Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Heart & Mind of Humanity: Reflections on Suffering, Choice, & Jesus Christ

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. Proverbs 21:2 ESV

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh  Ezekiel 11:19 ESV

The story is told of the minister who came outside to grab the morning mail, only to find someone had ran into his car.  The damaged appeared quite serious.  He leaned down at the rear of his car and noticed radiator fluid.  It wasn't coming from his car, so it must've come from the hit and run vehicle.  Knowing a bit about cars he realized that they would quickly break down with a badly leaking radiator.  So he woke up his wife, and they took her vehicle down the road.  Sure enough, a mile down the road they found the vehicle broke down.  The minister, wanting to show compassion walked over and spoke to the two 20 year olds standing outside the vehicle.  

"Are you alright my child?" said the minister to the boys.  He could smell alcohol on both of them, as one replied:

"Yes minister," replied the young man as a police car rolled up behind both cars.  "I just can't understand why God would do this to me."  

It's true isn't it?  When our luck is down, or something terrible happens so often we look to the heavens and ask: How could you do this God?  How could you let this happen?  

Yet so often upon reflection we see that we are the guilty ones.  Our actions, our choices led us to the situations that break our hearts.  Then we shout angrily to heaven "God, how could you!?"  But did God really do it?  No, much of the time it was us and then we pay the consequences, just like the boys in the car.  And an on looker would probably say, "Good!  You deserve it!"

And I've done the same thing.  I've watched the news and said:  "Good, justice is done!"  But when it's me in the hot seat, strangely enough, I want infinite mercy and my mind tends to blame it on God.  

Even at a higher scope, one could say look at the world.  Look at all the pain and suffering.  How could God allow it?  Look at all this evil!  How can a good God be reconciled with all this? 

Yet was it really God?  Did God pollute the skies?  No, man did that.  Did God toss plastic bottles down from heaven by the millions to create an island of waste in the Pacific ocean the size of Texas?  No, man did that.  Did God exterminate 6 million Jewish people in the holocaust?  No.  That was Hitler, and the Nazi regime.  Did God take your son or daughter?  Or was it a drunk driver?  Do you see?  God gives us choices to make.  We can't control what choices others will make.  That leads to evil, and suffering.  And more often than not, our own choices have contributed to that state of evil, not lessened it.  Are we really the victims of everything around us?  Or are we the authors of these troubles around us?  

Dr. Ravi Zacharias a philosopher I follow regularly once visited death camps, preserved after the second world war in Germany.  He describes how he saw the piles of human hair scalped from those exterminated.  He describes the piles of tooth brushes, and clothes striped from toddlers before they were fed into the gas ovens.  Upon seeing these things Dr. Zacharias and his group were speechless.  But he said that as he looked down at the remains in these empty rooms, he realized he wasn't looking at some external evil.  He realized he was looking at his own heart.  He was looking at the wicked heart of man.  

We all have that heart capable of great good, and great evil.  Yet are we really so free with it?  Or does it often dictate to us?  How often have we known the right thing to do, but did the wrong thing instead?  

Only the Christian worldview recognizes this truth.  In God's eternal plan, part of the formula of his scheme of salvation is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The holy spirit is this being, this person, this force that helps us to override that wicked heart and fly in the face of evil, and choose God against our own overpowering desire for fleeting pleasures.  

There is this struggle in the world.  It plays out personally in you and me, and it plays out academically, in the sciences, in the public arena, in politics, and it plays out internationally between countries.  
When Jesus came to Earth in the form and function of man his message cut sheer divides in groups of people.  He spoke before crowds, he spoke before tens and hundreds and thousands.  Time and again in the scriptures it says "There was a large group of people there. Many of them were talking secretly to each other about Jesus. Some people said, “He is a good man.” But others said, “No, he fools the people.”" John 7:12-13

There is one moment in John chapter 7 that is really just so ironic I can't help but laugh to myself every time I read it.  It says:

25 Then some of the people who lived in Jerusalem said, “This is the man they are trying to kill. 26 But he is teaching where everyone can see and hear him. And no one is trying to stop him from teaching. Maybe the leaders have decided that he really is the Messiah. 27 But when the real Messiah comes, no one will know where he comes from. And we know where this man’s home is.”
28 Jesus was still teaching in the Temple area when he said loudly, “Do you really know me and where I am from? I am here, but not by my own decision. I was sent by one who is very real. But you don’t know him. 29 I know him because I am from him. He is the one who sent me.” John 7:25-29 (ERV).

Notice the people all thought, this is Jesus son of Joseph from Galilee.  They read in the scriptures that no one would know where he is from.  Jesus is actually "from" Bethlehem.  He was born in Bethlehem, but grew up in Nazareth, which is in Galilee.  So the scriptures were right, they didn't know where he was from, but they thought they did.  So they're standing there, fulfilling what the OT scriptures said about them, that they wouldn't know where he was from, while knowing that very scripture, and not realizing the paradox.  And at that very moment, Jesus says, "Do you really know where I'm from?"  They thought they did, but they didn't.  Crazy stuff.  Everyone knew the scriptures, and that no prophet would ever come from Galilee.  But Jesus wasn't from Galilee, he was from Bethlehem.  

We see this dividing factor again and again in the three year ministry of Jesus.  Something will happen, Jesus will tell a parable, share a story, give a sermon, and then the reaction is documented in the crowd.  Some are convicted by these words and believe in him.  Others are hardened by his words and refuse to believe.  

Have you ever openly discussed Jesus Christ in a crowded area?  How about before a crowd?  Or at a college?  Or in almost any setting?  

No matter where on Earth you are, something will immediately happen.  I have seen it time and again.  I still recall the first time I noticed this intriguing dichotomy.  I was at a food pantry in my hometown with about forty others.  This was only about four months after I had encountered Christ and he had saved my soul.  I was on fire for Christ.  I was talking with several others about God, about Jesus.  I'm not sure how the conversation started.  But it was somewhat "scandalous" you might say.  I don't think it was scandalous, I think it was normal.  But when you start talking at slightly raised voices about Jesus in a public place, people will get salty.  First me and one person were talking about Jesus.  Then another person joined the conversation, praising how Jesus is so awesome.  Then a fourth and a fifth.  And I thought wow this is just really cool.  I felt a joy filling me.  Then I noticed this one person with a sort of "darkened" look on their face beginning to talk in opposition, just quietly enough for us to hear.  Then another joined in on the "darkened" discussion, kind of jeering and bashing religion.  Then another.  I noticed all of this, and it really astounded me at the moment.  It hit me.  I realized I was seeing one of the most ancient dichotomies in the history of mankind.  It went back to Jesus speaking to the crowds.  It went back to Moses, Joshua, and Aaron and their opponents: Jannes and Jambres.  It went back to Elijah's stand offs with the false prophets of Baal.  It went back to the very first murder in the dispute between Cain and Abel.  

And not only does such an ancient dichotomy go backward, it's also epitomized in modern day society.  Christianity vs. naturalism on the national stage in United States culture and politics.  The false dichotomy of "science vs. religion." 

Truth is spoken, one group is sympathetic to it.  The other group is biased against it.  In chapter 12 of John it's documented that Jesus Christ prayed to heaven a prayer, "Father, glorify your name."  And that a voice from heaven responded audibly to the prayer.  This was done before a group of people.  I find it so interesting the dual response.  One group thinks it was God who spoke from heaven.  The other group says "it was just thunder."  That's perfect, just perfect.  It reminds me of the debate between unguided evolutionary origins and the intelligent design movement.  I mean it's obvious, so incredibly obvious from what the crowd just heard, that a voice spoke from heaven.  In the same way, when scientists look at the universe through the telescope and the cell through the microscope, the impression of a finely tuned, designed universe is "overwhelming" say so many, most notably Paul Davies (British Astrophysicist).  Yet many will say, as they study the human genome, the cell and the sky, that they must constantly remind themselves that what they are looking at is not designed.  Because it was just thunder, and it can't be God.  They have categorically refused the possibility of God before even beginning their inquiry. 

This is nothing new.  Reverse in time with me near two thousand years to the historian Thallus' account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Scripture records that the sky went dark over calvary at the death of Jesus.  Thallus, an outside source, an ancient historian records this event, but refuses to believe it's a divine happening and instead attributes this to a solar eclipse.  Yet when studying that part of history astrologically, there was a lunar eclipse around that period, but no solar eclipse is possible on the same day as a lunar eclipse.  Josephus, Tacitus, and Thallus ancient historians all document mention of Jesus Christ and his ministry.  These are some of the most respected documents in human history.  They are indisputably considered factual historical accounts.  Of course quotations by Josephus seeming to regard Jesus too highly are constantly debated by historians.  Yet given the wealth of evidence, why the debate?  Would any other name like Napoleon or Plato quoted by historians ever face the fierce debate surrounding mentions of Jesus Christ?  Definitely not.  And it goes back to the simple dichotomy that is triggered whenever Jesus Christ spoke: some are sympathetic, some are antagonistic.   

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Deceased comedian George Carlin said, "I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood."  I had to chuckle when I read that quote.  I've taken several classes on church history and read (I almost wrote written) the apologies of Justin Martyr.  Justin Martyr and I must be kindred souls.  In the very first century one of the common claims against the Christian faith was that it's symbol of the cross was too gruesome.  2,000 years ago they said, and a few years ago George Carlin said it.  These are not subjective matters, they are objective, and substantive over history.  Cultural studies tend toward this idea of subjectivity.  Some aspects are subjective, but there are also currents that run through every human heart.  This is one of them, and the more history passes, well, it doesn't change.  The objections are the same.  It's the same with the new atheists, which amounted to a simple rehashing of a bunch of bunk arguments. 
The human heart hasn't changed.  It's still wicked.  We can see that from the trouble in our world.  It's easy to tell when looking at poverty, war, genocide, and disease.  

