Being Nothing

“Therefore I take pleasures in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing.” (2 Corinthians 12:10-11)

It’s those last four words that get me. Paul, for all his advancement in the things of Christ chooses to remain humble and keep himself in perspective. Jesus says “for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). Paul take this stark statement of Jesus one further.

When once you cross a certain threshold and truly see the grandeur and splendor and outrageous power of God, coming down from that high is sobering. Paul’s right. Without Jesus, we only have others to compare ourselves to and as such, are subjective and/or intersubjective into nothingness (That’s gentle–we’re nothing, but bear with me.). If that makes sense. And yet Paul was fine with this. Fine with the litotes of of describing himself thus.

“Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” (Philemon 1:8-9)

Anyone the world over, whether believer or non, should have some vestige of respect for Paul and what he did. His utter devotion to a cause greater than he. His atavistic asceticism in championing something so against the grain as to be revolutionary. His willingness to be imprisoned and tortured. To be martyred, to lay down his life. These character traits are of supreme value for anyone following after. And with reference to the other apostles to which he compared himself, they had walked with Jesus. Granted, Paul (then Saul) was knocked off his horse by Jesus on the road to Damascus. His interaction carrying the weight of severe conviction for his way of life and an accompanying physical blindness to match his spiritual. The other disciples were handpicked by the Lord to follow after. Paul’s was a touch more dramatic. He had gone through ways of life and living that distilled out into the few and varied letters we have in our New Testament. His life lessons translating into the handbook from which we take much of our Christian mores today. And yet his declaration of nothingness. What is it with him? He is self-effacing but there is something deeper at work. Namely a relationship with Jesus like a deep undercurrent or a transcendent jet stream unaffected by anything on earth.

“Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:13)

When Jesus gets a hold of you and you know Him (and He knows you), you can unequivocally say things like that. You can so carelessly regard your own life as to look like “a fool in glorying”. This isn’t to say you take on a cavalier attitude to the difficulties of modern life or let yourself go without following God’s will for your life. But if you truly want to know and follow Jesus, as did Paul, He becomes your all. To where you’re lost in Him and regard yourself as “nothing”. Nothing wrong with that.

“If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)

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Understanding (The Tenets of Jesus part 4)

“And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. And He said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?” (Mark 8:20-21, emphasis mine)

Almost a rhetorical-sounding question. Think about it though. Unless you were looking hard enough, you would have missed Jesus and all He stood for. The same goes for now, I might add. But think about the singularity of His life, walking around, the fulfillment of every prophecy up till then and… He just passed by you and had no idea who it was. Of course He could ask of His disciples what He did, because they’d never seen anything like it.

“Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?”

“And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:29-31) Or the Holy Spirit, you know.

I can imagine that much of Jesus’ life was a complete mystery to onlookers. Think about it. How could you know all you do now of the Lord, merely having grown up with Him or by seeing Him preach by the seashore? All the ways and means of the Christian life as it pertains to the things you encounter? Granted, I might be synopsizing His thirty-three earthly years with an ad hoc sound bite in retrospect. Jesus did everything correctly and everywhere He went and every individual He was led to interact with (by the same Holy Spirit that “said unto Philip…”) was exactly what His Father would have Him do at that moment. And then He died. And rose again. And now what? I find it amazing to have this collection of letters, penned (dictated at least) by one man–Paul–that, when taken together form an exceptional backbone for living the Christian life. It’s the backbone. The finer points of Paul’s writings just happen to flow with God’s will and as you meditate and walk in what he wrote, you find God is still happy with you (yes). It’s so simple. We have Jesus. We have Paul. “We also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses…” (Hebrews 12:1) In other words, the Gospel has spread into the hearts and minds of billions of people the world over for thousands of years. But until you delve into these words and ideas and give your heart up to the Lord, it’s all an impenetrable mystery. Except! We have the Holy Spirit:

“These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (John 14:26)

There are layers of depth I can’t begin to fathom around why Jesus had to leave and in doing so was able to give us the Holy Spirit. Granted, these layers are graspable but only with Him. And so it would seem it’s a complete circuit. Life isn’t just about accruing knowledge or learning all you can about all you can. It’s about knowing Jesus. And until you receive the Holy Spirit, He will remain an enigma.

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

Understand first that He loves you. And everything else will slowly interlock and fall into place.

 

Before We Go Any Further

“Rise, let us be going…” (Matthew 26:46a)

I came upon the word katabasis the other day. After some searching online, I found its inverse: anabasis. Both Greek in origin, the latter refers to an expedition from the coast down to the interior. Katabasis is the opposite but it carries another heavier connotation of a descent into the underworld. The katabasis also refers to a military retreat. Read Xenophon’s account, titled the same, if you feel so inclined. There are several layers to the two inverted ideas, several of which apply directly to our walk before the Lord.

