Archive for October, 2011

Embracing the Time

October 28, 2011

…A time to embrace and a time to refrain…

 

Some people never embrace anything or anyone—except may be their reserved sense of propriety.  It’s quite fascinating to me that we look at life through such a variety of lenses which affect how we see the world.  If a person looks at everything as “sin”, there will be nothing safe—nowhere secure to step at all.  If they look at nothing as “sin”, there’s still dangers only now they have blinders on and do their level best to deny the fact there’s something wrong.

I guess that’s a little off the subject, though, huh.

I looked up the word “embrace” to see the nuance and found out the word used here means to “cleave to” or “clasp”.  The significance being there is a time we should “cleave to” things or people and sometimes we hold onto them long after we should let go.  This isn’t just about affection between people or demonstrative love, rather it points to clinging to something or someone.  Solomon wants to point to the need for holding onto things or people for a time then releasing them.  Paul told the Galatians,  Carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  Then in the very next verse we’re told each one should carry his own load, which says to me those who cling to each other for too long lose something in the action.  If we are to carry our own load, then the burden is merely a time based load not one’s entire life.  The “load” in Paul’s illustration must signify a person’s life instead of the incidental circumstances or situations we find ourselves in.

The odd thing is most people get this without realizing its truth in such clear terms.  I find it sad now more than ever that some people expect to be carried throughout their entire lives placing a burden on others they are unwilling to bear.  I doubt this type of person considers what they are doing beyond their selfish ambition of not having to be responsible for his or her self.  In fact, they probably never really think of it in those terms because all of us lie to ourselves and exaggerate either our importance (or lack there of) through smoke screens of reasoning which allow us to think how we wish.

Years ago I worked for an agency called S. L. Start and Associates where the primary objective centered on integrating disabled people back into society.  We didn’t concentrate on children but adults or teens who lived institutionalized most of their existence.  I watched some thrive and gain the desired independence which met the company’s stated goals, while others played the disability card to the hilt.  It surprised and educated me that those we consider mentally incapable of strategic thinking came up with some of the most ingenious ways to manipulate the system or their caretakers.  Watching the clientele function as a microcosm of society as a whole, I realized those of us who probably don’t have disabilities such as these did are far more clever at disguising our dishonesty with both ourselves and the world around us.

Looking at marriage in this light, we come to the conclusion no one is meant to be codependent in the relationship because each is supposed to carry the load of their lives.  Marriage makes this subject a sticky wicket because most of us find it difficult to discern dependence from codependence.  But there is a clear distinction.  Codependence declares the other person’s presence and assistance as desperately needed while dependence merely expects them to carry their load while shouldering the common burdens of the relationship and shared life.  Codependence will cling and suck someone else dry; dependence expects the other person to be an individual and make time for personal pursuits.

I could go on but the illustrations above should be sufficient to get the ball rolling in the right direction.  The time to release one’s embrace is definitely at the point where we begin to feel threatened or desperate by the departure or independence of another.

To illustrate it another way:  A broken leg dictates those who experience this trauma will need help with daily tasks for a time until they heal, after which the therapists will encourage them to exercise the leg to get it strong again.  The same goes for emotional or heart damage.  Recovery in heart injuries may take years to fully recover from just like a broken leg, but putting ourselves into an isolation chamber socially won’t accomplish it as fast.  Sure the risk of being hurt again is out there, but the risk of not recovering at all and wallowing in our sorrow takes on the epic risk of shutting down our entire future for the sake the past.  This is futile thinking and void of any wisdom.

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Moral to the Story

October 26, 2011

Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might, for in the grave where you are going there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.  Ecclesiastes 9:10.

 

For me the moral to this story isn’t about breaking the arrows or following the rules but showing passion in the instructions God gives us.  If we are endowed with a gift, we should be using it to its potential not wavering in the closets or playing wallflowers at the dance.  But it takes perseverance and determination to follow any path.

I thought a lot about Jehoash and Elisha, wondering what the lesson was we should take from such a text.  Several examples came to mind that I’d like to share.

Jeremiah was told from the get go that if he wavered or gave in to his fear, that fear would rule him.  In other words, he was to speak the hard stuff without fear or backing down in anyway.  God wanted the message strong and uncompromising.  Yet there was no evidence of the truth of it in world around him to support his conclusions or predictions.

He was basically alone in his role, with very few standing in his corner publicly or privately, leaving him the sole voice of God.  I don’t know if I could stand the rejection, to be honest, because I can barely handle any now.  It seems to me that Jeremiah had to be a voice of dissent in a world mad with conformity.  His job was to predict doom and gloom when the popular voices were predicting success and happiness.  That’s not a comfortable place to be in.

