What God Sees in You

So after a long, unintentional hiatus, I find myself writing a new post for this blog. Part of it is the New Year; I really enjoyed the short amount of time when I was regularly writing for this blog, and starting this year I would like to get back into it for various reasons.

One large reason for me in particular is that I am going to be leading a Bible study with my local church, sort of. It’s a responsibility, a leadership position. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I need to be the one who talks all the time, but it does mean that in some form or fashion, people are going to be looking to me in various ways for various things. And that scares me in some way.

Now, as I have spoken with friends and family, they’ve reassured me that I’ll do a great job. I’ve seen some of those short sayings like, “You are never too small for God to use you,” and “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” Yet there is something about these interactions that I have not found fulfilling. They don’t really answer the thoughts of my heart and soul.

So, as I was thinking about all of this, my mind happened on the story of Gideon, found in Judges 6. When the angel appears to Gideon, he is beating wheat in the winepress because the Midianites are stealing food from Israel so that there isn’t enough food to eat. In other words, Gideon is either hiding or has been hidden away. Based on that alone, he appears either a weakling or a coward.

Then, when the angel of the Lord appears to him, he says, “The Lord is with you, o mighty man of valor!” (v. 12) Gideon protests the first part of that statement by asking how it’s possible for God to be with Israel when they are being starved by their enemy, but the part that I clue in on is the second part. The angel of the Lord called Gideon a mighty man of valor, i.e. a strong and courageous person, at a point when there has been no evidence of such traits in Gideon. If anything, he looks like a weakling at best, a coward at worst.

So why did the angel say this? Because God knew what Gideon was going to become, because God knew what Gideon had the capacity to become. And the same is true for those who are trying to follow Jesus: God knows who we are and he knows who we can become. I think that oftentimes, when I read that God knows me better than I know myself, I’m intimidated by that because, well, I know that there’s sin in my life that even I haven’t noticed…but I often forget that this also applies to the good in us.

This, I think, is a deep and profound truth. God declared Gideon to be a mighty man of valor, even though on the surface Gideon wasn’t that person. But God knew what was in Gideon, and he knew that Gideon could and would become that mighty man of valor who would lead God’s people. The same is true for you. God knows the good you can do and the person you can become. Not only has he put good things in you, but if you are trying to follow Jesus and have his Spirit within you, He is in you. We can’t just allow ourselves to say, “I can’t do this; I don’t have it in me.” If the Spirit of God is in you, then you will always have it in you.

Now, what that looks like may depend on who you are and what your challenge is. God’s power in your life may be that you have the humility to ask someone for help with a serious fear you have. It might be wisdom to ask the right questions as you try to make a life-changing decision. It might be nothing more than confidence and contentment through a dark and stormy season of life. It might be the strength to triumph over things that have chained you.

Whatever your situation, I think it is really easy to fall into the trap of feeling like life has presented you with a challenge that you cannot face alone. In a way, this is true: I believe that at some point, everyone hits a problem they can’t face alone. But if you are following Jesus, you aren’t alone. You are with Jesus. And guess what: he forgives us and, instead of seeing the sins we’ve committed, he sees who we can become if we walk by faith. The question is, will we trust him?

The Sabbath: For Our Benefit?

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
–Exodus 20:8-11

Ever reach a point where you have just been going too hard and too fast for too long? That’s kind of where I am this afternoon. It seems like there is way too much going on to keep up with and all of it is urgent. It’s on days like today that I try to give myself a little more time to just rest. I try to take a Sabbath, which literally means “stop.” I try to use Sunday afternoons as my stop day, a time when I can reset my meter and get ready for the week ahead.

Now, there is considerable debate in Christian circles about “should we keep the Sabbath by not working on Sundays,” which in turn leads to a whole lot of other discussions about what the Sabbath was, how Jesus addressed it, how all of the New Testament addresses the topic and so on. As much as I would like to engage in that discussion, today I would much rather discuss the purpose behind the Sabbath, the “stop day” that God commanded. What if it was more for our benefit?

