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Long-View Living in a Short-View World

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I recently addressed a gathering of believers, explaining to them Paul's use of the terms, "spiritual," "carnal," and "natural" when discussing the human condition. In this address, I touched on the danger of religious arrogance and, in that context, said that it has been my observation that there are two arenas in which people of absolute incompetence can rise to positions of power very quickly. It happens in politics, and it happens in the church.

In 1994, Paramount Pictures released the third installment of its Tom Clancy political thriller series, Clear and Present Danger. In the film, CIA Deputy Director of Operations, Robert Ritter, is attempting to persuade a mercenary, John Clark, to assemble a black-ops team to fight Columbian drug cartels. During their discussion, Clark explains to Ritter that he is creating a huge mess for the current presidential administration.

"Is that what they want?" Clark asks, "because that's what this is."

"They want what every first-term administration wants," Ritter responded, "a second term."

The illusion of power is intoxicating, and the illusion of political power may be the most intoxicating of all.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him - Matthew 2:1-3, NASB

Jesus as a Threat to Herod

If you know anything of the history of the Herod family, you understand that when Herod was "troubled" everyone around Herod was troubled right along with him. Herod was an exceedingly cruel and unstable man. In the case of Matthew 2:1-3, Herod saw the birth of Jesus as a direct threat to his political power. Where is this "King of the Jews?"

Given Herod's cruelty and ego-centrism, to say that Herod (and all Jerusalem) was "troubled" is a serious understatement, at least by today's vernacular. The term εταραχθη denotes something closer to full-blown alarm and agitation than simply being bummed out or a little upset. Make no mistake about it, Herod was freaking out over the news of this new king.

As a foreigner and a usurper, Herod was intensely unpopular with his subjects, having risen to power through criminal activity and bloodshed, eventually being granted the title "king" by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. Given his illegitimate claim to the throne, Herod was paranoid about losing power and, as a result, had a history of murdering his own children, wives, and father-in-law in his efforts to retain that power.

The announcement of this new king (Jesus), resulted in nothing less than an edict from Herod to slaughter every male in the city of Bethlehem, and its surrounding area, aged two and under. It is an act of horrific violence foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, something he described as Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted.

What is, perhaps, most intriguing about Herod's situation is that, at this point, he was in his seventies, so Jesus was no serious threat to his personal power. Herod would not survive long enough to be unseated by any infant rival to his throne. But so drunk with power was he, that even the suggestion of a rival awakened within him the anxiety of resistance.

Jesus as a Threat to Me

But Christmas, this year, isn't really about Herod, is it? The focal point is not those ways in which Jesus is a threat to Herod, but rather those ways in which Jesus is a threat to me, to my belief system, my social status, my personal power. Jesus interferes with my selfishness, my ambitions, my indulgences. Jesus is counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, and really, just counter... There is nothing status quo about Jesus.

Jesus is the one who tells me to love those who hate me, to endlessly forgive those who damage me. He tells me to pray for rather than against my enemies. He teaches me that personal reproach is irrelevant, that I need never worry because God will always provide, and that I should be giving my life away for others, even if they are ungrateful. Jesus embraced his personal oppressors, as well as those who oppressed his people.

Jesus teaches me that the first (self-serving) shall be last and the last shall be first, and that greatness comes through serving the least of society. Jesus teaches me that the love and pursuit of personal wealth is not only pointless, but that it is fraught with danger. Jesus teaches me that loyalty to him outweighs even my love of family.

Jesus teaches me that I am to love, touch, and give myself fully to the underprivileged, the marginalized, the outcast, those whom many would consider the dregs of society. And this Jesus is the one who said, "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you" (John 20:21), a truth that should drive us to our knees.

To say that Jesus was/is revolutionary is akin to saying that the ocean is wet. He is the man who said he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). The question with which I must wrestle is, "To whom is Jesus revolutionary?" To others? To Herod? To the 1st Century Romans? Or to me?

Jesus is a threat not only to the status quo, but to my status quo.

When Jesus takes control, meaning I cede control to him, he messes with my preconceptions, my allegiances, my passions, and he begins to bring all of those into alignment with his own. He chips away at the religious and economic foundations upon which I have constructed my very existence. He forces me into positions that demand of me frightening levels of trust.

