Jesus Crosses Social Barriers

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

buildings church city clear sky
Photo by Saulo Zayas on Pexels.com

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.

 

 

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Psalm 62: God is our Defense

Psalm 62
https://dailyverses.net/psalms/62/2

I haven’t been myself for a long time. I have been wearied and weakened in my faith by the barrage of recent events in my life and those of my loved ones. Getting up everyday and living life is not for the faint of heart- it takes true courage to rise everyday when you know what’s waiting for you. At times it feels the dread of knowing you will encounter a bully on the way to school- you can’t seem to avoid him, no matter what you do. If you aren’t careful, this constant stress will affect you physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The bombardment of life can and will chip away at the strongest of foundations, as we will lose ground little by little until we are buried in a deep hole. In our minds and spirits, we in a sense become theological toddlers, asking God “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” Before long confusion and doubt set in and we become more and more miserable, maybe even questioning God’s goodness or His existence.

I left for work earlier this week and I let God know my frustrations. My exact prayer was: “Lord, you’re going to have to make this path as obvious as the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz, because I can’t see it.”

Psalm 62 is what I heard in response. The Psalms are often my go to book, but I couldn’t remember what Psalm 62 was about. I drove on to work and pulled into a parking spot. I was a few minutes early, so I pulled up the Bible app on my phone and read Psalm 62. Right word. Right place. Right time.

Psalm 62, like many others, is attributed to David.

“Truly my soul waiteth upon God: from Him cometh my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be greatly moved.” -Psalm 62:1-2, KJV.

The Hebrew word used for “defense” is Misgab (Strong’s #4869), which means a cliff or other inaccessible place, a refuge. In the King James text, Misgab is translated as:

Defense (7x) -Psalms 59:9, 59:16-17, 62:2, 62:6, 94:22, and Isaiah 33:16.

Refuge (5x) -Psalms 9:9(twice), 46:7, 46:11, 48:3.

High Tower (3x)-2 Samuel 22:3, Psalms 18:2 and 144:2.

Fort (1x)-Isaiah 25:12.

*As a side note, Misgab is used directly in Jeremiah 48:1 to refer to mountains in Moab.

In Psalm 62 verses 3, 4, 9, and 10, David discusses his enemies, who are going after him. David doesn’t worry about his position because his hope is in God. God is David’s refuge. David’s relationship with God serves as a metaphorical fortress that cannot be seized by any enemy. Psalm 62 is twelve verses long, eight of which David uses to praise God and only four verses to outline the conspiracy against him. David literally spent twice as much time talking up God as opposed to discussing his enemies. No wonder David had the confidence to stand up to a giant who was nine feet tall.

The Scripture doesn’t give us a context as to when David wrote these verses, but David speaks with confidence that God will deliver him from trouble because God has done it before. What has God brought you through in your life? God might have seemingly dragged you kicking and screaming, but He took you through it. You’re still standing. You’re still here. We want so desperately to be in complete control, but not all things are in our control and that’s why it takes faith.

Maybe you’re like me and have wandered off the path and God is trying to call you back. Stop where you are and listen for Him. I know there are times when it seems like we are spending all of our time battling on the offensive that we don’t have the strength to raise our shields to defend ourselves. Retreat to the high ground and you will have a better view of the battle. To quote a famous song, “The God of angels armies is always by my side.”

“My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation: He is my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. Trust in Him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before Him: God is a refuge for us. Selah.” -Psalm 62:5-8, KJV.

God bless you all.

Enduring Hardships with Strength

bruce lee 2

https://motivationgrid.com/11-powerful-bruce-lee-quotes-need-know/

A common literary device rooted in human existence is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey has been part of mythology, fairy tales, epic poems, plays, legends, even to our modern day equivalent of novels and movies. All of these stories follow an similar three act structure. Act 1-Introduce the hero. Act 2- Put the hero in the most adverse/perilous situation. Act 3- the hero overcomes the situation, gets the girl, fulfills his destiny and lives happily ever after.

If our lives were only that simple.

If you have lived for any length of time, you know that “happily ever after” is often reserved for stories and not our lives. Life is a constant struggle, an ebb and flow, the highest of highs and the lowest of the heart-breaking lows.

Just when we think we have slayed the dragon, turned Darth Vader back to the light side of the Force, found our purpose, peace, or forgiveness from God, we find ourselves facing a new or recurring difficulty. After years of struggle and sacrifice to get a hold on the family finances, a lay off, a forced retirement, or sickness occurs. You believe that you have overcome depression and anxiety, only for circumstances to throw you back down to the pit. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you do the best you can to be compliant with your care plan, only to suffer a flare-up or relapse. It feels as if all progress is lost.

