Monday, April 15, 2013

Spinach and Spirituality

In light of recent events in Boston, MA- moments before I wrote this post- I pray that all readers will pray especially for pastors and church leaders to be appropriately sympathetic and empathetic in prayer for the victims while remaining vigilant regarding the desperate need to proclaim Christ with clarity and conviction; knowing that the gospel takes precedence over sentimentality.  

At the risk of dating myself, my first memorable knowledge of spinach comes from re-runs of the old Popeye cartoons.  Much love to all my people born between the mid 70's and early 80's who can remember cartoons that weren't imported from Japan!  Yes, Popeye was corny, but was apparently a part of an elaborate conspiracy to induce love of spinach among children via animated propaganda.  After all, if you had some spinach, you could beat up a bad guy twice your size and land yourself a date with with the ever-so-fine and shapely Olive Oyl.

The problem was, when I tried spinach, I hated it.  It was slimy, stinky, and while I was born on St. Patrick's Day, I had a real problem with the greenness of spinach.  I really did.  It was a scary food for me and how I wish I had a dog for those days when my mom (who is a great cook under normal circumstances) subjected us to the evils of frozen spinach- the off brand from KeyFood or worse, CTown.  But I probably would have loved my dog too much for that. 

And so for years, I hated spinach... almost as much as Seinfeld's Newman hated broccoli.  

Until I got married.  My wife, a budding culinary genius, heard my complaints about spinach and had the answer for me: eat it raw.  Of course, I initially scoffed at the very idea.  After all, I was a married man now--I was entitled to cooking; eating food raw was for bachelors.  Fast forward a few weeks from the first mention of it and naturally, I discovered that I loved raw spinach!  These days, it's extremely rare for me to go grocery shopping without looking for the freshest organic baby spinach I can find.  I eat it with almost anything and lately, Mrs. Dolce has even had me eating it sauteed in omelets and such.  Who would have imagined that an old childhood enemy would be so agreeable to me as an adult?

As  I mused on this reality, a passage in scripture suddenly made sense to me on an experiential level:

"We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn.  In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again.  You need milk, not solid food.  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil."
-Hebrews 5:11-14 (NIV)

I have found a maxim to be quite true: in the same way that children often despise needful vegetables, immature Christians have virtually no appetite for the soul-sustaining meat of biblical doctrine.  Happily content to snack on spiritual fast-foods that cannot sustain them in the long run, so many of our brothers and sisters are just looking for a sugar-high that comes from the syrup-laden, honey-roasted cracker-jack "truths" that excites the taste buds but cannot nourish them.  Like eating a .5lb brownie but only a sliver of turkey breast, they're easily excitable in the short-term but cannot find the spiritual muscle to fight the good fight of faith.  What do we do?  How can we help?

1.  Pray.  Pray for your Senior Pastor and those who preach and teach God's word in your church.  Pray that God would give them the boldness to switch up the spiritual diet of the congregation from time to time.  Pray that the Holy Spirit would empower them with creativity to preach/teach the Word with power and accuracy.  Pray that your preachers and teachers would endure the blank stares, yawning, the apparent failure to "connect" with the class or congregation.  Pray that they long for the approval of Christ rather than the "encouragement" that comes from men who don't even miss what they are desperately lacking. 

2.  Active Encouragement.  Do you simply expect biblically sound preaching and teaching every time you are in church or Sunday School?  If so, do you think it comes from the ether?  Your preachers and teachers are hopefully working for a heavenly reward... but does that mean you shouldn't express your support for their efforts to honor God here on earth?  When was the last time that you personally and directly thanked your pastor for his determination to honor Christ by preaching the truth-- whether it tickled your ears or not?

Your spiritual diet is infinitely more important than your natural diet for food and drink.  Take care not to settle for the empty calories of trite phrases, cliches, smooth words, and the like.  Seek the Lord's blessing for a well-rounded, spiritual meal that you can sink your teeth into.  Ask for help from a "chef" in your circle who knows a little more than you.  And to all my preaching and teaching friends- when you can't find a good story/analogy; when the alliteration scheme isn't working out, when 3 points and a poem just won't do: eat the scroll yourself and give it to them raw.  