Isaiah went around naked and barefoot for three years as a testimony to Judah of the impending doom awaiting them if they didn’t repent.  (See Isaiah 20)  If you want to know what this man had to go through to do this, then read the law’s instructions on nakedness and you’ll get a sense of what a testimony this was while being a test of Isaiah’s confidence in God.

But this isn’t all.

These men had to know God spoke to them, communicated directly with them and believe without a shadow of hesitation that this was His will or they wouldn’t have.  I’ve often wondered how they knew God’s voice.  I mean, we have the Bible to give us clues into the voice of God but how did these guys confirm this without something empirical to back them up?

I don’t know.  The only thing as a testament to the rightness of their position is history.  Still, this had to be a trial for them to put up or shut up in the midst of all the opposition.  From what I understand of Rabbinical history, Isaiah ended up being put into a hollow log and sawn in two by Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh.  It stands to reason the opposition was there all along for this to take place at all.

So what do we conclude from our story about Jehoash and Elisha?

First of all we need to follow God’s revelation in our abilities.  Jehoash was king, commander in chief and leader to the nation, so what he did either inspired or discouraged his nation.  The fact that he went for the party instead of righteousness lets us know the outcome of his choices ultimately left a mark on the nation which cost them lives and independence.  Unfortunately, he lacked either the character or fortitude to lead any kind of victory.

Second, grace always arrives in the place where we least expect mercy to show up.  I mean by that we get second chances to grow even though we’ve shown doubt, laziness, or a host of other undesirable attitudes in the past.  God is in the business of redemption not condemnation, therefore, so should we be.  If He’s willing to grow others into the image of His Son, Jesus, then we should be doubly so because we know what our failures have cost and the mercy He extended through grace to us despite them.

Last, but not least, we can move out in faith though we are weak.  This is where I am in areas of my life right now.  I find it hard to believe in myself or my abilities despite hard evidence to the contrary.  I know I can perform the socks off a song, but lack the confidence to believe I can build an audience.  God is not through with me—and never will be.  I’m way past the age the world considers a salable product (youth being the key factor) so I know that if I build an audience of any kind it will be by the grace of God.  Yet I still fear failure because…I don’t know exactly what the root issue is but I just do.  There are lots of reasons that are and are not valid but don’t hold any leverage next to His power.

At this point of my weakness, His strength gets to shine.

In another story about Elisha, early in his ministry as the main prophet for Israel, he encountered impossible odds.  Dothan is surrounded by Arameans, his servant goes out in the morning to see an army around him and becomes frightened.  Elisha’s reply will forever stay with me,  “Don’t be afraid,”  the prophet answered.  “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  2 Kings 6:16.  Then the prophet prayed and the servant’s spiritual eyes were opened to see a host of angels standing between the city and the invading army.

Do you see?  I sometimes don’t.  I fail my Master repeatedly and struggle to find my spiritual equilibrium in a world gone made with selfish ambition and pride of place over character and love.  I forget far too often that those with us are more than those who are with them.  I get sidetracked from the real battle for my soul onto issues that have nothing to do with reality.

C. S. Lewis wrote in “The Great Divorce” that heaven is the reality we are but the dream.  I take this to mean anything we dream for ourselves without Him at the helm, thus it is but a fantasy because all things are from Him, for Him and to Him.  Anything or anyone outside of His will is dreaming of self-actualization though never realizing it in its fullness.

The reality is we may lose by the world’s standards and be thought complete failures by those who seem to count, but the fruit of our lives, if our trees are planted in God’s orchard, will bear more than could be accounted for by natural means.  He will see to it that whatever seeds we plant yield far more than anyone could think or imagine.  Our puny efforts in Him find their ultimate fulfillment in His hands.  In our own strength we can’t break the arrows or even win the war, but through His power we become unbeatable in His will.

Lesson 490

October 21, 2011

            Then he said,  “Take the arrows,” and the king took them.  Elisha told him,  “Strike the ground.”  He struck it three times and stopped.  The man of God was angry with him and said,  “You should have struck the ground give or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it.  But now you will defeat it only three times.”

 

In some ways we are operating in the dark here.  It’s not like we don’t have the guidelines for life spelled out clearly in Scripture, though the prophetic stuff sure messes some people up.  Our grasp of what is necessary is skewed by what we consider to be reality or truth.

When Louis Pasteur experimented with raw meat in an effort to determine whether flies and gnats spontaneously generated from it or not, his conclusion bucked hundreds of years of tradition.  If I remember my history correctly, he was derided by some as a charlatan and others objected on the basis of tradition.  Fast forward only a hundred years and no one believed the “tried and true” anymore because science had advanced beyond that simple experiment into discovering germs and other organisms so small that one had to use a microscope to see them.

