Guarding the Gates

Where can we find the virtuous, honorable man?

Proverbs 31 describes in detail the characteristics of a virtuous woman – a truly inspirational picture of a person who with wisdom, selflessness and skills pours out her life to benefit her family and community. The description begs the reader to ask “If she does all this, but what does her husband do?” The answer: “Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.” (Proverbs 31:23)

At first glance, it might seem that, while this woman works effortlessly to provide for her family, her husband is relaxing with his peers in the public square. This thin reading has lead many to despise the absent husband of the virtuous wife. However, a contextual reading of this text in the Middle-Eastern culture of its day sketches the opposite picture.

The Gates. City Gates were significant to preserve a peaceful and prosperous community. It was a barrier to the dangers on the outside as it completed the city walls, but it also formed the insiders into a closed community, allowing for common customs and regulations which typified its culture. Within the city gates one was safe.

These gates were the most vulnerable part of a city’s structural defense. As such, city gates were built as a strategic stronghold, often with watch towers, a moat with drawbridge and sharp spikes to fortify the city’s access point.

As one enters the city gate, one would generally walk onto the city square – an open plain used for town gatherings such as communal threshing floor, the village market, court room, and civic center for both administration and celebrations.

Whoever possessed the gates of the city had rule of the city.

That is where the man in Proverbs 31:23 sat. What did he do at the gate all day long?

The Elders at the Gates. Elders were chosen from among the people groups within the city as wise, honorable representatives to govern and administer the city. They were called out of the hustle of everyday life to be concerned with the wellness of their community. They ensured fair commercial practices, judged civil disputes, administration, ensured the cultural celebration and the safety of the city. Whoever sat in the city gates guarded the culture of the city.

In short, the Bible reveals that city elders were tasked to cultivate and preserve an atmosphere of justice, peace, and joy for all its inhabitants (by wise rule). What the Bible calls Shalom.

At the city gates, priests would address moral issues according to the Law, prophets would call for justice and the fear of God, and the decrees of the reigning king would be read. These teachings, prophesies and decrees were entrusted to the elders for implementation, for the good of the whole community.

In short, elders controlled access to and the atmosphere of the city.

“This is interesting, but what does this have to do with me?” you might ask. If you are a follower of Jesus, then everything!

When Paul addressed the church, for instance in 1 Corinthians, he names them “ekklesia (the Church) tou theo (of God) en korintho (in Corinth),” specifying that they are ones sanctified and called to this place by the Lord Jesus Christ. The word ekklesia in its context refers to the elders called out of the hustle of everyday life, summoned to meet the God, the Great King, about His rightful reign in this city.

The church are the chosen ones, called to sit as elders in the gates of the city, to ensure the reign of God in their community.

When we gather, we represent our community, bearing its current concerns, gain wisdom from the Rule of God, listen to His call justice, and how to bring about righteousness, peace and joy to our people. Male and female, young and old, educated or not – we are all ekklesia, called out ones summoned to serve the Kingdom of God in this city. We are called to be ambassadors of the Great King in the gates of our cities.

When we consider this call to guard the gates, we should also consider the blessing God promised to us as Abraham’s decedents through faith: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” Genesis 22:17-18

When we rightly possess the gates, our communities enjoy God’s peace (blessing). But our modern cities generally don’t have gates. If we are called to sit and govern, where do we yield our influence?

The 7 Mountains Mandate. In 1975, in the heyday of the Jesus Movement that awakened a youth missions movement across the globe, Loren Cunningham (of YWAM) and Bill Bright (of Campus Crusade for Christ) met for lunch. Each received a revelation from the Lord they had to share with the other about what it takes to “disciple a nation” and “win a nation for Christ.” They were so shocked that their Revelations that day were exactly the same: to “disciple a nation” and “win a nation for Christ” involves more than individual conversions: one would have to transform the culture by “conquering seven cultural mountains” (Cunningham) or “possess seven gates of culture” (Bright). See the short embedded video of Loren Cunningham’s account below.

Loren Cunningham recounts the original Seven Mountain Mandate moment.

The seven gates of culture (or seven mountains), pertain to Media, Government, Education, Economy, Religion, Family and Celebration/Arts, with Science and Technology frequently added to the list. These spheres of influence into a community orient the dominant culture of the day either towards God’s Kingdom or another value system.

These revelations by Cunningham and Bright are in line with God’s Old Testament Template for society in the Law of Moses, as Landa Cope unpacks in her book. In these first five books of the Bible God gives the blueprint for a society – his Kingdom Law of shalom – prescribing the wholesome (“blessed”) life in each of these domains.

To subject a nation to God’s Kingdom and receive his blessing, the church are called to possess these gates in society to bring about justice, peace and joy.

If you are part of the church of God, called to represent and reinforce his good reign in your community – in which gate do you sit? How has He gifted you to bring his rich culture of peace to your city? What are the concerns that press on your heart? Be bold to step out and act for God’s sake – Christ promised the grace to conquer and the reward for your faith.

Casting Chariots | preparing to possess the promise

A video recording of this post can be found in the link below (starting at 21min).

When last have you woken from a dream where you defend yourself, but you find you have no power? Or you dreamt that you arrive at work in your pyjamas or underwear?

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A widespread nightmare.

Dreams such as these are commonly associated with subconscious feelings of vulnerability, insufficiency and the fear of failure – the sense that you don’t have what it takes to do what I want to or what is expected of me.  Such feelings can leave one frustrated and hopeless – especially if the dream or promise you pursue is genuinely significant.

As believers, such a sense of powerlessness often leads to self-doubt and even shakes our faith in the Bible and God as we try to make sense of failures and the apparent lack of help from God.

The introduction to the book of Judges records such a situation in Israel’s history (1:1-19).  The book opens with the account of Israel’s failure to fully occupy their Promised Land, leading to the repeated cycle of apostasy, then oppression, repentance and God’s deliverance through a judge (2:11-16).

In this introduction, we find one of the greatest paradoxes Bible: the Almighty covenant-God of Israel “was with [the tribe of] Judah” and they tasted success in the highlands, but they could not conquer the plains because of the Canaanite’s iron chariots (1:19).

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Judges 1:19 – the great paradox.

The promise, the paradox and the plain problem

The Lord promised Israel the land (Joshua 1:13) as well as a victory by the hand of Judah (Judges 1:2).  The tribe of Judah had tasted significant successes in the quest for their allotted Promised Land (1:17-18). Still, their conquest came to an end at the plains: they did not have what it takes to conquer the Canaanites in the lowlands because their enemy had iron chariots.  While having the Lord’s promise and presence, they did not have the power to possess their promise.

What was the issue with iron chariots?  Simply stated: the Canaanites had them while the Israelites did not have them.  The chariots present superior military technology and can be likened to a modern-day battle where riflemen are confronted with tanks in the open field. The outcome of this battle is decided before it begins because of superior speed, armour and firing power. Likewise, the iron chariots had superior speed, strength (armour) and height over footmen, giving the Canaanites advantage in combat.

Why bother with the plains?  Why not just live around them?  While the conquered mountain fortresses gave strategic defensive power to the Judeans, the plains offered the (essential) potential of food cultivation, access to water, trade routes and nation-building.
The open plains are ideal for pasturelands, plating grains and vineyards etc.  The plains connected the cities through routes allowing for trade and other cultural connections.  Without the plains, there would be limited agriculture, limited market economy, limited tribal (and national) coherence.  The plains were where life really happened.  Without the plains, Judah was confined to an isolated, crippling existence in the hills, cut off from the rest of society.  Without the plains, the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey” would never be realised.  This was Judah’s big frustration.

Can you identify with Judah’s frustration?

Looking intently at this historic account one can easily identify with the disillusioned Judeans.  They grew up in the wilderness with the promise of possessing “a land flowing with milk and honey”.  The had seen God’s presence and power as they passed through the Jordan River, conquered Jericho, allotted the land to the tribes and taken the mountain fortresses.  Evidently, the Lord was with them!  But now Judah could not gain victory over the Canaanites in the lowlands, because their enemies had superior technology.

I imagine they felt frustrated at an unfulfilled promise they hoped and lived for; they have come so far!  Their defeat and inability to conquer their foes left them ashamed and vulnerable, fearful of a superior opponent.  They felt powerless and hopeless.  A sense of confusion and bewilderment would cause them to question every decision that led them here: the reason for their past successes, their identity as God’s chosen ones, the Promise of inheritance and even the One who made the Promise.  Their failure to fulfil their journey was no small thing – this defeat shook the nation.

