Known by your scars

On a recent trip to the East I had to declare all the identification marks or scars on my body during my visa application process.  It reminded me of a humorous incident when I was 17 years old.   My brother and I both applied for an engineering scholarship in the Navy which required a full medical check-up. During the check-up the Naval doctor asked me about my scar on my upper right arm, and also inquired about my hand which had been broken before.  Embarrassed I had to tell confess that the scar was caused when my brother “accidentally” stabbed my during a dish-washing washing incident. “And about the hand?” I blushed.  “Well… my brother ducked and I hit the wall instead…” (Three teenage brothers… these things happen!)

A few weeks later I found myself neatly dressed in a Naval board room, facing several officers of the selection committee.  Very intimidating for a teenager! Near the end of the interview (which I thought went quite well up this point!) the one captain – introduced as a psychologist – asked me about my relationship with my older brother (who was interviewed by this committee just before me).  “Very good!” I answered truthfully.  “Are the two of you competitive with one another? Would there be striving if both of you are selected for the training?”  “Not at all!  We are very close … really no issues between us!” I assured the captain.  He smiled knowingly and asked: “Ross, will you tell us how you got the scar on your upper right arm?  And how did you break your hand?”  I blushed… apparently the Naval doctor made very thorough notes of my medical exam.  We all had a good laugh as I retold the stories of my scars, and the day ended with both my brother and I being selected for the Naval training program.

As I previously wrote, the rings and marks of a tree reveal much of the events that literally shaped the tree.  We can discern much of the climatic and environmental events such as wet and dry seasons, forest competition, sickness or pestilence, animal damage, forest fires and even major earth quakes it lived through.  We can never see the trauma the tree encountered – only the tree’s growth response to the events.  We only see the rings and the scars – how the tree grew and healed through its encounters.  These scars latterly tell the story of life of the tree – what the tree endured and survived.

trees_response

Our scars – visible and invisible – tell a similar story.  My experience is that people want to hide and even forget their scars, being ashamed of the imperfections and afraid of the memories.  In contrast, the apostle Paul boasted about his scars[i] and listed the events which caused these scars (inside and outside) with gratitude and dignity, claiming that these scars are something to be cherished, even honoured. [ii]  Why?  How could our pain and the scars it left be something to be thankful for, something to be cherished and even paraded?  What can we learn from Paul about our scars and the trauma which caused it?

Firstly, my scars are a witness to my weaknesses, and therefore they are signs of grace.  Paul boasted in all his weaknesses[iii] because during these weaknesses and the sufferings which revealed the end of his strength, he experienced the grateful strength and intervention of God.  These traumatic events scarred Paul’s body because of violence and accidents; it scarred his soul because of betrayal and abandonment; and it scarred his spirit due to accusations and torment.  Yet these scars were cherished by Paul because each scar – visible and invisible – reminded him of God’s sustaining grace.  Without God’s grace Paul would have died, given up, or turned back from God’s call for his life.

Like the rings and marks on a tree, our scars are reminders of God’s faithful care, intervention and sustaining power during each situation that left its mark.  The scar says “If it had not been for the Lord,[iv] this would have been my end… but God carried me through and restored me!”   As such these scars bring me daily comfort that God is always with me, and can turn anything and everything I face today for my good.[v]  Whenever my strength fails, I can be sure of His strength.[vi]  When fear wants to overwhelm me, my scars remind me that stronger is He that is in me than what I may face in the world today.[vii]  I never face anything alone.[viii]

Secondly, my scars are witness to tests I have passed.  Like the marks that give character to the tree, every scar – visible or invisible – tells the story of pain that I endured, of hardship that I was not spared.  And therefore, as a believer in Christ, these scars are signs of faith that remind me that I was tested and purified as through fire. [ix]  In spite of the troubles I kept on believing that God is good and a rewarder of those who diligently serve Him[x].  Through the pain, loss, or shame I kept on trusted God, believing that he has overcome the world.[xi]  My faith was proven and found to be real because I have come to trust God’s character more than my experience.

Looking at my scars as marks of faith bring me daily confidence.  My scars remind me that nothing can separate me from God’s love, and that in every hardship I endure I am more than a conqueror through Christ who gives me strength.[xii]  In this sense each scar is an affirmation of my faith, each adding confidence in the face of adversity.

Thirdly, my scars are witness to a fading, fallible world.   We only get scars on earth because the rule of sin and its decaying effect is limited to this fallen world of ours.  Our scars are caused by things like violence, sickness, calamity – and these have temporal freedom here.  The driving forces that brings the pain and leave scars are often hatred, jealousy, greed, betrayal, or abuse – and these are only at work here and now.  But when Christ returns to reign there will be no more pain, no more sickness, no more calamity[xiii] – there will be no new scars in heaven.

our scars

Every scar reminds me that our world is fallen, and it stirs my longing for the day when Christ will come to make all things new.[xiv]  As such our scars are signs of hope, reminders that Christ will bring an end to sin and suffering and establish His reign of shalom. Looking at my scars in this light brings me joyful endurance, knowing that whatever I might face is today temporal; it cannot compare to the eternal glory that awaits me.[xv]