Did I just use “lolcat” in my blog about Jesus and faith? Yes, yes I did.

You see, Western culture today is a place where our collective attitude seems to be, “You need to be working all the time.” Some of us (and perhaps, many of us?) feel like we are constantly on the razor’s edge, that at any moment our lives could fall apart if we aren’t working. That breeds fear inside of us, and fear is never from God. God works through faith, and taking a Sabbath – taking time to do nothing except relax, honor God and reset your meter – is an act of faith. Taking a Sabbath is an implicit statement that honoring God is more important than anything else we can do, even if that means that we don’t get some really important things done.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you get less done as a result of taking a Sabbath. In fact, I believe that when you honor God in this way he gives you the strength to get more done. Although I think there is a body of scientific studies to back me up, it is my personal belief that those who take a stretch of time to relax not only get about the same amount done, but they live happier and healthier lives too. That contrasts with most of us who try to work 24/7, which I believe is a contributing factor to the rise in stress-related illnesses and other problems that are becoming more widespread in our work-obsessed culture.

I’m not promoting the “health, wealth and prosperity” gospel here; I’m not saying that God wants everyone to live lives of unending bliss. I hope that I’m simply asking the question, What if God actually gave us the Sabbath commandment so we can lead better lives, so that in honoring Him we find in Him the strength to do better? What if in setting time aside to honor God, He actually cultivates joy and strength in us that helps us to lead better lives?

Now, does that mean Christians have to refrain from working on the Sabbath? That’s a big topic for another day.

Whether you are or are not trying to follow Jesus, have you ever gone through periods of time where you refrained from working during certain periods of time? What did you do and not do to relax? Did you notice any change in your outlook on life during that time?

Easter

So most people are probably aware that Easter is here. For one, Wal-Mart makes a whole aisle of their store dedicated to Easter chocolate – the cream-filled chocolate eggs (which are my favorite), chocolate bunnies and so forth. Easter egg hunts are a fun activity that churches and families do. But as with Christmas these things are only add-ons and commercialized forms of what the holiday is really about.

This is not what Easter is about.

So, why do Christians make a big deal about Easter? It’s all about the fact that Jesus – the man who we are trying to follow – died, and then…something happened. The tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty. The Jews explained it away: “The disciples or someone else stole the body.” Modern skeptics have argued that a man named Jesus never existed to die and be buried in the first place. That would certainly cast a shadow on Christian teaching, for “if Christ is not raised [from death], [our] faith is futile.” (I Corinthians 15:17)

I can’t speak for someone else, so I’ll just speak for me. I don’t think that that’s the case. First of all, the story of Jesus is a story set in factual history. The land of Palestine exists; the Roman empire was real; the Pharisees and Sadducees and other major groups of people really existed. The Gospels are really nothing more than personal accounts from four random guys that Jesus said, “Hey you, follow me.” These were real people who really wrote down (or narrated) what they saw, heard, felt and experienced.

When you sit in a courtroom and listen to eyewitness testimony, you aren’t looking for everyone to say the exact same thing. Sometimes one person notices something that the others don’t notice; sometimes different people confuse the order of events. In the case of the Gospels, we even have entirely different audiences and the person writing (or narrating) the Gospel is trying to make a different point from the others. However, what we have instead is this: we have the equivalent of hours of eyewitness testimony from these four men who had every logical reason to tell us a different story.

Among other things, their self-representations in the stories they told were often less than stellar, yet the disciples seemed to not be too worried about telling their audiences about their own mistakes. Even when people tell the truth, they often shy away from the embarrassing details about themselves. If someone tells you something authentically embarrassing about themselves, then you can guess that they are telling you the truth as best as they can. Plus, in telling others about Jesus, they were ostracized from the Jews. In such a culture where so much of your identity came from the fact that you were a Jew, they rejected that. They gained no wealth, no political capital, no nothing. If these men were pulling stuff out of the sky just to make people like them, they weren’t very good at it.

