Who’s Holding Whom?

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I have a two-year old daughter whom I love with my whole heart. At this age, she is learning and growing so fast, especially in her speech.

Lately, every day she looks up at me and says, “Can I hold you?”

That’s her way of asking me to pick her up. Last night I was holding her, and she asked me, “Can I hold mommy?”

When we pick her up, she holds on tight. I’m not sure if she’s just mixing up her words, and really means to say, “Can you hold me?”, or if she really thinks of it as her holding us when we pick her up. Certainly she is holding on, but at the end of the day, our grip on her is much stronger than her grip on us.

I can’t help but think of this in regard to a believer’s relationship with God.

We are told by the writer of Hebrews that we are to “hold fast” to the gospel (Hebrews 3:14, 4:14, 10:23). We should love Him, seek Him, and cling to Him.

But here’s the good news: if and when you fail to do so, if and when you feel weak, confused and exhausted to the point where you are struggling to hold onto Him – He will still be holding on to you.

My daughter thinks she is holding onto me. But the truth is: I’m holding onto her much more firmly than she’s holding onto me, and I’m much stronger than she is.

2 Timothy 2:13, most likely quoting from an early Christian creed or song, says: if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.

At the church where I served my first few years in Hungary, the pastor would read this passage at the end of every service:

Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,
To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

Find security in knowing this today: If you are His child, then as much as you might be clinging to Him (and you should be), He is clinging to you much more tightly, and He is infinitely stronger!

Anthony Bourdain, Suicide & the Bible

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We woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s Parts Unknown committed suicide at age 61. He was wealthy, successful, famous and got to travel the world doing what he loved – the kinds of things that many people aspire to, but may never get to experience. And yet, he chose to end his own life.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1999, suicide rates have increased in nearly every US state, with 25 states having increases of more than 30 percent.

The most at-risk group for suicide according to their study is middle-aged white men.

Factors contributing to the suicide epidemic are:

  • Access to firearms.
  • Isolation, which contributes to mental health problems.  Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out
  • A sense of hopelessness and despair, resulting from:
    • family instability
    • lack of job prospects
  • Poor physical health

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at: 1-800-273-8255.

In the Bible we read about several heroes of the faith who struggled with what seem to have been depression and suicidal thoughts:

Many heroes of the faith, expressed that they reached such a point of despair that they wanted to die:

  • Moses had a death wish (see Numbers 11:13-15)
  • Job sought death as a comfort, a way to end his suffering
  • David had times when he wanted to die
  • Jonah sought his own death first to atone for his own sins and then because of frustration with his circumstances

Another notable example is the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 19:4, we read:

“[Elijah] sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”

Here’s what’s surprising: right before this, Elijah had experienced unprecedented success in his ministry. Only a few hours before this:

  • Elijah prayed for rain, and it came, ending a 7-year drought.
  • Elijah had singlehandedly won a showdown against some 850 pagan priests, when God sent fire from heaven in response to Elijah’s prayers.
  • As a result of these things, many people in Israel had turned back to God – which was the goal of Elijah’s ministry.

And yet, like with so many people: in spite of experiencing great success, Elijah was depressed and wanted to die.

Isolation

“Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree” – 1 Kings 19:4

Despite having a huge crowd of supporters after the showdown on Mount Carmel, Elijah chose to isolate and cut himself off from the community.

Isolation is a common practice of people who are struggling with depression, but it is one of the worst things a person can do. Statistics show that isolation causes and exasperates mental health issues.

Physical Exhaustion

Even though it was a successful day, it was a long and exhausting day. I have found that the times when I am particularly worn out, I tend to be more susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings which are not from God.

Notice what happens next: Elijah gets some rest. He goes to sleep. While he’s asleep, God sends an angel to cook him a meal. The angel wakes Elijah up, feeds him, gives him something to drink – and then sends him back to bed to sleep some more! Then, the angel wakes him up again, feeds him another meal, and then sends him on his way to continue his ministry.

