Birth

Jesus once told his disciples a prophecy of what the end times would be like. He said there would be wars and rumors of wars and great hardships and tribulations that would be like birth pains. Then, the end would come.

Now that I am on the verge of becoming a first time father, I begin to relate a little better to this story. I used to think, “no big deal, just be patient and then it will happen.” What I had not accounted for, however, is the anxiety of waiting.

Weeks away from the projected birth date, there are “practice contractions”. These false contractions don’t really feel like the real thing and they don’t effectively do anything for delivery. However, they are not comfortable and they make my wife stop what she’s doing until they subside. When I see this, I stop and think, “Is this it? Is it go time?” And I mentally prepare to kick myself into gear and get us to the hospital. In the end, these practice contractions are not the real thing, but they are a sign to those who know to watch that the day will soon be here.

Looking at human history, we can see that the wars and the false wars have not been the end. The plagues and the famines, though devastating, have not ushered in the time to come. Yet, they have all caused those who know to watch to stop and consider, could this be it?

In the next several weeks, I can expect more practice contractions. However, I know that soon, the real ones will start. These will be bigger, more painful, and much more regular. They will no longer suggest that the day is coming, but that day is here. And yet, it will still not be the hour. I will begin running, urgently doing things to make preparations. Though, if the majority of those preparations have not been completed in advance, then what little has been done will be all that could be done. There will be a time when the signs are so obvious, everyone can see what is about to happen. And yet, the thing is not yet happening.

Finally, after everything has been gathered and we have arrived in the room for delivery, still the real contractions will proceed. Bigger. More violent. Harder to bear than ever before. Until…

Birth.

Dust

From dust I come, to dust I aim.

Dust I am and dust my name.

To dust you give your name.

From dust spreads your fame.

 

Back to dust once again

My body turns in sin.

Rejecting your breath

to dust I turn in death.

 

On this dust you pour

Living water to restore.

You animate this clay

to walk a new way.

 

From dust again,

New life within,

Your sons and daughters

Made new again.

100 Years of Groaning

Throughout my life, there has been one thing that I have resisted more than any other. I wish this could be some form of sin or another, but it’s not. Naturally, there are many sins I’ve dealt with but those are not what drive weariness down in my soul. Rather, I have resisted spending my time in prayer unless I’ve felt it absolutely necessary. I have not been what you would call a man of prayer.

Prayer is one of those disciplines that we Christians are taught to do and are expected to be good at. If you’re a good Christian, you pray. Yet, regarding prayer, I find myself to be more like the Israelites in the days of the Judges than any of the Christians that I look up to.

When I read over the passages in the Old Testament, I see page after page of Israelites suffering under the oppression of their enemies. Sometimes, the opponent would dominate for 50 or 60 years, sometimes it would be 200 or 300 years. Then God would finally respond to the crisis saying something like, “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant. Ex. 6:5” Then the people would be delivered.

The reasons listed for the oppression vary, but they all come essentially to the same root: nobody cares to pray to God and He knows it. They often would rather sit in suffering or ask help from somewhere else than do the simple thing of asking the Lord for deliverance.

For that matter, I could be worse than the Israelites. Often, I find that I don’t want to ask anyone for anything. It’s a simple thing to call the bank when my card is not working, but I don’t want to do it. Instead, I wait and try again later, “maybe it’s fixed?” Still nothing.

But Chronicles tells us the real answer to the problem. Rather than sitting in the dust groaning and wondering if anyone out there will take interest and show mercy, there is a direct route to receiving rescue. Second Chronicles 7:14 says, “Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”

The recipe is simple. God may rescue us if we moan about something long enough to no one in particular. But He will forgive us and heal our broken land if we repent of our wickedness and seek after him.

If this doesn’t work then consider James 4:2b-3 “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

If you have checked yourself and know that your prayer is humble and that your desire is for the Lord and your prayer is still going unanswered then look to the example of the Israelite exiles in Babylon. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”” Daniel‬ ‭3:16-18.

You see, this is the kind of prayer we need. The Lord desires to answer us and bring us back to Him. He wants us to have good things. But, he also wants us to desire Him above all else. The hard part about prayer isn’t asking God to give us things, rather it is praising Him and turning from our wickedness even if we might not get the thing we’re after.

If we could humble ourselves and pray, maybe we wouldn’t have to sit in the dust, groaning for a hundred years.