Lastly, our scars are reminders of Christ’s scars on his body.  CHRIST HAS SCARS BECAUSE WE HAVE SCARS. Moved by love the Eternal Perfect One exchanged his pain-free heaven for our pain-stricken existence.  He vicariously suffered everything mankind endures to redeem us to Himself.[xvi]  This sacrificial love left the Eternal Perfect One scarred forever – as a Lamb having been slain.[xvii]

Our scars point us to His scars, a visceral reminder that we are greatly loved.  My scars are signs of love.  He was scarred in body, soul and spirit for our healing, peace and forgiveness.[xviii]  In this – His scars – His love for us is demonstrated.[xix]  O, how He loves us!  Looking at my scars in this way stirs my gratitude and devotion to Christ.

Through what did you grow this year?   What scars did the past year leave in your body, soul and spirit?[xx]  How do you feel looking at the marks life left on you?  Like the rings and scars in a tree, we our character is shaped by our response to what life throws at us.  We too are known by our scars.  How you relate to your scars shape your reality, relationships and ultimately your destiny.

Reframing how you view your scars will realign your reality, relationships and your destiny.  Ask yourself: How do these scars remind you of God’s sustaining grace? Can you see the scars as affirmation of real faith? Do the scars stir your hope in Christ’s return? And do the scars remind you of God’s immense love?  How does all this make you feel at the prospect of another year? Comforted? Confident? Joyful?

Now you too can look at your scars and say with Paul: “We we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. These light afflictions, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” [xxi]

[i] Galatians 6:17.

[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-33, 12:8-10.

[iii] See above.

[iv] Psalm 124:1.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.

[vii] 1 John 4:4.

[viii] Isaiah 43:2.

[ix] 1 Peter 1:6-7.

[x] Hebrews 11:6.

[xi] John 16:33.

[xii] Romans 8:35-37.

[xiii] Revelation 21:4.

[xiv] Revelation 21:5.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

[xvi] Revelation 5:9.

[xvii] Revelation 5:6.

[xviii] Isaiah 53:4-6.

[xix] Romans 5:8.

[xx] If you read ‘spirit’ in this sense, it is helpful to think of identity, as well as your relational ability to love, hope and trust.

[xxi] 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.

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Growing in Spiritual Intimacy

“Some say they have been married for 20 years, but truthfully they have been married twenty times the same year.” This statement by pastoral psychologist Jannie Botha has been ringing in my head ever since I have heard him say it few years ago.  It’s true: just because we have been together for long does not mean we have grown together strong.  Growth requires deliberate discipline (1 Timothy 4:7).

From the offset of our relationship my wife and I had a good spiritual partnership.  We went to church together, did Bible School together, served in a student ministry together and even planted a church together before we got married.  But although we shared some amazing times of worship together over the years, and although we pray together daily, we have not found a model for frequent devotional time together that worked well for the two of us. She has her way of spending time with God and I have mine.

Yes, we occasionally share what we read in the Bible and what God says to us, but we have always desired to grow spiritually together through a structured couples devotional time.  Especially now that we have kids we longed some format of a family devotional time that they may grow into more and more as they grow older.  And after more than a decade’s marriage I think we found something which works for us!

A Devotional Model for Couples

In his series Creating and Intimate Marriage Jim Burns shares that he and his wife Cathy also have their own devotional time, but that once a week they would come together and have a devotional time where share on spiritually with each other and spend time in prayer together, especially regarding their marriage and family.

They would begin their devotional time together by sharing from their Bibles and journals the most significant thing(s) that that God revealed to them personally, and discuss this with each other.  They would share what they have read, why it touched them and what it made them think and feel, and possibly how it would impact their current or future attitudes and actions.  This is a time of spiritual discussion and reflection.

Thereafter they share their greatest joy, greatest struggle, and greatest desire of the past week.  This can be a simple as “my greatest desire of the week is a weekend away from everything” or as deep and honest as “my greatest struggle of this week was you, Jim!”

This is followed by a time of affirmation – where they would encourage one another by stating how they positively perceived one another during the week.  Because they are committed to create an atmosphere of A.W.E. (affection, warmth and encouragement) in their home, they schedule these times of affirmation. This would lead to a time of accountability for physical goals they set for one another, and I think any form of accountability is healthy in such a session.  And eventually these sharing with one another would lead to a time of prayer for one another, their relationship and their family.

growing_spirtually

Overcoming spiritual barriers to intimacy

It is important to note that the biggest barriers to intimacy include a lack of priority to meet together in such deliberate and disciplined ways – which these devotional times in themselves will overcome.  But furthermore relational issues such as unforgiveness, anger, and guilt, are all spiritual conditions which these times of sharing and praying should address.  These are the things that couples need to pray about together, asking God for love and grace to grow beyond.

The aim of this devotional time is to deliberately and systematically grow together spiritually as “draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8) and so doing to  grow in deeper intimacy.

This couples devotional method works for me – perhaps you and your spouse can try this and see if it works for you?