In other words: Elijah’s depression, while certainly a spiritual attack, was related to and exasperated by his physical exhaustion. Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent him a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent Elijah a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

As noted above, the CDC mentions poor physical health as a contributing factor to the suicide epidemic. Taking care of your body is important for your mental health, and the Bible encourages us to see that.

Hope

Finally, this messenger from God tells Elijah to rise up and go on his way – and Elijah does. Rather than stay down, alone, sleeping under this tree in the wilderness – God reminds Elijah that He has a purpose and calling upon his life, and Elijah responds by getting up and moving forward into that calling.

The gospel gives us more hope, affirmation and purpose than anything else ever can. It give us hope because of the promise of redemption. It gives you a community; not only community with God, but to become a Christian is to be brought into the “People of God.”

The gospel gives us affirmation and purpose; Jesus gave his life for you, which means that even though God knowns everything about you, He still wants you. He still loves you and He still has a purpose for your life.

God’s purpose for your life goes beyond living for yourself; it is to use you in His mission: for His glory and for the good of people in the world. It is in giving your life for that mission that you will find true life. For more on this, check out: Mission and Mental Health

Let’s do what we can to recognize the signs and help people who are struggling before it’s too late.

What Science and the Bible Say About What Leads to Happiness

I recently stumbled upon the work of behavioral scientist Winfred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, which made the New York Times Bestseller list a few years back. I found the basic premise of the book quite interesting in that through her research Gallagher has validated something which the New Testament has been teaching for almost 2000 years.

For Gallagher, it was an unexpected event in her personal life which set her on this journey: she was diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced form of cancer. Going into her treatment, she had expected it to be a miserable time, but instead found it to be a surprisingly pleasant period of her life. Although physically uncomfortable, she enjoyed many things during this time, including going on walks, and her personal favorite: an evening martini. This led her to later pursue investigating the role that attention plays in a person’s happiness.

After 5 years of studying this topic, she came away with what she called “a grand theory of the mind:”

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

The biggest factor which leads to happiness, in other words, is what you choose to focus your attention on.

Author Cal Newport, in reference to this says:

This concept upends the way that most people tend to think about their subjective experience of this life. We tend to focus on our circumstances: assuming that what happens to us, or fails to happen, determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes: whether you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding.¹

In other words: our perception of the world and of ourselves is shaped less by our circumstances, and more by what we choose to focus on and pay attention to.

For readers of the Bible, this only serves to confirm what we already know and believe. This is the reason why the Bible says things like:

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

This is the reason why Paul the Apostle could write a letter from jail about being full of joy in Jesus; because he took his own advice to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

This is the reason why to those suffering pressure and persecution as a result of their Christian faith, Paul’s advice was to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

As Winfred Gallagher rightly discerned: two people can be facing the same exact circumstances, but what they focus on will determine how they feel about it and deal with it. This has been a trademark of Christianity from its inception. However, as Christians, our focus is not on shallow pleasures and momentary distractions, but we draw from the deep well of hope that is found in Jesus Christ alone! For this reason:

we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Whatever you are going through today, may you fix your eyes on Jesus, and may the hope you find in Him define your reality, giving you joy in the face of anything life brings your way.

What is Over-Realized Eschatology?

Oftentimes the word “eschatology” is thought of only in terms of the timeline of Jesus’ return. This is one aspect, but certainly not the full meaning of what eschatology is. “Eschatology” means the study of final or ultimate things. It comes from the word “eschaton,” which means “final event” or “culmination.”

The promise of the gospel is that because of what Jesus accomplished in his life, death and resurrection, ultimately, one day, God will wipe away every tear and sickness and death and all of the effects of the curse of sin will be eradicated forever (Revelation 21:1-4 , among others), and that there will be a new heavens and new Earth, a renewed and restored and redeemed creation in which all things are the way that God designed them to be apart from the curse of sin and death. That is the “eschatological (final/ultimate) hope” of the Bible for those who are “in Christ.”

