A Year of Restoration

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As 2018 ended and 2019 began, the word restoration kept springing to mind. To restore something whether it be a relationship, physical health, or house, simply means to bring an item back to its original state. Restoration is my word for the year as I seek to rebuild my relationship with God and my life.

Restoration in the Bible, like our word in English, can mean many things, such as the restoration brought about by prophecy, healing, the restoration of the Temple, and the restoration of the merciful/righteous. My focus on restoration will be the aspect of returning to God after a period of sin and trials.

2019 will mark twenty years since I first accepted Christ, and it has been a wild ride. I have faced many trials over the course of these years, which have often led to me questioning God’s plan, my decision making, leaving church, going back to church, and so on and so forth. I truly admire those who have spent their lives serving God without reservation or hesitation. I would like to get to that point and stay there.

This year I am working on restoring my relationship with God, while continuing to grow as an individual. There are numerous verses, Old and New Testament, concerning coming back to God after sin and trials. I would like to share a few of them.

“And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” -1 Peter 5:10 (NIV).

“And when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I’ve commanded you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you.” -Deuteronomy 30:2-3 (NIV).

“Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” -Psalm 80, verses 3, 7, and 10 (NIV).

As we go forward into this year, let us be mindful of God’s grace. No matter what we’ve gone through, even if the situation pushed us away from God, we can always come back to Him. God bless.

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Jesus Crosses Social Barriers

“Now he had to go through Samaria,” John 4:4 (NIV).

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Have you ever tried to avoid driving on a certain stretch of road or try to bypass traffic in a particular city? What if going through said stretch of road or city was the shortest, most direct route to your destination? Would you still avoid it? Is there some long-standing bias or bad memory associated with the road or city?

During biblical times, the average person walked everywhere or they may have rode a donkey, camel, or perhaps a horse. When there are great distances involved, especially while traveling on foot, you would want to walk the shortest route possible. In one instance, Jesus took the shortest route and crossed a major social barrier.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Judea to Galilee and went through Samaria, which was the shortest route. “Now he had to go through Samaria,” seems like a pretty innocuous statement for a 21st Century reader, but in Jesus’ time, Samaria was controversial among the Jews of Israel. In fact, many Jews tried to go places by avoiding Samaria all together.

The controversy dates back to the Old Testament. Samaria was the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while Jerusalem remained the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judea.  The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC and deported many of the Jews. The Assyrians brought in Gentiles (non-Jews) to settle the land. These Gentiles intermarried with the remaining Jews, which created a “mixed race,” which the Jews of Judea did not recognize the Samaritan as “authentic Jews” for lack of a better term. The Samaritan Jews also believed Mount Gerizim was the holy site for sacrifice, not the Temple in Jerusalem, and recognized only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as Scripture.

Understanding the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans gives a different context to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which probably would have angered many in his Jewish audience that a Samaritan would be hero of the story.

I will not go through the entire story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:4-42), but I want to discuss some of the highlights. We live in such a divisive time, where people only read and listen to what confirms their confirmation bias, from which they do not budge. Let us take a look at the barriers Jesus crosses in this story:

-Jesus goes directly into what many consider “hostile territory.”

-Jesus, a Jew, speaks with people who are Samaritans.

-Jesus, a man, ministers to a woman.

-Jesus does not condemn the Samaritan woman for her past.

-Jesus does not debate doctrine, cast judgment, or threaten anyone with hell.

-Jesus brings a message of hope for all people, regardless of their background.

-Jesus breaks down the barriers of  institutional racism.

After Jesus ministers to the woman, she goes back and brings people of the town to see Jesus. Jesus and the disciples end up staying in Samaria for two days and many Samaritans come to faith in Christ.

I recognize that during my more fundamentalist days, I was a very divisive Christian. I have seen the error of my ways and I am now trying to break down these man made barriers. I believe the church and all of society can benefit from this example of Christ. Just because someone isn’t the same skin color as you, believes a different political philosophy, goes to a different church, or lives a lifestyle you don’t agree with, that doesn’t make them bad people. Everybody is just like you, in search of love and acceptance, which we need to provide. There is no need to condemn anyone for their past, because we all have a past. Let’s quit treating each other like dogs and rubbing our noses in each other’s mess. If we as Christians want to be more like Jesus, we need to be tearing down these superficial barriers instead of building  higher and higher walls.

