Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Holy Spirit and Me

Faith is personal. No doubt, my attempts to describe my faith are as unsuccessful as when parents try to articulate the experience of their first child's birth. It's an honest process, but certainly not an adequate one. I don't want to suggest that it's futile to express ourselves with words, but it's certainly imperfect. At best, we can appeal to the empathy of others; words are capable of that much.

Having said all this, I would be remiss if I didn't post about this morning's Easter service. I can't do it justice, but I can try. It was transcendent, transforming, enlightening, surreal--I could go on. It happened in stark contrast of my recent sentiment. That, too, bears mention.

My faith started as an intellectual journey. Since I was a child, I've felt a spirit inside me. I didn't like to indulge it because I was afraid of it. Being afraid makes it no less real, but acknowledging and submitting to it can be a process that requires one to forfeit all previous expectations. It can require a person to feel his way through the world, ignoring what logic suggests. To quote the Stills song "Gender Bombs": "Logic will break your heart." It broke mine many times. After reading the Bible in its entirety, as well as a few books on science and historical validity, I've concluded that it was the true Word of God. I will swear by this. Let me be forever accountable to that truth. But the decision to accept Jesus Christ as one's personal saviour, while it is very liberating, is only the beginning of a very challenging--though rewarding--journey.

What's the challenge, you're wondering, if God is supposed to grant comfort? It's this: because we live in a broken world, a world that not only hates but crucified our Lord, the world also hates those who trust in the Lord. The world looks upon believers with disdain. Consider these verses:

1 Corinthians 3:18-20
Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; 20and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."

1 Corinthians 1:20-21
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

There are countless people who think that their 21st Century observations serve as a witness to the nature of Creation, history, nature, etc. These people look upon believers as fools. If you know anything about human nature, we tend to treat people in accordance with the way we view them. Jeremiah, with whom I greatly sympathize, often lamented about the burden one endures for the sake of carrying out God's work: Jeremiah 20:7-18.

I've been feeling like this lately. I knew in my heart that God is the only true purpose, but I grew weary of the internal conflict it stirred. It's tremendously hard to see with the heart instead of the eyes, to rationalize with the conscience instead of the mind, to be a willing servant instead of a selfish creature. In all cases, we must suppress the very nature that compels us, the very flesh in which we feel so grounded and "normal." For the first several months, my Christian experience was very, very isolated. Lately I've been privy to Bible study groups and a few ministries, but for a long time the picture of me as a believer looked much like I did before accepting Christ: me in a claustrophobic room, deliberately shut in with an idle mind and idle hands and a lot of dangerous thoughts. As if to compound the problem, there I was studying theology and Biblical questions, debating for myself issues like dualism and morality. Oftentimes, my prayers were the only advice I had to bank on. And I was so young in my journey that my inclination was to lean on my old ways of thinking, but whenever I did I felt like a rope in a spiritual tug-of-war. On several occasions, I asked God to rid me of these pursuits, to give me a different cross to bear that wasn't so mental and analytical and... dangerous. But, like Jeremiah, I felt as if my very being was going to explode whenever I denied the Lord. And so, with a heavy heart and chin, I persevered. This morning was different.

I could attempt to paraphrase Pastor Jim's message. I could try to recreate conversations I had this morning. I could speak of how I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to partake in a pre-[formal] church service at Frost Park some two hours later. I could speak of all the friendly faces, my church family, whose cheeks were red from the cold and whose eyes had an icy glaze from the unforgiving gusts that pierced us through our jackets as we stood and sang to the Lord under a rising sun. It took about one minute in that setting to look like we'd slept on the sidewalks, but our hearts were warm. And I meant it. To the best of my knowledge, I was sincere. Still a little trapped in my mind, but I sang honestly in between stutters and shivers.

At Sunday school, I was feeling like Jeremiah again. I had determined not to speak, because my mental skeletons had me convinced that all I could do was lament. That the spiritual warfare around me wasn't the cause of all my internal strife, that I was a filthy, unworthy creatured. None of us are acceptable to God; we are all sinners. But He accepts us all because of Christ's sacrifice. Christ is the one who forgives us and speaks to God on our behalf. And I felt like I wasn't receiving this. And this morning, as Jim was preaching, I was contemplating, as I often do, the extent of Christ's sacrifice--to the capacity that I can comprehend it. And God reached out to me.

