Category Archives: Reflections

Will The Stolen Years Be Restored?

Photo by Logan Weaver on Unsplash

I share this post as an example of some of the thoughts I’ve dealt with over the course of my burnout-depression. I deal with them less frequently now that my physical health is improved and I am finally able to heal from my burnout, but I still deal with them. Mental health is something we need to do a better job in handling as a society and in the Church. So this is written towards bringing more awareness and understanding to this issue.

Will the stolen years be restored? It’s a question I find myself asking quite frequently these days. I wish I didn’t have to ask the question. I wish I could say that they had been eaten by locusts; that the last 7 years have been so difficult because I was being disobedient all this time. I wish I had the sense of guilt that I have heard so many people mention they had when they went in a direction that was different from the one they knew God was calling them in. At least then it would be easier for me to process the events of the last few years because then I could point to a cause. Or so I think anyway. But there is no sense of disobedience. There is no sense that I am following the way of Jonah.

The way of Jonah makes sense as a reason for suffering. It’s easy to compute and process that things are going so terribly wrong because you are not being obedient. It might not be easy to admit to yourself that you are not being obedient to what God called you to do. And then once you’ve admitted it actually stopping your disobedience and being obedient might be harder still. But at least you’re not left wondering why you’re suffering.

That’s the one question I wish I had an answer for: Why? Why were the last 7 years or so basically stolen from me? Why was I basically playing wack-a-mole with severely detrimental health issues in seminary? Why did I never get the chance to show to myself and others what I was capable of because my health was so bad? Why did I never get the rest I wanted when I moved back home after graduation? Why did I even have to move back home in the first place? Why did it take 6 months to get a referral to the correct doctor? Why has it taken over a year-and-a-half since graduating for my health to start to recover? Why am I not yet married and promoted to Real Christian™ so I can actually feel like I belong at a church? Why has all the time, effort, and money I spent following where I believe God called me to go so far turned out to be a waste? Why, for that matter, have all my previous educational-career endeavors also turned out to be a waste? Why do past failures weigh so heavily in my thoughts that I am afraid to even start a career direction because I think something beyond my control is going to come in and ruin my efforts once again? Why does it feel like I am not only behind in the race of life, but that I haven’t even crossed the starting line?

In truth I feel like I am following the way of Job. Like Job, I feel like I have not only done nothing wrong, but have even done things correctly. I haven’t disobeyed God or strayed from following His commands. Yet for whatever reason I am still going through a great ordeal of suffering. It’s easy to read the story of Job and be hopeful because we know how it ends. We know that God restores Job and all that He allowed The Adversary to take from him. So when we read the story of Job we read it in light of the ending and we know that everything is going to work out just fine. But when it is your own life that is following the story of Job it is much more difficult to be hopeful because you don’t know how it will end. Sure there is the ultimate eschatological hope of the new heavens and new earth and eternity with God, but for me this hope is not on my mind or prominent in my daily thoughts. What’s on my mind and prominent in my daily thoughts is the why question. Why has my life turned out this way? Why have all these years been stolen from me?

If there is a bright spot in all of this it is that I have some pretty good experience of myself being tired and depressed. In hindsight now I realize that I have underestimated how bad my health actually was at certain points over the past few years. So maybe the answer to all of these questions is: “You’re just tired Tom. Take some time and rest and you’ll feel better and these questions won’t even matter in a few months.” Maybe all these questions are just lingering remnants of my burnout-depression. But maybe not.

So will the stolen years be restored? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But I really hope they will be.

Self-Care is Hard for Me

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

You would think self-care would be easy right? Doesn’t it seem logical that that you would do things and spend your time in such a way that makes you happy and energizes you? And that you would avoid doing things that make you miserable and drain your energy? That you would organize your life in such a way that you wouldn’t need to regularly escape it through drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, binge-watching, or some other unhealthy coping mechanism? Yet, on the one hand while self-care seems like one of the most logical and easy things to do, on the other hand I have found it to be one of the most difficult things to do as I continue to work on recovering from my chronic-stress-induced-depression. And I think I have found it difficult primarily because it means that admitting things I have found enjoyable are actually harmful to me.

What do I mean by this? Well let me give you an example.

Sleep is an area in which I need to improve. Starting in 2016 and continuing up until about a month or so ago really I did not find sleep to be very beneficial. 2016 was really when all my stress issues started. At first I had problems sleeping more than 4 hours a night. I would bolt up wide awake after about 4 hours of sleep and then I would have to read for an hour or so in order to be able to go back to sleep and get maybe 2 more hours of sleep. It wasn’t enjoyable or refreshing. I did not wake up energetic and eager to start the day. I tried all sorts of tricks and supplements and nothing really worked. I was able eventually to get up to 7 hours, but it wasn’t a restful or restorative 7 hours. In fact it really didn’t feel much different from the 4 hours I got when my stress issues started. So having tried all manner of things to get good sleep, and not finding success with any of them, I gave up on good sleep habits since they didn’t seem to make much of a difference anyway.

