Ready for (another) Roller-Coaster Year?

Oh, how we wished that the pandemic and all its problems would burn with our 2020 calendars. Alas, it followed us into 2021, promising another roller-coaster year. How do you buckle up and ready your heart?

Most of us enjoy a good roller-coaster.  The ride starts with a slow climb, followed by a sudden drop and quick turns at high speed. As you feel the wind in your hair and hear the passengers’ screams, your veins flood with adrenaline and dopamine, leaving your hands shaking and legs jittery.  One group shouts “Let’s go again!” while another cries “Never again!”

Roller coasters leaves you either ecstatic or terrified.

What causes these two groups of people to have vastly different experiences in the same roller coaster cart? It comes down to a sense of security: the ability to trust in the ride designer and the system’s integrity. The ones who trust in the integrity of the seat belt or harness don’t fear for their safety.  These passengers have peace on the track and enjoy the thrill of the ride.

The second or third round on a roller coaster is often even more enjoyable, precisely because you have come to know that you will not fall from the cart. With arms high in the air and eyes closed, you can smile wide and laugh loudly through the tight turns – once you trust the carriage and the rest in the seat belt.

2021 will be our 2nd ride in the Corona Coaster. We would have preferred a more docile track, but this is our ride for the year. How do you prepare yourself to push out the panic and enjoy the thrill that 2021 brings? Is there a harness we can strap ourselves into, to lend the sense of security we need for the months ahead?

A short phrase penned by a Jewish prophet gives us a plan. Isaiah warned the Jews that the Babylonians would lay siege and destroy Jerusalem, taking its people into exile. He promised a rough time ahead for them.  The Babylonians would rip them from everything gave them a sense of belonging and security. Yet the Lord comforted the Jews with this beautiful promise – a phrase that instils comfort, safety and hope in everyone who believes.

Isaiah 54:10

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Isaiah 54:10

“For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed”

The Lord warned the Judeans of catastrophic changes – both sudden and permanent. They would suffer loss. Mountains speak of safety, security and a sense of permanency. Hills bring a sense of familiarity, normality, and a sense of belonging. These significant changes create anxiety, and the sudden onset thereof brings a panic.

“my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed”

In contrast, the Lord assures them that His constant, loving nature and reliable character do not change. His steadfast love “never ceases” and is always “abounding.” (Lamentation 3:23; Psalm 145) 

In particular, God’s covenantal commitment towards Judah does not change either. It cannot be removed (Numbers 21:12) and is stronger than the bond that draws a mother to her nursing child (Isaiah 49:15).

While these sudden changes create a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, the Lord assures them that His character and commitment towards them for their welfare (shalom) will never change. He is good and promised to do them good, always. Yes, even these sudden changes will work out for their welfare. (compare Romans 8:28)

“says the Lord”

The One who makes this pledge of partnership is indeed trustworthy. He is the LORD, Yahweh – “I AM THAT I AM” – the eternally existing God who never changes (Exodus 3:14; Malachi 3:6).  He is all-powerful yet very personal (Isaiah 40:28-29; Psalm 113).

While everything around them changes, they the Lord invites them to rest in the truth that He does not change, nor his loving nature and covenant with them.  Indeed, Yahweh has shown his goodness and faithfulness to them for generations since He first bound Himself to Abraham by covenant. Israel’s covenant God is trustworthy because of his character and power.

“who has compassion on you.”

God Almighty knows that the coming catastrophic changes would bring pain and panic. Moreover, God cares about them!  Their situation moves Him with compassion so that He would show them kindness. (Compare with Christ Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 1:41 etc.)  What comfort these words must have brought to the vulnerable and fearful Judeans who were plucked from their familiar homelands!

a MIRROR to our society

Isaiah depicts Judah’s calamitous change as “mountains disappearing and hills being removed.” Our generation can easily identify with his passionate poetry. For years we have experienced the stormy disruptions in our social fibre, and local economies and political harmony caused by the tsunamis of globalization, technological advancement and climate change. Now, on top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating social changes, affecting economies and governments at an unparalleled pace.