It was like God said to me, "James, I can't change the nature of this world until the appointed time. I can't keep you from sinning, no matter how much you beg me. I am a perfect and holy Judge, and there are many things about you that are unclean before me. But know this: you are mine, for now and forever. Your suffering is my suffering. Your pains of separation from me, they pain me also. But I will finish the work I began in you, and I will keep you. We WILL be together again, as close as we were when you lived in my consciousness--long before you were ever born to this earth. As surely as Christ died, you will die. And as surely as I raised Him from the dead, you will be raised with Him."

You just had to be there. I could have sworn the room was going to burst. It was as if the air was sponge thick, like I could have rested my Bible on an invisible pillow in middair, and it would have floated. And my body... wow. I felt as if I was constantly at the brink of exploding. I felt God fill my spirit with His presence, and I've never cried so openly for so long in the presence of so many people. It was the most cleansing experience of my life. It was as if all my mental beliefs finally opened the floodgates of my heart. And so, my brother and sisters, I say this: Easter is not just Easter because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. It's true that He is the ONLY sure way to eternal life, but there is something I fear many Christians never experience. The miracle of Easter is not just Christ's victory. Perhaps the Godhead are the only warriors who drew their swords and claimed the prize of life; perhaps God is the only one capable of vanquishing sin and conquering death, but DO NOT IGNORE this important part of the mystery: on that day some 2000 years ago when they accomplished this, all believers of all generations were simultaneously raised along with them. I'm not saying we should be arrogant or claim any glory in this, but I pity the one who is alive in Christ and doesn't have a soul that remembers that precise moment. This is the trick to it: your mind has absolutely nothing to base this on; it's either an intrinsic part of your spirit, or you'd best start praying for a real, genuine conversion. I kind of wonder if I had one before today, but I'll never question this point again. Ever.

Glory to God for ever. Amen.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Biblical Milestone #2

Monday, 10 March 2008, approx. 9:00 p.m.: Finished the New Testament.

No words to describe the fear in me.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Don't Just Believe; Be Life

You who are chosen by God, who, like me, have a share in Christ's suffering and inheritance, be strong. After months of study and reflection, torment and questioning, I have found in the book of Hebrews what I firmly believe is the meaning of this existence. I have often thought to myself, as I struggled to live the good life, why it was that God created the world as it is. It made no sense to me that an omnipotent Creator, one who knows all things, would subject us to the existence that perplexes and trips us. It disturbed me to think that I was anchored in flesh to float by spirit, because that is not how this world is swayed. This world, as you know, is tremendously compelling. The mistake we often make as humans does not stem from our creation, nor is it based in the limits of flesh, but it is one of sympathy and relativity. All men and women are brothers, but not all are called by God, even though God calls out to all men:

Romans 9:22-24
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

When I first read those passages, I accepted them. I've gotten quite accepting of the Scriptures and what they tell us about God. I've thought many times, when seeing news clips about murderers, terrorists, and rapists that these could not possibly be human, that some humans were born monsters. I was glad to learn it was true. That our justice system was so permissive of some crimes, that instead of imprisonment, brutal criminals were granted rights that should only belong to the life-respecting, disturbed me. It was as if there was no order in the universe, as if our sympathy was our foil. And yet, we were told to forgive, very simply to forgive and invite all injury that our enemy would inflict:

Matthew 5:38-42
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

But here's the kicker, and it was lost on me: God's hand touches all of this. Those who accept Christ, as it has been said, accept his suffering along with his resurrection. As soon as we take our eyes off the Lord, as soon as we start thinking in terms of human preservation and the meaning of this life, we forfeit our souls to the same world that will turn to dust on the Day of the Lord. For God has known that we would be persecuted by evil, that we would look upon those who wouldn't make it, and that our hearts would go out to them.

Hebrews 11:39-40
[Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham ... David, Samuel and the prophets**] were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

** etc.

Hebrews 11:13-16
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

This world was not made broken for the living to live in brokenness but for the dead to know the living. Even though God knew that some would reject Him, He nevertheless gave them an opportunity to know Him and His saints. He gave His people the law that they might ritualistically declare their love, and He gave the whole world His Son that sin might be conquered--and that those who believe might be redeemed before Him. And, yes, He presented his lambs before all the condemned, that they might serve as a temple for God so He could appeal to the lost.

Consequently, those who accept Christ as their personal saviour forfeit the identities by which they formerly called and knew themselves; we exchange those, by faith, for better selves. Yet how many of us keep on living as we did before we knew God's mercy? How many of us have withheld trust until we were blessed or enlightened, when it's God's right to test us?

