Thursday, September 05, 2013

Desert Flower

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow...  
Matthew 6:28

Your hands are even older than the soil You work.  This sand, this silt, this clay that Your spade now turns once churned as magma in the belly of the Earth.  And for aeons it danced before You in that light-less inferno, falling, rising, undulating with the subterranean flows, until at last You called it out of darkness and brought it raining down in smoke and ash upon the land of light.  By wind and rain, by snow and frost, You beat and pounded and lovingly crafted each precious grain.
And now Your ancient hands caress this soft soil that You have called out of darkness for a purpose, and as each tiny grain slips between Your fingers You recall and relive its storied past.  But those primordial memories of this soil are eclipsed by Your divine vision for its future.  For, if there has been any constant in this ancient story it is that You are always, always doing something new and beautiful.

You roll the tiny seed between Your fingers and feel the promise of new life pulsing within it.  Within the seed lies a deep mystery, secure from mortal mind and known only to the One who spoke it into existence.  And though there have been billions upon billions of seeds that have blown upon the winds of this world, this seed within Your hand is special.  There has never been one exactly like it and there never will be again.  This little seed is a unique and precious child of Yours, and You breathe upon it the blessing of a loving Father as You gently lay it upon the bed of soil You have prepared for it.

The clouds gather at Your command and the little seed drinks deeply of life-giving water from Your hand.  The clouds break and the sunbeams peer through, and the biological miracle waiting within the seed takes its cue from its Creator and sends forth a tiny green shoot.  The roots grow strong and healthy and in a few days the tiny green shoot opens up into a brilliant head of yellow petals.  The little flower turns her face up to the One who has called her to life and pours out a hymn of praise to her Maker. 

She sings a hymn of vibrant color in the middle of a desert, and there is only One who hears it.  In a wasteland where no one lives, she spreads her tiny petals in a litany of praise, and there is only One who sees it.  She exhales her fragrance upon the wind, and there is only One who delights in her offering.  She sways and dances with the breezes in a jubilant celebration of life, and there is only One who smiles at her display.

Then the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; her blossom falls and her beauty is destroyed, and there is only One who kneels beside her in the end and gently lays her sacred head upon the dust where she was born.  There is only One who sings her eulogy; there is only One who remembers, who will always, always remember.

You, who loves the grasses of the field, also grant me the faith to surrender each of my days as an offering of praise before an audience of One, and, in the end, to lay my head peacefully upon the dust You called me from, fully trusting that You are the Resurrection and the Life.


The Valley of Hinnom

...and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  
Matthew 16:18

Night falls on the valley of Hinnom. The light of the setting sun surrenders to total darkness, and a new illumination fills the valley. Wicked tongues of fire leap high into the night sky and cast an eerie glow upon the valley floor. Foul smoke billows up from a dark, impenetrable stronghold, and the demonic legions of Gehenna revel in its plumes. The valley reeks of the odor of burning flesh, and interminable shrieks of agony and despair announce in that, in the fortress of Gehenna, darkness reigns.

Night falls also on the banners of the High King. His steed stomps and kicks the dust at the rim of the dark valley as his small band of soldiers approaches the valley from above. They have arrived here at long last, tired and battle-weary from the relentless pursuit. How long have they been at battle--fighting, retreating, rallying, pursuing? How many of their brothers-at-arms have already fallen to the legions of the Dark Lord? How many of their sons and daughters and wives have been captured and carried off to wail within the terror of this unbreachable prison?

Only moments ago each man had held in his heart a tiny spark of hope that the Dark Lord’s reign might finally meet its end tonight, but all hope is snuffed out with a single glance upon the object of their siege. The soldiers of the High King stare down into the hopeless abyss, and the abyss stares back hard. Who knew how vast this fortress would be, how thick its walls, how massive its gates? Each man cries in his heart, “How foolish to have even come! What can our swords and lances do even to dislodge a single stone from this place?

Then despair turns quickly to terror as the black gates suddenly swing open. Dark spirits fly from the open mouth of the fortress of Gehenna like a swarm of angry hornets, and numberless legions of the Dark Lord pour through the gates and fill the valley like a storm surge. Their enumerable shrieks of terror rise together as one voice, stealing away the last vestiges of hope from the soldier’s hearts. “Lord of Hosts, they sortie!” comes a gasping cry.