But, as I hinted at in the beginning of the last paragraph, I now find sleep beneficial once again. The first step in restoring the benefits of sleep was to get on the correct medication and dosage for my burnout-depression (the initial dose was too low). Now that I have the correct medication and dosage I have found sleep to once again be refreshing and restorative. And since it has become beneficial once again I have had motivation to actually take advantage of it and maximize its potential. For me this means doing something I have not done in a long time: wind down in the evenings. In seminary, as in most grad schools probably, my routine was work all day until absolutely exhausted and then go to sleep. If there is something due the next day then work until it is finished, even if it means downing a pot of coffee at midnight and dealing with caffeine jitters. Now though I no longer have such a pressing workload and I am able to relax in the evenings and not worry about deadlines.

I have found that for me reading for fun is the best way to wind down in the evening. But in the process of making this discovery I have found other things that I enjoy to be harmful to recovering sleep. Primarily I have found things like televised sports and gaming, things where there are images moving quickly on screen that I am required to process the movements of to be too stimulating late at night (I use blue light filters on my computer monitors and phone, so my guess is that it is the rapidly moving images that are causing issues for me, not the blue light). Now, I enjoy all of these activities. I enjoy reading a good and/or interesting book. I enjoy watching a good football game. I enjoy watching hockey. I enjoy watching certain shows and movies on Netflix. I enjoying raiding with my guild in World of Warcraft. None of these activities are inherently bad either. But I’ve discovered that most of them are so stimulating and give me such an adrenaline rush in the evening that they end up harming my sleep, one critical area of my life that I have been trying to get on track for several years now.

This brings me to the reason why I have found self-care so difficult: I have to remove from my life things I enjoy that are harming me for things that I enjoy that will benefit me. Admitting that something that you enjoy is actually harming you is not an easy task in itself. Breaking your habit of engaging in whatever that activity happens to be is an even more difficult task. I suspect that depression makes this task yet even more difficult because depression is so devoid of joy and hope and happiness that you want to hang onto anything that gives you even momentary relief from it. Or at least that is what it feels like to me. I think many of the habits I currently have are the result of trying to deal with my burnout induced depression and get some sort of relief from it, not because I know they are beneficial to my overall well being.

In any case though, self-care for me feels a lot like eating vegetables. I do not like most vegetables. Not because they taste bad, but because they have no taste at all. Most of them for me taste like water, and the ones that do have a taste to me I usually find to be unpalatable (like green beans). However I force myself to eat things like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots, spinach, and lettuce because I know they are good and beneficial for me. Over time I have learned to prepare and eat these things in ways that taste good and flavorful for me so that I not only get the nutritional benefits from them, but enjoy eating them as well.

In my experience so far breaking old habits and attempting to establish new, more beneficial ones has been a lot like eating vegetables. It feels distasteful, and even unpalatable at times, but it is good for me to get rid of old harmful habits for new beneficial ones. Eventually I might even learn to practice these new beneficial habits in ways that bring me even more enjoyment than my previous harmful habits. Perhaps one day I will look forward to eating vegetables, instead of just eating them out of sheer discipline.

The Return of Dreams

Sometimes we just need to rest and heal our tired and broken hearts.

Up until a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t have told you the last time I had dream while sleeping. I could have told you that it was sometime during seminary (most likely around 2016). I also could have told you that it was in response to a prayer. I had prayed earlier that day asking God why everything was so difficult right now. That night I dreamed that I exited the single student on campus housing parking lot, and turning my head right to check for cars I see a burned out Suburban still on fire. I get out of my car and start walking towards the Suburban. But as soon as I take a couple of steps I see a couple of mean Dobermans whose territory I apparently just encroached on. I freeze upon seeing them because I am expecting them to starting running towards me to attack. My expectations were realized. As soon as they started running the dream ended. When I woke up the next morning I heard from God: “You’re suffering because you decided to help.”

In a similar vein, it has been quite a while since I have had any dreams or ambitions in my waking life also. When I started seminary I had all sorts of ideas and goals and dreams that I wanted to pursue. Even by the end, despite all the things that had gone wrong, I still had dreams. But after graduating and moving back home and experiencing my health actually decline instead of recover my dreams died for me in my waking life also. I realized that I would not be able to pursue any of the opportunities I wanted to post-graduation because my health was in such bad shape and had actually gotten worse.

I think most people will be okay with the second paragraph. But I suspect some will have issues with the first one. The notion of God answering a prayer through a dream and then basically confirming it the next morning might seem too mystical or magical to be true. That is understandable. Unless you, like me, have had several such experiences like that I suspect that it will seem foreign to you. To be sure, such experiences aren’t common, or even normal. In fact I am fairly certain that there have been less than a dozen of these experiences in my entire life. But they do happen.

One thing I have learned to appreciate over these past few years is the link between the spiritual and the physical. I’ve come to realize that it is impossible to separate these two into neat little realms because they are linked together. I had no hope of ever appreciating anything spiritual in the depths of depression. Everything was bland, common, and meaningless. There was nothing magical or mystical about life. Even God Himself seemed distant and apathetic towards my situation; perhaps like a watchmaker who wound up my life and let it go never to check on it or intervene in it again. It has only been quite recently with the return of physical health that I have been able to once again recognize the spiritual and transcendent in everyday life.