One can easily see why the author sets this “iron chariot” dilemma as background to the cycle of apostasy-oppression-deliverance in the book of Judges. Judah’s inability to drive out the Canaanites caused Israel to lose faith in their Lord and turn to other idols, leading to their oppression and need for deliverance.  Disappointment can breed disillusionment, doubt and defection.

We have all tasted this disappointment as a dream disappeared like a promising rain cloud before the sun.  We have all felt the shame of failure, the frustration of powerlessness, the loss of confidence and conviction.  Some acknowledged a sense of abandonment when you needed God most.  We have all been plagued by the incessant doubt in one’s ability, one’s course of action, even the miracles we’ve tasted and promises we lived by.  We can all identify with Juda’s failure and the vulnerability it flings you into.

What are the iron chariots that possess your plains?  What is your unfulfilled promise? Make no mistake – to give up on this promise will haunt you all your life as it did Israel.

An unfulfilled promise: a missed stake

Running into a brick wall quickly loses its appeal.  After a few failed attempts, it might seem easier to reframe our goals or promises to try and live around the plains possessed by Canaanite charioteers.   Like the Judeans, we can try to make our living in the hills as secure and comfortable as possible, or alternatively make peace with the Canaanites, allowing some sense of freedom.  But these peace treaties with the enemy lead to the degenerative cycle of apostasy, oppression, and God’s faithful deliverance.

For Judah, giving up on their promise led to their apostasy.  Their defeat bred disillusionment, tempting them to not only reframe their purpose (possessing the Promised Land) but also alter their identity.  Judah forgot that they were God’s chosen people, saved from slavery and oppression, made into a new nation – a kingdom of priests.  They were called to inherit the promised land, live under his law to reveal his benevolent character and purpose for creation.  Judah’s Promised Land was not only meant for their own peace and prosperity – possessing their promise meant participating in God’s redemption of creation.  Israel was saved and called to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 60:3) – a sign of God’s redemption available to all the nations of the world. For this reason, we see throughout the book of Judges the Lord urging Israel to not live a life of compromise, but rather to “possess the land.” (2:6; 18:19)

If God makes you a promise, you can bet that it forms part of his redemptive plan for all creation; the promise is your invitation to partner with him.  That is why you will repeatedly hear the Spirit urging you to “Go on, possess your promise! Don’t give up!” When last did you hear this prompting of the Spirit?  Can you see how your unfulfilled dreams and promises fit into Christ’s “renewal of all things” (Matthew 28:19)?

A simple step of faith: reposition, restore

“The Lord was with Judah… but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.”   This verse speaks of the error of presumption: the forwardness of thinking that approval alone by God guarantees success.  But here we see that Judah indeed had God’s favour and company, yet lacked the proper strategy and technology to secure their victory.  The Canaanites advantage in the plain was iron chariots; the strategic equivalence of iron chariots (or something similar) would have secured their conquest of the plains.  Judah’s sin was passive presumption, the neglect of preparing to possess the plains.

The Bible teaches us that God honours passion and productivity, but that he despises passivity.  An honest reflection of our own lives would reveal that sinful humanity are prone to inaction and procrastination;  we would rather do nothing and wait on God (or anyone else) to fix our problems or fulfil our purposes on our behalf.  This account, like the rest of Biblical history, reminds us that God created mankind as a co-worker in his creation and redemption of this world.

Throughout Scripture, God calls for practical preparation as he invites us to participate in his promised redemption.  Noah had to build the ark as God directed (Genesis 6:13), and his family was saved.  Elisha commanded the widow to gather as many jars as he could to receive the miracle of the multiplying oil (2 Kings 4:1-7), and God provided in proportion to her preparation.  

For Israel, mastering the skills of ironwork and horsemanship would secure their conquest of the Promised Land.  What would secure your promise?  What practical preparation would position you to possess your promise?

On two occasions in my life, I heard the Lord say to me “reposition yourself.”  Both times I understood that the Lord prompted me to grow in a specific way, which required studying and learning from others so that I may become the person who has the competence, character and perspective to walk deeper into the purpose the Lord promised me.  What would “reposition and prepare to possess your promise” mean to you?  What is the practical response the Lord is inviting you to walk into at this time?

Judah found themselves wholly unprepared and disempowered to possess the Promised Land the Lord had allotted to them, for his purpose.   This left them disillusioned, frustrated and oppressed by the Canaanites.   May you never find yourself unprepared to possess your allotted promise, for God’s sake.

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Feeling Overwhelmed

Measure your stress levels

Are you stressed out?  Irritable and impatient?  Depressed and down.  Confused and uncertain? Or are you numb, dry and lifeless?  Does the word “overwhelmed” ring true for you? Read on – you’re not alone.

StressTest

This image went viral in December 2018 and is said to indicate your level of neurological stress: the more movement you see, the more stressed you are.  (Yes, it’s a hoax but still very amusing to look at!)

Feeling overwhelmed – a sense of drowning, suffocating, or not coping – can either be caused by a single traumatic event or prolonged levels of high stress, leading to physical and emotional burn-out.  It affects more than one’s emotions and cognitive abilities, impacting one’s immune system, drive, vitality, digestive system, as well as one’s desire and ability to connect with others.

Deep, big shifts throw us off balance

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Our world is rapidly changing. Technological advances have made our world very small, causing substantive changes in the way we relate, communicate, work, trade and recreate. This has initiated deep changes worldwide to the very social fabric of human culture.  Add to this global political and economic instability, worldwide mass migration and a general abandonment of absolutes. The net result is a general sense uncertainty and widespread anxiety, leaving people feeling ungrounded and overwhelmed in a profound way.

This has happened before

But we are not the first generation to experience such a significant transformation.  History is filled with global economic depressions, continental epidemics, World wars, genocides, and countless natural disasters of epic proportions.  Not surprising, such are the contexts that set the background to most of the 66 books written in the Bible.  In times of great uncertainty, men cry out, and God responds.

The Psalms are recordings of such prayers and declarations, often revealing how ancient worshippers felt “horror overwhelms” them (55:5) or how situations cause their “heart / spirit (to) faint” (61:2/ 142:2).  In particular David’s prayer in Psalm 143 is a poignant picture of an overwhelmed soul, paving a pathway out of this dark, hopeless place.

A portrait of the overwhelmed soul

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The overwhelmed soul feels isolated, making it difficult to feel connected to people, to God and even to self (v1).  He/she is often acutely aware of his/her own inabilities and shortcomings (v2), probably because he/she struggles to get control of his/her own emotions (inner world) and environment (outer world).  This can lead to thoughts of guilt, condemnation and self-critique.

The overwhelmed person has lost inner peace and feels under constant attack; he/she may feel defeated, overcome with a sense of darkness, heaviness or lifelessness (v3).  In short, symptoms of depression.  He or she also shows signs of anxiety: incapacitated by irrational fears, a general sense of horror, and a lack of will or will or drive (v4).

The overwhelmed soul has a desperation and urgency to be freed from this turmoil and is overcome with feelings of helplessness (v7).   This person often feels unloved (v8), even abandonment, and generally uncertain (v8).   The mental condition of emotional overwhelm leads to a burnout manifesting in of apathy or lifelessness (v11).

A pathway to life

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Firstly, David starts with remembrance of God’s works in redemption (in Israel’s history and his own story) as well as creation (v5).  David reminds himself that God cares for all his creatures, and has shown his special covenantal concern for Israel, also his own life in particular.  He is reminded that God is alive and always at hand, and in response he opens his hands and heart to encounter God (v6).

Secondly, David passionately petitions three things from God:

  • Love me. The Shepherd-king boldly prays for God to speak words of affirmation and affection into his ear. For his soul to heal, he needs to hear that he is loved.
  • Lead me. This second request is also very personal. Not only does David ask for the way to get out of this horrible darkness, or for instructions on how to   This king asks the Great Shepherd to personally lead him to still waters by his “good Spirit”.
  • Revive me. In addition to paternal love and personal presence, David pleads that the Source of Life will resuscitate him again to revive his dead soul. Like he did to Adam, God must breath life into him again, otherwise he will perish inside-out. David asks for a personal encounter with God.