It's an easy observation to make of someone else of course.  But can we make it of ourselves?  Can I admit that I have a wicked heart?  Now don't get me wrong.  This is not to mean that we are totally wicked, and evil.  That is not the case.  Every human being is part of a race made in the image of God.  The divine spark is within you and it's within me.  But when we humble ourselves and admit our need for a savior, our need for a Holy Spirit within, our need for a heavenly Father, we come into alignment with the truth.  We come into the purpose of existence.  We come into the truth about life.  We also and especially come into the solution to every problem on Earth, every problem in heavenly places, and every problem within you and me.  We ought to choose that over remaining stubborn in our own infinite arrogance and rebellion.  Such people are fools.  I can see that now.  And they deserve what they get.  I don't say that to be callous or cruel.  But eventually, after so many offers to have a change of mind, one must finally be allowed to drift off into the darkness they've chosen for themselves.  They may not realize what they're doing, they may not realize the full implications, but they've chosen resistance and rebellion.  It hurts those around them, it hurts them, and eventually it destroys them.  

I can't force them to change, you can't force them to change, even God himself will not violate their sacred right to free choice.  So they choose that end.  And I can understand that.  We are creatures tending toward self destruction.  Women will skip over the good guy and go after the bad boy, and they're so surprised when their hearts are smashed to bits.  A man will choose to take a hit of a drug, something he knows is wrong, but overpowered by excitement and peer pressure, he cracks open a door that one day years later stops his heart.  We choose what is wrong for us so often, don't we?

I work and have worked as an AODA (Alcohol and other Drug Abuse) counselor for several years.  I worked for over a year at a homeless shelter in my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin.  This winter I'll be working at another shelter/warming center at my new TSA posting in Escanaba, Michigan.  My vocation goal isn't as a counselor though, I'll be serving as an intern in Escanaba in preparation to begin officership training in 2016.

Let me tell you that the Salvation Army is a very blessed institution.  All the tools are there.  I had a great and wonderful manager who had us doing case working with the population, aoda groups, mental health groups, daily meals, clothing give aways, we'd get them vouchers for hair cuts, free memberships to the YMCA, we'd help them apply for jobs, work on their GED, and find apartments.  It's all there.  Every single thing a person needs to get back on their feet.  And many would.  But there would always be many more what you call "chronically homeless" who end up being the nightmare of your life.  They refuse all the help.  Or they take advantage of it.  They save up a bunch of money, then blow it all.  They would find a job, then lose it two weeks later.  Quit the drinking and drugging, then relapse a day later in a grandiose display of bizarre behavior.

I would sit down with the alcoholic and try to help them admit the problem.  I'd try to help them to see their need for programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, or Smart Recovery.  But most, if not all, will refuse.  They'll argue.  They'll jab at you.  They'll get angry.  They'll b.s. you belong to get what they want then ditch out.  Lots of games, manipulations, and difficulties with this type.  But one thing is certain, you can see the pride, rebellion, and rationalization in their eyes.  They don't want to see the problem.  They refuse to see it.  And as people we can justify anything.  We can justify anything.  

I came in with a lot of pep and drive.  I wanted to sober up the world.  I wanted to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with every homeless person I met.  It wasn't anything like I thought it would be.  In fact after the year was up and I got my new assignment in Escanaba, I felt in reflection I had done very little.  And at times I felt betrayed by God himself.  "Lord, please help these people, please change them, please set your Holy Spirit to work in this shelter!"  One of the hardest experiences of my life thus far, was seeing that I couldn't help them.  They couldn't see, I couldn't force them to see.  Yet on further reflection I saw a few people, maybe 12, that had been impacted.  Some of them were attending AA in the area.  Some had gone out of the town and were doing well.  Some had begun attending the Salvation Army church services.  Others were working steady jobs.  So perhaps it hadn't been a total loss. 

All of that to say: Some will come to the cross today, others will come later, and some will never come.  It's the same with the homeless I worked with.  Some will recover sooner, some later, some much later after they've suffered a great deal due to addiction, others might finally sober up after years in prison and others will die with a needle in their arm, or a bottle in their hand, or frozen in a snowbank knowing, fully knowing through and through that they are not an alcoholic addict and they can handle it.  The same is probably true for humanity as we make our way through this troubled valley they call Earth.  Some of us have the cross today, others will have it tomorrow or the next day, and some will never have it.  Some of us climb the ladder of light, others choose to wallow in the depths of darkness.  

