Monday, December 26, 2016

Something Old for Something New

Any time something comes to be so universally accepted that we take it as given, it might be time to take a step back and reconsider. I suggest that one such mindset we ought to challenge is that new is always improved. The "new" must be better some of the time or we would never adopt it, but ought we welcome with enthusiasm every thing available, simply because it's new?

In their book, Mindhacker, Evans and Evans point out:
We've heard it observed that as Western societies grow richer, with a higher level of technology and more leisure time, they tend to adopt hobbies that used to be considered tedious jobs, such as candlemaking
The Ghostbusters, re-imagined as Steampunk.
The more people are stuck with inevasible technology and suffocating connectability, the more they seem to crave a simpler time. Along this line of thought, the Steampunk movement is likely one of the largest world phenomena that you may not have heard of. It is driven by an obsession with Victorian-era technology to produce modern solutions, and is in some way a colorful protest against the seemingly inexorable advance of modern technology. When you see a reignited love for old materials like brass, copper wood, glass, and ornate engravings, you are seeing an impact of this mindset. Even the great thinkers who launched what would become the Renaissance were obsessed with classical Greek poets and philosophers. "Ad fontes!" they would say. "Back to the original sources!"

On a personal note, I have become a devoted practitioner of bullet journaling as a way to organize myself, and have made a deliberate effort to reduce my own dependence on technology for productivity where possible. If you want to have your mind messed with a bit, click around on this collection of links about why paper is still a superior medium to any other option.

This sort of inclination can also inform our faith. Because publishers need to sell books and because authors desire to speak and be heard, there will always be people trying to say something new about God. Some of these things will be useful. But rather than chasing after whatever the newest thoughts are and accepting them uncritically, we will often be better served to chase after what is true, good, and beautiful, because these things will be valuable, regardless of their age. Some wise people have told me, "Always spend more time reading the Bible than reading about the Bible."

The prophet Jeremiah says in 6:16:
Thus says the Lord: "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
The true, good, and beautiful will sometimes be new, but even when they are old, they have a newness about them when experienced. The end result of chasing incessantly after any trend will be exhaustion. As you think about how you plan to live differently next year than you did this year, I want to encourage you to think about what it is that you are chasing. What is it that is making you exhausted? Must you really do all the things that you are doing and in the way that you are doing them?

If you're trying to grow spiritually, the truth is, the tools through which God shapes us are pretty much the same as they've been for thousands of years: steady practices of reading from Scripture, calming ourselves in God's presence and praying, practicing self-control, choosing to spend our energy on acts of kindness and mercy, etc. Before you try to find a new way to Google yourself into a better way of living, why not first consider the ancient paths, as Jeremiah calls them. They are less flashy than some other options and are generally more difficult than the other roads, but they've been found reliable paths by many generations before us, and they lead us to a place where we find rest for our souls.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Great Revealing

Mystery is interesting. At Christmas time, with God's help, we mature to where we enjoy giving more than we enjoy receiving. But the excitement of gift giving comes in part from the mystery involved therein. Whether you're the young child trembling in anticipation of what could be underneath the beautifully colored paper and ribbons, or you're the giver, watching for the look of joy that appears on another person's face because you've blessed them in some way, it is the cheerful unveiling of a mystery by someone we love which provides us with a deep sense of satisfaction. If it weren't so satisfying, it is hard to imagine this tradition in late December would have persisted for the many years that it has.

While we wait for the mystery to be revealed, most of our focus is on the packaging. It's the shape and size of the box that gets our imagination going. It's the patterns and colors in the wrapping that keeps us guessing what could be inside. But once the gift is revealed, the packaging is discarded, because the gift itself is greater than the packaging.

In Romans 8:19, Paul says that all of creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. The earth, subjected to many centuries of bloodshed and corruption, stands trembling in anticipation, waiting for Christ to return and for all of God's faithful children to be revealed, to receive their crowns and their beautiful white garments, and to have their proud Father say, "Well done!"

But for now, we're stuck most of the time looking at the world's packaging, and it has not always been well wrapped. Some of this is because of the ugliness of people's choices, their dishonesty, and their corruption. Some of it is shiny and gaudy, because people shower themselves with luxuries, never thinking to share with those who struggle to get by. If you look at history books and magazines, you'll see leaders and dictators, tycoons and socialites. But underneath this crinkly thin exterior, God has many children whose stories remain hidden from sight.

People tend to look past or even avoid the things God thinks are beautiful. The family member who puts their own life and ambitions on hold to be a caregiver for another family member. The person who quietly sends anonymous support to another family who needs the help. The person who accepts a thankless responsibility that no one else wants so that others can be blessed. The quiet things you do because of your love for God are the hidden treasures in this world that, for now, often only God knows.