The reason for David’s boldness

Throughout the Psalm, David’s brazen confidence is striking.  As in other Psalms, David’s boldness is rooted in God’s merciful, loving character (v2,5,8,10,12). But in this psalm David does not primarily appeal to God’s compassion and mercy to save him, but he calls on God’s covenantal faithfulness as suggested by the repeated phrase “in your righteousness” (v1,11); he asserts that it is right and fitting for God to save him based on God’s binding covenant with David (1 Samuel 7).   David’s boldness is expressed in the concluding motive for his prayer, “for I am your servant” (v12).  In these words he reminds God that he is not king by his own volition, but rather the Lord was the one who took him from behind the sheep and placed him by His will as ruler over Israel.  All these pressures that overwhelm his soul is because of God’s calling, and therefore it is the Lord who ought to deliver his servant form this dark place.  After all, David cannot save himself, nor can he run from his office.  His Lord must save him so he might continue in his royal office, for the Lord.

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Transition and turmoil

David was a strong transformational leader, leading the tribally oppressed and divided Israel into a victorious monarchy, ushering an era of peaceful reign under the Kingdom of God.  He had plenty of political enemies, many familial problems, constant war and a few national crises to resolve.  Yet there was no-one in Israel to mentor him or help him – with every step he was breaking new ground into the unknown.

There should be no surprise that David’s soul was overwhelmed with anxiety and depression – he was living and leading with a constant sense of uncertainty, in an unstable and unsafe environment.  This sense of being ungrounded, uncertain and overwhelmed is common to Biblical leaders in times of uncertainty.  The Bible records instances of emotional turmoil in the lives of Job, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Paul, Timothy, the disciples and even Jesus.

Moreover, modern history reveals that transformational leaders such as reformer Martin Luther, abolitionist William Wilberforce, president Winston Churchill, preacher Charles Spurgeon as well as liberator Martin Luther King all suffered through seasons of depression and anxiety.

This is very liberating.  Feeling overwhelmed is not a sign of failure or even a lack of faith.  It is the natural human response to drastically changing environment.  God is also not less pleased with the me when I feel overwhelmed; David most frequently brings these feelings to God and prayer, and he is hailed “a man after God’s own heart.”

In today’s radically reforming world many battle the turmoil of transition.  What can we learn from King David’s Psalm 143 about dealing with the debilitating sense of being overwhelmed?  I can shamelessly confess my need to God, reminding myself of his faithfulness in history, my story and creation: he is always at work and always at hand!  Secondly, I should petition him to remind me of his love, lead me in his light, and breath life into my soul – because I am his servant: my life is in his hand.

Uprooted | Nostalgic | Homesick

How often do you catch yourself reliving the best days of your life, your “Summer of 69”? Do you miss your old home, “watching the sunset over the Castle on the Hill”?  Listening  to songs such as these can evoke feelings of nostalgia.

The term was fist coined by 17th century Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, combining two Greek words: nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain) .  He was alarmed at the number of Swiss mercenaries deployed in the lowlands of Italy and France who became sick, longing for home.  Symptoms included insomnia, fatigue, indigestion, stomach aches, etc.  Some doctors suggested this “Swiss ailment” was a neurological disease caused by brain and inner ear damage due to the constant clanging of cow bells in their Alpine homeland.

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Today we know that everyone becomes nostalgic at times, that painful pleasure of remembering the good times. Anyone can get homesick. (Apparently 7 out of 10 adults still think of “home” as the one they grew up in!)  This longing for a particular time or place leaves a sense of being uprooted, the loss of stability and security, relationship and belonging.  And we all instinctively long for love, protection and comfort – feelings we normally associate with home and our childhood days.

How we relate to the past – the degree to which we indulge in or suppress nostalgia – can be helpful or hurtful.  For example, remembering the good old days during difficult times of transitioning reminds us that we are loved, cherished and valuable, increasing confidence and drive to push through the hardship of resettling in a new community or company.  In this way nostalgia is helpful to cope with the stress of change.

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But, as John Piper points out, our relation to the past can be hurtful in two extremes: both the neglect of the past (never going there) and the obsession with the past (constantly longing for it) can wreck your life.

Not surprisingly, Jewish composers also wrote a number of Psalms during spouts of nostalgia, later canonized for reflection and instruction.  One such example is Psalm 137, written by exiled Jews after 586 BC, deported as slaves into Babylon.  This song gives us insight into the unhealthy obsession of living in the past.

Psalm 137 opens with passionate unveiling of the emotional state of these uprooted people.  “1  By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2  On the willows there we hung up our lyres (harps).” They were heart-broken, defeated, without joy and unaware of the surrounding beauty.

But their hung harps were more than a sign of sadness.  The sense of uprootedness left these exiles with a loss of identity as captured in the fourth verse: “4  How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”  This central theme is the profound theological question these exiles battled with.  As the offspring of Abraham, they increased as God had promised, had possessed their own land, and was blessed to be a blessing to other nations.   How are they still God’s special people here as slaves in a pagan country?  Could these oppressed indeed God’s blessed? How can they be a blessing here in a foreign land?  Feeling uprooted left these Jews with a lack of confidence with who they are (identity) and what their role is in this world (purpose).

The Psalm goes on (verses 5-6) to expound the emotional state of these sad slaves, showing their obsessive longing for Jerusalem their (previous) home. Indeed, the writers pronounce a curse over themselves, should they ever let go of the joyful memories they had back home.  Jerusalem should always remain “my highest joy” (verse 6).  In these verses the exiles reveal what they truly feel: they would never again have goodness and pleasure as they enjoyed in Jerusalem.  They believed that those days were the good days, but now it is forever gone.  They will never enjoy life like that again.  These slaves were without a hope for a good future; all they expected was darkness and gloom.

Not only were the hopeless, but as the Psalm continues, we see that these exiles were angry and full of hateful vengeance.  They wished death and destruction for their Babylonians captors in the most violent ways (verses 8-9).  They also prayed disaster upon their Edomite neighbours who did not help them in their day of trouble but cheered at their destruction (verse 7).   In short, they were angry and bitter at these nations who caused the end of their “good life”.  “Our joyful and peace is gone, and it is all their fault!”

But God had not left his people; he never does.  To these uprooted people, heartbroken and hopeless, the Lord spoke through faithful Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 29:4-7

4  “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

 

God impressed on them that they were not there by some demonic triumph, a cosmic coincidence, or even God’s rejection.   No, they are there by Sovereign design; the LORD of Heaven’s Armies had sent them there.  The Babylonians are merely his servants.
5  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  6  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. And what should they do as exiles in Babylon?  Build, live, plant, marry, increase. Don’t just survive and wait out the 70 years (verse 10) – thrive here! Do what God had commanded mankind to do: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, have dominion (Gen 1:27-28).  Prosper and live life to the utmost, even here.
7  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

 

More specifically, even though you were brought here as slaves, seek the Shalom – that welfare and peace and joy that you experienced in Jerusalem – seek and expect the same here in Babylon.

God’s invitation to these uprooted Jews affirms the truth that shalom (the fullness of joy, peace and prosperity) is not locked up in a time or place.  His sovereign providence leads us in his purpose through the changing seasons, but in every season he invites us to share in his shalomn.

Can you identify with these uprooted, homesick and nostalgic exiles?  Do you have a longing for the good old days, fearing that those days are forever lost? I have good news for you: every story in the Bible shows that the best is yet to come as we hold on to God!

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How do I deal with feeling Uprooted?

  1. Allow your nostalgia to overflow in thanks.

Psalm 136 calls Jewish worshipers to reflect on God’s faithfulness, reaffirming 26 times “His love endures forever”.  As these uprooted Jews would think back on the defining moments in their history through this song, thanking God for his faithful acts of deliverance and provision, their repeated thanks would affirm the truth that, again here in this present exile crisis, “His love endures forever.”

This is the power of thanksgiving: it reminds us of the loving care and persistent presence of God in our lives.  This truth gives us confidence for today, knowing we can bank on his love and goodness here, now – although we have been uprooted.

  1. Allow your nostalgia to overflow in grieving.

Nostalgia is a sense of loss of that which was good: the painful loss of a pleasant period in a peaceful place with precious people.  You remember the good times, but now it is no more.  From there the bitter-sweet sensation of nostalgia.

For my heart to be healed, I need to mourn this loss.  Neither suppression of the past, nor the obsession with the past will help me to move on. The process of grieving or lamenting allows the wounded heart to acknowledge the pain and trauma of loss, to work through the emotions and consequences of the loss.

I find it significant that more than half of the 150 psalms canonized in the Bible are songs of lamenting.  I find it equally significant that the prophet Jeremiah was able to help these Jews find meaning in their displacement, inviting them to shoot new roots and expect shalom even in exile – after he himself had wrestled through his Lamentation, also canonized in the Bible.  Once he found healing he could not only move on, but he could also help others grieve their losses.