For me, Christmas has very little to do with "Ooo, look at the cuteness of the baby on the hay," and a whole lot to do with the most radical human being ever to be born who has called me to follow him, address him as Lord and King, and to become what he is. He shatters my lifetime religious dogma, excises my selfishness, and opens my eyes to the blindness of my years.

Herod was troubled by the birth of Jesus. I am troubled by it as well, because his arrival is a call for me to forge the heart and mind of Christ within me, and my very nature is to resist that call.

The Christ child is the King of Kings and he is the Lord of Lords. That is far easier to say than it is to say (and mean it) that Jesus is King of me, and Lord of me. The words are easy, but the life is hard. One of the most frightening prayers I can imagine is, "Lord, make me as radical as you need me to be." It is something to ponder this advent season.

Blessings of the Christ child be upon you, my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

- damon

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I have almost completed reading a book that is mildly getting under my skin. It is well written, and the author does argue his case with diligence and skill. The challenge I have with the book is that the author's arguments, though passionate, are invalid! An argument based on a fallacious foundation is an argument that cannot stand.

A skilled debater is one who argues with such subtlety that he or she is able to cause you to buy an underlying assumption, often without you even realizing you have done so. In the case of my current reading, the author is arguing atop two fallacious assumptions, 1) that Jesus is a pacifist (a position I debunk in my latest (currently unpublished) manuscript), and 2) that we would have world peace if the Christian faith was more accepting of, and less militant toward, other faiths such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the like.

Jesus is not a pacifist, but I'll not pursue that argument here since that's not the purpose of this posting. And Jesus himself made it clear that there will be wars and rumors of war up until the final trumpet blows and we close this chapter of humanity's story. (Matthew 24:6)

For to us a child is born,
     to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
     and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
     Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
- Isaiah 9:6, ESV

This Isaiah 9:6 passage has become inexorably linked with the Christmas season. I feel nostalgic every time I read it or hear it. It causes fond memories to come to the fore.

The child/son spoken of above is the same Son who said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36, ESV).

Perhaps there is an additional assumption put forth by the author mentioned above, an assumption that the peace of which Jesus speaks when he offers peace is a peace that is the antithesis of war, or the absence of conflict. Jesus seems to be saying that he brings conflict, and that doing so is his purpose. "I have come to DO these things..."

Yet this same Jesus says:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid - John 14:27, ESV.

The peace Christ leaves with us is not the peace of the world, or peace with the world. Thousands of years of history have taught us that searching for world peace is a futile endeavor. I do not begrudge any for pursuing that mode of peace. Jesus taught us "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9). But tangible experience demonstrates that war happens on a daily basis as one sect of humanity is constantly at odds with another.

Note the personal pronoun in Jesus' statement above. He said, "My peace..." rather than world peace. Indeed, he contrasts his peace directly with the peace of the world. The peace Jesus gives is a peace that settles our hearts even as we swirl with the vortex of strife and violence that intrudes into our lives.

The truth is that we will never be at peace with the world. On the heels of some difficult remarks to his disciples, Jesus said: "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33, ESV). Even in the midst of trouble with the world system, Jesus offers us an internal peace, a peace that surpasses comprehension (Philippians 4:7).

Just as the peace offered by the Prince of Peace is an internal matter, so also are the conflicts we stir up. James says, "What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?"

If there is going to be peace between nations and conflicted individuals, it is a peace that will come through Jesus. The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus, himself, is our peace, breaking down the walls of hostility and division that separate us (Ephesians 2:14), and that he made peace between us and God through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:20). The latter is essential, because we will never see peace among individual humans until we see peace between those individuals and God.

"Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end..." (Isaiah 9:7a, ESV)

Be at peace in the Prince of Peace, my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

- damon

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I find it fascinating to watch people from the time the Thanksgiving meal is cleaned up to the time we usher in a new year. As one who dislikes crowds, watching people is the only thing that makes being at the mall an acceptable reality for me this time of year.

