Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Keeping the Disciples from Missing the Dance

I have never been the biggest fan of country music, but I sometimes enjoy late 80's and 90's country music. If I had to pick a country song to name as my favorite, it would have to be Garth Brook's The Dance. If you've never heard it, the song is essentially about a relationship that ends in heartbreak. The chorus goes like this,

And I, I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end, 
The way it all would go.
Oh, life is better left to chance,
I could have missed the pain, 
But I'd have had to miss the dance.

It's a beautifully heartbreaking song in which he contemplates the idea that, if he'd known beforehand how things would work out, he might not have ever chosen to go through with it. But after experiencing the pain, he's glad to have endured it because it was the only way to experience the love that came before it.

In Mark 8, Jesus' ministry reaches a turning point. Jesus asks his disciple's who people think He is and they tell him all of the theories that people have. But when He asks, "But you, who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ the Messiah!" (Mark 8:29, HCSB). But it's what happens afterwards that is interesting. After warning them not to tell anyone who He is, we read, "Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed and rise after three days" (Mark 8:31, HCSB).

Jesus waited until they figured out that he was the Messiah before he began to teach them about how much he would suffer. If Jesus had taught them about his suffering beforehand, they never would have believed He was the Messiah because that wasn't the kind of Messiah the Jewish people were looking for. They were wanting a conquering hero to liberate them from Rome, not someone who was going to suffer and die. So Jesus had to wait to teach them about his suffering until they understood that he really was the Messiah.

Sometimes, in our impatience, we want to know all of the steps that lay before us right now. We want to know how things are going to work out before we move forward. But many times, God waits to reveal the road ahead until we are already on it. If we knew what lay ahead, we might worry ourselves to death and not be able to move forward. We might make decisions that would never get us where we need to go. And so, sometimes, God waits until we're ready for it. Not because He's trying to manipulate us, but because He knows what we will think about it from both sides, knowing we might not be willing to go through it from this side but, just like Garth Brooks' dance, we'll know it was worth it on the other side. And He know that we might not understand it or accept it until we're a little farther down the road.

If you've been anxious because you want to know the road ahead and God hasn't shared it with you, if you are worried about how much you'll have to suffer and endure, remember that God knows how much you'll value it on the other side, that there may be a stepping stone we have to reach before we're ready to understand the path ahead. Trust that God, as the Great Teacher, will know when we're ready to know.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bashing Your Computer With a Baseball Bat

There's a scene in the movie Fireproof that is memorable for its radical nature. In the movie, Caleb Holt has decided to make one last ditch effort to save his marriage before throwing in the towel by following the daily advice in a journal given to him by his father. He commits to 40 days of trying to convince his wife that he still loves her and wants to save their marriage. When he realizes that pornography is one of the things disrupting his marriage, he takes the computer outside and bashes it to pieces with a baseball bat, then leaves a note in the place of the computer with a note that reads, "I love you more."

When God was instructing the Israelites about how to conduct themselves when they took over the Promised Land, God told them, "Destroy completely all the places where the nations that you are driving out worship their gods...tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn up their Asherah poles, cut down the carved images of their gods, and wipe out their names from every place" (Deuteronomy 12:2-3, NLT). God didn't command this because he was afraid that the Israelites would turn to other gods, but because he knew they would. Anytime we allow anything a place in our lives that can compete with our devotion to God, chances are it will. The only thing we can do to remove that possibility is to completely remove the competition. You see, Caleb Holt didn't destroy that computer because he was following a journal's advice and just blithely decided he didn't need it anymore. He found himself in a place where the urge to go to that forbidden website was so strong he realized the computer was controlling him rather than the other way around.

No matter what it is that competes for our attention and affection, the only safe course of action is to completely remove it from our lives. Whether it is pornography, like in Caleb's case, or alcohol, or an unhealthy relationship, or that dream job, or your past, sometimes the only way to make sure it doesn't destroy your relationship with God is to completely remove it. And the thing is, you can't wait until it has control of you. At that point it is too late. You have to remove it from your life before it's too much for you to handle.

Don't wait to get rid of anything that threatens to damage your relationship with God. God will always have the power to bring you back, but the life is a lot easier if you don't get that far.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Goading Jesus Into a Middle School Fight

In junior high, I had a run in with a student who was much larger than me. I was in the cafeteria before school with a friend who was trying to mess with me by marking on my book covers. I marked on his in return only to discover that the books in front of my friend were not his at all but they belonged to a much larger individual who was not happy with me...and I had unknowingly marked on his Malcolm X doodle.  He wanted me to fight him then and there but I refused, insisting that I had thought the book was my friend's and that I intended no disrespect. When the bell rang, this student followed me down the hall, hitting me in the back of the head every few feet. Later, at lunch, he cornered me and pushed me off the cement wall I had been sitting on. I "ninja rolled" back into a sitting position and sat down as if nothing had ever happened. He was trying to goad me into a fight, attempting to embarrass me and make me angry, and I refused to play his way. I refused to allow him to dictate my actions. Two days later, when I was asked about a rumor that I was a second degree black belt (I wasn't), I simply responded, "That's why I don't have to fight."

