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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

John Chapter 1

About a week ago, some friends mentioned that they would like to start a Bible study on the gospel of John. We haven’t begun yet, but I thought I’d get a head start and post my own personal reflections here. It’s just so much easier to understand the Bible when you put your thoughts down in writing – kind of like taking notes in class.

By the way, I’ve been going to a new church lately, which I love. You can find their websites here and here.

I’m going to take it slow through John because I don’t want to miss anything, so here are the first five verses:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” — John 1:1-5

I like these first few verses. They are so simple and profound. In the beginning, there was God, and he created everything. Pretty simple, right? :)

I like this idea of the Word being a particular aspect of God. Some people have a problem with the Trinity, or with Jesus being God. I think sometimes they struggle with the idea of God being one, but also being separate.

I have to say, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the modern church description of the Trinity – “A triune God, three in one.” I can understand how Jews sometimes accuse Christians of polytheism.

The three major aspects of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are definitely good to recognize, but I also like the Jewish way of thinking. There is one God, but he has many names. Provider, Savior, Purifier, Protector, Creator, and so on. In fact, since God is infinite, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he has an infinite amount of names to describe his greatness. The only thing that really limits God is our own human language, and that doesn’t so much limit God as it limits our ability to understand him.

When I think of the different aspects of God, I like to think more of a line than a triangle. To get what I mean, take a piece of thread or string and stretch it out on a table. Now imagine that the string goes on forever – it has no beginning or end. This string represents God.

Now take another shorter piece of string, and place it underneath the first string. This string represents mortal life (or human history). It has a beginning and end.

Now pinch the middle of the first string so that it comes to a point, and make that point touch the second string. That is how I understand an aspect of God showing up in my life. It’s still one string, but I am only seeing one point of it right now.

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(If you want to get really fancy, you could make the top string woven out of three fibers, representing the three major aspects of God.)

diagram_2

Anyway, that’s how I get it.

The second part of these verses reminds me to be thankful. God created me. He also created everything that I enjoy. No matter how depressed or frustrated I may feel sometimes, there is something I can thank God for.

God created mankind in his image, but he also created the animals and plants and sunsets. I’ve always said that a person’s art is very revealing of that person’s heart. If you doubt God’s goodness, just watch a sunset sometime. Even though it may not help you understand your situation, I hope it helps you find peace.

The third part of these verses is awesome. In God is life, and that life is the Light of men. It shines in the darkness, and the darkness can’t comprehend it.

Everything about our existence is meaningless if we don’t have God, because God is life. Without life there is death – emptiness – meaninglessness.

That’s why you should choose God over everything. Would you really deny God just to hang on to an unhealthy relationship?

I love something a friend once said: “It’s okay if you’re not okay, but it’s not okay for you to stay that way.”

I can immediately think of several people who are making very poor decisions. Some claim to follow Christ, others do not. It’s okay for me to hang out with them – I care about them, after all! But what is true friendship? Ignoring their poor decisions because I don’t want to get in an argument? Or would it be better to call them out, to tell them the truth?

Obviously you should let prayer and scripture guide you, but in many cases, it is better to say something, even if it costs you your friendship. I mean, if your friend was hooked on drugs, wouldn’t you want to intervene for the sake of that friend’s health, even though they might hate you for it? Then why wouldn’t you speak up if they were doing other stupid stuff?

You have to be careful, of course, because you are NOT the lord and master of their lives. You can’t go around always telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. But in a clear cut case of, “Hey, this thing your doing is very much against what Jesus teaches,” then pray, make sure you have a spirit of humility (as opposed to self-righteousness), and then carefully speak the truth.

The timing has to be right, and your heart has to be right. If you’re set there, then go for it.

You know, as a follower of Christ, you just have to expect that certain people aren’t going to like you. Of course we all mess up – I’ve done dumb things in the name of Christ (and dumb things in the name of my own self interest). But even when we’re doing everything right, and we want to bless other people, there are going to be people out there who hate us for it.

You just can’t sweat it. I mean, who cares if you lose your job or your home or your life for the sake of Christ? Didn’t Paul say that any loss for the sake of Christ should be considered gain? What is a job or a friendship or a possession really worth if it’s tainted by compromise?

I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said that whoever doesn’t hate his own brother is not worthy of him. I think he meant that you have to put God above everything and every relationship you have. You need to risk sharing God with your family, even if they hate you for it, because no matter how strong your family relationships are, they are worthless without God.

