Experiencing God

Previews of Heaven: The Confident Claims

This reflection series is about Heaven. To download this reflection series, go here.

Open Door

Movie previews are great at making the particular featured movie seem like the best movie ever made, ever. It doesn’t matter if the actors in the movie have a track record of box office busts or if the director has “lost his touch.”  During those two minutes, anyone can look like a genius. I remember a few years ago there was a lot of hype about two movies. The first movie was a science fiction movie, “Cloverfield.” The preview for this movie had a lot of people talking and the hype was impossible to avoid. The other was a movie called, “The Happening.” This movie was from the director M. Night Shyamalan, of such box office hits as “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.”  Many people were talking about how great this movie looked and how excited they were to see it. However, when both movies were released, audiences were largely disappointed. Moviegoers felt taken by the timeless “preview” illusion.

Throughout our lives we will all experience setbacks, obstacles that try our patience, strength and character. As time progresses, many often resign to the particular belief that, “thus is life.” There is a resignation to a belief that some things just go wrong. People get hurt, things don’t work out and there is ultimately nothing we can do about it. But the Bible says otherwise. In the Bible we read that we all can experience the fruit of the Spirit during our time on Earth, and that in Heaven, suffering, pain, sadness and injustice will be reversed and undone.

Heaven promises a reemergence or renewal of the original state of existence, an existence void of all of the things unwelcome in this life like pain and suffering. There is a reason why, regardless of our differing religious beliefs, we all are so uncomfortable with crimes against the innocent and the breaking of a heart. The Bible explains that this inner distaste for such things lies at the heart of our original state within the original creation. We are troubled because we were not made for this place. We are troubled because this “preview life” is only a preview with foretastes, but not the actual full-length feature. Paul expands on this point in his letter to the Philippians:

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, the apostle John is given visions of this final recreation and return to the original creation.  The visions of John support the claims of Jesus in regards to the final act of “recreation” and “regeneration.” 

Previews of Heaven: The Best Moments

This reflection series is about Heaven. To download this reflection series, go here.

 

Open Door

source

The relationship between the moviegoer and the movie preview is a complicated one. On one side, we appreciate the previews because by them we stay hooked into the world of movies and entertainment. By watching previews we are updated on the latest and greatest in cinematic brilliance.  Our interest in movies remains consistently high. On the other hand, the movie preview can be something we’d rather do without. The sole motivation that brings us to the movie theater is the feature film, not just a preview. It is for the feature that we blocked out 3 hours in our schedule and paid for our tickets.  We know that in order to stay excited and in tune with the latest movies, we must see the previews.  Therefore, we accept the preview more as something to be endured than enjoyed. Previews are made to achieve three primary goals. They should:

  • Display the best moments
  • Make radically confident claims
  • Leave us wanting more

Over the next three weeks, we’re going to use this analogy of a movie preview to compare with the way Christians are instructed to think about Heaven while we are living for Christ on the Earth.

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It’s always amazing how a two minute trailer can make almost any movie, regardless of the true level of cinematic quality, seem worth watching. This idea reminds me of an episode from one of my favorite television shows, Seinfeld. In one particular episode, the flawed “people’s person” George Constanza finds himself dating a girl who has no knowledge of his long list of faults, flaws, and setbacks. He proceeds to act like everything he’s accomplished in his life (a job with a steady and competitive salary, knowledge of New York City and a stable standard of living) had all miraculously come together within days. By doing this, he hoped to impress his new girlfriend with his sudden success and accomplishments. While telling his friend Jerry about this plan, he said, “You know, if you take everything I’ve done in my entire life and condense it down into one day, it looks decent!”

This is exactly what a movie preview attempts to do. The preview has two minutes to condense the best moments, the most action-packed fight scenes and the funniest one-liners into a compact one-two punch experience that will leave everyone anxious for its release. This is why so many movies wind up failing at the box office. In many cases, the preview outdoes the feature film.

