Monthly Archives: October 2016

Halloween – Beyond the Mask

With pumpkins, ghosts, and ghouls out in abundance, it can only mean that Halloween is once more upon us.  This time of year, good scares are not difficult to find with haunted houses opening their doors, networks running scary movies, and the occasional friend or colleague jumping out of a concealed location.  Indeed, Halloween is the season to get scared.  The scares themselves come in a wide spectrum of styles ranging from the quick and reliable jumpscare to carefully arranged and artfully crafted ambiance which draws us into another world.  With all these frights at our fingertips, it is worth our while to examine and think on them.  Is there more to be gleaned from them than a quick thrill?  I would like to propose that there is, in fact, more substance amid the boos than first meets the eye.

Getting scared introduces an element of humility into our lives.  In our culture today, we take ourselves very seriously.  I think this stems in no small part from the pride and self-aggrandizement that permeates our lives.  We are regularly told that we “deserve it” or are shown images of what is considered to be an idealized person or life.  These are the measures we then compare ourselves to and doggedly pursue.   It is no wonder that we are so tightly wound when we are constantly fretting over meeting these goals.  So often, it becomes a matter of self-justification in which we tell ourselves that at least we are better than so-and-so or we attempt to take refuge in convincing ourselves and others that we are the smartest person in the room.  Our spiritual lives are subject to the same rat races as we attempt to have the “right” worship experience or be the most “spiritual” person in the room.  Even our fun has become a matter of utmost seriousness as we use the metrics of social media to evaluate and draw satisfaction from our recreational activities.

When we allow ourselves to get scared, we are in effect dropping all of these pretenses.  There is no image to keep up when we are breathlessly awaiting what is going to jump out at us from behind the next door.  We are very simply there, in the moment.  Put differently, getting spooked gives us a chance and (if we need it) an excuse to be authentic.  We are so focused on living up to what we think we need to be that sometimes we forget to be who we are.  The image we try to become is essentially a stylized perfection with all the depth and character of a G.I. Joe action figure or Barbie doll.  These plastic façades cannot afford to show the slightest imperfection or weakness because to do so would destroy their illusion.  To get scared (beyond a carefully scripted instance) is such an imperfection.  Getting a good fright helps to keep us honest by reminding us of the frailty and fakeness of these societal masks.  Our Halloween scares give us a touchstone with humility and reality.  We are imperfect and that is ok.  We can be healthy and imperfect because we have a perfect God who works with us, walks with us, and loves us in the midst of those imperfections.  Rather than shunning or whitewashing these imperfections, He engages us through them in order to heal and shape us.  Clinging to our false self-image turns our back on this vital part of our relationship with God which expands far beyond a single month of the year.

Sharing the fright with others adds yet another dimension.  As stated before, when we get scared we drop our pretenses, and, along with them, the barriers that they set up.  In an ironic twist, the images we project to others in order to better fit in end up making us further divided from them.  The reason for this is that these projected images are nothing more than a ruse and for a ruse to work, people must not know that it is a ruse.  Therefore, we must keep everyone at arm’s length to ensure that they do not accidently get a peek behind the curtain.  In the end, we make sure that our false self fits perfectly with the others on the surface while our true self remains trapped and drowning in isolation below.  Sharing a scare offers a unique experience in that we drop our acts and let our real selves come to the surface for air.  It brings us into a degree of vulnerability that we may not dare touch in other contexts.  While this mutual vulnerability may not, itself, bring us closer, it serves at the very least as a starting point.  As our true self pops through the façade-covered surface, we get to see other heads bobbing up and down and realize that perhaps we aren’t so alone in our situation after all.

While I do not wish to set the frights and fun of Halloween on a pedestal, I hope that I have cast them in a new light that serves as food for thought as we go about our lives this season.  More importantly, I hope that this brief discourse has shown some of the benefits of not taking ourselves too seriously.  When we learn to relax and let go of our carefully crafted false self, we can have a more authentic, open, and healthy relationship with God.  As an extension of our healthy relationship with God, our ability to relate to others also improves.  So as Halloween comes around again, let us step back from our pretenses, spend some time with our friends and loved ones, and draw nearer to God.

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Waiting

Waiting:  it is perhaps one of the things we like the least but do the most.  Each day, we find ourselves forced to pause while someone or something completes a task.  Perhaps we find it frustrating because we are used to going through life at our own pace and find the imposition of a different pace to be both uncomfortable and irritating.  Or maybe it is because we feel that, as we are waiting, we are being cheated out of our time because we don’t have control over how long we must wait.