These rapid changes make us feel unsafe, like foreigners in our own homeland. Like the Judeans hearing Isaiah’s words for the first time, we too need of hope, some assurance that good may come, a reason to march on and direction for the future.  

a WINDOW into God’s Heart

Isaiah’s prophesy reminds us that God knows that big changes leave us vulnerable and insecure. These words reveal God’s compassion for us; his heart is moved because he identifies with us in our suffering.

A reporter asked John and Charles Wesley’s ageing mother, which of her children she loved best.  She replied, “the one who needed it most at that time”. Her compassionate heart was moved with kindness to help the one who was struggling at that time. David says God’s paternal love is the same: “As a father shows compassion to his children… for he knows our frame… he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14). God does not love us less because we struggle in our turmoil or temptation; instead, God’s fatherly love (compassion) is activated by our weakness, urging him to show us kindness. The Lord “is able to have compassion with our weaknesses… so let us boldly draw near to his throne room to receive grace [help]” (Hebrews 4:15).

Isaiah reminds us that God’s steadfast love (character) and covenant of peace (commitment for our good) is unchanging. Through all these changes, God is working out his redemptive purposes work for our good and his glory. This window into God’s heart and plans brings us much comfort.

a DOOR into God’s Kingdom

Isaiah’s prophesy acknowledged the first readers’ uncertainty and invited themto walk with God into their new world. Likewise, this prophesy shows the door into the stable and peaceful world our overwhelmed generation longs for.  The Lord assures us that He is unchanging and his covenant unshakeable. Drawing close to him brings the security and familiarity that is fading in our rapidly changing context.

How do we strap ourselves in to feel safe in the 2021 roller coaster ride?

To cognitively know that “the God of the Bible is loving and does not change” does not bring the deep, lasting peace we pursue.  Instead, recognising and reflecting on God’s loving-kindness and reliability in my own life (and those around me) brings the security and hope I need in this changing world. This text invites me to remember and reflect on God’s steadfast love that I have experienced and how he has faithfully intervened on my life in the past. In a rapidly changing world, I feel safe to the degree that I am rooted and grounded in God’s love and commitment to me (Ephesians 3:14-17).

My friend, strap yourself in for the thrill-ride of 2021. Throw those hands in the air and let out a shout. God is up to something great, and it will work out for your good!

Closing Chapters – Re-visioning your future (part 4 of 4)

“I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, even as your soul prospers.”

3 John 1:2

This is God’s desire for you for 2021. Is this what you expect?

You want to start 2021 on a clean slate, with fresh excitement for the year.  This could be difficult, especially when the new year begins with the same challenges of the old year. In the previous posts, we said that we wrap up 2020 by making a memory and finding its meaning. We look back to review the year’s highs and lows, recognizing the blessings and progress. A fresh start requires a bold look inside to release those who hurt us and also own our share in the pain. After dealing with the past, we need to reconsider our destination and re-vision path.

[A brief video transcript of this post is available below].

Why a need to re-vision my future?

Bluntly stated, you are not the same person you were twelve months ago. Your experience has carved a profound and lasting impact on your life. We like to say experience makes us wiser, but it leaves you more than a data bank of case studies.  Your circumstance changes you.

  • Circumstance impacts your core convictions. My experiences continually test my core convictions to confirm or refine those bedrock assumptions I build my understanding of life upon. These core convictions make up my self-view (who I am, where I belong), my God-view (who He is and how he relates to me), and my world-view (how things work spiritually, socially, and physically). The convictions that hold up are strengthened, while the assumptions that fail are adjusted. These challenge my most profound sense of significance and security, and call for revising my beliefs about who I am, how I relate to God and how the world works.
  • Circumstance impacts your cravings. My desires are shaped by my experience and by the desires of those around us. As I live, I learn that those things I desired do not satisfy, and it loses its appeal.  Moreover, my desires are essentially mimetic, meaning “I desire according to the other” (Rene Girard). We see this in toddlers fighting over toys, in the fashion sense of teenagers and suburban families striving to keep up with the Jones’. The point is that my desires are not static – what I live through impacts not only my head but also my hearts. And as my heart sets the course of my life, it must be examined and recalibrated.
  • Circumstance impacts your calling. What I describe as my life calling, my purpose, or the vision for my future is not static either.  My sense of purpose grows and changes with my understanding of myself, God, and the world. It changes with my desires. And it is informed and inspired by my experiences.  Often my calling is birthed from the pain in my circumstances.
Your experience has a profound impact on your calling.