We say and think such things as It isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t fair. I’ve already been through this. Why is God allowing this?

One of the things we must change when we go through difficulties is our perceptions, or judgments. We work under the assumption that life is fair. Do good, get rewarded. Do bad, get punished. We expect instant blessing for ourselves because we all perceive ourselves as good, while we expect the perceived evildoers to receive instant punishment.  Unfortunately, the innocent suffer and the wicked are rewarded. We live in an imperfect world that doesn’t always make sense.

Neither Jesus nor anyone else said it was going to be easy. Jesus told us that we have to “take up our cross.” That cross at times will get heavy as we walk through this life.

Numerous times throughout his epistles, the Apostle Paul compares being a follower of Christ to the life of a soldier. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul encourages him to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3). A casual reading of the New Testament and its emphasis on suffering and persecution certainly deals a resounding defeat to the claims of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” where God grants all of our desires like a genie freed from a lamp, and life will be free from difficulty. Faith doesn’t free you from difficult times, it helps you get through them by creating within you a resilience, a persistence, the strength to fight no matter the circumstances.

Difficulties serve as a mirror as to our true reflection, our true strength, and whether we get tough when the tough gets going.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus parallels the Apostle Paul’s statement to Timothy, but uses the analogy of being a wrestler.

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish. From my perspective, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours, if you are prepared to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of an opponent in peak condition.”1

In another discouse, Epictetus discusses an how to develop an acceptance of what God brings our way, a way to develop a sort of indifference to circumstances, or “going with the flow.”

“Lift up your head, like a person finally released from slavery. Dare to face God and say, ‘From now on, use me as you like. I am of one mind with you, I am your peer.’ Whatever you decide, I will not shrink from it. You may put me where you like, in any role regardless: officer or citizen, rich man or pauper, here or overseas. They are all just so many opportunities to justify your ways to man,by showing just how little circumstances amount to.”

Though it does seem counter-intuitive, the Apostle Paul, Epictetus, and Bruce Lee all concur- don’t  pray for difficult circumstances to flee, but ask God for the strength to get through the hard times. You will be a stronger and better person for it. God bless you all.

 

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, Translated and edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008):56.

2Ibid, 116.

 

Confronting Our Self-Doubt

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt as far as possible all things.” -Rene Descartes

Doubt- fear’s annoying little brother. “Do you really think you can do this?” “Are you sure?” “What if your gut feeling is wrong?” “How do you know what you believe is true?”

Everyone has doubts- which can be useful at times, as we may avoid potentially painful episodes in our lives. Doubt also allows us to seek after the truth in a world where we cannot believe everything we see, hear, or read.

However, doubt becomes a problem when it brings us to a place of anxiety and inaction. Doubt will make us question long-held beliefs about ourselves, our abilities, or even the nature of our relationship to God. Doubt in its most crippling form brings uncertainty and a lack of conviction. Doubt also causes us to waver and hesitate with our actions. We try to save face and justify not going forward with a statement such as, “It just wasn’t the right time.”

“Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4, NIV).

There is no condemnation here for anyone who has ever doubted or maybe you are going through a time of doubt. Jude 22 tells us to “Be merciful to those who doubt.” (NIV). Show love, mercy, and compassion to those who are going through such a difficult time.

To make use of a cliché, doubt is literally “the oldest trick in the book.” Consider the serpent’s (Satan’s) encounter with Eve in the Garden of Eden.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1, NIV).

Satan planted the first seeds of doubt concerning God’s word. However, Eve responded with the truth of what God said.

“The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden,and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”(Genesis 3:2-3, NIV).

Eve 1, Satan 0. Satan then digs deeper into his bag of tricks, where he questions the truth of God’s word and God’s motives for His commandment. In essence, Satan responds with an attack of God’s goodness and nature.

“’You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”(Genesis 3:4-5, NIV).

Eve 1, Satan 1. Eve then eats the forbidden fruit and gives some to Adam. Sin infects all of creation and humanity is cursed through the fall. Eve 1, Satan 2. Game, set, match.

Thousands of years later, Satan tries the same tactics on Jesus as outlined in both Matthew 4 and Luke 4, but is unsuccessful. With his temptation of Jesus, Satan tries to make Jesus doubt His identity by uttering “If you be the Son of God.”

We can believe in the Bible, we can know our salvation is secure, we can know that we are loved, but we can still be riddled by self-doubt. This self-doubt will keep us in a lowly place and continue to feed the negative thoughts and emotions which poison our streams of Living Water. If we are so hindered by doubt, the temptation is always there to quit. Just give up. However, if we reach down and reach outside of ourselves, we can conquer our doubts.

