Friday, November 27, 2015

With All Your Strength

Judaism has this thing called the "Shema". Ever heard of it? Well, you probably have.

The Shema is a prayer that Jews pray very often. It is simply quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Christ quoted the beginning of this and named it the greatest commandment (with loving your neighbor as yourself the second greatest). Although we as Christians aren't bound to follow the Law anymore as the Jews were, we know the God has a Perfect Law that we should strive everyday to follow. Following His commandments is one of the most important ways we can truly love God.

But I want to take a moment to point out a small but incredibly freeing detail I found in this verse.

The Gospel books that recount Jesus' quotation of this verse each use different arrangements of the various things we are to love God with. Mark 12:30 features the most well-known combination:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.

There are many ways that we could break the human person down into parts, but the way I always use to analyze myself is the three-fold structure of heart, mind, and body. The heart is the true core of the person, sort of where the person's soul lives. It is what truly determines who a person is, as it is where our true desires rest. I believe that it it here where God looks to determine if a person is truly following Jesus. The mind is the place where thoughts and choices are made, the logical and rational center of the person. It is a part that the Holy Spirit directly influences in helping us make the right decisions in life, but it is still not a redeemed part of the person. The mind becomes "stuck in the middle" between the soul and the flesh, and that can lead to some of the most crucial decisions a moral person can make. The body is, well, the flesh, and the flesh is certainly sinful. God can work in the person to master their body, and He can help the person's body to be "reprogrammed" to be less fleshy and more holy. But it is still the flesh and is prone to its lusts. It can never be truly trusted, and therefore has to be kept in check by the heart and mind and can never be allowed the final say in decisions.

Did I over-simplify things a little? Maybe, but I think you can see how the framework is fairly applicable to most things in life. The main difference is the change from redeemed (heart) to fallen (body), with the mind somewhere in the middle. Usually two of the three parts are required to make any decision, whether holy or sinful. And it is important to remember that, while redeemed, the heart can still make terribly sinful choices, even if we are saved. Thank the Lord for the mercy and grace He shows.

So what's my point? Look back at the verse from the Shema:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.

Notice the presence of the very framework I have just outlined. First we have the heart and the soul, which are closely related. Then we find the mind, which while still prone to failing is something we can consciously control to a rather reasonable extent.

But where is the body? It is not present. Instead, we find our "strength." Why strength instead of body? It is because God knows our bodies are fallen and sinful. No matter how hard we try, we will never get our bodies to fully comply with the holiness of God until they are raptured and transformed into our perfect heavenly bodies. Until then, all we can do is try really hard. This requires strength.

God knows where to look when He is determining a person's commitment to Him. He knows that our actions do not necessarily determine our standing before God. Do we need to refrain from sinning from the flesh? Of course. But look at King David, a man who is still well-known for his sinful failings. God was well aware of those failings, and David had to surely suffer the conseqences on this earth from his bad choices. Yet, he is called and respected as a "man after God's own heart." This is because He knew how great God is, and he had a personal connection with God that was because of his great faith and love for his Father.

Now we have Jesus and the Holy Spirit inside us, things that David didn't have in the same capacity. We are in good hands because God looks at the heart. He clearly states that our actions do reflect the state of our hearts, but He also knows that we are bound to slip up, sometimes even a lot. It is the heart that He uses as his grand determiner of faith, the catalyst for salvation.

So do all you can to love God with your heart, soul, and mind. And doing that, use as much strength as you can to master that flesh that wants for disaster, knowing that God is pleased with you not because of how much you try, but because you do try because you love Him. Let His love wash over you and free you of the burden that says you have to get it right every time. There is grace and love waiting for you to surrender and receive. Let His overwhelming joy and peace stir in you in such a way that it causes you to give back to God in form of the love He so desires.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Why Messiah?

Merry Christmas! It's October. So why am I sending you Season's Greetings in the wrong season? Because it never is the wrong season.

I am one of those people who rolls his eyes when he hears Jingle Bells in August. I choose the "skip when shuffling" check box on my iTunes for my large collection of Christmas music on my iPods. And lights and decorations don't go up until, well, usually a week before Christmas.

Am I Ebeneezer Scrooge? Not in the least. I LOVE Christmas. It is most certainly my favorite time of year. I just prefer to keep it in that time of the year, just so that all the splendor and joy of the season stays special and unique, something to look forward to.

Maybe the trees and wrapping paper can stay in the season, but unfortunately, usually so does the message.