 

In Pursuit of Happiness – how to reap joy

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the 2006 film Poster-pursuithappynessIn Pursuit of Happyness based on the true story of how Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) endured being homeless for nearly a year while pursuing his dream and caring for his
toddler son Christopher (played by eight-year-old Jaden Smith).  In the film Chris is a struggling salesman who invested all his life savings in new portable bone-density scanners. His wife leaves him due to mounting financial pressures and he is left alone to care for their five-year old son Christopher. His life reaches an all-time low when Chris loses his last bone-scanner, gets arrested for unpaid parking tickets, his bank account gets garnished by the revenue services for unpaid income tax and he gets evicted from his apartment.  Homeless and penniless Chris manages to land an unpaid internship at a brokerage firm, competing against 19 others to win the only paid position at the end of six months.  In the post-script we read how Chris continued to eventually own his multi-million-dollar brokerage.

This emotion-laden real-life drama each of us can identify with because it speaks about the sacrifices needed to realize one’s dreams, and the tremendous joy that comes from the fulfillment of the dream.  We were created to pursue the things that give us joy, and therefore joy is indeed one of man’s chief motivators especially in enduring difficult times.

An ancient Hebrew song dating around 400 BC has this same theme.

Psalm 126:1-6

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the South!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

This psalm was sung against the dark backdrop of Jews who returned from exile, being oppressed and enslaved for seventy years first by the Babylonians and thereafter the Persians.  They were slaves who had no value or dignity, no sense of identity or value, with no rights or power to steer their own destinies.  They felt flawed, forgotten, worthless, powerless, and essentially hopeless.  Then suddenly Cyrus had an urge to send them back to rebuild their temple and their city, and these slaves were set free – a day of great rejoicing!

The first half of this psalm sings this prayer of gratitude, looking back at how God had graced these exiles to come home and rebuild the temple and its walls, and the people “were glad”.  The second half is a prayer for restoration of the nation that had been scattered and their land that had laid desolate for 70 years. Now that Zion (verse 1, pointing to the temple and its worship) had been restored, the psalmist prays the nation and its land be revitalized like the annual winter rains transform the arid dessert in the South of Judah (Hebrew “Negev” in verse 4) into a flowery garden bustling with life.

Restoring Joy like SOUTH
Rain transforms the arid desert into a flowery garden bustling with life.

Sowing in tears

Sowing is not a particularly sad or even hard job.  Why then would the psalmist write of “weeping” and sowing “precious seeds”?  The context of the Psalm is of Jews returning to a dilapidated Jerusalem and barren land, to a city and land that have been unoccupied and uncultivated for 70 years. They brought food with them what they were able to carry, but that would not last long.  So they would soon need to live off the land – they needed to sow.  And when you sow the food you want to eat, when you sow the seeds your children hunger for, your sowing is accompanied by tears of anguish.  These are costly seeds that mere money can’t buy – these are “precious seeds” that get its first watering by the tears of the sower

seed-sower-jeremysams
The sower by Jeremy Sams.

How to reap joy

This ancient song teaches us how to cultivate a life of joy amidst suffering – a valuable lesson for each of us.

Firstly, a life of gratitude makes for a glad heart even amidst hardships, as the psalmist teaches: The Lord has done great things for us [and] we are glad.”  In looking back, remembering the good things the Lord has done for you, the hard times in which God has preserved you and later from which he has delivered you, the anguished heart is refreshed with joy, hope and faith.  When you relive joyful times your heart relives the past joy and your faith is stirred by hope as you remember how God has delivered you from similar hardships in the past – he will do the same again.  Indeed, gratitude makes you cheerful, and the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” which no fire can quench (Proverbs 15:15).

Secondly the psalmist says that sowing needs to be continuously, not impulsively or sporadically.  You keep on sowing until you reap a harvest.  Considering the context then the psalmist probably had in mind how his people had been restored to joy from a life of slavery and exile through “sowing in tears” like recorded in the prayers of Daniel (Daniel 9), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1), Jeremiah (Lamentations 1-4) and some of the Psalms (eg Psalm 137).  These prayers give us a view into the anguish of the exiled Jews, and how they lamented bitterly and continuously petitioned God for return and restoration – a true sowing in tears that resulted in the joy expressed in half of this psalm.

This is a great lesson to never give in to hardship, and never give up because of disappointments.   We continue to sow in tears because of the expected joy in the harvest.  In fact, the great anguish is the great motivator to continue sowing in tears as we long for the great joy.  So do not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9).

Thirdly, the sowing of precious seed (KJV) especially results in “shouts of joy”.  And this is the main teaching in this psalm: sowing seeds which makes you weep will ensure a harvest accompanied by shouts of joy.  In other words, a life of selfless sacrifice results in joy.  The giving up of what you deem precious so that there is enough for others to share will result in joy.  This first generation of returned exiles made the big sacrifice to re-cultivate the farmlands from their own meagre food-packs to ensure that there is enough food for other returning exiles and their coming generations. Their sacrifice resulted in joy for all.  The joy is multiplied when the precious seeds you sow results in bundles of sheaves – enough for everyone.