Anyway, you can read John and come to your own conclusions. I have to go to work. Until next time!

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(Copied from Stand to Reason Blog)

Kevin DeYoung’s new book Just Do Something:  A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will is an impressive book in how it profoundly boils down a significant and tricky subject into a short, pithy handbook.  Regular STR readers will note that DeYoung’s take on the topic coincides with ours and Greg’s teaching “Decision Making & the Will of God.” This is an excellent book to give someone to open up a discussion on the topic, without overwhelming them with too much information at first.  It’s also helpful if you already agree with DeYoung’s take because his observations and practical advice are very wise.

Here is a sampling of DeYoung’s points from the “call-outs” in the book.  They’re clever and helpful “proverbs.”

Let’s not spiritualize our inability to make decisions in the quest to discover God’s will.

His way is not a crystal ball.  His way is wisdom.

We can stop pleading with God to show us the future (being) confident that He holds the future.

Anxiety is simply living out the future before it gets here.

God never assures us of health, success, or ease.  But He promises us something even better, to make us…humble like Christ.

Our attitude toward wisdom should be one of earnest longing.

The way of wisdom is a way of life.  And that makes you freer than you realize.

And this is an interesting observation:

Of the five reasons for our obssession with finding God’s will, this may be the most crucial:  We have too many choices.  I’m convinced that previous generations did not struggle like we do trying to discover God’s will because they didn’t have as many choices.  In many ways, our preoccupation with the will of God is a Western, middle-class phenomenon of the last fifty years….My hunch is that most of our obsession with knowing the will of God is due to the fact that we are overburdened with choice.

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teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-3

Obviously in this post I’m going to talk about two things. The first topic is: THE FOOT CLAN.

Several months ago, while surfing craigslist, I found a casting call for a movie being filmed here in Austin. The movie is a spin off from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It follows a character called Casey Jones as he battles through hoards of Foot Clan ninjas. The call was for anyone who wanted to be an extra in the film… as a ninja.

Umm, YES, SIGN ME UP! I e-mailed Polaris Banks (the casting director, and also the most awesomely named person in the world) and told him I was in. He was all for it, so now, tomorrow night, I WILL BE IMMORTALIZED ON FILM AS A POWERFUL NINJA WARRIOR!!!

Now, a brief message to all you mushy Facebook couples:

SHUT UP.

You know who you are. You leave absurd posts on each other’s walls, like, “I love you baby, can’t believe I get to sleep with you,” or, “You’re the hottest person in the world.” Those comments are mild compared to some of the stuff I watch married friends write back and forth to each other.

Look, it’s okay to say those things to your spouse. That’s fine. But what are you trying to prove by slobbering it all over Facebook? It’s a PUBLIC FORUM. If you’re writing all that stuff on Facebook, it’s not because you want your lover to see it, it’s because you want EVERYONE ELSE to see it.

The intimacy of marriage isn’t something to go flaunting around in front of everyone. It’s supposed to be sacred and private. If you’re irreverently sloshing your affection around publicly, then I would bet money you’ve got marital problems.

Shut up and go fix your relationship. Step one might be to bring your affection back into a private setting. PROTECT IT.

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Africa

I’ve been incredibly depressed lately.

Maybe I’m just being over dramatic. After all, I’m pretty sure a large part of my depression stems from me not having a job. Most people work. It allows them to survive, but it also keeps their minds occupied. I’ve been trying to get work for some time now, but with no success. Unfortunately there’s only so much job hunting that is practical in a day, which leaves me with huge amounts of free time.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.

On top of that, the girl I was interested in broke up with me. I’m not surprised, really – she’s young after all, and to be honest I kind of expected it. It still hurt, though.

I’m getting so tired of everything. I mean everything. Church, politics, the internet, entertainment culture, my talents, girls, everything. The only things I’m not sick of are my friends, and since they’re people, they technically don’t qualify as things (girls are people, too… hmm).

I used to think, “Lord, I want this certain kind of life.” In that life I had a wife by now, and two kids. I had a steady job that was creative and fun. I owned a house. I took my family on trips. We had a dog. We were active in our church. We were happy.