In about a month we will celebrate what is perhaps the clearest example of the link between the physical and spiritual: the Incarnation. God will take on flesh and unite our corrupted human nature to his perfect divine nature. In my cynicism I hope and pray that for the first time in a long time I will be able to appreciate and meditate on this event once again.

Forgotten Elements of American Christianity: The Contest

PC: James Pond on Unsplash

As I remarked in a previous post American Christianity tends to avoid wrestling with the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). These books challenge us to think and contemplate the complexities of the world God created, and the truths presented in them are sometimes uncomfortable and hard to accept. However, this is not the only element of Christianity that America has forgotten; we have also forgotten that Christianity is a contest.

The Christian life is a contest; a struggle; a fight; a battle. But it is not one that you can pause or put on hold or retreat from; it continues on whether you want it to or not. And not only are we unable to withdraw from this battle, it also demands all our energy in order to win. Consider the following saying from Jesus:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ (Luke 13.22-25, ESV)

There are two things that are opposed to each other in this passage: striving and seeking. Notice above that it is those who strive that enter through the narrow door, while those who seek do not. If we are going to be saved we must strive, we must struggle, we must fight our way through the door. If we do not fight or struggle we will not make it through the door and we will not be saved. Seeking will not get us through the door; in this passage it is passivity, laziness, indolence, and evidence of uncertainty regarding Jesus as the only way to salvation. Seeking here is apathy regarding salvation. It is double-mindedness. It is wanting to simultaneously be friends with God and friends with the world, something which is impossible (e.g. James 4.4: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God”).

Now, what I am referring to here is not salvation by works. Scripture is very clear on this matter. No, the striving I am referring to here is done by the Holy Spirit working in us; it is not done in our power.

Consider the Parable of the Sower [Matthew 13.1-23; Mark 4.1-20; Luke 8.4-15] in this regard: the seed that was sown is the word of God and the 4 soils are various types of human hearts. The path represents those who reject the Gospel, and so nothing grows in them. The seed that was sown on rocky ground and among thorns represents those who did believe the Gospel initially, but they were either afraid of persecution or loved wealth, fame, honor, etc more than God. So while something initially grew in them it amounted to nothing in the end. The seed that was sown on good soil represents those who believe the Gospel wholeheartedly and do not love anything more than God. So what grows in them produces fruit, unlike the other 3 soils. But where did the growth of the seed in this final group come from? It came from their belief in the Gospel! Not from anything they did!

So why do we need to fight and struggle then if we are not saved by works? Because God does not compel us to love Him and we must love God more than anything else to be saved. We are constantly being attacked and tempted by Satan every day, and if we love something more than God these attacks will eventually succeed and we will show that we are not good soil and thus not saved. Our fight then is within our own heart. To be constantly examining it for things that threaten to steal our love for God. To be constantly orienting it towards God through daily prayer and meditation on Scripture.

I originally wrote this post in the middle of my last semester in seminary (March 2018). At that time I considered things to be bad spiritually, but I was expecting them to get better. I only had 7 hours that semester and had quit my job, so I had much less to do than previous semesters. Graduation was not far off and I was looking forward to being done with my studies and finally getting some rest. I even had a ministry opportunity I was looking forward to pursuing post graduation. If you’ve read some of my recent posts though about the various health issues I’ve faced recently you know that things did not get better. In fact they went from bad to worse and have only recently started to improve (and I hope and pray that they stay on this trajectory).

In light of my experiences since writing this originally I’ll add the following comment in closing: appearances can be deceiving. It doesn’t matter how distant or absent God seems from a situation. It doesn’t matter how beat up or defeated you feel. It doesn’t matter if you feel God doesn’t love you or has abandoned you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve given up on praying or Scripture reading or any other sort of spiritual discipline or exercise. It doesn’t matter if songs about God’s goodness make you angry.

What matters is what you believe about God. Do you believe in the Father, maker of heaven and earth? In Jesus Christ his only son who took on flesh and was crucified and raised on the third day for our salvation? In the Holy Spirit who indwells everyone who believes and trusts in Jesus? If you believe these things you have not lost the fight, but are still very much in it. God is with us, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

If you enjoyed reading this post please like and/or share it. I am trying to decide what to focus on post seminary now that my health is returning and your feedback on my writing is an important part of this decision.

Being Taught by Trees

PC: Imat Bagja Gumilar | Unsplash

I believe that God has created the world in such a way that we are constantly being taught about Him by it. Unfortunately these days we live in forests of concrete and steel, rather than of trees and plants and so I think we miss many of these opportunities for creation to teach us.

Ancient people however were very much in contact with the natural world that God created and were thus able to be taught by it. I suspect then that the reason agrarian imagery is used frequently in the Bible is not only because society at the time was agrarian and such images would have been easily understood, but also because it is accurate.

