The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 9

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Faith and Reason.

“Stop!” Abraham heard God command in no uncertain terms. It was time to interrupt Abraham’s obedient display of faith. A ram ensnared in a nearby bush would be the substitution for Abraham’s son Isaac who had been awaiting his fate upon the hilltop altar. Listening to God had brought Abraham and Isaac here, and listening to God would take them home. This father and son were given a new vision of God. He is God the Great Provider.

This is the story, first recorded in Genesis, to which Hebrews 11:17-19 refers. It’s an unnerving and unsettling story in many ways. We’re left feeling less sure of the boundaries within which God contains Himself. God had emphatically labeled the pagan practice of child sacrifice a “detestable” thing, a practice “I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.” Yet God used Abraham and Isaac as actors in a display that would foreshadow the ransoming sacrifice of God’s One and Only Son, Jesus, two millennia later. How could Abraham have agreed to obey God’s direction, not knowing what the outcome of his obedience would be? The author of Hebrews explains “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

Abraham reasoned.

Reason, the process of thinking in logical, orderly and rational ways, is a gift of God to us humans. It enables us to take what we know about God and this world and infer conclusions that then inform how we ought to behave. Abraham, listening to God’s directive to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, needed to use a high level of reason to be obedient.

He first reasoned that having heard this command spoken directly from God, it must be a good command—God is good, therefore His every command will result in ultimate good for His followers. Abraham reasoned that he could entrust the outcome of his obedience to a good God.

Secondly, Abraham reasoned that God is all-powerful. A humanly speaking hope-destroying event such as death was as nothing to God. God would be able to bring Isaac back to life. Abraham could see compatibility between God’s promise to build his family through Isaac and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.

But “Reason,” muses Dante in Paradiso, “even when supported by the senses, has short wings.” Abraham must have second-guessed himself with every step he and Isaac took climbing the hill toward the spot God had directed him. Reason moved his feet but his heart was aching. Wasn’t it more reasonable that he a centenarian should die, Abraham must have thought, rather than this young son of his—this son of the promise? Abraham needed something to support and gird up his commitment to reason. So Abraham added to reason the wingtips of trust.

Trust took Abraham the final steps of that distressing trek. Trust kept his ears open, listening for the slightest sound of God’s voice. Trust focused Abraham’s mind on the only One who is ultimately trustworthy, so that even the promise took second place to the Promiser. And trust enabled Abraham to hear God halt the test and joyfully exclaim, “because you have done this…I will surely bless you…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Each of us walk a similar trek. Subconsciously we reason out each action we take, each decision we make. But do these reasons include the goodness and greatness of God? Do we consciously remember what we know to be true of Him? Do we consider His great love for each of us and His unlimited power as we rationalize how we live?

To entrust ourselves to the One who is unmatched in trustworthiness is the pinnacle of reason. Faith and reason together lift us up over the valleys and crags we face in our lives and bring us to the blessing God promised us through Abraham and finally accomplished through His Son Jesus. Listen to God’s voice and find faith and reason come together.

 

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 8

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Longing.

Sometimes the surest argument for the existence of something is to see the existence of its opposite, the twisted and distorted version. Suffering the discomfort of wearing poorly made shoes heightens our desire for well-fitting, high quality footwear. Ownership of a lemon of a car reminds us painfully that not all vehicles are equal. Obsessions and addictions remind us that healthy appetites can become deformed and contorted until they destroy us. Some enterprises derive their profit by deliberately twisting wholesome longings to create in their clients insatiable desires. If we are honest, we’ll recognize the dark side of desire—that when desire is corrupted it begins to rule us.

We all have desires. But by untwisting the distortion of consumer-mentality-gone-wild cravings, we can imagine that the capacity to desire in its purest form is something God gives us for our good. There are clues. Have you ever sensed a longing arrive like a mist and then disappear as suddenly, hinting of something good—really good—that you failed to fully grasp or realize? Sometimes it rides on the heels of a glance at a majestic mountain, or in the smell of spring, or in the sound of a child’s voice. Many have experienced it.