But I didn’t get that life. I got a life where I’m still single at 27, where nearly every girl I’ve shown interest in has turned me down. I don’t have a job, and the jobs I have had have been stressful and dissatisfying. The churches where I’m living are corporate and streamlined and huge, and it’s hard to meet anybody there. I do have a dog, but he’s seven hours away, dying slowly of age and arthritis.

Sigh.

It’s all in how you look at it, I guess. Even though my life hasn’t gone the ways I wanted it to, I’ve had a lot of good experiences. I learned how to breathe fire. I’ve been an art director. I’ve gotten to live in lots of different places and travel to almost every state in the US. I’ve met so many people and seen so many things, and I love it.

But what’s the point of it all? I mean, if I actually cared about being entertained, I would be the happiest guy on earth. I mean, I’ve seen tons of movies, I have the world at my fingertips, I’ve played video games for a living, and so on. How can a guy who has experienced all of that be so depressed?

I don’t know. I think it’s because I’m a Christian.

“What?” you say. “I thought Christians were supposed to be happy.”

Well, sure, maybe they’re supposed to be. But this one isn’t, and I can tell you exactly why.

The book of Revelation talks about the end of times, and of the judgments that we all must face. The judgment most people think about is the separation of believers from non-believers. But there’s another judgment for believers, in which all the things you’ve ever done in life are put in a pile and burned. Anything pure and righteous and of eternal value is made even more beautiful by the fire, while everything unholy is consumed.

In still moments, when I have so much time to contemplate that it drives me crazy, it’s that judgment that plays through my head over and over again. The question that always accompanies it is, “When the deeds of your life are tested by fire, will anything make it through? Or will your whole life be burned away as meaningless?”

I try to live each moment in the realization that only deeds motivated by love and made pure in truth will last throughout eternity, and yet I can think of so many different parts of my life that will burn. I just want my life to mean something! I had a plan for my life, but it has been lost forever to time. It was the only plan I had, and now that it’s failed, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to make my life have meaning.

One thing I can think of is the verse in the New Testament that encourages believer to live quiet, peaceful lives, and to help other people when the opportunities are presented to you. That would be fine, except that in reality it’s not working out too well. I feel fat and lazy and tired. The quiet, peaceful life route may work for some, but I’m convinced that God did not wire me that way.

I’ve always had an extreme personality. At times that’s been both good and bad. It’s never going to go away, though. It’s too much of who I am. Instead I think I need to find healthy ways to apply my personality to situations. That sounds weird – what I mean is, I need to find situations where my natural abilities and inclinations put me in a unique position to help people.

That’s why, Lord willing, I’m going to Africa.

I have long been dissatisfied with the American dream. The more I grow old, the more I find myself being encouraged to submit to American expectations, i.e. getting a steady job, settling down, finding a family, and basically all the stuff I wanted in the first place. Only the more I try, the less it seems to work, and the more my heart revolts against it.

There is no American dream in Africa. There are people in Africa who literally have nothing. There are people there who have been crippled by diseases, and the ones who escaped disease have been persecuted by insane madmen. In Africa there is crime, and sadness, and very little luxury.

But there are also people who are rich in spirit, because all they have are each other. There are churches who worship for days at a time because Jesus is quite literally everything to them.

I don’t know what to expect, and really, how can I? I can read about the country and listen to friends who have been there talk about their experiences, but until I walk the land I will have no idea how people will treat me, or what effect I might have upon the situation there But I can hope that in a place like Africa I might find purpose where here in America I find none. I can hope that at the end of each day I can look on what I did and say, “I may not have the things I always dreamed about. I may not be married or have kids or a dog. I may be poor and maybe even hungry. But what I did today was a good thing, and if my life ended now, it would not have been a waste.”

I’m waiting to hear back from a mission organization about an opening they have in Niger. I would be stationed there for at least three to six months, teaching missionary staff and (hopefully) locals how to use design programs so that they can effectively communicate the gospel to the people of that area.

I love that idea. I love that idea so much! Please God, let me go. Please God, help me prepare so that when I get there I don’t dishonor you.

It’s not set in stone, but I’m hoping it will be soon. I am so ready for a new life. Even just three to six months of one.

He who finds his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake will find it.

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I read a verse today that got me thinking. Matthew 11:6 – “Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”

The reason that got me thinking was because I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how “Jesus offended a lot of people.” Usually they’re referring to religious hypocrites and stuffed shirt types. But because of this verse, I don’t think that saying is true.