Think about it for a minute. When you plant something either it prospers and grows and produces something good, or it doesn’t grow or produces something rotten; there is no intermediate state. This is really the truth illustrated by the parable of the four soils: in the first three the seed, the word of God, doesn’t really produce anything, but it does in the fourth because they understood and believed the word of God. So, either we are growing spiritually, or we are dying spiritually; there is no intermediate state.

Another agrarian image frequently used to illustrate the spiritual condition of people are trees. If a tree is producing good fruit, or leaves or flowers you know that the tree is healthy and growing. But if a tree is producing bad fruit, or no leaves or no flowers you know that the tree is unhealthy and dying. So I don’t think it is surprising then that Jesus used tree imagery to describe people:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

— Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV)

But what is good fruit? And what is bad fruit? In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we find out that what is good fruit and what is bad fruit are the types of actions and attitudes in our lives. The bad fruit produced by someone who is spiritually diseased or unhealthy is:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

— Galatians 5:19–21 (ESV)

But the good fruit produced by someone who is spiritually healthy is:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

— Galatians 5:22–23 (ESV)

The good fruit comes because:

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

— Galatians 5:24 (ESV)

Regardless of where someone is spiritually, whether they are healthy and producing good fruit or diseased and producing bad fruit, both need to be nourished by the living waters found in Christ:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

— John 7:37–39 (ESV)

The spiritually diseased person becomes healthy and begins to grow and produce good fruit. And the spiritually healthy person continues to be healthy and grow and produce good fruit. Those who are nourished by the living waters in Christ will endure whatever trials or hardships come their way:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

— Jeremiah 17:7–8 (ESV)

So next time you see a healthy tree (the bigger the better) perhaps take the time to say a quick prayer and ask God to make you like it, rather than simply passing on by. Just as many animals benefit from a healthy tree, either by finding food, shelter, or whatever, so will many people benefit from you being spiritually healthy. They will benefit from your love for others; your peace in the midst of hardships; your patience with their faults. We need to produce this sort of fruit in our lives. Not for our own personal benefit, but for the benefit of others.

The City of the Soul

PC: Aniket Deole | Unsplash

I think we are all afraid of God. Whether we are the most devout Christian on the planet, or the most hardened atheist, I think we are all afraid God. The difference I think is in to what extent we have gone to insulate ourselves from our fear.

Some of us have built massive sprawling metropolises in our souls to deafen them to the voice of God. We have used concrete and steel to construct buildings and skyscrapers in order to feel safe and secure in our pleasures, whatever they may be. Whether it’s in fine food. Or sex. Or athletic ability. Or professional accomplishments. Or money. Whatever they are we don’t want to hear the conclusion of The Preacher:

I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted;
I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure.
So all my accomplishments gave me joy;
this was my reward for all my effort.
Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished
and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it,
I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless—
like chasing the wind!
There is nothing gained from them on earth.”

Ecclesiastes 2.10-11 (NET)

The roads in our cities are paved. The reasoning, we tell ourselves, is so that we don’t have to walk in dust and get dirty. The real reason though is that we don’t want to be reminded that we came from dust and will one day return to it. We don’t want to be reminded of our death. Our death that comes about because we rebelled against God:

But to Adam he said,
“Because you obeyed your wife
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
but you will eat the grain of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat food
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3.17-19 (NET)

Finally, we artificially light up the darkness of our souls with false hopes. Political parties. Technology. Economics. Sciences. Philosophies. Whatever we think will set the world right we put our hope in and light up our souls with. However by doing so we blind ourselves to Jesus, the true light:

The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.

John 1.9-13 (NET)

And so we insulate ourselves, whether consciously or not, from the voice of God. We don’t hear or see what He is telling us. We don’t see the stars at night. We don’t see the animals during the day. We don’t see the crops we get our food from. We’ve closed ourselves off from any and all reminders that we made neither ourselves nor the world we’re living in. We don’t hear what creation is telling us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the sky displays his handiwork.
Day after day it speaks out;
night after night it reveals his greatness.
There is no actual speech or word,
nor is its voice literally heard.
Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;
its words carry to the distant horizon.

Ps. 19.1-4 (NET)

I don’t like cities. I don’t like what happens to my soul when I don’t hear the voice of God because other concerns are crowding it out. For all the loneliness and isolation that may come from being in the desert it is a far more profitable place spiritually. In the desert there is no concrete or steel or artificial light to distract you from the voice of God. And I think this is why we don’t like being in spiritual deserts: because when we are in such a place we cannot get away from God even though we want to.

Give me the desert over the city.

 

Forgotten Elements in American Christianity: Ecclesiastes

American Christianity is unbalanced, I believe. This is not a uniquely American problem though; no culture will ever have a perfectly balanced expression of Christianity. Cultures have a certain set of values and those values inevitably help shape their expression of Christianity, for good and bad.

In America we tend to value practicality. We focus on making things productive and efficient. We focus on things that get results; that help us accomplish our goals. We are a goal-oriented society. This naturally leads to an emphasis on work, which is good because God created us to work:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. — Genesis 2.15

God expects us to work:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. — Exodus 20:8–10a

The Apostle Paul also expects us to work:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. — 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12

We also tend to value idealism. We’re eternal optimists. We’re always envisioning and imagining a better life, a better country, a better world. We differ quite vastly over what that ideal world looks like, but we are always imagining it. When we combine this with our emphasis on work it naturally leads to the conclusion that we can make our ideal world a reality. And this also is not a bad thing. The single mother, for example, who wants to get out of her minimum wage job and earn more money so she can work less and spend more time with her children should try to make that ideal a reality; it’s a good thing.