The facial expressions in the crowd are varied. Some are pleasant. Others are depressed. Some marvel at the beauty of the lights and festive decor. Others (like me) cringe at the crowds, the lines, the chaos, and the inability to find a parking place.

Some find joy and comfort in the knowledge that the Prince of Peace has come into the world. Others scramble from retailer to retailer, even fighting with one another on sales floors to secure the obligatory gifts required to pull off a successful Christmas holiday.

We do ourselves a great favor by framing our approach to the Christmas season using the eyes Jesus called us to use - "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness..." (Matthew 6:33a)

But there is so much to do!
     (Seek first his kingdom...)
But there is so much to buy!
     (Seek first his kingdom...)
But there are so many worries tied to charging up the credit card, and having to pay it back later.
     (Seek first his kingdom...)
But I have to clean the house for company.
     (Seek first his kingdom...)
But there is the expense of a Christmas dinner.
     (Seek first his kingdom...)

Alean is often out of state, visiting family, during the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons. I intensely dislike being apart from her, but I take advantage of those times to do projects around the house that tend to be messy - painting, construction, auto repairs, and the like. With Alean gone for extended periods, I can leave the mess day after day, continuing the project each day where I left off the day before. An additional benefit is that staying busy in this way helps me not miss my wife so much.

As we speak on the phone, and as the time for her return grows closer, I often assure Alean that I will have the house all clean before she gets home, knowing that the kids will be coming for a Christmas or New Year's visit. On one occasion, Alean wisely reminded me, "It's okay. They are coming to see us, not the house."

There is a way in which we can work ourselves silly to make the Thanksgiving or Christmas season a perfect experience for everyone - except us. The perfect meal, the perfect gift, the perfect decoration, the perfect concert, the perfect home.

Instead, should we not focus on the perfect child and the perfect peace he brings us?

Martha struggled with this (Luke 10) when Jesus came to visit her home. She labored vigorously to create the perfect environment for a visit from the Lord. The more she labored, the more irritated she became that her sister, Mary, was not helping. Martha was sweating while Mary was sitting ... sitting at the feet of the Prince of Peace.

When Martha finally reached the limits of her patience, and verbalized her irritation to Jesus, Jesus responded, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things." (Luke 10:41)

Note that Jesus did not comment on Martha's service, or her preparation. What he commented on was her mentality, her mind-set. "You are worried and bothered." Jesus used the same word in describing Martha's anxiety that he used to tell the disciples to not be anxious, but rather to seek first the kingdom.

If you find peace and comfort in purchasing and giving gifts, then purchase and give with gladness. If you find joy and fulfillment in preparing a wondrous meal for family and friends, then cook and serve, finding contentment in that service. But if you find yourself fending off anxiety tied to the activities of the Christmas season, I urge you to examine your heart and your motivation. Ask yourself why you are engaged in that which does not bring you peace, comfort and joy?

Seek first his kingdom. Be not worried and bothered about many things. As Jesus said, "Only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part which shall not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:42)

Merry Christmas to you all!

Victoriously in Christ!

- damon

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Former law student Anna Alaburda of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California, sued the school because, though she successfully graduated in the top tier of her class, and passed the bar exam on her first attempt, she has been unsuccessful in landing full-time employment that is to her liking. Though she has had offers, none of them have been deemed worthy of her acceptance. Naturally, she has concluded that the fault lies not within herself, but rather with the school.

Steven Miner and his sister, Kathryn Miner sued their mother for $50,000, claiming that she had been negligent as a parent, causing them significant emotional distress. The mother's crimes? She did not send care packages, or a birthday card with money enclosed to her son while he was at the university, and refused to buy her daughter a new dress to wear to homecoming.

With a hurricane looming on the horizon, David McDuff dropped $500 dollars on a new generator just in case he lost power. Following the hurricane, when it did not perform as advertised, McDuff reasoned that he no longer needed a generator, returned the generator to the retailer, and demanded a full refund.

