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Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent and the Waiting Game



Burning candles from advent calendar Stock Photo1. Advent
The Advent season is now in full swing. I don't know about you, but sometimes I get this panicky feeling when I realize that Christmas is just around the corner. There is so much to do: shopping for gifts, innumerable Christmas parties to attend at school, sport clubs, church, getting organized for out-of-town guests, etc. This hustle and bustle seems to fly in the face of what the Advent season is all about: waiting. It used to be a season set apart for expectant waiting on the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

2. "Wait a minute!"
But waiting is not restricted to Advent and the Christmas season. Waiting is a universal phenomenon.
Ethan, my then six year old, was standing at my side while I was typing at the computer. He questioned me again about something he wanted. Honestly, I cannot even remember what it was about. "Wait a minute," was my answer to him. Upon hearing this he retorted: "Does 'wait a minute' always mean never, Mom?" Ouch.
Waiting is a common, universal human experience. It does not matter how old you are, what race you are, what gender you are, what country you are from. Waiting is and will always be part of your human experience. Waiting is also something we do not find easy because it reveals to us that we are not in ultimate control. Try to convince a newborn baby to wait on the next feeding, or a toddler to wait while food is on his highchair tray in front of him. Waiting on the delayed arrival of a baby still in the womb can be unbearable. Waiting for that perfect man to appear, or for a job offer or on exam results can be torture to us because we are neither in control of the passage of time nor of the certainty of the results.
Another difficulty we have with waiting, is that it never really comes to an end until we die. No sooner than we have received that for which we were waiting, we start waiting for the next thing. We always tend to believe that what comes next will be bigger and better than our current situation. As a child, I felt like I could hardly wait to be grown up because then, life would really start. When I was a student, I could hardly wait to graduate so I could be a part of the adult world, the real world. Once I graduated, I could hardly wait to find a husband because then I would be truly happy. Once I got married, I started thinking that having children would make me even happier. Once I had children and was in the baby stage, I started waiting with great expectation for the time when my child would finally sleep though the night. Once my children were toddlers, I could hardly wait for them to be old enough to speak, to be toilet-trained, to go to pre-school in the morning so I could finally have a little time to myself. And so it keeps going on and on....

3. Waiting involves longing
The truth is that waiting is such an existential part of our life, because waiting, at its core is about longing. There is an emptiness in us that makes us long for more, for something bigger and better that what we are or have now. We long for meaning and security. We long to be known and loved and appreciated. We long for beauty and justice. We long for things to be just right, or even perfect. That sense of longing can appear in all areas of our lives, be it relational, professional, emotional, physical, spiritual,  intellectual, you name it. Why do we long for things to be better? Is our human experience just about the survival of the fittest, as Darwinian, evolutionistic thought would tell us? One might agree that the desire to survive, to reproduce and protect oneself is part of the survival of the fittest...but what about the longing for love, and beauty and justice, dignity and self-sacrifice? These concepts cannot be explained from an atheistic, evolutionary vantage point because these things are completely irrelevant to the concept of survival of the fittest, in fact they even hinder it. My father recently wrote a birthday email to my son on his 14th birthday. I want to share a portion of it with you:
"I preached this morning from Psalm 8 (he is a minister) which teaches about the person of God and human dignity. I mentioned Eric Liddell, a Scotsman, winner of the men's 400 meters at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. He had the world record for the 100 meters but would not run in the finals because they were staged on a Sunday (you may recall this was the theme of the movie Chariots of Fire.)
The Japanese polytheists and the Chinese Marxist  63 years later recognized true human dignity in this man. After his Olympic success he went as a missionary to China, and was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1943 where he served the sick and the dying, until, on  February 21, 1945, five months before liberation, he died of overwork and malnourishment. In 2008 near the time of the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities revealed information from 1945 that had somehow been preserved by the Japanese that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the camp and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. He gave his life to save this woman, and it only became known 63 years later. The Japanese were amazed and shared their amazement with the Chinese who made it known in 2008. That is the way Jesus lived. That is true maturity, and eventually people recognize it. You are in my prayers that you will have this goal, Christ-like maturity, always before you."
Darwinian survivalism leaves no room for this sort of behavior, nor can it explain it. Liddel surely had waited and longed for his own release, he probably fantasized about it in his daydreams. But when the time came, he was able to relinquish it and give his place to a pregnant woman. What enabled him to do that?

