character

From The Great Physician To The Great Commission (Part 5)

  • A Labor Foreign Secretary (1966-68) named George Brown got this response from another guest at a diplomatic reception: “I shall not dance with you for three reasons. First, because you are drunk, second, because this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem and third, because I am not a beautiful lady in red; I am the Cardinal Bishop of Lima.”
  • When Barbara Bush, the wife of then Vice President George Bush, Sr., was on a diplomatic visit in Japan, she attended a lunch with Emperor Hirohito at Tokyo's Imperial Palace. In spite of her best efforts to start a conversation, the Emperor would only smile and give very short answers. She finally complimented Hirohito on his official residence."Thank you," he said. "Is it new?" pressed Mrs. Bush. "Yes." "Was the palace just so old that it was falling down?" “No, I'm afraid that you bombed it."

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It’s embarrassing when a leader or an ambassador poorly represents something of which you are a part. They are supposed to be a compelling face for something or someone, and it’s hard. At times they fail, sometimes hilariously and other times more seriously. We tend to think of this in politics or schools or sports teams, but Paul wrote to the first followers of Christ,

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20

As followers of Christ, we are His ambassadors to a world that is not our home. We represent another King and another Kingdom. "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20).

As ambassadors for Christ, we have the same kind of responsibility as the previous spokespeople I mentioned. But now we are going to the Kingdom of the Earth on behalf of the Kingdom of Heaven, and things of eternal import are at stake.  We’ve been talking about spiritual health for the past six weeks. It’s worth noting that we don’t become healthy through Jesus just for our sake. We are made healthy as part of preparation for evangelism and discipleship.

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others...not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.” (Dietrich BonhoefferLetters and Papers from Prison).

We are made new with a purpose: to fulfill the Great Commission.

We represent Jesus whether we like it or not. We don’t stop representing Christ … ever. We will be an ambassador for better or worse.

When I was in high school, I worked at a restaurant, and I talked with my non-Christian friends about Jesus. One day a girl said to me, “I notice you say X about your faith, but then you do Y. How does that work?” (I don’t remember what the issue was.) That was a really uncomfortable conversation.

People can’t see God, but they can see us. They can be drawn to or pushed away from the One we represent based on how we, as ambassadors, represent God. I gave one verse from Paul earlier. Here is the broader context:

“ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”  (2 Corinthians 5:17- 21).

It is in this light that we need to understand 2 Corinthians 6:1:

“As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain…”

Paul is not saying that God’s grace is unable to save us. He’s not saying that the people reading the letter aren’t Christians. He refers to them as co-workers!  He’s just pointing out that we can be healed and be made new…and watch an opportunity for bringing others to the Great Physician slip through our fingers.  

So, how can we make sure that doesn’t happen?[i]

KNOWLEDGE

First, an ambassador must have some basic knowledge. After I had my second blood clot, I went to my doctor to find out what to do. He said some stuff I knew, then said we were done. I said, “Should I be taking shots until the Coumadin kicks in?” He agreed that would be a good idea. “Should I rest and elevate my leg?” Sure. Why not? I basically walked him through my treatment. I didn’t go back. He did not have saving knowledge – or if he did, he didn’t know how to communicate it well. Knowledge isn’t the only thing, but it’s a crucial thing. And as some of you have experienced, a doctor who lacks knowledge can have a very real impact on how you view the medical profession in general.

An ambassador for Christ needs two kinds of knowledge: factual knowledge and experiential knowledge.

By factual I simply mean never stop learning more about what you believe and why. Knowledge can’t save you, but it can ground and stabilizes you.

  • I was glad I had already wrested mentally with the problem of pain and evil before I wrestled with it experientially when by Dad died and when I had my heart attack. [1]
  • I have found that the more I study God’s plan for marriage and human sexuality the more I am strengthened in the face of temptation. [2]
  • When I hear challenges to the existence of God from atheists, the nature of God from other religions, or the character of God from well-meaning Christians who have non-biblical views of who God is and how he works in the world, I am glad for the solid theology of my Mennonite upbringing, and the Christian voices that have filled me with truth.[3]

By experiential I mean commit to walking in the footsteps of Jesus and committing to life in His Kingdom.  We are called to explain the hope that lies within us. We are going to need to talk about the transformational nature of discipleship. I can talk about being in the military, but I don’t know what it’s like to be in the military. I can talk about football, but I don’t know what it’s like to play football. Ask me about basketball, crossfit, pastoring, teaching or marriage – I’ve experienced it. In all of those, I immersed myself in it for a while. They weren’t just passing fancies. I didn’t dabble. I entered in as fully as I could.

As Christians, we can’t dabble. We can’t pick and choose parts or pick and choose times and expect to be able to tell people what it’s like to really be a sold-out follower of Jesus.  G.K Chesterton is famous for saying:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

I’m not talking about perfect knowledge or perfect discipleship. That’s impossible on this side of heaven. If someone expects that level of expertise, everyone on earth is going to fail them. I’m talking about the process of being committed to that process of learning and growing within the framework of the gifts, talents and opportunities God has given you.  

TACT

This knowledge must be deployed in a skillful way with wisdom and persuasiveness.  Paul notes all the ways in which he “becomes all things to all people” in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 “so that I may save some . . .”

It isn’t possible to never give offense as an ambassador for Christ, because the message of the cross can be offensive (Luke. 6:26; 1 Corinthians 1:23). But we must do our best to take away needless offense.