Every year, around Thanksgiving, radio stations start changing over to Christmas music (because really no one has come up with any good Thanksgiving music), and the malls and stores start heralding in the now quite politically-correct Navidad. And suddenly, the story of Jesus' birth comes back to our memories. Thoughts of Mary and Joseph riding on a camel in the heavy December snow and the joyous, worshipful celebration of the shepherds and the three wise men over the newborn baby bring pleasing thoughts to our mind.

In reality, the true story of Mary and Joseph arriving to a place that had a manger sometime in late-September gets forgotten the rest of the year. People don't understand the significance of the shepherds who came to see the newborn Christ and the two to twenty Magi who showed up as much as two years later. Growing up in the church and around all things Christmas, it became quite the ritual to celebrate the holiday. I mean, Jesus was born! But obviously, Jesus birth did not save me of my sins. His death and resurrection did, which is why we really should place more emphasis on Easter than Christmas. So why is Christ's birth such a big deal that the Roman Catholic Church turned the observance of the event into the most multi-culturally significant celebration in human history?

Three reasons. Three really important reasons.

  1. Coming of Messiah — Jesus was born as a Jew in the Jewish culture. He was born into a people group who had previously been chosen by God as a special people with whom He could abide. Unfortunately, as the books of the Judges, Kings, and Chronicles clearly demonstrate, the nation as a whole turned away from God. His patience was finally worn out after several hundred years, and they were thrown into exile into foreign lands. After God allowed for the people to return to their promised Israel, the people of Israel began to become prominent in that area again, though always under rule of somebody else. Jesus came at a time when there was relative peace in the area, but it was a peace that was forced by Roman control. God had promised through Moses and the prophets that the Coming One, the Messiah, would come and bring freedom to His people. Jesus' coming was that promise fulfilled to the Jews, but since they were so short-sighted, they couldn't see beyond their desire for political freedom to see the true spiritual freedom that Jesus sought to bring. And ironically, it was partially their disappointment in Jesus not overthrowing Roman rule that led to the Crucifixion that brought salvation to the whole world.
  2. Other Flocks — There is a special significance in the shepherds and the Magi. Shepherds weren't the most well-to-do folks in the Jewish world, but they were actually quite well-respected due to the fact that the sheep they were raising were used for the sacrifices required by the Mosaic Law. But they were still ordinary, random Jewish people. Meanwhile, the Magi weren't kings but were a form of wise men from some foreign land. They came to see a king, but they also seemed to personally know that they were seeing someone more significant to the world than anything they could imagine. But do you see an interesting correlation here? Messiah, the Hebrew word for Christ, was a very Jewish concept. And for most of history, the Law had only been given for the Jews to try to be right with God. But although Jesus came first to the Jews, His ultimate goal was to bring all nations into his fold. The shepherds represented the Jews, while the wise men represented the Gentiles, which basically means every one of us who are not Jews. Both groups were given the sign, and both came to worship before their King. And because of the love and sacrifice of that King, we all have access to God and eternal salvation.
  3. With God — Although God had revealed Himself in a way to the Jews before Christ came, it wasn't a complete revelation. God gave the Law to Israel to show them and the world a way of living that, if absolutely kept without fail, could provide a way of salvation. Many ancient people had faith, but there proved to be absolutely no way anyone could possibly keep that standard. And God knew this full well, which is why the Law was given. Different than what people may have told you, it is impossible for anyone to ever humanly attain perfection. Because of our inherent sin, there was no way God could actually allow us in His holy presence because, put quite simply, we would die. So the Tabernacle/Temple was given by God so that He could be with His people, but they couldn't be in His very presence. Jesus came so that we as humans could actually be in His presence, but to an even deeper extent than what it would have been like if the people had been allowed in that Most Holy Place in the Temple where God had previously been.
          Imagine two friends, a boy and a girl. There's nothing romantic going on between them. They are just friends. And because they are friends, really good friends, there is a strong connection between them. They know each other well, and people are very aware of the fact that they are really good friends. When people think of one of them, they often think of the one being with the other one because of the bond of friendship between them. But because they are friends, there is only so far that this bond can go. And while people think of one as being with the other, they also know that there aren't always going to stay there.

But if, say, they got married, things would be quite different. That wall that separates their hearts and minds would be broken down. They would be able to experience an intimacy that only exists in a marriage, something that makes any physical relationship even seem to take second place. There is a connection that is stronger than anything on earth. People see them and they don't think of "John" and "Jane" but instead "John and Jane" as though that is one name. He is with her, and it is a different type of "with" than they ever had before.