Sowing_Angelus

When the sacrifice is rewarded with breakthrough and the effort was worthwhile – then there is great joy.  But without sacrifice – without the sowing of precious seed – there will be no reaping worthy of great joy. Playing it safe does not result in great joy.  Only sowing in tears results in a harvest of joy.

Lastly, although accompanied by anguish, the sowing is very hopeful.  The farmer knows that for every single seed he sows he is sure to reap thirty, sixty or even a hundred-fold (Matthew 13:8).  His tearful sowing can be done confidently and hopeful, because “he shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”  And our confidence in sowing is not misplaced!  God himself oversees the principle and process of sowing and reaping: “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:8).  Sowing in tears is never in vain.

The psalmist teaches that persistent, sacrificial and hopeful sowing will result that results in a joyful harvest.

Bringing home the joy

Jump_baloon4

Each of us are in pursuit of happiness. We are all driven by a longing for joy: we run away from things that might cause us harm (fear) and we run towards the things that we belief will bring us pleasure (joy).  But many times we exert effort on what does not produce true delight or lasting joy (Isaiah 55:2).

The wisdom of this world says self-serving efforts (or selfishness) produces joy: “SPEND EFFORT FOR MORE COMFORT AND CARNAL PLEASURES TO INCREASES YOUR JOY.”  Self-serving pleasure is the chief motivator behind most of the marketing campaigns that dominate the media: “Buying [this] – it will give you joy.”  “Living [here] will give you joy.”  “More of [this] will increase your joy.”  “Doing [this] will give you joy.”  This philosophy is the heart behind every temptation that lures us into sin, yet it still leaves us unsatisfied and without lasting joy.

But over against this the psalmist says “Those who sow in tears you will reap with shouts of joy.” In other words, selflessness produces real joy: “THE GREATEST JOY IS FOUND IN THE GIVING OF YOURSELF FOR THE BENEFIT OF OTHERS.”  Just as the endurance athlete gets joy from completing the race, so the self-emptying mother of a disabled child reaps love and joy from any response the child may give. The couple who walked through their dark valley together reaps tremendous joy in their relationship at the end.  But for the one who quits or gives up or gets distracted during hardships, there is no reaping of joy.  If you wish to reap in joy, you need to sow the precious seed in tears.

The context of “sowing in tears” in this psalm as sketched above is to “restore [Judah]” (verses 4-6) – not only for yourself only.  “Shouts of joy” comes when your anguished efforts for another results in an end of their suffering, their hardship.  Ironically your joy overflows when you give of your precious time, share of your precious belongings, and give of your very life for the betterment of another.  It is truly “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35; see also Hebrews 12:3).

Reflection

So consider your life, your pursuit, your prayers.

  • Can you recall what you have sacrificed a great deal to achieve or complete, and when it was fulfilled you were joyful, satisfied, ecstatic, and fulfilled?
  • Where are you currently “sowing in tears” – i.e. where are you sacrificing your own comfort for the benefit of another, so that joy may come?
  • Can you remember why?  What do you hope to achieve with this “sowing in tears”?

And as you go out again tomorrow, pouring out of what is precious to you, let this verse encourage you as it did the Jews who first sang when they rebuilt Jerusalem and their nation (400 BC):

He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Restoring joy

Ask a believer to describe what God is like and you are bound to hear characteristics like “good”, “righteous”, “loving” and “kind”.  Rarely will hear God being described as “joyful” or “happy”, which in itself explains why believers individually and the church as a whole are known for being “good” and even “kind” but rarely “joyful”.

But this is the reason why Old Testament Prophets declared Jesus came into the world: to restore righteousness and joy to the world!  Christ came to remove our sins which separates us from God, the source of Joy and Goodness, and restore our original blissful existence.  As it was in the Garden and Eden, so it will be in the New Creation: a place of rejoicing and gladness, with no more tears, no more suffering, no more death; a dispensation of joy and peace in the presence of God (Revelation 19:7; 21:1-5).  But that joy is not only a promise of our future state – joy is our inheritance even today.

Jesus said we should become like little children to inherit his kingdom.  What characterizes a child? Innocence, trust, and joy.  How can our joy be restored again like that of a little child?

1: GOD IS THE FOUNTAIN OF JOY

Firstly, we must remind ourselves that our God is called “the happy God” [1 Timothy 1:9-11, J.B. Phillips translation] in whose “presence there is fullness of joy [and] pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11; compare Matthew 25: 21).  His Kingdom is characterized by “righteousness, peace and joy” (Romans 14:7).  He sent his son Jesus to redeem creation from the perpetual “groaning” (Romans 8:32).  Therefore his coming reign was anticipated with rejoicing and gladness (Psalm 97:1), announced as “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:8-11) and he was anointed with the Spirit to “proclaim good news… bind up the broken-hearted… set the oppressed free… proclaim Jubilee… comfort the mourning… pour out the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

harvest table1

Jesus first miracle was all about joy where the wine at a wedding ran out and the host feared that the festivity will end prematurely.  Jesus instructed six ceremonial pots (in excess of 750 liters in total) to be filled, which he turned into the best quality of wine. This sign was recorded by John (2:1-11) as a prophetic statement: the best joy this world can offer will run out, but the joy Christ brings is the best (superior quality) and will not run out (superior quantity).