“We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way…” (2 Corinthians 6:3)

The message of the Gospel is difficult enough without us giving people additional reason to turn away. We must pray for the wisdom to know how to connect and genuinely enter into the lives of those around us without compromising our morality or faith. It’s part of being “in the world but not of it.” (John 17:15-16). [ii]  I'll explain this more fully in my final point, which is...

CHARACTER

Because ambassadors bring themselves along in everything they do, their presence can either make or break the message. After talking a about tact, Paul talks more about his character, or what it is about his life that has  “commended” him to them. After he describes the suffering he endured for the sake of the gospel, he writes the following about how to live:

“…in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…” (2 Corinthians 6:5-7)

“Purity” is used here probably to refer to sexual purity, but it has a broader meaning that encompasses all of life. We are called to be pure from the inside out – morally clean, able to live without fear of what others may find out about us. Think of this as free transparency. Can someone check your internet history right now or your business’s books? If there is a video of how you interact with people throughout the day, would you be embarrassed if someone saw it, or would you be willing to say, “Sure, have a look!”

“Understanding” refers to an in-depth understanding of the Christian worldview (2 Timothy. 2:15). It’s what I talked about earlier.  It doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers, but you are constantly seeking in some way to understand your faith more fully. Study…listen carefully…think and pray and talk with others about your life….learn to process your life with Christ so that when others ask you to talk about what it means to be a Christian, you can draw from past experiences.

 “Patience.”  This is staying power; being long tempered instead of short tempered. Not easily provoked.  We can listen to or see things hostile to our faith without getting immediately angry and defensive.   If someone says, “I think Christianity is stupid,” and starts to rant, can you listen patiently, trying to understand what they are saying?  Or do you get angry and tense and lash back as soon as you have an opening?  When someone posts a comment that challenges your faith or a position that you hold because of your Christian worldview, do you start a fight, or do you patiently engage for the sake of their salvation?

“Kindness” refers to cultivating a high view of other people and treating them with respect.  It’s meeting real needs – not just spiritual, but relational, financial, emotional…. It’s treating people in God’s image as if they bore God’s image.  In talking with those who are skeptical of Christianity, I have fielded questions like this:

·      The Bible is just an old book with a lot of errors. Why would any intelligent person pay attention to it?

·      Believing that Jesus was a God who died and came back to life is like believing in the Easter Bunny. 

·      You are so judgmental about sex.  Why don’t you want other people to be happy?”

So do I respond with anger and defensiveness?  Do I quote, “The fool has said in his heart there is not God” and stomp away, content to have struck a blow for the Kingdom of God? I need to relate to others with patience and kindness. It’s how God treats us, and it’s intended to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).  My goal is not win the argument, though that would be nice. My goal is that they be reconciled to Christ, and God forbid my attitude get in the way.

I’ve realized over the past number of years that people skeptical about my faith expect me as a Christian to attack or belittle them.  Somewhere in their lives, they have seen Christians either act like that or be portrayed like that. Whether fair or not, it’s the impression that's out there.  We need to change that impression one person at a time.

“Sincere love” – This is the ‘agape’ we talked about several weeks ago – “deliberately living in a way that shows esteem or value of something or someone as a precious, beloved prize.” If we don’t have this, we are just obnoxious noise makers even if we could speak the language of angels (1 Corinthians 13).

“Truthful Speech” - We can’t compromise on the reality, and we must be willing to defend it even if it is offensive.  Remember, God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), and neither should we. 

 “The Holy Spirit…the Power of God” - We depend on the power of God to take God’s word, our words, our lives, and point people toward Christ.  We don’t have to force the issue.  We “plant and water,” but God brings the harvest. Be content to be faithfully present, looking for opportunities to plant and nourish God’s truth.  At the right time, speak up. At the right time, challenge and encourage. Just always remember that the Holy Spirit is at work, which is good news indeed.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:36-38)

We, the community of the healed and healing, takes the Good News of the Great Physician to a world in desperate need of the redemption offered by Jesus alone. May we are do this with sincere lover, and with the power and protection of the righteousness of God.

[1] So, there’s this book, Learning To Jump Again, that explains my journey through this :) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B005H11AHO/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

[2] I recommend the following (out of many good options)

  • Real Sex, by Lauren Winner
  • The Thrill Of The Chaste, by Dawn Eden
  • Fill These Hearts, by Christopher West
  • The Mingling Of Souls, Matt and Lauren Chandler
  • The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller (youtube speech given for Google employees)
  • Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Matthew W Rueger

[3] I recommend the following as good starting points that give the Big Picture

  • The Story Of Reality, by Greg Koukl
  • The Reason For God, Tim Keller
  • Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  • How Shall We Then Live? Francis Schaeffer
  • How Now Shall We Live? Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey

[i] I am indebted to Grek Koukl at Stand To Reason (str.org) for a lot of teaching on three characteristics of a good Christian ambassador.

[ii] How can we tell the difference between tact vs. fear or compromise?

  • Someone who is tactful does not compromise the truth; they simply remember that “well-spoken words are like apples of gold in pitchers of silver.”
  • Someone who is tactful does not avoid confrontation; they confront with respect, care and love, remembering that everyone is created in the image of God.
  • Someone who is tactfful seeks to build bridges, not burn them. Tact does not post mean mean or mocking memes. Tact does not name-call. Tact isn’t defensive. Tact listens, engages, seeks to understand even before being understood.
  • Someone who is tactful enters into accountability so that others observe and weigh in on how they are doing.

Christian Character In Three Easy Steps! (You Won’t Believe #2!!!)

There is a tension in the Christians life between what God does for us and what God expects us to do. God is always at work doing something in us and for us that we can’t accomplish on our own power, but the Bible is also clear that God expects us to participate in the building of our lives. 

“Whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock, and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of mine and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand; and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the house; and it fell.  And great was its fall.”(Jesus, in Matthew 7:24-27) 

Jesus is the rock on which we build a foundation of life that will stand in the midst of storms. But we build. Whether on sand or stone, we will build something. After talking about people who were commended for their faith, Paul wrote,

“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith...” (Paul, in Hebrews 12)

Jesus is the author of our faith and the finisher of our faith. There is no righteousness we can earn or attain on our own merit. God does all the heavy lifting when it comes to salvation. However, we were not saved for complacency. We throw off everything that hinders. We lay aside every weight. God may have built the stadium, equipped it with every good and perfect gift, and put us on His own team, but we've still got to put our phone to the side, strap on the shoes and run. 

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I was recently watching a documentary on Rich Froning, multiple winner of the Crossfit Games, aka “the fittest man on earth.” Most people see him for three days on ESPN once a year when he obliterates the competition. But it’s what he has done relentlessly for years that got him to the top of the podium. He didn’t build muscle and stamina a couple weeks before the games.

There are other areas of life where we can observe commitment and then see output. Certainly natural strengths or weaknesses, past experiences and opportunities (or the lack of them) have an impact on what we accomplish, but generally speaking, we get what we give. No matter who you are and whether or not life has been good to you or hard for you, there is no substitute for faithful, committed hard work to take you to a better place than you are now.

From what I can see in the Bible, it is no different with character building. God has given us the privilege and responsibility of being what theologians call “significant moral agents.” In other words, what we do matters. Reaping and sowing is a principle God himself embedded in the world.

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap corruption;  whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:7-10)

 Jesus offers to take upon himself the eternal punishment for all the corruption we have sown into our lives. But whenever we plant something of spiritual or moral significance in our life, an appropriate crop begins to grow. This is the building or undermining of our character. Our training matters. Our sowing matters.

Here is a biblical truth that can be hard to accept: God does not gift character. God saves us from the eternal consequences of our sinful failure through his justification; God radically changes our identity through salvation (we are now children of God – Galatians 3:26); and through sanctification he continually transforms us into a Christ-likeness (think of the imagery of the vine and the branches in John 15)  But we still have the freedom to build or undermine our character in the ordinary moments of days, months, and years.

Now, God does not wait until we are perfect until He can accomplish something good with us. The Bible is loaded with stories of deeply flawed people that God uses for the good of the world and for His glory.  This is not about becoming good enough so God will choose you or use you. If that were the standard, none of us would ever be chosen or rise to the occasion. This is not about God noticing us because of how awesome we are. This is, however, about how the Bible shows discipline and character developing by God's grace in the slow, ordinary, plodding times of life.

 It’s not a popular thought. We live in a society that encourages us to see life not as a walk of baby steps, but of huge leaps and bounds 

  • If I am going to lose weight, I want to be the biggest loser.  20 pounds over a year is hardly worth my time.  I want to win the show on TV by dropping 100 in a week.
  • If I want a makeover, I don’t have time for small improvements over time.  I want an extreme makeover now while I am on vacation.
  • I shouldn’t have to be a singer who works my way to the top through hard work and fortitude.  I want to be an idol with a big contract.
  • If I want to learn to use the Force, now I can just close my eyes and really want to use the Force instead of train in the middle of nowhere with a little cryptic green guy (apologies, Star Wars fans).
  • And dare I say, I want God to finish working in my life now, and be done teaching me now, to get me past my struggles with sin now, to fix my marriage now, and to answer my prayers now. I don’t have time to just do the next thing.  I want the next big thing !!!!  

This past week I was reading some prophecies or predictions for 2016. Most of them were full of exciting, grand, sweeping visions of how God is going to mightily move in nations, kingdoms, and the church. That may be true - God can do that kind of work in the world, of course.  But you know what I didn’t see?

 “God has revealed to me that this next year will be full of countless times when ordinary moments of faithfulness will build His people and His Kingdom. The Holy Spirit will move powerfully and help you not snap at your kids so that overtime what you plant as a parent will lead to a good relational harvest. You will face temptation, and you will need to train: humble yourself, seek accountability, and do the hard work of resisting temptation. You will be overlooked, under-appreciated, ignored and demeaned, but God’s faithful presence will be active in the midst of this to build your character for the good of the Kingdom and for His glory.”

I haven’t seen that yet. 

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Eugene Peterson once said:

“There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”

There are no three easy steps – which is why you won’t believe #2. Anyone who tells you there are shortcuts to character are lying to you. There is no escaping this Godly practice of doing the next thing: Being faithful in the walk of life, in little things when there is no apparent inspiration, no applause, no crowd, no obvious, immediate payoff to myself.  This is the means through which God so often does His restorative work of grace in us and around us.

As I look back, as meaningful as our marriage ceremony was, the vows my wife and I gave each other offered an inaccurate view of what we would face. There is poverty and wealth, there is sickness and health, there is joy and there is pain, there is passion and there is coldness, and there is arguing and there is making up, but more often than not the majority of our lives are lived somewhere in between, not leaping from momentous event to momentous event, but taking a Tylenol and doing the next thing. And the ‘next things’ become momentous. I like how Alexander Maclaren put it:

“If our likeness to God does not show itself in trifles, what is there left for it to show itself in?  For our lives are all made up of trifles.  The great things come three or four of them in the seventy years; the little ones every time the clock ticks.”

I’m sure God can make us mature in a moment if He wants to, but if the Biblical record (and all of church history and the lives of everyone I know) is any indication, He apparently does not.. He wants us to grow up moment by moment, relying on His Spirit, reading and obeying His Word, and living in a community of His people.

Let’s go back to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7. When the storms of life arrive, we as follower of Christ will stand not because we were strong suddenly, by surprise, contrary to all expectations. We will stand because 1) God provided a foundation for our lives, and 2) we have built our character by hearing what Jesus has to say about holiness - and doing it. 

This is how discipleship works. After God saves us from ourselves and fills us with His spirit, we commit to being disciples: following Christ, learning what it means to walk in holiness and integrity, putting one foot in front of the other day after day after day, for the good of His Kingdom and the glory of God. 

GC:engage - Becoming An Effective Ambassador for Christ

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The Great Commission 

When Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission, he told them to go into all the world and preach the gospel. The Apostle Paul would later make the analogy of ambassadorship: we areall representatives of Christ. In order to represent him well, we need knowledge (an accurately informed mind), wisdom (an artful method) and character (an attractive manner).*

When Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission, he told them to go into all the world and preach the gospel. The Apostle Paul would later make the analogy of ambassadorship: we areall representatives of Christ. In order to represent him well, we need knowledge (an accurately informed mind), wisdom (an artful method) and character (an attractive manner).*

Wisdom (an artful method) 

“The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” (Proverbs 16:21) 

“Therefore, we are Christ's representatives, and through us God is calling you.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)

If Christ is calling people to himself through us, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness, it’s probably important to think about how to make a compelling presentation about Christ and the Christian worldview. Here is where both character and knowledge play an important role.

Character (Attractive Manner)

 “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV) 

 “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:24-25, NIV)

When you talk with others about your faith, remember that your manner of interaction – no matter the topic – speaks volumes about the God you serve. You want to make a winsome, compelling case for Christ and His Kingdom, so be careful not to be defensive and frustrated or to feel like you have to answer every question that a skeptic has. Listen to understand before you respond.  You’ll get your chance; meanwhile, a lot can be learned from listening first (James 1:19; Proverbs 29:20; Proverbs 18:2)

Think in terms of the next meeting. Keep the door open for another discussion. You probably won’t convince anyone to radically change his or her worldview in one sitting. Anything important takes time. In the long run, it’s probably better to value the relationship than win the argument. You can win an argument and never see a person again. But if you build a relationship even in the midst of disagreements, you can revisit the questions again and again. If either one of you gets upset over anything other than the cross of Christ, you both lose.

Knowledge (an accurately informed mind)

“Be careful not to let anyone rob you [of this faith] through a shallow and misleading philosophy. Such a person follows human traditions and the world's way of doing things rather than following Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, God’s Word) 

“The weapons we use in our fight are not made by humans. Rather, they are powerful weapons from God. With them we destroy people’s defenses, that is, their arguments and all their intellectual arrogance that oppose the knowledge of God. We take every thought captive so that it is obedient to Christ.”  (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, God’s Word)

The first bit of information you need is why someone struggles with the idea of God. 

  • Some have experienced emotional pain, and find it hard to believe in God. Perhaps they have been abused, their health has failed them, or they have lost someone they love.  In the midst of these situations, they have felt serious disillusionment because they expected God to intervene. If this is the case, they don’t need a syllogism; they need empathy. Sometimes the best way to be an ambassador is to weep with those who weep.
  • Some have had experiential disappointment. Christians have failed or hurt them; churches have ignored their questions or been judgmental and legalistic. In this case, they may find it undesirable to believe. Why would they want to be a part of a group of people like that? If this is the case, acknowledge the hurt and frustration. Yes, Christians can be hypocrites. Yes, churches can wound people. The best thing you can do is to model true Christianity. They need to see faith in action more than they need a Bible verse. 
  • Some have intellectual frustration.  For them, there’s no perceived reason to believe. Because science and reason provide sufficient explanation of life as far as they can tell, they have no need for a God hypothesis. In this case, you may need to provide evidence (science, philosophy, history, archaeology, etc.).

The second bit of information you need is a clarification of terms. Ask what Greg Koukl* calls Columbo Questions: What do you mean by that? How did you come to that conclusion? Have you ever considered another idea? You will not only build a friendship, you will better understand the nature of someone’s skepticism. It’s frustrating to provide answers to questions nobody has. Take the time to find out what questions need to be answered.

The third bit of information you need is the truth that will address their circumstance. This is where you will need to give a reasoned argument, not simply make an assertion. An assertion is essentially a statement of opinion. It may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s nothing more than a statement of belief. “There is no God” is an assertion; so is, “There is a God.”  You will need to challenge bald assertions while building a positive case for your position.  You don’t need to be an expert, but it would be good to know something about the particular issue at hand.

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RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

Tactics, Greg Koukl (I am indebted to Mr. Koukl for the knowledge/wisdom/character template. You can learn more about Mr. Koukl and his ministry, Stand To Reason, at str.org).

Stand to Reason’s Ambassador’s Creed

Love Your God With All Your Mind, JP Moreland

 

The Potter and the Clay (Part 2)

In the previous post, we looked at how the Potter pulls the clay from the ground and prepares it for His use. He "wedges" it to get rid of air holes, then throws it into the center of the wheel. After that, of course,  the shaping begins.