White knuckles grip battered shields and lances as, moment by moment, the dark legions draw nearer. The fires of Gehenna leap high into the air casting ominous shadows of the approaching ghastly forms. Higher and higher they march and soar, drawing nearer and nearer to the terrified ranks of the King, and with every passing second each man feels the life within him draining away.

Some of the men stand firm, though more frozen with fear than steadied by valor. Others bolt off into the night, fleeing back along the path they have so recently marched. The trickle of fleeing soldiers becomes a torrent, and as the tide of darkness fills the valley, the army of the Kingdom of Light ebbs away.

The Lord of Hosts sits serenely upon his mount, single-minded in vision and purpose. His eyes gaze beyond the nebulous faces of the approaching horde, past the massive black gates that now stand closed. Into the very heart of the prison fortress he stares, and he knows why he has come.

He extends his bare right hand in front of him, and his fingers slide smoothly along the steel handle of the furled battle standard mounted in his banner saddle. The King lowers his face toward the standard and in hushed tones he speaks to the steel.

"Long ago I drew you from this place, forged in the heat of these wicked flames. I restored you and polished you with my own hand, and I arrayed you with my own coat of arms. Now, daughter of mine, glorify me as I have glorified you.”

The King places his mouth against the steel, breathes gently upon the furled banner, and the brilliant white battle standard springs to life as if caught in some tremendous gale. She unfurls for yards and yards, fluttering proudly over the heads of the few remaining soldiers.

Suddenly, from the coat of arms emblazoned upon the banner, a brilliant light emanates. Bright as the sun at midday she glows, beautiful and radiant. The eerie glow of the flames of Gehenna is overpowered by the King’s glorious standard fighting back every shadow. The approaching horde momentarily draws back at the sight of her, and the few remaining soldiers of the King suddenly breathe new courage.

“To me! To me!” comes the cry of the High King, and the small band of men rushes to their Lord. He is more glorious now than they have ever beheld him, transfigured by the light of his standard. They crowd close around his charger, keeping their eyes always upon the approaching front of battle. The King grasps his bow, and as he reaches over his shoulder a single gleaming silver arrow leaps from the quiver into his waiting hand. “Send me!” she says. “I was born to do this.” He steadies the bow and draws back hard upon the bowstring, then he whispers a word to the arrow as she rests against his cheek. “Shine!” he says, and at the touch of his breath upon her she bursts into white hot flame.

A bolt of lightning in the night sky, she flashes across the putrid air of Hinnom, and the hosts of the Dark Lord recoil at the brightness of her passing. Over numberless foes she flies, into the very heart of darkness itself, and in the wake of her passing, along every point of her descent into hell, she leaves behind her a brilliant white trail of holy light.

The instant she strikes her target the impenetrable gates of Gehenna burst into roaring flame, and the dark forces turn in confusion to survey the destruction. They are not long distracted, however, and then all the legions of hell, newly enraged, charge toward the King and his tiny consort, their shrieks and cries rising to a deafening level. The rising black tide of demons is almost at the lip of the valley now, preparing to crash like a breaker upon the shore, sweeping all away into eternal darkness.

“Lord of Hosts! How will we stand?” comes the gasping cry of a young soldier.
The King remains transfixed upon the burning gates of Gehenna as he responds, “My precious child, I am not asking you to stand.
“To the gates! To the gates!” shouts the King, “Take the city!”

Panic fills the face of every man as each is torn between his love for his King and his horror of this reckless, suicidal charge. Quickly the the King reaches for the golden horn he wears always upon his belt, raises her to his lips, and blows a long, clear blast. At the sound of the golden horn, the heart of every soldier awakens within him; his fear melts away, and his courage is renewed.

The Lord of the Battle points the nose of his charger along that lingering path of light which the flaming silver arrow has left in her wake, and as the hoofs of his steed clear the valley’s edge the King shouts his command again. “Take the city! Take the city! Set my captive children free!”

Upon the heels of their beloved King they race, into the heart of darkness, into the very belly of the dark tide. Every man is ready to die for and with his King as he plunges headlong into the bowels of hell.

Each braces for the coming onslaught, but the onslaught never comes. Farther and farther the brave soldiers venture into the darkness, deeper and deeper into the valley of Hinnom. They are surrounded on every side by hideous and wicked forms, but no foe dares approach them. The silver arrow of the King has carved out of the darkness a brilliant path of divine light, unapproachable by all their foes. And even as they race along this holy corridor, the forces of evil flee at the awesome presence of the battle standard shining in the hands of the King.