Grief has many stages, but prayers like Psalm 43 and 137 are good examples of how Biblical authors have poured out their emotions of loss, expressing their emotions of shock, sadness and even anger in their prayers to God.

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  1. Don’t let nostalgia blind you to the beauty of God’s provision and presence: praise Him!

The homesick exiles were blinded by their nostalgia to the beauty of their new homeland.  Their belief that the good life was in Jerusalem and is now forever over made them miss the goodness and provision of God around them.

Indeed, every season has serves God’s purpose, He made everything beautiful in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  There is bliss and beauty in today, and the discipline of praise brings it out and lightens our eyes to see God at work where we are.

  1. Let nostalgia stir your hope that the best is yet to come.

As for the heart-broken exiles of Psalm 137, the trauma of loss can snuff out our flame of hope, so that we may not expect any good to come.  But nostalgia is a reminder that in this life, amidst its pain and trauma, goodness has come.  Nostalgia is our way of holding on to the belief that there is goodness, joy, peace, belonging and love in this broken world.  And because God had given that in the past, He can do it again.

The Bible is filled with accounts of hopeless situations where people cried out to God, and the Lord turned the situation around for good.  It follows the lives of everyday people, often oppressed, who held unto the belief of God’s goodness and power, resulting in the most incredible and inspirational turnaround of events.

These teachings invite uprooted people to believe that the best is yet to come. Like Joseph, Naomi and Ruth, Ester, Daniel and his friends and countless other uprooted people in the Bible we can know that God makes all things work together for your good (Rom. 8:28).  God still has great plans for you – a hope and a future secure (Jer. 29:11). And even through the troubling times, God leads us on in victory upon victory (2 Cor. 2:14).  You might feel uprooted now, but watch this space: God is always at work.

Feeling uprooted?  Feel like hanging up your harp for good? 

Don’t lose heart!  Embrace your place.  Live as though God had sent you there.  Let those painfully-pleasant memories of nostalgia remind you of the reality of God’s goodness, and thank him for it.  Allow the pain of loss of that place and its people to pour through prayers of grief for your healing.  But don’t live locked in the past – open your eyes and praise God for his beautiful provision in your life today.  And let the memories of happiness remind you that indeed, there is goodness in God’s gift of life – and the best is yet to come! Watch as He makes all things new (Rev 21:5).

Willow_Grey

Your work and God’s Kingdom

What does your work have to do with the Kingdom of God?

You can expect to spend more than 100’000 hours at work during your lifetime; that is close to 60% of your awake life.  Sadly, 80% of people in our generation are dissatisfied within their current working environments.  For many, Christians and non-Christians alike, work is meaningless, mundane, merely a means to make money; a necessary evil to pay the bills.

Some passionate believers see their sole purpose at work to extend their church services into the workplaces, in order to get their co-workers to church on Sundays, in preparation for the eternal church service in the sky.  Church is important, work is not.  After all, the worship leader did say to them that nothing is as important as worship (he meant “singing”) because that is what we will do for all eternity.  Really?  If singing is our highest and only enduring purpose why then does that not excite us? And why did God not make us all to be singers in the beginning?

Work and Gods Kingdom2

God created co-workers

The first thing we learn about the Triune God in the opening page of the Bible is that God is a relational being and a powerful creator.  The first thing we learn about mankind is that we are made in God’s very image: highly relational men and women who would oversee his created order.

Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15

God created man in his own image… male and female… to have dominion …to keep and cultivate the earth.

 

This stewardship involves both preservation (to keep) and wealth creation (to cultivate).  It is easy to see that every meaningful job description on earth can be traced back to this mandate: keep what is good, and increase it.  Think how farmers keep and cultivate the ground; how teacher keep and cultivate human potential; law enforcement officers keep and cultivate society; investment bankers keep and cultivate money; lawyers keep and cultivate human relationships and interests; businessmen keep and cultivate the economy; musicians and artists keep and cultivate culture; and so forth.

We see that God’s original intent with mankind was to be co-workers with Him, as both the crown and stewards of his glorious creation. As sin entered, it marred our identity, fractured our relationships, and distorted our holy vocation.  In societies like ancient Egypt, the work place elevated some people to a god-like status while others became worthless subjects.  This is still true all around the world today. Work no longer is a delightful partnership of love; it became a means of oppression and greed, a dreaded duty filled with anxiety and strife.

After delivering the slaves from Egypt God reorder this new nation, rightly orienting this emancipated people’s relation to work by commanding both work and rest days (holy days); both laziness and over-work are evil.[i]  So is unemployment!  Therefore, God instituted social welfare that goes beyond charity to empowerment that prevents and redeems unemployed people from poverty.  Access to work is a holy right that must be preserved and cultivated.

Leviticus 25:35-36

“If a member of your community becomes poor in that their power slips with you, you shall make them strong… that they may live with you.”

Jesus also came, revealing God as a worker.[ii]  The Christ came to redeem and reconcile all things to Himself,[iii] to end the destruction and restore all things – as it was in the beginning.[iv]  Our desire and capacity to work will also be renewed. In His Coming Kingdom, in the renewed earth, mankind will again reign and rule with God over His creation.  We will still work and plant, produce and trade and build, [v]   as this is the eternal nature and purpose of man: stewards who rule over, keep and cultivate God’s creation.

But even now we are the first-fruits of God’s New Kingdom, invited and empowered to witness and serve Christ and his Kingdom here on earth.

 

How do I redeem my work in this fallen world?

Work and Gods Kingdom3

Daniel and his friends’ engagement in secular work is very helpful in demonstrating how we can serve God’s Kingdom in our places of work.

These young exiles were in a hostile, foreign kingdom where the ruler deemed himself an enemy of God and oppressor of God’s people.  In their refugee camp Daniel and his friends heard the prophesy of Jeremiah that they would be in exile for 70 years,[vi] but that they should not merely survive in Babylon.  Rather, the exiles were sent there by God to thrive in there for God’s sake: to witness and establish His Shalom reign in this pagan nation to benefit all.[vii]  Jeremiah said that even in this ungodly environment God’s people ought to live out their original intent: dwell in the land, have dominion, increase and witness God’s nature and reign. [viii]

Jeremiah 29:5-7

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.”

And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”

Daniel’s response to this instruction was significant: when the King sought for bright Jewish youths to be trained as officials in his palace, Daniel and his friends made themselves available to “seek the Shalom of the city where [they] have been taken captive.”   Working in this secular environment presented a great opportunity to witness and establish the peaceful reign of God from within this civic center.  It was the invitation to facilitate political conversion, where the oppressor becomes servant of God, his people and his purpose.

But Daniel was aware that this opportunity also presented the great challenge of cultural assimilation: that through the education and engagements these young God-fearing believers might grow to be indistinguishable from the pagan Chaldeans.  Therefore, Daniel establish a practical rhythm in his daily routine as a reminder that he is indeed set aside for God, and although he serves this ruler in his palace, he is indeed first a servant of Yahweh.   Although they willingly endured the (very pagan) Chaldean education, culture and even new identities (pagan names), Daniel and his friends resolved to not defile himself with the king’s food…” (1:8).  Their diet and devotional prayer discipline “three times a day, since his youth” (6:10) inoculated him against cultural assimilation.  These habits also identified these men “servants of the Living God”[ix] – labels by which Daniel and his friends were known in their places of work.

God’s response to Daniel’s vow of sanctity and service is very encouraging (1:9, 17, 20).  God bestowed on these young witnesses favor and compassion in the sight of their overseers; they were treated with kindness and respect – more than their peers.   God blessed these young men with the ability to acquire learning and skill so that they proved to be ten times better that their peers.  What is more, God gave Daniel a particular ability to interpret dreams and visions that set him apart and made him sought after in his workplace.  Because Daniel and his friends resolved to serve God in the palace, God empowered them to serve Him there.

The overarching message form the book of Daniel is how God’s Kingdom toppled a pagan empire, and how His reign permeated the entire Babylonian realm, because four young believers resolved to serve God within that hostile, secular environment.  Their example is our invitation and inspiration today.

Lessons learnt from Daniel at work

Daniel and his friends encourage us to embrace secular education and secular work environments for God’s sake; to understand that we have been commissioned and empowered by God and to engage these secular environments in service of His reign.  But Daniel and his friends also caution us to avoid cultural assimilation by instilling tangible reminders and a lifestyle of prayer, fellowship and accountability with like-minded believers.