“Opening the form” happens after centering.  The potter puts his finger into the very center of the clay to create a well. As He pulls the clay towards him, the clay begins to respond.  Re-centering happens throughout this entire process. We are constantly in need of aligning ourselves with God and his ways. There is an interesting incident in Jeremiah18:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”
      We all get marred by others:  cruel words, physical abuse; emotional manipulation.  We call them scars.  But sometimes we mar ourselves – we make choices that catch up with us.  And it’s not that the Potter has to throw us away, but there is a re-centering, and maybe a new well, a new direction in the plan.  The Potter is not stumped, but the pot may take on a different shape on the way to fulfilling the Potter’s purpose.
    Sometimes our lives take a path we don’t expect.  We had this plan – we were going to do THIS with our life – but we got marred, and something about that marring changed the shape of our lives.  And we still have the same purpose we always did, but now we might get there a different way.  
Pulling up the wall (the sides of the pot), the Potter's hands no longer fully surround the clay.  The hands change position to one hand on the inside and one on the outside and the wheel speed slows considerably.  Gentle pressure inward forces the clay upward.  Again, pressure must be steady or the form will shift off center.  God is doing something inside us, but He’s also working on the outside.  When this happens to us, there are things happening that no one else can see – but there are also things people can see.  God doesn’t just work on what we do [external]; God doesn’t just work on who we are [internal]. He works on both.
     The Potter does not need to use much pressure to make the clay take shape.  The clay is very sensitive to the touch.  The Pot has a sure foundation; the grains are aligned with the Potter’s plan; the pot is still near to the Potter.  In the same way, the believer is grounded in the truth, aligned with the will of God, and confident that the work God is doing is making something beautiful.
Once the walls are lifted then the potter begins to apply a pressure to specific places on the wall to create a shape. The wheel is turning much slower now.  The potter is now using small nudges that make big changes to the pot.  Centering really is not needed any longer at this point; just a balancing of the form.
      This is the gentle nudge, but it is HUGE in shaping the pot.   Question: Do we believe God speaks to us?  Are we sensitive to His touch?  Are we so surrendered and submitted to God that we are living in the awareness of His presence in our lives – His purpose, His plan? If we want our lives to really take shape we must be sensitive to His nudging – prayer, the Bible, godly friends, and our conscience.
The pot is removed from the wheel and set aside to dry before it is returned to the wheel for final trimming.  Re-centering occurs before trimming the foot of the pot.  Usually, if the potter is good, a few gentle taps move the pot on center.  The potter trims a "foot" on the pot.  Another foundation for the pot to sit on. 
 It is important that there is a consistency of thickness throughout the pot, or it will crack in the drying process.  There is a balance to the Christian life. Faith or works?  Intellect or emotion?  Long-term planning or in-the-moment response?  Well, yes. For example,  if we rely only on scripture and never learn to "know" God spirit to spirit - hearing his voice, feeling conviction, becoming spiritually discerning - we will not be able to be used as the potter intended.  But if we neglect the word(truth) and only rely on what we discern we will not be used as intended. Balance is crucial in forming the life of the believer.
     The drying process is a good analogy of the times when we know we are waiting on God.  The pot remains confident that the potter will return to finish the work he began (Philippians 1:6) This is Joseph as he languished in prison…Ruth as she waited on Boaz…Jesus as he waited for his ministry…. the disciples as they waited between Jesus's ascension and the feast of Pentecost…this is us as we wait at times when all we see happening is that we are drying, when actually we are being prepared for the next step in God’s process. 
The pot is fired.  Once the heat of the kiln reaches a specific temp. the clay is transformed and is no longer able to go back to the earth as soft clay.  The actual chemical composition has changed.  In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist said: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” 
If the pot never experiences the fire, the heat, the clay will never mature.  It will never be able to be fully used for the Potter’s purpose.  Trials change us. This is a pivotal point in the life of the believer.  We have to be careful that we don’t reach a place anywhere in the pot making process where we fear the fire of refinement.  Again, it is all about surrender.  
The Glazing is the final adornment process. Glaze is actually clay that has melted to make glass. Its purpose is to enhance the look of the pot, to make it attractive. 
   There is an importance placed on having a glaze that "fits" the clay body you use.  The two need to mature together in the kiln at the right temperature  and will hopefully fuse with no imperfections.   
   This sounds a lot to me like our testimony of forgiveness, grace, and hope. .  It comes from us, the clay, but it’s made possible by the Potter.  

Then the pot is filled. That’s the purpose of a vessel – to hold something. 

  • Romans 5:5 “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
  • Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem…”
Now, we are ready to be poured out in the service of others.  God molds us for His purpose; God fills us with the love and power of His Holy Spirit, and now God’s vessel pours God’s life and truth into the world, to the glory of God.
And through it all, we have The Potter - steady, unchanging, trustworthy, faithful, a solid rock, a firm foundation. 
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to [us] …We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6 )

The Potter and the Clay

Several months ago, I preached a sermon about the imagery of the Potter and Clay in the Bible. Lately, I have been talking with Amy Gilmore, a friend who actually makes pottery (I offer that in sharp contrast to my complete inability to do anything artistic).   Amy has been explaining to me how the Biblical imagery has come alive for her because of her experience.  What follows is the well-rounded perspective from one who both both potter (as an artist) and clay (as a follower of Christ).
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When searching for clay, the Potter has to reach into the ground (unless he or she is fortunate enough to have a ready-made bucket) and pull the clay loose.  In the same way, Christ reaches down into the dirt of our life and pulls us out. This as our salvation. David wrote in Psalm 40:2, "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."

God forms what was once a lump of earth into an object of design and purpose. 
It isn't about God making us into something we think is great; it is about letting God make us into something He loves and uses. When God offered encouragement to Jeremiah, he noted, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5) Most of us want to know what God is going to make us into before we allow him to begin his crafting.  This is not submission, or faith. 