What isn’t good is when a healthy dose of the futility of life is not injected into the marriage of these two values. I think this injection is missing in American Christianity and I think it is missing because we have neglected the perspective of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. I suspect if I surveyed 100 American Christians and asked them what their favorite book of the Bible is that Ecclesiastes would have less than 5 votes, in fact it might not get any. It is a sad thing to think about, and I think also indicative of why American Christianity is the way it is.

It requires us to think and reflect on some of the cold hard truths about life, and we don’t like to do this. It isn’t productive. It doesn’t produce results. It doesn’t help us reach our goals. So why bother with it? Not only this, but it also undermines our idealism with fatalism. Consider the following:

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. — Ecclesiastes 1.14

Why would we want to acknowledge this? If this is true we reason, then why bother doing anything? Why bother standing up for the rights of the unborn? Why bother trying to eliminate racism? If it’s all useless then why bother? And so our thoughts stop there and we move on to the nice friendly passages that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

However once we come to grips with the perspective of the Preacher we can conclude along with him:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. — Ecclesiastes 12.13-14

When we recognize that all our striving after the actualization of our ideals is useless and in the end doesn’t matter it frees us from carrying that unnecessary burden and allows us to focus on what does matter: keeping the commandments of God. We recognize that God will judge each of us individually. Were we covetous and never content with what we had? Were we adulterous and consistently involved in sexual promiscuity? Did we spread false lies about others for our own advantage? Did we love something more than God? How well we loved God and loved others is what we will be judged on.

The reason why I write this is because I have noticed a tendency over the past couple of years within the church to think that we need to solve the social injustices in our country and world. I think this is dangerous because it is placing an unnecessary burden on the church and I think it will eventually be too much for us to carry and will crush us. We are not called to solve all the problems and injustices of the world. We are called to be salt and light. Living testimonies of the love of God to all humanity. If we first look at the state of our own soul and work to purify and cleanse it, then the societal change we want to see will naturally flow from it. It does not work the other way around. This is what Christ taught us:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. — Matthew 23.25-28

 

 

 

Empty Spaces

Christ is the light of the world, whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life

“I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

I was offered a free desk yesterday afternoon while I was walking into my building after arriving home from church. I noticed the desk was an L-desk, something I had been looking for for a while, and so I quickly agreed to take it. When I moved my old desk out to make space for my new desk it occurred to me that I had a lot of space to play with. The question before me was, “What will I put in this empty space?”

The season of Trinity in the liturgical year poses the same question to us: “What will we put in this empty space?”  Will we put Christ in it? Will we allow Him to purge from us our sinful and evil ways? Will we do the things He commands us to do? Will we love Him more than the world?

Trinitytide is a season of growth, so let us allow Christ to grow in us, so that everyone may see His glory in us and be drawn into His kingdom. Amen.

 

Why Squirrels are Better

 

How to be happy: be a dog!

This just in from the stating the obvious department…

While I was still living in FL God provided me with a frequent image to consider: squirrels (don’t laugh! this is going somewhere serious I promise!). You see there is a tree in the backyard of my parent’s house that I would watch the squirrels play in every morning before I did my daily Scripture readings. I would often be jealous of them. They didn’t worry about their jobs, money, or many of the other things that I worried about. They simply ran around the tree chasing each other, gathered material for nests, and (after checking to make sure the dog was inside) hopped down to the ground to search for food. Their lives seemed so simple, happy and worry-free; I wondered why my life had to be so complex, sad, and worrisome.

I’m not sure that I truly learned the lesson God was teaching me back then (actually I’m not sure I’ve truly learned any lesson God has ever taught me), but it’s a lesson I am being taught again as I near the end of another semester of seminary. I even find myself worrying about the same things I did back then! What will I do after seminary? Am I currently pursuing the right path for after graduation? Will I have enough money? Actually I am even worrying about more things! Am I being called to marriage or singleness? Can I personally do ministry without the support of a wife? Will having a wife (and likely kids also) be a detriment to my ministry?

Squirrels have not been my only teachers regarding these concerns, but Scripture also. The Psalms address these concerns in numerous places I believe, but Psalm 95.1-7 has stood out to me in particular:

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Psalm 95.1-7a ESV

These verses recount God’s creation of the world and everything in it, including humans. As a result of this we, along with the rest of creation, should recognize that we not only exist due solely to God’s decision to create, but that we are dependent on Him for our daily sustenance (e.g. food, water).