By the power of the Lord of Hosts, the exhausted band of soldiers reaches the burning gates of Gehenna at last. The King once again draws his golden horn and sounds a long clear blast, and the flaming gates of Hell crumble into ashes at the sound.

“Shout!” comes the cry of the Lord Most High. “Shout! For I have given you the city!”

Responding to Women In a Way That Glorifies God

A few weeks ago I co-taught a couple of sexual purity lessons for the middle-school and high-school guys at church.  These are my (rather lengthy and ramble-y) notes for our lesson about lust.  This talk was meant for unmarried young men.  I'm sure I would have gone a different direction if I had been addressing married men.

Every good and perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights... James 1:17

Women are awesome, unmatched by anything else in all creation.  If you were to take all the glory and splendor of the universe revealed in the night sky and hold it up next to a woman, there would be no contest.  Women are, by far, the loveliest features of the whole creation.  They are magnificent works from the hand a God who makes beautiful things out of the dust.  

That’s what beauty is; it is God’s glory reflected in His created things.  God has placed inside all of us an intense craving for Him.  We want to see Him. We want to eat and drink Him. We want to bask in His glory.  So, when we are awe-struck by the beautiful things God has made, it is not the beautiful thing itself that our senses are responding to.  Rather, deep within our hearts we are responding to the glory of the One who created it.  We love to see beauty because we love to see God, and we see God’s glory reflected in the beautiful things he has made.

It doesn't matter how old they are or what color they are or how they are built, women reflect the glory of God in ways nothing else does in the whole universe.  Women can visibly bubble over with the joy God has placed within them.  Their faces can radiate goodness and virtue in ways that our faces just can’t.  They can be soft and gentle and nurturing and compassionate in ways that just aren't natural for guys.  And when a woman is filled with the joy of the Lord, she can laugh or smile and it almost seems as if the room gets visibly brighter.  

When a woman behaves in a way that shows bravery or courage it deeply moves and inspires us.  We expect bravery from men with 21 inch biceps, but to see courage come in a small package, with delicacy and grace, is just awe-inspiring because it is unmistakably obvious that the source of that courage is flowing from somewhere beyond her own body.

So, when we look at a woman we are often seeing the reflection of a beautiful and glorious God, His love and His strength, His gentleness and grace.  That view can be breath-taking, and it was meant to be breath-taking by the One who made her, because every woman is a daughter of the King of the Universe.

We guys who belong to God (and are trying our best to do His will) often wrestle with the question of what to do about a woman’s beauty.  We ask ourselves what it means “to look lustfully at a woman” because Jesus warns us that this is adultery.  Some cultures try to solve the problem by making all the women completely cover up with burqas.  Some Asian monks try to solve it by holding up a shield in front of their faces in the presence of a woman.  Both of these cultures seem to agree that the problem lies in the looking, but Jesus disagrees.  According to Jesus, the problem lies in the heart of the one who is looking.

Many of the Jews of Jesus’ time were very careful to faithfully following all the rules that Moses gave.  One of the rules that Moses gave was “You shall not commit adultery.”  So, under the law of Moses, as long as you didn't actually commit the act of adultery with a woman, you were not sinning.  Accordingly to them, you could fantasize about women all you like as long as you just didn't commit adultery with her.  But Jesus came along and took things to the next level.  He said “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The Sermon on the Mount isn't about Jesus making up a bunch of new rules that are stricter than the law of Moses.  It’s about going deeper than the law of Moses by making sure our hearts and our thoughts (not just our actions) are in line with the will of God.  That’s why Jesus says that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery in his heart.  Jesus is concerned about our hearts being adulterous; he is concerned with our adulterous intentions even if we don’t act on them.

Jesus’ primary point in the Sermon on the Mount is that all of the law and the prophets are really about loving God and loving one another.  The Old Testament way of thinking about sin is that every time you broke one of God’s rules you got a big black mark next to your name on God’s list.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus replaces that understanding of sin with the idea of aligning our wills with the will of God, to make sure that we are always living a life of love even if what we are doing doesn't violate any particular rule.  He wants us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s like God gave us the rules in the Old Testament, but then Jesus comes on the scene and explains the reasoning behind the rules.  When our children are toddlers we give them rules because that’s all they understand, but when they get old enough to go to college we don’t send them off with a big list of specific rules about how they should behave in all situations.  We try to instill in them some general guiding principles about making good choices, choices that are true to who they want to be as children of God.