4. Waiting shows us we are made for something more
I would love to propose that the waiting we experience and the longing we feel when we have to wait is a sign to us that we were made for something more than just this world. Have you ever thought of that? If this world is all there is, why is it that we long for things this world can never really offer? C.S Lewis, a writer and Oxford professor wrote "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity). Another author, Saint Augustine, an early church father, wrote in a well-known prayer to God: "You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." 

5. That something more is God himself
This is an amazing proposition! God made us for himself! For relationship with him. The restlessness we experience comes from expecting other things to truly satisfy us and fill that God-shaped void.
The incident at the computer with my son Ethan got me thinking about God as our heavenly Father. He sometimes says "wait a minute" to us too. He is not a heavenly vending machine built to give us what we want,  when we want at the push of a button. Sometimes those minutes turn into weeks, months, or years. But the delay in his answer is not because he is too busy to deal with us, too wrapped up in himself to notice us or that our requests are unimportant to him. God certainly doesn't mean "never" when He says "wait." In fact, 99% of the Bible could be wrapped up in one word: "wait." Humans alienate themselves from God when they decide they know best...In fact, the very first human described in the Bible, Adam, made God his enemy when he failed to wait on God. He, being proud and impatient, took his life into his own hands. Yet, even after his great failure, God promised Adam that a descendant of his would reconcile humanity with God. Thousands of years later (now that's a long wait!), God sent his son, Jesus to this earth to do this very thing: to open up the way for us to have a relationship with God again. Through Jesus, who made a way for us by dying on the cross, the God-sized void in our hearts can be filled again.
Is there a longing in your heart that you recognize this day as a deep longing for God? If you do, the good news is that Jesus can satisfy that longing. All it takes is to recognize your emptiness, your need of him, believe that he paid for your sins on the cross and receive his forgiveness. When we do this, we receive a new identity as children of God. And when we have God's approval, we don't need to strive for the approval of men. When we have God's love, we can live without the love of a man. When we have God's forgiveness, we can afford to not take revenge on those who have harmed us. It is this new sense of fulfilled identity that gave Eric Liddell the ability to forfeit his freedom and give it to another. Jesus gives us everything we need for life and happiness. All of our longings can be satisfied in him because He promises us life in full. He also said that he would come again and set all things aright and that we would live with him forever. So even our desire for a perfect, peaceful and unending world filled with joy will be satisfied through Him someday. But for that, we have to wait. 

6. But wait...
I can hear your  skeptical question, because I have it too: So why do we still struggle with waiting even though Jesus has already come?
This answer may not satisfy you completely, but it does helps me in my doubts. The answer is really more of a question. Could it be that the waiting contains a message and a meaning almost just as significant as the answer itself? Waiting entails longing. Maybe not getting what we want right away forces us to long for God's presence instead of his presents. The Advent season and waiting for Christmas is not really a good analogy for me. Not that it is bad to "wait for Christmas" but, really, that's looking back to an event that already took place. Waiting for Jesus' return is a much more fitting, up-to-date biblical paradigm that challenges me to truly wait, walking by faith, not by sight. Jesus told us in the Bible that he would return "in a minute."
C.S Lewis describes that moment when our earthly waiting will come to an end in his children's book, The Last Battle which is a part of the Narnia Series. In this series, 4 children travel to a magical land called Narnia and encounter a Lion named Aslan, who is a picture of Jesus. In the last book, at the very end Aslan ushers the children into his country. This is what Lewis writes:
 “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 is 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 forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” 
Waiting on Chapter One of the great story challenges us to trust him. To believe him. To wait on him. Can you and I live in the gap, between what we know to be true and what we believe will be true? Can we wait in this season of Second Advent, not with passivity but with action, like Eric Liddell, that shows we believe God doesn't mean "never" when he says "wait"?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Santa and the Antithesis of Christmas


