Sunday, March 13, 2016

That I may know ... the fellowship of his sufferings.

You cannot reasonably argue that my Dad was anything but a great and natural educator.  For one thing, I still remember things he tried to teach me 45 years ago ... things which didn't "take" with me at the time, but which I am perhaps now just beginning to apprehend.

One such teaching of my Dad's took place over and over again in Family Devotions.  For those of you who were not raised in Evangelical Christian households, "Devotions" was a family time of Bible Study, discussion, and prayer, in our case, led by the family patriarch.  Think of it as homeschool catechism, if you like.

In our family devotions, Dad seemed to come back over and over again (annoyingly, I thought) to a few themes.  One of them was that Christians, as a Free Bonus for believing in Christ get to share in the sufferings of Christ!   Imagine my joy at hearing this!  I don't think I was unusual among 10-year-old kids in thinking that this was a very bizarre and distasteful idea.  My idea was a rather more Old Testament (as I saw it then) concept of where I believe in God and try to do good things, and then God heaps up giant heaps of blessing on me.  (Some, such as Joel Osteen, have never got past this 10-year-old's conception of the Christian faith.)  But my dad kept pounding it into us that our reward for being Christians would be to get to suffer for and with Jesus Christ.  
Among his chief texts was Philippians 3:10:

"That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death."

But I think he also used Philippians 1:29, 1 Peter 4:13, and Colossians 1:24.

But I didn't really internalize these verses. All they really did was to make the New Testament a kind of minefield to read through, filled with the wonderful promises of God that I would suffer for his sake. I should not have been surprised. My namesake, St. Paul, knew it well. What did the risen Lord Jesus say to Saul of Tarsus when he first spoke audibly to him? Was it, "Hey, Saul. I'ma call you Paul, and we shall be best friends! I'm going to make you so happy." Not quite. It was:

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.  “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

And (worse and worse), here is what he told Ananias, the man to whose house he sent poor Saul:

“Go! This man is my chosen instrumentto proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Really? Wow. What a friend we have in Jesus, as the song goes.

So, I didn't internalize or absorb this teaching. Life went on. I tried to avoid suffering in the usual ways we humans do. I found interesting things to do that seemed to bring me joy. I learned to play guitar, and played in a few bands. I drank a lot of beer. I took up bodybuilding. I started making oil paintings. I started fixing up old cars. I got a cool tattoo. These things (except, sadly, beer) have all remained with me to this day. But for a while now, the joy seems to have gone out of them. The things which used to make me happy didn't really work any more.

I started to try to help people. Surely concentrating on making other people's lives better would make mine richer, and bring me joy? Right? But, in the end, not so much. In the end, there was pain and disillusionment. It was as if every new pursuit, hobby, or friendship was a bright door with the word "JOY" written on it. I opened the door, but inside each door was a kind of very long children's playground slide. I enjoyed the ride down each time, I suppose, but every time one of these Joy Slides dumped me out at the bottom, there I was, mired in the sufferings of Christ.

Someone recently asked me, "Do you think that by God taking the joy out of these things you used to love, He is telling you to find a new thing to do?"

I thought about, but I know the answer is No. There is only one way forward now. God has allowed me a participation in the sufferings of Christ. I seem most often to be in torment because of them. No, the way forward is not to find another JOY door through which I can escape the sufferings of Jesus. The way forward is to find the fellowship in these sufferings. That's what has been missing. The way forward is to beg Jesus to be in fellowship with me in these sufferings.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

God Wants Things To Be Hard For Us

It is amazing how many things fall into place once you come to the realization that God wants things to be hard for us. 

There must be REAL risk, hardship, and sacrifice to obtain any meaningful reward in life. This is the message of the Gospel story of the widow's mites. 

 "Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."

When you really risk loss and ruin, then real reward becomes possible. It is MEANT to be hard to do. Just as (and you knew this was coming) bodybuilding exercises are hard to do. They are MEANT to be hard. There is SUPPOSED to be sacrifice!

If I could only keep this in mind, what a happy man I would be.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Horror of Idolatry & The Monkees' "I'm a Believer"

I've been hearing the Monkees' song I'm a Believer since around the time it was released ... so, approximately 50 years.  But I don't think I really understood it until tonight.  It came on YouTube after some other 1960s song, and I heard it as with new ears.

But first, I should say that I have some personal history with this song.  A band I was in tried to make a Christian/Gospel song out of this.  It seemed an obvious choice, since being a "believer" is what the Faith is all about.  As a Calvinist, I thought the line,

"Ooh ... I'm a believer; I couldn't leave Him if I tried"

was a clever way of saying that our election in Christ is beyond us, and that nothing (not even we ourselves) can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:39)

What I did not realize until later was that it obliterated the internal rhyme of "believer" with "leave her", stripping the chorus of its verbal "hook."

But tonight, I heard the Monkees sing the song in its original (not my modified) form, and it struck me as horrific.  It appeared to me (finally, after all those decades) as idolatrous.  Idolatrous, because the singer has placed the sort of hope in a girlfriend that properly should be placed only in God.  Such a hope that love itself meant nothing until he "saw her face."

That is a lot of pressure to put on a young woman.  What if, one day, her face is not quite as lovely?  Does one at that point revert back to not believing in love?  Idols (whether human, animal, or inanimate) will ALWAYS let us down eventually.  My thought is that the sooner we are let down, the better.  The sooner our illusions that some other human (or object) can stand in for God is dashed, the better.

But do you know the line which horrified me most in this song?  It was this:
"I'm a believer; I couldn't leave her if I tried."

What a terrifying thought, that one could be so enslaved by another being that even if it seemed best, and try as one might, one would be unable to leave that other person.  Even, I presume, if that other person's toxic nature became apparent to one.  You'd still be stuck.  You could never leave.

Idolatry is hard to quit, even when the idols disappoint us.  I think it would make a fine Old Testament drinking game to read through the books of Kings and Chronicles, and to take a shot every time it is recorded that, "Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away."

May God deliver us from the horror of idols, the failure of idols, and the terrible inability to leave them!