Shoring up

“In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after Him.” (Ecclesiastes 7:14)

The idea of encompassing fuller and fuller realms of life is an enticing one. But as it says above, God will allow you to go through periods where all you know is what you did before that knowledge was accosted by newfound circumstances and things to which you were theretofore unprepared. For instance, say you serve the Lord in a certain way, and yet one day, through a series of untoward events, the very thing you enjoyed between you and He was brought into scrutiny for an audit so to speak–and it doesn’t bring you the same joy it used to. How would you respond to that? It’s one thing to walk with the Lord and another thing to have Him carry you. Because as confusing as life can become, this is what we’ll need to make it through. Either from the shore, inland. Or from anywhere at all, into hell. God is with you, never forget this. He’s carrying you through.

“Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into Heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there.” (Psalm 139:7-8)

I still have nightmares about different miserable aspects of my old life. I find it odd, before I go any further, how it would seem the nightmares occur as I’m about ready to wake. There, at a time when I’m bound to not only remember the details of the dream and its atmosphere, but also feeling it like it just happened–because it did.

“And why stand we in jeopardy every hour? I protest by your rejoicing in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” (1 Corinthians 15:30-31)

Beachhead

There are ways we see God that are right. And ways He will clarify as time goes on. One thing I’m hesitant to do, however, is take on any thought structure around who I know God to be that is not based in gentleness and peace and joy–and love. I find at times a hard-edged and legalistic mask that presents itself as a facsimile. It’s these types of tropes that God would like to burn through. It may take a night or two in hell (remember, He’s there with you) before you can come back. It’s odd that the katabasis holds both an advancement into hell as well as retreat in its definition. And that anabasis is the opposite–whatever that means. I like the ambiguity in this pair of words purely for the fact that out of all the black and white and good and evil and paradoxically dichotomous states inherent to life, Jesus stands above it all.

“And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.” (Luke 18:19)

In closing, the only thing I have to add by way of odd allusion is with reference to the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. The Moai statues around the shore were dug out of a quarry in the interior (called Rano Raraku) and drug to the edge and carved where they stand? Not sure about that. I suppose in closing that wherever you find yourself, whether ashore from a long voyage and ready to descend into hell (seriously, life can go from hard to worse) or retreating from difficulties that threatened to overwhelm you or coming back from victory–or petrified where you stand. Know that God is carrying you. Know this, before you go any further.

Covering All Our Bases

I’m loath to use sports metaphors in my vernacular. I must be honest. I live in Oregon and we host the “Civil War” (at some point in the year, not sure when). Where the Ducks of Eugene (The University of Oregon) face off against the Beavers from Corvallis (Oregon State). One of college football’s biggest matchups I should add. As I step back a couple paces, I realize this bipartisan, if polarizing, event doesn’t bode well for the spirit of unity at large. Granted, it’s all done in the spirit of true sportsmanship (whatever that means), uniting Oregonians under the banner of “football”. And that’s great. But again, taking a step back I see no quarter in any of it if you’re not inclined towards sports. All that competition.

Playing both fields

I suppose the baseball teams of both colleges have their Civil War as well. But a point I want to touch on is that–all metaphors aside–of seeking an answer from God where you find yourself needing to make a polarizing decision. One that is incumbent upon you and placed there by God.

“And there came an angel of the Lord, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained unto Joash the Abiezrite: and his son Gideon threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites (they had “encroached” on the Israelites–that’s a five yard penalty in football). And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him, and said unto him, The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour.” (Judges 6:11-12) Just so you know, that’s how God sees you. Whether you’re a man or not.

This is all happening in a time in Israel’s history before they were a proper kingdom. And so God brought forth judges from their midst to help steer them in the right direction. Samson was one. Deborah, another. And then God puts his finger on Gideon. Gideon… Sounds like “gridiron” and means in Hebrew, “warrior”. The angel of the Lord says “thou mighty man of valor”. Calling it like he sees it, like God sees it. I suspect, however, that Gideon wasn’t the most decisive nor assertive person you’re likely to meet, let alone think of in terms of martial leadership. That’s alright. Beyond a certain point, it really isn’t what we think about ourselves that plays out in the long run, but what God thinks. If you have any misery, any misery at all in your life, it very well may be due to the fact that your thinking isn’t meshing with God’s. Just a thought. Now. A little backstory on our man Gideon. His father Joash had an altar to Baal on his property. Something the angel told Gideon to destroy. Which Gideon did, under the cover of darkness–“because he feared his father’s household, and the men of the city” (6:27). At this, the townspeople, incensed he’d do such a thing demanded of Joash that he give up Gideon to them for execution. To which his father responds, very brilliantly, “if he be a god (referring to Baal), let him plead for himself, because one hath cast down his altar.” (verse 31) And this is where it gets another layer of interest, at least for me.