I will never forget our first Saint Nicholas day here in Berlin. We invited our neighbors over for a nice Saint Nick's coffee time. They came dressed up in as Saint Nicholas and Knecht Rupert, his servant. Saint Nick was wearing the typical Father Christmas garb, and carried a sack of gifts. But Rupert was actually scary. He came dressed in brown, wearing an ugly mask and carrying a sack of coal and a whip. They both asked the kids whether they had been good or bad...Our kids were terrified and didn't know what to say! Before Saint Nick would give them anything, they had to answer that they had been good.

"According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes.  In other (presumably more modern) versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children useless, ugly gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas. He also can be known to give naughty children a switch (stick) in their shoes for their parents to beat them with, instead of candy, fruit and nuts, in the German tradition." (From the very reliable source of Wikipedia!)

Another time, we were invited to spend Christmas with another German family. Santa came in with gifts, but before the children could receive them, they had to either sing a song for Santa, recite a poem or otherwise perform something before him. Our children, again, unused to this tradition, were petrified and had nothing prepared. Santa refused to give the children anything until they did. This experience was mildly traumatic for them.
All of these cultural tidbits reveal how counter-cultural grace is here, and I'd venture to say it is is similar in other cultures. Think of Santa's "naughty and nice" list... 

There are a number of problems with Santa's logic, compared to God's gospel logic in the message of Christmas:
1) We can never truly say that we've been good and deserve God's gifts.
2) We cannot clean up our act before God comes to us (kids here must clean their shoes before they set them out, or else Saint Nick may not leave any sweets in them)
3) There is no act we can perform to make God pleased with us in order to then receive his gifts.
4) Not only does he withhold the coal and the whip we deserve, he give us gifts we have not deserved.
5) God doesn't just give us material gifts. His greatest Christmas gift is the gift of his son Jesus, which promises peace with God and an intimate relationship with Him because what separated us from him was removed by Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
These truths should inform how we talk about Christmas to our kids and how we use "rewards" and "punishments" in our child-rearing. I need to think about it more. I see how a whole culture bases its value on its works and how deadly of a trap it is. I want my kids to know grace, undeserved grace and hope that experience would so delight them, that they'd understand the deep, deep love of their Savior. That and only that will motivate them to want to be "good."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Women Lust Too


 
Lust... Though men are not animals at the mercy of their sexual desires, it still remains a battle for them to keep their gaze and mind pure. But what about women? Are they off the hook? Turning the tables in a one-to-one comparison doesn't do anyone any favors because men and women struggle in different ways. Albeit, there are women who struggle with lust over mens' bodies, or even women's bodies in a same sex attraction, but I would venture to say the majority of us women, especially married women, don't think we struggle with sexual lust, endowing us with a perceived moral high ground over men. Our thinking goes like this: "How could men struggle with lusting after other women? I don't lust after the bodies of other men!"

1. The woman's struggle with lust

When a beautiful woman walks in the room or is flashed on a screen or billboard, all eyes are transfixed. This includes the gaze of women. Whereas the sinful  lustful inner dialogue of a man might sound something like this, "I wonder what it would be like to have sex with that body? " a woman might be thinking, "I wonder what it would be like to have such a body?" Men want the body, women want the body. They desire to be the body that everyone is attracted  to. Lust can be either a strong feeling of sexual desire, or a strong desire for something (Merriam Webster). If a man acts out on his form of lust through indulging in pornography, visiting prostitutes,  adultery or even rape, forcefully taking the body he wants, it is blatantly wrong and even criminal. But what does it look like for a woman to act out on her lust? She cannot take the body she desires to have, so what does she do? For the most part, her sin remains hidden but here are some tell-tale signs of her struggle, which I will describe in the first person because I struggle with this too.