Therefore, before you embark on writing your new life chapter this year, reconsider where you are now and recalibrate where you want to be headed. Seek for a clear and compelling vision that directs your affections and actions.

God has a vision for your life

You have been created by God, for God (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:15-16). God has purposed and prepared a path set with good works for you (Ephesians 2:10; compare Jeremiah 1:5) and although your understanding of it grows, God’s purpose for you life does not change (Romans 11:29). Moreover, you were redeemed by God at an incredible price; you belong to Him, and your life is for Him (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15). Christ’s act of redemption does not only save you from the punishment of your sins – he redeemed you from a destructive life of selfishness to a partnership with Him in the regeneration and renewal of all creation (Colossians 1:18-20; Revelation 21:5).

Your life has meaning, significance. You have been carefully crafted to fulfil a significant part of God’s redemptive purpose of the world, to display and disperse his goodness in this world. In and through you, God is renewing and reconciling all things to Himself, bringing it under His benevolent reign.

Can you picture the good works God prepared for you in this year?

Aristotle said, “a soul never thinks without a picture.” What do you envision for this new year? What is your mental image of “a blessed and prosperous 2021”?  This is the essence of hope: a picture that paints the good things to come. Fear is the opposite of hope: an image that depicts the expectation of bad things.  Our news feeds and conversations overflow with such pictures of doom, filling the world with fear to expect only depression and disaster in 2021.  How do I cultivate hope in such an environment?

The Bible abounds with historical accounts that mirror our own dark days’ sense of dread and despair. Yet time and time again, we see God’s prophets sketch visions of hope that inspire faith-filled acts of courage to bring life to communities in crisis. Renewal always starts with a clear and compelling picture of what could be, fueled by a conviction that it should be. This is the definition of God-breathed vision. Such an image will stir your imagination and engage your will to walk in the good works God has prepared for you.

The power of a clear vision (from Andy Stanley)

Often good ideas and even necessary things go undone due to a lack of a good, clear vision. Andy Stanley states the benefits of a clearly articulated vision (Visioneering, 1999).

  • Vision awakens our passions and unleashes our drive to pursue this promise. A picture of what could be, tugs at my heart and energizes me to make this dream a reality.
  • Vision provides motivation and endurance for the hard work necessary to embody this preferred future. It moves me from dreaming to doing.
  • Vision sets direction, prioritizes values and parameters for decision-making. A clear vision unclutters my life to discern what is important and immanent, and what is not.
  • Vision translates into purpose. A clear and compelling vision gives meaning to everyday life’s mundane tasks.  It gives context to the costly sacrifices required to live the life I want to live.
Purpose arrow

You’ve had dreams and desires which never materialezed. Yet vision is different from such wishes in that it feels like a moral imperativeI ought to pursue this! This type of vision for your begins with a concern – a deep stirring in your spirit that urges you to respond. It fills your mind, overflows in your conversations, and cries out in your prayers. Such a vision is an invitation to partner with God in His work of renewal of all things.

Crafting and pursuing your vision for 2021

In the troubling time leading up to Jerusalem’s fall in 586BC, the prophet Habakkuk set time aside to wait on God for a clear and compelling vision for his people. He resolved:

“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”

The Lord answered: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.”

Habakkuk 2:1-2

A compelling vision begins with a concern, a problem that needs fixing. Vision goes beyond what could happen but describes what should happen – with the conviction that God invites you to act with Him.  These three practical points will help you crystalize such a mental picture of your future.