As frustrating as we find waiting to be in situations we do not think of as spiritual, it is no surprise that we are similarly irked when we find ourselves forced to wait in our Christian walk.  This may take shape as hitting a spiritual plateau in which we do not feel the same sense of growth that we used to.  We may also encounter waiting as a sense of being distant from God.  Nonetheless, from this handful of examples, we can see that waiting is an inseparable part of our spiritual journey.  It is part of the undulating road that we walk as we seek to draw closer to God.

Waiting, itself, is no novelty in Christianity:  after Christ’s ascension, the disciples were told to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49), the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom had to wait until morning for the ditches that had been dug to fill with water (2 Kings 3:20), and we live our lives in anticipation of eternity, just to name a few examples.  Though we are forgiven the moment we repent and turn to Christ, Christianity is not of religion of instant gratification; it is a religion that is founded on relationship, and sometimes that means waiting and remaining faithful.  One of the most poignant examples of waiting on God is the story of Abraham being called out of his homeland by God (Genesis 12:1-9).  Abraham (then called Abram) was told to pack up, leave his home, and go to a land that God would show him.  In many ways, Abraham was being asked to go and wait.  It is one thing to wait while we are secure in the midst of familiar surroundings and quite another to wait while outside of our comfort zone.  Such circumstances bring to mind the question of exactly how we wait:  what do we do when we are waiting on God?

One way we may go about waiting on God is to push our spiritual life to the side.  There doesn’t seem to be much going on there, so why attend to it?  Surely our time is better spent on something else at the moment.  While such a mentality can assist us in becoming better multitaskers, it can also be a detriment to our spiritual growth.  Another way that we might approach waiting is to very simply refuse to do it and give up on our spiritual walk altogether.  After all, is it really worth the time and hassle if we’re just going to have to wait?  This, too, is spiritually unhealthy and cause for us to reconsider where we stand with God (Matthew 13:20-21).

So what are we to do when waiting on God?  Above all else, we must remain faithful.  This means continuing to be diligent in our daily lives:  maintaining our times of devotion and prayer and continuing to live our lives according to Christ’s example.  Our obedience to God and acts of devotion are responses to God’s love for us (1 John 4:17-5:5).  As such, they are not dependent upon immediate feedback because they are based on something far grander in scale.  Love is more than a feeling:  it is obedience, commitment, and selflessness, among other things.  When we love someone, our attitudes and actions towards them ultimately proceed not from temporary feelings (though these may certainly have influence), but from deeper within our hearts, from a deep-seated desire for them to be truly happy.  Love does not consist solely in doting and being doted upon, but also of making hard choices for the betterment of the other party.  This is why, for example, parents discipline their children:  it is not pleasant for any involved, but that discipline teaches the children valuable lessons and is instrumental in their continued healthy development.  When we are waiting on God, we continue to pursue Him and remain faithful, not because it is particularly pleasant at the time or we are trying to earn His love, but because He loves us and we love Him.  Perhaps we wish the answer was more complicated than that, but that is the heart of the matter.  Our response to God’s love persists even when we are not filled with the warm glow of affirmation.

It would be remiss to overlook why God sometimes makes us wait.  As stated earlier, when we love someone, we seek for them to be truly happy.  As God works in us to grow and shape us, sometimes He steps back to allow us to stand on our own.  It is not unlike a child learning to feed itself.  There comes a point when it must learn to convey food to its mouth on its own.  Even though the parents are no longer spoon-feeding it, they don’t love it any less; as a matter of fact, it is because they love it that they put it through the ordeal in the first place.  Likewise, when God asks us to wait on Him, it is because He is teaching us to feed ourselves:  to take what He has given us and be nurtured by it, rather than being spoon-fed.  It helps us to grow and mature spiritually.

When we are waiting on God, despite appearances, we are going through an important process of spiritual maturation.  We learn to show love when we don’t necessarily feel love as we are shaped into the image and likeness of Him who gave the fullest measure of love for those who hated and reviled Him.  Our growth while waiting is not restricted to times when we are waiting on God:  when we wait on others, we can still share the love of God with how we wait.  Are we patient?  Are we kind?  Do we give grace as we have received grace?  As the seed lies seemingly inert in the ground before growing into a fruit-bearing plant, so the times when our spiritual life seems inert eventually grow and bear spiritual fruit.


Square One

There are times and stretches of time in our lives when it seems as though there is no light at the end of the tunnel and no hope of something better.  Or, even if we can envision something better, it appears to be forever out of our reach.  God seems distant and disinterested as we view our faith as more of a nice thought than anything of substance.  What do we do when everything seems so messed up and out of joint with both ourselves and the world in general?

