Wandering, Wondering… (Skylines and Horizons part 5)

“Thou tellest my wanderings: put Thou my tears into Thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” Psalm 56:8

I like this concept. Because, well, I’m not really sure where I’m going sometimes. Like this:

This verse shows that all the time I spent sojourning in the barren desert of consequences or the tangled forest of my bad decisions is not wasted. All the (figurative) tears that I cried while seeking God through the fallout of my parents’ divorce and my subsequent reacquaintance with honesty were like bricks in my wall. God truly works “all things together for good” (Romans 8:28). God was in every detail. Every little seemingly minute part of my “desert experience” was like a thread that God was weaving into the tapestry of my life. This might sound poetic and flowery, full of allusion and parallel, but consider this:

“I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me” (Psalm 57:2 emphasis mine) So, that’s called proof-texting—it’s considered logically lowbrow to do that whether the debate is religious or not, but I don’t care. And here’s another thing: God is doing this for everyone. You, me, that person over there. God is recording their story, putting their wanderings into his book. Threading His narrative through every paragraph, sentence. Word.

Did you know He even went one further? “Behold (LOOK!), I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.” (Isaiah 49:16) Your name is written, carved (that’s one connotation of graven) into God’s hands. “Ever before Him”. So then, if my “walls are continually before” Him, like it says, and “God…performeth all things for me”, does this mean that God is the one putting the bricks of hardship into my wall? Is this too much free association? At least it’s free…

Only God can take our mistakes and make them beautiful. Give us beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3). The oil of gladness (Hebrews 1:9; Jesus, sure but why not us?). Where we see infinite sand or trees instead of forest, God sees glass (sand+fire=glass, for bottles, for tears you understand) and trees for paper to record our wanderings.

Here’s my point. This is our life, warts and all. Our one chance in existence to find Jesus and find (from God) why we were put here before we go back from whence we came. God is wholly economical, and all of our mistakes, our victories, our tears, our jokes, all our free associations are like bricks in the wall around the city that is us. Don’t worry about it.

That Faraway Look (Skylines and Horizons part 4)

That faraway look…

There’s a Japanese word for it: Boketto. Pretty much a literal translation.

But let’s go one deeper: Far from being simple wistfulness, straining to maintain our vision can be difficult, in spite of the relative nearness of Heaven. Especially while we seek to enjoy the life God gives us to the fullest.

Whenever we take something for granted, somewhere back in the near or distant past, we must’ve had a blessing that we thought would continue without maintenance thereof. Or maybe we didn’t thank God for it properly—if at all. And when we’re taking something for granted, it’s not long before we’re tired of it, looking to something or someone else to fill that void. Humanity seems to be easily affected by and afflicted with a sort of spiritual nearsightedness. Time is flowing but there will come a time (?) when time will cease to flow.

In light of this, Paul makes a bold case for traveling light. In spite of all he’d seen and been through and been blessed with, he elected to forget the past and “reach forward unto those things which are before” (Philippians 3:13). There’s a fine line between the correct response of gratitude and appreciation for our gifts, talents and possessions. And the worship of the same. It’s not hard to distinguish between the two: if you feel overwhelmed in spite of doing what you love, or if you feel that you’re nothing without it, simply turn to God and thank Him for whatever gift you might be utilizing at that moment. I believe that creativity and inspiration flow when we’re not controlled by our gifts, but direct them to be used as unto God. And when we see possessions as tools that God can use in order for Him to better flow through our gifts and talents, then I believe we have things in the correct order. Love people and use things, not the other way around.

Any object, any possession, any idea, construct, or concept of mind is designed to pass away. To fade. It’s the natural order of things. For instance, I can wear my shoes–and be grateful to God for them–enjoying them right up to the day they’re unwearable. Only love, says Paul, is constant and eternal. Paul rounds out his list of transitory things with some other notables and then comes to the same conclusion in 1 Corinthians 13 (verse 8). And the expression and outpouring of love, while free, is far beyond price.

One reason for the failure of a marriage is because, during the honeymoon, the happy couple wasn’t counting on coming down from the mountain of celebration to the valley of inevitable struggle. They didn’t have that faraway look.

The point I’m seeking to illustrate is, without eternity in view, everything is skewed and time is warped.

With eternity in view, you realize every moment, that you are only here for a limited time. We’re living forever. Think about it. Everything is transitory but this is no reason to pout and doubt. The fact that we have such a thing as age and dust and decay and rust has no bearing on the necessity of gratitude and worship. Everything is kept fresh when we see that everything is a gift (see James 1:17). And I think that this enjoyment and gratitude is one of the things that we take with us to Heaven. When Jesus says to “lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt” (Matthew 6:20), He’s giving us an eminently practical word of instruction. Because when we are anchored by things, our happiness is likely to be hampered and as such, less likely to look for–and look forward to–what God is doing around us. (And God is always doing something around us, nearby, within.) Consequently, when we stop looking for God to do wonders (that’s all He does, by the way: see Psalms 72:18), we may end up not seeing them when they do happen and responding incorrectly even if we’re present when they do. Are we prepared for the fallout of a major supernatural miracle happening in our time? Questions will be leveled and the world is gonna look to us for answers. We need to be ready!