“We are homesick most,” muses author Carson McCullers, “for the places we have never known”;

“It is a longing for home,” adds poet and Nobel Prizewinner Hermann Hesse;

The author of Hebrews 11 recognizes this phenomenon in each of the women and men of faith who opened their hearts, minds and ears to the call of God. “All these people were still living by faith when they died,” narrates the first century author. “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

God is not ashamed to be called their God. What an amazing thought. A longing for something and Someone much bigger than ourselves is exactly what God created us to pursue. That longing is God calling to each of us, “Come!” King Solomon once mused that God has “set eternity in (our) hearts;” it delights God when He sees people track that heart-deep longing to its supernatural end—eternity. It is obedience to God’s most primal call in its most essential form.

Obeying this call of God, this desire to be brought into community with Him, is not only delightful to Him, it is essential to our completeness as human beings. All these people were still living by faith when they died, narrates Hebrews. They died. The great and final disquiet that each of us must face is our own personal, physical death—we cannot escape it. We must face it from one of three perspectives: We can devise a story to camouflage the problem of death; we can own the problem of death, yet see no solution; or we can admit the problem of death and accept God’s solution.

The first perspective, says D.H. Lawrence, is a lie, “…which brings us to the real dilemma of man in his adventure with consciousness. He is a liar. Man is a liar unto himself.” Os Guinness adds “the folly of the modern mind is to make the precision of scientific thinking the model for all human thinking, so as to forget the bias, self-interest and moral defect at the heart of all thinking.” We tell ourselves the story that after death we will cease to exist, or reincarnate as a greater or lesser being, or become part of the vast ocean of divinity, or something like that—anything to still our restlessness.

The second perspective, although rarely held, leads to insanity. “God is dead,’ moaned Friedrich Nietzsche. “God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves…?’ Nietzsche spent the final 11 years of his life in a state of mental insanity—the only possible outcome for the problem of considering an existence devoid of God and morality.

The third perspective is to trust God and the revelation of His Word implicitly—to trust that God created us as His image-bearers; to believe the revelation that we all have hearts bent in rebellion against Him; to believe that our rebellion leads us to become godless, Hell-bent and Hell-bound; to trust that Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and unique resurrection is our only hope to regain community with God and a solution to our dis-ease with death and longing for eternity. This perspective alone relieves us from the restlessness of the death dilemma. This is the outcome of listening to God’s call. It gives us rest. The list of men and women of faith is a list of many who listened, longed, died, and are with God.

“You have made us for Yourself,” prays St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”

Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 13

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Always Trusts.

Taking something at face value can be instinctive. It can be an almost unconscious reflex to unthinkingly react to the surface appearance of something. Yes (we admit later, when we are in a more reflective mood), we failed to employ deep thought and discernment but it seemed efficient at the time to just ‘see and do’ or ‘hear and say.’ Author Os Guinness tells the story of the blatantly chauvinistic Norman Mailer’s invitation to speak at the University of California Berkeley in the early 1970s amid a crowd of young feminists. Recognizing the brewing friction, Mailer invited his adversaries to speak up.

“Everybody in this hall,” invited Mailer, “who regards me as a male chauvinist pig, hiss.” “As if perfectly on cue,” chronicles Guinness, “the feminists broke out at once in loud, derisive hissing and booing…Mailer stepped back to the microphone, looked over to them, paused just a second or two, and said, ‘Obedient little women, aren’t you?’ (To sanitize his words somewhat).” Rather than freeing them from Mailer’s misogynistic domination, the audience’s surface reaction had reinforced their rival’s potency.

God is not like that. He never encourages superficial thought or action. Perhaps that is why our species contains little of the instinct the other creatures on this planet possess. Rather, God provides humans with the ability to access a higher-level process of thinking and problem solving; we observe something in our environment, we reason so as to fit this information into a coherent worldview, and finally we respond with fitting emotions and actions. The deliberate and conscious use of each of these steps will help us delve deeper and respond more wisely than superficially reacting to prima facie stimuli.