I am not the only one who has ever been the object of manipulation, who was goaded by someone wanting a specific response. In Matthew chapter 4, we read the account of the temptations of Jesus. A common theme running through the Devil's first two temptations was an attempt to goad Jesus into doing something. In the first temptation, the devil said,  “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” in the second temptation, he said,  “If you are the Son of God, jump off [this cliff]." (Matthew 4:3,6, NLT). In both instances, the devil tried to goad Jesus by getting him to prove himself, but that tactic only works on the insecure, on people who are uncertain of themselves and their gifts. If you are secure in who you are, those kinds of attacks cannot work.

That junior high student was unable to goad me into fighting because I knew who I was and refused to be manipulated. Jesus refused as well, knowing that the enemy's manipulation had no real power and that he had no need to prove himself. This should be our standard mode of operation. We have no need to prove ourselves, we must only be concerned with obeying the Father.

Rest secure in who you are as a child of the father. Don't let anyone goad you into sin.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Virtual Reality and Effective Medicine

A recurring theme explored by a number of science fiction shows and books is the idea of virtual reality. Each time I have seen virtual reality addressed I have seen a slightly different take on the subject. But one thing each of them had in common was the idea that what happened in the virtual reality could have very real consequences in the real world. For Stargate SG-1, the result of dying in virtual world was an adrenaline surge that would eventually make your heart give out if repeated often enough. For the Matrix dying inside the virtual world meant you died outside too. In Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time an injury received while dreaming would be waiting for you on waking. In all of these various imaginings, the details were slightly different but they all took into account the very real phenomenon that the mind affects the body.

We should not be surprised, then, that the author of proverbs understood this same principal. In Proverbs 17:22 we read, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength" (NLT).  Notice, he doesn't say that good medicine can restore a cheerful heart. Far too often we allow our physical conditions and our circumstances to determine whether we have a cheerful heart. We decide that we will be cheerful when things get better, that we deserve to be depressed, that we deserve to feel hopeless. And, maybe, we do deserve to feel depressed. Maybe, we do deserve to feel hopeless. But a broken spirit saps a person's strength.

Whatever you are going through right now, you may be perfectly within your rights to lay down and feel sorry for yourself. You may be in such difficult circumstances that no-one would blame you if you simply gave up. But giving up will never make things better. Allowing yourself to give in to a broken spirit will only steal the little strength you have left. But a cheerful heart is good medicine. You can choose to have a cheerful heart right now in the middle of your circumstances. You can choose to smile, not because everything is OK, but because you believe everything will be ok. You can choose to remember that God is in control and that God takes care of his children.

Don't allow your heart or your attitude to be determined by your circumstances. Choose the attitude that will help you to improve the circumstances.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Iocaine Powder and a Diet of Vegetables

The Princess Bride was one of my favorite movies growing up. In fact, I tried to novelize the movie and was a couple chapters into writing it out when I realized the movie really did come from a book and S. Morgenstern really did exist. One of the most memorable scenes from that movie is the battle of wits between Vinzini and the Man in Black, two men battling to the death, using only their intellects. Vinzini was supposed to guess which of the two wine goblets the Man in Black had poisoned with iocaine powder. The winner would get to keep the kidnapped princess while the loser died of poisoning. Rather than simply talking about who was smartest, they decided to put it to the test. Unfortunately, the idea of poisoning both drinks with a poison to which the Man in Black was immune never occurred to Vinzini.

In the book of Daniel, four young men also found themselves in a position where their beliefs were pitted against another's. Having been captured and re-educated by king Nebuchadnezzar after the conquest of Jerusalem, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were being told they needed to eat the king's meat which had probably been involved with sacrifices to idols. When Daniel requested a different diet, their caretaker warned them that he would lose his job if they showed up looking less healthy and robust than the other captives. Rather than accepting the argument that the king's meat would bring better health than the vegetables they had requested, Daniel responded, “Please test us for ten days on a diet of vegetables and water. At the end of the ten days, see how we look compared to the other young men who are eating the king’s food. Then make your decision in light of what you see.” (Daniel 1:12-13, NLT) Daniel didn't accept the caretaker's rational but asked for a chance to prove his own, to put it to the test.

Like Daniel, we live in a world which believes very differently than our own faith has taught us to believe. We live in a world where we are told that abstaining from sex before marriage is unhealthy, where disciplining your child is considered archaic, and where getting ahead is the highest virtue. These things and many more are often in direct conflict with our faith but we often forfeit the argument when that conflict occurs. Instead of wimping out, let's take the attitude Daniel had and challenge the accepted norms. Let us say, "Test me! Let me try it my way while you try it your and let's see what happens." Allow those tests not only to serve as confirmation for you but as a witness to a world that desperately needs a light to shine in the darkness.