Daniel and his friends show us how to work for God in a in a secular society:

Firstly, resolve to serve God first in all things (1:8), regardless of the cost; how I endure the fire is my greatest witness to my faith in God’s reign.   This calls for a life of integrity (6:4) and spirit of excellence (6:6; 5:12) – meaning live beyond reproach and do all to the best of my ability – “as unto the Lord”. [x]

Secondly, seek favor and grace from God that I may be empowered to serve him well at work (1:9, 17, 20).  For Daniel it meant he had the ear of his leaders, and he could recall and apply his learning in wise was.  Also, his unique gifting brought him before the emperor, presenting opportunities to witness God and His Kingdom effectively.  Seek these gifts from God, and yield it confidently, for God’s sake.

Thirdly, Daniel demonstrated servant leadership, showing me that my position and power is not meant for personal privilege, but as empowerment to serve those entrusted to me (3:26, 6:20).  This concept of servant leadership is foreign to our world. Trust God that your faithfulness will lead to promotion, to wield greater influence of righteousness, peace and joy where you live and work. [xi]

How do you think about your work?  Into which domain did the Lord call you to serve his creation and witnessing his peaceful reign?  I urge you: seek His favor and ask for grace to serve him well that you may see the transformation as His Kingdom comes through your witness and work.  You will have your reward when He returns.

Work and Gods Kingdom4

[i] Exodus 20:6; Leviticus 23:3-4.

[ii] John 5:17.

[iii] Colossians 1:16-21.

[iv] Matthew 18:19; Revelation 20:5.

[v] Revelation 5:10; 21:24-26; Isaiah 65:17, 21.

[vi] Jeremiah 29:10

[vii] Jeremiah 29:5-7.

[viii] cf. Genesis 1:27-28.

[ix] Eg. Daniel 6:10 and 3:28.

[x] Colossians 3:17.

[xi] Psalm 75:6-7.

(Not) Enough!

At times I feel I need 8 arms like an octopus, just to have hands on everything that is going on.  But I don’t.

The other day I spoke to God about the moments when I do not feel the peace of God, when I feel disconnected from the God of peace.  I concluded that I feel anxious and frustrated whenever I am overwhelmed with all the people, projects and places I am unable to sufficiently connect to and serve.

I find that (my) life is simply too demanding to do everything well.  As a husband, I am at times unable to connect to and love my wife the way I want to.  As a father of two beautiful young children I find that I am at times to busy and too drained to bless them the way I would want to.  As pastor and overseer I am thoroughly aware of all the people going through hardships whom I would want to spend time with to comfort and care for – as well as the people with great potential whom I would want to coach and encourage.  What drains my peace is that in every area of my life I feel that I am falling short; I am too busy to give my wife, my children, my congregation, my friends, my community, my studies and my God the time and devotion I want to or feel I should.  As such I am always aware that I can (and should) be a better husband, better father, better friend, better pastor, better steward, and better Christian.  I am failing everyone, mostly God and myself. I don’t do (well) enough, and I am not (being) enough for anyone.

These are the moments when I am acutely aware of my inadequacy, my insufficiency to be everything for everyone. My emotions dashboard lights up with anxiety, frustration, disappointment, shame, and that familiar sense of being overwhelmed.  At these moments I am acutely aware that I am not enough, and that I just don’t do enough.

I want to be more.  I want to do more. And I feel I should.

If you can identify with these emotions, then cheer up – we’re in great company!

Joshua felt insufficient

intimidated_incompetence

Joshua was apparently also overwhelmed with a sense of being insufficient, unqualified, and uncertain of himself.   Moses was dead, and Joshua had to take the reins of leading Israel to occupy the promised land.[i]  Joshua certainly had the faith in God to face those giants in their fortified cities,[ii] and had shown himself competent in combat.[iii]  The Bible writes that Joshua was faithful,[iv] and full of the Spirit of wisdom, [v] and knowing God intimately.[vi]  Moses had mentored him for 40 year, and now God himself called him to step up and take the lead.[vii]

In spite of all these qualities Joshua was intimidated and for the task at hand.  He needed much encouragement, or rather, much urging to step up and lead.  It was not the giants or the combat that freaked him out.  He felt insignificant, insufficient, incapable compared to Moses whose shoes he had to fill – a mighty leader who regularly demonstrated the power of God.[viii]  And who can blame Joshua for feeling small in comparison to the man who stood in front of Pharaoh and brought down ten plagues that plummeted the mighty Egyptian empire?  Or the man for whom the Red Sea opened up, mountains shook, manna rained down and water gushed out of rock?  The man who brought identity, moral law and formalized worship for the Israelites?  Who would not be intimidated?

The irony is that, when God at first called Moses for his task, he also felt intimidated.  He declared himself incompetent and insufficient for his task.  And I’d say he had a good enough reason – this leader couldn’t speak in public, and had the bad reputation of murderer and deserted in Egypt.  Moses of all people knew where he fell short, where he was not qualified, not good enough for the role he was called to fulfill.

But Moses was not merely sent to do a job for God; he was called to do something with God.  He was not called to bring down Pharaoh and his oppressive empire for God, but with God.  He was not sent to lead the people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and the wilderness into the Promised Land for God.  He was called to follow God and walk with God as he led the people.  Moses’ significance and success were not determined on his own performance and perfection but on God’s presence and power.  He just had to stay in step with God.

Yes, Moses was incompetent, insufficient, incomplete as father, as husband, as leader, as worshiper.  The Bible records his flaws on purpose.  But Moses appears larger than life in the Sacred Text because in spite of all these imperfections and shortcomings, God was with him.  All the successes attributed to Moses were God’s miraculous compensation for human shortcomings.

Therefore, all Joshua needed to hear to be brave, to be strong, to lead God’s people and to possess the land was the promise that “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.”

I’m insufficient.  God is not.

Back to my weekend encounter with God about my insufficiency to do everything well: I poured out my heart and told God how I felt insufficient, how I felt that I did nothing good enough because I am too busy, too scattered.  If I had less commitments, perhaps I could do at least a few things well.  But what can I cut from my life?  I am quite confident that I am connected and committed where God has led me.  I feel that it is in fact God’s tasks that make me feel insufficient and incompetent.  Could that be?

As I was praying, I heard God clearly answer me: “I know you are insufficient.  I called you, knowing you are not perfect.  I don’t expect perfection from you.  I don’t expect more from you.  But I am with youMy grace is sufficient.

These words were as refreshing and revitalizing as cold water on a hot day.  I felt as though weights dropped off my shoulders, a burden left my chest.  God does not expect more from me; he knows my insufficiency.

Simply the Gospel

Over against a striving culture that that celebrates performance and perfection, the gospel of Christ sounds the invitation that God’s sufficiency in Christ qualifies and compensates the insufficient and imperfect.  His invitation to the weary and incomplete is to find rest in his sufficiency.[ix]  In Christ, God does not frown upon the insufficient nor does he reject the imperfect.  Rather, God is compassionately drawn to our brokenness and weakness,[x] “because he remembers that we are dust.”[xi]

And that is the gospel: that the Perfect One redeems and embraces the imperfect ones through the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  God is always with us.

God with me 

“I am with you,” God said to the stuttering Moses,[xii] to the hesitant Joshua,[xiii] to the fainthearted Gideon,[xiv] and the youthful Jeremiah.[xv]  The list goes on.  Yet, aware of (and even intimidated by) their insufficiency in the face of their calling, these believers were inspired to step out, assured of God’s empowering presence.

That’s how the stuttering Moses lead 4 million Hebrews out of Slavery, hesitant Joshua conquered the Promised Land, fainthearted Gideon defeated the powerful Midianites with 300 men, and young Jeremiah faithfully proclaimed God’s word in wicked times.  God’s grace proved sufficient, his strength was perfected in their weakness. [xvi]

Imperfect, but worthy

Realizing our insufficiency is a good thing.  It does not help to brainwash ourselves with Ted Talks, nor to try and persuade ourselves with “mirror-mirror” pep talks that indeed, we are sufficient and have what it takes.   Our inner and outer reality clearly shows that we fall short.  But our imperfection does not diminish our worth or our work. 

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.[xvii]

enough1

Our (in)sufficiency does not (dis)qualify us from salvation.  Quite the opposite!  The reason why God sent his son into the world was because everyone fall short of God’s perfection; therefore God in Christ has made a way to impart his sufficiency to us, that we might stand sufficient before him. [xviii]  Whoever humbly asks for this gift we call salvation will be made right before God.[xix]

Our (in)competence does not (dis)qualify us from service.  God is not intimidated or irritated by our shortcomings!  Comparing yourself to the accomplishments of others is futile.  Accomplishments does not qualify us before God, the true eternal judge: God alone calls, God alone qualifies, God alone commends us before him.[xx]  Every character in the Bible who played a meaningful role in history reminds us that God calls, qualifies, commends and empowers imperfect people to accomplish significant work with him.  That’s still his way with me and with you.

