comes upon each of us in varying degrees simply because we are humans living in a fallen world. But even this suffering, borne with grace and faith in our Saviour, will become wisdom and patience and lead to an even greater faith in the One who suffered immeasurably for us. So come to glory, divine glory and human glory. Come to Jesus.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 7

toroise and hare.jpeg

Inversity.

“But many who are first,” concludes Jesus, “will be last, and the last first.” His disciples have just finished walking through a morning of following Jesus. He is not an easy man to follow. Anticipating His next move is about as easy as understanding quantum theory—and “I think I can safely say,” explains Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

This ‘first-last, last-first’ paradox is Jesus’ summary of all that his disciples have experienced that morning. He’s trying to explain, ‘Every interaction we’ve had with people has displayed the disparity between what God esteems and what people prize. It has illustrated the reality that God’s value-system is fundamentally inverse—upside down and opposite—to what humankind naturally values.’ People live by maxims that Jesus says reveal their beliefs regarding how to get ahead, how to come out first in life. But these maxims, rather than moving toward God’s kingdom, glory, and true human fulfillment, move them step by inevitable step away from Him. First in earth’s economy is last in God’s. God puts stock in what has true and lasting significance. Take a look at how God’s stock is inverse to human maxims:

Human Maxim #1: ‘Reinforce the Survival of the Fittest motto.’ Human pride is given virtue status, while the weak, the unwanted, and those who are an inconvenience to society are sacrificed for the sake of others’ personal rights.

God Stock #1: ‘Man looks at outer appearances, but God looks at the heart.’ In contrast, God looks deep into our hearts to see what we really think and believe about Him. This criterion is what will ultimately determine fitness for eternity. He knows that pride is the surest means to self-destruction ever invented by mankind. God wants people to reach their true and glorious potential as creatures made in His image, but it can only be accomplished by heart-deep humility.

Human Maxim #2: ‘Use whatever power you have to be above as many other people as possible.’ This maxim says you must get the best education, snag the best jobs, take the best vacations, invest your money in the vehicles that have the best monetary returns, ensure your children rise above other people’s children in opportunities and life experiences, and then use social media to communicate to as many people as possible that you have done the above.

God Stock #2: ‘Invest in the human spirit, the organ that is capable of responding to relationship with God.’ In contrast, God says, use whatever power or resources you have to enable yourself and others to connect with your and their Maker and Redeemer. This glorifies God and is the only vehicle for true human joy and flourishing. Then, keep quiet about the part you’ve played in God’s tremendous project. God knows, and that is enough.

We could go on. The list of human maxims—the best-laid plans o’ mice and men—without fail falls short of the glorious plans God puts stock in. This is what Jesus means when He says, “many who are first will be last, and the last first”. And yet, there is hope for us. He says many as if to leave a gap open for us to slide our fingers into before the inevitable happens. He wants to offer us an opportunity to escape the mad maze of human maxims we so easily slip into. He is constantly doing this, inviting us to be last in the eyes of the world, to come to Him for rest from the maxims, and to trust Him that He will ultimately work all things out for our good. And today is where we start.

WHO IS JESUS, #3

IMG_0097.jpg

The Way

“I know where I came from and where I am going,” Jesus challenges His antagonists; although an enigma to the religious ruling class of His day, Jesus is completely conscious of His role as the peoples’ way back to God. He speaks of His origins (“where I came from”) and His objectives (“where I am going”) with the composure of one who is singularly omniscient (all knowing) and resolute in His role. Unswerving faithfulness to His relationship with His heavenly Father informs His eternal purpose to be the redeeming exchange for the consequences of humankind’s sin.

With these words He claims identity as the One who alone can re-open the pathway of relationship between God and created persons. “I am the way,” Jesus later explains to His closest followers. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

It’s quite a claim Jesus makes about Himself. He does not say, “I am one of a variety of ways back to the Father.” Some would rather He said that. Then we could design our spirituality with a more eclectic flavour. We could have a little ‘mindfulness (spiritual-but-not-religious)’ here, a little ‘diversity-tolerance’ there, and add Jesus into the mix to fit our personal whims. But Jesus Himself doesn’t give us that option. He claims the exclusive right to meet all people’s total and complete spiritual needs. Period.

Just what is our best response to Jesus’ outrageous claim to be the only way to the Father? First, we need to rout out that niggling part of us that is irked, irritated and rankled with Jesus’ claim. We need to give it the name Malignant Pride, and release it to Jesus. He will dispose of it for us. “As far as the east is from the west,” says the psalmist, “so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103).