As we explore the ‘Love Chapter’ of I Corinthians 13, we come to the phrase “love…always trusts.” What does that word ‘trust’ mean? Is it blind hope in the midst of hopelessness? Is it a crutch for the slow-witted and aged? Is it nothing more than Marx’s “opium of the people”? No, God never invites shallow, mind-numbing confidence.

The word ‘trust’ is translated from a Greek word meaning to believe in someone or something to such an extent that one entrusts oneself to the not yet fully fulfilled promises of that person or thing. Wedding this definition with the above-mentioned higher-level process of problem solving, we can understand the Corinthian phrase better—but only if God is the sole object of our trust. To “always trust” then means to observe the love and faithfulness of God toward people—most notably in the ransoming achievement of Jesus’ death and resurrection; then it means to reason that God will for eternity personalize that faithfulness individually to each of us who embrace His gift (we call this ‘saving belief’); and thirdly, it means to respond with emotions of thankfulness, faith, and joy which lead us into actions aligned with our well-reasoned belief.

Scripture is teeming with reminders to trust in God:

“Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness…You who fear him, trust in the LORD” (Psalm 115:1,11).

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5,6).

“This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength’…” (Isaiah 30:15).

“Then Jesus answered…Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1).

We are never called to trust in people, situations, or things, only in God. Therefore, among the aspects of love described in I Corinthians 13 that can be generalized to teach us how to love both God and people well, trust is the first trait whose object is restricted. God alone is worthy of our trust. God is emphatic about this, because He knows that the object of our trust intrinsically influences us. God wants that position because He is Sovereign, and because only He can bring ultimate good into our lives. When we trust in people, social movements, finances, or anything other than God Himself to meet our needs, we will become disappointed and even jaded. We will become less and less of who God designed us to be and eventually we will be unable to trust anything or anyone at all.

Love—embodied in God—invites us to trust in God. Love encourages us to entrust everything from our daily moments to our lifelong hopes into His care. And as we practice this trust day by day we will develop the ability to respond to life’s successes and defeats, its joys and sorrows, with depth and wisdom. And the more we trust in God, the more we will be able to love people around us well. So take the leap and become known as one who “always trusts.”

(Photo Credit: Meghan Bustard Photography)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm, Following Jesus: Conclusion

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“Then they came to Jericho.” The gospel writer Mark concludes his tenth chapter by relating Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem by way of Jericho. It’s no coincidence. Jesus has been illustrating for His followers the impossibility of humankind’s journey toward God without divine intervention. And now here is Jericho—Jericho, the city of impossible barriers.

The wall surrounding the Jericho of a millennium before Jesus’ time had been at least 14 metres high. It had presented an impossible barrier to anyone wanting to enter Canaan by that route. The inhabitants of the walled city were healthy, wealthy, and rather protective of their impossible barrier. Yet, as the story—and the Afro-American spiritual—goes, that barrier “came a tumblin’ down!” God had required His people to trust Him and to follow His instructions in order for the barrier to crumble.

But this was now Jericho of more than a millennium later. The city had been rebuilt a number of times. The Roman Empire owned it now, and Jesus was merely passing through its cobbled streets enroute to Jerusalem. His disciples and a large crowd surrounded Him, trying to hear a word from this unusual Rabbi.

A blind beggar sat by the roadside that day. From his perspective a crowd was a good thing: more opportunity to coax sympathetic passersby to contribute to his empty bowl. There might be enough to buy himself a proper meal if the crowd was generous. But even as the coins clattered into his bowl, Bartimaeus heard a name coming from the lips of many of the people; “Jesus.” Was this the reason for the throng? He had heard of the miracle-working man who had walked on water, healed the sick, and brought mad-men back to their senses. Many said these stories were impossible, but were they?

“Jesus, Son of David,” Bartimaeus began shouting, “have mercy on me!”

“Shut up, old man!” the nearest travelers hissed as they dropped their coins into his dish.

“Son of David,” Bartimaeus persisted, “have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped.

And in that moment, the sound of old Jericho’s impossible walls beginning to crumble echoed in Bartimaeus’ ears. Would Jesus help a blind begging nobody like him?

“Call him,” Jesus commanded one of His closest followers.

“So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road” (Mark 10:49-52).

One man’s impossible barrier was demolished that day. The obstacle that had hounded this poor beggar was suddenly removed at a word from Jesus. Bartimaeus’ entire identity was transformed by that word, and he was free to do…anything now. Bartimaeus could have found his way home, taken up the family business, become a wealthy man, and built a high wall around his home and business. Never again would he be humiliated by self-important almsgivers. But instead, we’re told, he followed Jesus.

None of the gospel writers tell us any more about Bartimaeus. We’re left to our imaginations in his regard. We know he followed Jesus, and that is enough. We know Bartimaeus’ faith was in some way a part of the alchemy that Jesus used to break down this man’s most restricting barrier. And we know Bartimaeus took the opportunity to ally himself with Jesus. Perhaps that is all we need to know.

Maybe it makes our own personal stories more able to parallel Bartimaeus’. We all have barriers that keep us from following Jesus. Many of us have heard of things that have even turned us off of religion for good. But Jesus makes sure He passes every person’s way. Everyone gets the opportunity to call out to Him personally. Everyone with an ear open to hear Him has the chance to ignore the crowd, get past the distractions of their own barriers, and come to Him when He calls. And in that moment, with not much more than a micron of faith, we each have the opportunity to entrust ourselves to Him, to let Him heal us in His own way, to enable us to follow Him. The impossible paradigm is no longer impossible because Jesus calls us. It is His voice, His redeeming work, His limitless life that gives us what we truly need: relationship with Him. The impossible has become possible.

(Photo Credit: By RichTea, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13637163)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 1

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Childlike Trust:

The most extreme thing any of us will ever do with our lives is not climbing Mount Everest. It will not be accomplished through transporting, transfiguring, transplanting or transgendering ourselves. It cannot result from changing our diets, changing our spouses, changing our habits, or changing the energy source for our vehicles. None of these attempts are radical enough. We need something bigger, deeper, broader and more difficult—maybe even impossible—to challenge the furthest limits of what we call extreme.

John Mark, the first century author of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark, shows us how Jesus’ early disciples discovered the singularly extreme life of Jesus. People have investigated the life of this unforgettable Man since that time and have discovered something both attractive and daunting: Through a collection of paradoxes, Jesus calls people—at least, those who choose to follow Him—to an (almost) impossible paradigm. Some have called this paradigm the ‘upside down kingdom’ because of its antithetical value system compared to that of world culture. What does this (almost) impossible paradigm look like? Join me as we explore thirty-five verses in twelve parts from the middle of Mark chapter ten to begin to understand Jesus’ invitation to build truly extreme lives.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10: 13-16).

Simple trust. This is the message Jesus sends to any who would call themselves His followers. In this passage, we find Jesus’ disciples appointing themselves ready-made bodyguards for Jesus. They had begun to develop a picture in their minds of how the Messiah and His followers could establish God’s kingdom on earth. It would take power, planning, and mobilization of resources—all those things they had seen the Roman Empire using to conquer the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and beyond. They were on the lookout for threats to their mission. This day, the threat was coming from the fluff and rubble of society, a group of common people who had brought their toddlers to Jesus to be blessed, as a father would bless his offspring.

“Shoo! Away with you!” the disciples began to crow at the small cluster of families. To those who resisted, the disciples began using harsher rebukes. Didn’t these people understand how important Jesus was?