In this sense, all of Christianity is eschatological, in that it hopes in and looks to a final culmination in which certain things will take place. Conversely, any form of “Christianity” that doesn’t have hold to this eschatological hope is arguably no longer true Christianity.

I have been reading Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven recently. I picked it up expecting it to be a tedious read full of sentimentality, but I’ve been plesantly surprised. Instead, it presents a systematic theology of heaven, which reveals that this eschatological hope is much more material and physical than many Christians commonly think. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend you check it out.

Many of the problems with how people understand Christianity derive from misunderstandings about this eschaological hope and our place in relation to it today.

The picture the Bible uses to describe this place where we are at in history is: Dawn. Dawn is that in-between time after the first light of morning has broken the darkness of night – but before the sun has crested the horizon and driven out the darkness completely. During the dawn, light and dark are both present at the same time. But the promise of dawn is that the full day will come, it is only a matter of time.

Another picture the Bible uses to help us understand the world and our place in it, in relation to the eschaton, is Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, in which Jesus describes the world as a field in which God planted good seed, but an enemy came in and planted bad seed. The farmer then makes the surprising decision to allow the wheat and the weeds to grow together until the harvest, at which time they will be separated – the wheat brought into the storehouse and the weeds burned. This is a picture of the world we live in, where good and evil are both present, and God is fully committed to eradicating evil, but the day to do so has not yet come, thus these two “kingdoms” currently exist in the world at the same time, and yet the eschatological promise is that the kindgom of darkness and evil will be eradicated at the eschaton. (I recently taught a sermon on this parable. Click here to listen to it.)

An “over-realized eschatology” is when someone expects that the eschatological hope of Christianity is already here and now. They might say, Well, if Jesus has come and the Kingdom has come, then there should no longer be evil in the world, everyone should be healed of sickness, there should be no poverty or suffering, and everything should be the way that God designed it to be NOW, and if you believe well enough, or have enough faith, you will experience it.

This leads to what is sometimes called a “prosperity gospel,” which is best understood as an over-realized eschatology which expects something which will ultimately happen for those who are in Christ to happen right now. One of the problems with it is that it places an incredible burden on people by telling them, “If you’re not healthy and wealthy, it must be because you are doing it wrong.” It fails to take into account the nature of the world and our time and place in God’s plan of redemption, not to mention the sovereignty of God.

Converesely, there is such a thing as an under-realized eschatology. This is one which does not recognize that with the coming of Jesus into the world, the Kingdom of God has come to this world, even if not yet in fullness.
Both over- and under- realized eschatology fails to take hold of the “already, but not yet” nature of our unique place in time: after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before the eschaton – which is illustrated by the picture of dawn and the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

Here is a good explanation of this principle from John Piper. The whole video is good, but the last part addresses this specifically:

The Less Famous Days of Holy Week

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Good Friday and Easter Sunday get all the press, but there are other important days of Holy Week.

Maundy Thursday

What is a “maundy” anyway? It comes from the Middle English and Old French word Mandé, which comes from the Latin Mandatum – which means Mandate.

Maundy Thursday refers to the mandate that Jesus gave the night before his crucifixion, when he shared his last supper with his disciples. After Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet in an act of love and service, he then told them:

A new commandment (Latin: mandatum) I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

On Maundy Thursday we remember the events of the last supper, the institution of the sacrament of communion, the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends, and the all night prayer vigil that Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he sweat blood from the stress and anxiety he was experiencing as he looked forward to the physical and spiritual suffering that awaited him.

It was on this night that Jesus prayed three times: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39-44)

The fact that the Father did not remove this “cup” of suffering from Jesus reminds us that there was no other way for us to be saved, then for Jesus to go forward with taking our place in death and judgment so that we might be able to receive forgiveness and eternal life.