"And he said to me, "Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel."  So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat.  Then he said to me, "Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it"  So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth."
Ezekiel 3:1-3 (NIV)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Looking for Lions

To set the scene, you have to envision the throngs that came bursting forth to celebrate the Jewish Passover. The feast is a few days yet, but everyone is in place, crowding Jerusalem and the surrounding areas... like Bethany.  Only 1.5 miles from Jerusalem, Bethany was still buzzing from the obvious and undeniable resuscitation of one resident named Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, who had been dead and buried 4 days.  The Man responsible for this tremendous outbreak of divine power was Jesus of Nazareth.  This Man, accredited to all Israel by miracles, signs, and wonders was now headed to Jerusalem.

The Passover, as a feast hearkening back to God's deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian Pharoah, has both a spiritual and cultural element to it.  Spiritually, it represented God's faithfulness to His promises concerning the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and to provide their descendants with a land of their own.  But culturally, the Passover in those days was colored with nationalistic fervor and expectation for a renewal of Israel's glory days.  These people were in the moment and feeling like God's deliverance was at hand.  They were looking for a glorious King, Lion of the Tribe of Judah.  But ironically, it's the Greeks and not the Jews, according to John 12:20 who are looking for Jesus.  And this is how Jesus spoke to them,

"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  I tell you the truth, 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.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.  My father will honor the one who serves me.  Now my heart is trouble, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'?  No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name
John 12:23-28 (NIV)

On the one hand, Jesus speaks of glory for the Son of Man and yet his words plainly depict pictures of death.  Not a student of Madison Avenue, Jesus makes no apology as He gives His servants a straightforward invitation to die with Him.  What else could He be saying when he says "whoever serves me just follow me"?  Make no mistake, Jesus is headed for the cross and is convinced that the cross is where both He and the Father will be glorified.

But who wants to serve a King with a death-wish? 

The favorite verse of every minister of music is John 12:32: "But I, when I am lifted up form the earth, will draw all men to myself."  Then the music gets loud and boisterous because we want to "lift him up" with glorious sounds befitting a king.  Of course, we glory in the wrong things because  seldom do we connect that verse with the one following it which says, "He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die."  Jesus is the speaker and is again promoting His death, not as the end, but as the beginning of the revelation of His glory.  When you think of John 12:32, do you glory in the cross so that you die to yourself?  Or do you get excited because the music just got hype?

John's gospel stays with this theme of mind-bending glory when in verse 41 John refers to Isaiah 6:10 to say that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus.  But we know that there was only one vision in Isaiah 6 and that vision was of the LORD Himself.  In essence, John is telling us that the glorious vision of Isaiah was in fact a vision of Jesus.  That vision is glorious, but it doesn't add up in the human mind how that Being and His glory is the same as this Jesus and the "glory" of dying.

But what is glorious to God is not glorious to men.  To the eternal God, it is a glorious thing for men to renounce what is temporal for what will never end.  To Him, a man is glorious if he loves faithfulness to God more than he loves gratifying his failing flesh.  To Him, the man laying down his life for his friends is glorious.  God will glorify those who live and look like the Son of Man.  And as I heard in Pastor Walker's wonderful sermon today, "We have to live for Christ in order to look like Christ."  Truly, the glory of the Father is bestowed on the man who overcomes himself by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That one is crucified with Christ in the likeness of His death so that he/she will be raised to life in the likeness of Christ's resurrection.

But just like the throngs in Jesus' day, if you look for the kingly lion on this earth, you will miss the lamb.  If you miss the lamb, you will miss the sacrifice.  If you miss the sacrifice, you will miss the Christ of the sacrifice.  No cross, no crown. 

In his vision on the Isle of Patmos, John saw a scroll in the right hand of God Most High.  The scroll had seven seals on it and no one anywhere could open it.  John wept because no one was worthy to open the scroll.  But at that moment, an elder said to him, "Do not weep!  See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has triumphed.  He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals".  But when John looks for the Lion, he sees a Lamb that looked like it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.  It's an amazing vision because who would expect a lamb when a lion has been announced?  Who would have guessed that they were one and the same?  So it is on earth as it is in heaven.