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.

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.

Having a Fighting Faith

When I was growing up, there were a few people in my church that everyone knew had something special in their spiritual life. I remember specifically Miss Juanita. I don’t really remember much about her other than that at the time that I knew her she was who you went to if you wanted someone to pray for you. Everyone knew that if someone was going to actually intercede for you, she was the one who would do it without fail. You also knew that her prayers got answered.

I remember that Miss Juanita didn’t have a whole lot and that if she had had a husband he was no longer in her life. She had few local family members and a small, older home. But, we all knew that she had a faith in the Lord that was unshakable.

So how does someone get a reputation like Miss Juanita? How does anyone achieve a faith so strong that others are drawn to it? How does anyone look so much like Christ that people actively ask for intercession with God? How can you have a faith that is unshakable, a faith that holds you together in the face of tragedy, a faith that fights?

Discipline.

When I think of discipline, I often think of punishment before I think of anything else. Fortunately, this is a limited view of what discipline really is. Punishment is a form of discipline, but it is the form that comes from without. This form can help steer someone towards a right path, but true and lasting changes come from within.

Lasting changes are ones created by taking hold of external truths and pursuing them with fervor and tenacity from your inner self. This is what’s known as self discipline. This means that discipline, or self discipline, is not something you have, but rather something that you do. Also, it’s not something done for the sake of itself but for the realization of the goal or purpose for which you grasp. In other words, discipline is the process or tool that you use to bring about the change that you seek.

Once, I thought this meant drudgery. I used to think that self discipline meant that I had to stop having fun so I could go and do the work that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthian church: “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians‬ ‭9:27‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

Paul is correct in his assessment of self discipline, but I was incorrect in my interpretation. Terry Crews once said, “why do you hate discipline? It’s just training!” If discipline is just training, then that means that I can take part and exercise in spiritual training.

Thinking of the spiritual disciplines this way lets me move on from the thoughts of punishment and into a healthy understanding of Paul’s message. It also puts perspective on what Paul means when he says “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” ‭‭(1 Timothy‬ ‭4:7-10‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Training myself in spiritual discipline let’s me become more godly. If I must put off my sinful nature, then to do so can only come by putting on a nature of righteousness. However, since I am surrounded in what Paul describes as a body of death, I can do no such thing. So what then can I do?

Amy Cuddy puts it this way, “Fake it till you become it.” Jeff Haden says that you should change your language from “I can’t” to “I don’t” so that you no longer have a choice to make but an identity to fulfill. Paul’s advice is, instead of being a slave to your sinful nature, become a slave to Christ. That is, assume the identity of one who is righteous and do what they do. Before long, you will be more like one who is righteous. Before long, you will become like Miss Juanita, so strong in faithfulness that others come to you for prayer and guidance, not for your own virtue but by the virtue of the One who is inside you.

In my next post, I will begin describing the disciplines of the spiritual life. These exercises will help to train your faith so that it can stand up and fight when the world is doing it’s best to defeat you.

Why is Judaism important to Christians??

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past 20 years, it’s that I am assuredly not Jewish. I am neither Jewish by nationality, nor am I Jewish by religion. These seem like obvious facts, and they are. However, Judaism and the Hebrew nation are extraordinarily important to Christians. The two, more than any other religions, share a deep and common foundation. The only problem is that many (if not most) Jews disagree with this claim.

This disagreement comes to a point primarily with the identity of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. Evidence of this disagreement is apparent in the gospels long before Jesus was crucified. While Jesus was performing his ministry throughout Judea and Galilee, he rarely had a moment without some heat from the local religious authorities. The vehemence and vitriol surrounding the controversy was exacerbated when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time and his body mysteriously disappeared from his tomb. Since then the divisions have grown and solidified, becoming a wall with a narrow gate that only a few go between.

A Troubling Message

Christian scripture includes two testaments, conveniently known as the Old and the New.  The Christian Old Testament includes the entirety of Jewish scripture which was concluded approximately four hundred years before Jesus walked the earth.