And indeed it is so!  Jesus’s miracles resulted in joy-filled exclamations of praise to God.  His parables about repentance and conversion tells that both the man who happened to find the treasure in the field and the merchant who sought and found the pearl of greatest price in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that…[field/ pearl].” (Matthew 13:44-46)  His motive for teaching his disciples was so “that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11) and likewise prayed “that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13).

The early church was genuinely known for their joyfulness, in spite of physical, economic and social oppressing resulting from intense persecution.  Luke records that “the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 13:52)  How was it possible?  The reason is clear: fellowship with our joyful God lets us share in his joy.  That’s what Nehemiah meant to say to the mourning people gathered at the rebuilt temple: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) – our strength to endure comes from drawing near to God and sharing in his joy.  As we abide in the Lord the fruit of joy is produced by his Spirit in us (John 15:4; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).  It is “in His presence” that we share in his “fullness of joy”, and “at his right hand” that we enjoy his “eternal pleasures”. (Psalm 16:11)

2: JOY FLOWS FREELY FROM A LOVED HEART

old_people_bench
Joy is the natural response to feeling loved.

Secondly, joy is the natural response to loving affection and security. Just look at couples in affectionate embrace, or at children when they are playing with their loving parents. Joy flows freely from a heart that experiences loving attention and affection, that feels secure in loving acceptance and that is valued by loving appraisal.  That’s why a fresh revelation of the love of God makes a heart overflow in joy – even in spite of difficult times.  Look again at the prophet’s revelation of God’s love in Zephaniah 3:17  “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.  He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”  This “rejoicing over you” pictures our God dancing freely and wildly about us because of his abundant love for us.  The natural response to this generous and uninhibited love is joyfulness.

3: JOY FLOWS FREELY FROM A HEALTHY HEART

Kids_run_free

Thirdly, joy flows freely from a healthy heart – one that is care-free, generous and innocent. In the book of Proverbs there are so many cautions to the preservation against temporal temptations, of which Proverbs 4:23 is perhaps best known: “Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.

Some of the biggest enemies of joy in the human heart include cares and anxiety, bitterness and resentment, guilt and shame.  These things defile an innocent, pure heart and impedes its ability to feel deeply and rejoice freely.

  • A CARE-FREE HEART HAS NO WORRIES. Worries and anxieties is one of the surest ways to drain the joy and peace we experience in this life.  That’s why Jesus repeatedly cautioned the crowds to “not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34) and “worries… choke” the life produced in us by God (Mark 4:19).  Jesus’ answer is simple: don’t worry – know that God your Father loves you and cares for you; trust in his provision and protection (Matthew 6:32)!  So do as Peter instruct: “cast all your cares on the Lord, for he cares for you!” (1 Peter 5:7) and soon you will be able to testify with David “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” (Psalm 94:19).
  • A GENEROUS HEART HOLDS NO GRUDGES. You only have one heart.  You cannot be a wellspring of joy and yet harbor unforgiveness in your heart; you cannot produce sweet joy from a heart with a “root of bitterness” in it (refer Hebrews 12:15). Unforgiveness leads to bitterness and resentment which defiles your whole life and poison’s every relationship. Forgive and see how joy from God and peace fills your whole heart and lifts the heaviness of your shoulders.
  • AN INNOCENT HEART HAS NO REGRETS. David hid his sin and avoided the Lord because of the guilt of bloodshed and shame of adultery which condemned his consciousness and impeded his confidence before God.  But when Nathan the prophet confronted him with a Word from the Lord, and the sickness of his baby drove him to seek the grace of God, David approached God to petition forgiveness and save his child.  He prayed “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10-12)  Don’t let the burden of failure and sin keep you from sharing in God and his joy.  That is why Christ died!

The other day as I prayed about regaining joy these words rolled off my cheek in a prayer.  It is so silly to become so serious, strong and independent.  May you never stop playing and laughing, and may God’s joy always overflow in your heart, flood your home and fill your world!

____________________________________________________________

dad_rugby_play

DADDY, WILL YOU PLAY WITH ME AGAIN?

I hid and you sought,

I jumped and you caught

We wrestled and fought for hours on end!

Daddy, will you play with me again?

 

We had cars and planes,

Built robots and cranes

We played with our trains until the Lego came.

Dad, will you play with me again?

 

You gave my first cycle

And taught me to swim

You couched me rugby and cheered my first win.

Father, can we play like that again?

 

I left home and became a man

The cares piled up as work began

As our playing stopped my joy ran out.

Lord, will you teach me how to play again?

Ross, April 2016

A Time to Celebrate

Another year is over.  Another year in which we have experienced the goodness and faithfulness of God.  We have been preserved, blessed and even enriched in so many ways.  This is indeed reason to stop, to gather everyone and celebrate.  It’s a time to set up a memorial stone and exclaim with Samuel “Thus far the Lord has helped us!” (1 Samuel 7:12).

A time for recreation.
A time for recreation.

