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Finding Hope in Suffering

I moved in with my sister’s family when she was already five months pregnant. She said these last few months felt more difficult than her first pregnancy. I wasn’t around the first time, but for this one, I had a front-row view of the restless nights, the back pains, the swollen ankles. Almost every day had its own challenge to endure. By the last month, she felt ready to be done. Instead, the pain continued to increase as the baby grew.

The contractions began two days before her due date. At first she wasn’t sure if the pain was part of labor or only false signs. We took a walk around the neighborhood, putting my niece in a stroller. When we returned home, the pains had gotten worse. She timed the lapse between each wave. Some made her halt in place, braced against the kitchen counter or couch back.

All the while, I stayed nearby and kept my niece distracted, wondering what else I could do to make my sister feel better. It gave me a new understanding of Romans 8:18-24. Paul writes about the groaning of creation, like an expectant mother, anticipating relief from its present pain.

“The midwife said that the hardest contractions are the ones that do the most good,” my sister told me.

That didn’t make it easier to watch her in pain. As the birth drew closer, the contractions magnified. They grew more painful and more frequent. My sister could do little more than shuffle restlessly around the house. But good was happening, even though it didn’t feel good at the time. When it came time to push, her groans rose to the crescendo of screams. Nothing less could express her agony. And in the end, the pain was overcome with joy when her second daughter took her first breaths. My sister glowed in euphoria, hugging the precious baby to her chest. The pain had been worth it for this gift. There were no more utterances for how much she hurt, only for how beautiful her daughter looked.

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Credit: David J Laporte (https://flic.kr/p/9jYqvc)

In Romans, Paul pictured childbirth to describe all of creation’s suffering. He wrote, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” I don’t know if Paul was ever close to a woman about to give birth, but after seeing my sister’s experience, I’m inclined to agree with him. Paul was thinking about the corruption of everything that was once good, which started with the original fall of Adam and Eve. Since then, nothing has been the same. God’s creation was damaged beyond healing. It was true in Paul’s day and it’s true now.

But like any childbirth, the pain is getting worse. We’re seeing widespread suffering and crises on a magnitude that Paul never experienced. Any regular reader of my blog knows that I don’t normally comment on trending issues. However, I wonder if current events like ISIS attacks, the Syrian refugee crisis, even the polarization of Americans, are all part of birth pains just like Paul said.

Agonizing events like the Paris bombings last week shock us all, not just because of what it means for particular people but its ultimate impact on all humanity. The state of this world isn’t looking good. Where can we find hope?

Paul wrote, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Thankfully, we’re promised that redemption is coming (or in process already). Joy will overtake pain. Good will conquer in the end. This is what we cling to; this is what creation longs for in groaning.

I don’t often write on issues under debate, the “timely” or “relevant” news, because I’d much rather focus on the One who will end suffering. If I only have a number of words to use in my life, I want to dedicate them to Our Savior, the only good news that is always timely and always relevant because he came to redeem all people. I’m called to tell the good news until my last breath. Why water down that message with trendy arguments and debates? They may tempt temporary relief, but what else sustains a mother like the expectation of seeing her labor’s result? If we must argue, let us argue Christ.

“And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. … Be on your guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come” (Matt. 13:7-8, 33).

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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Other thoughts

 

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To Be One in the Body

What if your hand decided it didn’t like being attached to your body? It thinks your stomach is a little too flabby or your armpits need better deodorant. It thinks it would be better off on its own. So your hand decides to sever itself. What would happen?

Obviously, it’d die.

With the body, your hand can paint a masterpiece (more or less) as well as feed the body (for better or worse). But a severed hand is useless (excepting Thing). It can do nothing. Not even sustain its own life. Your hand is dependent on your body and cannot function alone.

Further, my pastor added in church that a hand disconnected from the body is, by extension, disconnected from the head. The Bible calls Christians the body of Christ while Christ himself is the head. Each Christian makes up one part of his body, just like a hand is one part of yours. Therefore, if we want connection to Christ, we have to be connected to his body. If we want oneness with Christ, then we must be one with his body. There is no having Christ without having his church (which just means other Christians).

stockvault-people-walking-on-the-beach132394Christians also like to call each other “family.” Once upon ages past, family had a weightier meaning than it often does in today’s American culture. The majority of the world has kept this “traditional” style of family, where the family is the most basic social unit, not the individual person. Families are there seen more like a body, and I believe this is the way families were seen in biblical times. But American families now look increasingly segmented and estranged rather than a united and close-knit body.

Sometimes I wonder which of the two kinds Christians refer to: the modern American family or the more globally historical one. If the first, that would explain many issues now present in the American church. A family that is not a body is easily divided, easily weakened, easily destroyed. If the second meaning of family is used, then the church is full of hypocrites, which we already knew.

What we need is a resurrection of the family body. May all Christians live as if other believers are actually part of the same body. When one part of your body hurts, the whole body suffers. I’d like to see my brothers and sisters stop being ashamed of each other or setting themselves up as judge. Stop criticizing; start encouraging. We need to stop attacking and start defending. As one body, we belong to each other in Christ. “Be devoted to one another.”

Once we can stand up for each other, we need to also lay down. Lay down our pride, our self-righteousness. Let’s be courageous enough to be vulnerable. Let’s admit that we are dependent on each other. Let’s humble ourselves in front of our family and confess to one another that we don’t have life together and that we do need help. No one is immune to discouragement and stumbling. God works through his people, so let him use his people to answer our prayers. Care for the body, and let the body care for you.

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. Ephesians 5:29-30
 
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Posted by on September 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Why Being Vegetarian is Like Being a Christian

Recently I came to a tipping point. I could no longer ignore the people I had met, the arguments I had heard, and what I had learned. It was time to make a decision.

And it’s a decision I’ve had to remake every day since.

Every meal in fact.

I choose to eat vegetarian.

picnic (2)In some ways, this choice is easy. I’ve accepted seafood (technically making me pescatarian), which allows me to splurge when beans and salads don’t cut it. Three of my housemates have chosen the same diet, so I can depend on them for support and accountability. Hardly any meat enters the house (seafood is too expensive). We enjoy an abundance of delicious, home-cooked meals without meat. And ice cream is meatless.

But then I go to a restaurant and salivate for a chicken sandwich or mushroom swiss burger. I envy the non-vegetarians at my table. Or then I’m packing my lunch for work and eyeing the leftover pasta with ground beef sitting in the fridge at home. Or then someone suggests buying pizza, and I mourn that I won’t get any pepperoni or Hawaiian.

Now there are many things that do not tempt me, but food is one of my weaknesses. Last spring I decided to fast from sweets for one month. The idea was one month would break my sugar addiction and create healthier eating habits. Before the end of the first week, I started making “exceptions.” I decided Fridays could be splurge days. And sugar in coffee or fruit pastries didn’t count.

It was a downward spiral. One “exception” led to more. Pretty soon, I gave up altogether. I felt surrounded by sweets. There was no way to escape, and I couldn’t endure the temptation.

So now when I face a menu, the question is always, “Which will I choose this time?” Each meal presents an opportunity to either follow my temptation or follow my conviction. Will it be the eggs and bacon or cinnamon muffin and power smoothie? Juicy all-beef burger or the avocado salad sans chicken? Teriyaki pork or Cajun rice and beans? Each meal is a choice.

A day can sometimes feel like only a series of meals, a series of choices. Like a vegetarian, every Christian faces a series of choices, from the moment they wake until the moment they drift to sleep.

vineyardI’ve heard it said that being a Christian means each day waking up to die again. If a Christian truly wants to live up to the name of Christ, it means giving up himself, emptying himself, and taking on the likeness of Christ (Matt. 16:24). It means to live for Christ and not for himself.

This isn’t something that’s done with a prayer one night when it feels like nothing can be truer than that you are a sinner and Jesus loves you anyway. It isn’t done by asking Jesus to save you, getting baptized in water, or receiving the communion bread and wine. It’s never done. If a Christian, you are not done.

Being a Christian is a daily lifestyle, a series of choices. Each moment the question is, “Which will I choose this time?” Will it be my new self or my old self (Eph. 4:20-24)? Christ or Satan? Heaven or this world? Holiness or sin? Life or death? Each step towards Christ gets easier, and each “exception” makes it harder to turn around again. Christianity isn’t about being “in” or “out.” Rather, it tells the direction you are moving. Are you following Christ or moving away from him?

You see, I couldn’t have decided to become a vegetarian and gone on as I was. It required making a choice the next time I ate. And the time after that. And the time after that. For every meal onwards. The Christian life is the same, whether the vegetarian or Christian chooses their lifestyle because of moral conviction or personal health.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2014 in Other thoughts

 

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When not Loved in Return

Do you meet people who are friendly enough at first, but your acquaintanceship never moves farther than that? You never become more than distant “friends” who don’t actually know each other well. At times, you may even forget each other’s names, let alone remember what is important to the other person, the kind of things true friends should know.

But perhaps you wish you could grow closer with the distant friend. You wish you knew the person better, beyond just a name and basic physical features. And you wish he or she wanted to know you better, too. You wish your “friend” cared.

It bothers me when I meet people who, as much as I try to be friendly, they want none of it. These people do not open their hearts, but hide behind intimidating barriers with signs marked, “Back Off.” Closed people make me think it is better to leave them alone. My self-esteem crumbles. The message is that I’m not good enough. I have nothing to offer. I’m dull, boring, unattractive, annoying, needy, [fill in the blank]. So I tell myself we don’t have enough in common and move my attention to someone more receptive.

I long for personal intimacy with everyone I know, and some may say that asks for too much. Does it? Is that how the world turns, and no amount of effort can push it the other way? I recently realized I only befriend those people who love me back. God has supplied me with plenty of such people who conduct his love. It feels as if God could not bless me more by my friends. These special friends have loved me steadfastly over the past several months, so that I feel undeserving of their generous affection. But because of their love, I’m encouraged to love them more in return. This becomes a reciprocal relationship of intensifying intimacy and warm, fuzzy feelings.

Jesus calls us to love, which my friends and I do well for each other, yet Jesus wants us to love more than just anyone at all. He calls us to love all people. Whether a perpetual drunk, a self-absorbed jerk, an incessant know-it-all, or someone in the deepest pit of poverty, we are told to love them. The poor, the widowed, the orphaned. He does not direct us to the easy-to-love: the caring, the affectionate, the humble, the flattering, the responsible citizen, the good neighbor.

But people who are hard to love intimidate me. I think they probably don’t want to talk to me, anyway. I’m not worth their time; or rather, they are not worth mine. The truth is, I collect around me supporting, friendly Christians who flatter me and boost my self-confidence. They make me feel valued and important. They feed my ego. And if they don’t, the friendship fades.

When one friend became too busy with schoolwork, personal struggles, and a new boyfriend, she no longer had time for me. I assumed she didn’t want to see me. I took it as a hint that she didn’t care about me anymore. I no longer mattered in her life. So I gave up trying and left her alone. If she didn’t have the time for me, I would move on and forget the close friendship we used to have. I told myself that I could still love her from a distance; I would forgive her and bear her no ill will. 

The Spirit examined my heart one night, during that precious time just before sleep when heart barriers lower from their usual daytime duty. He led me to an honest look at my love for others and compared it with Christ’s love, which is always active and working. Christ-like love doesn’t walk away because someone doesn’t show interest at first. Or because a friend grows cold.

Real love holds on. It fights to break through to the hearts of others and won’t stop until it does. It is strong and penetrating, conquering all. This is why romantic heroes who fight for the heroine, and don’t accept rejection, are so popular for movie-goers. They make women swoon in their theater seats.

This heart exam threw me low as only the Spirit’s humbling influence can. Looking back on my treatment of my distant friend, I saw it wasn’t love as Christ would show. Did Jesus give up on Peter when he denied three times even knowing him? And at a time when all of his other disciples had fled and he was about to be sentenced to death? If any desertion could be unforgivable, wouldn’t this qualify?

But that’s not right, at all. Love is not merely a lack of meanness toward someone. It doesn’t simply vow to not hate. It demands more. Once Jesus returned to life, he revealed himself to Peter and again invited his friend to join him in God’s work. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told him. And Peter did for the rest of his life, leading the early Christian church into an unstoppable movement of salvation through Jesus.

How might we change lives if we persisted in love? Would people see Jesus living in us?

The next day after the Spirit’s humbling, I happened to read Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus had an uncanny ability to sum up truth in few words, and his words still speak to us today. They hit to the heart of the matter:

“‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'”

 

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2012 in Other thoughts

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 6: Stop Performing

Jean-Louis Forain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Living in the lifeboat means we have to prove our worth to other people. If we don’t , we worry we’ll be thrown into the sea. Miller introduces a new metaphor in the next section of Searching for God Knows What. He compares life instead to working in a circus. Every circus performer wants the audience to clap for their act and therefore say they have worth in the circus. If they entertain the audience, they keep their jobs. Like performers, we want others to redeem us. We think others can save us if they say we have value.

Jesus’ words comfort us because he said we don’t have to perform to be loved. We don’t have to please an audience. We don’t need to act like circus monkeys. Jesus gives us freedom.

“This is what we have always wanted, isn’t it?” Miller asks. “And it isn’t the American dream at all, it is the human dream, the deepest desire of our hearts.”

But even then, we often don’t accept freedom for free. We continue to force ourselves to perform for God and other people. Maybe if we just act good enough, we think, then we can earn redemption and freedom. If we’re good enough, can we give ourselves value by performing to God and others? No, morality cannot redeem us, but we all know some sort of morality must exist. We want it to exist. As much as we idolize rebellion, we actually want rules and guidance. Without them, everything is chaos.

Morality can’t free us on its own, but we should follow it all the same. It means imitating God, choosing right over wrong. If you’re a Christian, though, morality is more a relational connection than a list of rules. That’s important to remember. If you do something immoral, you don’t just break a rule. You break your commitment to God, much like cheating on your spouse. It does not just violate the law, but love. This morality is personal and should not be belittled by claiming God’s grace when you disregard it.

Loving God and following his morality also means loving the other people he created. Miller brings up the hot button issue in churches of homosexuals and the Moral Right. Having morality does not mean condemning “immoral” people, setting yourself up higher than them. It doesn’t mean a “culture war” between Christians and the rest of America. No, if we’re going to follow Jesus, we have to love God and others above all. Our “war” is against Satan and his power, not the people he has captured and blinded.

“Morality, in the context of a relationship with Jesus, becomes the voice of love to a confused community, the voice of reason and calm in a loud argument, the voice of life in a world of walking dead, the voice of Christ in a sea of self-hatred,” Miller says.

Miller speaks from one step back, taking in the American chaos of squabbling voices and telling it as he sees it all. He addresses the major issues American churches like to debate, but instead of blaming liberals or homosexuals as some Christians are so fond of doing, he puts up a mirror and asks how we look when we argue about moral rules and judge people not like us. Is this the image of Jesus in the Church?

“The person who believes the sum of his morality involves gay marriage and abortion alone, and neglects health care and world trade and the environment and loving his neighbor and feeding the poor is, by definition, a theological liberal, because he takes what he wants from Scripture and ignores the rest,” Miller says.

Miller makes the case that God isn’t worried about fighting for power in one nation or about which party is in office (an especially good reminder this year). God wants to rescue the unloved and give them his Son. Those who have already gained life in Jesus are no better in their natures than when they were prodigals. Morality does not bestow superiority. We need to stop visualizing ourselves in a lifeboat or circus trying to fight to the “top.”

I would like to add that God-centered morality substitutes misplaced pride with proper humility. If we remembered we are nothing outside of Jesus, then perhaps our hypocritical tendencies wouldn’t get in the way of God’s children meeting their Father. Everything we do should point back to God and his unfathomable love. It should all direct our fellow humans to the One who can rescue them from this crumbling world.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2012 in Books

 

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Eternal Life in the Present

Today’s word comes from my church this morning. The pastor spoke from John 3:16-21 and made several eye-opening points, but I want to focus on a few questions he presented.

He started off with this: “Why are you a Christian?” As in, do you know your motivation or payoff for being a Christian. Why do you bother doing what you do? What do you get out of it? Everyone has a reason even if it’s just because they enjoy feeling like a good person (which, by the way, is not what being a Christian is about).

In verse 16, John says Jesus gives us eternal life; that’s our undeserved, unmerited reward. Eternal life could mean to you a future in heaven, but the popular thing to say in recent years has been that eternal life means life in the present. We have life in the full now. The pastor told us not to discredit this belief just because of its popularity. He believes this is what John meant, and it follows with what Jesus taught. John records Jesus praying, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (John 17:3).

This distinction becomes more important when related to how you live. The pastor gave us two more questions: “Will you go to heaven?” and “Will you have full life (eternal life) today?” These do not ask the same thing. If your motivation as a Christian is just heaven, you will ask if you’re headed to heaven when you’re wondering how to live. You might ask, “Can I ignore that dirty man on the street with a cardboard sign and still go to heaven?” God forgives, so you should be fine. Walk by and don’t worry about it. Your future is secure. The same goes with giving into temptations. Lying, over drinking, looking at porn, what do they matter on the grand scheme as long as Christ has you covered?

On the other hand, what if you want life right now the way God intended for you? Jesus says in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” Abundant life sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Can you get it living however your sin desires? Will passing the man on the street and getting wasted on the weekends give you a full life? Now there’s a question that comes with a challenge.

If you call yourself a Christian and only have heaven in mind, you’re missing out on real treasure in the meantime. “For God so loved the world He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Don’t be the walking dead. Live seeking eternal life in God right here, right now.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Other thoughts

 

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