Jesus was (and is) the perfect balance between truth and love. He always spoke the truth, but he always spoke it in a way that was ultimately loving, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time. I personally believe that even in his anger (cleansing the temple, Mark 11:15-18) he was somehow loving. Don’t ask me how, I just believe it.

I don’t think Jesus ever does (or did) anything to purposefully offend us. I think what’s really going on is that he does things that we may choose to take offense about. It would be more accurate to say that a lot of people get offended at Jesus.

I mean, think about it. If he asks you a really tough question, what are you going to do? Humble yourself and accept his teaching? The only other option is to get offended. If you choose that option, you’re rejecting constructive criticism.

Jesus is not insulting. He wasn’t that way two thousand years ago and he isn’t that way now. Insulting is when you say something to someone just to make them feel bad. If people choose to get offended at Jesus, it’s because he loves them too much to let them remain in a place that is harmful, so he’s chosen to expose something that could risk the relationship. His love is so great that he will accept abuse and hate and offense if it means the objects of his love are benefitted.

“Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”

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Ryan Davidson is a close friend of mine from back in the Jr. High days. He keeps an awesome blog with great insights into politics and religion. He recently wrote this post, which I liked so much that I wanted to share it with you. More of Ryan’s work can be found here.

I’ve been mulling over an idea for a week or so now, but the article I blogged about earlier today combined with this article from the MeFi comments has finally motivated me to write about it. Additional motivation comes from The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, a book which I’m reading and which Bill Clinton apparentlyreferenced in a recent address.

The basic thesis of The Big Sort is that Americans have been segregating themselves on the basis of ideology–a divide that tracks class and race to some extent–since about the mid-1960s. The primary evidence for this self-sorting is traced to electoral maps from 1976 and 2004, which show a fairly dramatic increase in the number of “landslide” counties, i.e. counties where one presidential candidate won by at least 20% of the vote, a 60%/40% split. The vast majority of counties in the country were Republican landslides, but the few counties that Kerry did take by large margins are all major urban areas, so the number of people living in a landslide county for either side is quite large.

The author then goes on to suggest that we’ve been segregating ourselves so effectively for so long that the nation is devolving into different cultures that have little contact with other cultures and increasingly find those cultures incomprehensible. Listen to partisan Democrats and Republicans for about five minutes and this should be intuitively correct: it sounds like they aren’t even speaking the same language. They’re talking right past each other.

Compare the talking points of left and right and you’ll see what I mean. They’re just completely incompatible. The degree of self-serving fact selection and suppression is just stunning. They don’t even live in the same world.

But I’ve been finding that this isn’t just true for politics either. It’s also true for religion. The author discusses this as well, but he’s only really interested in its effect upon the political landscape, which in my view is a rather trivial exploration of religion. I’ve been at a Catholic institution for two years now, and I find Catholic thought to be almost impossible to engage. Why? Because the basic assumptions about reality are different than mine. I emphatically don’t believe that any two people can simply apply their reason and come up with the same result, and serious Catholics emphatically do believe that. I believe that sin is a disfiguring of human nature whose influence extends to every act; Catholics believe–or at least talk as if they believe–that sin is producing “evil” in the world and though intent is relevant, the category of sin applies to individual acts not to persons. Those who distinctions make discussion on high-level issues like jurisprudence and ethics all but impossible.

But it’s not just that either. Fundamentalist Protestants are even harder, as their view of Scripture is so radically different. They seem to approach the Bible as a list of propositions which may be used cookie-cutter style, as ingredients in a recipie designed to give them what they want. I view Scripture as an actual document, written by a actual people, who actually had a concrete purpose for what they were writing, and wrote just as you or I would write. As a result, I believe Scripture should be read as if it fundamentally makes coherent sense. This creates a pretty strong limit on the kinds of conclusions that can be reached from Scripture, a limit fundamentalists simply don’t have.

In some sense, I find that same division between myself and both ends of the political spectrum. I believe that people are evil, but by grace aren’t as evil as they might be. Both liberals and conservatives believe that people are basically good (conservatives might object here, but their policies belie their protestations), only they differ as to the social policies necessary to bring out the good in people. Liberals think that if given appropriate molly-coddling and social service that everyone will just play nice. It just isn’t true. Conservatives believe that if given the opportunity to make choices, people are capable of making the best ones. That isn’t true either. So not only can liberals and conservatives not really talk to each other, but I can’t talk to either of them.