The Invitation

In those moments that I feel strong, that I feel on top of everything, I usually have courage to exert myself for concerns bigger than myself.  I have courage to stretch myself beyond my own needs.  But God challenged Joshua to do just that when he was intimidated by his own imperfections: to be strong and act courageous in the face of his incompetence.  How?  By the assurance of the Sovereign Lord’s personal presence.

Think about it: what could Joshua possibly face that is too big, too hard for God?  Not the Jordan river in flood, not Jericho with its high walls, not the seven mighty nations in Canaan.  No, not even the rebellious people God had entrusted to him!

That invitation to walk towards God’s Promised Peace today is the same:  in spite of my insufficiency, God is with me.  And that is how my heart is encouraged to act with confidence.  Today, in every place and every situation, God has my back to compensate for every inadequacy and insufficiency.

The reminder

What would I say to myself next time I am overwhelmed by my own incompetence and insufficiency.  I would remind myself that God is not irritated with my imperfections, nor is he not disappointed with my defective performance.  I will remind myself that his grace has made me both accepted in he presence and empowered by His partnership.  He has not sent me to do work on his behalf – he has invited me to live a life of service with him.  I will remind myself that God does expect perfection of me – he knows that I am dust and has perfected me in Christ.  I will remind myself to look beyond my inabilities, to discern God’s presence and trust in his God’s sovereign power.  I will urge myself to look to him and be strong – because it is not the “perfect ones” that do great; the ones who know their God will do great exploits.[xxi]

[i] Joshua 1:1-10

[ii] Numbers 13:16-14:9

[iii] Exodus 17:8-13

[iv] Exodus 32:1-17

[v] Exodus 33:11

[vi] Deut. 34:1-12.

[vii] Deut. 31:14-23

[viii] Deuteronomy 34:12

[ix] Isaiah 55:1-2

[x] Psalm 34:18

[xi] Psalm 103:14

[xii] Exodus 4:10-12

[xiii] Joshua 1:2-6

[xiv] Judges 6:12-14

[xv] Jeremiah 1:6-9

[xvi] 2 Cor 12:9

[xvii] 1 Pet 5:5-6; James 4:6

[xviii] Rom 3:23, 6:23

[xix] Romans 10:13

[xx] 2 Cor 10:18

[xxi] Dan 11:32

Greater still – the best is yet to come

If in this life we hope only in ourselves, in the best that we can dream up, delve up or deliver, then we have reason to be dreadful and live on in despair.  If our fate rests on the fullness of our faculty and fidelity then yes, we have reason to be frantic and fear the future.  Mankind is a mess.

But Christians have cause for hope, a reason to look up and expect the good.  Our surety of survival is in God, the eternally good and ever strong God.  Our security for today and faith for the future is not based on nature’s mood, on man’s motive or my own mojo.  We are hopeful because Our God Reigns!  And his arm is not too short to save, his ear not too deaf to ear.[i]  Our God is near, and He hears.

There is no place for hopelessness or defeatism in the heart and mind of a Christian.  Like the elder said to despairing John imprisoned on Patmos, God is saying to the church today “WEEP NO MORE!”[ii] Christ has triumphed and is already unfolding His universal reign of peace!”  Yes, Christ has come to reclaim God’s rightful reign and to redeem all of creation to Himself.  God is up to something great!

Because of God’s generous, faithful character and expanding reign, I believe that the best is yet to come!  Your tomorrow is better than today; expect to thrive and not only survive.  You can be sure that God’s reign is always expanding, his grace is always abounding, his glory ever more visible.  In God, your future is looking brighter still. The best is yet to come!

Greater_Still4

Your best life is yet to come.  Ageing does not mean fading; your best years are still ahead.  The psalmist recorded that “he who is planted in the house of the Lord will bear fruit in old age, he will be fresh and flourishing to declare that God is righteous!”[iii]  Our Lord Jesus always keeps the best wine for the last, and makes the latter glory outshine the former.[iv]

Is your life miserable now?  Then smile – in Christ, you can always expect better!  No matter what this life throws at you, God makes ALL THINGS work together for your good.[v]  That is your confidence of a good tomorrow!

Regardless where you are at in life, look up!  God’s plans are for better welfare, a better hope, a better future.[vi]  He has more and better plans prepared for you to walk in.[vii]  He had already written your book, prepared all your days[viii] – your life story is not over yet, but we know it ends in glory!  Come on, God is leading you upward, onward.  Can you recall some of the surprises he has showered over your path in the past?  Prepare your heart for more – your next leg is already littered with love. The best is yet to come!

Greater_Still5

The best you is yet to come.  When you look at the mirror, do you like what you see? Do you love whom you’ve become?  Cheer up – the best version of you is still being formed.   God has started weaving you in your mother’s womb,[ix] but He is not done with you yet!  You’re still “under construction” because God is ALWAYS at work in you shaping your character, growing your competence.[x]  The resurrection Spirit is EVEN NOW giving life to your body,[xi] transforming you for gory to glory – just keep your eyes fixed on Him![xii]  He is the not done with you yet – what He has started he will complete in you;[xiii] he is the Author and Perfecter of your faith.  Christ, your hope of glory, is alive and at work in you.[xiv]  The best is yet to come!

Greater_Still6

Your best victory is yet to come.  God always leads us on in victory, from glory to glory until we win our last fight in Christ by overcoming death.[xv]  I wrote previously that every scar is a reminder of a victory we have won in Christ, of our faith that has been tested, purified and approved.  “What does not kill you makes you stronger” is true for every Christian.  In all things we are more than overcomers in Christ![xvi]

You are stronger than you were before.  David first conquered the lion, then the bear, then Goliath, and later the Philistine armies.  Likewise, God is leading us through progressive victories.  Do not fear these future fights – in God’s providential wisdom you will not be tested beyond what you can bear.[xvii]  And for everything you face, His grace is sufficient and His strength is perfected.[xviii]  Heads up!  Your greatest victory is yet to come!

Another year is over.  Another year of God’s faithful love and preserving grace.  Another chapter in your book declaring “Thus far the Lord has brought us”.[xix]  But the story is not done yet: there are grander adventures to live through, more glorious victories to be won, greater love to enjoy. The path of your purpose is prepared with plentiful provisions and pleasures.   Look up! Be strong! Take courage! Nothing you will face tomorrow is impossible for God.  You are growing from glory to glory.  His mercies are new for every day, his grace sufficient for every challenge.  With God, the best is yet to come.  God is up to something great.

 

[i] Isaiah 57:1.

[ii] Revelation 5:4.

[iii] Psalm 92:13-15.

[iv] John 2:10.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] Jeremiah 29:11.

[vii] Ephesians 2:13.

[viii] Psalm 139:16.

[ix] Psalm 139:13.

[x] Philippians 2:13.

[xi] Romans 8:11.

[xii] 2 Coronthians 3:18.

[xiii] Philippians 1:6.

[xiv] Colossians 1:27.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 14:14; 1 Corinthians 15:57.

[xvi] Romans 8:37.

[xvii] 1 Corinthians 10:13.

[xviii] 2 Corinthians 12:9.

[xix] 2 Samuel 7:12.

Does God really care?

Whenever one finds oneself in a hopeless situation, and God seems slow to intervene, one may be tempted to think that God does not listen and that God does not care.  King David knew that feeling all too well, as we see in many of his Psalms.  But Psalm 8 is different.

Picture David in the wilderness, helpless and hopeless. Perhaps he was fleeing from the jealous king Saul who wanted to protect his throne from this young, valiant warrior.  Or perhaps he was fleeing from his own son Absalom who hoped to position himself on David’s throne.  Some of David’s most beautiful songs were written during these two periods as he passionately petitioned God for preservation and restoration to his place among God’s people.

Picture David praying to God with familiar phrases like “Save me from the hands of my enemies”, “how long, Lord…?”, and “have you forgotten me…?”  He wants to know if God is mindful of him, and if God cares about him at all.

God_care_consider

Then, suddenly he finds his prayers stilled as he is mesmerized by the clear desert nightlight, awestruck at the sheer size and serenity of the stars. He erupts in worship to the Creator of such a magnificent scene.  “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory in the heavens!”  And now David prays differently.