Another great example is the fact that women were the ones who first discovered the empty tomb. In that Middle Eastern culture, women weren’t allowed to testify in a court of law. Women’s testimony was considered unreliable, so the fact that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb was an embarrassment to the disciples; they  were actually making it less likely that people would believe them. Why would they do that if none of it happened?

In a way, those who are following Jesus celebrate Easter year-round. The Easter story is about a man who claimed to be God in the flesh and then backed that claim up when he came back to life 3 days after his death.

Also understand that at its heart, the Easter celebration is the heart of the disciples’ message. The disciples were not theologians and they weren’t trying to create a  religion. Their message centered on a very simple statement: “This man named Jesus was as dead as dead can be.  I saw him die. And then three days later, he stood before all of us. He was alive again.”

Could the disciples have lied? Sure, but it would go against everything we know about human motivation. Most people lie in order to make themselves look better or to gain something – political power, money, status, etc. These men gained none of these by saying what they said. Could they have imagined it? It’s possible, but doubtful. It wasn’t like Peter was looking at a shadow and saying, “Guys, there he is! Don’t you see him?” Could it have been a collective delusion? It could have, but that would go against everything we know about psychology and sociology. Hallucinations are a highly individual experience. Like dreams, they are based out of a person’s psyche so if they had been hallucinating they wouldn’t have all seen the same thing. Instead, they all saw the same thing: Jesus standing before them in flesh, even talking with them in a group setting for long periods of time, eating, etc.

Are there additional arguments that can be brought against the Resurrection claim? Sure, but I can’t cover all of them. Besides, some of the objections I have already brought up seek to invalidate the experience of these 12 human beings and very simply, that irritates me. When you try to invalidate the experience of human beings, you begin to act like they were too stupid or too ignorant to know the truth. It comes across as very arrogant and dismissive. If I came up to you and said, “Let me tell you why all of your life experiences that shape who you are are invalid,” odds are you wouldn’t like it. I’m a big fan of asking pointed questions, but I’m also a big fan of not belittling or dismissing the experiences of other people.

This is why I believe that Jesus is still alive today and this is why I am trying to follow him. I believe that Jesus was a real man who really died, and then a considerable number of people saw Jesus alive again at the same time, in the same place. It isn’t about chocolate bunnies or fertility rituals of ancient cultures; it’s about the fact that a human being rose from the dead.

If the story isn’t true, then Christianity is a huge, complex lie that men throughout history have used to justify both great good and great evil. But if the story is true, then that radically changes everything we know about reality. So, for me, that is the most important question that you can ask: did Jesus come back to life, or didn’t he? If he stayed dead, then he was just another good guy with some nice thoughts. If he didn’t stay dead then his words are worth taking a second look at.

Proverbs: On Being an Idiot

Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life,
    but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.

–Proverbs 10:17

–Said no one ever.

Nobody likes being corrected. Not even me, and I’ve had a reputation most of my life of being the “teacher’s kid,” the “good guy.” I hate having to be corrected. When I was young, I remember having to be corrected often and every now and then, I remember wanting to do exactly what I was being told not to do. Whatever I was being told to do, I wanted to do the opposite. You could call it rebellion, defiance or being obstinate, whichever you prefer.

The fact is, I am an idiot. There is a strong chord in me that would rather not be corrected when I’m doing something wrong. It hurts my ego, which would prefer to be told how wonderful I am and how everything I do is perfect. I think I’m in good company. This is a personal opinion, but I believe that we in the United States are actually encouraged to hate those who wield authority because they have the power to correct us.