Notice Jesus’ reaction to His disciples’ misinformed deterrence of the children and their parents. He is “indignant”. He is perturbed, incensed and decidedly intolerant toward His disciples’ misconception of His mission. Jesus’ message and mission is not based on the paradigm of worldly power. To participate in God’s kingdom, responds Jesus, requires one to become “like a little child.” Not like a bodyguard, or a militant crusader? Not like a business organization, or a rising political party? These all have self-developed resources based on personal power and the desire to expand it. All a child has is simple trusting dependence.

A child looks to her caregivers with complete faith in their care. She learns that her trust must result in obedience—even when it doesn’t make sense from her limited perspective. She can’t have candy for breakfast, and she must go to sleep at bedtime; joy comes from relationship, and pain is an opportunity for comfort. A young child lives, feeds, breaths, and cries for help in complete trust of father and mother. This is the image Jesus wants to impress on His disciples’ minds and hearts—on yours and mine.

Be like little children, He counsels us. Imitate them. Let God truly be your Father in a way you have never experienced before. Everything else is the fluff and rubble of worldly kingdoms. This is the upside down nature of God’s extraordinary kingdom: The last will be first. Leaders will be servants. To live we must die to self. These are not options; they are the signs and necessary features of those who have been given an entirely new life by His transforming Spirit. This is the life of those who have been ‘born again’ and who have a new lease on life.

So go ahead. Come to Jesus in a new way today. It’s never too late. Experience the radical life of living as a child in the family of the Everlasting Father and find what it’s like to be a baby again—this time a baby by choice.

(Photo Credit: By Walter J. Pilsak, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19631163)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #17

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Prayer of Simple Trust (A Paraphrase of Psalm 131)

My prayer today, Lord, is a simple one. I just want to tell You that I’m trusting You. I’m turning my thoughts away from myself—those foolishly high and lofty wonderings of my mind. So much focus on self has got to go. I’m putting away those imaginings that I can impact the world with my beauty, brains, and brawn. Others seem to inhabit that realm where power and prestige are Goal One, but I’ve left all that.

What is in my power is only this: I settle my soul in Your love and faithfulness. In those rare, quiet moments when I’m really honest with myself—when all those false grand notions of my identity and importance are put away—I feel a stillness and quietness knowing You are here with me. Never leave me!

When I realize that everything I am and have and do is bound up with You I feel a deep, comforting peace. I’m like a weaned child with her mother. I do not demand to accomplish great things, go far places, or experience all that this world advertises. Just being with You exceeds all that.

Your presence fills and satisfies me like nothing else. I know all who put their hope in You find the same sense of rest. Help me remember, Lord, that this is the goal of faith: simple, soul-deep trust in You.

(Illustration Credit: [[File:Léon Perrault, 1894 – Mother with Child.jpg|thumb|Léon Perrault, 1894 – Mother with Child]])

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #4

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Goodness Prayer (A Paraphrase of Psalm 116)

God, You are so good. Imprisoned by trouble I would never have escaped, I discovered You coming to my rescue; You heard my cry and came in answer to it in a way that perfectly balanced grace—Your free gift, and righteousness—what justice required, and compassion—love for the unlovely. That is so good.

What it takes from me is an admission of my own need, my own lack of goodness. I must reject the pride that is my inborn habit, coming to You in faith—simple-hearted, open-faced and unadorned trust in You. My soul finds rest, time and time again, when I admit that You are good for me.

You deliver me from the dark influence of evil so that I may walk with You; this is Paradise found in the truest sense. And my role? You ask me to trust You, to believe in what I cannot see, to admit that You are completely good and all-powerful, and that I am anything but that. That is the covenant You call salvation and offer me—a cup of wine deep and fragrant and sparkling.

This imagery, of course, reminds me of You, Jesus, body broken for me, blood spilled for my eternal good. Because of You the death of every one of us who trust in You will be the precious reuniting of children with good Father, servants with good Master and the rescued with good Redeemer.

So I rejoice in being Your servant. I will take every opportunity to thank You for Your goodness and love, to praise Your name before others, and to live my life as a thank offering to You.