How do we get the correct picture of God?

The first time a wind of hurricane force with a tornado howled into town it scared the wits right out of me. I knelt by the toilet, heart thumping, begging God to protect us, keep our roof intact, and our trees rooted. The sky took on an ominous green colour, the house creaked, and my prized birch tree bent way past its central axis. I thought it was a goner, and maybe we were too.   

My picture of God at that moment was very simple: he was my answer to a desperate need. Whether he was trinitarian or omniscient as well as immanent – or any other major theological argument that had rocked the church for centuries – took a very distant back seat to raw survival. My prayer did not include a long introduction letting God know I trusted his will over mine either; it was just one sentence: “Father, please save us,” which I hoped included saving my prized birch tree, and saving the house. 

I cannot condemn the Jews in the first century, therefore – when they “heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem” in John 12:12 – for shouting out to him, “Hosanna,” in verse 13, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It was a quote right out of Psalm 118:25-26, where the meaning of the word  “Hosanna” was given in verse 25, “O Lord, save us.” 

It was for that one simple reason that the Jews “took palm branches and went out to meet Jesus, shouting, ‘Hosanna.’” They believed Jesus had come to save them. It was the reason he existed. And by “saved” they meant save them from death, or raise them from the dead, just like he’d raised Lazarus from the dead a few days earlier (John 12:17-18). Jesus was just the hero they were looking for, a miracle worker who would raise their nation back to the life they’d been dreaming about for nearly five hundred years. At last, the Lord had come to save them. 

And I can’t blame them for thinking that either, because I’d looked to the Lord as that hurricane howled for the same reason. And so did my 11 year old daughter who had an exam coming up, which she hadn’t taken the time to study sufficiently for. She asked God to save her, to get her a passing grade, because wasn’t that what God was for? He was there to get you out of a pickle, to save the day when you were in trouble, or as Psalm 118:26 phrased it, “O Lord, grant us success.” God could easily get her a passing grade, in other words.

And yes he could, just as Jesus could have galloped down the Mount of Olives on a snorting great white horse, accompanied by legions of angels, and with a whooping a war cry sliced his way through every enemy the Jews had. But instead he came down the hillside on a little grey donkey clopping its way, head down, at walking speed. And instead of my daughter passing her exam with flying colours, she failed. 

To both her and the Jews, Jesus was a terrible disappointment. She decided there and then she didn’t want anything more to do with him, and the Jews shouting “Hosanna” were heard later yelling, “Crucify him.” Their tune had totally changed, because their picture of God had been shattered when he didn’t “save” them as they’d hoped and wanted.

But “At first Jesus’ disciples did not understand” either, John 12:16, which is why they all deserted him too. It was “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize” (same verse), that in his crucifixion, in which Jesus was glorified, was the correct picture of God.

Forget about passing exams and winning battles against enemies, or even protection against hurricanes. Jesus made it clear in John 12:25 what salvation is really about. It’s about “eternal life,” because that’s what God’s really after for us humans. It isn’t temporary “success,” it’s being able to live forever in a world where no hurricanes exist, no exams need passing, and no enemies need crushing.   

And that kind of world is impossible for us to create. It’s been impossible from the time God first created us. We could only be “saved” for such a world by Jesus’ death. Or as Jesus put it in John 12:24, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” 

Jesus’ death would produce more than just successes and protection in this “single seed” life of ours, because this life, no matter how safe and successful it has been, comes to an end. God had much more in mind. He had “many seeds,” a whole waving wheat field that extended way beyond just “getting through” this life as best we can and then dying. And he made that waving wheat field of eternal life possible for his beloved humans through Jesus’ death. 

How he managed to do that is the subject of another article, but knowing this is what God had in mind through Jesus is where the right picture of God begins. It wasn’t in Jesus entering Jerusalem as the great hero to save the Jews from their enemies in this life, it was in Jesus dying for them so that one day they could live an eternal life without an enemy in sight. Through Jesus God did for us what we dream of but could never create for ourselves, because that’s our God.

Covid 19 – What good does fasting do?