Coming against my stupidity is wisdom, which says that those who heed discipline – those who learn to listen to correction – lead a better life. Taken in stride, correction can lead you in a better direction. Correction from your parents (assuming they are teaching you right from wrong) can help you become a better student, a better adult in the making. Correction from a police officer can teach you to drive slower and get fewer speeding tickets. Correction from teachers can not only help you get better grades, but it can actually set you up to learn more. Correction can be a good thing if you respond well to it.

Now, it is crucial to point out that you have the power to decide what to do when you are corrected. You can either listen and respond positively, or you can refuse to listen. When you refuse to listen to correction…well, you see where this is going. Most of us will work with someone at a job who is like this. They keep doing the same things wrong and no matter who tries to help them – even if it’s their manager – they refuse to listen. This proverb basically adds, “Not only do they keep doing the wrong thing, they actually encourage others to do the same!”

No one likes correction, but we all have the power to respond to correction from others. So, how will we respond?

Spiritual Disciplines: What’s the Point?

As much as I joke in the presence of my friends and family about being old, I know that I’m really young. On the grand scale of life, I’ve only been an adult for a moment. As I am maturing, I am still learning a powerful principle of life: how you spend your time is a reflection of what’s important to you. If you can frequently be found in a gymnasium, people just might get the impression that health is important to you. If you spend a lot of time a work, that’s probably something that’s important to you. There might be other motives at work, but what you do still says a lot about who you are.

Why do people trying to follow Jesus end up coming to churches, reading the Bible and other things?

For those who are not trying to follow Jesus, I’m sure that we who are trying to follow Jesus might seem a bit odd in how we spend our time. We go to this thing simple known as “church,” and sometimes we do it in spite of everything else we need to do. There are some people who believe that following Jesus means that they shouldn’t do any work on Sunday, which probably seems really odd to those outside of faith. Then, we’re supposed to do this thing called “prayer,” where we talk to a divine God about stuff, and then we’re always told that we’re supposed to read this book called the Bible that was supposedly written thousands of years ago so that we could understand this thing called following Jesus. And these are just the beginning of what we Christians call “spiritual disciplines,” which is a big, nebulous word that probably doesn’t sound very self-explanatory.

What’s the point behind these things, behind spiritual disciplines? Well, first of all let’s talk about what spiritual disciplines mean and don’t mean. For example, doing spiritual disciplines does not make you holy, nor will you get to Heaven just because you prayed a prayer or read a book. You can read your Bible everyday while never getting anything out of it. If you are just going through the motions when you read your Bible, you’re missing out. The Bible is very clear on that point. You can read the Bible and not even be a Christian who is trying to follow Jesus. I’d bet that there are a few people out there who enjoy reading the Bible just because of the history or literary aspects of it.

Catholic churches during the Middle Ages used stained glass images to help teach their illiterate congregations the stories of the Bible. That way, they didn’t have to be able to read a Bible in order to understand the Bible’s stories.

However, even if you are a follower of Jesus, you don’t have to read your Bible everyday. Think of this: for the first 1,500 years of the Church’s history, not everyone could read and access to any reading material was very limited. Historically, that’s why the Catholic Church started using images of common Bible stories as teaching tools for their congregation. So, if they had a stained-glass picture of the baby Jesus in the church, any passerby could see that image and be reminded, “Jesus came down to Earth to dwell among us.”

So, the point of reading your Bible – or any spiritual discipline – isn’t to get on God’s good side. The story of Jesus is that God loves you, period. Even if you’ve been a total punk, God just flat loves you. But for most of us, we come to Jesus understanding that much of our life has been spent on useless, selfish things. That’s a fundamental part of sin: sin wastes. God gives all men and women energy, strength, and time to bring good things into the world, to make God’s presence known in the world. When we use those energies on ourselves instead, we are being sinful. We are wasting what God has given us on things that do not have any lasting significance.