Jesus explicitly teaches this several times in the New Testament. First in Matthew 6.25-34:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Matthew 6.25-34 ESV

It doesn’t matter how much money we have or how big our house is, if God doesn’t send the rain to water the crops and fill the rivers and lakes, or the sunshine to grow the crops we won’t be alive for much longer. No matter how fit or healthy we are we will not live a moment longer than God has decided that we should live. So what should we do? God knows that we need food, water, and clothing, and He will give these things to us, just like he does to the birds (and squirrels!). And just like the birds (and squirrels!) are obedient to God and serve Him the way He intends for them, so we also should follow God and be obedient to His teachings and live the life he intends for us, a life of holiness. We should not be anxious about food, water, and clothing.

Jesus again teaches us not be anxious when He is in Martha’s house:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Luke 10.38-42 ESV

Martha is busy with all the preparations* for Jesus and His disciples, but how does Jesus describe her? As anxious about many things! A rebuke! It is Mary who Jesus describes as having “chosen the good portion,” which is listening to the words of her God and Savior and following Him, rather than being worried about food and entertaining guests.

Even the Apostles struggled with being anxious! They were once worried that they had no food, even though they had already seen Jesus feed thousands of people with just a few fish and a few loaves of bread:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16.5-12 ESV

But why is it significant that we not worry about these things? Because they are symptomatic of what is in our heart. The passage I quoted above from Matthew 6.25-34 has a parallel account in Luke 12.22-31 and immediately following adds:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Luke 12.32-34 ESV

I believe one of the fundamentals of the Christian life is to learn to set our hearts and desires on heavenly rewards rather than earthly rewards. This means learning to hear God’s voice and being obedient to what He calls you to do and trusting that He will provide for your needs along the way. The second part of Psalm 95 is instructive regarding this:

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
Psalm 95.7b-11**

God has called us to follow Him and to trust Him to provide for our needs along the way. We should not be worried about whether we will have food, or water, or clothing, or whether we will be married because God knows what we need and will give us what we need. What we should be worried about is whether or not we are being obedient to Him, following Him where He is leading us, and trusting Him to provide for us. If we are not doing this it is a sign that we love the things of the world, such as money or power or prestige, more than the God who made us. It is a sign that Sin is ruling our lives.

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

*The word translated “serving” probably refers to the preparations for a social event, such as a meal. See BDAG, διακονία 2.b.

**The incident at Meribah and Massah is found in Exodus 17.1-7 where the Israelites grumbled against Moses and did not trust that God was with them and would provide for their needs on their journey to the land He had promised, even though they had already seen Him provide bread for them from heaven (Exodus 16). Also, Hebrew 3.7-4.13 has an excellent exposition of these verses which I highly recommend reading.

 

A Satire of Modern “Scholarship”

A major, and perhaps fully unrealized, consequence of the Internet is that information is proliferating faster than at any previous time in human history. The supporting narrative heralds this proliferation as a good thing that will further the ‘progress’ of humanity and make life better, but there is a dark underside to this proliferation that seems to often go unnoticed, or is at least not discussed.

It is certainly true that the Internet has improved life in many ways. For example, it has enabled businesses to communicate essential information to other businesses very quickly and easily, such as your insurance company setting up a car rental for you when yours is in the shop. Or as another example, it has enabled instant communication with people who might be across the world through instant messaging technologies such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, etc.

As a consequence of these technologies information now spreads faster than ever before, but without any checks as to the quality or accuracy of that information. Some sites in fact just want written content because it’s how they make money, whether or not it’s accurate information or not seems to be irrelevant [example: content mills]. This business model seems to have infiltrated some previously trusted industries, such as journalism, which results in more news sites publishing articles that will drive traffic to their site, regardless of accuracy or neutrality.

For me I notice this tendency for sensationalism in the area of theology [probably inevitable]. A fairly recent example of this is the Newsweek article published several months ago about how the Church hates gay people. My response to that article is here. The basic goal of such articles it seems is heap condemnation on the Church in response to the Church [allegedly, though perhaps accurate in some individual situations] heaping condemnation on some other group. In short they’re propaganda pieces, and in propaganda the only thing that matters is rallying people behind your cause, truth is irrelevant.

So all that to say that today I came across a piece that satirizes such articles and provides a good example of how they work and go about their argument: Miguel Ruiz: New light on the oldest profession. Usually these article involve sexual ethics, which is what this article uses in its satire. Let me break it down for you:

First, they usually start with saying that Christians, or the Church, has unjustly oppressed a certain group of people unjustly: “The history of Christianity is a twisted tale of conflict over sexuality and the suppression of those who dissent the party line on bedroom ethics.”

Then they will state that the view of the opposition is based upon a single interpretation of Scripture; “These days, it is commonly argued that there is only one correct approach, from sound exegesis of Scripture, to human sexuality and appropriate boundaries.” And then assert that whatever this teaching is it is on shaky ground and has changed throughout history: “However, we still must concede that what is commonly accepted as “right” today is not exactly how we have always taught.”

Then they will attempt, but usually fail, to substantiate their claim that the Church has changed its teaching in this area [usually sexual ethics], perhaps claiming that the interpretation of Scripture has changed as the culture changed and ultimately concluding that the teaching of Scripture is not clear: “Throughout the centuries, various sexual practices have gone in and out of favor with the church catholic at various times and in various cultures, as external influences have doubtlessly impacted how the relevant Scripture passages were read and understood. We’ve run the gamut from repressing to libertine, and everything in between.  It is nothing short of confounding how difficult it is to get the Bible to speak directly and consistently on these matters.” 