Speaking in terms of our earthly life and its relation to heaven, what we experience in this life is what the Bible calls a “foretaste.” Embodied in the life of Jesus Christ, then regenerated in the lives of disciples, are experiences and foretastes of things unknown, yet promised. At the heart of each of our lives are experiences of purity and perfection that are only attained and experienced intermittently.

Paul writes about these experiences by comparing them to “fruit” when he writes in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

During our lives, God willing, we all will experience each of these at their purest form at least once. These moments tend to last only for a little while, but we remember the experience forever. The moment we were truly loved by someone, we never forget. The moment someone was truly faithful to us, we never forget. The same can be said about all nine “fruits.” These fruits are born out of the Spirit and the Spirit is born out of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his being and identity, Jesus embodied all of these fruits. They are, in turn, recreated and reflected in the lives of those reborn of the Spirit.

The difference between the way that we experience this “foretaste” and the way that a movie preview attempts to impress a moviegoer, is that there is no secret that the movie preview is attempting to sell something that cannot entirely satisfy. If the movie is not as good as the preview, the audience is unsatisfied. But even if the movie is as good as the preview promises, it’s still simply a movie. In this case the audience, while completely entertained, leaves exchanging comments like, “Well, life’s not like the movies.” But the essence of the fruit of the Spirit as a foretaste to something unknown, something wonderful, and something promised, is the truth that the foretaste is for something that exists.  That offers satisfaction, and ultimately delivers. This “thing” is heaven, and it is there that we not only can experience these fruits individually, but also where we experience all fruits simultaneously in an ongoing coexistence with the “gardener” himself, God.

Thursday Reflection: Why We Eat, Part 4

pen-and-paper_400x295_39This is the final installment in the Why We Eat series! For Parts 1-3, see here and here and here. 

This reflection is inspired by 1 Peter 2: 2-3.

Today we talk about Necessity.

Living in modern western society I am blessed with an abundance of provision.  Compared to the rest of the world I live extremely comfortably. My needs and wants are met on a daily basis.  Awareness of this fact does little to help me relate with the many living around the world in extreme poverty.  The number of individuals with little to no food to eat compared to those of us who always have enough food is horrifying.  Due to this unfair reality, I cannot fully understand what it means to be literally starving.

The word “starving,” used in the way that it is supposed to be used, describes, to me, one of the worst physical challenges.  I cannot imagine going without food for days, weeks or months.  I have heard of various accounts of people who have endured such hardships and the testimonials are painful in description alone. I pray that with each passing day we can see more people fed and fewer people dying of hunger, although the obstacles to this miraculous feeding of the millions remains stubborn and strong.

Although I cannot fully empathize with someone who has experienced hunger to this degree, and not to trivialize hunger in any way, I do know what it feels like to be hungry.  I do know what it feels like when your stomach begins to alert you that food is needed.  In this moment, it is difficult to think of much else.  At first, hunger is the deep pains of the abdomen.  Next, hunger inflicts headaches, weakness and perhaps dizziness.  The search for sustenance becomes a top priority, distracting you from any other task.  This is a state of physical emergency that is impossible not to acknowledge.

This prompts the question: do I really hunger for God?  Do I need God like I would need food in this situation?  Do I feel weak and without strength in his absence?  These questions can be humbling and convicting but are, nonetheless, vital to a Christian life of honesty and integrity.  Living a Christian life is not intermittent snacking out of boredom.  Neither is it one where we force feed out of respect for a host.  In the life of a disciple of Jesus, existence without him means death and existence with him means life.  It is that extreme.

There is a reason that Jesus compared himself to bread.  To the ancient world, bread meant more than fulfilling carbohydrates and plentiful calories as it does to the bread-loving world of today.  Bread, to the world that Jesus preached, symbolized “life.”  At the feeding of the 5000, Jesus says these words:

John 6:35

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Jesus is telling us that to take part in a relationship with him is to be ultimately and completely satisfied.  To eat of this bread Jesus describes means to never feel in need and to never want to go without.  This understanding of the Gospel of Jesus leaves no room for Christianity lived on the foundation of boredom or politeness.  God does not want us to come to his altar just because.