That’s what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount.  He is saying that “love God and love your neighbor” is the guiding principle behind the old laws.  Anyone who follows these principles will end up obeying the Law of Moses naturally, but those who follow these principles will go even above and beyond what the Law of Moses says because their hearts are aligned with the intentions of the One who gave the law.

And on top of all that, God has given us His Holy Spirit to continually remind us of His principles at those very times that we need to be reminded the most.  The Holy Spirit is the very real indwelling of God within us.  He’s not just an idea.  He’s really there and He really works and He really speaks and He really reminds us of the principles He has taught us and continues to teach us.

If we just dig through the Bible looking for rules and commandments to follow, we are going to completely miss the point of this spirit-based New Covenant.  For instance we will find a rule that says “do not look lustfully at a woman” but we just aren't going to find anything that says “don’t send sexual text messages to a woman.”  However, if we are really listening to Spirit of God and we think to ourselves “Is it okay for me to send this slightly off-color text message to a girl?  It doesn't even have any cuss words in it.”  The Spirit of God within us is going to loudly scream “No! No! No! For the sake of the girl, and for the sake of yourself, and for sake of the the Kingdom, No!”  We just have to be listening instead of digging through the Bible looking for loopholes.

So, instead of asking ourselves “are there any specific rules against what I want to do?” Jesus is teaching us to ask instead “How do I respond to a beautiful woman in a way that shows love to God and to my neighbor?”

Jesus isn't just giving us a few more commandments to follow in the Sermon on the Mount.  He is teaching us a new way to think about sin. Sin is when we fail to love God and love our neighbor.  We can still have hearts full of sin even if we aren't breaking any particular rule.

So then, “How DO we respond to a beautiful woman in a way that shows love to God and to our neighbor?”

I have several answers to that question that I want to share with you.  The first answer is that we should consciously look at every woman like she is a daughter of the King of the universe.  Sometimes women don’t know or understand that they are daughters of the King, and sometimes they don’t act or dress in a way that shows they know that.  

(By the way, that behavior is between her and God and your judgement isn't going to fix her. Only Jesus can rescue her from that lie the enemy plants in the hearts of women, that her value is completely derived from how she looks.  However, at some point God might be calling you to minister to one of His daughters who needs to find her identity in Him alone.  In that case, you should be quick to respond to His leading.  For the most part, though, sitting in judgement on a woman for the way she acts and dresses is going to be of no Kingdom value.)

But even if they don’t act or dress like a daughter of the King, it is our role as sons of the King to always treat them as such.  That means that whenever we look at a woman we look only to see a real soul, a real person with real value.  No woman is an object for our viewing pleasure, and they should never be looked at that way or talked about that way or treated that way.  Every woman has her own real desires and real needs and real fears and real dreams, and Love demands that every time we see a woman we always remember that she is a real person with a real soul and a real heavenly Father who loves her deeply.

This is not a rule.  This is the natural response to following the principle of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and if we learn to listen closely to the Spirit of God, He is going to remind us of this at those very times that we need to hear it most.

When a woman walks by and guys say “Whoa, look at THAT!”  That is treating the woman as an object, not as a daughter of the King.  When men look at pornography or pictures of nude and scantily-clad women for the purpose of our own gratification, we are treating those women as objects for our own pleasure and we are also training our minds to treat women as objects in the future.  Practicing shooting free throws on the basketball court really does make us better at shooting free throws.  Practicing our band music really does make us better at performing it.  Our brains really do respond amazingly well to training.  This is an awe-inspiring aspect of God’s creation, but it also means that when we practice over and over again to treat women as objects for our pleasure, are brains are naturally going to learn to do it better.  

On the other hand, if we practice treating women with respect and thinking about them with respect, we are going to become better at doing that as well.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Phil 4:8-9

So the first way we can respond to a beautiful woman is to learn to think about her and treat her as a daughter of the King.  The second response I want to share with you is that the way we treat women is not just a personal struggle between us and our sin.  There is a much larger battle taking place on the earth.  There is a very real war between the children of God and the spiritual forces of evil in the world, and each of us is a real soldier in that real fight.  Everywhere we look we can see the spiritual forces of evil winning victories over the children of God.  
When we see broken homes and broken marriages, that is evil winning.  
When we see rape and abuse and sex slavery, that is evil winning.  
When we see women who buy into the destructive lie that their self-worth is
determined by how good they look or by whether or not they have a
boyfriend, that is evil winning.  
When we see guys pressuring girls to go farther with them sexually, that is evil
When we see dating couples who actually despise each other but who are unable
to break up with each other because their sexual activity has trapped them,
that is evil winning.  
When we see babies being killed in the womb and children growing up without a
father, that is evil winning.