Then they will make their appeal to your emotions: “If we truly value and respect the Word of God, we would be wise to continue listening and respectfully consider alternate interpretations, especially those coming from fellow believers as a matter of conscience. We’ve all made mistakes in Biblical interpretation before, probably not for the last time.  So I challenge you to listen with an open mind as I explain how we’ve been largely wrong about a particular issue for a number of years:  Prostitution.” This statement here is the giveaway as to what is coming next in the article. They believe to have already demonstrated that the Church has changed its view regarding the issue [though they probably haven’t] and on this basis then appeal to your emotions by basically saying, “If you want to be a true Christian you need to recognize that in your own history teachings and interpretations have changed, and so you then have an obligation to listen to my own alternative interpretation which differs from the current accepted interpretation, and even more so because I am also a ‘Christian.'” Essentially, they’re guilt tripping you into listening to them.

This guilt trip will probably then continue by saying that Christians are unjustly persecuting this certain group, prostitutes in this case: “Prostitution gets a bad rap in our culture today, and as a result, women in this profession are grossly mistreated.  When we think of sex workers, the stereotype that comes to mind is a scantily clad woman, working a corner, wearing too much makeup.  She renders her plunder to a psychologically manipulative and physically abusive pimp who doesn’t take very good care of her.  It has truly become a dangerous profession in our day, largely because a judgmental spirit against it fosters a suppression of its legitimacy, resulting in occupational trauma.  Unfortunately, this is often done in the name of Christianity.  It doesn’t have to be so.”

From here then they proceed to make their point from Scripture: “The exegetical scholarship on this issue is no longer as conclusive as we once thought.  Let’s take a look at what the Bible really has to say about prostitution, from the beginning.” This is where things get really bad. Making claims and not even attempting to substantiate them, as they’ve done previously, is already bad enough. But revealing that you don’t have basic reading comprehension skills, nor that you have very little skill in the actual Biblical languages is really bad, especially when you’re making that claim.

This part of the article generally involves taking verses out of context, leaving important key elements out of the story, and just generally misunderstanding Scripture in order to support the author’s point. In this satire one of the stories used is the story of Judah and Tamar. It summarizes the story as follows: “The first recorded prostitute is Tamar.  She slept with Judah after his three sons died without knocking her up.  Oddly enough, Judah did not realize it was his three-time daughter in law.  When it was discovered that she was pregnant and she gave proof that it was at his doing, his response was (and I quote the ESV), “She is more righteous than I.”” There are several features of this summary that are useful to point out. First, the reference to where the story can be found in Scripture is missing [hint: it’s Genesis 38, or you could just Google ‘Judah and Tamar’], a reference that would be helpful if, you know, you actually wanted to read the story yourself and check the accuracy of the author’s summary. Second, Tamar was not even a prostitute. She was the wife of Judah’s eldest son Er [Gen. 38.6] and after Er died was given to Onan [Gen 38.8]. Judah merely thought she was a prostitute because she had a veil over her face, which is also why Judah didn’t recognize her [Gen 38.14-15, 21-22].

Third, only two of Judah’s sons died without ‘knocking her up,’ Er and Onan. The third, Shelah, is never recorded as having slept with her. In fact that she was not given to Shelah, as Judah promised to do [Gen. 38.11], is a crucial element in the story that is left out because it is Judah’s refusal to give Tamar to him that motivates Tamar’s actions. Furthermore the summary of ‘died without knocking her up’ overlooks the reason as to why they died: they were both wicked. We are not told the specifics of Er’s wickedness, just that he was wicked [Gen 38.7]. Onan was wicked because he refused to impregnate Tamar and thus give his brother descendants [Gen 38.8-10].

Even the concluding statement of the summary is misleading. Tamar was accused of being pregnant by immorality and in response to this Judah was going execute her [Gen. 38.24]. In order to defend herself she says that she is pregnant by the man to whom the signet, cord, and staff she has belongs to [Gen 38.25]. Then after Judah identifies them as belonging to him he says that Tamar is more righteous than he is because her actions were a result of his refusal to give her to Shelah [Gen 38.26]. It is a statement on the unrighteousness and wickedness of Judah, which was great considering that in the previous chapter he was jealous of his brother Joseph and sold him into slavery, and the fact that both Er and Onan were wicked as well also testifies to his own wickedness in my opinion. But all this is missed because usually the author apparently didn’t even bother to read the story and understand it.

However the madness will continue since it is apparently not sufficient to demonstrate lack of understanding regarding the Old Testament, it must also be shown with the New as well. In the satire the author proceeds to then interpret a saying of Jesus in light of an obviously faulty and wrong understanding of the story of Judah and Tamar: “Consider the significance of this.  Judah is not just one of the patriarchs of Israel.  Neither is he the firstborn, from whom the Messiah was expected to come.  Rather, the first three sons were passed up in favor of Judah!  The very father of the tribe of Jesus, an essential link in the genealogy of salvation, has declared a prostitute to be more righteous than him!  What does that say about how he viewed them?  It reminds me of something Jesus used to say;  “The tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”  From the popular Christian sexual ethic of today, you would expect a much more sever evisceration of this demographic, but these words seem rather flattering.” Here, again, Scripture is taken out of context and interpreted to mean something that would seem absurd if read within its context. No reference is given for the saying of Jesus either, so I’ll assume it’s Matthew 21.31.