So this means literally hundreds of years of practice were blown out of the water because of one man’s doubt about the accepted reality.  It means that much of what we believe about life might be so far off as to be night to day concerning what is really there.  It means Galileo died because ignorant people were more powerful than those with truth.  It means that subjective truth isn’t always accurate or even true.  It means we need to be more cautious about what we praise and what we criticize.  It means we need to question more things and doubt more so that we can actually enter into the realm of truth.

We can laugh or put Jehoash down for his failure and boast that we wouldn’t fail Elisha but the reality is our beliefs about any situation affects how we react to it.  I have no idea how I would respond to such a request outside the specific circumstances the king found himself in.  With my understanding of the story now I know the best choice because of Elisha’s reaction, but without hindsight to guide me I would be just as lost as to what needed to be done as this king.

Still, this doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the situation and move to correct my attitude in the future.  Jehoash failed to push through with all his might in a situation that didn’t demand much of him, yet cost him when it mattered.  This revealed his heart and attitude to be lacking in either strength of purpose or simple chutzpah.  Whatever the case, he failed because he just didn’t see the point.

I don’t get how to follow God all the time.  There are situations where I have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  There come circumstances where I think I know what God wants and it turns out I’m assuming in my human nature completely outside His thinking.  I get lost at times with His will because I want miracles over sweat, success over opposition and a sense of well-being over the feeling of being on the outside.

The conundrum, of course, is that we are always on the outside if we follow Jesus.  To operate within the bounds of spiritual minded wisdom, we have to think completely outside our own box.  Yet His operation procedures aren’t really outside our parameters since we live by faith no matter what we do.  Think about it:  When we get in the car and turn the key, we expect it to start by faith in the system and people who designed it—and probably personal experience.  In reality we have no idea how the wear and tear on the vehicle affects it and thus our faith might be misplaced at some point in time.  When Paul tells us God works all things to the good of those who love Him, then life explodes with terrible stuff outside our control, we are told to hold on in faith, which is not easy, given our broken trust bone.

Do you see what I’m driving at?  The choice to have faith in God can’t be based on whether the “car” starts when we expect it to or not, for it will let us down at some point.  Our faith must be placed in something higher, more substantial and considerably more stable than a machine given over to entropy.  If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, then something must adjust in our thinking for us to live that way and trust this is true.  If we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength, then our job is to submit to His mind so that we can thrive in the world not merely exist.

Jesus promised His disciples a full life, then, through Paul, expanded that promise of supply beyond what we can think or ask.  To live in the now as if life were full we have to reshape our thinking or it becomes impossible.  The full life cannot be had just by asking for it, we have to be open to the all things and possibilities or it’s just words.  Also, what advantage is there in belonging to Jesus if we live like slaves, act like victims, look at the world through jaundiced eyes and demonstrate a hate or loathing for all things created outside of heaven?  What makes anyone in the world who doesn’t know much about Jesus except that He died for our sins and (as Christians claim) rose again want this life we claim is so much better…if we’re clearly miserable?

Without some selling point none of us will ever buy a product.  It must meet our needs or it rots by the wayside.  The same is true for the gospel.

Where does grace enter into this scenario for us post Christ’s resurrection?

Well, here’s the kicker:  to my knowledge there are still no “do-overs” offered in Christian theology or anywhere in the NT.  So where does that leave us with the lesson above?

Though we don’t get repeats or a chance to retry something specific, the overall outcome of the situation might still be salvaged if we change our attitude and methods.  Granted there are some things we will never change but that isn’t always the problem we’re facing overall.  It’s how we live, think, and breathe that matter here not our successes or failures.  No one lives in the highs constantly nor do we wallow in the lows without choosing to because normal, humdrum, mundane life usually takes over at some point.  If we have a job, we still go there everyday we’re scheduled.  If we have dishes to wash, we still have to wash them.  The realities of life never leave us and it’s in between the highs and lows everybody lives more consistently.

The troubling thing about human nature, however, isn’t our existence but our expectations.  One of the defining characteristics of an addict in my experience is their insatiable expectation that they either deserve or should be able to sustain the high at all times.  The fail point for this expectation comes from the plateau or leveling out at a certain state of mind or body.  In other words, if we use pot twice a day, for example, that will come to feel “normal” for both our body and mind so that we plateau at that physical state which then becomes our norm.  To feel any different from our norm we have to do something more.  This continued desire for the high will eventually lead to overdosing and death because it’s not sustainable for the body to remain in a drugged state over long periods of time.