In Mark 9:29, Jesus says, “This kind can only come out by prayer,” with several Bible translations adding, “and fasting.”  

Whether fasting was included or not in what Jesus said there’s a story being told here in which the disciples, for the first time in their experience as Jesus’ disciples, cannot heal someone. Up to that point they’d “cured every kind of disease and sickness” with Jesus’ full authority, Matthew 10:1. And in Luke 10:1 Jesus had also sent out seventy others with the same power, who later “returned with joy” to report to Jesus that “even the demons submit to us in your name.” 

All they’d had to do was command demons and sicknesses in Jesus’ name to leave a person, and every time it had happened, no prayer or fasting needed. But then a man in Mark 9:17 brought his son to Jesus, telling Jesus that his son “is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. When the spirit seizes him, it throws him to the ground. My son foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” And in verse 22, this same evil spirit from the boy’s childhood had “often thrown him into fire or water to kill him.” But when the boy’s Dad had “asked Jesus’ disciples to drive out the spirit, they could not,” verse 18.  

The disciples had no clue as to why this had happened, as we see later in verse 28 when they “asked Jesus privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive the evil spirit out?’” And that’s when Jesus replies, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.” 

This was the first time Jesus included the need for prayer and fasting in casting out a demon. But why? Was it because the poor lad was being tormented by some sort of ‘super demon’, requiring extra power that only prayer and fasting could generate? Was that the lesson being taught here? 

Not in context it isn’t. The context is Jesus’ instant and emotional reaction in verse 19 to the disciples not being able to heal the boy. He yells out, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” 

This entire episode was orchestrated by God to highlight Israel’s greatest problem, taking note that “the teachers of the law” were present as well in verse 14, so even the leaders of Israel hadn’t a clue what to do for the boy either.

And the reason they hadn’t a clue was their lack of faith as a nation in the power and authority of Jesus over every illness and evil. They’d seen Jesus do incredible miracles, but instead of trusting he’d passed on that power to his disciples, the teachers of the law had “argued with them” verse 14. They’d grabbed the opportunity to downplay the disciples’ power because they hadn’t been able to heal the boy. 

Bad mistake, because Jesus flays the teachers of the law alive for not trusting him, and he extends it to the whole nation as well. Jesus’ frustration at their lack of faith boils over again too, when the boy’s Dad says to Jesus in verse 22, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “If you can?” Jesus replies – rather testily it sounds like – because he knows “Everything is possible for him who believes.”  

And at that point the lights go on in the Dad’s mind, because he yells out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” And there you have the lesson of this story. It’s not about praying and fasting for extra power to cast out some ‘super demon’, it’s praying and fasting for the help to overcome lack of faith. And that’s when fasting can do some good, in casting out the lack of faith that cannot trust in Jesus’ power yet.

And to get that point across, Jesus “rebuked the evil spirit,” and commanded it to come out of the boy and never enter him again. With a lot of shrieking and convulsions the demon leaves, and the boy lies there so still it looks like he’s dead. But Jesus takes hm by the hand and lifts him to his feet, and the boy stands on his own completely healed. 

The same story is told in Matthew 17, and Jesus summarizes it rather nicely when his disciples ask him in verse 19 why they couldn’t drive the demon out. It’s “because you have so little faith,” he replies. Faith is the issue here, the kind that believes “Nothing will be impossible for you,” verse 20. 

So, if I’m reading Jesus right here, he’s saying that all it takes is prayer and fasting for that kind of faith if we’re still lacking it. Well, think of the good we could do in the impossible situations the people we care for are going through in this virus crisis, if we believe no situation is impossible for Jesus to solve….      

Covid 19 – What is this virus crisis revealing about me (and about Jesus)? 

In John 11 sisters Martha and Mary “sent word to Jesus. ‘Lord, the one you love is sick,’” referring to their brother Lazarus. And it was true, Jesus did love the man, and loved his two sisters as well (verse 5).  