 At this point in our life we are helpless, in need of a Savior, someone who can pull us out of all the dirt that traps us.  And when we surrender to His salvation, we also surrender our purposes, plans, hopes and dreams.  As the Apostle Paul noted,  “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:21)
Next, the clay is "wedged" in preparation for throwing.  Air bubbles are removed: pride, greed, lust, envy, gossip, meanness, unforgiveness. It’s pockets of our life we want to keep to ourselves - our checkbook; or our sex life; or our entertainment; our resentments that we nourish; our self-justification;  friends that we know are bringing us down.  Air bubbles are the secret sins from which we need to be delivered. 
After the wedging, the potter "throws" the clay onto the wheel head with a force that makes it stick. Ever had a time in life when you just crashed into something?  Job loss? Marriage failure? Sickness?  Depression?  Sometimes, that’s just life; sometimes, it's Satan trying to tear us down.  In those cases, the crash we feel is us “hitting the wall.” When that happens, God can redirect our momentum so the crash happens on his wheel instead of Satan’s wall.
When God is involved, the moments in our lives when we feel like we’ve hit a wall are times we are actually hitting the wheel. The wheel is the foundation of the faith, the core truths at the center of God’s will is the place to be.  The Potter will make sure you are centered, because an unsteady center brings about a lack of symmetry. 
Now the Potter begins to work on the clay -  our heart, our attitude, our emotions, our willingness to be molded for His purpose.   Water is applied to reduce friction between the hands of the potter and the clay. Now, our purpose, our design, our beauty begin to emerge as we allow the Potter to achieve His purpose. Think of how Ephesians describes Christ's work in our lives: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…” (Ephesians 5: 25ff)
We were pulled out,  we were de-air bubbled (?) and centered – and none of this has been easy.  But now the Potter is ready to begin work – His Word is watering us, refreshing us, baptizing us into new life and truth, making us a workable element in the Potter’s hand.
 As the clay spins in the hands of the potter, the particles come into alignment as well.  This alignment - think "submission" -  happens through repentance and belief.  It takes both. We cannot only repent, nor can we only believe.  Only the two together will produce fruit in our life.

What Happens in Thessalonica Stays in Thessalonica

(Part One of a Three Part Series on Sex, Purity, and Justice) 

     One of the most popular ads right now promises us a world in which we can do some incredibly stupid and maybe even fun things in Vegas, and not have them effect us at all. Unfortunately, it's just not true. Expense tabs, debt, compromises of morality, memories, and hotel towels seem to find their way back home, even in the movies.

    As much as we may want this to be true, wanting something to be true doesn't actually make it so.  I'm sure sky diving instructors don't comfort nervous jumpers by saying, "Don't worry?  This event is totally separate from the rest of your life! What happens in the air stays in the air."  For that matter, ask employers if what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.

    What we do even in Vegas matters.  The Hangover was a raunchy movie, but even it had the decency to point out that what happened in Vegas had a ripple effect. Skydivers have to land; the words we post in social media are words we say in the real world, and they stay with us.

     We can’t segment our lives. Our experiences are all connected.  TV is episodic; life is not.  What happens in Vegas become one small story in the bigger story of my life, and that narrative does not stop.  Ever.  What happens in Vegas will stay with me the rest of my life.

    We can’t separate the physical part of us from the spiritual part of us, either.  I've talked to many people who have been determined to believe that “What happens on the outside of my body stays on the outside.”  Once again, this is not the way the world works.  What we do on the outside effects the inside.
    
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 2,000 years ago, Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica.  In the first several chapters he noted:
  • they were full of faith (they had turned from idols to the living God);
  • they loved each other and seemed to understand community well; 
  • they were enduring persecution well; 
  • their reputation had spread far and wide. 
   In spite of all these good things, there was a problem to address. Apparently, there were a number of people who were convinced that “What happens in Thessalonica stays in Thessalonica.”  
"As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.  Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  This is the will (desire, purpose) of God: your sanctification  (purity): You should avoid sexual immorality." (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3)

     For Paul's readers, the word he chose for "living"would have invoked an image of walking about in an ordinary day. Paul starts this section by saying they are pleasing God (two thumbs up!) but there is more they need to know.  In this case, they needed to focus very specifically on an area that causing them to stumble:  sexual purity.

     The word translated as “sexual immorality” provides an umbrella under which a lot of sexual activity fits: promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, pornography… The list goes on.  Basically, their sex lives needed the purity of sanctification.

     At the time Paul wrote this, the Gentiles in Thessolonica lived in a culture saturated with distorted views of marriage, sex, and family. Historians recorded upper class Roman ladies identifying years not by chronological numbers, but by the names of their ever-changing husbands. One Greek writer noted: ”We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”

     Paul was writing to a church with people who had this lifestyle embedded in them. They had to learn a new way of viewing sex.
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    “ The most crucial theological truth about sexuality is that God loves sex and evil hates it.  God made us sexual, and He glories in his plan for our union and joy.  Evil hates what God loves, and it has found that more harm can be done through sex then perhaps any other means.  Often the chief battleground for the human soul is the terrain of sexuality.”                                    - Dan Allender

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  Here in an important biblical truth:  sex is holy and sacred, and act of self-sacrifice, intimacy, commitment and trust.

    That's why Christians make such a big deal about it. Sex is not just another thing we do, like shopping.  Sex effects our souls. And because it's such a big deal, God has provided pretty clear instructions about how we are supposed to live in this area.

   First, he sets a boundary: sex is to be experienced only within marriage.  This may seem restrictive, but because of God's purposes for sex, that boundary is necessary.  Rivers need banks; cars need roads; stock markets need regulation; my blood needs veins and arteries.  In every area of life, we see how boundaries maximize the ability of things to flourish. Sex is no exception.
 