Everywhere we look in the world we see evil winning, and the role of the children of God in this world is not just to sit by passively and “try not to sin.”  Jesus says to Peter that “on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.”  It is supposed to be the powers of evil that are hiding behind the gates of Hell, and the Church, the children of the King, are supposed to overcome the gates of Hell, smash them to pieces, and set free those who are held captive.  We are actively at war against the evil in the world, and the goal of our God is that His Kingdom may come to Earth more and more fully as more and more of His children submit to His reign.

Remember, we are not at war against any of the people God has made. All people, regardless of what they do, are children of God and we must love them as God loves them.  Our battle is not against the people, against the flesh and blood.  Rather our battle is against the evil in the world.  Sometimes we like to pretend that evil is something that other people do, and so we lash out in judgement and self-righteous condemnation against all the evil we see other people doing.  But Jesus says that we are to “first remove the plank from our own eye.”  And there is enough evil within ourselves to keep us occupied for a lifetime.

The best way to fight against evil in the world is not to drop bombs or pass legislation.  The best way to fight against the evil in the world is to fight against the evil in us, and to give support to others as they fight against the evil in themselves.  So an excellent way to respond to a beautiful woman is to remember that you are a soldier in the army of the Supreme Commander.  Your brothers are out there fighting and dying on the battlefield in an brave effort to rout evil and bring more and more of the earth under the reign of the King.  This is a real fight in a real war with real consequences, and you are a real soldier in that fight.  Now, while your brothers are fighting to the death against evil, are you going to lay down your weapons and slip off with some woman and pleasure yourself and bring just that much more evil into the world.  No, heaven forbid!  There is already enough evil in the world without the soldiers of God betraying our brothers and our King to commit treason and invite just a little bit more evil into the world.

So, in your relationships with women keep in mind that you are needed on the battlefield.  We can’t afford having you go AWOL.  And that daughter of the King you are with is needed on the battlefield, too.  If she surrenders to her temptations and does things with you that she regrets, that is going to knock her out of commission, too, while she nurses her spiritual wounds.  We need her to be at the top of her game as well, because she is fighting against the same enemy.

And the last thing I want to share with you about responding to women is that we can combat the temptation to lust by giving God the glory for the women we see.  There was guy named Nicodemus who lived about 250 years ago who gives this excellent advice:  

Every time you feel in God’s creatures something pleasing and attractive, do not let your attention be arrested by them alone, but, passing them by, transfer your thought to God and say: “O my God, if Thy creations are so full of beauty, delight and joy, how infinitely more full of beauty, delight and joy art Thou Thyself, Creator of all!”

What this means is that whenever we see something beautiful we can immediately give God thanks and praise for the beauty we see because the Creator of beauty is even more beautiful still.  That moves our thoughts from the beautiful thing to the one who created it.  This advice works for our relationships with women as well.  Personally, I like the quote from Nicodemus: “O my God, if Thy creations are so full of beauty, delight and joy, how infinitely more full of beauty, delight and joy art Thou Thyself, Creator of all!”  But that can be a bit of a mouthful, so if you want something easier you can sing that song by Gungor “Beautiful Things”:

You make beautiful things.  
You make beautiful things out of the dust.
You make beautiful things.  
You make beautiful things out of us.

However you choose to give God the praise, the important thing is to turn our thoughts to God and to give Him the praise for the woman.  Ultimately, that’s how we draw closer to God, by living a life that is filled with worship, that is a constant prayer of thanksgiving to our Maker.  A life of joyful gratitude is a full and abundant life, and living a life that is filled with God is far more satisfying than any woman can ever be.  

Women are awesome.  They are awesome because they are created by an awesome God.  It really is possible to take our encounters with women and transform them from struggles with lust into opportunities for giving thanks to our awesome God for the awesome creatures He made.

Doing this, of course, is going to take a LOT of practice.  In fact, it will take a lifetime of practice and a lifetime of being continually reminded by the Spirit of God.  It’s not something you are going to master on day one, so don’t get discouraged when you forget and drop back into old habits.  But by daily following the urging of the Spirit of God and by daily living a life of praise and thanksgiving, He will slowly transform you into an amazing ninja warrior on the battlefield against the forces of evil.  

And I want some amazing ninja warriors on my side.