2. Signs of struggle  

Self-Pity
The first feeling that lust produces in a woman is a dissatisfaction with her own body. We have compared our body with someone else's and fallen short and this makes us feel nauseous. We imagine the other woman is sexier, more confident in herself and overall better off. This leads us to self-pity.

Insecurity
Feeling sorry for ourselves makes us feel insecure. We feel threatened in our own femininity and start worrying about our husband or fiancé or boyfriend finding a new person more attractive. We transpose this subjective fear into reality. Because I am struggling with lust, my man must be all the more and we think our relationship is threatened anew with every new attractive woman we must inevitably encounter. Our relationship must be shaky and we worry about him being unfaithful.

 Criticism 
We feel the need to put down  other women. We rationalize our struggle away by leveling the playing field in our own minds. The thinking goes like this, "well, she may be very sexy, but she probably isn't very intelligent" or "her hair is perfect, but I'm sure glad I don't have those legs." We would never say anything cruel, but we think it to make ourselves feel better. 

Activism
If that doesn't make us feel better, we embark on a never-ending cycle of self-improvement. We feel the need to regain ground because our place at the top has been threatened. This is a form of works righteousness in which we attempt to prove to ourselves, the world around us and ultimately even to God  that we can change ourselves into our own image, the perfect one we've created, one we so desperately want to attain. We make new dietary resolutions, new and better work-out plans, buy new clothes and cosmetics so we can look sexier.


3. The core problem

Lusting after some other woman's body is a symptom of a deep dissatisfaction with the way we look, and is, at its core a matter of pride. We feel we deserve better. When I was a teenager struggling to accept my body  and all of its changes, my mother once said to me, "complaining about your figure is like slapping God in the face!" Wow! That really caught my attention. My dissatisfaction with my body was shouting out to God, "you made me wrong!" But as my Maker, did he not have the right to make me as He pleased? Does not God look over his creation and pronounce it good? (Genesis 1). Who was I to contradict Him? 
 
4. The solution

Our bodies are not unimportant to God and we need to care for them as good stewards. We need to eat right, exercise regularly, sleep enough etc. Nevertheless, the Fall affects our bodies so that they age, wrinkle, sag and eventually die. God know this and in his mercy, he sent Jesus to die on the cross to reverse the cursed effects of the Fall. Through the resurrection, God has assured us that he is capable and is, is in fact in the process of making all things new. But interestingly, God is in the business of renewing us from the inside out, not the outside in. "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. "(2Co 4:16 NIV). He starts with our hearts because that is where the core problem resides: sin. He sees into the recesses of our hearts, where those dark lustful, self-destructive thoughts lie and chose to plunge into that cavern to shine his light there. When we start seeing our hearts through his redemptive purposes, we will see that that is where the Spirit is initiating change, bringing us to repentance and giving us new longings. The rest of the effects of the Fall will be overcome on the final day and then we will also receive perfect bodies to go along with our perfected hearts.
Maybe that is why he constantly frustrates us in our strivings to renew ourselves from the outside in. He wants us to come to the realization that we are made for something more! To be a self-made woman based on the ideals put forth in women's magazines or comparing ourselves with other women whom we admire is not God's goal for us, it would be far too puny! In fact, those magazines can be just as bad for our souls as pornographic ones are for men's. Rather, He wants us to be changed into the image of his son, Jesus, the perfect man. He wants for me and you to be the perfect me and you, living our own life to the fullest, experiencing his joy in how he intended us to be and looking forward to seeing all of his purposes fulfilled in us. Let's not waste precious time trying to be someone else, rather, let's seek out what God has in store for us here and now. Being satisfied in God alone will make you and me an irresistibly attractive woman, inside and out, because his love will shine through us for the world to see!