But instead of roaring off to visit them in their time of worry Jesus “stayed were he was for two more days” (verse 6), which was 50 miles away “across the Jordan” (John 10:40). So by the time the message got through to Jesus about Lazarus, and then finishing what he was doing across the Jordan, and then travelling the 50 miles back to the little village of Bethany two miles from Jerusalem, Lazarus had been four days dead already (John 11:17-18). 

But how does this connect with what this virus is revealing about me? It’s in the contrast between Martha’s and Mary’s reactions to Jesus when he arrives, and which of their two reactions I recognize most in me. 

The contrast begins when Martha hears Jesus is nearing Bethany and she “went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.” It’s the first hint of two very different reactions to Jesus in a time of personal crisis. Martha immediately sets out to confront Jesus and on meeting him she gets right to the point when she says in verse 21, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To her, the loving Jesus she’d come to know surely wouldn’t have let a sorry thing like this happen.  

And isn’t that what a lot of people wonder about God, as to why he does things the way he does when he’s supposed to be so loving? And they don’t question lightly either. They really want to know why God works in such strange ways, and they hang on like bulldogs until they get a decent answer too.  

But that’s Martha, and she gets right to the point again when she says, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” in verse 22. So she readily accepts there may be some greater purpose that God is fulfilling through Jesus here. She’s logical and trusting, but what possible benefit could there be in Jesus letting it go this far and not getting to Lazarus before he died?

And when Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again,” she readily accepts his answer, because she says: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And even when Jesus asks if she believes that people who die aren’t really dead because of him, she accepts that too. 

This is one remarkable lady, because this is a major theological discussion going on here, and Jesus is more than willing to go along with it, because that’s Martha and how she thinks and reacts in a crisis. She trusts Jesus, oh yes, but she questions too, and I’m glad of that because I can’t help questioning God either. What possible benefit can there be, for instance, in letting this virus get so bad that even Christians are at risk and can’t get together? But I realize that’s me; I’m a Martha. But Martha being Martha didn’t bother Jesus, so I assume me being me doesn’t bother him either.  

To Mary next, because when she meets Jesus she says exactly the same thing to him that Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” but she says it weeping (verses 32-33). And she was so distraught at her brother dying that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” to the point of weeping too (verses 33 and 35). 

Mary is a totally different personality. It would break her heart seeing the suffering this virus crisis is creating in people’s lives. She’s not looking for an explanation to it, she simply weeps, and so wrenching was her grief over Lazarus that Jesus just sobbed along with her. 

In a way I wish I could be more like Mary, more heart than head, but I’m not. And I’ve learnt that about myself in this crisis, because my mind seeks explanation. It needs scriptures to lean on. It’s why I could write six blogs in a week on Covid 19, each one a question, because I want answers, and answers for people like me.  

And good old Martha, she’s still questioning Jesus in verse 39, as to why on earth he’d want the stone to Lazarus’ tomb taken away, when a body four days dead is really beginning to smell already. But Jesus meets the need of her questioning mind with another theological explanation in verse 40. 

What I see in this “Tale of Two Sisters,” then, is how different we may be in how we react to a crisis, but how Jesus knows it and loves us so much he meets our need and feels what we feel. 

He really does become one of us, but oh so personally as well. 

Covid 19: Can our prayers for others really be “powerful and effective”? 

I just heard from our second son that his nurse girlfriend working in Emergency at their big city hospital is super stressed out and they’re both exhausted. She’s on the front lines during this crisis, so they could both get hit with this virus thingy any time. So we sent a message to say we’d be praying for the two of them. 

But are we saying we’re praying for them because that’s our automatic reaction as Christians to a need, or do we believe our prayers are truly “powerful and effective” as James 5:16 say they are? 

Well, I’ve come to believe that our Christian prayers are the lifeblood of our nation, and without our prayers this world is dead, lifeless and utterly without hope, based on the following line of thought:

That, first of all, Jesus told his fellow countrymen, ”you have no life in you,” John 6:53. Tough words for anyone to say to fellow countrymen, that “In actual fact, dear chaps, you are the walking dead, and you don’t have any life in you, whatsoever. What you need more than anything, then, is to ‘pass from death to life,’ John 5:24.” 

But they can’t “pass from death to life” because they’re “dead in their transgressions and sins,” Ephesians 2:1. They are merely dead fish, floating downstream, belly up. And that’s the condition my fellow non-believing countrymen are in when I think about praying for them. So how on earth are my prayers for them going to be effective?  

Well, it’s been “made known to us,” Colossians 1:27, “the glorious riches of God’s mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Jesus is my source of life, in other words. And that’s how we, when we were dead fish too, suddenly came to life. It’s because Jesus injected his life Into us.   

So “Christ is now my life,” Colossians 3:4, or as Paul phrased it in Galatians 2:20, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Jesus’ way of phrasing it was “apart from me you can do nothing” in John 15:5, but attached to him like a tree branch to a trunk and we can “ask whatever we wish, and it will be given to us,” verse 7. Wow. Alive – and with that kind of power too. 

But what can we pray for that would release that power? 

Well, since we know the only way dead fish come to life is through the injection of Christ’s life into them, then obviously what we pray for is that Jesus will inject his life Into them – but how? 

Through our prayers; that’s how. That’s why Paul so depended on the prayers of the church, because he knew this is how God had set things up. When Paul was dead in the water too in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, he found himself being “raised from the dead” (verse 9) and delivered from many “a deadly peril” (verse 10). And the reason for him passing from death to life was, “as you help us by your prayers” in verse 11. It was the prayers of his fellow Christians that carried that kind of power. It was through their prayers that Christ’s life was injected into him and he was raised from the dead to carry on. 

Jesus injects his life Into us, therefore, so he can inject his life Into others through us, so they receive his life in them in whatever circumstances they need his life in – like those on the front lines of caring for others in this crisis right now, who need the strength to carry on when they’re dead in the water too.

This is why I believe our prayers are the lifeblood of our nation. We’re under attack by “a deadly peril” too, and like Paul said in verses 8-9 it’s “beyond our ability to endure,” to the point that many people could soon “despair even of life” as well, and “in their hearts feel the sentence of death.” My son and his front lines girlfriend are nearing that stage already.

But God has set things up so that “the prayer offered in faith will make a sick person well,” and “the Lord will raise him up,” James 5:15. It’s the prayers of people who believe God works this way – that through their prayers Jesus will inject his life Into people exactly according to their circumstances and need – that carry real power. 

And based on that belief, that’s when “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” And right now our nation depends on those who believe that. The prayers of God’s people truly are the lifeblood of our nation, therefore.  

Covid 19: Why did God create killer viruses?

I’m at that age now when a virus could kill me. Those dreaded words, “tested positive,” could well be my sentence of death. 

But there’s death all over God’s creation: the moose sucked to death by ticks, the spider eaten from the inside out by a wasp larva, millions of frogs being killed by a fungus. And who created the fungus, the larva and the tick? God did. 

Why? What possible benefit can there be in those awful things, or in Infectious diseases killing over 17 million people worldwide every year too? And why poisonous snakes and mosquitoes, both of which God also created?  

It was questions like these I chucked at my wife just before going to sleep one night, hoping perhaps they’d stir some kind of dream with an answer. And I did have a dream, a rather odd one about two men in identical light blue suits and white socks, one of whom had no life in him unless his feet were touching the bottom of the other one. And only then did he come to life. 

Weird, I know, and it woke me up at 2:00 am too, but I was thrilled because there was my answer. I rushed to the bathroom where I have notepaper and pen at the ready for wild thoughts during the night, and started scribbling.

My answer was this: that God created all this death from disease, insect bites, accidents, natural disasters and a thousand other ways of killing us, to get the point across that if we aren’t attached to him we have no life. We’re like the chap in the light blue suit and white socks lying lifeless on the ground. 

Or as Jesus said much more vividiy: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). I’m just a dead blue suit. 

So “‘hold on to me for dear life,’ says God” in Psalm 91, because there isn’t any “dear life” without him. 