Today I have made a decision. I have faltered too much over the past five months to risk my salvation anymore. I have had moments of anger and frustration and have directed them toward God in scornful rage, and I've indulged my baser instincts. It may even be too late for me because of this, as I was only ransomed once:

Hebrews 10:26-36
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"and again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.

Therefore, as someone who once sought to relieve himself of atonement or accountability, as someone who once tried to refute the Word of God, my life's purpose is clear: to spread the good news that eludes or strikes fear into so many of us. I can't say I know precisely what path my life will take--"In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps"--but it must lend itself to ministry. Whether it be in writing, preaching, teaching, it matters little to me. But to what else might one dedicate himself and say in the end that he accomplished something? Is it mere coincidence that no occupation has never satisfied me beyond a paycheque? If I am to be not of this world but living in it, then I pray for (and trust I will receive) the courage to serve as one of God's beacons. This world is not for us, brothers and sisters, but it exists so that God may reach out His hand to those who might yet be saved. For now, God is pouring a foundation inside me. When I know what comes next, I will share it with you. But let it be bold and faithful. And let it serve to glorify the Almighty. If I haven't been lost in my feet shuffling and stubbornness and deliberation, then let me start living for everyone but myself.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

This All Sounded Better in my Head

I have come to regard sins as leeches. In the past, it seemed to me that sin was its own domain. Perhaps it was sentient, or perhaps it was merely a manifestation of disobedience. But as we all tend to be selfish and view things through our own goggles, I would argue that sin has an agenda: to suck life. We say that sin's net effect puts distance between God and ourselves, and this is certainly true, but what we often fail to understand is that with increased distance it becomes easier to add more. Lately I've been telling choice others that God is working to break my spirit. That might seem to some as the exact wrong way to express the way I'm striving to be holy as the spirit in me compels me more as time passes, but this is ultimately what must happen: God and the Holy Spirit was chisel away at all the garbage that has latched onto me, from my sub-subconscious to my habits and my speech, and in essence break me down to nothing but what was there when God created me. And even if you strip away a cancerous tumour from a vital organ, who's to say that what's left of the natural tissue won't be in dire need of repair? This is precisely what is happening to me. In the process, I've had to endure, for my own benefit, some very harsh lessons and some very painful decisions. If you know me, you know how stubborn I can be. I believe in my mind that God governs everything in creation, that Creation is God's breath condensed into matter, but that I will ultimately be judged by my character, by what my heart feels, not what my intellect recognizes as truth.

Over the last several weeks, I've gained some lost momentum re: my Biblical studies. If I had maintained the same efficiency I had in November, I'd have surely finished the Bible in January. It would likely have been, though, that I would have glossed over some of the important lessons I've picked up in the last several days. Some were tough pills, and perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to air my own struggles. But if there be any virtue in sharing-- if the truth, as it's been said, will set me free, then permit to share some of it today.

1. Whether you love or hate God, whether you serve or curse Him, reality is not what you make it or wish it to be. There are truths that transcend and govern everything that many of us have come to regard as sacred.

I gotta say, I've been a little shocked by some of the people who've approached me about these posts. Honestly, I would think some of you wouldn't give an ounce of time to my theological musings and Biblical studies. Some of you have simply approached me to ask, "Do you really believe everything in the Bible?" Others have dropped the gloves and sparked some pretty decent debates. But here's a truth that some of us, and myself on many days, struggle with:

To those who don't believe in God: There probably isn't any Biblical verse I could offer you that would change your mind. In the past, I've tried to read the Word with an explicit agenda in mind: to disprove it for myself. But there is one question you ought to satisfy for yourself: Do you avoid or disregard spiritual matters because you fear the accountability of acknowledging them, or have you considered and studied the universe and have ultimately concluded that faith is unfounded. See, some of you are fearful, and some are lazy and ignorant. I've said many times that I have more respect for the educated and considerate athiest than I do for the lazy Christian. The athiest who has made a conscious effort to understand the more profound things concerning existence has decided that his or her own viewpoints are limited to his or her experience. Just as we all function. The one whose stance is grounded in study and consideration has a right to make conclusions. The one who fears what conclusion may result, however, gets a lot of empathy from me, because it's a rational acknowledgment (not a premature conclusion), that if something greater exists, said person might not be ready to live for it. But to determine, with no foundation, that nothing greater exists, is sheer foolishness and an affection for ignorance.