This tells us one very important thing about Christians: we believe that our religion is a continuation of the Jewish religion.

That’s right, our Gospel is the Jewish Gospel. Everything that Christians believe is based off of everything that the Hebrew people wrote as scripture. Without God selecting Abraham and establishing the covenant to make him the father of a great nation, Christians would not be here.

If Christians believe that they practice Judaism 2.0 then they have to be getting this notion from somewhere. This idea of Christianity being the continuation is taught in several forms throughout the new testament but one specific occasion really heats things up for us and points to why people like me are concerned with Judaism.

In the book of Matthew, right before Jesus was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death, he told a story to the chief priest and elders about some tenants and a wealthy landowner. The landowner had a large and fertile plot. This plot was an investment for him but he needed to take care of other matters. In the mean time, the land needed to produce income for him so he hired some tenants to produce a crop. In their contract, the tenants would get a place to live and money and food to live on so long as they sent the agreed upon portion of the profits back to the landowner.

Unfortunately for the landowner, the tenants did not keep their end of the bargain. At the appointed time the landowner sent some of his men to collect his portion, but the tenants abused them, murdering one, beating another, and attempting to kill the third. The landowner had cause to seize his land at this point, but being merciful he sent another round of servants, more this time than the last. Again, the tenants abused the landowner’s men and killed a few, totally disregarding the contract and disrespecting their benefactor’s wishes.

Finally, the landowner, still filled with mercy, sent his own son as representative for him. The son would go and collect the debt owed to the landowner as his family member and personal envoy. Surely, the tenants would realize how serious the landowner was this time since he sent his son. Again, the tenants were filled with disdain for their benefactor and jealousy over his possessions. They took his son and murdered him.

Jesus pauses here and asks his listeners what they think happens next. The elders respond:

 “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus then says a peculiar thing. He brings up a piece of the Psalms in response the the chief priests.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’”?

Seeing the looks of confusion in their eyes and the question on their lips, Jesus explains what his means.

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

So this is where Jesus identifies two things:

  1. The elders and the chief priest are the builders. They were the tenants sent to prepare a harvest for their generous landowner.
  2. People like me will inherit the landowner’s property instead.

As you can tell, this is highly inflammatory. If Jesus is the Son of God as he identifies himself elsewhere, then he is the stone that the builders rejected and he is the one who will crush them. Jesus became that for Christians and we are broken at his feet. For Christians, Jesus is the cornerstone of the religion. Without him, the whole thing crumbles and we are all fools. However, this means that the kingdom of heaven was taken from the Hebrew patriarchs.

This is really unfortunate for someone whose identity is based on God selecting their forefathers to make a nation that will last forever.

Hope For the Future

Fortunately, this is not where the story ends.

In my last post, we talked about the primary differentiator between covenants and contracts which is that covenants, once established, never pass away. Before the New Covenant (which forms the premise of the New Testament), there were several covenants God made with his people. The good news for Hebrew people is that all of these covenants are still in effect. That means that all of God’s promises, including the fact that there will always be a remnant, will come to pass. It also means that through the Hebrew people, all of the nations are blessed.

If Jesus is who he says he is, then Christianity provides answers to the covenants that many Jews are still waiting to be fulfilled. Through Him, the nation of Israel gets to lay claim to the best of all claims. They are, in fact, the people of the promise, and I am only grafted in to that blessing.

The book of Acts and later the book of Hebrews demonstrate and explain this truth in depth. One of the most important messages of Acts is that that the Gospel is first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. The pattern of Acts demonstrates this truth. The first portion of the book is dedicated to the spread of the Gospel throughout Israel. Then the Gospel is spread to the Jews outside of Judea and then to the Gentiles. Hebrews then goes on to explain to the Jewish people the meaning of the Gospel according to the history of the Hebrew nation.

If anything is clear, the Gospel came first to the Jewish nation and then through them. This is good news, both in that it restores the identity of the chosen people and that Gentiles like me can share a heritage with them.