Celebration is a time of rejoicing a time to look at the good and cherish it.  It is a time where we celebrate and exult.  A time of laughter, music and dancing, a time for relaxing as we deliberately free ourselves of cares and work.  It is a time for joyful recreation and playful interaction.  It is a time away from the ordinary and mundane routine of working and earning so that we can have a time of resting with the intent of restoring and recharging. It is a time to “wait on the Lord [to] renew your strength” (Isaiah 40:31).

A time to reflect and consider how you have grown or waned.
A time to reflect and consider how you have grown or waned.

Celebration is a time of reflection – a time to look in the mirror and with honesty consider the person you have become.  It’s a time to take stock of your life as you consider how you have grown or how you have waned.  In moments like these we review the stewardship of what have been entrusted to us (opportunities, relationships, time and resources) in the light of eternal perspective. This gives opportunity to reprioritize your time and resources in respect to God the Judge of all (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

A time to remember.
A time to remember.

Celebration is a time to remember where you have come from, where you have been and where you are heading.  It’s a time to look back cherish your legacy, and look ahead to embrace your destiny anew.  It’s a time where you look back on the road of life with thankfulness and a time to remember the lessons you have learned.  It’s a time to relive the faithfulness of God in being Emanuel, God with us.  This leads to a time of and realigning the path of your life as you follow the Lord your the Shepherd (Psalm 23:1-4).

A time to reconnect.
A time to reconnect.

Celebration is a time for relating – a time to look around you and enjoy the fact that you are not alone in this journey of life.  It’s a time where your identity is not found in your work, your failure or your success, but in your belonging.  You are accepted for being you, celebrated as a gift from God.  This leads to a time of reconnecting hearts around the table of God our Father (Ephesians 3:14-17).

A time for recognition.
A time for recognition.

Celebration is a time for recognition where we look at the people around us with gratitude and humble regard for their contributions and efforts.  A time we “give honor to whom it is due” (Romans 12:7).  It is a time where we reaffirm the value and relationships of those among which the Lord has placed us.

A time for reverence.
A time for reverence.

Celebration is a time for reverence – a time to look up and render yourself in worship to God as the source of all goodness and necessary grace.  It’s also a time of yielding yourself in serving the God who created you for his pleasure.  A time where you resign yourself to the purpose, position and path that God has assigned for you; “this is your reasonable service to God” (Romans 12:1-2).

Invite family, friends and neighbors to celebrate with you!
Invite family, friends and neighbors to celebrate with you!

So do as our Biblical example encourage us – regardless of our circumstances or emotions – lets’s celebrate!  Invite your family, friends and neighbors, saying “Rejoice with me!”  (Luke 15:6,9)  Gather, feast with music and food and dancing and the exchanging of gifts as we celebrate and display the goodness and faithfulness of God our Savior. So let us rejoice and be glad – this is  the season of celebration! (Refer Psalm 118:24; Revelations 19:7; 1 Chronicles 16:1-3; Esther 9:16-19; Nehemiah 8:9-12).

The art of celebration

It appears as though the use of anti-depressants have doubled in most countries since the turn of the century according to a report in November 2013.  Commenting on the report in a Harvard Health article Peter Wehrein states that most medical practitioners agree depression has been under-diagnosed for long, and the rise in anti-depressant use could be ascribed to more accurate diagnoses of those suffering from depression.  To give perspective to the commonality of clinical depression, anti-depressants are the third-most prescribed, and most used drug in the USA. The number of Americans using anti-depressant have increased by 400% between 1994 and 2008.  One in ten people in Iceland use anti-depressants.  In South Africa, almost 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness such as depression, anxiety, etc.  It is fair to say that our world is generally depressed and anxious, and people are living in a state of hopelessness – as Paul put it having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

This is in stark contrast from the “life more abundantly” which Christ came to offer us (John 10:10).  For the Christian, life is a gift which is celebrated now, not dreaded or endured until we are delivered from this earth.  The Psalmist sings “this is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24).  Life – here and now – ought to be celebrated and enjoyed as a gift from God.

Celebration does not come naturally to us.  Sadly, depression, anxiety and hopelessness comes naturally in this fallen world – the stats mentioned above serves as evidence that humanity’s natural drive is towards passivity and cynicism.  So how do we learn the art of celebration?  What does the Bible say about it?

 

theartofcelebration-rend_coll

My favorite CD this year is The Art of Celebration from Rend Collective; I can’t get enough of the message in the music; it stirs such thankfulness and joy in my heart towards God the giver of life and giver of hope. Take a look at the story behind the album for a motive and message behind the recording.  This album has done a work of God in me to deliberately celebrate life with God.

Celebration is a major theme in the Bible.  Frequently we are called by the Psalmists and prophets to celebrate the works of God (including God’s creation, salvation and wonders).  Celebration is prominent from the Mosaic Law and through the history books.  Jesus’ first miracle was to prolong the celebration of a local wedding, and many of his prominent teachings were during the annual feasts of Israel, including the promise of the Great Celebration of his wedding when he returns.  It is evident that God created life to be celebrated – he is a God who loves joyful festivity!