Vision starts with imagining what could be.
  1. Consider your vision for the year. Take time to dream about the year prayerfully. What does a prosperous 2021 look like for you? If God were to make all things new in your life this year, what would that look like? Briefly describe this transformed future for (a) your work life, (b) your family life, (c) your social life, (d) your spiritual life, (e) finances, and (f) any significant pursuit you have such as studies, sports, or some society. Don’t bother with HOW this will happen – describe WHAT your future should look like. Paint the picture with words.
  2. Clarify your vision. Prayerfully reduce these descriptions to a single, memorable statement of what you dream of embodying in each life facet this year. Can you write it as a solution to a problem?
  3. Chase your vision. Put these vision statements up somewhere you will see daily to pray daily for opportunities to realize this dream. Nehemiah, the cupbearer to Persian king Artaxerxes, prayed this way about his vision to see Jerusalem restored: “O Lord… give me success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:11) When the opportunity came, he saw it and confidently seized it as an answer from the Lord.

Heads up: God’s plans for you are “that you may prosper in all things and be in health, [and that] your soul prospers.” (3 John 1:2) After all, “God delights in the prosperity of His saints!” (Psalm 35:27). You can confidently dream about 2021, knowing that God has prepared good works for you.  Carve these dreams into vision statements that evoke your passion, motivate your actions and direct your efforts. Then hold these daily before God in prayer for boldness and opportunities to renew every area of your life.

Closing Chapters – Living free from the past (part 3 of 4)

To confidently, hopefully walk into a new year we need to wrap up the previous year. In the previous two posts we considers why to Close a life chapter and how to Ground our past experience in the presence and providence of God, breeding security and grace for the years to come.

Most people who get stuck in some past life cycle find their hearts and minds dwell on unresolved disappointing or painful situations. In this post we will focus on finding freedom from negative experiences in the past year.

Release and Own (dealing with disappointments and pain)

After a challenging year, settling your heart requires us to reflect on the disappointing and painful moments.  Ignoring these negative emotions will not make them magically disappear.  These negative emotions are like panel lights on an alarm or dashboard, inviting us to resolve the situation: “What happened?  How did it make you feel?  Why?”

a. Own your share – stop the blame game!

Domenichino, The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, Italian, 1581 – 1641, 1626, oil on canvas, Patrons’ Permanent Fund

Our human nature tends to first look to others to assign guilt for our disappointment and pain.  We see it in Adam and Eve’s replies after the Lord called them out of hiding in fear in shame.

Genesis 3:11-13  “God said: Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

In most cases, we are partially responsible for our own disappointments and pain. Own it!

We struggle to admit and own our (small) contribution to our loss and suffering.  But NOT OWNING UP prevents us from growth, because denying mistakes presumes perfection. Denying my contribution to my pain makes me a victim in this situation, rendering me powerless in similar future events.  Such denial prevents growth and might lead to a devastating cycle of relational breakdown, workplace conflict, financial failure or whatever resulted from this crisis.  In contrast, ownership of my (small) contribution in this situation allows me to take responsibility and control for my own life, spurring growth through this pain.

David demonstrated beautiful humility and great confidence in God’s mercy after his grave sins.  He confessed and pleaded: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned… cleanse me… wash me… create in me a clean heart, renew my spirit… my joy!” (Psalm 51:3-4).  By taking responsibility for his own sins, David’s life chapter was closed, preparing a clean slate for his future with room for growth. Indeed, “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

b. Forgive the debt – Release it!

Forgiveness is the most critical action required to let go of the past and close a life chapter properly. The inability (or unwillingness) to forgive an offender is the number one reason why people are stuck in the past, poisoned in anger and bitterness which displaces all their peace and joy from life.  The natural response to being hurt, being wronged.  These strong emotions caused by insults and injustice do not simply fade away.  In the words of Amanda Palmer, you must “deal with your demons, or they will move into the cellar of your soul and lift weights.” 

Paul also articulated this urgency to deal with hurts and offences before they overtake you when addressing the culturally divided Ephesian church. “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  Note how Paul does not condemn anger when you are hurt but instead gives a proper response to the justified emotions: urgently deal with the pain and passion in the presence of God, and follow Christ’s example to relinquish all rights to vengeance. 

Andy Stanley helps to clarify the sometimes fuzzy concept of forgiveness in practical terms.  Forgiveness means to clear the debt someone owes you (see Matthew 18:21-33).

Therefore, to properly close a life chapter and forgive someone who hurt you in this season, he prescribes the following:

  • State who wronged you.  For every painful experience, name the person(s) who hurt you or took something from you. This is often someone very close to you, or at times it might even be God or yourself you need to forgive.
  • What debt does he/she owe you?  Articulating what debt is owed is often the most challenging part in the process of forgiveness.  The anger and pain are caused by an (often subconscious) awareness of loss. But to be set someone free, you must be able to say from which debt you set them free.  What have you suffered or lost because of this offence?  Was it money, time (with someone), opportunities, innocence, confidence, or a type of life you could no longer have perhaps?

A question that might help with this is “What/who/where would I have been if he/she/they did not do this to me?”  Imagine this, see the life that was lost, and allow the mourning to flood your heart.  Describe the loss in words or images.

  • Declare him/her/them free of that debt. Forgiveness is a decision and declaration to clear the debt of an offender. In no way does forgiveness justify what was done; forgiveness means you forgo the right to claim back what was stolen (from someone who generally cannot replace what was taken). 

To be set free from anger and bitterness, one often has to verbalise who you forgive and for what you forgive him/her/them. It might help to make this declaration in the presence of a trusted friend as witness.  Rarely do you need to go to the offender(s) and say this to them.  The goal of forgiveness is to make you free from the grudge and hurt you carry, which is the root of your anger and bitterness.

Since forgiveness is an action following a decision to clear a debt owed, you don’t have to feel that you forgive them beforehand – you simply need to decide it and do it.  Emotions will follow your decision.  Even after you have declared the offender(s) free from the wrong he/she/they caused you, the emotions might occasionally flare up.  Then you simply remind yourself that you have cleared that debt in the way Christ has cleared your debt, and ask the Lord to fill your heart with peace and love.  This healing might take time, but the Spirit of Christ will fill our hearts with love and peace (Romans 5:5). 

Over the years I have seen that knowing about forgiveness and actually forgiving someone are two different things. Take the time today to review your year, own your own part in your pain, and forgive the other for how you have been wronged. You will taste the freedom soon!

Closing Chapters – Making memories (part 2 of 4)

Normal 0 false false false EN-ZA X-NONE X-NONE

Just like a good story, your life has a beginning, and an ending with the middle chapters lived out in different seasons in settings. Each of these life chapters has a unique little storyline that shapes your character and destiny. In the previous post Closing Chapters – Wrapping Up 2020 I said that, especially after a rough season
one needs to conclude a life chapter, to pin it down so that the new chapter begins with a clean slate, not being held back by unresolved issues.

(I have spoken the need for Closing Chapters at Shofar Durbanville’s morning service on 29 November 2020. A recording can be found below; message starts at 44 minutes) 

We close a life chapter effectively by making memories and finding meaning in these memories. We begin our review of the year by looking at those events or trends that had a memorable impact on my life, shaping my identity, relationships or purpose. As we begin our review, we take not of each event’s effects on our emotions or relational dynamics, , self-view or confidence.

Review the 2020 (the highlights and lowlights)

To review of a longer season such as a year or few years at a particular company season may be difficult to initiate.  Where does one begin?  I find it helpful to plot a simple histogram with three or four layers to get my thoughts started.

An example histogram to get your reflection for 2020 started might look like this: three lines showing the highs and lows of your relational life, work life and spiritual life over the 12 months of the year. 

  • Line 1: As you reflect over the year’s events, indicate your general sense relational health (you might want to draw lines for each significant relationship).
  • Line 2: Do the same for your work life.
  • Line 3: Do the same for your spiritual life.
  • You may want to consider lines to indicate your confidence or anxiety levels, your finances, studies, sports or church life – whatever touched you deeply in the year.
  • Now mark a few key events in your life, trigger events or turning points, on this graph.

Some people find these graphs less helpful for reflection. Therefore I share three other ways in which I do reflection on a season, to get to those events and trends that will add to my life story going forward.

  • For each of the key relationships in your life, recall the highlights and lowlights in the year. Which of these events had a lasting impact on me/us, and how?
  • List the big external events (such as the pandemic, drought and civil unrest) or personal crisis (sickness, accident, burglary or separation) and recall how it impacted me.  What do I carry with me since then?
  • Compare every aspect of my life how I entered the year, and how I exit the year. Eg, I entered 2020 with R150’000 of debt and exit with R75’000 debt.  At the beginning of 2020  we were a family of 3 but at the end of 2020 we are a family of 4.  Consider making these comparisons on your personal life, work life, social life, spiritual life, finances etc. How did these changes occur, and how do these impact me?

From these reflections, reduce your Highs and Lows to those you deem most influential on your life in this past year. These are the memories that you will reflect on to find meaning in the year, affirming your identity and refining the purpose that sets your course in the years to come.

Closing chapters start with making memories – your highs and lows of 2020.

Recognize the good (preservation and growth)

Memories by themselves are good, but apart from our life in God, these events do not give meaning to our lives. Next we ground our memories of 2020 in the providence and presence of God.

In reviewing the good things that happened to me in 2020, it is helpful to start with the question: “What bad things did NOT happen to me this year?” In a year filled with devastation and disappointments, it is necessary to recognize and rejoice in God’s protection and preservation.  Record these in jour journal with a heading similar to Psalm 124: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side…”

Then look at your life, comparing your situation at the beginning and the ending of your year.  Ask yourself (and those close to you): What good things did happen to me?” Don’t rush this section.  Think of the growth in your life in all its totality: physically, materially (possessions), emotionally, relationally, spiritually.  Think of your work and influence.  I used two headings for my reflection, borrowing from 1 Samuel 7:12 “Thus far the Lord has helped us…” and from Psalm 103 “Bless the Lord oh my soul, and forget not all his benefits…” listing according to those aspects form David’s praise.

Especially in a trying year such as this, it is crucial to see and celebrate God’s faithfulness and generous grace, displaying his devotion towards us.  These contemplations ground us in the reality of his abiding presence and steadfast love – the sure footing for our next chapter.

Take these highlights into your prayer time and give thanks to the Lord for his generosity and faithfulness. Indeed, your life is grounded in the presence and providence of God – a sure footing for 2021.

In my next post we will deal with the lowlights, the disappointments and pains of 2020, to live free from regrets and vengeance in the years to come.

Closing Chapters: Wrapping up 2020 (part 1 of 4)

2020 was a surprisingly rough year.  It still is.  How do you muster hope and confidence for a new year after one so tumultuous as this?

From discovering a new Coronavirus strain far away in Wuhan City, China, 12 months ago a global pandemic culminated in the simultaneous lockdown of more than 200 countries just six months later. The lockdowns confined people to their homes, shutting down schools, businesses and all social gatherings.  Governments banned all travel, calling for a state of disaster, restricting countries under martial law.  And now a second wave is in full swing.

The global pandemic pressure exposed the fault lines in vulnerable economies, politics, and social fibres worldwide.  Newsfeeds flooded with reports of large-scale corruption, election rigging, racial tension and wild conspiracy theories.    These compounding disruptions also highlighted the vulnerabilities in societies’ emotional-spiritual wellness, resulting in heightened anxieties, widespread domestic violence and unhealthy coping mechanisms.  No-one escaped the sting of this pandemic.

At several moments during this year, I hoped for someone to call an end to the year, to reset the calendar and start afresh.  I waited for some referee to recognize our fatigue, to throw in the towel or count us out.  At long last, the year is over, but now the entrance into 2021 looks very similar to the exit of 2020.  The difference is: (a) now we know what to expect, and (b) 2020 has had a significant physical, emotional and spiritual impact on each of us.  For that reason, many of us face the new year with a sense of dread.  

Why bother with the past ?

There is a need to properly wrap up the old year and bring meaning to a particular season before starting afresh.  Failure to conclude a life chapter can cause one to get stuck in a destructive cycle.  Trying to move on with unresolved disappointments, hurts, trauma or even blind spots and character flaws will likely cause one to live reactively to past events.  The past will repeat itself like a bad nightmare. There has to be some resolve, some closure before your story can continue in a new chapter.

Biblical books at the end of seasons

It is noteworthy to consider that all the history books in the Bible – from Genesis to Ester in the OT and the Gospels to Acts in the NT – were recorded at critical moments in God’s people’s history.  These records are not merely cold recordings of history.  Each history book is a prophetic reinterpretation of the events God’s people went through, written to help make sense of God’s redemptive purposes through these periods.  It aims to affirm the first readers’ identity and purpose as God’s covenant people.  As such, each of these books is a means to “close a chapter” in a particular people’s history, giving God’s people resolve to move on, helping them understand why they had to endure this.  

What is a life chapter?

Consider every memorable story, and you will conclude that hard times shaped the character and beautify his/her account. Samuel anointed David to be king, but many difficult chapters fill the years before becoming Israel’s beloved king. Yet his story is memorable because these middle chapters tell of familial rejection, battle with a giant, fleeing a vengeful monarch, harsh years in exile, uniting a divided Israel, and later attempted patricide and exile again, to name a few highlights.  God’s journey with him through valleys of shadows of death makes his story beautiful and inspirational.

God promised Joseph prominence and power, and the fulfilment thereof was beyond his wildest imagination.  His story brings encouragement 3800 years later because God’s promise prevailed despite familial betrayal, enslavement, wrongful imprisonment, and neglect of a companion. In particular, his story endures because he could look his brothers loving in the eyes and declare “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) That is why and how you close a life chapter: make sense of a season to affirm your identity and purpose in the light of God’s presence and providence.

A life chapter brings a conclusion to a season characterized in some unique way.  Some chapters close naturally, like when you progress from primary school to high school or graduate from college or end an internship.  Other life chapters might require help to resolve, due to an unfair dismissal from work, an abrupt end to a long relationship, or a sudden relocating with the family.  Especially after a season of hardship, we struggle to move on because these tend to impact us emotionally and spiritually – leaving lasting scars on our identity (affecting our self-view), relationships and confidence (impacting our purpose and potential).  Such seasons have the power to hold us back or alter the course of our lives – for the good or the bad.  As such, reflection and resolve is paramount. Closing life chapters means making memories and finding meaning in it. Our challenge is to do a personal, prophetic reinterpretation of our experience to discern God’s presence and work in, through and for us.  In particular, it affirms our identity, reforms our relationships and refines our purpose in life. 

How do we properly close life chapters?

We say that “experience makes us wiser.”  But observation tells us that this is not true.  Experience often leaves us poorer, tired, hurt, or lonely. If we’re lucky, experience leaves us happy, enriched or loved.  We tend to repeat past mistakes, suffering the same painful results – unless we intentionally reflect and learn from our experience.  A more accurate statement reads, “evaluated experience makes us wiser.” 

In her book Rooted in Love Margaret Blackie sketches her life as a plant rooted in rich soil. The plant symbolizes her life, flourishing. The roots seek security and nourishment in the fertile soil. The ground, enriched by the processed plant matter, represents reflected past experiences.  Together, this image powerfully portrays how our lives flourish when anchored and nourished by our awareness of God’s presence and purpose with our everyday lives.  Therefore, closing a life chapter aims to root us securely in the rich soil of the previous season, ready to bloom in the next season.

We close the chapter on 2020 by making a memory and find its meaning in the light of our life’s trajectory as a whole.  First, we look back to review the highs and lows of the year.  Second, we look up to recognize and give thanks for God’s goodness in the past season.  Third, we reflect on the losses, hurts and disappointments by look inward; we own our share in the pain and release those who caused us harm.  Lastly, we look forward as we revision the next leg our of our journey with hope.  We will work through each of these points in subsequent blog posts.

So what do you expect to take with you out of 2020? You might be surprised at the insights and hopeful energy gained from such a reflection.

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?

naked_at_work
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).

Failure_to_possess
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.

mountains1

 

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

earth_changing-fire

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

man_overwhelemd

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

rural roads

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.

earth_hand

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.

cow_culture_8

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.

lost_in_crowd

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!

left_home

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.

stages_of_grief_sml

  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.