Disclaimer

This article is by no means intended to downplay the real struggle women have with sexual lust which has been exacerbated by the wide-spread use of pornography. Many young women claim they are addicted to it. It is a huge battle that single women often have to face alone and married women feel too ashamed to disclose. But you are not alone. There are great support groups out there, such as Harvest USA or Route1520


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Demonology 101


Shock

After a few months on "our" mission field, a post-communist, dead, atheistic region, my family and I were reeling from the shock. No, not culture-shock, though there was plenty of that. It was the shock of coming face to face with demonic forces beyond our comprehension. Numerous strange events had transpired: liters of urine poured into our stroller, blood splattered on our apartment door, a small hole had been drilled into our front door indicating a planned break-in (the hole is used to insert a small probe camera), much sickness, poor sleep for us, and even sensing an evil presence in our bedroom. At first we thought we must be imagining things, but the horrid climax was the nightmares that tormented our two-year old son. For many months he’d wake up screaming bloody murder and we could not settle him back down easily. At two and a half, he was finally able to verbalize what he’d been dreaming about for the past few months. One of his most vivid dreams was about a woman with black hair and red eyes who wore only a bra and black pants and would offer him a basket of rotten fruit and force him to eat. His nightmare was x-rated, not a typical toddler-being-chased-by-a-bear dream. Satan was not playing fair. Now the shock turned to anger. I scanned the recesses of my brain. What had seminary taught me about demonic activity? I couldn’t recall any class where we had discussed anything remotely similar to what we were experiencing nor was “Demonology 101” offered at when I attended! But what seminary taught me was not to panic in the face of theological conundrums. It gave me a lens through which I was taught to see everything from the perspective of God’s sovereignty. 

Reality Check

As Christians, we can be sure of the existence of Satan and demons because the Bible plainly depicts them as fallen angels who work in the world to oppose God and his people, deceive and blind unbelievers  to the Truth. We have a very real adversary who roams around like a roaring  lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pe 5:8). As Ephesians 6 describes, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12). The devil is bent on destroying Christians, their testimony and stopping the progress of the gospel. What we experienced was "normal" for our context and many other missionaries can testify to similar kinds of things happening to them. I call these sorts of scare tactics "demonic bullying." In a place where the number of Christians is under 1% and the rest of the population is consciously or unconsciously worshiping the enemy, this is not surprising at all. Satan does not want people rescued out of darkness and brought into the light. He will use ordinary frustrating events  to harass the believer and occasionally he will employ extraordinary means to bolster his scare tactics, as was the case of my son's dream.
Satan, demons and their power are real but they are not allowed to toy with us, even though that is what it feels like sometimes. The devil  is only permitted to do what God has decreed. I love the story of Job because it is as if the author pulls back the heavenly curtain for us and we see Satan entering the stage of God's courtroom. God himself brings Job to Satan's attention. He is allowed to afflict Job, but within limits, albeit with very severe consequences for him and his family. In Job's case, Satan is not allowed to take his life. God's sovereignty has always trumped Satan's power. From this side of the cross, we know his doom is sure. Our ultimate victory over Satan is guaranteed because our life is hidden in Christ and he has already conquered all evil through his death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit, who indwells believers, is the down payment of our eternal inheritance. Since the coming of the Holy Spirit, the enemy can only harass as he exists the stage, and he certainly cannot possess (believers, that is)!

Action Plan

Because we were so overwhelmed with our situation, we needed help. We called our teammates to come pray with us. While he was asleep, we prayed at my son’s bedroom windows, that God would not allow any evil to enter into his room and that he would sleep peacefully. The next morning I asked him, “Did you have a nightmare last night?” His toddler answer was flabbergasting: “Yes, but this time the woman was outside my window and she couldn’t come in.” Most often, we aren't given the privilege of seeing when and how God is acting in the supernatural world. But this time, we saw it! It was as if God were pulling back the heavenly curtain for us, just for a moment. God, in his sovereignty, was ministering to my little boy, protecting and comforting him in ways I could not. We were given a sneak peek into how God uses the prayers of his people to accomplish his will. How that ministered to our souls during that dark season