Emulating Japan (Skylines and Horizons part 3)

With a population of nearly 130 million people and a habitable area of just one fifth its total landmass, Japan is an intriguing country with a rich and wonderful heritage. It’s number one on my foreign travel destination wish list. Before I go, however, I would like to have enough of the language down to make my way intelligently through the crowded streets of Tokyo and not be seen and sneered at as an unintelligent “gai-jin”, or foreigner (they wouldn’t really do that). I want to blend in. That should make things a little easier, I guess. But that’s just speaking. Far as reading goes, there are three alphabets to learn. For instance, there’s Hiragana, which is the character alphabet for the individual phonetic sounds within Japanese. Then there’s Katakana, a more angular counterpart to Hiragana. Katakana is used to write foreign words for which colloquial Japanese has no direct translation. And then there’s Kanji. The Kanji catalog contains around 6,000 symbols ranging from simple to complex. An old neighbor told me once, that in order to read the newspaper, you need to know at least 2,000. Many signs and sentences are a combination of all three. I’ve certainly got my work cut out for me.

And with reference to the gift of Speaking in Tongues, I do remember a story I heard on a Christian radio show many years ago where an American man told of his interaction with two Japanese women who heard his English in their native tongue. Nothing to sneer at.

Much can be learned from the traditional Japanese way of life. Of austerity and frugality and respect. The simplicity and honor of their person-to-person interaction inspires and appeals to me the most. Bowing is more than a simple, genuflecting gesture of respect–it’s an art form that takes years to master. And if someone hands you a business card make sure that you treat it with utmost care and respect. It’s considered a cardinal sin to disrespect another’s business card. Seriously. If we as a church showed a tenth of the kindness, respect and hospitality that they show to their guests, God would “awake” (see Psalm 44:23), and maybe we would come together as a more cohesive body in these days and times. The communal spirit evinced in their generosity is reminiscent of the early church (see Acts 2:44). And the earthquake and the tsunami have done even more to bring them together as a people. Inspiring. Speaking of austerity, if you think the three months that kids here in America get for Summer vacation is not long enough, kids in Japan get two weeks. Even then, it’s considered too long!

So limited is the real estate of Japan that the prospective builders (say, in Tokyo) have no choice but to go up, with new floors being added to the already towering skyscrapers. It’s common to have a building with the most random and varied shops and business from floor to floor.

I suppose the main appeal of any country is the people. To be able to go somewhere and, regardless the activity in which I engage, to show someone the love of Jesus makes any trip worthwhile. That language crosses cultural, linguistic, religious and societal boundaries and barriers. It’s something everyone understands. I recommend the writings of Toyohiko Kagawa for an amazing look at the love of Jesus expressed through someone who was just as sold out to God as he was Japanese.

O yomi itadaki, arigatōgozaimashita!

(thank you for reading!)

A Continuing City (Skylines and Horizons part 2)

They say that in New York, you can always tell who the tourists are. They’re the ones wondering around aimlessly, noses either in a guidebook, or pointed to the sky. This would apply to any big city, right?

When we accepted Jesus as our Savior, we gained new citizenship in Heaven. And now, as Peter says (1 Peter 2:11), we are “strangers and pilgrims”. We’re passing through. So any feeling of unrequited longing or unsteadiness could be due to the fact that we’re really not from around here, right? It could be a sort of spiritual homesickness. That’s ok, but contrast this: Jeremiah, writing to the Jewish captives in Babylon, told them to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it”. He says “for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” Sure, they were more than just tourists—they weren’t there by choice—but how many of us find ourselves in places other than ideal?

Another New York-ism says that “the quickest way across town is to have been born there”. We all, prior to accepting Jesus, were “born here”. And now, without God’s word as a travel guide, navigating the uncharted urbania in which we now find ourselves–while maintaining and developing the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16)–is impossible. It’s a (spiritual) jungle out there.

When I was a kid, I lived near Los Angeles. At the time, the smog in the city was so bad as to (nearly) occlude the sky, you had to look straight up in order to see any blue. So look up! All the better if someone knows I’m a Christian, right? How many times have you heard of (or experienced for yourself) an unsaved individual needing some sort of existential help and knowing just who to call. It was their “one Christian friend” who always seemed abnormally, unusually happy—even to the point of derision. I remember “admitting” once to an older couple I’d known for years as acquaintances that I was Christian. “We figured as much” said one. What?! My reputation precedes me. I came away from that encounter encouraged but puzzled. Sure, such a marked distinction in my demeanor might have signified to this man and his wife that I was different. But Christian? Forgive me for tooting my own horn here because, while I am marginally aware of people’s perceptions of me, I don’t really know what they’re thinking. Especially about me. They had obviously observed me and realized that I fit the description. But it wasn’t like I knew or even cared what, if anything, they thought of me. I guess I’m “just not from around here”. I used to be though.