     Second, God intends sex to fulfill at least four key purposes: procreation, unity, personal formation, and pleasure.  While some of these can clearly be experienced out of marriage, understating how all four work together to fulfill God's purpose is important.

    Procreation: Sex brings babies.  This is not a secret. That fact that we can avoid the consequence of children does not negate that this is a key reason we have sex.  Children are a blessing, a gift from God. Not only do we ensure the continuation of humanity, but we have an opportunity to experience a glimpse of the kind of love God has toward us. God is our Father in a spiritual sense; how important is it, then, that earthly fathers embody that type of fatherhood God gives us - loving, committed, just, pure, holy?
     Unity: Sex is meant to seal bonds of trust, love and commitment.  That's one reason God sets marriage as a boundary line: during sex, we communicate with our bodies that we have made a covenant; we can now give each other everything, baring body in soul in mutual trust and self-sacrifice. It's no secret that sex within marriage might not fully fulfill this design.  Sex outside of marriage simply cannot.
     Personal formation: Sex refines us. Two very different people, with different levels of desire, different schedules, different libidos, different love languages, different personalities. different....everything.... must make this funny, embarrassing, awkward, intimate and beautiful act become good and meaningful for both people.  That's not necessarily easy. It will require patience and selflessness.  Within the safety of covenant, we have the freedom to explore sex without worrying that our marriage partner will leave because we don't do everything just right. Over time, we become better people as we learn to understand, appreciate, and whole-heartedly embrace our spouse completely.
     Pleasure:  Some may argue this is a very nice side effect, and it may well be simply a nice perk.  But if pleasure is one of the characteristics of life in eternity with God, I'm not sure why He wouldn't purposefully give us glimpses now.    

 “And ‘control your own vessel’ in a way that is holy and honorable, not overpowered by lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (1 Thessalonians  4:4-5)

    "Control your own vessel" is not really bumper sticker material.  It's a phrase that seems archaic, but seeing how writers use it other places in the Bible can be helpful. Based on its placement elsewhere, "vessel" can be read two possible ways:
  • "Control yourself sexually in a way that is holy and honorable." (See a comparable example in 2 Corinthians 4:7)
  • "Relate to your spouse sexually in a way that is holy and honorable. (See a comparable example in 1 Peter 3:7)
   It's a brilliant word choice.  No one in the Thessalonican church could honestly read the letter, then look around the room and say, “The rest of you should really listen up!!!”  Married or single, there is a holy and honorable way to handle your sex drive.
    Then Paul makes an important distinction: those who know God are supposed to know the purpose of sex; those who do not know God don't have the same advantage.  Those who know God are supposed to know why sex matters; those who do not know God have fun but ultimately aimless sex, unhooked from deeper notions of design and purpose. "Just do it!" would have been a relevant slogan 2,000 years ago.
     Here's an analogy: If someone gave you a car and taught you to drive safely, but didn’t tell you why you should drive, would that be enough?  Sure, driving is fun; the GPS is really cool; the leather seats are nice; learning safe driving tips is helpful.  
    But at some point wouldn't you say, “What’s the point?  This is great as far as road trips go, but where am I going exactly?  My GPS shows me where I AM, but not where I’m going or where I should be - or why I'm even on this road heading to that place. I might be having a lot of fun going somewhere bad. Wait - is this Michigan Stadium?  Ahhhhh!”
  In Thessalonica they had nice, shiny cars, and they knew how to drive, but they didn’t know the purpose. They didn't know where they were going, or why.  
     Following our desires for sex is not necessarily wrong any more than having a car and driving somewhere is bad.  The vehicle and the road are not the problem; problems arise when we follow our God-given sexual desires in a way that the roads we take break God’s will and take us to the wrong destinations.  
     We can engage in sex just for fun, or just to ease loneliness, or just because we feel like it, or because we truly love someone.  We drive the car for a lot of reasons, and the journey is nice, but we separate the act from the purpose at our peril.  God has a purpose for everything we do.  What we do with our skin effects our soul. When we have sex (or do anything, really) something is happening to our character, priorities, view of pleasure, view of people, and relationship with God.
    What we do forms us into a people of increasing or decreasing holiness and honor.
    Paul phrases the verse in a negative sense: "They don't know God so they don't understand the purpose of sex."  There is an assumed message here that is far more positive: “You understand the purpose because you DO know God.”
   But how many Christians who claim to know God actually know the purpose of sex?