The Strangest Nation

As we rise this morn and look to the hills, the son rises over.

His star, shining bright against the backdrop of night, the seraphim stand in awe.

The birth of a child, holiness rending the night.

Warriors stand guard, awaiting the coming of the great King. Should they fight? Is his reign threatening?

Kings and emperors seek their signs, what could they mean?

For today we witness the birth of the one true King and the rise of the strangest nation.

It is not for reindeer or gifts or sleigh that we celebrate this winter day.

The start, the flash, of the immortal come to inhabit this earthly portal.

The birth of the one who battles not with sword or arrow, but with holiness and power.

The beginning of a new kind of people who follow a new kind of way.

For it is not flesh against flesh or spirit against spirit this King does battle.

Love and righteousness are his weapons and his enemy, death.

And by death, his nation is shattered. And by new life his nation established.

And who are these people following the King? The strangest nation, rising into suffering.

For it is not by sword and arrow that they do battle. But by justice and love they bring peace.

Obedient, they pay taxes to kings that are not their King.

Dual citizens, they fight battles against enemies that are not their Enemy.

Rich, they give what they have to the poor, yet great is their increase.

Who are this number who claim allegiance to One but devote service to others?

It is none but the strangest nation, rising at the birth of the one true King.

Every tribe and every language, bound up in holiness, loyal to He who comes on seraph’s wing.

Immortal, born mortal to end our suffering.

Check Out Those Golden Calves

One of the best things about the Bible is that the lessons it teaches grow with you. When I was a teenager, I set out to understand Christianity as it is rather than the spiritually ambiguous thing that I had grown up with. The best way I knew how was to read the Bible since that was the holy text of the religion. What I found was not a list of do’s and don’ts but rather the story of the people of Israel. One of my favorite sections outlines the rule of Kings or Israel and what went wrong in their lives.

The one judgement that is repeated most often in the books of the Kings was a line, “but King _____ continued in the sins of his father and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” When I was younger, I did not understand what that meant but merely thought, “this king is a bad dude, I wonder what else he did.” The text would often tell of one or two terrible infractions and then move on to the next king. What I had failed to notice in those statements about the sins of their fathers was that they were all following in the sins of this man called Jeroboam, son of Nebat.

So… what did Jeroboam do that set up generation after generation of Israelites to sin a sin so bad that it led to the ultimate downfall of Israel?

King Jeroboam  was the first king of Samaria, the Northern Tribes of Israel. While king, he did many things that would cause Samaria to fall out of favor with the Lord, including building temples to worship Baal and Asherah. This would probably have been enough to justify God’s punishment of his people, however the Lord often showed a great deal of mercy when dealing with this kind of sin. For example, Judah, the southern two tribes of Israel, was not destroyed until much later even though they too had alters devoted to the pagan gods of the Canaanites.

The sin that led Jeroboam’s people into destruction had to do with something he did at the start of his reign. In order to prevent Israel from worshiping the Lord YHWH in Jerusalem, he made a pair of golden calves and set them up on two mountains for the people to worship instead. This particular idolatry was more significant than the others because of something that had happened in Israel’s past.

In the days of Moses, the people of Israel were brought to the Lord at Mount Sinai and He appeared to them as a great and terrible fire, consuming the whole mountain. YHWH called Moses up from among the people to establish a covenant between YHWH and this nation but the covenant took a long time to prepare. When the people saw that Moses had left them there in the desert at the base of this burning mountain, they crafted a calf  from gold and proclaimed it as their rescuer from Egypt… right there in front of the Lord and his burning mountain. They even set up a feast in the name of YHWH to worship this golden calf as if it was the Lord.

This was so outrageous that the Lord desired to destroy the people right there in front of His mountain. Moses interceded for them and turned back the Lord’s anger. However, as a punishment, Moses ground up the golden calf and made the people drink it causing many to fall ill and others to die.

So, why was God so angry? Why did He get so mad that He desired to destroy them? It’s not because they were worshiping another god, which is a problem in itself… what they were doing was worshiping something other than YHWH and calling it YHWH. They worshiped the calf as though it were YHWH. They attributed all of the actions of the Lord, the ten plagues against Egypt, the cloud and pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea, all of it to a mere metal image they had made from their own jewelry. It’s not surprising that the Lord would think to destroy them.