The Annual Feasts of Israel

The Jewish calendar is marked by 8 major festivals every year. Each of these feasts are special Sabbaths and therefore regarded as “holy days” (from there our word ‘holidays’) with the  command to rest. The weekly Sabbaths were celebrating as perpetual reminder Israel’s covenant with God (Deuteronomy 5:15); they were redeemed from insignificant slaves to “a holy people to the Lord… chosen for himself… a special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2).  And subsequently each annual “holy day” reinforces an aspect of this truth of the Jew’s legacy – their identity as covenant people of God with a destiny in God’s eternal plan.

 

During Passover every family had to prepare - and finish - "a lamb for every household". Nothing may be left for the next day.  What a feast!
During Passover every family had to prepare – and finish – “a lamb for every household”. Nothing may be left for the next day. What a feast!

The original seven feasts took place in two seasons of the year – four in spring and three in autumn (Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16).  The first feast was Passover (Leviticus 23:5) commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery when the Angel of Death “passed over” homes where the blood of a lamb was applied to door posts (Exodus 12:5). This is the only festival that ought to be celebrated with the family wherever Jews find themselves, with their families.  The celebration remembers God’s great deliverance of their nation, reinforcing their identity as God’s covenant people, no longer slaves, as well as within their families.

feast_of_Unleavened-Bread

The second feast begins the next day, lasting a week: the feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6) where for one whole week no bread with leaven (yeast) may be eaten.  As in most instances in the Bible “leaven” is a symbol for sin, so eating unleavened bread for a week is a reminder that our lives should be holy, blameless.  Typically Jewish homes get “spring cleaned” the week before Passover so that no trace of yeast could be found in the home (it becomes a game for the children to find some).  This cleaning is a powerful symbolic act that serves as a time of introspection and sanctification for the adults and a time of instruction for the young ones – while remaining a joyful celebration as families come together and the nation stop to consider God.

First-fruits of Barley harvest being sifted.
First-fruits of Barley harvest being sifted.

The third feast, the feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:11) takes place the “morning after the Sabbath” of Unleavened bread – commemorating the fruitfulness of the land the Lord gave Israel by bringing an offering of the first-fruits of the Barley (or Spring) harvest to the Lord.  The festival celebrates God’s provision faithfulness to Israel as a nation.  The Modern church calls this feast Easter after Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility).  Still today the feast is associated with symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs.

First fruits of the wheat harvest, a summer crop.
First fruits of the wheat harvest, a summer crop.

Fifty days later the Jews celebrate Pentecost (Leviticus 23:16) to consecrate the wheat harvest (or summer crops) to Lord as a time of thanksgiving and devotion to God.

These four Spring Feasts begin with Passover and end with Pentecost, but it is seen as one time of celebration.

Blowing of the ram's horn - a shofar (translated "trumpet" in most Bibles)
Blowing of the ram’s horn – a shofar (translated “trumpet” in most Bibles)

The autumn season of celebration begins with the Feast of the Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24) ushering in the Sabbatical month in the Jewish calendar.  The blowing of the trumpets “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:8-10).  It is a time of joyful singing and dancing.

A lamb was slaughtered  as substitute for the sins of the nations once a year, to make atonement for the sins of the people.
A lamb was slaughtered as substitute for the sins of the nations once a year, to make atonement for the sins of the people.

Ten days later was the holiest of days, the Feast of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27) – a day where the high priest enters into the temple to confess and atone for the sins of the nation over past year.  It is a solemn day of fasting followed by joyful celebration of reconciliation and peace with God.

During the Feast of Tabernacles all the Israelites stayed in booths or tents to remember God's protection and provision during their wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan.
During the Feast of Tabernacles all the Israelites stayed in booths or tents to remember God’s protection and provision during their wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan.

The last of the seven feasts in the Law of Moses is the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34) where the whole nation lives in booths (or tents), reliving the nomadic journey of Israel through the Wilderness for forty years, celebrating God’s faithful provision and protection during their ancestors’ journey.  Again, this feast serves as time of reflection on God’s faithfulness to them as God’s elect people, a time of worship and instruction for the young ones as they participate.

During Purim - and other Jewish feasts - the Jews enjoy and share great food and gifts with all they celebrate the life of protection and abundance God blessed them with.
During Purim – and other Jewish feasts – the Jews enjoy and share great food and gifts with all they celebrate the life of protection and abundance God blessed them with.

Another annual feast was added later to the Jewish calendar: the Feast of Purim instituted by Queen Eshter during the Persian exile under King Ahasarus.  It is celebrated annually on the 14th and 15th of Adar as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Ester 9:22).

How do we celebrate?

Typically, the Jews celebrated as most cultures feast throughout the world: with music and dancing and ceremony, with reenactment and story-telling and worship to God, as well as gifts to one-another and to the poor.  The main elements of Biblical celebration is remembrance and retelling, leading to worship and witness.

In celebration the Jews remembered and even reenacted the great works of God for reflection and retelling (education of the younger generation).  This was done to reinforce and pass on faith in God and their identity as God’s covenant people.  The remembrance and retelling lead to worship of God for the great things he has done to them, and also as witness to onlookers, telling them of the works of Yahweh, the Great God of Israel.