Why is this happening? There are arguments to be made that it didn’t used to be this way, and though partisan politics are certainly nothing new to American history (remember 1861?), this seems to be one of the first times in American history where it has become increasingly difficult to actually get anything done.

This has happened before. A long time ago, actually, and it happened because of another tower. There, the survivors of the Biblical proclaimed their defiance against God by building a tower. Why was this defiant? First of all, God had commanded humanity to disperse and fill the earth, but the rulers of men (probably Gilgamesh) realized that their fame would diminish if humanity was scattered. So the tower was built in part to make a name for them. But also, the culture had just experienced a flood. Where do go in a flood? To high ground. So if you build a tall enough tower, the thinking goes, God won’t be able to wipe us out again. Not only is this rank defiance, but it also ignores God’s promise not to flood the earth that way again.

What does God do? He frustrates their language. He makes it impossible for them to talk to each other. Many ascribe the origin of differing human languages to this story, but I think that’s a superficial reading. I think what it really represents is God’s striking the human ability to band together. The real curse of Babel isn’t different languages as much as factionalism. Whenever humans band together to set themselves above God, we will always dissolve into factions before we have a chance to succeed.

America has done this. And no, it isn’t because we allow gay marriage or because we don’t pray in schools or because there are nekkid women in movies. Those may be symptoms, but they’re not the problem. The problem is that we, on both sides of the political spectrum, are constantly violating the First CommandmentYou shall have no other gods before me. We are, in essence, attempting to do without God, but more to the point, we give the glory due to God to ourselves.

“Before” doesn’t just mean “prior to” or “ahead of.” It also means “in the presence of,” just as one appears before a House subcommittee. We shall have no other gods in His presence. As he’s omnipresent, that means anywhere, so basically no other gods at all. The Left’s god seems to be man himself. “Just give people enough support and we can do anything! We’re all good inside!” The Right’s god is man too, though they come about it a different way. Tim Keller has some insight here, as did John Gerstner, who said “The thing that really separates us from God is not so much our sin, but our damnable good works.” The Right seems to think that by legislating a proper moral society, banning homosexuality, and punishing criminals, God will just have to reward us. He’ll just have to love us. We’ll play by his rules because that’s the name of the game, but we’re really what it’s all about.

Now Jesus faced the Right and the Left in his day too. The Jewish authorities had divided pretty neatly along lines that are fairly easy to recognize today. The Sadducees were the wealthy, well-educated cultural elites. They took a largely secular view of the world and of their religion: the spiritual aspect was appreciated, but the supernatural was all-but-removed. The Sadducees were collaborators with the Roman occupiers and thus held rather exalted positions of power. The Pharisees were the 1st century equivalent of the Moral Majority: solidly orthodox and conservative Jews who find their ready equivalent in most Evangelical churches today–particularly those of the Baptist stripe. They believed the Bible and were largely correct in their understanding of it. Jesus directs most of his ire against the Pharisees, but that’s because they’re the ones who were supposed to know better. the Sadducees were justwrong, and he told them so. He wouldn’t even engage with them. But the Pharisees, who were in the right about the Bible, had their own problems, in that they viewed the Bible as a way of making God like them, not a way of loving God by loving others.

In short, the Right, just like the Left, just like every other faction and subculture in America today–including no small portion of the church–want God’s benefits, but not God. Not a sovereign God who can tell you want to do, who is to be obeyed not because He is rational or because He is loving but because He is God. The Sumerians didn’t want God either. And just as God smote their culture, so has ours been stricken. The only answer is the gospel.

This is in part why I’m finding The Big Sort interesting but somewhat unpersuasive. Though it overstates its case in places and has some arguably unremarkable statistical data do anincredible amount of heavy lifting, the authors have latched on to what I believe is a real trend. But they don’t speak my language.

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Today, try to make the small things awesome. Sometimes we get so focused on the huge issues in our lives that we forget about all the small things that make life wonderful. So today, when you’re going through life, try to focus on all the little details. Look up at the sky and check out the clouds. Instead of freaking out and squishing every bug you see, try to view it as a part of God’s creation, and take notice of how good the design is. And if you have to do any small things today, like doing dishes, restocking napkins, sweeping the floor, or throwing darts, try to make it super hardcore awesome.

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