What I wish to offer here is not any sort of quick-fix solution to magically solve all problems or a list of platitudes that just tell us to feel better, for hope is not built upon such things.  Instead, what I aim to do is present starting points, a series of “square-ones” as it were.  These are facts that help us to take our next step in the right direction and, just as important, help us to not give up.

1)  Jesus Christ is in Heaven.

 Yes, this seems like a rather vanilla statement, but we ought not to lose sight of what it entails.   Christ has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven:  He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world and was elevated to the right hand of God the Father (Hebrews 8:1).  There, having returned to His place at the Father’s side and opened the way for us to be reconciled to our God, Christ makes intercession for us to the end that we share in the fellowship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Hebrews 7:25, John 17:20-26).  We are never so far removed from God that we cannot reach Him and He cannot reach us.  When we come to God and throw ourselves upon His mercy, we have Jesus Christ as our Advocate, to speak for us and support us.

2)  The Spirit dwells in us.

 Though Christ is in Heaven interceding for us, we have not been left alone.  He, Himself, promised that a Helper, the Holy Spirit, would come to us and abide with us (John 14:15-18).  Through the Spirit’s indwelling, God dwells in our hearts so that He is always near.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside us in life to help and to guide us.  He is our advocate as we live on earth, reminding us of our true North and directing us closer to God.  In the midst of our weakness, in our hours of darkness, He also helps us by speaking on our behalf when we do not know what to say (Romans 8:26).  God is near to us even in the thick of the fray and is active in our lives even when we feel far from Him.  The Spirit helps us, speaks to us, and makes God known to us (John 16:13-15).

3)  We have the power to choose.

Because of what God has done for us, we are no longer slaves to sin or ignorance.  Instead, we have the help and tools before us to make meaningful decisions in our lives.  We can choose what kind of person we are going to be and what we are going to make of our current circumstances.  We can choose to remain faithful even when we feel so distant.  Even when we feel powerless, we are still able to make choices of eternal significance.  When we stumble and fall or are plain knocked down, there are always at least two options:  to stay down, or to get back up.  This is a choice that we and we alone can make.  We make it countless times throughout our lives and we make it especially often when we are struggling with sin or facing a difficult life situation.  No matter how many times we have to make it, it is always ours to make.

The points above remain constant, regardless of where we find ourselves in our Christian walk.  The worst thing that we can do is give up and succumb to despair, for then we have shut out hope ourselves.  However, if we can keep the above in mind, it will help us to remember the eternal hope we have and, in light of that hope, continue to put one foot in front of the other in our current situation.  This may be seeking out the help we need, it may be continuing in prayer despite being pressed by desolation, it may even be as simple as choosing to smile.

In spite of the darkness that may surround us and give us a bleak outlook on life, there is a light and power within us of great and eternal significance.  It is a light and power that is cared about by God and that He wishes to nurture and grow.  He has given us a key role in this process.  We can choose what to do with it at any given time and the hope that is thereby placed before us is a solid footing.


Sharing Faith

When we think of outreach, evangelism, and the like, we very often come up with thoughts of shiny new programs at church, awkward conversations, or those little track books.  In many cases it seems to be accompanied by a great amount of production and fanfare.  For some, it may raise a note of pride as they reflect on how many people they’ve “led to Christ.”  Others may experience a sense of shame or regret at opportunities missed or avoided.  Indeed, the Great Commission given by Christ Himself speaks to this very topic:

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

-Matthew 28:18-20

However, I believe a question we often wrestle with is how we go about doing this:  how we share our faith with others.  When we talk about this topic, we usually end up talking about marketing Christianity.  More to the point, we talk about how to convince people to join church and the result is that our evangelism is more akin to a sales pitch than any sort of witness or sharing of Christ’s message.  It is no accident that Christianity is treated and perceived as merely a club when it is presented as such by Christians themselves.

So what is the alternative?  If not convincing others to become Christians, what are we to do?  To begin, let’s take a moment to consider exactly what it is that makes a Christian a Christian, namely, our relationship with God.  We have accepted God’s free-standing offer of grace and thereby been reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ.  Through this reconciliation, our relationship with God becomes one in which, rather than resisting or being indifferent towards His love, we are free to receive and return that love.  Our obedience in following Jesus’ example is an act of love, not an attempt to earn love.  This mechanic of God’s love filling us and being manifested in our attitudes and actions lies at the heart of our lives as Christians.  It is also this love that binds the Church together and makes it what it is:  the body of believers across time and space.  So at both the individual and group level, our relationship with God is what moves and sustains us; it is the beating heart of our faith.  Thus, when we share our faith, the core of what we are sharing is this relationship.

