Individually Adrift; Instinctually Aware

As a species, there are often few things upon which we can all agree.  Whether it’s how to run a nation or what we want for dinner, there can be division, derision, a lack of decision.  Yet, there must be certain ideas and aspects on life upon which we can come to a consensus, things that we might not even be aware of that are true for all people.

Shortly after the recent tumultuous election, political commentator Stephen Colbert made a rousing speech on television in an attempt to unite us all in a time of division.  Always relying on humor, he developed a consensus list that lifted spirits, making everyone feel stronger as a group.  His list included such universally agreed upon wisdom like how when we all agree on something, we all shout “yes”, that it’s nice to get a card in the mail once in a while, how none of us think Kit Kats should be eaten like other candy bars but in segments only, and that buying Cool Whip isn’t about the taste but instead about the free Tupperware.

Similarly, there are certain things that all babies know instinctively when they are born.  For example, babies instinctively know to grasp onto a finger when it is placed in their hand and hold onto it with amazing strength.  Righting reflexes are the idea that should a baby be placed face down, it will know to turn its head to the side, thus ensuring it can breathe properly.  They also have mouthing reflexes, where when their cheek is stroked, they turn towards it with an open mouth, suggesting that babies “know” how to breastfeed when they are born.  The evidence is that we are all born preprogrammed with the knowledge of certain instinctual ideas and practices.

Yet, do we have an instinct for God?  Few of us in the world would agree on what that God is like or even that there is a God at all, so it would seem hard to believe.  However, is it possible that like babies, we are also born with the idea that there is a being greater than ourselves that exists to love and take care of us?  The Bible would argue that we do know this fact, and that in times of great difficulty and stress, we instinctively know to call on God for help.

When God calls upon Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it, he flees God’s command out of pride for the people of Nineveh, as he viewed them as his enemy.  He ends up in Tarshish, a city known for its pagan beliefs and lack of Christian influence, and boards a ship to continue fleeing from God.  As God had plans for Jonah, He pursued him across the ocean.  Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god.” (1. 4-5a).  Despite the sailors most likely being pagan in their beliefs, each defaulted to their instinctual belief that there is a creator greater than themselves who could save them from this storm.  When the world became primal, their primal instincts kicked in, and they called out to their creator for help, showing that despite what we may protest and argue, deep down every man and woman knows that there is a God who can save us.

Instincts exist for the sake of survival.  Whether a baby or an adult, our instincts are there to protect and save us.   How comforting to know that we are instilled with instincts that bring us closer to God, the one who created and cares for us.  Knowing that our instinct to call out to God is embedded in our genetic code before we are even born truly reveals to us how much God loves us and wants us to rely on Him for all things.  Amen.

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Soldiering Onward with Faithful Assurance

When the entire world is suggesting one thing, but we know that God wants us to act differently, our beliefs get questioned and our faith tested.  Staying steadfast and resolute in what we believe is never easy, especially when the world questions our every word and action.  However, if we can hold tightly to our faith with assurance, God’s plan for us will be carried out and may lead to being an example to the world who rejected those beliefs in the first place.

During World War II, Desmond Doss felt a tremendous obligation to serve his country, so he entered the military intending to be a medic.  When he enlisted into combat infantry, he listed himself as a conscientious objector, meaning that according to his Christian beliefs, he felt that he did not have the right to kill another person.  So, he refused to train with, carry, or even touch a rifle.  Because of his beliefs, he experienced intense ridicule and scrutiny in response to his actions, but he refused to compromise them.  Even though he did not know how God would use him, it was the comfort of Doss’ faith that helped him through this difficult time.

When Private 1st Class Doss eventually shipped off to fight in Okinawa, his platoon was trapped under fire in a seemingly unwinnable tactical situation, and several men were left wounded on the battlefield after a retreat.  Instead of retreating with the rest of his group, Doss decided to stay behind and help as many of the wounded as he could find.  Still refusing to fight, Doss single-handedly located seventy-five wounded soldiers, treated them for their injuries, and lowered them down a high cliff to the retreated platoon.  During that time, Doss glimpsed God’s plan for him, how He was using Doss as an example of pacifism, humanity, and sacrifice to the fallen, giving them hope where there was none.  The following day, right before the next assault, the platoon refused to deploy without Doss, and only after he was finished praying.  During that assault (the army’s 8th attempt), the platoon successfully took the hill.

Since we are trapped by the confides of time, we are unable to peer into the future and see how all of the threads of God’s massive patchwork quilt come together, revealing the significance and length of each strand.  If we were able to, how easily we would be able to choose our next set of actions.  However, faith indicates trust in something over which we have no control, giving up control to someone who knows more than we do.  The author of Hebrews 11.1 spells out exactly what faith is for Christians: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” With faith, we can be positive that despite what the world says and how it tells us to act, God’s way is the right way, even if it isn’t always the easy way.