In its place we must accept humility, awe, thankfulness, peace, and a new insight into following Jesus’ Way. We will, in effect, be set back on the path we were created to follow when earth was young and life was a garden of possibilities.

But earth and its inhabitants have suffered an illness. Those that have submitted to the surgery to have the malignancy removed are in convalescence. Like John Bunyan’s character ‘Christian’ in his classic allegory ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, there are still challenges along the path of our journey. There is the potential failure to daily treasure God’s Word, leaving it at the wayside and becoming entangled in bypass routes. There is the tendency to take shortcuts that land us in the ‘slough of despond’ or in the giant ‘Despair’s’ castle of bondage. There is the temptation to turn back from the Heaven-focused journey in fear of the lion’s threats, or to give in to the suggestions of ‘Mistrust’ and ‘Timorous’.

We must cooperate with Jesus as He places us on the high but narrow road to Life; we must follow His every word of guidance and refuse to invite malignant pride back into our hearts.

Our best course is to remain close to Jesus, the One who personifies the “Way of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8), who alone is qualified to “lead (us) in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24)—to an eternity of purpose and God-centered living. And like the best of adventures, not only is the final destination important, but so is the route itself; Jesus’ way bring travelers satisfaction and joy because Jesus journeys alongside us. He is our closest companion. So think again about Jesus’ claim to be the Way. It’s the best news we’ve had in a long, long time.

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 18

On Becoming Great.

“Unless you change…” began the speaker in ‘TEDx’ style, “you will never enter…” He had caught his listeners’ attention. The murmuring had stopped and mouths had gone dry. The group had been discussing strategies for becoming uniquely, individually great. How could they achieve not only their personal best, they debated, but actually rise to the top, stand on the pinnacle of the new dominion, become the greatest?

“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus bluntly pointed out, as recorded in Matthew chapter 18. In other words, continue clawing and grasping for power and you won’t even be a part of My kingdom, never mind great in it. His followers’ position in the kingdom of heaven was not at stake—their entrance was.

Looking into the stunned faces of His followers, I’m sure Jesus felt compassion for them in their stumbling progress; it was only human nature for them to follow the promptings of pride, the psyche of superiority, the inclination to put oneself first. They really had no idea what He meant by saying they must become like little children. He would have to spell it out more clearly.

“Whoever humbles himself like this child,” He explained, drawing a toddler toward Him, “is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Humbles himself. It wasn’t a new idea. His followers had been versed in the Law and the Prophets since their own childhood. They had memorized the prophet Micah’s instruction to, “act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Surely the prophet had not meant the humiliation of childishness, though, had he?

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me,” Jesus continued. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

It was going from bad to worse. First, they would have no part in His kingdom. Now, they were good for nothing but Davey Jones’ locker. What did it all mean?

Jesus was saying that simple faith in God is not just best practice; it is only practice in God’s kingdom. Unless a person humbles and entrusts herself or himself unreservedly to God’s plans, as a child would her father, there is no spiritual heart beating beneath the physical exterior.

“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS:” begins a telegram sent to the Walker children by their father in the 1930s fictional series, Swallows and Amazons. “IF NOT DUFFERS WON”T DROWN.” In other words, if you act with pride and its consequent foolishness, you really deserve the consequences of which you find yourself victim.

Pride says, “I’m in charge of me”, “it’s my life; I’ll do with it as I please”, and makes other similar claims. In contrast, childlike humility toward God says, “You are in charge of me”, “I will follow Your lead”, and the person lives by that premise. The two attitudes are worlds apart. In fact, Jesus is saying that we all have a natural bent toward the former attitude: we don’t want to be like children, having to trust another for the good times we envision our lives ought to contain. When we come of age, our tendency is to slough off the mantle of childlike faith we once had that believed in a good and loving Creator. Remember those days?

Jesus is giving a warning: Eternity with God, believe it or not, is real. Take it or leave it, but we had better not imagine we can make up the rules. We cannot experience true greatness without first submitting ourselves to the process that changes great duffers into child-hearted believers. It is a process. Child-hearts occasionally revert to duffer-blundering galoots. The great thing is to say to Jesus, “I’m sorry”, and “make me like You.”—true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. That is Christ-like greatness.

And the great thing is that God is a Father unlike any other. He enfolds past-duffers into His great family in an embrace that turns them into children that reflect their Father’s greatness more than ever before. Let’s leave the life of a duffer behind. Together let’s become children on the journey that takes us great places.

(Photo Credit: By USAID – USAID, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10485032; CC BY-SA 3.0; 862878;By en:User:Steevven1 – URL: http://www.keysphotography.com/photopages/2007-03-04.php, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1746173)