Full count, no outs

“Therefore on that day he called him Jerubbaal, saying, Let Baal plead against him, because he hath thrown down his altar.” (Judges 6:32)

Gideon is now known by two names. The aforementioned “warrior”. The literal connotation of his name in Hebrew is “feller of trees” by the way–and now this. His new appellation means “Baal will contend”. Evidently he had raised the ire of, not just the townspeople appeasing the occupying army but also their fertility god. So Gideon comes out into this fight, a fight instigated by God to begin with, swinging. Both sides see him as a “mighty man of valor”. But we already knew that about him.

“Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? Ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? Yea, there is no God; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44:9)

I’ve long wondered about the seeming vacillation of Gideon toward God with reference to the fleece. Think about the symbols at hand should you decide to wait on the Lord for an answer. How could He speak to you? Well, for one, Gideon asks God “If Thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as Thou hast said.” (verse 36, emphasis) We always have His word. And His Word only and ever points back to Him. We have the inner witness of the Holy Spirit and also prayer. But when looking for an answer symbolic, further elucidation might be required to really know we’re really doing what He wants. And what about this? What if we know it’s what He wants us to do but aren’t sure He’ll back us once we step out? There’s that. So Gideon asks twice in as many days. He, much like the inverse dichotomy of his two names, I think, tries one way and then the other. God will have his day. But first Gideon asked for the fleece to be soaked with dew (which it was the next morning) and then he asks the opposite (again, he gets his answer). And the next morning he has the confidence to rally his men to fight.

“…prove me now herewith…” (Malachi 3:10)

I don’t really know what else to say except that, for real hard decisions, the ones that come around once every so often and that also have the potential to both derail or else vault you higher, take all the means with which you listen to God and play them up. Look for the wet fleece as well as the dry. Search the Word. Listen for the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart and validate every other means of communication. Ask Jesus to lead and guide you. He won’t let you down.

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God…” (1 John 4:1a)

In closing, after being criticized by “the men of Ephraim” (Judges 8:1) for going to battle without them, Gideon says this: “What have I done now in comparison of you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim (which means double fruit) better than the vintage of Abiezer?” (8:2) It then says in the next verse, after he details some of the victories of Ephraim, that “their anger was abated toward him, when he had said that.” If you’ve waited on God, that which He’ll do for you will be tested from within and without and held under the exacting scrutiny of His Word and His Spirit. In other words, you can’t lose.

“A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked.” (Psalm 37:16)

And in somewhat of a postscript, should you be hard-pressed to choose between the Ducks and the Beavers, you could identify yourself as a “Platypus”. Nothing wrong with bein’ a monotreme for its own sake. If that’s where it’s at for you, provided you even like sports in the first place, then more power to you.

Self-reflection (The Tenets of Jesus part 3)

Another “tenet”, if I may, is that of self-reflection. If you believe in Jesus, i.e. that He was more than just human, or just a human (they sounded like two different things prior to being typed out). And if you believe on Jesus (in/on, the preposition doesn’t really matter) as the Saviour of your spirit, enabling you to become once again right with God–because He always was and therefore endured the wrath of His Father for us–where do you or I even enter the picture? Where does the concept of free will or personality or any of the beautiful, simple and childlike things that make us who we are, come in to play? For me, there has always been this gnawing to become more than what I was before, because I’ve always had a hard time being satisfied with myself. I suppose it was because I wasn’t vaulting from a true place. And so, any dispassionate self-reflection produced despair or confusion or despondency, until I then realized I wasn’t seeing myself as He (Jesus) saw me. Two things before I go any further: Firstly, I apologize for talking down to you in introducing this tenet. Because, if I may, you yourself have most likely touched upon yourself as an entity at some point in your life. Someone (as opposed to some thing) in and amongst a bunch of others, similar to you yet radically different. And you’d have it no other way, right? Whenever I find I’m akin to someone more than I originally thought, it was after the fact and if it’s true, it wasn’t what I was looking out for, it that makes sense. The second thing is that I’m most likely not going to introduce anything God hasn’t already made known to you in some way, for yourself. One of the things I’ve long fought with is this idea I should (and therefore could) receive any and everything I wanted and needed from God Himself.

Self-reflection is necessary, vital even. I see the word(s) in my mind’s eye (self-reflection) and I just know I have something to say on it. As a writer, I’m finding it difficult to extend my mind out to whatever sounding board I feel needs to hear this in order to make a valid point and speak to them (you). That’s what a writer does by the way. They have something to say to someone–even themself (not a word)–and they talk or write longhand or type. How many authors made it after they’d passed away, by the way? They thought no one wanted to hear what they had to say thereby substantiating that gift. Offering the writer, by way of attention, a form of validation. But if I class myself as a writer first and foremost and receive all the accolades along those lines only, I will end in missing the substrate fact that I’m a human, a spirit, with a gift of writing. Jesus comes first. This is why any self-reflection must begin with Him (That’s really all I have to say on the matter.). This is why I was never satisfied with myself, always wanting more. One must realize what He has done for them before any self-reflection can tell and form and build up from the bottom. Your gifts, whatever they may be, aren’t who you are. You are the righteousness of God in Him (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). If I may.