I spent the last two months struggling with doubt and perceived looming failure. I have mentioned this in previous posts, but I decided at the age of 40 to go back to school to start a new career. I was doing great on the homework and keeping up with classwork despite working six days a week. However, I was not unable to pass the certification tests, which are essential to the career field I have chosen. I have always been a pretty good student, but these consecutive failures wore on my confidence. I had placed too much pressure on myself concerning this next test I was scheduled to take. This was going to be my last stand. Failed it. The next morning I wrote an email to my instructor, a school administrator, and the assistant campus director, informing them I was withdrawing. I was fully aware of the financial ramifications of my actions. I placed my failure solely on me, it was not the school’s or the instructor’s fault, it was me.

I received a reply back from the assistant campus director who wanted to discuss the matter further. My wife and my parents were encouraging, and so was the school. I decided to stick it out and the school placed me with a tutor, who worked with me on a previous test, and I passed. I have one certification under my belt. This boosted my confidence and changed the whole dynamic of me believing in myself. I know that abilities come solely from God, yet we must make use of the resources He provides.

If you are struggling in your self-confidence, here are some practical steps you can take to help you reach your goals:

  1. Realize that it’s going to be difficult.

  2. Realize that everyone goes through this.

  3. Focus on what you can control.

  4. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.

  5. Stop comparing yourself to others

  6. Realize your talents are unique to you.

  7. Progress, no matter how small, is progress nonetheless.

  8. Don’t allow your age to hinder you.

  9. Swallow your pride- make use of your resources.

God bless you all.

Seek Happiness from Within

Happiness is an inside job. In order to find our happiness, we must shut the door on the clamor that is modern life and seek the peace within ourselves.

Your happiness is squarely on your shoulders. Our happiness is the result of our internal response to external circumstances. Yes, there will be horrible, soul-crushing, darkness which will at times, mask our landscape, but you do not have to stay there. The ancient Greeks had a word, Euthymia, to describe a pleasant, peaceful state of mind. The Stoics, Seneca in particular, preferred the word Tranquility.  The Bible speaks of the peace that transcends all understanding.

In order to bring change to our world, we must do the work ourselves. Don’t look to people, governments, or stuff to make you happy or change your circumstances. Start with you. Seek God’s forgiveness, then make peace with yourself. You can’t change yesterday’s decisions and you can’t worry about tomorrow’s choices. It’s only you and this moment.

Epictetus said, “Regardless of what is going on around you, make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs.”

God has equipped all of us, albeit with different talents and skills, but we are all equipped nonetheless. Take the tools you have and build the life you want.

Process, Perception, and Victory

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” -John F. Kennedy

The sweet taste of victory can be quickly replaced with the bitter taste of failure. The elation of going to the championship game in any sport can be countered with the agony of a crushing defeat.  The whole season can be and is often judged as a failure because the team did not take home the trophy. I have heard championship winning athletes discuss how the losses stuck with them longer than the victories. So it is with our lives as defeat and failure loom larger than any successful endeavor.

Think of the most successful person you know. Have they always been on top of their game? Were they always the company’s best salesperson? Were they always the best musician? Were they the best money manager?  Were they always this wise, Yoda-like person? Probably not.

Success and failure are a matter of perception. We may see someone’s external success, but we never see the internal struggle. We compare their success to our current situation, but we never take into account they could have at one point faced our obstacles. Statistically speaking, we will have more perceived failure than perceived victories.

If you were to ask the most casual or non-observant sports fan to name a historical or current Major League Baseball player, I sure the name George Herman “Babe” Ruth would come up. Until 1974, Babe Ruth was the all-time home run hitter in MLB, with 714 home runs. Ruth also won 94 games as a pitcher and had a lifetime batting average of .342. Ruth also won a total of seven championships with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. That’s a rock-solid resume of baseball immortal, right?

What if I you that Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times? Does that change your perception of him? Or take Ruth’s lifetime average of .342. That means that if  Ruth went to bat 1,000 times, he would get a hit to get on base 342 times. So, almost two-thirds of the time Babe Ruth did not get on base. I am not disparaging Babe Ruth, I am simply illustrating how we look at the successes, but not look at the struggle. People remember the home runs, not the strikeouts.

(Statistics courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01-bat.shtml accessed 5 February 2017).

Life is a process. All of us must go through our process. Failure is not fatal. A setback is an opportunity to step back and reassess the situation. If our process is flawed, we can correct it. If it is something beyond our control, we must have the wisdom to know that as well. We, like Babe Ruth, will not always hit a home run in life, but we must keep getting up to bat. If we were to view our struggles as preparation for a larger moment, we will have a solid foundation to fall back on when our next challenge comes.