When conflict arises between the tenets of your faith and the world's belief system, don't just accept their arguments about what is best. Put them to the test and give God a chance to prove his word.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pitching Well to Save God's Reputation

In the movie Little Big League, a twelve year old boy gets the chance to manage a major league baseball team. One of the players, a pitcher, doesn't like the idea of playing for a twelve year old and threatens his young manager with playing very poorly if he doesn't get traded off the team. The boy tells him that he will not be traded and reminds the pitcher that, when his contract is up, no one will want a pitcher who didn't pitch well. Suddenly, for the sake of his own reputation and in order to be valuable enough for someone else to sign him, he pitches extremely well. The twelve year old manager just had to remind the pitcher that his own reputation was at stake.

A similar dynamic exists at times throughout scripture with God being reminded his reputation is at stake. Perhaps the first time we see it blatantly is with Moses. God has just given Moses the law and before Moses comes down from the mountain, the Israelites have  formed a golden calf and begin worshiping it with pagan rituals. God, in his anger warns Moses that he is going to destroy the rebellious, idolatrous Israelites and start over with Moses.  But Moses tried to pacify the Lord his God. “O  Lord!” he said. “Why are you so angry with your own people whom you brought from the land of Egypt with such great power and such a strong hand? Why let the Egyptians say, ‘Their God rescued them with the evil intention of slaughtering them in the mountains and wiping them from the face of the earth’? Turn away from your fierce anger. Change your mind about this terrible disaster you have threatened against your people!" (Exodus 32:11-12, NLT). With the fate of Israel at stake, Moses reminds God that his reputation was also at stake.

Too often we lose sight of what is most important: that God is glorified so that the world is drawn to the Savior. We ask God to provide for us because we need something, because it is good for us. We ask God to move in a person's life because they need it. Those reasons are well and good. But what about the times when we don't deserve to have God intervene in our lives? What happens when the person we are praying for is openly rebellious against God? When we have no ground to stand on, we need to shift our focus back to where it always belonged in the first place: on bringing God glory. When we have failed, or are on the verge of failing, when doing so would be detrimental to God's glory, when it would be "bad"for God's reputation, when we finally realize how poorly we ourselves have handled God's reputation, we can pray for God to move for the sake of God's reputation.

We may not deserve for God to use us, we may not deserve for God to move in our lives, but God always deserves to be glorified. When we can shift our focus back to that truth, it should affect both our behavior and our prayers.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Letting Someone Sacrifice You

When I was in college, I had a very close female friend and the two of us were "not dating." One night I met up with her briefly before she ran off to do something else and God spoke to me very clearly, letting me know that she was going to "lay me on the altar." The next day when she wanted to talk to me, she used those exact words, "I'm laying you on the altar." Having been prepared for the conversation, I was able to handle it fairly well. But I also began to think a lot about an often overlooked biblical character, Isaac.

Not long after God assured Abraham that Ishmael would be taken care of and had him sent away, God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a way of testing Abraham. Being well over 100 years old, Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice up a mountain.  Isaac was knowledgeable enough about the sacrificial process to ask his father where the sacrifice actually was since they hadn't taken one with them. Then when they reached the top of the mountain, Isaac did something extraordinary. When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9, NLT). Did you catch that? This young man who was strong enough to carry firewood up a mountain and smart enough to know what was going on allowed a man 100 years his senior to tie him up and prepare him as a sacrifice!

Sometimes, the people around us have to experience some difficult things. Sometimes they have to give things up in order to grow and mature. Sometimes they have to let go of things that interfere with their relationship with God. And sometimes that something is us.

One thing that being Christ-like means is being willing to be sacrificed for someone else's good, which is very different than sacrificing for someone else's good. When we sacrifice, we make the choice. When we are sacrificed someone else makes the choice and we have to live with it. Isaac allowed himself to be sacrificed in much the same way that Jesus allowed the people of his day to put him on a cross. Both men could have stopped the events and choose not to.

Maybe, today, you are being sacrificed. Maybe someone is in the process of giving you up or leaving you behind because doing so is necessary for them to grow up or move on with their lives. If so, let me tell you that being sacrificed is never fun; it can leave you feeling rejected, unappreciated and undervalued. But if you make the choice to allow yourself to be sacrificed, if you can choose to accept the heartache and pain for someone else's good, you will be at least one step closer to knowing what Jesus went through and who Jesus really is. And you will be practicing a love that is concerned with the other person rather than with yourself.

The next time you are sacrificed, how will you respond? Will you focus on the feelings of hurt? Or will you find a way to embrace being sacrificed?