“Just because” is void of thought, intention, and meaning.  God put all of those into his creation, and He knows what He desires.  God desires us. Quite simply, he desires that we desire him. True worship comes when that desire is met and reciprocated, when we feel our hunger for Him and Him alone.

 

Thursday Reflection: Why We Eat, part 3

For parts 1 and 2 of this series on why we worship, go here and herepen-and-paper_400x295_39

This reflection is inspired by 1 Peter 2: 2-3.

Today’s source of hunger: Pressure.

Imagine this scenario: we are invited to go out to eat with family or friends. Unbeknownst to them, we have already eaten.  It would appear rude if we were to reject such a kind invitation, so, we carry on through the meal as if we hadn’t eaten in days.  Throughout the meal, we are neither interested in eating or even enjoying the food but, to be respectful and polite, we carry on without letting our true feelings be known.

Unfortunately, this scene clearly resembles the way some of us Christians practice Christianity.  To some of us, doing  “Christian things” comes from an obligation to the other Christians around us.  Or perhaps the motivation to carry on is even an attempt to “be polite” to God, as if we are doing him a favor.

Growing up in a household with strong Christian parents left me with a clear realization that certain things were right, and expected of me as a Christian, while other things were clearly wrong.  These rights and wrongs were not general social standard dos and don’ts.  These were things like praying, reading the Bible, going to church, and trying to live my life under the banner of “what would Jesus do?”

However, there came a point where the effort made versus the yield of “blessings” seemed uneven.  The more I tried to do all of these things and keep in line with my fellow Christians, the less I noticed any return on my “investments” or “commitments.”  This left me asking myself, “What is it all for?”  My answer for many years was just to put my head down and keep doing what I was doing.  Just because.

For many there comes a point where the elements of Christian life become routine, where being a Christian is painfully predictable.  Christian songs sound the same, discussions with Christian friends sound the same, the sermons or homilies sound the same, and the outlook on personal life as a Christian is left unchanged and uneventful.

Although in our most personal thoughts we might ask ourselves what the whole point is, many of us continue to follow the path of Christian living…just because.  There comes a point where the only reason we continue to “act” Christian is because we know we should, and we are too far along to do something radical and start over. Not because we actually want to participate.

This sad state of Christian living is all too prevalent.  This idea of the “Sunday Christian” is well known inside and outside of Christian circles. But to live this way is to totally misunderstand what being a Christian means and what God desires from each of us.  God never ordered us to march purely out of the desire to watch us snap into formation. God never told us to not put any thought into what He wants us to do, but to simply do it “just because.”  When Jesus went about preaching for three years, never was he found dragging the disciples around against their will.  On the contrary, Jesus always gave them plenty of opportunity to turn back and leave him should their hearts have desired it.

Yet never in the Gospels do we read of any of the twelve disciples refusing to go where Jesus led them.  The reason Jesus compared himself to a “good shepherd” is because when a shepherd leads the sheep, he does so from the front of the flock and not from the rear.  He does not prod the sheep forward with rebukes and abuse.  Rather, the sheep follow the voice of the shepherd because the direction of the voice is the direction of safety.  Being a Christian means choosing to be a Christian. To claim the title Christian under any other pretense is to not be a Christian at all.

When I read through the Bible for the first time in its entirety, several things shocked me.  First, I was shocked by how different Jesus was from the perspective of some present day Christian modes and actions.  Second, I was shocked by how clear God was throughout the entire Bible in his desire for honest, joyful, willing worship.  Repeatedly, especially in the prophets, God says that he would rather not have any offerings at all if the heart does not willingly bring them.

To hear God tell me that he didn’t want my present-day offerings of church attendance and Christian activity if I didn’t want to give them was surprising and belief-shattering.  I had always understood that going to church and doing all of these Christian things were just things we do, maybe thinking that doing them bought my ticket to heaven, and my job as a Christian was just to keep doing them—just because.

However, what God was telling me was entirely different.  What God, not a pastor, was telling me was that if I didn’t want to do all of these “Christian” things, then he didn’t want to have any part in me doing them. 

He made it quite clear that if I continued going to church and doing all I felt the “Christian way of life” required without any real desire to do so, then it would not be to please him, but to please myself and satisfy my own self-diagnosed needs.

In the end, “going through the motions” is utterly sinful.  Sin is simply placing self at the center of the heart instead of God. “Going through the motions,” is at its essence the definition of self-centeredness and, thus, sin.

It might be polite to eat when invited to dinner regardless of our hunger.  However, to eat at the Lord’s Table and to mimic an appetite when there is none, is to sin in God’s presence, to betray him with a smile and a kiss.

Thursday Reflection: Why We Eat, part 2

You can find part 1 of the series here.pen-and-paper_400x295_39

This reflection series is inspired by 1 Peter 2:2-3.

Today we’re reflecting on Boredom.

I love to eat.  I love the taste of food and I love the satisfaction of being full.  However, there comes a time when I find myself continuing to eat and I have to ask myself if I am actually hungry.  There is a point at which the stomach no longer cries out for sustenance, where the mind overpowers the natural urge of hunger and encourages the hand and mouth to work as one in order to fill a psychological emptiness rather than physical hunger.  Eating to sustain a level of activity more than to fulfill a bodily need.

For me, this happens when I am watching a TV show or movie.  At some point, the popcorn is finished and there is still more than an hour left to sit and watch.  At this moment, there is clearly no dire physical hunger to be satisfied. Yet, for me, there seems to be imbalance.  My ears, eyes and mind are still busy digesting the movie, but my mouth and hands feel left out.  At this moment, I choose to satisfy this boredom with something else to snack on.

For others, the need to snack has an emotional trigger.  Eating provides a sense of pleasure that dulls the lack of pleasure elsewhere.  Perhaps a tough day at work where nothing went well leads to the sensation that throughout the entire day nothing was deeply satisfying.  For some, that guarantee of satisfaction comes from food.  It doesn’t matter how bad the day, ice cream will always taste like ice cream.  Ice cream will always taste sweet. Ice cream will always taste creamy. Ice cream will always be cold and soothing to the soul. Ice cream, in moments of despair, is a friend that will never let you down.

Many believers have at one time felt that being a Christian is the most exciting and fulfilling thing imaginable. They wish for the steady stream of Bible studies and Christian fellowship to never cease.  This is an exciting time, and I pray that each Christian experience these moments more often than not.  However, the contrast to this sense of being alive in Christ can quickly shift to one of stale, unsatisfying boredom.

The reasons for the shift differ with each person. But the fact remains that, at some point, there will inevitably be obstacles to maintaining the excitement once felt in being Christian.  More often than not, the reason behind the plateau is the unfortunate truth that we seek activities and people to define life in Christ in the first place, rather than Christ himself.  In other words, we’ve sought to satisfy our hunger elsewhere.

While we may seek to be satisfied by the people or things that surround us, the irony is that these “hunger agents” have never demonstrated the hunger-satisfying power we attribute to them. Church groups and activities can be an amazing source of growth for a Christian. In fellowship one can more completely experience the nature of being born of the Spirit.  The mistake is looking to these people and activities to define Christian life, a naïve notion that they will always be there and that they will always satisfy us.

The truth is, they won’t.  Churches will change. People will move.  Activities and groups will evolve.

A common experience for many Christians is to be so over-the-moon-in-love with Jesus at a particular church, but the moment the church changes, or something in the routine is adjusted, the love loses zest, even value.  An individual who experiences this “loss of life” might choose to take a more internal and isolated approach to Christianity, moving away from church entirely.

Following this “divorce” from the church, the re-entry into the world can be shocking, one that takes quite a bit of down and up shifting, now apart from the Christian life.  Living outside of the presence of God reveals harsh realities that are, at times, too heavy to bear.   Suddenly the answers that explained everything within the church, in the presence of God’s Word, no longer make any sense. There is a sense of being lost and unsure of things.  At this point, a person can make one of two choices: return out of the need for God alone, or out of the need for things, people, activities: in other words, distraction.

Encountering the world and returning to God because of who and what He is? A miracle, a true “Prodigal Son” homecoming.  Being sold into slavery and redeemed is the Joseph story that some of us need to experience in order to truly realize what being a Christian is all about.  This is grace at work in our lives. To experience grace is to experience God.  This is a victorious moment for the Christian as well as for the Father in heaven.  There is nothing more exciting and satisfying to him than seeing one lost sheep finally return home.

Returning to God because of the comforts of “Christian Living” is a different issue entirely.  The reason to make the return to God in this manner has nothing to do with God at all.  Much like snacking with no physical hunger to satisfy, this is trying to satisfy a false craving.  In this case a person is returning in the search for some emotional or physical gratification, without necessarily desiring God.  When we do this, we are aware that, in returning, certain things will be as reliable or predictable as the sensation of sweetness found in ice cream.

Many of us have a tendency to use church: worse, we have a tendency to use God.  We wander about trying to control our world and  solve our own problems and then, like a swimmer coming up to get air, we find that we cannot handle it, and we go back to God. The time spent in “Christian life” this second, third, fourth, one-hundredth time around will seem like holding your breath underwater. At some point, you will need to emerge abruptly and gasp for air.  We find ourselves going back and forth, never being satisfied, and never knowing exactly who we really are.

Christians like saying that there are “seasons of spiritual growth.”  While this is true, the danger is that some tend to use this as an excuse to explain this seesaw manner of communion with God.  Using this logic, a swimmer could say that swimming has its “seasons” as well: “Some seasons I hold my breath, some seasons I come up for air.”  These clearly are not “seasons of change” or “growth.”  These changes are intermittent, predictable, and necessary in the act of swimming.

Being a disciple of Jesus is staying underwater and miraculously learning how to breathe while submerged.  Being a disciple means transformation, repentance, change.

Craving God in the way that we crave snacks when we are bored or depressed is misunderstanding the Gospel entirely.  The Gospel preached by Jesus Christ is neither a break from the action, nor action to relieve us from a break.  The Gospel is a way of life that, if allowed into the heart, will satisfy the need for satisfaction and activity before we can even realize that we desire either.

Come back next Thursday for part 3.

Tuesday Devotionals: Exodus 33

bibleExodus 33:7-11

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.

Relationship with God is personal.  Of course experiencing the presence of God has always been, and will be, enhanced by the fellowship of corporate worship.  However, the power of God to change exists only in the one on one, face-to-face experience.  One cannot know and be moved by God if knowing and being moved by him requires the presence of other people.  Otherwise, the experience of God will be present in one moment and non-existent in another, completely defying the nature of Emmanuel, God with us to the very end of the age.  God is a God with the ability to bring people to their knees in awe-inspiring corporate worship, but his ultimate desire is to meet us as his beloved children.  A face-to-face conversation requires trust and intimacy, and this is how God chooses to speak to us.   The relationship with God is “ours” as Christians, but it is first and foremost “yours.”  God, the Father, spoke to Moses face-to-face, as a father speaks to a child. Jesus the Son spoke to his disciples as friends, inviting them to “come and see” him for themselves (John 1.39). He showed them who he really was, is, and will always be.  To know God is to know how He sees you, how He chooses to approach you.  His desire is to always be close.  His desire is to draw near.