Jesus has told us to stay dedicated and not to be afraid, because one day all things covered are going to be revealed, and all things hidden are going to be made known (Matthew 10:26). God is going to tear off and discard the world's shallow packaging, and reveal the beautiful treasures that have been hidden from everyone but himself. The real stories will be told, and those quiet souls who've shared God's love without reservation or recognition will be held up and celebrated as the gift to the world that they are; the pride of their Father. It will be the cheerful unveiling of a hidden mystery, and one that we hope to make even more beautiful because of our own unseen devotion. Spend your life showing kindness and mercy with God as your only intended audience. God is watching, and everything is more beautiful when it is revealed in God's good timing.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Healed Again

One of the stranger, lesser talked about miracles is when Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Described only in Mark 8, Jesus spat in the man's eyes and asked, "Do you see anything?" The man replied, "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." It was after Jesus laid his hands on the man's eyes again that his sight was fully restored, and he saw clearly. He had to be healed twice.

This, to me, adds a feel of realism to the stories of Jesus' miracles. I like the idea of the personal interaction with people, and the concern that they really were well. But for some, it adds a layer of discomfort. Did the Great Physician really botch a healing?

This is a case where context is important. Mark has chosen to sandwich this story in between two other stories, and all of them shine different angles of light on a common struggle. Preceding it is the lesser discussed feeding of the 4,000 and a discussion with his disciples. He was warning them against the Pharisees' "leaven" but they were thinking he was talking about physical bread, since they didn't have any with them. The discussion ends with Jesus' words, "Do you not yet understand?"

Caesarea Philippi was several days' journey
from where they had been. The large rock
formation had a cave in front of it with a
pagan temple to Pan built onto it. The natural
stream of water from the cave was like a gate
to the underworld.  It provided a meaningful
location for Jesus to talk about building
his church on "rock" and how the "gates of
Hell" would not prevail against it.
Following the healing story is the journey to beautiful Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus had a conversation with them about his true identity. Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, but as Jesus began to explain the need for his betrayal and suffering, Peter protested, and Jesus offered the famous rebuke to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men."

In all of these scenarios, you have the issue of people who have a glimpse of God, but one that remains obscured. The disciples had learned something about God's provision, but couldn't seem to quit worrying about what's for dinner. The blind man could see something, but not clearly. The disciples could understand Jesus was the Messiah, but couldn't get comfortable with a Messiah who would be both a King and a suffering Servant.

Despite our best intentions, we all struggle sometimes to see clearly. Some have been glad to receive the Gospel, but manage to see only more Law where God has given Grace. Some have been glad to receive freedom in Christ, but apply it in a way that is destructive and negligent. Others have settled for a culturally appropriated version of Christ that fails to embody the courage and boldness of the Savior we meet in Scripture.

It's nice to know that for all of us recovering blind people, Jesus is still with us, wanting to know what we can see so that he can help us see more. What truth we've grasped has come by his mercy, and sometimes we'll need more mercy so that we can experience more growth. The good news is that he is patient, and quite willing to help us a second time to see better. Our challenge is to extend to each other the same patience.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Type of Thrones

Martin's mental image of the Iron Throne
is that it sits asymmetrically, and that the
one seated on it is at least ten feet high. 
Thrones mean power and position. In contemporary culture, there is no throne more recognizable than the Iron Throne from George R.R. Martin's book series A Song of Fire and Ice, popularized by HBO's televised adaptation, Game of Thrones. (Though I'm a huge fan of good fictional fantasy, I decided not to watch the show due to the kinds content they've chosen to include.) In fact, it's clear that the typical representation of the Iron Throne is actually much smaller than what Martin had envisioned in his head. The idea is that the Throne was made by a conquering king, created with a thousand swords surrendered by his enemies. Here is how one character describes the throne in A Storm of Swords:
Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Ofttimes I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.
This particular throne is a symbol of conquest, cruelty, and dominance. The one who occupies it has obtained it by ugly displays of power and treachery.

There is an uncomfortably easy connection between power and brutality, and this connection is not limited to fiction. When Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq in July 1979, within one week, he called out an assembly of the Ba'ath Party, his political enemies. In the meeting, a list of 68 names were read aloud, and all of them were arrested and removed from the room. All 68 were found guilty of treason, and 22 were sentenced to death. By August 1979, hundreds of his political foes had been executed. Whatever type of throne he sat upon, his power represented brutality, bloodshed, and ruthlessness.

In any tension between people and the one who rules them, the question often arises about the source of a person's power. "Who put you in charge?" It isn't uncommon for people to mutter under their breath about their superiors' use and misuse of rank and position. We speak this way frequently about our politicians, our police officers, and even about a wide array of people who are gatekeepers to whatever thing that we happen to want right now. 

It is our typical hangups about power and abuse that made a verse in Psalm 22 catch my attention:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. (Proverbs 22:3-5)
Granted, there is plenty of language in Scripture about God conquering his enemies, but it is God's throne here that I find captivating: God sits enthroned on the praises of his people. There is an extent to which people can say, "Well, it's God, and if God says he's the King, there's nothing you can do to stop him." But God does not sit on a throne of swords or in a position that he has created through terror and treachery.

As the psalmist alludes to, God's people praise him because of the ways he's taken care of us. We've relied on God and found him to be trustworthy. We've been in situations too dense for us to navigate, and he has rescued us and blessed us. The end result of following God is that we've been honored, and not put to shame. The throne God occupies is made of the great praises we can offer because of what he's done for us. It is a reign of peace, blessing, and compassion. God will sit on a throne of well-deserved praise, and it his intention to earn it--not to force it--through the way he cares for us.