So, when you come to the point where you can admit to God that you are a waster – that you have misused the gifts he has given you – then you come the point where you ask God’s forgiveness for your waste and you repent. Repentance is us saying to God, “God, help me to not be a waster anymore. I want my life to matter. I want what I do to count towards something worthwhile.” That is what spiritual disciplines accomplish. By reading your Bible, you start putting God’s words and thoughts into your mind so that they can change you from the inside out. By praying, you start interacting with God and asking him to use you in such a way that the world is a better place.

But the real point of spiritual discipline? Jesus said, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” (John 15:4) Let’s say that someone who was both really famous and also someone you really admired moved in next door to you and they said to you the next day, “Hey, let’s be friends.” As you build a friendship with that person, you start to learn who they are. You learn what makes them laugh, what disappoints them, what angers them and so on. You begin to “remain” with that person so that throughout the day, you hear their voice in your head. Not in a psychic way, but you begin to think to yourself, “Here’s what this person would say to them” or “Here’s how she would respond to that.” That, I think, is the true essence of remaining in Jesus. As you follow Jesus and you remain in him, you begin to think like he thinks, respond how he would respond so that you would begin to look like Jesus in the middle of your boring, mundane life.

And make no mistake, that is what spiritual discipline is all about. It isn’t about getting to Heaven; that’s already taken care of. It isn’t about going through the motions. It isn’t about just becoming a better person, though hopefully if you are committing yourself to Jesus in spiritual disciplines you will start to become a new person. It isn’t even about making a difference in the world, though if you are following Jesus and becoming friends with him you will start to change you world for the better. Spiritual disciplines help you spend time with Jesus. As you do that, you come to know Jesus, and then you start becoming a better person and then you can start changing the world for good.

This is the first in a series of posts that I would like to do where I discuss the whats, wheres and hows the spiritual disciplines.

What is your understanding of spiritual disciplines? If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, is there something in particular that we do that seems odd or weird?

Romans 13: Respect for Government Leaders (seriously?!)

In one of my last posts on politics, I discussed how Jesus responded to the question of politics and taxes in his day. That naturally leaves us with the question of, what does the Bible have to say about our modern political process? That’s where we pick up in the book of Romans:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

–Romans 13:1-7

Now, let’s acknowledge right up front that there has been abuse of this scripture in the past. In ages past, scriptures like this one were used as a hammer to beat down on people who challenged the authority of a “divinely-appointed” king. That is not at all what this scripture is saying. Let’s also acknowledge up front that our political sensibilities are very different from that of 2,000 years ago. In democratic societies of today, we at least have a say in who governs us. If we don’t like our political leaders, there’s always a chance that they’ll be voted out of office. In fact, in the United States we are taught that we have a right to do that. Paul and the Roman Christians had no such expectation. And by the way, that doesn’t make them less intelligent or sophisticated human beings.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent. As it expanded, Rome incorporated worship practices from other people groups like the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and others.

The governing authorities that Paul was referring to when he wrote the book of Romans were not so different from the ones I discussed in my post on Jesus and politics. The Christians were subjects of Rome, which publicly endorsed the worship of any number of gods. If you take a look at Roman history, the Romans were about as religiously inclusive as they could be. As the empire spread to Egypt and the Middle East, the Romans would incorporate worship of Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities into their religious traditions. Not only did the Romans endorse pagan deities, but Rome as a whole rejected Christianity and even persecuted the Church. (It wasn’t constant, but it did happen.)

These were the same authorities that Paul told Christians that they had to submit to! Paul even told the Christians to honor their political authorities. What sense does that make? It seems that Paul is making an argument that because God made the world and all of mankind is a creation of God, all human authorities are ultimately responsible to God for how they use their political power. Even the political authorities that deny God are still responsible to him and God uses them to keep humankind from descending into chaos.

Now, that does bring us to a whole host of questions about authority: what about evil dictators who kill their own people? Do we respect them or is there not some point at which we should depose them for no other reason than to preserve human life? Those are hard questions and I would rather not try answering them until I have more of a chance to consider them carefully. Besides, that is not really the point I’m trying to make with this post.