David was one person from the Bible who recognized the value of the process. David being the youngest brother, had the job of tending his father’s sheep. David had older brothers in King Saul’s army who were being taunted by Goliath. Neither David’s brothers nor the other soldiers accepted Goliath’s challenge. However, David recognized that the process he went through prepared him to take down the giant.

“But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard,and struck and killed it.” (1 Samuel 17:34-35, NKJV).

David learned the process of taking down creatures larger than himself, thus he knew he could defeat Goliath.

“Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them , seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” (1 Samuel 17:36, NKJV).

Notice how David referred to Goliath: “this uncircumcised Philistine.” David did not acknowledge Goliath’s height or his might as a warrior. David instead grouped his challenge in with everything else. What kind of victorious mindset would we have if we were to think about past victories when we encounter obstacles? “I overcame this diagnosis.” “I came back from bankruptcy.”” I survived that bad relationship.” “I will overcome this too.”

We should not be prideful in our abilities, but recognize that our abilities, processes, and strategies come from God, who is preparing us for the next step. David is not being boastful, because he recognizes who gave him the victory.

“Moreover David said, ‘The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.'” (1 Samuel 17:37a, NKJV).

The rest as they say, is history.

Our sanctification is a process. Gaining wisdom is a process. You cannot get the proper results without the process. Step back in the moment. Don’t think about the last pitch, focus on this one. One pitch,one swing. Don’t worry about the conclusion of your life story, write the current chapter one word at a time. God bless you.

 

 

 

Negative Visualization and Faith

What’s the worst that can happen?” If you ever asked this question, you have been greeted more than likely with being shushed, glares, or heard, “Don’t say that.”

As humans, we do not like to contemplate the worst-case scenario. In fact, we develop a kind of superstition about such questions as “What’s the worst that could happen?” because we have tendency to think that asking such a question is going to invite some heartache or tragedy into our lives.

Although we do not like to mention it, we do take precautions against the worst-case scenario. If we are worried someone would break into our home, we lock our doors and windows, we install a security system, or we may purchase a weapon to protect ourselves in the event of a home invasion. We also purchase homeowner’s or renter’s insurance in the event our home is burglarized or damaged by a fire or disaster. We have health insurance in the event we get sick. We have car insurance in the event our car is wrecked or stolen. We buy life insurance to make sure our family is taken care of in the event of our death.

It is only right and commendable that we take precautions to protect our families and everything we have worked for in our lives. However, what if we were able to contemplate the worst case scenario without living a life crippled by fear and anxiety?

The Stoics practiced what is called negative visualization.

Negative visualization does not mean that we live as a “Gloomy Gus” or “Debbie Downer,” finding the negative in everything, but it teaches us to have peace of mind in the midst of challenging circumstances. Thus, negative visualization can mentally prepare us and lessen the impact of the worst case scenario. This in turn will increase the joy in our lives as we embrace our loved ones and this present moment even more.

According to William B. Irvine, “Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it. This in turn means that by practicing negative visualization, we can not only increase our chances of experiencing joy but increase the chance that the joy we experience will be durable, that it will survive changes in our circumstances.”[1]

Someone right now may be raising the objection, “Aren’t we as Christians supposed to have faith that God will protect us?” Yes, we are supposed to have faith, but our faith does not prevent us from experiencing hardships in this life.

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22b, NIV).

“Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3, NIV).

“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV).

Thus, by practicing negative visualization, we can still have faith and joy in the midst of circumstances.

Going back to the example of protecting our homes. Let us imagine someone breaks-in to your house and steals your new TV. Naturally, we would be upset about our TV being stolen, but we can take stock of what’s around us. If we were to step back, we could be thankful that we were not physically harmed, our family is safe, our pets are safe, the house is still standing, and the insurance will replace the TV. We have reason to praise God although our TV was stolen.

We can examine terrible situations and still find a reason to rejoice. I have discussed in several posts about my battles with anemia and celiac disease. I was very ill and could have had a fatal heart attack due to the strain the anemia placed on my body. While going through the anemia was difficult, the doctors found out that I have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Patients with celiac disease also experience anemia. I had to make sudden dietary changes, but it worked out for the best because I am no longer anemic. I have my energy back and was blessed with a second chance at life.

I came close to death, but I did not die. I know that one day I will die, but I do not let that stop me from living life. In fact, going through this trial with my health has given the opportunity to be more mindful of the life that is all around me. My faith has been deepened through my experiences because I know that God has allowed me to endure and to overcome these obstacles. If I were to contemplate what would come next, I know I would be able to handle that as well. Maybe you have already experienced a worst-case scenario- whatever that is. You are still standing. You are still here. You have lived through that experience, even though it may be the lowest point of your life. You have the training and strength to get through the next trial. We must not take anyone or anything for granted. Let us be grateful for the present moment. God bless you all.

[1] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009:83.