Hebrews (13:14) says that “here we have no continuing city”. We are passing through. Homesickness for Heaven is a healthy symptom. A symptom of spiritual life. While we’re here in the valley of the shadow of skyscrapers, as we pray for and encourage those, like us, who were born here and still count this as their (permanent) home, God is going to do the same for us in our sojourn. And He’ll bring along any who want to come.

In closing, two things: Firstly, I would like to say that Heaven is a city (see Revelation 21:10). It’s not some giant cloud as portrayed and mythologized in contemporary imagery. Where was the imagination of whoever came up with that representation? And secondly, the former mayor of New York, the late Edward Koch: “I can explain it for you, but I can’t comprehend it for you.” That’s exactly how I feel with reference to Heaven. Tome after tome has been released recently, explaining the reality and atmosphere of Heaven. I, however, would like to comprehend it for myself.

Thank you very much.

Liminal, Subliminal (Skylines and Horizons part 1)

I was thinking about that word the other day–subliminal. Wondering how much is inside of me that I’m not aware of and to a great extent not privy to. So I looked it up and found–obviously–that something precedes it: liminal. Hmm. That’s a new one. Liminal. Not to be confused with limn, which means “to draw a quick sketch”. Liminal refers to the “limen” which simply means “threshold”. The entryway. So when we’re dealing with anything subliminal, would it be too far a stretch to say that we’re referring to perceptions, thoughts, and observations that we have and are operating in that we could be blind to? Things that are coloring our outlook that may not be in keeping with “the mind of Christ” (which Paul says we possess, see 1 Corinthians 2:16)? Things that we are letting in but not questioning first? In thinking about these things, this “unknown quantity”, I’m reminded of a verse in Proverbs (4:23). It says to “Keep (guard) thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life”. That word “issues” connotes “source”. The source of our life. And again in the twenty-fifth chapter of Proverbs (vs. 28), it says that “He that hath no rule over his spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls.”

Nehemiah, when he was picked to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it, began with the walls. He surveyed them by night, going around the city to see firsthand the damage done by other Semite tribes. He writes (2:12): “I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem.” This is important because, sometimes, we need to keep silent about the things that God is doing in our lives. Those we tell may or may not have good intentions regarding our recovery, they may not have our best interests at heart. Who knows if the men with him knew what he was planning? Nehemiah then began to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem which in turn enabled the scattered Jews to return and repopulate the deserted city. One thing I should mention is that he refers to God as “my God” many times throughout his book. He was evidently very close to the Lord and considered Him as more than Ruler and Parent. He saw God as friend and companion. During the rebuilding process, he encountered severe opposition from three men from different tribes who tried to keep him from fulfilling his mission. Two of them in particular (Sanballat and Geshem) sought to trick him in to giving up just as things were nearing completion. Needless to say, he succeeded. “The God of Heaven, He will prosper us” (2:20) The city, however, was a ghost town upon completion of the walls. The mental-picture this gives rise to is stunning:

“Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded.” (Nehemiah 7:4)

Our heart, our spirit, is the threshold of our life. The writer of Psalm 119 says that he had “hidden [God’s] word in his heart that he might not sin against [Him].” (vs. 11)

And this is the link. When we fill our heart with God’s word, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:13), then the Holy Spirit enables us to “guard our heart”. He is a gift to us. “He sees to the very depth of our being”, as my dad would say and it’s He who cares about what goes on in our life that we’re blind to. The Holy Spirit is there, on our insides, and the more of God’s word that we’re willing to fill our heart with—as did the psalmist with his heart and the Jews with their city—the more the Holy Spirit will be able to illumine our insides. “The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness” (Psalm 18:28). What walls and infrastructure are to any city, the word of God empowered by the Holy Spirit is to every Christian. And infrastructure—sewers, power, roads—must go in before the houses are built and inhabited. Yet it’s the walls that keep out unwanted influences that seek to impinge on our freedom in God. One of the first things that Nehemiah did after finishing the walls was have Ezra read from the law of Moses (chapter 8). To establish God’s word as the cornerstone of a free and enlightened community.

One of the benefits of knowing the word as it applies to my situations and circumstances, is that it “[divides] asunder soul and spirit” (Hebrews 4:12). It shows me in stark relief, what is me as a spiritual “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and me in my old way of thinking. What is of God, and what isn’t. This is how I’m enabled to guard my heart and keep out unwanted (subliminal?) influences, attitudes and emotions. It takes practice and effort. Rome may not have been built in a day but the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time:

“So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul (the Jewish month which lasts August 19 thru September 16), in fifty and two days.” (Nehemiah 6:15)