The awareness of the beauty and bigness of these star-studded heavens makes David feel small, insignificant.  The stars seem constant, flawless, glorious. Yet David sees himself fragile, fallible, as fickle as dessert grass (Psalm 103:15). Psalm 8

3  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

4  what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

 

The stars are glorious, I am dust.  Why would God even think about me, moreover care for me?
But as David reflects on the creation account (Gen 1-2), and recalls that although God had made the heavens to show his glory, mankind enjoys a privileged position in God’s heart, and therefore in His creation order. After all, only mankind was created in His image, just “a little lower” than the angels (Hebrew Elohim, a name for God the mighty Creator), and to receive authority to rule the earth. Psalm 8

5  Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels [Heb: Elohim] and crowned him with glory and honour.

6  You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…

 Genesis 1:26,28  Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion…”

God had chosen mankind to bear his glory, and to share in his rule.  That’s why David confidently declares that even the smallest “babies and nursing infants” (verse 2) reflects the greatest glory of God, and would silence those who declare there is no God.

So David’s questions “God, are you mindful of me” and “God, do you care about me?” are satisfied in God’s creation and intent for mankind: yes, David, the Great Creator are mindful of you, and does care for you!  He has made you like Himself to relate to you, and has shared his glory and his authority with you.  Your fickleness and frailty does not change God’s attention on or affections towards you! You are created for His pleasure!

Looking to this prayer of David, 3000 years ago in the wilderness, New Testament believers have a special reading on it through the shadow of the cross.  The questions “is God mindful of me?” and “does God care about me?” are answered affirmatively in the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to reveal the love of God. In his coming, this baby silenced the great Enemy and Avenger once for all.  God’s loving concern and care is known in the incarnation and vicarious suffering of Jesus Christ our Lord. “In this the love of God is demonstrated for you…!” (Romans 5:18)

The next time you wonder whether God cares for you, gaze at the stars and remember that you are so much more glorious than that!

Calvin_stars

 

 

Living free from Burn-Out

You probably know someone who isn’t coping well with the demands of our high-paced life. That person might be you!  Take heart, you’re not alone.

Employee burnout is on the rise globally, with the World Health Organization predicting a global pandemic within the next decade.[1] Competing for market share in our global economy requires more hours of harder work (with the same pay).  What makes it worse is that our smart-phones and communication devices have opened the door for work (and the associated stress) to follow us home, taking hostage what once was our place of rest and refreshing.

Burn-out_collage
Persistent pressure on many fronts can lead to emotional and spiritual burnout.

Early on in my working life I experienced the reality of emotional and spiritual burnout after juggling a career, a church plant and studies, being newly married with a medical student.  For the first three years I coped well with the pressure, but as my responsibilities increased, emotional and spiritual fatigue set in.   Through a melt-down in my office I learned the hard way that one’s output cannot exceed one’s input indefinitely; we have to live a balanced life to ensure healthy sustainability.

Last year I was deeply inspired by Trevor Hudson and Jerry Haas’s book The Cycle of Grace, Living in Sacred Balance.”  This powerful lesson from the rhythms of Jesus was first discovered and published by Dr Frank Lake.

As Psychiatrist Lake worked closely with the British Missionary Society to India and was disturbed by the number of well-trained, well-supported missionaries who sailed off with clear sense of purpose to India, only to return within a few months, showing signs of emotional and spiritual burn-out in depression, cynicism and disillusionment.

Dr Lake connected with Prof Emil Bunner, a renowned Swiss theologian, and together they studied the Gospels asking the question: why did Jesus of Nazareth not show signs of emotional and spiritual burnout during his intense mission?  What Lake and Brunner discovered together was that Jesus lived a life of dynamic balance of receiving grace and giving grace – which Hudson calls The Cycle of Grace.

The Cycle of Grace

Cycle_Grace

ACCEPTANCE. Lake and Brunner accentuated the fact that Jesus only started his ministry after receiving the acceptance and affirmation of his identity from his Father (Mark 1:11).  His life was lived from the secure platform of being God’s Beloved Son, one who pleased his Divine Father.  Jesus started his work as one who was at peace, free from the enslavement of striving to please anyone.  He was secure in that his identity and approval was a gift of grace from his Father who loved him.

The authors for the New Testament frequently celebrate the truth that every believer share this platform of grace with Jesus our Lord: we too “are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…” (Colossians 3:12).  In which way have you embraced your identity as God’s chosen, holy and beloved one?  

SUSTENANCE. The gospels reveal in Jesus’ life habitual practices in which he sustained his identity as being “God’s Beloved Son”.  Jesus would regularly withdraw to spend time alone in prayer with his Father.  He would regularly worship with other believers in local synagogues and the temple.  He surrounded himself with close friends where he could be vulnerable – the disciples and people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  He had a very social life, being at home with whoever invited him over for dinner parties so that he was labelled “a glutton and wine-bibber!” (Luke 7:34).  Whenever Jesus opened his mouth he spoke truths from Scripture and Kingdom observations from nature, showing that Jesus studied both these to see his life in light of God’s providential care and direction.

As Trevor Hudson notes, I too find it extremely comforting that my Lord Jesus also needed to order his life in such a way to receive sustaining grace from God his Father. How do you order your life to receive grace from God to sustain your pace of living?

SIGNIFICANCE. Jesus understood his significance in God’s purpose. Before he sought to do the Father’s will, he accepted what he was meant to be in the Father’s will.  Jesus’ favourite title for himself, is “the Son of Man” – an Old Testament reference to the coming Messiah who would receive universal, everlasting dominion (ref: Daniel 7:13-14).  Jesus knew what he was meant to be in this world, not just what he was meant to do.  He understood that more than doing things for God, he himself was a sign of God’s grace to this world – in a unique sense.  Other names by which Jesus described his role in this world was with his “I am”-statements in John[2], describing his way of relating and giving grace.

Each of us has a God-given desire for significance.  A friend of mine pictures her unique way of being as a chandelier, creating space under and around her for the Light of God to bring clarity, comfort, peace and hope.  My way is being like a water-bearer, bringing God’s encouragement and strength where I go.  Hudson describes his significance of being a healing conversationist.  You too have a unique way of being. Can you articulate in which way are you a sign of God’s grace to this world?

FRUITFULNESS. Lake and Brunner called this phase in the Cycle of Grace “achievement”, but Hudson prefers fruitfulness to highlight the work of God’s grace in producing results. How did Jesus produce fruit?  His highly productive ministry was characterised by announcing God’s reign, demonstrating it with miracles and healings, and teaching about the Kingdom of God.  He was always accepting of the women, children, foreigners and all “sinners” that were culturally ostracized.  His ministry was highly transformational of individuals (eg. Zacchaeus, the Samaritan Women and the “Legion” the Gadarene) and communities, but most of his time and attention was in discipleship or mentorship of his chosen disciples.

We too are called and graced to be fruitful. In which ways do you distribute the grace of God given to you?

The Cycle of Works

Cycle_Works

After discovering Jesus’ balanced life in the Cycle of Grace, Lake and Brunner understood the reason for the burn-out of the British missionaries to India: they burned out because they operated in the cycle of works.    After obeying their call to foreign mission, preparing well in seminary, these passionate ministers worked tirelessly, compelled to achieve tangible results that proved their significance in God’s mission, working hard to sustain the fruit of their labour in the hope of being affirmed and accepted as real missionaries, true believers and worthy sons and daughters of God.  And their striving for results that validate caused burn-out.  It always does.

The Cycle of Works will forever enslave one to work harder for approval and acceptance.  The Cycle of Grace will always empower one to confidently work, and even take risks, knowing that one’s worth and identity is secure.

Are you ready to step deeper into the Cycle of Grace, following in the footsteps of Jesus our Lord?  Accept Jesus’ invitation to follow his way of life, the rhythms he set in place to ensure his input and output stay in balance.

Matthew 11:28-30  “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

Notes:

[1] Sarah Tottle, Dropping like flies: the rise of workplace burnout and how to tackle it, The Conversation, 28 October 2016. http://theconversation.com/dropping-like-flies-the-rise-of-workplace-burnout-and-how-to-tackle-it-67494

[2] The Bread of Life | The Light of the World | The Door | The Good Shepherd | The Way, the Truth, the Life | The Resurrection and Life | The True Vine

 

Growing all the way

When last did you feel utterly unprepared? Was it this morning when your boss asked for an update on your project? Or last night when you tried to resolve conflict with the love of your life? A recent (or memorable!) exam that blew you out of the water?  Or perhaps when your three-year threw herself down in a tantrum at your local shopping mall?