To those who believe in God but don't follow Him: How many of us approach God with the hope that He will conform to us? These people might mutter words such as these: "I can't accept that God is..." or "God would never..." or "There's no such place as hell." God, whom you claim to believe, says this:

Isaiah 29:16
Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "He did not make me"? Can the pot say of the potter, "He knows nothing"?

In other words, when you create a universe, you are free to set all stipulations, limits, laws, etc. But being born into a universe, you do not have the luxury of choosing, based on your limited knowledge and/or opinion, what the truth is. This is what frustrates me about the lazy Christians out there; they have been made acquainted with God, and instead of striving to understand God, they think that they can combine an acknowledgment of His authority with the freedom to choose which precepts and commands to accept. This is a much greater selfishness than the hedonistic person who doesn't know God.

But, even though I strive to align my will with God's and to serve Him in obedience, there are many things that I just don't understand and may never come to accept. Some of the following questions really shouldn't cross the desks of weak or non-believers, but it's just a chance I'm going to take here in posting them. Let it be known that these questions, some of which come directly from people I've spoken with, have answers.

2. What about those who never come to know God? (Let me take that one a step further, if I may: What about those who know God and were denied a chance to obey?)

This hearkens back to one of my earliest questions when I started reading the Pentateuch. It was kind of surreal for me to read about the Flood and how the entire population of the world, save Noah and his family, was destroyed. And yet I understood. I could rationalize for myself that God would want to eradicate everything that stood in direct opposition to Him. I would like to make it clear that I wouldn't personally operate that way, but I can't claim in my limited capacity that I can see all the benefits or pitfalls of destroying a world, just that I acknowledge that if God is a holy God that He would strive for holiness. But why, then, did God deny acts of mercy, was my question. Consider this:

Exodus 4:21
The LORD said to Moses, "When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

Translation: even if Pharaoh wants to free the Jews from bondage, I will not let him. Later on: even if Nebuchadnezzar doesn't want to invade Israel and destroy her people, I will steer him. Even if the Pharisees and teachers of the law (and, subsequently, the people) don't want to crucify My only begotten Son, they will!

God love ya, Paul, you answered my question:

Romans 9 (if you care to know the answer, you can muster a mouse click.)

I know for many that this will be a tough pill, and one that "refutes" God's existence-- or at least His mercy. But consider this: could it not be said that Pharaoh, in imprisoning the Hebrews, was actually serving God's will with greater faith than many of God's chosen people. Who are we to assume that because they were led into the slaughter that they haven't been judged as faithful servants? We simply can't know, and it is fruitless to ask. But if you are a believer and find yourself struggling with the harshness of this, place your faith in God and pray about it. I won't make predictions, but if God hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, to name just a few, in order that they might serve as instruments of His will, I would certainly not be surprised to see them in the Kingdom some day. I'm just saying I wouldn't be surprised, not that it will happen.

But here's one of the places where I've received something of an attitude adjustment. I once thought of conviction as being a virtue unto itself. Some of my favourite singers and writers share none of my beliefs, but I always thought that there was something special in the gusto with which they expressed their non-conformity. It's getting to the point, however, where I am starting to think that love and forgiveness are greater than intellect and the pursuit of knowledge. I'm fast approaching that stance, and it's effectively made me a rope in a tug-of-war. Both a spiritual and intellectual one.

But here's what I've come to realize: in every single choice we make, we reflect ourselves. I used to think that being an introverted person that I was hidden and guarded from some of the harsher things in life. I used to think that by sharing nothing of myself that I prevented vulnerabilities from seeping into my existence. Sure, I was miserable, but there was an unspeakable safety in that misery. I made champions of philosophy and deep thinking, making no effort to grow closer to living, breathing people. But I was bitter and sour. A lot. So I urge you all, instead of stewing in bitterness and questioning, seek! If you don't start with the Bible, start somewhere. As for me, I have come to recognize and scoff at my poor behaviour, at the leeches that try to govern me. Paul says in Romans that those of us who believe may always struggle with sinful desires, i.e. the flesh. But here's what we know of the flesh: it will die, and our souls live on. Every knee will bend before God at the resurrection, when all will be judged in accordance with how they lived. And for those of you who have leeches, take heed that unless you invite the Spirit to dwell inside you, the emptiness you feel may never be cleansed:

Mark 9:50
"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."