It’s a hard pill to swallow, though, because we experience all sorts of dear life without being attached to him. We have the joys of childhood, friends, marriage, having children of our own, eating great food, hitting Mach 2 with my boys on a toboggan slope, and flying above the clouds in a plane for the first time. But all that “dear life” can also be snuffed out in a second by a brain aneurysm or a car accident. Or a killer virus. 

So, Psalm 91 continues, God still speaking, “if you’ll only get to know and trust me (you can) call me and I’ll answer (and) be at your side in bad times.” But that tells me God knew there’d be bad times, because that’s the world he created, where a world pandemic can start with just one bat, or a tornado forms in only a few minutes into a writhing killer. 

What better illustrations could God give, though, that death rules this planet in a thousand different guises, all of which he created? But Psalm 91 tells us why he created them. It’s so we cannot help but face the reality of the world we live in, which surely isn’t hard to do as we watch ourselves ageing and friends die from cancer. It’s all designed by God so at last we say, like the second verse in Psalm 91, “God, you’re my refuge, I trust in you and I’m safe,” because he can “shield us from deadly hazards.”

And of course he can shield us from deadly hazards because he’s the one who made the deadly hazards in the first place – and for just that purpose, to help us realize there’s no life in this world apart from him. It’s all one great sentence of death. One pandemic ends but another is just around the corner. What other choice did he give us, then, other than holding on to him for dear life? Or as Psalms 91 phrases it: “Fear nothing…not disease…not disaster…(because) He ordered his angels to guard you wherever you go.”

So hang on to that for dear life, why not?    

Covid 19: Feeling furious at people not taking the virus seriously? 

I’m an old geezer now and in the vulnerable age group of this virus thingy, so I’m a lot more sensitive to idiots not taking the precautions seriously. 

Our main grocery store, for instance, has a huge sign in the entrance telling its customers to use the sanitizer supplied to wash their hands and the handles of their grocery carts before and after use. But most people walk right past the sign. It’s maddening. I wish I had an official security man’s outfit and a large gun with the power to stop them, and a pair of handcuffs to lock their hands behind their back, with a police car waiting outside to take them away. 

I can’t really blame these infuriating people, though, because they’ve been fed a constant diet by this world that the right to do what we please is the first rule of life. So even though they know they’re endangering the lives of other people, it doesn’t matter to them. The only thing that matters is their own need and destination. 

Maybe their childhood was in a home like that too, so I realize I cannot judge or condemn them for who they’ve become, but these people are now a threat to my life and to the life of my old geezer wife, which in turn ripples down to the lives of my children and grandchildren too. So I cannot excuse or ignore these people’s behaviour. They have become my enemy – and an enemy I haven’t the power to deal with too. I can’t accost them, or risk a shouting match that only increases the chance of spreading and picking up the virus. 

I’m grateful to David, therefore, for Psalm 37, which a few verses in says, “Bridle your anger, trash your wrath, cool your pipes – it only makes things worse” (from the Message translation). So David obviously came up against these idiots that made him mad too. And he too had learnt that there’s nothing you can do about them. They roam in their own world, oblivious to the needs of others, and challenging them only makes them angry and abusive. 

And even in a life-threatening crisis they do not change. They’re the ones who scour the stores buying up essential goods in bulk and selling them at a massive profit. Caught in the act, or ironically they have someone else steal from them, they fume at the unfairness of it all, that someone dares to make their life miserable, because that’s all they can focus on. But it seems it’s always been this way, because David had to face the fury he felt too at what these people are like. 

But out of it came Psalm 37, and where the source of David’s comfort came from, which he passed on down to us. I hear him chuckling in the opening verse when he says, “Don’t bother with braggarts,” or “wish you could succeed like the wicked.” 

Don’t wish you could get away with what they get away with, in other words. And why not? Because “In no time,” David continues, “they’ll shrivel like grass clippings and wilt like cut flowers in the sun.” And we’ve got living proof of that in this latest virus crisis, because several of these sociopaths caught hoarding have ended up having to donate what they’ve hoarded to others. Their profits shrivelled like grass clippings. 

