The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 6

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Is it Reasonable?

Our premise is that God speaks, that He is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us it seems is called—a conversation broad enough to include everyone ever conceived in human history, and specific enough to be heard as if you and I were the only ones here on planet Earth. In this series we are looking at the record in Hebrews 11 of men and women who listened intently to God’s voice and how in consequence the course of their lives changed. But were those changes necessary? Was it reasonable for those people to try to hear God? Did it make logical sense to go to such extremes? And most importantly, is it reasonable for us today to listen for the call of God?

“By faith Abraham,” begins verse 8, “when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Imagine Abraham. The current phenomenon of leisure travel that we know today did not exist in Abraham’s era. There were virtually no resources out there to ensure anyone’s safety and survival when traveling. When Abraham heard the itinerary God had planned for him, he knew it would be anything but easy. Or safe. There were no consulates, prophylactic travel meds, or Fodor’s guides to the territory through which he would be traveling. God had not even told him the details of where he was going. Abraham would need to exchange security for uncertainty, community for loneliness, and the life of a landowner for that of a nomad in enemy territory. Listening to God would, within two generations, reduce his descendants to 400 years of slavery nowhere near the land God had promised to Abraham. Was it reasonable to hear and obey God’s call? And more to the point, is listening to God a logical, sensible course for any of us to adopt for our lives?

Firstly, we must admit that all decisions have risks associated with them. We cannot guarantee outcomes. Sometimes our choices have wonderful results—intended and unintended ones. Relationships flourish; opportunities abound. Other times our choices spin and spiral back to bite and devour us. Wisdom teaches us that when we take carefully calculated risks based on the trustworthiness and reliability of a person or course of action, we put ourselves in the best position for good outcomes. Listening to God is no more a risk than refusing to hear Him or admit His right to our lives. What could be more logical than attending to the Creator and lover of our souls?

Secondly, while God rarely reveals to us the short-term implications of obeying His call on our lives, He does promise long-term blessing. While Abraham suffered many hardships as a result of obeying God, he gained something far greater: the friendship of God, a right standing in God’s sight based on his trust in God’s provision of a Redeemer, and a true home in eternity with the community of other God-followers. Each of these outcomes was not promised only to Abraham. God promises them to you and me too. Our vision for the distant future is part of the impetus that drives us to listen to God.

And thirdly, it is a self-evident truth that personal growth requires us to look and listen to wisdom outside of ourselves. We are not the source of knowledge. We admit the need to submit ourselves to instruction from others in every realm of life from arithmetic to zoology. How much greater is our need—and the associated benefits—of learning from the source of all life, from God. The more we open ourselves to God’s voice and message, the more we will be enabled to grasp it, absorb it, digest it and integrate it into our lives. And it is imperative that we do this because of God’s goal for our lives.

“(Y)ou must realize from the outset,” explains author C.S. Lewis, “that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal.” “When troubles come along,” continues Lewis, “—illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation…God is forcing (us) on, or up, to a higher level; putting (us) into situations where (we) will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than (we) ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us” (Mere Christianity).

By all the laws of reason and logic, listening to God and obeying Him makes sense. It is reasonable. It is the best of risks, the surest of long-term investments, and is our only hope of becoming wholly complete people. It is not easy. It is not safe. But can you imagine anything truly better for us?

(Photo Credit: By Maria Ly – Flickr: rock climbing @ lei pi shan, yangshuo china, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16221809)

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

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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.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers #16

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Prayer of Confession (A Paraphrase of Psalm 130)

I’m calling to You, LORD, from a place lower than I’ve been before. I’ve fallen into a pit I’ve dug myself; I’ve sinned. I’m asking for mercy, Father, because I don’t deserve even to be heard by You.

Yet, You are a forgiving Father. Everyone who stands in Your presence is only there because You keep no record of our sins. I am completely in awe and fear of Your power and kindness and faithfulness to fully forgive. I realize my ultimate survival depends upon it.

So You have my full loyalty, LORD. I trust You and Your promises implicitly. The depth of my being waits for You to help me yet again, to lift me out of the quagmire of my sin, to enable me to sense Your presence with me once again, to live in victory.

I’m waiting for this dark night to become a distant memory, for Your glory to burst into my existence like the dawn of a new day. You promise You will do this for me if my heart is humble and contrite before You.

I want to share with others my firm conviction that hope placed in You is a secure thing: “for with the LORD is unfailing love, and with Him is full redemption.”

Jesus, Your act of redemption means everything to me—to all who are becoming Your children—because You have dealt thoroughly and completely with our sins. We are eternally indebted to You. Thank you.

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 27

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Saving Self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESCAPE AND STAND

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          The most thrilling adventure stories always seem to include two key elements: an exciting escape and a bold stand. Louie Zamperini’s life is no exception. Unbroken, the story of his life and the movie soon to be released, tells the tale of repeated escapes and stands. We thrill to those kinds of stories. We are excited, intoxicated and exhilarated by them, because they tell us a core truth about this life. We are in a battle for survival – every one of us.