My point is, the Bible’s unified message seems to be that if we are trying to be faithful to God and follow Jesus, we have a debt of respect and honor to our political leaders even if they hate God and hate us.

Respect is in short supply in today’s political discourse. If we were simply more respectful to people of differing political beliefs, that alone could bring health and wellness back to our discourse.

If there is one political issue that gets me worked up, it’s this issue of respect. When I was in high school, George Bush was still the President. It always grated on my nerves to hear people refer to George Bush as “the dumbest president we’ve ever had.” It wasn’t because I was particularly fond of Bush; it was because they were being so disrespectful to him, essentially saying, “Yeah, I could do a better job than Bush.” No, you couldn’t. In spite of his accent, he went to college and he spent years of his life as the president, giving him experience. Instead of using such extreme statements, wouldn’t it be more honest and respectful to just say, “I don’t like Bush’s politics?” or even “I don’t think he’s qualified to be president?”

Now I know people who refer to President Barack Obama as “the worst president we’ve ever had,” as though they could do a better job than him. I’ll admit that I don’t like Barack Obama as President. Why? I don’t agree with his politics. That’s all. But at the same time, he is my president and he deserves my respect. I’m not saying that everyone has to like their political leaders and I’m not saying that we can’t have a healthy, honest discussion about which politicians we disagree with. I’m saying that we can disagree with the decisions our leaders make and still show them respect.

It seems out of fashion to show respect to those whose politics are diametrically opposed to our own, but let me remind us all: Jesus showed respect to the Roman authorities who would authorize his crucifixion. Paul told the Roman Christians to be submissive to the political authorities who might have been responsible for the cruel deaths of their spouses, siblings and children at some point or another. Even in the Old Testament, David refused to kill Saul even though Saul was literally hunting David down to kill him (see I Samuel 24). If that is the standard for treating those who hate us, why are we so disrespectful and even hateful to our political leaders when their only crime against us is not believing what we believe?

Just so I’m clear, I also acknowledge that there’s plenty of room for me to grow in this area of respect. I’ve been known to have rant-fests about politicians from time to time and I’m not always respectful to those I am disagreeing with. So…

How can we show respect to our political leaders? How can we honor our leaders who believe differently from us, even when we are stating why we disagree with them?

Where to, Captain?

So, this is a blog about a guy (me) who is trying to follow Jesus, and I’m hoping that I can share some of that journey with you. What could that involve?

Well, to begin with, I hope to share some thoughts from my personal study time in my Bible and other Christian literature. As someone who’s trying to follow Jesus, I want to do more than just read my Bible; I want to understand it, and I’ve often heard that one of the best ways to learn something is to try teaching it to someone else.

I also try to keep up with current events, so I may once in a while post a response to something going on in the news. If Christ was involved in the world around him – and I believe that he was based on my reading of the Gospels – I believe that those of us trying to follow Him should also be involved in the world.

“You’ve steered us toward philosophical discussions! What’s the matter with you?!”

Though I’m not a theologian, I do also think it will be interesting to take on big questions of faith from time to time: the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, the divinity of Jesus, etc. I will try to be careful with this because no matter how much I read, think and talk about these subjects from people, I always feel woefully inadequate to really tackle these questions. Even so, Jesus never ran from hard questions and so I’ll do my best not to.

Whatever I’m talking about – be it theology, philosophy, current events, the Bible, Christianity, or Jesus himself – I will always do my best to give authentic responses. Honestly, I have some eclectic opinions and I expect that some of my readers will disagree with me and with one another. That doesn’t mean we’re sick or wrong; it means that we’re different people. A lot of people today think that differences in opinions are a bad thing. I happen to believe that differences in opinion can make us a stronger community if we deal with those differences in a healthy way.

But what about you, the reader? Is there anything that you would like to discuss or hear me talk about on this blog? I doubt I can get to all requests, but I do value the input of my readership. Leave your suggestions in comments. Thanks!