Fast forward again to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. Not only had he set up the calves to worship, but the worship of these calves was to be a substitute for the worship of YHWH, stumbling the people for generations to come. They completely misidentified who their God was and turned from Him. 2 Kings 17 gives a full account of their sin and declares that they “went after worthless things and became worthless themselves…”

So what does this have to do with us? We don’t offer sacrifices anymore, but we are not immune to this kind of substitutionary idolatry either. It’s easy to look at ourselves and say that we have done no such thing, yet Christian history is marred time and again with religious copies of the golden calves. By reading our own desires and wills into the words of the Bible, Christians have found ways to justify slavery, sexual abuse, gluttony, debauchery and all forms of hedonism.

One example could be pressuring someone to do something you want because you had a dream “from the Lord” about it. Another, might be divorcing someone because “the Lord wants you to pursue someone else.” On more than one occasion, I’ve declined  helping someone in need because I “needed to focus on the Lord right now”.

Some of my friends have left the faith in pursuit of authentic worship of God. I’ve seen whole cults develop under the guise or “truly worshiping God” when in reality the Lord has been substituted with another.

When we do things like this we set stumbling blocks in front of ourselves and our children, keeping us from worshiping the Lord. When we worship other things and call them God, we are in danger of inciting the Lord against us, generation after generation.

The Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,  is our Mountain. When we turn to Him, His fire reveals to us the darkness hidden in our ways. We must examine our hearts and break down the altars we have set up in the wrong places and turn our worship from ourselves and put it back on the Lord lest we find ourselves overcome by our enemies.

Reform takes time and our actions do have costs. Let our cost be what it takes to worship the Lord, not the ruin of our children and our children’s children.

How to Have Hairy Faith

In my last few posts we discussed what the spiritual disciplines were and how they can put some strength into your spiritual life through practice. There is a problem though… The list of disciplines is long and challenging and doesn’t seem like a basket full of fun. It’s worth it to gain some level of competency in each discipline for your own spiritual growth and longevity in the Christian faith, but what happens when you forget to do what you set out to do? What do you do when you try to do what is good and right and fail?

Enormous volumes have been written in the business and fitness sectors under the topics of goal setting and personal growth. They tell us that we can be motivated and that it takes a special sort of motivation to get good at any sort of skill… but they only cover the mental and physical aspects of the problem. You can do great things under the tutelage of mentors like Jon Acuff, Tim Ferris, Amy Cuddy, Angela Duckworth, Anders Ericsson and others. I highly recommend their work. However, these writers often come from a strictly nonspiritual perspective and can only address behavior from the physical or psychological standpoint.

To gain wisdom in all areas of spiritual, physical, and even psychological truth the Bible provides us with many examples and a whole body of advice for life. More often than not, Biblical examples are narrative and descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that they don’t tell you what you should or should not do but rather what someone else was doing or thinking and then let you figure out how you can apply the story to your situation. Reading these stories is the first of the spiritual disciplines. The second is meditating on them, which gives us a gateway into understanding and application.

For example, in the New Testament, Paul spends a long time explaining that he just can’t make himself do the things that he knows he should. Also, he does those things that he knows he should not, things he hates doing. This is the scenario I find myself in constantly. When I get mad at my dog and throw away her treats in frustration or when I refuse to do something my wife asks “because I don’t wanna,” I know that I am acting as a child. When I sit and stare blankly at my Bible or look at my phone during what should be my prayer time, I know that I’m not doing what I ought. My knowledge of sin does not prevent me from sinning.

According to Paul, there is no amount of time or effort that can keep me from failing to do as God asks. I, like the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, am too stubborn and thick necked, unyielding in my commitment to self-devotion. My desire to be better cannot not simply bear for me the fruits of the Spirit.

Keeping this in mind, there is still hope for us. The Bible offers us an example for how we can move forward in faith when we have failed: Samson.

Most of us know Samson for having strangely long hair and performing unusual acts of strength. What we often miss is the terrible lifestyle he led and the fact that, in spite of this lifestyle, he goes down in history as a great Hero of the Faith.

Samson began his life as a Nazarite. His mother dedicated him before he was born to live as a Nazarite, serving under the high priest for his whole life. Now, we know from the book of Hebrews that Samson had great faith. However, when we read his story it’s easy to wonder if he had any faith at all. Samson was known for partying hard, drinking a lot of wine, and most notably, killing a lot of people and several animals. He was also selfish, ignored many of the commands God laid on his people, and acted out of anger at perceived wrongs against him.