 

 

Living Life without Expectation

What if we were to live life without expectation? I’m not talking about a hopeless life, where we are broken and faithless, but a life where we can be at peace no matter the circumstances.

Think about this for a moment: how many times have the events of your life matched the expectations in your mind?  These misplaced expectations lead to disappointment, which can lead to discouragement, which can develop into depression, which can make us feel hopeless and purposeless. We shut out God, our loved ones, and our friends because they let us down. We loathe our jobs because the grass wasn’t as green as was promised. We are financially strapped because we decided to take a leap of faith on a new career, a bigger house, that car we always wanted, etc.

If you feel this way or spent part of your life feeling this way, it’s okay. Just take a few deep breaths. Don’t condemn yourself, but find it in your heart to forgive yourself. Ask God to forgive you. Forgive others who hurt you. You made the best choice you could at the time with the information you had. That’s life. We have to make decisions sometimes without knowing what the results will be.

What would be a good example of living life with expectation? Let’s say you have a friend who has fallen on hard times and asks you for $100 to buy groceries for his family. Maybe your friend says he’ll pay you back or you expect the money back as soon as possible. Time goes by and your friend has not given you the money. You ask about it, the friend can’t pay it back now. More time passes and you begin to resent your friend over the money. A possible lifelong friendship could be ended over $100 all because of misplaced expectations. How could this situation be handled without expectations? Your friend, who has fallen on hard times, ask you for $100 to help buy groceries for his family. You have the money and give it to your friend. Your friend offers to pay back the money, but you say, “Don’t worry about it, consider it a gift.” This changes the dynamic of the situation because you have truly been generous with no stipulations. You also have the satisfaction that your friend’s family will have food in their home.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about how we are to give to others without expecting anything in return:

“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:31-36, NIV).

Speaking strictly from the Christian perspective, The Bible spends a lot of verses describing how God has blessed us spiritually in Christ and the ways He will bless us when we are obedient to Him. We must tread very lightly when we read and teach these verses, because we can open up ourselves and others to disillusionment and disappointment, which can lead people to becoming soured on God and the church. There must be a balance so that unmet sky high expectations will not send believers into a soul crushing abyss.

What happens when something doesn’t work out the way it was supposed to work out? What if there is no miracle? What if the financial windfall never comes? What if our or a loved one’s suffering is never eased despite a bevy of fervent, faith-filled prayers?

As Christians and people in general, we are too prideful to say,  “I don’t know.” When it comes to matters of faith, no one wants to say, “I don’t know.” So, in order to save face or relieve the pressure of having to give an answer for why God didn’t answer a prayer, we may say such things as, “It must not have been in God’s will, plan, or timing.” “God must have something better for you” “Maybe you just need more faith.” “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” I admit that I have been on both sides of this situation- as the one with the unanswered prayer and the finite being trying to explain why the infinite and sovereign God did what He did or didn’t do. It is not comforting to be in either situation.

Is it possible for us to live a life of faith without expectation? I believe so because faith by definition is unknowable. If we knew everything coming our way (a sense of expectation), we wouldn’t need faith.  Instead of worrying about what might happen, such as What if I get cancer? What if I lose my job? What if my spouse leaves me? what if we lived life as it came to us? What if we could have peace in the midst of the unknown? I will leave you with the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion, 8).

Pontius Pilate’s Question

After he claimed to be God, Jesus was taken from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council unto Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. According to Jewish law, Jesus’ crime of blasphemy was punishable by death. However, under Roman law, only the Romans could carry out capital punishment. Thus, Jesus had to face a second trial by Rome.

At this time in history, Jerusalem and all of Judea were political powder kegs, which could explode at any time. There were groups such as the Zealots, who led insurrections against Rome and there were others who expected the Messiah to be a military/political figure, who was going to overthrow Rome and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Though in John’s gospel, Pilate perceives the issue between Jesus and the Sanhedrin to be nothing more than a religious dispute, he still had to tread lightly. Pilate’s main concern was whether or not Jesus and his followers were going to rebel against the Roman occupation.