With that in mind, we turn again to the question of how we go about sharing our faith.  The introduction to 1 John provides us with some perspective and guidance:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life – the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us – that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”

-1 John 1:1-4

John’s aim is that the reader should join in the fellowship of believers, which is the fellowship shared with the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit.  He grounds his appeal not on clever arguments or flashy displays, but on the declaration of what he has witnessed.  John and the other Apostles testified to the reality of Christ’s resurrection through their eyewitness accounts and first-hand experience.  Anyone who is a believer has a testimony to give of their experience with God, for we all have witnessed Him working in our lives.

The abstract ideas and concepts utilized in arguments are useful for understanding what we know about our relationship with God.  However, they cannot, of themselves, show God to others.  They can speak to and convince the mind, but they have no power to move the heart.  At best, we can reach a kind of deism through these arguments, choosing to accept that God exists but remaining agnostic about His personal and ongoing involvement with His creation.  In order to share our faith, we must speak from our personal experience with God, declaring what we, ourselves, have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, and what our hands have handled.  In so doing, we let God speak through our lives.

As stated earlier, everyone who is a believer has a testimony to share and a relationship with God from which to draw.  We should be prepared to speak of what we believe and why, but we need not be professional nor even gifted orators to speak from the heart.  Christ does not call upon us to be salespeople or spokespersons, He calls upon us to be witnesses.


The Value of Effort

In the world of Pokémon, you will find that Pokémon raised by trainers are consistently stronger than wild Pokémon, even those of the same species and level.  They will have higher stats (attack, defense, special attack, special defense, and speed), making them more effective and more capable than their wild counterparts.  If we take a peek behind the scenes, we see that the reason for this is a system based on effort values (EVs).  When a Pokémon is victorious in battle, it gains a certain number of EVs based on the Pokémon it defeated.  These EVs come into play when the Pokémon levels up.  Each time a Pokémon increases in level, its stats increase, making it progressively stronger.  (Hence why a level 65 Charizard is significantly scarier than a level 36 Charizard.)  EVs add a bonus increase to stats on top of the increase that comes with the level-up.  Therefore, a Pokémon who works with a trainer will be stronger than a wild Pokémon of the same level.

There is something to be gleaned from this game mechanic to illustrate a mechanic of our spiritual walk.  Our faith is often tested as we proceed through life:  it is challenged by tragic experiences, tough questions, and valleys of uncertainty.  We have a vibrant relationship with God, so why did our loved one die so early?  We serve an all-powerful, all-good God, so why is there so much evil in the world?  Things have been so dry and empty in our spiritual life lately, was there anything to it to begin with?  It is not a question of if, but when we will be confronted with questions like these that upset our applecart and force us to critically think about our faith.  As disheartening as these struggles are, we grow and come to better understand our faith as we work through them.

These struggles make us look under the hood of what we believe and force us to answer the question of why we believe.  This does not mean that we will have a perfectly packaged answer for every question.  What it does mean is that we have tempered our faith with these questions.  We can learn a stupendous amount of information about the world around us through the many sciences and disciplines that have blossomed from the collective human psyche.  However, there still remain questions that stubbornly evade the reach of these tools.  These are questions addressed by faith and religion.  They persist because they cannot be answered purely through logic and reason, we simply do not have the information at our disposal to do that.  Thus, we find ourselves coming to grips with these problems, and, sometimes, God Himself, in a much more personal way.  We come to God without pretense and with our hearts open to Him.

Of course, it is certainly easier to simply regurgitate a stock answer (a Sunday School answer, as they’re sometimes called) and thereby avoid engaging God or those things which question our faith.  It is functionally little different than pulling the covers up over our heads.  Sure, they let us move along, but we do not grow.  Interestingly, there is another parallel we may draw from Pokémon.  There is an item in the games called “Rare Candy.”  Giving a Pokémon a Rare Candy makes it automatically level up using the minimum amount of experience needed.  They can be useful if one needs to level up immediately, but there is a profound catch:  levelling up with Rare Candy does not earn EVs which means that the bonuses they provide to stats will not be applied.  The result is that a Pokémon levelled up using primarily Rare Candy will be weaker than a Pokémon who levels up by earning experience in battle.  Likewise, if we constantly feed ourselves platitudes, we may be able to maintain our faith and say that we have been a Christian for years, but we will find that our relationship with God comes up woefully shallow when we need to draw from it.

Putting in the time and effort to train Pokémon with EVs yields stronger, more capable Pokémon.  Similarly, when we put in the time and effort to think about and better understand our faith, it strengthens our relationship with God.  In fact, it is not merely a matter of applying our faith but of letting our faith permeate the entirety of our lives.  We do not withhold anything from God as if He were ineffective, but trust and lean fully on Him to help us and guide us through life’s challenges.