A Filipino painitng of Jesus breaking bread with children.
A Filipino painitng of Jesus breaking bread with children.

Our celebration should be the same: remember and retell, leading to worship and witness.  Take the Lord’s Communion as an example:

“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said,  ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

We remember the Lord’s death and resurrection, we retell it to one another and the young believers.  Then we worship the Lord for his selfless love and we witness of his death, resurrection and return to those around us.

What does celebration do for us?

1. Celebration creates memorials for us and coming generations. These are powerful reminders for us and our children of the works of God, teaching them to fear God and to trust God.

I will [tell of the] things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD… that the next generation might know [God’s laws], the children yet unborn, so that they may arise and tell them to their children …so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.” (Psalm 78:2-8)

These acts of God must be retold so that we and our children may have faith in the Living, Mighty God who lives and works in and among us. That is the reason why so many of the Psalms are a retelling of some portion of the history of Israel (see Psalms 104-107, 136, etc).

These memorials also serve as vivid life lessons on which the individual and nation can build and add in their relationship with God.  For instance, celebrating the Sabbath reminded Jews that they were slaves which cried out to God and now they are his covenant people.  Likewise celebrating the first day of the week reminds Christians that Jesus rose from the grave on this day, and so will we.  Celebration reinforces key Biblical truths.

Most national festivals has as its aim to reinforce cultural identity and pride.
Most national festivals has as its aim to reinforce cultural identity and pride.

2. Celebration reinforces legacy – both the identity and destiny of the descendants. These festive celebrations reinforce the belonging of the individuals into the family and nation that they are part of.  It give pride in a shared history in which God has grafted this life, and also shares the purpose and destiny of this family and nation.  More than the family name, the feasts are in themselves meetings with God which serve as opportunities where we meet with God, securing our identities as “a people of God”.  Furthermore, our celebrations highlight the core values that make us a unique family and nations, reinforcing our identity in practical ways to be remembered and emulated.

water-into-wine-with-text
Jesus ensured joy at this wedding.

 

3. Celebration brings joy in a practical sense.  Celebration make life pleasant as we stop and abstain from everyday work.  Instead we laugh, play, dance, eat, make music and simply enjoy and share the fullness of life and gifts of relationships.  Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding celebration (John 2:1-11).  The wine ran out, and Jesus did a miracle to make sure the party does not end prematurely (he made about 680 additional liters of excellent wine!).  Apart from the practical miracle to ensure a full-term wedding celebration, wine is a Jewish symbol of joy; Jesus’s first miracle was done to endure that he gives full, lasting joy.  He intents for celebration to be joyful, and does the miracle to make ensure it!

4. Celebration trains us to see and appreciate the good. By stopping to remembering and thank God for his intervention in our lives and the lives of his people, celebration reinforces the truth that God is at work and among and through us.  God is here and God is at work.  In this way celebration stirs our faith and hope, and helps us anticipate and recognize the works of God.  Jesus taught that the eye is either “light” (hopeful) or “dark” (skeptical) (Matthew 6:22-23) – celebration makes our eyes “light” – it trains us to look for the hand of God in our lives.

Celebration helps us include others in our lives.
Celebration helps us include others in our lives.

5. Celebration helps us include others into our lives. As we celebrate, we acknowledge a shared legacy – thus a shared history and a shared future with others following God.  Celebration helps us move from the isolation of contemporary individualism towards the interdependence of Biblical community.  As we celebrate we recognize that we are the people of God among and through whom he works.  We see that God not only has a saving plan for me, but for us.  We learn that God is not only my Father, but rather he is our Father.  In our celebration together we learn that our struggles and pain is also shared in a real way.  Our celebration is the stepping stone into true unity.  It is as we celebrate together that we grow to become the community of which Jesus said “by your love will they know you are my disciples” (John 13:34).

Celebration is a choice

Celebration is not a matter of feeling but of choice.  God made sure of that when he made the Jewish feasts annual calendar entries dates.  Regardless of the current political situation or economic state the Jews stopped all work (and warfare) and gathered to remember and retell, to worship and witness of the works of the Lord.  During Nehemiah’s rebuilding and spiritual reformation (around 530 BC) the returned exiles celebrated for the first time the Feats of Tabernacles and wept as they heard the words of the Law explained by Ezra.  But they were rebuked by Nehemiah and Ezra, and told to celebrate the memory of the God’s faithful protection and provision during the wilderness wandering of the ancestors:

“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (Nehemiah 8:9-11)

Their identity as Gods’ elect, holy and treasured people were reinforced through corporate celebration.  Their feasts informed their circumstances that there is “a God who acts for the one who waits on Him” (Isaiah 64:3-4).

Israel’s annual celebrations declared their faith in a God who saves from slavery and brings into a land of plenty in every season.  He is also a God who demands holiness.  This God brings liberty and makes atonement on your behalf, and protects you when you are vulnerable.

What does your lifestyle of celebration say to you and others?  Have you learned the art of celebration?