Pilate asked Jesus if He as king of the Jews (John 18:33), to which Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” (John 18:36, KJV).

Pilate asked Jesus again, “Art thou a king then?”(John 18:37), to  which Jesus replied, “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice.” (John 18:37, KJV, emphasis mine).

Before the story transitions to Jesus and Barabbas and Jesus’ ultimate crucifixion, Pilate asked Jesus a thought provoking question, for which unfortunately, John doesn’t record a response.

“Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?‘” (John 18:38a, KJV, emphasis mine).

What is truth? Isn’t that the seemingly the most unanswerable question in the history of humanity? The search for truth is a riddle wrapped inside of a mystery, which is wrapped inside of an enigma. All of us, no matter who we are, our background, our nation of birth, gender, religion, and so forth, spend our lives searching for truth and meaning. Who am I? Why am I here? Does God exists? Is there life after death? Have I done enough good deeds? Have I wasted my life on the wrong pursuits? Questions like these can induce crises on many levels and can keep us up late at night.

What did Pilate mean by truth? The Greek word used throughout the New Testament and this passage is the word Aletheia (Strong’s #225), which when used objectively as a noun means “signifying the reality lying at the basis of an appearance; the manifested, veritable essence of a matter.” Thus, objective truth is something that can be verified. For example, we know our universe rotates around the sun. We know gravity is the invisible force holding our feet on the ground. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

There is also a subjective nature to truth, which according to Strong’s, “not merely verbal, but sincerity and integrity of character.” So, how sincere are we in our beliefs? Do we embody the character and essence of what we believe? When we view truth in a subjective manner, that is where the disagreements and trouble starts. History attests to all of the atrocities committed by groups of people upon others simply because they believed in a different God, political philosophy, or someone simply wanted their land, the list of reasons goes on and on.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” The irony of the story of Jesus, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate is that Jesus was the Messiah these Jewish leaders and others were praying for for decades, if not centuries, however, because they had a different vision of the Messiah, they rejected Jesus. For those in leadership, Jesus represented a shakeup and perceived threat to the established order. The people were following after this carpenter from Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, pray for your opposition, turn the other cheek if they struck you, and pay your taxes to Rome, etc. Jesus also did this without the help of the religious elite, for his disciples were fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and other everyday people, which certainly upset the establishment.

If you are reading this, you may be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, Atheist, or you are looking for something to believe. I believe that we should openly examine our beliefs and discover what is truth. No matter what you believe, are there fearful questions in the back of your mind? What if I’m wrong? How can I be sure? One thing I have learned recently is don’t fear the opposition. There is a world of information out there, seek it out. Examine what you believe and why you believe it. Read books and articles that run contrary to your beliefs, so you can be informed. Search your heart, search your soul, use logic and reason along with your faith. God bless you all.

 

Unplug from the Noise

The everyday noises of life are often a shrill cacophony of discord rather than the harmonious and beautiful sounds of a symphony. From the moment we wake up, we are seemingly bombarded by the alarm clock, relationship or health problems, arguing children, barking dogs, honking horns stuck in traffic, bombastic talking heads on the news, the boss coming down on you- all of which equally frustrating. Our minds are overstimulated, but our souls and spirits are malnourished. How can we push aside the external demands and feed what the Apostle Paul referred to as “the inner man”?

I love to travel and go on vacation. I also read to relax. However, if you manage to get away from it all, whether via trip or prose, you do eventually have to come back. Problems could arise on the trip or be the first one to welcome you back. What if we could be selfish with just a little bit of our time- ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes and unplug? No demands. No phone. No social media. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Even the Lord Jesus Christ had to get away from time to time. Christ is God in the flesh, but He was also man. As a man, His body was subject to fatigue from the demands on His life and time. Not only did Jesus carry the burden of having to surrender His life for the sins of humanity, He also dealt with a hostile religious establishment, Rome, the political implications of being the Messiah, leading a group of disciples who were infighting for the best seat in the kingdom, healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons-even confronting Satan himself. Jesus would often escape the fighting disciples, the demanding crowds, the religious teachers, and pray on mountain.

“And when He had sent them [the disciples] away, He departed into a mountain to pray.” (Mark 6:46, KJV, brackets mine).

“And it came to pass in those days, that He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12, KJV).

All four Gospels record instances of Jesus spending time alone on a mountain, which either proceeded or followed a big decision or miracle (choosing the disciples, walking on the water, feeding a multitude, etc).

It is not necessary to travel to a far away land to accomplish this. Start where you are and make it a practice. Pray, read a chapter of the Bible, enjoy beautiful worship music, or just sit in a dark and quiet room, drown out the crowd and reconnect with God.  So if the Lord Jesus took the time to renew His body, mind, and spirit, shouldn’t we do the same?

 

 

Strengthen the Feeble Knees

When the human body is in perfect health, it is a divine feat of engineering. All of your body’s systems- neurological, nervous, skeletal, muscular, internal organs, among other biological wonders functioning at their peak-a perfect balance. Imagine for a moment that you have a sore foot. Your natural tendency is to compensate for the pain and discomfort. You shift your weight to the other foot, but you have possibly started a chain reaction. Before the end of the day, the pain could follow to the ankles, knees, hips, or back. The human body is also subject to age and along with it wear and tear, when our bodies no longer function as they did in their prime.

However, our existence is more than this daily aging body, as we are also soulful and spiritual beings. All three parts of our being can also be in harmony or disunity. Physical pain can cause emotional distress and emotional distress can cause us spiritual distress. Though  the kind of body we are born with, rather it be strong or sickly, is out of our control, our emotional and spiritual bodies are well within our control. That is why we need to exercise and strengthen our spiritual muscles.

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you.'”(Isaiah 35:3-4, NKJV).

The writer of Hebrews quotes this verse after discussing how we are to run the race and a warning about disobedience (12:12). This verse is one of many that shows us the ideal balance of our spiritual lives- we are to strengthen ourselves (the hands and knees) by coming to God in faith, repentance, prayer, obedience, applying God’s word to our lives. We also have a responsibility to encourage those whose faith is not as strong. We must build up ourselves so that we may build up others.  If we have secured our foundation, then we are truly able to help someone secure theirs. As we have made our peace with God, let us as best as we can be at peace with everyone. I believe the entire family of God needs to sit at the table. Now more than ever, spiritual unity is needed. Let us focus on what we have in common- Christ and go from there. God bless you all.

Being Mindful of Our Actions

Have you ever said or heard the expression,”Do as I say, not as I do?” This phrase could also be stated, “Listen to my words, but ignore my actions.” We’re all human, we’re all guilty of saying one thing and doing another. However, we must be mindful that others watch us more than they listen to us.

My parents taught me and my sister the value of having a strong work ethic. These were not mere words because my parents backed it up with going to work every day- no matter how they felt, no matter the weather, no matter whether or not they loved their jobs-you have responsibilities, you take care of them. It was that simple. I know me and my sister have done our best to live by those values.

William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7) . Of course, we have no control over the part we are assigned to play in life- where we’re born, whether we are rich or poor, our skin color, healthy or sick, and so on and so forth. However, we do have a choice of how we play the role we’re given.

During Jesus’ time, there was a group of men called the Pharisees, who were the Jewish teachers of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were always questioning Jesus’ authority and how He did things. Jesus upset the religious establishment and called out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy,cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,  but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see.” (Matthew 23:1-5a, NIV).

Six times in Matthew 23  Jesus refers to the Pharisees as hypocrites. Today we through the word hypocrite around in casual conversation, but these were very serious statements Jesus made concerning Israel’s religious leaders of they day. These teachers were using God’s Word to oppress others, yet they took exception to the miracle-performing carpenter from Nazareth.

What is interesting is that the Greek word for hypocrite, hupokrisis, (Strong’s #5272), is a theater term for playing a role. The Pharisees were only playing the part of pious men because they sought the adoration of the people over obedience to God.

As you go through life, remember to be the genuine item of what you claim to be. Don’t go through life like a politician pandering for vote, but make sure actions and words line up. I know I have a long way to go myself. This change is a daily process. It will take the rest of your life to get there. Lean on God’s grace and have patience with yourself. God bless you all.