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.' - Luke 17:7-10, ESV

The Entitlement Mindset

Few things are more repugnant to me than displays of ingratitude and attitudes of entitlement. One of the most alluring, and yet seditious lies Satan whispers to us is the lie that we are owed anything at all, much less that we are entitled to abundance, comfort, and ease. The resulting ingratitude is what leads to asinine behaviors similar to those in the opening of this blog posting.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to carry an attitude of thankfulness without pausing to recognize the bountiful fortune that has been undeservedly poured into our lives. It is for this reason that I have a deeper appreciation for the Thanksgiving holiday than I do for Christmas.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, ESV

The entitlement mentality rages like a wildfire in contemporary culture, telling us that we deserve better, deserve more, and are not responsible for any aspect of our own care or well-being. When we allow this cancerous mentality to invade our spiritual core, we make repentance and growth impossible because we refuse to acknowledge that the primary offender in the challenges of our lives is our own granite heart. At this point, we convince ourselves that God owes us blessing and goodness when the reality is he owes us nothing, but gives us everything gratis. If indeed we are owed anything, it is our own death. (Romans 6:23)

Comparing Notes

Jesus tells a fascinating story in the gospel of Matthew. In Chapter 20, we find a house master who needed workers for his vineyard, an agricultural metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. The master ventured into the city, early in the morning to find workers, and hired some, agreeing to pay them a denarius. He repeated this at the third hour, the sixth hour, ninth hour and the eleventh hour. When the day's work was complete, the master ordered payment to be made to all, beginning with the late hires, and continuing backward to the earliest hires.

As payment was made, the earliest hires became excited because they saw that the late arrivers were paid the full denarius. Surely, we will be paid more, they reasoned, since we put in a full-day's work.

Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' - Matthew 20:10-12, ESV

In this response, we see the ugliness of ingratitude and comparison. It reminds me of current-generation sports figures who sign contracts for astonishing amounts, and later refuse to honor those contracts because some other athlete signed a contract for more. Rather than be satisfied with the eye-popping contractual amount they negotiated, they become envious and begrudging because someone negotiated an even more lucrative deal than they did.

Almost two decades ago, I negotiated a contract to do software development for a major medical insurance firm. I had specific things I wanted in that contract, and I negotiated those conditions into it. Some time later, a few of my coworkers began grumbling to our manager that I was able to do things they were not allowed to do. They wanted to know why! The answer he gave was simple and abrupt. "He negotiated for those things. You didn't."

Rather than be satisfied and grateful for what they received and agreed to, they chose to become envious and dissatisfied. They saw their own compensation and benefits as an injustice. Such comparisons can do nothing but drag us into covetousness, jealousy, envy, grumbling, and resentment.

The resentment of the workers in Jesus' story is unfair and inappropriate. Though they received what they were promised and what they agreed to, they presumed upon the master, raising their own expectations when they saw his generosity. Their own act of making comparison resulted in the bitterness that consumed them.

Getting a Clearer Vision of Reality

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to jettison any bitterness, or sense of entitlement and rights. Focus rather on the goodness and gracious generosity of our God who lovingly receives the likes of us into his vineyard, to dine at his table, to serve in his kingdom. Refuse the shallow comparison to those who are added to the kingdom at later hours, and rather rejoice that they are added to the same glorious kingdom of which you are a citizen.

Whether we are added early in the day, or late in the day, the fact that we are added at all is a grace beyond what we deserve. The valid question is not one of why Persons Y and Z got paid the same as Persons A and B, but rather why any of us get paid at all.

Rather than grousing about why some rot in poverty while others bathe in opulence, the better question is, "Why does blessing come to any of us?" When objecting to the reality that God would allow good men and women to die, I'm fighting my astonishment that he lets me live.

Let this Thanksgiving Day be the day you permanently take off the glasses of comparison. Look no longer at others or at yourself, but gaze upon the grace of God. Plunge deep into the pool of gratitude that we are allowed to be his children at all.

Blessings upon you my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

- damon

DamonJGray.org
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"Irregardless."

Ugh! It's not even a word. And if it were, it would mean the exact opposite of what those who use it intend that it should mean.

I love words. I love playing with words, inventing new words, tweaking existing words, and using words in appropriate, albeit unusual ways.

I also love music. I enjoy listening to it, playing it, singing it, and even occasionally composing it.