This also spurred us on to pray more fervently. We started teaching our children to wield the weapons given to us and described in Ephesians 6, especially prayer and God's Word. We came to expect attacks and be alert but also not become paralyzed by them. When we started evangelistic meetings in our home, one of our 5 children inevitably became sick, every week without fail. Satan's attacks became so predictable, it was almost laughable. Instead of canceling the meeting, we would call one of our dear teammates to come babysit and pray on the top floor while we held the meeting downstairs. We learned not to be intimidated and to pursue our calling anyway. We have never experienced an attack of that order again, but have taken advantage of the gift of prayer on behalf of new teammates who have faced similar onslaughts. It is an honor to be able to speak from experience and comfort them with the truths of God's sovereignty. We labor in the land of Martin Luther who sums it all up quite well when he penned the words to the famous hymn A Mighty Fortress:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Extravagant Grace, by Barbara Duguid





Why is it that God does not instantaneously make us holy at the moment of our conversion? Why do we find ourselves repeatedly battling the same sins, often defeated, and seemingly making little progress?
These are some of the tough questions that Barbara tackles in her book. She approaches the topic of indwelling sin, sanctification and grace through the lens of John Newton's writings. She clearly has a deep personal understanding of grace, anchored in solid biblical exegesis, the Reformed confessions, as well as her own experience, one shared by John Newton.
She explains the different stages of Christian growth, as observed  by Newton. The new believer begins the Christian walk with great excitement and believing in the possibility of overcoming all sin. However, once the realization sets in that certain sins are not going away quickly, in spite of real effort, a crisis of faith often ensues. If God is sovereign, why would he let me struggle and fail so much? The maturing believer is humbled by this new struggle and starts to understand his desperate dependence on God not just for salvation but also sanctification. God uses sin in our life to rid us of the belief that if we just try harder, we will sin less. The mature believer understands Newton's statement that "sin is the bass line of the music of our lives and that the gospel is the sweet melody."
According to Barbara, we live in a Disney-deluded world in which we are taught to believe that we can be and do anything we please. But this make-believe fairy tale inevitably collides with reality. We are limited, weak and sinful people whose default mode it is to live for self.  Just like the Barbie doll, we may look great on the outside but our feet are not made to stand alone. We were made to stand in Christ alone. If we try on our own, we will fall. The message that God has even ordained each individual's struggle with sin is freeing.  "You will never be able to find steady joy in this life until you understand, submit to and even embrace the fact that you are weak and sinful {...} You may think that you would actually bring God more glory through your strength and obedience than through failure. Yet the Sovereign Lord of the Universe appears to disagree with you. God is supremely interested in the glory of his Son and delights  in the way that glory is revealed in his love for wicked people who continue to need his grace and mercy day after day"(p.82).
Barbara also clearly addresses certain errors that might ensue from such a lavish understanding of grace. On the one hand, we could fall into hopelessness and give up fighting since we will be sinners until the day we die and God's job is to forgive us anyway. On the other hand we could believe that sanctification is a cooperative agreement  between us and God,  leading to more works righteousness. Barbara navigates the waters of sanctification clear of both of those erroneous shores. Each and every one of our sins is numbered and paid for and God looks at us with as much love as he views his son Jesus who has lived the perfect life for us. We are enveloped in Christ's righteousness.  In view of God's amazing love, our reaction will be one of humility, gratitude and kindness toward other sinners.
What makes this book most compelling is Barbara's vulnerability, the candid examples from her own life struggles and failures. She tells innumerable stories of how God's extravagant grace changed her view of herself and enabled her to extend that kind of grace to others. She writes with the warmth and tenderness of a mother while being fierce and strong when it comes to the doctrines of grace. This book will be a huge comfort to all those struggling with sin...which means I cannot think of one person who should not read this book!
To find out more about the book, go to: