Redeeming the Time

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What Spiritual Family Means

Today in church we discussed the importance of the family of God. All Christians are members of this one family. As Ephesians 4 says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” This family is essential for Christians living on the earth. There are many benefits:

Membership in God’s family leads to a life of growth and maturity.

No matter where you go, you will almost always be able to find a church with people who are your spiritual family. If there is no church nearby, you can start one and welcome brothers and sisters to worship with you.

Like a biological family, the family of God has shared memories. Brothers and sisters in Christ can recount their testimonies and stories to each other to encourage and entertain one another.

God’s family does not need courts. This is convicting because many Christians waive this benefit and sue each other despite Paul’s plea in 1 Corinthians 6. Paul makes the point that there are Christians with the gift of wisdom that can help when a dispute arises. Jesus even laid out the proper way to correct a fellow believer in Matthew 18:15-17. This correctional influence from members of our family is important because we all need to be confronted at times.

God’s family is devoid of favoritism—James preaches against it in James 2:9, calling it sin. This means that for members of God’s family, all standing is equal both here and in heaven. There are no classes.

Being in the family of God also leads to the joy of working with others towards a common and worthy goal. As we follow the Great Commission we can encourage each other and see much more work being done than if we were on our own.

As God’s children, we have direct access to Him. Jesus points out in Luke 11:11 that our standing as God’s children is similar to the relationship between a good father and his son on the earth, with one key difference:  God is a perfect father!

These are just some of the many benefits of being in the family of God. Some benefits are automatic, while we must act to take advantage of others. I make the mistake of letting Sunday church and the family of God become synonymous. There is much more to being a child of God than that.

The Transform

Occasionally I come across something during study that is so indicative of God’s imagination that it becomes even more inspirational than it is instructive. One such example is the frequency domain.

A little background:

Humans carried on with virtually no knowledge of the frequency domain for millenia, even though its ability to sort human activities has always been potent. In recent times humanity’s increasing reliance on signals with precise and highly regulated frequencies has brought scientists and engineers into the frequency domain in search of solutions. The basic idea of the frequency domain is simple, but it challenges intuition. Any segment of information —a few seconds of human speech, for example— is naturally represented in time. This is how our senses pick up the world around us, and it is the domain in which we live. In the frequency domain, however, time is replaced by frequency of oscillation. Any physical signal may be “transformed” into this domain, where it is broken down into its constituent frequencies of oscillation. If you wish to comprehend a signal’s message, this representation is ideal.

By way of example, consider the musical note middle A. Suppose I play middle A on a piano, holding the note down for perhaps ten seconds. In time, our ears perceive a sudden presence of sound followed by a gradual fade. In the frequency domain, by contrast, middle A is a single spike in the frequency spectrum at 440 Hz, because that is (ideally) the only frequency at which the piano’s middle A string is vibrating. Although we rarely consider the frequency domain by its name, our brains frequently grasp its usefulness:  the other musicians in the quintet listen carefully for the frequency (the pitch) of the piano’s note as they tune their instruments, while the fading of the note (in time) is irrelevant.

All this lecture-bound information placed in my mind a picture of mankind’s fundamental limitations. How often do we live squarely within the time domain, carving out confusing and contradictory paths from one day to the next! We grasp the concepts of order and virtue, and we know we are capable of placing them in our lives, but our consistency lacks.

I believe our problem is one of perspective. When I, as a child, first observed a message being transmitted in Morse code, I was awestruck. I simply could not believe that flashes of light could say anything meaningful. One thing I knew for sure: if it were me controlling the light, the intended recipient would sooner experience a seizure than comprehend a message (this still rings true today…).

In life, everything we say or do or think is like one of those flashes of light. Unfortunately, we are born ignorant of life’s Morse code. Some of us conclude that life is about making as many flashes as possible, while others view success as burning one’s light continually and never turning it off. We get pretty good at things like this, but so many of us die without ever having communicated a message.

I believe that humans were created to live a message, a message that harmonizes with the character of God. We are told in the Bible that Adam walked alongside God and spoke with Him. God showed Adam all the frequencies in His character, and before the fall, Adam’s life was a pitch-perfect picture of the message God intended. Since then, the message has become pretty garbled.

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). If you know that to be true, but you are having a hard time seeing just exactly what the right times and activities are, maybe it’s time you let God transform you into His domain.

Contentment

Tonight I write about something I lack:  contentment.  The absence of contentment in my life at this time is causing startling damage.  Key to my response will be a multi-part study on contentment in Scripture, and my starting point for this endeavor will be the words of Paul.

Paul speaks of contentment on more than one occasion.  Here I address Philippians 4:10-13 and 1 Timothy 6:6-7.

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Philippians 4:10-13

"I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me.  Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.  I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Paul is responding here to the renewed generosity of the church in Philippi, but more importantly, he is pointing out that he is not dependent on it for his contentment.  That, Paul says, is something he can only find in his relationship with Christ.

The word for ‘contentment’ used here is ‘autarkes, meaning

— Strong enough or possessing enough to need no aid or support, or

— Independent of external circumstances.

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1 Timothy 6

"…godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it."

In the verses surrounding these two, it is clear that Paul is warning Timothy about those who pursue God for personal gain; in other words, those who place a premium on godliness but forget to be content.  This seems an oddity— after all, contentment is a rather obvious part of God’s nature.  As God is creating the universe in Genesis 1, He occasionally looks on what He has made and expresses His contentment by declaring it good.  After Christ wrestled with God’s will for Him to die on the cross, He expressed contentment by deferring to God’s will above His own desires.  In spite of the great body of evidence demonstrating God’s position on contentment, many attempt to step around it, even as they chase after other aspects of God’s character.  To my grim surprise, I have become one of these people, and the consequences are great.

Paul uses the word 'autarkeia', a word similar to the one used in Philippians, to describe contentment in 1 Tim. 6:6.  This word implies

— A perfect condition of life in which no aid or support is needed,

— Sufficiency of the necessities of life, or

— A mind contented with its lot.

This word is used in 2 Cor. 9:8 also:

"And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work."

For Paul, God’s gift of contentment meant freedom to live a life of ministry, a life so potent that it continues to teach people about genuine Christianity today.  In general, God grants us contentment so that we may abound in the virtue and purpose that characterize a God-honoring life.  Our contentment brings glory to God.  I have noticed the opposite effect when I fail to take on God’s contentment:  I am ill-equipped for good works, and when I do them, I often find later that I was doing them only for personal gain.  Discontentment is incompatible with virtue, right living, and the glorification of God.

Heavenly bodies

I think God chose to make us in His image (as opposed to using some other plan or starting from scratch) so that we could more easily understand and appreciate the depth of His character.  The Perseid meteor shower reminded me that creativity is an integral part of God’s nature.  What many humans attribute to chance, God designed from the bottom up.  Having been created in God’s image, we are imbued with this same creative spirit.  We have the opportunity to witness God’s power and design in action all around us, and we are capable of making things like telescopes and cameras to do that very thing.  What a fantastic indicator of mankind’s greatest purpose, to glorify and appreciate all of who God is.

The post-Perseid full moon, August14, 2011

Moods

Much as I like to recognize facets of God’s character I have experienced firsthand, I realize there are many things about Him of which I am not sure.  One thing I do not know (but would very much like to) is whether God has moods (as humans understand them).

God displays a great depth and breadth of emotion in Scripture for sure.  He regrets having created man, for instance— a deep emotion that ran straight to His heart.  Christ showed a wide range of feeling, from mourning the loss of a well-loved friend to exploding in rage at the moneychangers to feeling overwhelmed by His burden of others’ sins.

Throughout these stories, God’s actions seem to be accompanied by moods, but I have not found conclusive proof in Scripture.  It seems every story could go either way.  For instance:  for hundreds of years, God kept silent and waited for the sin of Canaan to grow.  Then, in a matter of months, He led Israel into the land and wiped thousands of Canaanites out.  This seems to be an enraged response dealt out by a God in the mood for revenge, but it may also reflect a clear-cut decision based on God’s measurement of Canaan’s sin.

Ultimately, I cannot even say with confidence whether humans were created to experience moodiness in the first place.  My own unpredictable temperament needs to be checked frequently, and it often fails to be what I would call God-honoring.  Perhaps Adam and Eve’s newfound awareness of good and evil brought mad moods and abrupt fits with it, but perhaps God’s original design also included many moods, each appropriate for an experience.

Compassion

The next book to be studied in my weekly Bible study is Obadiah, a short book concerned with the quarrel between Israel and Edom.  When Israel falls to foreign invaders, Edom swoops in to raid and cripple fleeing Israelites, even though the two nations closely share ancestry and should treat each other well.  Israelites mourn this betrayal bitterly, and God responds through the words of Obadiah.

The message:  though Edomites may be safe in their fortresses for the moment, their allies will soon turn on them, leaving them with no safe haven.  They will pay for what they did to their brothers and lose everything they have.

I find this story fascinating because Israel would not have been invaded in the first place were it not for disobedience.  The fate of Israel was foretold by several prophets, yet the king and people refused to listen and repent.  Continual rebellion and offense against God necessitated devastation, but even after bringing well-deserved catastrophe to Israel, God noted the cruel behavior of the Edomites and punished them for it.  I believe the mourning of the Israelites urged God to intervene.  Their crying out to Him evoked His compassion, though they did not deserve it.  It is this hope that I hold close whenever I ask God for mercy and compassion today.

God is compassionate.  His compassion does not depend solely on how deserving we are of it— were that the case, Christ would never have been sent to earth to save us.  We may ask Him for compassion, ask Him to hear our case and restore justice when we have been treated unfairly.  As we seek after and experience the compassionate side of God, we cease to be like the unforgiving servant and learn to live out true compassion in our own lives. 

God’s Superiority

'Superior' is a buzzword.  It has become watered down over time, but if you can prove something is genuinely superior, you will always turn heads.  In the world of car shopping (a world I find myself firmly grounded on now), for example, people are looking for something with no downside.  They want an all-inclusive model with style, efficiency, reliability, and high resale value at a low price:  they want something superior.  The first thing I have learned about this car buying world is that superiority is tough —read:  impossible— to find.

How often do we have access to things we know are truly superior?  Every product has its own set of pros and cons, each item accruing rave reviews as well as bad ones.  Proof of superiority is hard to come by in the material world.  Fortunately for mankind, the spiritual realm is another matter.

God makes His superiority crystal clear throughout the Bible and into the modern age.  In Egypt during the time leading up to the Exodus, God used ten spectacular plagues to demonstrate superiority over each Egyptian god.  The Egyptians had a full set of gods governing every part of existence, from fertility to day and night, from life and death to order and chaos.  God claimed superiority over all of them and proved it.

Today Christians have the same superior God to worship, a God who encompasses love and judgment, perfection and mercy, life, death, and afterlife.  A God who forgets nothing, addressing every need of His creatures, human and non-human alike.  He continues to prove the superiority of His will and His righteousness, and human establishments founded with His character and will in mind likewise assume superiority over all contenders.  It is this belief that Christians must hold on to if we are to glorify God through work, leisure, politics, family life, and every other area of our lives.  Instead of setting up individual standards and belief systems for each realm of life as the Egyptians did, why don’t we recognize the ultimate, all-encompassing standard of creation?

The Plumb Line

In Amos 7:7-8, the Lord shows the prophet Amos a plumb line.  ”Look,” He says, “I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”  Israel had become a land of physical luxury and spiritual bankruptcy, and God decided to remind them that He has a concrete standard, as plain and unyielding as a plumb line.  It is this standard that they are held to, based simply on the fact of who God is.

Mankind’s relationship with God has changed greatly since the time of Amos, but God’s character and standards have not.  He continues to delight in good and abhor evil just the same, and so it is that today I recognize and appreciate God’s perfect standard.  The analogy of the plumb line was explored in some detail by my pastor at Bible study tonight; I wish to share what he said and add a few corollaries of my own:

The plumb line is a perfect analogy for God’s standard for three main reasons:  

1) it never changes, plays tricks, or lies; 

2) it is the only way to ensure structures are well-built and consistent with each other, and;

3) though distractions and surrounding objects can obscure it, the plumb standard persists anyway, making all slants and tilts obvious.

Humans attempt to dodge God’s standard in a variety of ways:

1) we set up our own plumb lines and try to build from them.  Unfortunately, the foundations we have to build on always seem to end up skewed…

2) we build our lives without settling on any particular standard over the long term, expressing immaturity.  This is effectively taking a pile of lumber and a box of nails and carelessly hammering them together with a different set of blueprints each day.  I can easily recognize the results of such construction as the stuff of children’s treehouses, yet when I see the inconsistent mess I often make of my everyday life, I fail to trace it back to plain, inexcusable spiritual immaturity.

3) we get distracted by other objects all around, perceiving them to be ‘plumb’.  Unfortunately, these objects (various worldviews, religions, etc.) don’t often agree with each other, leaving us with a discomforting, seemingly arbitrary choice.

4) we blow on the plumb line in an effort to tilt it just a little bit to one side or the other.  Some of us are better at this than others, but hey, a person only has so much hot air.

The allegories continue, but you get the idea.

Aug 8

Storms within and without

This morning I slowed down and spent some real time with God, something sadly rare in my recent routine.  The results shocked me.  It seemed only a few minutes passed before old hymns surfaced in my mind, hymns I had not heard for years.  I looked them up and listened.

Old hymns are nothing if not inspired.  The words reflect exactly what I hope to develop here:  a heart attitude so focused on God that remarking at His many facets is only natural.  It is this irresistible permeation that I want to focus on today.

God is so powerful that thoughts of him self-perpetuate and spread throughout all aspects of one’s life.  What I felt this morning stuck with me all day.  It gave me a peace I had long missed and, based on my usual daily routine, had not planned on.  With the powerful words of hymns passing through my mind, I began to see where other thoughts belonged in my priorities.  This gave me a stronger desire to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).  The chain of events progressed naturally, and it continues even now.

God rewards the patient silence of His children by filling them.  In the book of Amos, the prophet speaks of an unusual sort of famine:

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, 
   “when I will send a famine through the land— 
not a famine of food or a thirst for water, 
   but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. 
12 People will stagger from sea to sea 
   and wander from north to east, 
searching for the word of the LORD, 
   but they will not find it.

If we take on this spiritual emptiness, it undermines every area of our lives, making them murky and stormy.  Yet God ends the storm if we only exhibit patience and focus on Him.

God is good.

Aug 8

Thy Strong Word