They think they’re getting away with their shenanigans, but they’re in constant danger of a backlash and losing all their gains. Or as David phrases it in Psalm 37: “Before long the crooks will be bankrupt.” 

It’s a comforting reminder from God that he set in motion consequences to our human actions. No hoarder or sneering critic of virus precautions gets away with anything in the long run. 

And the other comforting reminder in Psalm 37 is that “God keeps track of the decent folk,” and “In hard times they’ll hold their heads high” – and in a fitting analogy of what’s happening today, “when the shelves are bare, they’ll be full.” 

And that gives us reason not to be furious at those who ignore all decency and precautions in this present crisis, because we live in a dimension above it all, that enables us to be “full” and unphased, despite what’s going on. 

So as David began the Psalm, “Don’t bother your head with braggarts” not taking this virus seriously. But rather, as David also says in Psalm 37, “Turn your back on evil, work for the good and don’t quit. God loves this kind of thing, never turns away from his friends.” And hopefully that can soften the fury we feel.  

Covid 19: Will God protect me?

My appeal to God to protect me from this virus thingy has been embarrassing: I don’t want to die because of the mess my wife will be left with in my study room and clothes closet. And I didn’t update my Will and finalize my funeral arrangements before the virus hit either. Things I should have done long ago.  

I felt the need to up my appeal to God, then, to a higher level by saying, “What good can I do as a Christian if I’m dead?” I hoped that might carry a bit more weight with God, and give him a deeper and more logical reason to keep me alive. But is that just playing games with God, which again is embarrassing, because I know he can see right through me. 

On the other hand, I read in Psalms how others reasoned with God this way. David, for instance, in Psalm 51, appealed to God to not “throw me out with the trash,” and to “Commute (or alter) my death sentence,” by offering God reasons for keeping him alive – so that he, David, could “teach rebels your ways,” help “the lost to find their way home,” and “sing anthems to your life-giving ways” (all quoted from the Message translation).  

And David wasn’t playing games with God to bend God’s will either, because he knew God knew him “inside out.” David openly admitted in Psalm 51 to “the chaos of my life.” He knew God had “all the facts” of his embarrassing life laid out before him, and he confessed openly to being “out of step with you for a long time.” 

In all honesty, then, David knew he didn’t deserve to live, or deserve God’s protection. And I had to admit the same thing. Why should God protect me from this virus thingy when there was nothing in my life, past or present, that deserved his protection? And my reasons for God keeping me alive sounded pathetic. 

But David then takes an even more embarrassing step in Psalm 51. He faces head on the ghastly reality that “Going through the motions doesn’t please you.” It doesn’t? But most of my Christian life has been going through the motions. I’ve done what Christians do, pray, study, go to church, try to be a good husband and Dad, help out in the community where I can, and be a law-abiding citizen. Not perfectly, of course, but not too bad either.  

But now I find out from David that none of these things cut any ice with God either as reasons for keeping me alive.   

And if that isn’t bad enough, it gets worse, because David goes on to say, “a flawless performance is nothing to you.” Well, that does it: I’ve got nothing left to reason with God with, then, do i? I could be totally blameless in all my behaviour, and stand up in the court of God with a perfect record, and all I’d get in return is, “A fine performance, dear chap, but it’s not what we’re looking for in you.”

It isn’t? So what is? 

According to the Message translation what counts with God is what David says next: “I learned God-worship,” David writes, “when my pride was shattered.” So what really pleases God is a human being who simply admits he has nothing to offer. It knocks to pieces, then, the whole idea of trying to reason with God for protection from this virus thingy based on anything I come up with. It’s OK trying to reason with God, because David and other writers of Psalms did it, but bottom line is: God just loves a human who says to him – as David says in Psalm 51 – “whatever you decide about me is fair.“ In other words, I simply trust God that he knows best what to do with me and leave it at that. 

Or as David goes on say in Psalm 51, “Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.” I simply accept I’m a worried mess with this virus thingy and I’m utterly dependent on God’s love and nothing else. He loves me. He’ll do what is best.