“Be careful,” Jesus warns, “or your hearts will be weighted down…”

That’s true, we agree. Life should be fun, shouldn’t it?

“Be careful or your hearts will be weighted down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” He’s talking about the end of life.

“For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth,” He adds. He’s very inclusive. No one escapes his own mortality. No one is immune to facing her own precarious adventure story.

“Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36). There it is: escape and stand.

The way He talks, our triumph is not certain. There are dangers about that can inundate us, weigh us down, engulf, besiege and overwhelm us. He even cites for us the three areas that are sure traps to our ultimate goal of survival.

One trap is ‘dissipation’. Let’s use the word decadence instead. Jesus is talking about our fascination with self and the trinkets we use to prop up that self. We overeat, over-primp, over-earn and overspend. Our obsession with making ourselves feel good and look good is actually at the expense of our real selves.

“Set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God,” the Apostle Paul counsels us. Hearts set on things below eventually become weighted down. Jesus wants more for us — much more. We know the phrase, ‘reach for the stars’; Jesus is saying, ‘reach for me’. The heart that reaches for Him is on the right path.

Another trap is ‘drunkenness’. Let’s use the word desensitization. Jesus is talking about our tendency to use various means to dull our sensitivity to His voice. Drunkenness pictures for us the use of alcohol to block out the sensations of real life – but we have other ways of doing that too. We become preoccupied with the loud to block out the quiet. Loud boasting, loud music, loud schedules – they all desensitize us to the still soft voice of God who wants to speak to our hearts.

The third trap is ‘anxiety’. Lets keep the word anxiety because we know it fits us like a glove, a grasping, squeezing iron glove that crushes our inner peace and steals our joy. The tensions, worries and fears of this life are not peripheral concerns. Jesus says they are powerful enough to rob us of our ability to escape and stand up to our life’s quest.

There is a solution to anxiety, drunkenness and dissipation. It’s faith — not faith in the ethereal notion of faith, but faith in Jesus as the sole means to our successful escape from what He calls perishing. Faith in Jesus is also the only means of our being able to stand before Him some day, beyond this life and world, in confidence of His love and acceptance.

So, watch and pray, He ends up saying. Be alert. Keep lines of communication open with Him. Avoid the traps this world holds for those who are careless. He wants every one of us to have stories to tell some day of our escape and our stand.

(Photo Credit: “A321 sunspots 09.26.2014 (15359237736)” by sebastien lebrigand from crépy en valois, FRANCE – A321 sunspots 09.26.2014. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A321_sunspots_09.26.2014_(15359237736).jpg#/media/File:A321_sunspots_09.26.2014_(15359237736).jpg)

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING (Postscript to ‘Praying the Beatitudes’)

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING

Postscript to Praying the Beatitudes

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Different. Radically different. That is what Jesus describes His followers as being from what the rituals of Judaism demanded. In the cool, fresh air of a mountainside retreat, Jesus sat among those who followed Him and taught His culturally strange message. He revealed to those who were serious about following Him the expectations of God for the people of God. He promised blessings and rewards for those who would dare to live the upside-down gospel Jesus Himself modeled.

Poor in spirit. Mourning. Meek. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Merciful. Pure in heart. Peacemaking. Persecuted.

The choice to embrace this strange way of living would make no sense unless there was a loving Father in heaven, a redeeming Son at His side, and an indwelling Holy Spirit, focused on transforming lives for eternal realms of glory. It makes the mind spin just thinking about the intense reality of things unseen. We can only enter into this strange reality by taking one of many subsequent deep, quavering breaths and whispering, “I believe”.

It must start with faith, because it’s all upside-down compared to this world’s ideas of how to live life.

It takes faith to embrace the mindset that present discomfort is an integral part of future joy. Let’s look at this world’s average person. Let’s call her Susan. Susan has a body, easily observable, a mind, a little less observable, and a spirit, more or less hidden.

Susan is wired to want to live. From infancy she knew instinctively that if anything impeded her likelihood of survival, she must react or fail to thrive. Hungry or thirsty? Cry. Abdominal cramping? Scream. Lonely? Tears of outrage. As she has matured and aged Susan has tempered her expressions of discomfort, but her basic reaction is unchanged: avoid discomfort to survive.

So when Jesus enters the scene, describing His ideas of embracing discomfort, Susan squirms. Is she to pursue an impoverished, submissive spirit, an other-focused mind, and a body that does not withdraw from persecutions? What about her own survival? Her first reaction to this unnatural anomaly is to recoil. She procrastinates applying the practices of the unseen kingdom. She agrees in principle but is loath to burn her bridges of comfort and materialism behind her. She prefers the perils of passivity to the embarrassment of extremism.

In His classic style of perfect timing, Jesus speaks up. He speaks into Susan’s life by turning black ink into red in the book of James, challenging her, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does: (James 1:22-25).

(to be continued…)