The same can be said of our spiritual being.  A constant euphoria (or desire for such) from revival or praise will become normal to us and our expectations of God will beg for something new to happen so that we can experience the spiritual “high”.  Unfortunately, God didn’t make us for the spiritual high as a constant state of being, which disappoints the spiritual partiers because they believe this is what being spiritual means.  The reality of God’s creation fails to register with them at all.  Normal existence was designed by Him to result in a daily routine, while the highs of taste, touch, orgasm, color, or smell, are all there to be experienced in doses of joy not as an unvarying condition.  Otherwise, the high loses its effect and we lose the fun.

Here’s where mercy, grace and forgiveness enter in.

Grace covers our inability to make the grade.  So if we don’t know what to do with the “arrows” God hands us to strike the ground with, it isn’t the end of the story.  Our growth is the point of mercy, grace and the cross.  To grow period means to fail somewhere in the journey, because failure is a part of learning how to walk both in the physical and spiritual realms.  Birds don’t fly the moment they leave the egg.  Neither can we expect to grasp the spiritual truths in one fell swoop.  It’s ludicrous and dangerous to preach or contemplate any other reality than the one God demonstrated in the disciples and Scripture in general.

Grace presents an offer to strike the “arrows” again. Oh, may be not in the same way, but certainly in a similar or, often times, greater situation than before.  We will fail because we’re sinners saved by grace, and that not of ourselves, it is a gift of God.  So when our personal Armenians threaten attack, we might fail and wet ourselves.  Yet that is not the end of our journey in Christ; this is not the defining moment in our history.  We die to self daily and live to Christ eternally.

Within the Bounds of Determination

October 11, 2011

Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died.  Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him.  “My father!  My father!”  he cried.  “The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”

            Elisha said,  “Get me a bow and some arrows,”  and he did so.  “Take the bow in your hands,”  he said to the king of Israel.  When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king’s hands.

            “Open the east window,”  he said, and he opened it.  “Shoot!”  Elisha said, and he shot.  “The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!”  Elisha declared.  “You will completely destroy the Arameans of Aphek.”

            Then he said,  “Take the arrows,” and the king took them.  Elisha told him,  “Strike the ground.”  He struck it three times and stopped.  The man of God was angry with him and said,  “You should have struck the ground give or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it.  But now you will defeat it only three times.”

            Elisha died and was buried.  2 Kings 13:14-20a.

 

This story has been bouncing around in my mind for a long time, and though I’ve used it as an illustration a time or two, I have never just worked it over completely.  It might take a while for me to explore the nuances of the story, but I plan to come back to it every now and again to update my understanding.

What I get out of it now is this:

The king comes to Elisha with a seemingly insurmountable problem—he’s worried his army won’t be enough to beat the Arameans, and he’s probably right.  Jehoash lacked character by dent of his idolatry and devotion to power and pleasure.  In the four verses preceding this story we see this king imitated the ways of Jeroboam, who led Israel into idolatry and some pretty evil practices.  So Jehoash is already a conflicted man when he comes to Elisha as a new king, which divides both his loyalty to God and hurts his determination to lead.

Since Jehoash has been born into privilege, there’s more than a little likelihood he’s also not very disciplined as far as being a leader and example to his own people.  His father wasn’t that great a king and also ignored the God of Israel to his own destruction.  All this to say, it doesn’t take a geneticist or psychiatrist to figure out the son failed from lack of character.

Still, he came to the one person who could probably have helped him, Elisha.  Significant actions on the part of even those who don’t follow God with their whole hearts declare what they truly believe.  Jehoash might have been given over to the temples of other gods for the convenience of the pleasure it afforded not really out of devotion.  When the chips were down, the invading army at the door, and his head in a noose, he came to the one person who could give him any kind of advice or connection with real power.

The first part of Elisha’s prophecy must have filled the king with gratitude and hope—“The arrow of the Lord!”  What happens next should have warned him but it didn’t.  Whether he was so elated by being the “arrow of the Lord” or just simply too spiritually dense to grasp Elisha’s actions, we’ll never know.  I’m going with both, since human nature tends to follow well worn paths. Whatever the case, he failed the test.  I looked up the word “strike” (which is “smite” in the KJV) and it has a variety of connotations but the main meaning is to “touch” or “wound” depending on its context.  In one instance of its use, the story of Abimelech and Sarah (Abraham’s wife), it indicated sexual contact, which illustrates the striking nature of touch in the act of sex in the Eastern mindset.  I believe in this case, Jehoash wasn’t asked to break the arrows but to strike the ground with enough force to show determination.  I also think from Elisha’s response, he probably should’ve broken them.