What will your choice be?  Can you see your need for a savior?  Can you see your need for rebirth?  I've been reborn.  But I still have that heart tending toward wrong-doing.  I can see it many a day.  I wake up and I don't want to pray.  I don't want to invite God into my day.  I don't want to ask his provision and protection for the day ahead.  But I try to force myself anyway.  Can you see your heart?  Can you see who you are, unobstructed?  That's what I'm trying to do.  I'm trying to pull away the barriers, so you can see your need and the solution.  The solution is Jesus.

Today in society it's all about appearances.  We live one life in private, another at work, another before family, and another on the town at night.  

As I once read and recited to my family physician, "A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant roses."  He didn't think that was very funny.  God can see us in a timeless state.  He can see all our blemishes, past, present, and future.  There is no hiding our poor conduct in this area.  It's all recorded.  And in that we see our need for a savior.  And as we've previously discussed, in our own suffering we see our own failings, and the goodness of God; we see our need for a Holy Spirit.  Finally, in the evil and suffering of the world we see our need for a Heavenly Father.  What would the world be like if every person on Earth lived as God describes in the Bible?  It would be a perfect world.  What kind of world would it be with God as sovereign Lord?  It would be a garden of paradise.  And one day it will be again.  

I'll close with this illustration from my life.  Recently just a few weeks ago I moved from Wausau to Escanaba.  It's been a challenging transition for me.  I don't know anyone here.  But I've met the corp officers I'll be working with and they are the most wonderful and supportive people I could possibly imagine.  God is with me in Escanaba.  

But my two cats Kitty and Kittone are having a hard time.  Every night they meow continuously.  One night a few nights ago they were meowing loudly around midnight.  I had to be up early.  It was for the first staff meeting at the Escanaba Salvation Army corp.  I was feeling increasingly troubled and feeling a sort of frenzied state of anxiety coming over me.  You know how it is, when you can't sleep and you know you have to be up early.  Just terrible!  I kept yelling at the two cats to shut up, and be quiet, but they just kept meowing incessantly.  At the pinnacle of frustration laying in bed I called out a desperate prayer to God, "God please make these cats shut up!"  I felt a calm come over me a few moments later.  Then I heard myself calling them to me, "Kitties, come here."  They both walked up to the bed, jumped up, nestled against my leg and fell asleep.  

They were afraid.  They needed to be loved.  It was simple.  But I couldn't see it.  I believe in the same way, many are afraid today.  They are lost and confused.  They don't know what to do.  We need to love them.  We need to show them that they aren't alone.  We need to carry the message of the gospel with love, grace, and friendship.  

That's why, when dealing with the chronically homeless at the shelter and I see the guy who got into a drunken fight two weeks early and made it a hell of a night for me, I walk up to him, shake his hand, and let him know that I love him and I forgive him.  

Remember the Priest from Les Miserables?  And the man Jean Valjean?  Valjean had stolen a loaf of bread and been imprisoned for many years.  Then he had been released.  He came to the home of a priest, and was allowed to stay there on a rainy night.  The Priest gave him food and drink the next morning.  The man stole everything he could, then bashed the priest in the head with a candlestick to make his escape.  On his way down the street Valjean was caught by a police officer, noticing the candle sticks and fine belongings.  He brought the man to the priest's house and threw him down before the priest.  The priest stared the man in the eyes, and turned to the officer and said, "I gave all these belongings to this man, he didn't steal anything."  Then the priest loaded a few more things on the man, saying "You forgot these things as well!"  Then the officer seeing there was no crime left.  Then Valjean, astounded, left as well.  The man was so impacted by the experience, he dedicated the rest of his life to serving the poor.  The priest did a crazy thing by our modern standards don't you think?  He did the opposite of what most of us would do in that situation.  Think about that, real grace, not a sunny sermon, not a cute idea, but real grace.  Today, tomorrow, the next day, who is God calling you to help?  Who is God calling you to bless after they've spit in your face and stolen from you?  Who is God calling you to love, forgive, and show unmerited grace to?  

And if you don't know Jesus, let me ask you a question: Have you ever spoken to him?  Have you even said a word to him? Dare you try? Might you pause for a few moments, and even say "hi" or "good morning God." Or "Who are you God?" 

You can do so. Anyone may do so. Even if you aren't religious, even if you don't believe in all of that. Maybe you owe it to yourself to pause a few moments, and see if God is really real, if Jesus is really God. 

"Jesus, reveal yourself to me." Then watch, observe, not over hours, but over days, and weeks, and months. He will in fact reveal himself to you. Maybe not in the ways you'd expect. But he will. 

We have the choice to close our eyes. Or to begin to reciprocate in that interaction. Begin today. No one will know but you. Give it a try. He's there with you. He's everywhere. He can hear your vocal prayer, or your silent prayer. God bless you, he loves you. Have a wonderful day!

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10 ESV

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