Here’s the context of the saying: the chief priests and elders of the people challenge Jesus and ask him by what authority he is doing and teaching the things he is [Matt 21.23]. In response Jesus asks them whether the baptism of John came from heaven or man [Matt 21.24]. They discussed it and realized that either way they answered came with consequences they did not want to accept, so they simply said they didn’t know [Matt. 21.25-26], to which response Jesus refuses to answer their question [Matt 21.27]. He does however tell them a parable:

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.

At the end of the parable Jesus asks them:

31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”

To which they respond:

They said, “The first.”

Then Jesus responds:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

The article takes the saying of Jesus out of its context and interprets it to mean that Jesus said prostitution was an acceptable profession. However in its context it means that the prostitutes believed the repentance that John was preaching [Matt 3.1-12] and were baptized. Even though at first they refused to follow what John was preaching they later changed their minds and obeyed, and their obedience is why they are in the kingdom of God. The chief priests and elders however said they would do what John was preaching, but they never actually did it. Thus they were disobedient and their disobedience is what keeps them out of the kingdom of God. Much as what the case with Judah’s statement that Tamar was more righteous than he was, the saying “tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom before you” is not a statement concerning the acceptability of the profession of prostitution, but rather points to the unrighteousness someone, in this case the unrighteousness of the chief priests and elders.

The article continues through several more equally bad and absurd uses of Scripture to make its point, but I won’t go into those.

Satire is wonderful art form and when executed well can bring absurdity to light. This article does a great job in highlighting how many articles written and published on various online news sites concerning Christianity are written. They start with the presumption that Christians are wrong because they do not affirm that a certain lifestyle is acceptable and in their effort to convince us that we are wrong to do so they try to use our own Scriptures. In the process they end up demonstrating that they in fact have absolutely no clue as to what our faith is about.

This satirical article does just that in what it says, but also in what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t finish the story of Judah! Remember when I mentioned that he sold his brother Joseph into slavery? Well guess what, neither Judah’s nor Joseph’s story ends there [the whole story is Genesis 37-50]. Joseph encountered several adverse and hostile situations in his life, but through them all he remained faithful and obedient to God and God preserved him through all of them and eventually made him a person of great authority in Egypt. Eventually the land where Judah and his brothers were living had a severe famine, but there was plenty of food in Egypt because God had warned Pharaoh through a dream, which Joseph interpreted and revealed the meaning of, that a famine was coming. So when they came down to Egypt to get food Joseph recognized them and decided to test them [remember his last interaction with them was their selling of him into slavery] by keeping Simeon in Egypt until they brought their youngest brother Benjamin down to Egypt with them. Well Jacob [Judah’s father] doesn’t want to lose another one of his sons [Simeon is now in Egypt and he assumes Joseph is dead] and is reluctant to let them go back.

However they eventually do have to go back and it is Judah who ultimately convinces his father to let them go and buy food by offering to take the all the blame should they fail to return with Benjamin. When they are preparing to leave Egypt Joseph orders his servants to put his cup in Benjamin’s sack and then to catch to his brothers before they leave and confront them about the “theft.” When they are then brought before Joseph and are being questioned about the incident it is Judah who speaks up and defends himself and his brothers [Gen. 44.13-44]! You should really go read that. I won’t quote it because it’s obnoxiously long. But seriously read it!

This is the full realization of the repentance that Judah began when he recognized his own wickedness after the incident with Tamar, and, I think, it is why the Messiah, Jesus, came from the lineage of Judah. It is the repentance that John preached in the wilderness and the repentance that the tax collectors and prostitutes practiced, but that the chief priests and elders refused to do. And it is this repentance that is the basis of the Christian life. We recognize and admit we are wicked people and confess our failings daily, and daily ask God to help us overcome them so that we may be like Christ. As Athanasius said, “God became man so that men might become gods.”

And I would further venture to say this failure to understand the Christian life also leads to a failure to understand the Christian God. It was God who chose Jacob’s descendants to be His people, but they were wicked and needed to recognize this and it took a famine in their land and nearly losing some of their brothers for them to realize how wicked they were. This was why God brought the famine on the land and Joseph to Egypt, so that his chosen people would repent and be preserved and be a blessing for all the world by giving birth to the Messiah, Jesus.

There are two things that are true about every single person on this planet: we are all loved by God because we are His creation, and we are all sinful, wicked, and evil. God calls us to recognize our own wickedness because it draws us away from Him and how we are made to live. We are made to live in harmony with God and our sin and wickedness gets in the way of this harmony, and so we must daily repent and daily ask God to help us overcome it.

May God grant us all the grace to live a life of repentance.