“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in Him not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” (Philippians 3:8-11)

 

Gentleness (The Tenets of Jesus part 2)

The phrase comes back to me often. I suppose it happens when a lot of the grit and grime are washed out and God lets me see a substrate and pure means of Christian expression. I feel I’m doing something “that Jesus would do”. And just because we don’t have the good feelings we think should accompany every act, doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t smiling looking on. Really, it’s the motive and attitude of our heart that tells in those times. And so, without further ado, here we go again: “The Tenets of Jesus”. What should the second tenet be? I’m just going to pluck out gentleness as one worth elucidating. I should like to describe it in light of the space between someone, anyone who has a go-getting, type-A personality and not necessarily inclined to slow down one whit, and someone crawling along for God knows what reason. Be gentle.

“He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench: He shall bring forth judgment unto truth.” (Isaiah 42:2-3)

I know of no better scripture to describe the gentleness of Jesus. He is so gentle that He’s imperceptible if we are in pride and not looking for Him. But how does this play out with those we meet? When Jesus says “If any [one] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24), one of the best ways I can do this is to not overpower someone with my personality. It doesn’t mean that you’re not the strong, confident and assertive person you always are–you just don’t need to show people. Because Jesus is the same. And He will validate that about you. He’s had to do it for me. I find that if I act in ways that aren’t in keeping with His gentleness throughout my day, I tend to turn people off. And why? If I’m representing Him and yet not acting as He would, I’m not doing Him any favors. Then again, it’s something that the Holy Spirit has slowly (and gently) intimated to me. And “gentleness” is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). He’s got all you need.

“God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. The woman saith unto Him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when He is come He will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.” (John 4:24-26)

Firm but gentle. Jesus, in His conversation with the woman at the well of Samaria gives her everything she needs: validation, conviction, purpose and peace. She’s smart. Not just anyone could convince her of some better way. And so, Jesus filled that space between where she was and he, with gentleness.

“Thou hast also given me the shield of Thy salvation: and Thy right hand hath holden me up, and Thy gentleness hath made me great.” (Psalm 18:35) Don’t forget to be a servant (see part 1).

Servanthood (The Tenets of Jesus part 1)

It sounds so squishy. Er, gimmicky. Same thing. It just sounds fake. Say it: “The tenets of Jesus.” It sounds like something so removed from His actual person and personality as to be sterile and of little-to-no-use in the everyday world. As, like, some sort of antiquarian guidelines that anyone, regardless of age or gender can take and supersede with the first step. I’m talking about things like this:

“For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:5, emphasis mine)

I should like to touch on the concept of servanthood as exemplified by Jesus. And rotate around it all your world and all your life (yes) to where just about the only thing God wants you to do–understand that everything you want is in view and you could just reach out and touch it–is serve somebody.

The act of washing another’s feet whether figurative (praying for and forgiving them) or literal is one of the basest (in a good way) ways that Jesus came to serve. He lives it out in the thirteenth chapter of John. He had led His disciples through the lanes of His ministry (who knows how long it had been since their feet were last cleaned) and He deigned clean up the dirt they accrued from their journey. How fitting a parallel that even though you’re following Jesus, you are bound to get your feet dirty on the way and that He is faithful to stoop down and wipe it all away. And as He leads us to do the same, know that the dignity you bestow upon those whom you bless (you have that ability) will come back to you. All has been evened under Christ. “Though the Lord be high…” (Psalm 138:6a)

“The Lord looketh from Heaven; He beholdeth all the sons of men. From the place of His habitation He looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth.” (Psalm 33:13-14)

This is Jesus. And that He would lay aside those garments, of resplendence and majesty and power and might, and come to serve. It’s heartbreaking and mindblowing. Because we can either serve ourselves and get what we need at the expense of others. Or serve others as unto Him and stand by while He rewards us with joy and peace and contentment. And even if your attitude isn’t where it should be (mine isn’t many times…) He’s faithful to bring that in line with the aforementioned “all your world and all your life”. Yes. But what does it look like? God knows. Realize that with the sweetness of your heart, you are serving Him at all times. Anything spontaneous the Holy Spirit intimates to you on your way, is service enough. Don’t complicate it.

“And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

This kind of rubric is why I can’t dismiss something corny-sounding like “the tenets of Jesus”. They’re more than we know. They are the ways and means that we walk in as Christians. Dirt notwithstanding.