At this point, I have to say, I feel a lot of sympathy for Jehoash.  I don’t know what I would’ve done in his place exactly, though to be honest, I probably would’ve kept beating the arrows on the ground until Elisha told me to stop.  I follow commands pretty well, I just don’t always grasp the underlying limits of them unless the one who gives them verbalizes them.  At the same time, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have known what to expect/do either.  May be there’s a nuance I’m missing about the Jewish thinking here, but the fact that Jehoash stopped speaks loud and clear he didn’t get the point either.

There are probably more options than I will list but these are probable reasons I think he stopped:

 

  1. Arrows were hard to make so you just didn’t break them or damage them without good reason
  2. His head was spinning with worry about the impending invasion and being a new king, so his focus was a little off.
  3. Elisha didn’t specify in his instructions what to do other than strike the floor, Jehoash might have hit the floor three times then stopped to look up and check with the prophet.
  4. He lacked enthusiasm for the prophet’s input and instructions.
  5. He lacked conviction in his own life which led him to be half-assed about everything.

 

I can’t think of anymore right now, but you get the idea.  How we approach each directive may or may not have to do with past experience such as over the top enthusiasm got us laughed at in school, we broke something that required a delicate hand so our gung ho moves worked against us, or we just aren’t that type of person in general.  Whatever the truth about us, we all react differently to these kinds of instructions.

How determined are we to follow the Lord’s will, instructions or be conformed to His mind?  Think about this story today and ask yourself,  “Would I have broken the arrows?”

Pickup or Scatter

October 3, 2011

A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them…Ecclesiastes 3:5a.

 

I’ve spent the last couple of days chewing on this and I can get no further than I was when I began.  The logic here might be deeper than I’m grasping but it seems such a straight forward statement that the surface truth doesn’t need much explanation.

Still, what does stand out for me is the fact that we gather stones to build walls for houses, forts, cities and pens.  We scatter them when we want to get rid of those things or hinder someone’s progress.

In everything there is a season for these actions.

So we scatter stones for different reasons, gather them for a myriad of uses.  Solomon is presenting the contrast not for the sake of being snarky or informing everybody about a deep topic but to remind us that there is a time for the commonplace.  If there’s a time to gather as well as scatter stones, then it stands to reason those who neglect such a possibility about something so basic miss part of their purpose in life.

Have you ever hung out with someone who only lives for their “higher” purpose, whatever they think that is?  They neglect mundane living to concentrate on these “higher” things for the goal of being like their god or some such thing.  Solomon pulls his readers back to earth and redirects their attention to the sink of life where the dishes need to be washed and the floor swept (which reminds me, I have some that need washing right now).

There is a time to get the rocks out of the walkway, roadway or whatever “way” they are blocking.  There is a time to get the rock out of my shoe, off the hardwood floors—out of the food.  These places are not meant for the rocks or stones because they hinder progress in travel or eating.  It’s not like the stones are bad in this illustration just not appropriate for the time.  Yet when we build a house, a road, a fence, a well, or a host of other things that require strength and structure, stones are the materials to use.

On another rabbit trail, alters in the OT were made of piled stones, not cut or shaped like we see in popular paintings.  It’s odd (to us), of course, that God forbid the Hebrews to use shaped stone when they built an alter but that is exactly what He did.  There’s something prosaic in the nature of shaped stone that speaks of honoring the human builder (who’s probably trying to impress God with His beautiful artwork) instead of the God who made them in their haphazard shapes and sizes.  Cut stones are usually uniformly shaped and fit together without spaces; whereas those scattered on the ground are rough edged, full of sharp protrusions and without our earthbound sense of “perfection”.  God preferred this shape to the delicate rendering of mankind.  There’s a message in that for us.  It could also be that since the Hebrews were instrumental as slaves in Egypt building the pyramids and other grand architecture that God wanted to disconnect their understanding of holiness with the heathen practices of their oppressors.

Where we mess up on this important dimension, though, is the uniformity issue.  The chance to look alike or similar becomes almost irresistible to some people—no, most people.  We can’t seem to get it into our heads through what has been made that God actually desired variety rather than uniformity.  It’s not like similarity falls outside His design, because species of animals or plants all conform to a basic look all the while maintaining an uncanny individuality.  This should educate us to diversity within uniformity, but it doesn’t!  I mean, even twins, who look so, so, so much alike can be known and recognized for their individuality once the characteristics of each is clear.

So God preferred uncut stone for the alters humans would build for Him—whether out of some profound lesson for our tendency towards bargaining with Him or convenience for the poverty stricken among them—or both, I don’t know.

What is important to know, is that the commonplace holds a priority in everyone’s life.