Holy Saturday

The day between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is known as Holy Saturday. For the disciples of Jesus this would have been a day a great darkness and uncertainty, when the effects of Jesus’ crucifixion were not yet understood by all, and even though it wasn’t the case – it seemed like all hope was lost. Little did they realize that Sunday was coming…

Max Lucado wrote an excellent post on “The Silence of Saturday” a few years ago:

Jesus is silent on Saturday.  The women have anointed his body and placed it in Joseph’s tomb.  The cadaver of Christ is as mute as the stone which guards it.  He spoke much on Friday. He will liberate the slaves of death on Sunday.  But on Saturday, Jesus is silent.

So is God.  He made himself heard on Friday.  He tore the curtains of the temple, opened the graves of the dead, rocked the earth, blocked the sun of the sky, and sacrificed the Son of Heaven.  Earth heard much of God on Friday.

Nothing on Saturday.  Jesus is silent.  God is silent.  Saturday is silent.

Easter weekend discussions tend to skip Saturday.  Friday and Sunday get the press.  The crucifixion and resurrection command our thoughts.  But don’t ignore Saturday.  You have them, too.

Silent Saturdays.  The day between the struggle and the solution; the question and the answer; the offered prayer and the answer thereof.

Saturday’s silence torments us.  Is God angry?  Did I disappoint him? God knows Jesus is in the tomb, why doesn’t He do something?  Or, in your case God knows your career is in the tank, your finances are in the pit, your marriage is in a mess. Why doesn’t He act?  What are you supposed to do until He does?

You do what Jesus did.  Lie still.  Stay silent.  Trust God.  Jesus died with this conviction: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Acts 2:27 NIV).

Jesus knew God would not leave him alone in the grave.  You need to know, God will not leave you alone with your struggles.  His silence is not his absence, inactivity is never apathy.  Saturdays have their purpose. They let us feel the full force of God’s strength. Had God raised Jesus fifteen minutes after the death of His son, would we have appreciated the act? Were He to solve your problems the second they appear, would you appreciate His strength?

For His reasons, God inserts a Saturday between our Fridays and Sundays.  If today is one for you, be patient.  As one who endured the silent Saturday wrote:  “Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7 NKJV).

Good Friday: The Great Exchange

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The good news of Good Friday is that “It is finished!” (John 19:30) Because of that, we can rest from our labors of trying to justify ourselves, and we can revel in hope, because not only were our sins imputed to Jesus, but his righteousness was imputed to us.

This is what it means when it says: “For our sake, He (God) made Him (Jesus), who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It’s the most astonishing exchange of all time: for those who receive Him (John 1:12), all of your sinfulness was placed on Him, and in return all of His righteousness was accounted to you.

Jürgen Moltmann puts it this way:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” (from The Crucified God)

Moltmann goes on to say:

God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.

May your Good Friday be filled with reflection upon, appreciation for and response to what Jesus did for you on Calvary, the ultimate expression of God’s love for you!

 

One Day

 

What all of us long for is nothing less than redemption.

This young Israeli couple have been posting videos of their music for a while. This video, according to their Facebook page, was recorded a cappella in their car because the original recording had audio problems, but there is something very lovely and beautiful about both the way they sing and what they are singing about.

What makes it so beautiful, is that they are singing about a day in the future when there will be no more wars and strife, when things will be the way we all innately feel that they should be and the way that all people deep down hope it will be.

What all of us long for is nothing less than redemption. 

And that’s because we were made for perfection, but we’re fallen… and yet we have a sort of ancestral memory of it; we know that even though death and strife and sickness are the realities of the world we live it, even though that may be how it is, we still believe that it’s not the way it should be, and so we long for and we sing and dream and write about a world where these things are no more and everything is finally as it is supposed to be:

No more death. No more violence. No more pain. No more parting from those we love. No more infirmity. Love that lasts forever. True peace. Overcoming the limitations we experience now with frustration.

That is why this song is so moving. That is why all of the movies which make you cry have the same common themes: heroic self-sacrifice, good overcoming evil, immortality and overcoming death itself.

The message of the Gospel is that God loves you so much that He made a way for you to be redeemed through Jesus, so that one day that hope could become reality, so that everything your heart longs for deep down could not only be a wish, but a reality.