Grow_up
Don’t be found unprepared!

Being unprepared for any given situation causes one to feel humbled and helpless, yet in some instances the consequences are much costlier.  Thankfully the life of Jesus models how one could avoid the shame and resentment of failure in those key areas of one’s life.

Ready to launch

Luke records the launch of Jesus’s ministry at John’s baptism,[1] when God the Father affirmed and released Jesus with the empowerment of His Spirit.  Luke notes that Jesus was 30 years of age at this time.  The previous chapter in this Gospel recalls Jesus’ birth – announcing his identity and purpose as Saviour, Messiah and Lord[2] – and his early years, culminating in his words in the temple “I must be about my Father’s business[3].  Clearly, the 12-year old Jesus knew who he was, what his purpose was and where he should be.

Then the chapter ends with the words “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.”  And that’s all Luke accounts for these 18 years of Jesus growing into adulthood: Jesus spent nearly two decades growing in wisdom, in physical strength and health, in spiritual vitality and emotional intelligence in preparation for the prophesies over his life.  Talk about a purpose-driven life!

Grow all the way – on purpose

Grow on purpose
Grow all the way – on purpose!

There is much similarity between Luke 2:40 and Luke 2:52 (and the story in-between explains the difference!).  But the English hides one important difference between these two statements in the similar translation of the words grow.  When Luke records that Jesus, aged 12 returned from Jerusalem to Nazareth with his parents and “grew” intellectually, physically, spiritually and emotionally, he uses the Greek prokoptõ meaning “to drive forward” as a herdsman drove cattle with purpose and urgency in a specific direction.  Luke states that after his realization of his identity and purpose, Jesus “drove forward” and intentionally, passionately advanced in preparation for his purpose as Messiah, Ruler and Saviour of Israel (and the world).

Today many Christians emphasize the supernatural empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus (which is clear and true![4]) but neglect to note the deliberate preparation Jesus went through for this purpose.  It shows that Jesus knew that God has entrusted a very important part of His redemptive plan to him, and therefore he took ownership of that call through urgent and disciplined growth in wisdom, health and strength, intimacy with the Father and emotional/ relational skill with a wide range of people.

Grow all the way – even in Nazareth[5]

The way in which Luke gives account of how Jesus answered his parents who came to fetch him in the temple suggests that Jesus really wanted to remain behind in Jerusalem, to be trained in the Scriptures by the teachers in the temple – as Paul was taught by the renowned Gamaliel.[6]  After all, it was customary for a boy of his age, after receiving basic education by tutors, to be prepared for a specific vocation by either their fathers or someone who specialized in such a vocation. Jesus knew the temple was the right place to be and said so to his parents, but still “he submitted and went with them to Nazareth”.[7]

Nazareth was a very small, very simple village. An insignificant place, where “nothing good comes from.”[8]  Yet here, in this nowhere little town, Jesus determined to grow in preparation for his purpose.  It as here that Our Lord spent 18 years intentionally preparing for his role as Messiah, Lord and Saviour.  There were better places, with more opportunities and wiser scholars, but his parents and later his circumstances kept him in Nazareth.

But Jesus alone was responsible for his purpose – no one else would give account on his behalf.  Therefore, Jesus took every opportunity to “drive forward” and prepare himself for his purpose.  What an inspiration to many who feel frustrated and boxed in by people or circumstances! Grow forward non the less!

Grow all the way intellectually

poor_learner
Grow all the way intellectually!

Throughout the Gospels (and the epistles), the wisdom of Jesus is highlighted and applauded.[9] His wisdom is often displayed as superior to that of the scribes, lawyers and teachers of Israel.

Luke records that Jesus grew wisdom – not only in knowledge.  Wisdom speaks of the right application of knowledge, especially in complex situations.   “Wisdom is fear of the Lord.”[10]  To fear the Lord means to speak and act with the knowledge that one must give account to God; wisdom acts with that reality in mind, over against immediate gratification.  Thus, wisdom sees the big picture and discerns the weightier matters.

Moreover, Luke notes that Jesus grew in wisdom – he did not get it supernaturally.  A quick scan through the Gospels shows that Jesus used about 50 Old Testament scriptures in teachings, to withstand temptations, and to prove himself during testing.  Wisdom is gained as one study the works of God, the words of God and the ways of God in the Scriptures, and prayerfully reflecting on it.

Jesus made an effort to grow in knowledge and wisdom to prepare and position himself for purpose, so that he would not be unprepared when God released him into his call. To prepare for our purpose, we should do the same!

Grow all the way physically

grow_taller
Grow all the way physically!

Jesus also grew physically healthy and strong for his purpose – and he needed to!  His ministry period of three years was wide and intense.  Conservative sources suggest that Jesus walked more than 5000 kilometres during these three years, while doing intense teaching, preaching, healing and deliverance almost daily.  His travels were over rough terrains and in harsh weather conditions.  With this in mind Jesus trained for strength and endurance; he grew in stature.

But nowhere during the life of Jesus is his strength and endurance clearer than the 24 hours of his arrest, trials, torture and crucifixion.  That Jesus was alive and alert on the cross is an amazing feat in itself!  His brutal beatings and whipping would have left him weak, stripped of his skin and tissue from his back, having lost much blood.  Yet Jesus somehow found strength to walk to his crucifixion, carry his cross part of the way, and, having finished his task, “bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”[11]    Would he have fainted before the cross, his redemptive work would have been incomplete.  But Jesus grew strong enough beforehand in order to finish his task.

Let this be our example. Don’t let your body grow weak and let you down before it is your time!  Our culture is obsessed about looking pretty, bulky or skinny – looks are superficial.  Rather, grow strong and healthy.  Determine to grow all the way to see your purpose through.

Grow all the way spiritually

child praying
Grow all the way spiritually!

Jesus deliberately cultivated an intimate relationship with God his Abba, his Daddy, through prayer. We see this in his habitual evening retreats for prayer and solitude.  This intimate relationship with God provided for Jesus a source of strength and refreshing, his security in identity and purpose, as well as direction for what he should say and do.  Bluntly: without this vital spiritual link Jesus would not have had any way to fulfil his purpose, seeing as his purpose was derived, directed and sustained by his relationship with the Father.  Therefore, Jesus intentionally grew in relationship with God through a well-developed prayer life before his release into his purpose.

Likewise, your purpose is also derived, directed and sustained by your relationship with God your Father.  And therefore, determine to cultivate a healthy prayer life to grow in the same intimacy with God your Father.

Grow all the way emotionally

grow_friends
Grow all the way emotionally!

Jesus’ emotional capacity is astounding!  He could maintain meaningful relationships with such a diverse group of people – a skill essential for his ministry!  His disciples were such a diverse group (as I wrote about in Known by your Love), resulting in constant tension and frequent conflict.  Yet he could patiently lead, teach and love them all!  He was able to identify and show kindness to the various groups of Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, scribes, lawyers, tax collectors and sinners, etc) and even many groups of outsiders (Greeks, Romans, Samaritans, etc).  Jesus was able to maintain love and peace amidst conflict day in and day out.  He displayed remarkable emotional maturity indeed!

Luke records that Jesus intentionally grew in his emotional and relational capacity – where he was.  Without this development Jesus would have short-ended his own ministry.  I suggest that you and I also need to intentionally grow our emotional and relational capacity to fulfil our purpose – preferably before we are released into it!  How?  Start by intentionally widening our relationships to include people very different from us, and practice speaking the truth in love, not shying away from conflict.

Although Jesus stuck in the nowhere town of Nazareth, he was ready to be released on the day the father chose.  From a young age Jesus demonstrated intentionality in his attitude to “be about my Father’s business”[12], and made it his daily activity to “purposefully grow intellectually, physically, spiritually and emotionally”[13] until the day of his activation when “the Holy Spirit descended on Him.”[14]

So make it your aim to daily grow wiser, fitter, closer to God and closer to people – that you too may be ready to be released, and not be found unprepared for your purpose!

[1] Luke 3:21-23

[2] Luke 2:11

[3] Luke 2:49

[4] Acts 10:38

[5] I must give credit to John Andrews who highlighted this significant point in Jesus’ development to me.

[6] Acts 22:3; cf 5:34.

[7] Luke 2:50

[8] John 1:46

[9] Mark 6:4 and John 7:15 as examples.

[10] Proverbs 9:10

[11] John 19:30

[12] Luke 2:49

[13] Luke 2:52

[14] Luke 3:22