 “And that in this matter no one should exploit or violate a brother or sister.” Thessalonians 4:6) 
In Paul's time, Thessalonica was the hub of a lot of commerce.  The Thessalonians understood in economic terms what it meant to exploit or violate people:
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (a merchant who knows what ought to be done and constantly pushes the boundaries of the law)
  • Cheating and defrauding in trade and business (merchants who used weighted scales – taking more than they should at the expense of others)
  • Increasing or lessening the value and prices of goods by the buyer and seller (they would cheapen something valuable in order to profit at the expense of the seller)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they didn't understand - or didn't care about - the importance of commitment)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they could spot those easily manipulated and take what they wanted from them)
   To an audience that understood exploitation and fraud, Paul explains that sex outside of God’s design and purpose does the same thing.  The stakes are higher, though, because now they are trading in dignity, respect, honor, and people, not merely things. Like the merchants, they are: 
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (they know what kind of respect ought to be shown,  yet they constantly push the boundaries)
  • Cheating and defrauding (they take more than they should at the expense of the other person)
  • Lessening the value of sex (they cheapen purity, sex, intimacy and trust)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they you don’t understand the importance of covenant)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they spot those easily manipulated and take what they want from them)
     On the one hand, this is a depressing list that reveals a treatment of people that not only damages others but damages society as well.  On the other hand, treating people with honor and holiness brings about the opposite effect: a society in which both individuals and communities flourish as honor, dignity, and value are returned to one of the most intimate acts we can do.  How is this accomplished?
  • Enforcing the bounds of justice (we know what proper sexual boundaries are,  and we protect them.)
  • Helping others flourish (if the scales are going to tip on question of sex and purity, it will be in favor of purity.  The question is not "How far can I go?" but "How pure can I stay?")
  • Attaching the proper value to people and sex (increasing the value of sex and intimacy by treating it like the precious gift it is, and helping others guard their purity) 
  • Keeping and honoring covenants (understanding that every relationship trains people how to flourish or flounder in an eventual or existing covenant. This involves treating someone else’s future or present spouse like they want others to treat their future or present spouse.)
  • Protecting the weak and vulnerable (in a world where so many people are vulnerable in this area for a lot of different reasons, honorable people stand out because they protect those most in need of a hero). 
That the kind of world purity and self-control offer. 
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A Christian's Achilles Heel

In February of 2006 I  ruptured my Achilles’ Tendon at a men’s retreat.  In one sudden burst of pain I found that I had a great difficulty walking – and you really don’t want to do that if you have a choice. 
I remember vividly sitting in the doctor's office a day or two before the surgery, getting the low-down on what I would be facing both during the surgery and in the weeks of recovery  that followed: Six weeks in a cast followed by six weeks in a boot.
After going over a lot of details, Dr. Licht looked squarely at me and said,  “I’m good at what I do.  I can repair this tendon perfectly one time!  If you follow my instructions things will go well!  If you don’t follow my instructions to the letter, and you rupture this tendon again, I won’t be as successful, and you’ll likely walk with a limp for the rest of your life!  I want your leg elevated every waking moment unless you are in the bathroom or brushing you teeth.  Do you understand?"

 For  twelve weeks I did exactly what he said.  Today, my Achilles tendon is perfect and I have no limp and no limitations.  What made the difference?  I chose to trust someone who knew far more than I. 
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Here’s a painful truth: we are headed down a road of destruction because we have trivialized the Word of God.  We bend and manipulate the Word, trying to make it to say whatever we choose; whatever suits our weak behaviors.  We don’t regard it as what it truly is: the unalterable Word of God. 

We view this book as an accumulation of interesting stories, and we assign those stories whatever value we deem appropriate.  We don’t view this as being a book of Words that were divinely inspired, coming from God, revealed by His Holy Spirit to man, and intended to be received and accepted as authoritative.  

Oh, sure, we still check out God’s thoughts on a range of topics - and we blend His thoughts with ours.  It’s not just that it’s wrong thinking, and as such an offence to God.  This kind of worldview tears apart the very safeguards that God established to protect us.  The church at Thessalonica received and accepted what Paul said AS THE WORD OF GOD,"...which also performs its work in you who believe." (Philippians 2:13)


Is it any wonder that the world around us is falling apart?  We have substituted our thoughts for His thoughts, and our ways for His ways! Even worse, some of us in the church of Jesus Christ are falling apart because we’re toying with the Word of God.
Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714), an English Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister, said this about the Bible: We should receive the word of God with affections suitable to its holiness, wisdom, truth, and goodness. The words of men are frail and perishing, like themselves, and sometimes false, foolish, and fickle; but God's word is holy, wise, just, and faithful. Let us receive and regard it accordingly.
When we receive and accept and believethe Word of God, it changes us.  We begin to be transformed into the image of the very One who saves us: Jesus Christ Himself.  Believing is the key to becoming like Christ!  And this happens when His awesome power empowers my humble consent.

Philippians 2:13 also suggests that those who do not believe will not see the transformative power of Christ and His word in their lives! "For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."

What is “belief” in God really about?  It is when I humble my arrogant self to His glorious Lordship of my life; when I give my humble consent to Him bringing a new governmental structure in my life and my world. When I was a child, our church used to sing this hymn:

When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word, what a glory he sheds on our way! While we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus,but to trust and obey.

The foundational premise for “trusting and obeying" lies in having a profound realization of the one in whom I have place my trust and obedience!  Is this God or not?  

It is no surprise that unbelievers ignore God.  They have not experienced the amazing miracle of forgiveness, and they do not possess the Holy Spirit living inside of them.

But when we say we love and follow God, ignore or twist or compromise His word, all while expecting that we’ll still reap His blessings because we’re in the Club, we're in trouble !


If I’ve truly come to trust Him over my years of following Him, then why on earth would I question his Words – His wisdom – His instruction?

- Ted Smith, at Church of the Living God, on Sunday, April 22, 2012

Understanding Hope

From "A Healthy Sense of Doom":

 Paul said about the church in Thessalonica: "They marvel at how expectantly you wait for the arrival of God's Son, whom He raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescued us from certain doom."

Those most aware of certain doom are most inclined to long for the freedom Christ brings.  Those who know they are dead most appreciate the one who can give them life.

When's the last time we heard the drums that pound out a message of doom into the background noise of our own lives?  We're pretty good at drowning them out with music, movies, video games, texting, drugs, porn, work, play - anything, really.  The goblins and orcs that we have summoned are drawing closer and we have no idea.  We throw our lives casually down the wells of sin and indulgence, but are never sobered and quiet enough to listen to what the consequences will be. 


Read more at http://learningtojump.blogspot.com/2012/02/healthy-sense-of-doom.html.