Mangled Language

This past weekend, I was able to combine my love of music and love of words through singing with the worship band at church and, during rehearsal, having a brief conversation about funny words and mangled language with our worship leader, Dallas, and one of our elders.

Dallas is a member of Toastmasters International. He was sharing a humorous anecdote from a recent Toastmasters meeting. Apparently, someone at the meeting used the term, "irregardless" and the world almost came to an end.

During the time of formal worship, Dallas spoke to the congregation about how much he loves being a part of this body of believers, and he struggled to articulate it as powerfully as he wanted to. Following the service, I told Dallas, "I think what you were trying to say is that the thing that makes this body of believers so unique is that nobody doesn't fit here."

While that is a shocking double negative, it is exactly what he was trying to say. There is no person, as wildly different and bizarre as we are, that does not fit in our church family. That is precisely what makes our gathering so wonderful.

God's Promised Presence

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' - Hebrews 13:5, ESV

Believe it or not, there is a connection between that verse and the opening lines of this blog posting. On the face of it, we have an exhortation from the writer of Hebrews to refuse covetousness, the last of the ten commandments. We are to be content with what we have.

It also seems that, somehow, we are enabled, encouraged, or emboldened to resist coveting because of this promise of security in God's presence. Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you. The idea is that the presence of God is such that the attraction of physical possessions loses its luster. Conversely, the love of tangibles can infect a believer in such a way that we become intensely dissatisfied with God's wondrous provision.

Difficult Language

What does not come through easily in English translation is the strength of what is said in this promise from God. Some translations come closer than others, but even they pale with weakness when compared to what the original Greek text actually says.

Here are some translations that get about as close as we can get in English:

for He hath said, 'No, I will not leave, no, nor forsake thee,' - Young's Literal Translation

for he has said, "I will in no way leave you, neither will I in any way forsake you." - World English Bible

for himself hath said, I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee. - English Revised Version, also American Standard Version

Each of those is rather abrupt and difficult to read. If we lay it out literally from the Greek text, it reads like this:

"Never not you will I leave nor never not you will I forsake."

In my statement to Dallas, I emphasized my point by employing a double negative to stress the positive, welcoming posture of our church family. "Nobody doesn't fit here." What God has said in Hebrews 13:5 is a double negative followed by a triple emphasized negative. It is as though God is super-mega-stressing his point, "I will not ... I will not leave you," followed by "I will never ... never ... never abandon you."

I believe this phrasing is intentionally mirrored in the hymn, "How Firm a Foundation." Note the double negative followed by the triple negative in verse five.

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to his foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

The term "forsake" (εγκαταλιπω) carries the idea of provision. God is strongly emphasizing that he will never leave us alone in a state of utter hopelessness. Challenging? Perhaps. Difficult? Undoubtedly. But, never hopeless. Since that is true, we have no need to covet anything from anyone.

God's Reputation on the Line

Note the phrase, "He has said," or in some translations the Greek intensive mode is translated, "He himself has said." Either way, God's reputation is on the line. He said it, and he must stand behind what he says. "Let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' be 'no.'" (Matthew 5:37) Do what you say you will do, and be where you say you will be.

The message of God's presence and provision is consistent throughout scripture.

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. - Genesis 28:15, NASB

Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. - Deuteronomy 31:6, NASB

The LORD is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed. - Deuteronomy 31:8, NASB

No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. - Joshua 1:5, NASB

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. - Joshua 1:9, NASB (One of my favorite verses)

Then David said to his son Solomon, 'Be strong and courageous, and act; do not fear nor be dismayed, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you nor forsake you until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.' - 1 Chronicles 28:20, NASB

And how can we not include the beautiful promise from Jesus at the close of Matthew's gospel? I am with you always, even to the end of the age. - Matthew 28:20, NASB

Given the truth of God's faithful presence, it is entirely appropriate that the next verse in Hebrews reads...

So we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?' - Hebrews 13:6, ESV

Blessings upon you my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

- damon

DamonJGray.org
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Acts 17:28 - ἐν αὐτῷ γὰρ ζῶμεν καὶ κινούμεθα καὶ ἐσμέν