One day…

 

If you’re interested in more from these guys, here’s a link to their YouTube channel, and here is another song of theirs, this one in Hebrew (English translation can be found in the comments section on YouTube) – it’s a song of praise and worship to God:

 

This Life and the One to Come

I’ve been preaching a lot on the topic of hope recently. It is a theme which I consider amongst the most beautiful in the world.

This past Sunday was Easter, and I taught a message titled: ‘A Living Hope’ (listen to it here).

In the sermon I spoke about Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he says that life only has meaning if you have a hope which suffering and death cannot take away from you.

Interestingly – and perhaps tragically, however, it is not clear to me that Frankl ever discovered a hope worthy of that description.

This is the living hope which we have in Jesus, which Peter talked about in 1 Peter 1:3-9, speaking to people who were in fact suffering. It is a hope which is imperishable, unfading and kept in heaven for us – that’s how secure it is.

It is only that kind of hope which can enable us to live now and face any difficult which life might throw at us.

I recently came across a quote from CS Lewis: at the end of The Last Battle, the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, he says that for those of us who have received the gift of eternal life, when we get to the end of our lives here on Earth, we will realize that they were merely the title and the cover page, and then at last we will begin Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on Earth has ever read: which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.

I don’t know about you, but that gives me goosebumps. I long for that day, and I desire to live with that perspective.

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

CS Lewis, The Last Battle

 

Advent Meditations: 2 – The Dawn

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The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9

One of the greatest metaphors the Bible uses to describe where we are at currently in the big picture of human history is: Dawn.

Dawn is an interesting time; dawn is where the night and the day exist simultaneously in the same space, yet neither in full force.

At dawn, the darkness is broken by the light, but it is still dark… but not as dark as it used to be. However, even though light has come, the light is not yet present in its full form, because although the light has appeared, it has not yet broken over the horizon to fully dispel the darkness.

Peter expressly uses this metaphor of dawn in his second letter:

we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. – 2 Peter 1:19

Jesus is called “the morning star.”  The “star” known as the morning star is actually not a star, but the planet Venus. The reason it’s called the morning star is because it is the last “star” that is visible in the sky once the dawn has begun.

What Christmas means is that the true light has come into the world and the dawn has begun. The beginning of dawn is an irreversible moment, and it is only a matter of time before the sun breaks over the horizon and totally dispels the darkness, bringing about the full light of day.

For our world, covered in the shroud of darkness, a darkness which permeates our very hearts, the message is clear: with the coming of Jesus Christ in to the world, the dawn has begun. The darkness has been broken. And while it is still present, it is no longer in full force. And while the light is neither yet in full force, it is a matter of time before the new day fully dawns and the darkness is abolished and fully overcome by the light.

Christmas is the death knell of the darkness. Look to the morning star and see that the dawn has begun!

Already…But Not Yet

On Sunday mornings at White Fields I have been teaching through 1 Samuel; this past Sunday I taught the second half of chapter 16, in which David has already been anointed king of Israel, but it will be another 15-20 years of hardship before David will sit on the throne of Israel as king.

David is king already, but not yet.

And this phrase, “already, but not yet” sums up so much of the Christian life. In Christ we are justified, glorified, made holy, seated with Christ in the heavenly places – already! But not yet.

Yesterday a great lady woman from church sent me this poem she wrote, inspired by Sunday’s message:

Sometimes life just seems to drag on
And sometimes we grow weary of the wait 
We want it all, we want it now
We shout out in whispered pleas 
Begging for speed, hurry please
But He answers not yet, He asks us to wait
Discouraged and let down we struggle on 
Don’t struggle on 
Don’t falter when you can run 
Don’t struggle when you have won
He has already won
It’s already done
We are waiting for an end that is already won
So hold on
Hold on to His promises 
Hold onto His love 
Hold onto the Hope that it’s already ready
It’s already done
But not yet

– Ryane Salazar