Each of us occupies some type of position in life that we have created for ourselves. Some do obtain their statuses in life through shrewdness and manipulation, but these positions have limited staying power. The kind of position we should desire in this life comes from what we sow in the lives of others, and it is not a respect that can be demanded. Precisely the opposite. To be known as a person of integrity. To be trusted as a person of character. To be remembered as a person of kindness and courage. These are powerful positions to occupy, yet they come through the path of service and humility. We shouldn't do good only when we believe we are likely to receive praise, but this should not hinder us from always striving to do things that are praiseworthy.

When it's all said and done, a throne of praise is better than a throne of iron any day.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Prayer for the Season

Our Loving Father in Heaven,

Before we awoke this morning, you were already blessing us. By your help we slept safely through the night, and because of your grace we can rise this day. We can open our eyes, stand, walk, talk, laugh, cry, hurt, and heal because you have given us the gifts of life, health, and a passionate, meaningful existence in this world. Our food, clothing, and shelter all come from things you yourself created and provided. We experience the joy of having them because of the talents and opportunities you've given us to prosper. When we look at our family and our friends, we know that these are all your children whom you've decided to share with us for a while. Help us to value the people around us who enrich our life and make it worth living. In fact, apart from your goodness and your generosity, we would have nothing and no one. All good things come from you. 

Thank you, Lord, for the joyful memories, the victories, and the successes, because these remind us that you hear our prayers and that you love us. Thank you also for the painful experiences, the failures, and the defeats, because they remind us how much we need you. Help us to make the most of this busy season, with the opportunities it provides to create memories with the people we love. Be especially near to our friends whose hearts are heavy right now because of those no longer among us, or those who may soon be departing. 

Lord, please work on the hearts of those who make themselves your enemies. Give them what experience they need to awaken them and to help them come to their senses. Work through us so that by the power of the Gospel, our enemies can become your friends. Reclaim and redeem them for more noble purposes. When a lost child wants to return to you, may they find us to be a welcoming family and a warm place to call home.  

We see, Lord, but please give us better vision. We love, Lord, but please give us deeper compassion. We speak, Lord, but please give us greater courage. We believe, Lord, but please help our unbelief. May our own joy be wrapped up in the things that bring your heart joy.

We approach you, Father, with the help of the Spirit, and through the power of Jesus' name. Amen.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Few Predictions

This is a post for my fellow Christians. I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I'd like to make a few predictions. I don't know about for you, but for me, social media has been nearly unbearable for the last couple of weeks. There are lots of people talking, but so few who are listening, and even fewer who seem interested in the credibility of what they are sharing. I try to remind myself that all complaining about social media is ridiculous, because participating in these platforms is a completely optional thing to do. But the truth is, we speak, post, and tweet from the overflow of our hearts (Luke 6:45). If social media is any indication, there are a lot of strong emotions, both positive and negative, which people have been feeling. 

So whether you are elated or horrified by current events, here are a few predictions I would like to make:

1. The world we live in will continue to be a messed up place.
Even when there are fixes for some of society's problems, other areas will be neglected, and still others may be over-corrected. People who've grown up one way in one place will continue having difficulty in understanding people who've grown up in another. No administration is ever going to relieve us of all problems. Our best case scenario for government is that it will make things better than they are for as many people as possible, and certainly, we hope and pray for this. But any government run by people will have all the flaws that its people do. This shouldn't surprise us. Only in the coming Kingdom of Christ can we know that all things will truly be as they should (Revelation 7:17). 

2. God will continue to do amazing things in the world, even through us.
It has never been our goal as people of faith to live in a problemless society. If we are willing to be taught, our problems can even be sources of tremendous personal growth for us when we persevere and endure. Life in this world will give us trouble, but Jesus has already overcome the world, and for this reason we should be encouraged (John 16:33). In fact, regardless of what happens with our nation or our culture, God is going to continue to work all things together for our good because we love him and he loves us (Romans 8:28). God has used good kings like David to bless nations (Acts 13:22), but he has also used terrible tyrants to serve his larger plan (Habakkuk 1:5-6). God is not limited by who is ruling over us. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will continue to witness God doing amazing things in our lives and around the world, no matter who sits on any throne or in any office. God is still with us, and God is at work. 

3. Your happiness will be affected much more by your choice to walk with God than by any other external factor.
The only thing in your life that is truly unchanging is the love of God. When you make your choices based on financial prospects, threats, relationships, or peer pressure, some decisions turn out well and others turn out poorly. But you will never regret any action you take that comes from a pure place in your heart, driven by compassion and faith. God's love stays with you, no matter what, and nothing can take it away from you (Romans 8:38-39). Every extra prayer you offer, every extra bit of encouragement you give, and every time you do something difficult because you've been motivated to do so by your love of Christ, these are things that go with us into eternity, enduring longer than the earth itself (1 Peter 1:7). 

I encourage you to do all the good that you can and give the best parts of yourself to what matters most, then let God worry about the rest.