Marriage was created by God for multiple reasons, but the main one was to demonstrate the relationship God desires with His people. We Christians are called His children, but we are also called His bride. Jesus came to this world so that God wasn't just known as being "with" His people in that He lived in a room in a Temple. God is now "with" us because of the work of Jesus and the power of His Holy Spirit in us. God actually lives in us now, and when people think of us, it should be the same "God and us" that is considered one word. This is why one of Jesus' other names, Emmanuel, means "God With Us."

And this is the most important thing about why Jesus came. Christ coming to this earth signaled the end of the friend-zone between us and God and the beginning of the absolute marriage bliss that will be our eternity.

So, Christians, rejoice! Because Your God lives in you. There is no separation anymore between us and the Living God. What an amazing and glorious thing we have. Let it cause us the utmost joy as we remember that the most powerful and glorious being that ever was is truly with us. And we will be with Him forever.

"Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels' voices! Oh night divine when Christ was born."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Terrible Christian

I am a terrible Christian.

Most of you will probably shake your heads and laugh at that statement. You probably think that I'm a pretty good guy, so why would I say something like that?

Well, because I am a terrible Christian. It's the truth.

Now, many people would view a "good" Christian as someone who goes to church every Sunday, doesn't get drunk or sleep around, and obeys the laws of the land. A person who can put a legitimate smile on their face knowing that they're going a pretty good job of being a person.

Yep, I meet those requirements to the letter. So, therefore, I must not be as bad of a Christian as I think I am.

But it matters what the definition of "Christian" actually is.

Does a Christian go to church? Sure. Pay their taxes? Of course. Avoid raunchy parties? Definitely. But there are many people who aren't Christians who do the latter two things consistently, and some even do the first.

These things are what a Christian does, not what a Christian is.

A Christian is, simply, a follower of Christ. Jesus would walk around and find a person, and just straight-up ask them, "Follow Me." Many would begin to literally walk after him; some would eventually go their own way while many still continued to follow. Eventually, Jesus died. Everyone scattered. He rose, and they came back together. Then he went away, and those who were left that chose to continue to follow Him, they were the true Christians.

Why just these? Faithfulness. Consistency. Commitment. Even at the threat of the sword. They prayed for boldness. They went out and preached the good news. They stayed in their home cities and edified the body of Christ and brought their neighbors into relationship with Jesus. They were known more for whose they were than who they were, and many even died because of it. They followed, and they never stopped.

Here I am, collecting 675 Star Trek books. I've mastered the TriMet system. I write code programs that cut metal for a living, and then I cut the metal. I have three business degrees. I've done a lot of things. Good things. But do these things point a giant arrow at me, saying "Christian"? No way.

I don't want to be a person who goes through the motions and is perfectly okay with it. There are a bazillion Christians who do, and that is their life. God loves them dearly and accepts them gladly into His eternal kingdom, but they could have done so much more here, and not waited until heaven to see fruit.

Read the New Testament. See what the definition of a Christian is. Notice there's never a chapter that has the header, "Characteristics of a Christian." There's chapters on how to pray (Matthew 6), how to do church (Acts 2), how to be an acceptable pastor (Titus 1), and how to be a good husband or wife (Ephesians 5). But those only give us guidelines about specific actions and behaviors. The definitions of Christians were given in the testimonies of the Christians whose stories are told. Mary. Peter. John. James. Another James. Phillip. Barnabas. Timothy. Paul. These people's lives weren't necessarily comfortable, but they didn't complain. They were faithful followers of Christ. They saw miracles happen. They led thousands to salvation. They wrote words that more people have read than any other words ever written. They were Christians.

And you can be too.

And I can be too.

All it takes is a little more prayer, and a lot more commitment. A little less fear, a lot less selfishness. And a lot more daily decisions to be who I've been called to be: A Christian. A follower. A child of the One True King.

So Lord, let me care more about the things You care about than the things I care about. Let me pour more into my relationship with You than on any other effort I do. Then these menial things I care about will become conduits for Your glory and Your love to a world that needs You.

Because I need You.

"I don't want to be, I don't want to be a Casual Christian. I don't want to live, I don't want to live a lukewarm life. 'Cause I want to light up the night with Your everlasting light. I don't want to live a Casual Christian life." - DeGarmo & Key

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Way It Goes

I have to be the most inconsistent blogger on the planet.

Why is this? It's because if it's inconvenient for me, then I don't do stuff. It sucks. It's one of my biggest problems.

But guess what? It happens. It's just the way it goes sometimes. So we pick ourselves up and move in. We can't wallow in the lost and wasted opportunities. All we can do is cast off the past and start over right now, because the past we cannot change, but the future we can make.

So let's make the future and push through. When the inconsistent times come up, let's make the decision to just start today to make the change.

To quote band Addison Road, "Every moment is a second chance at starting over."