Samson married a Philistine woman named Delilah who made it her goal to find out his greatest weakness in order to sell him out to the Philistines. When Samson finally gave in to Delilah and told her the secret of his strength, he told her that he was a Nazarite and it was his hair that gave him his strength. His mother had made a promise to the Lord that no razor would ever touch his head and so far, none had. When Delilah cut off his hair Samson became weak as any man and a group of philistines seized him to mock him and God.

After capturing Samson, they gouged out his eyes and chained him in the temple of their own god, putting him on display as if to show that the hero of Israel and the God that he represents were weaker than Dagon, the god of the Philistines. Now stripped of his sight, and his hair, the symbol of his faith and the God he worships, Samson is in a dire situation.

So how can a raucous law breaker, taken captive in a foreign land find himself among the famous faithful?

The text indicates that Samson’s hair began to grow back, foreshadowing a future return of his strength. But Samson went down in history as a hero of the faith, not as a champion of hair growth. In his final day of need he remembered that his strength came not from the hair on his head but from the Lord, the God of Israel.

The same is true for us. Losing in our struggle to be faithful to God is part of our journey. We are going to suffer embarrassing defeats, wreck the good things that God has given us, accidentally (or intentionally) encounter unclean things, and so much more. However, like with Samson, the true strength in our relationship with God is God, Himself. The secret to a strong, heroic faith is believing that God, having started a good work in us, is going to complete it. He is faithful to us in that so that we can be faithful to him.

Any can grow hair, only God can provide strength.

 

A Fighting Faith: The Disciplines

In my last post, I talked about the importance of spiritual discipline. I gave an example of a woman in my church who excelled in her spiritual life so much that others would seek her out for prayer and counsel. If I had to describe a list of qualities she had, I would probably put together a list that looks one this:

  1. Love
  2. Joy
  3. Peace
  4. Patience
  5. Kindness
  6. Goodness
  7. Faithfulness
  8. Gentleness
  9. Self-Control

You might recognize this list as the “fruit of the spirit”. When I came to faith in Jesus, I used to think that just because I am a Christian I have those things along with improved wisdom and street smarts.

Boy was I wrong.

I think it’s fair to say that a measure of that fruit is implanted into us automatically when we are saved. However, it’s more accurate to say that we begin to desire those things as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. The list of the fruits of the spirit is a list of the rewards of spiritual discipline. To get those rewards we have to do as Paul says and work out our salvation through the disciplines of godliness. Donald S. Whitney said that “the Spiritual Disciplines are scriptural paths where we might expect to encounter the transforming grace of God.” If that is true, then it is fair to say that the good things of the Spirit are attainable through the diligence of practice and perseverance in disciplining ourselves.

So, what are the disciplines? What are the the ways for us to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness? How do we pursue the fruits of the spirit?

There are many, many ways to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness and to achieve even greater faith. The major disciplines are as follows:

  1. Bible consumption (reading, listening, study, and discussion)
  2. Prayer
  3. Worship
  4. Meeting in Community
  5. Serving
  6. Stewardship (of time, wealth, or other resources)
  7. Fasting
  8. Evangelism
  9. Learning
  10. Journaling

These disciplines can stand alone but are often better done in some combination with each other. Journaling your prayers, thoughtful worship, or insights about what you’re reading in scripture is an example of combining multiple disciplines.

Now, if you’re like me, these don’t all sound equally enjoyable and I certainly don’t want to do them every day. Some things are scary to me, like Evangelism. Others are really inconvenient, like serving others. However, just because I don’t feel like doing these things doesn’t mean that I should avoid them. The reason we discipline ourselves is because they help us move closer in godliness to our savior, Jesus.

As you start flexing your spiritual muscles, you’ll find that you are particularly gifted in certain areas. Pursue these areas the most, without neglecting the others. The Lord equips us with talents and gifts so that we can experience deeper meaning in some areas. By exploring these strengths within the spiritual disciplines, we can discover how God has called each of us individually to live in his kingdom. However, we must not forget to exercise in the disciplines that we are not particularly gifted or strong in or else we will miss out in entire aspects of God.

I have only recently begun practicing many of these disciplines and cannot elaborate on the full practices for these. For a fuller understanding of how and what spiritual disciplines to practice, I recommend Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. This book came to me highly recommended by my wife and it has proven incredibly useful and interesting.

In my next post, I will discuss what to do when we miss our mark and fail to discipline ourselves the way we want to.