In Hacksaw Ridge, the film which carefully details Doss’ story, after seemingly endless derision and much intense pressure to leave combat infantry, one of his commanding officers asks him, “What do you do when everything you value in this world is under attack?”  With Doss knowing that he was doing the right thing but not knowing why or to what end, he responds with, “I don’t know sir.  I ain’t got answers to questions that big.”  Faith is just that: we don’t always know what God’s ultimate plan is for us or how to verbalize the steps, but we know how to keep ourselves open to it and be a vessel for His will.  We may not have the answers and may face difficulty throughout, but we know to look to Him for guidance.  This week, even though you may not know for sure the outcome, find the assurance of faith by placing your confidence in Him through prayer and His promises.  In our travels, we may not know the destination, but we have the directions.  Amen.

A Haunting in Our Forgiven Lives

As I reached down to grab what I thought was clearly my vibrating phone in my pocket, my hand came up empty, and I rolled my eyes to discover that, once again, I had been tricked by my own body: my phone wasn’t even with me.  Apparently, I am not alone in experiencing this phenomenon (as many will be relieved to hear).  The idea of “phantom ringing” started to appear years ago with the proliferation of pagers, and once we all turned to owning smart phones, the feeling went widespread.  A singularity that afflicts most at one point or another, many will admit to swearing that they feel the vibrations of their phone against their leg, only to find no such vibrating occurring.  Chalk it up to how tied we are to our phones, I suppose.

However, a similar situation also occurs with 60-80% of amputee patients.  Dubbed “Phantom Limb Syndrome,” this condition arises when patients who have lost a limb or other significant body part feel varying amounts of pain, discomfort, or itching in a part of the body that no longer exists.  Patients absentmindedly reach down to rub or scratch the missing part, only to be painfully reminded that the part is no longer there.  They have become so used to the limb being a part of them, that their body is having trouble adjusting to a time without said body part.  Like the phone, it is as if the specter of the limb haunts the person missing it, leaving them with nothing but empty air to grasp at.

I mention these two ghostly examples as they are like the way in which we allow past sin to hang over us, where even though we have been forgiven and the sin is no longer with us, it negatively affects our actions and mindset, discouraging us from being the forgiven person we are.  We sometimes have a hard time grasping Christ’s forgiveness, as He takes our wrongs and, once forgiven, places them as far away from us as possible.  Psalm 103.12 states that, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103.12).  Our sin can be no further away from us than where Christ has placed it.  We are completely dissociated from it.

Yet, we tend to ruminate and reflect on what we’ve done despite the forgiveness we’ve received.  Yes, we’ve all done some pretty bad things where we’ve hurt others, cursed God, and destroyed ourselves both literally and physically.  Despite the forgiveness we’ve sought and received, we allow our past actions to hang over us like a dark cloud.  Like the man who walks through a spider web and for the next few hours swears that spiders are crawling on him, the guilt of our sin hangs lifelessly over us, haunting our every move regardless of the forgiveness received.  Despite our feelings, that sin is not there, so why do we allow the guilt to hang over us?  It is because we’ve lived with our actions and the guilt of them for a great deal of our life, so we “phantomly” perceive them to be there.  Like the non-existent phone or ghostly limb, we erroneously think it’s with us always, yet the reality is that those sins have been forgiven, and we need to adjust to this new reality.  Christ desires us to not only be forgiven but to feel forgiven, as that is when His grace shines most brightly.  So perhaps we need to rebuke the specters of our past sins and their associated guilt and begin to live as the forgiven, saved people we are.  This week, don’t allow forgiven sin and phantom guilt to haunt you.  Refuse to let it dampen the joy that comes with grace.  Don’t let Christ’s mercy be dulled by the perceived grime of our past actions, but instead reject that phantom guilt and live as saved individuals.  Amen.

Paving the Path with Calloused Understanding

In my part of the world, usually around this time of the year, the same scenario occurs regarding the safety of our children and their relationship to the environment.  Temperatures end up dipping drastically, stay well below freezing, resulting in soft, mushy snowballs becoming deadly rock-solid weapons in the hands of most.  This snow usually arrives around December, falling lightly and leaving a soft, pillowy covering on our lawns.  Sled grooves are created, snowmen are constructed, and forts abound.  Yet, by mid-January, those grooves become walking hazards, snowmen become grotesque in their features, and forts are now highly fortified bunkers.  Through repeated exposure to the cold temperatures, our once enjoyable snow becomes impenetrable, and anyone who didn’t clear off a surface back then has no chance of doing so now.

Repeated exposure to a harsh environment can harden even the softest of surfaces.  Musicians, through repeated use of their hands on their instruments, develop callouses that build up over time, hardening their skin until the they have little to no feeling in that area.  Hardened steel, a process where metal is exposed to extreme heat and then resists bending and warping, can be used in the creation of machinery.  Individuals can also become hardened through repeated exposure to harshness from others.  With the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy, tell a person something enough times and they will eventually believe it and become that way.  Tell a child he or she is stupid and will never achieve anything academically, and sure enough, that child will be failing classes shortly thereafter.  People who reside in poor living conditions surrounded by poverty and crime quickly lose the hope they once had for getting themselves out of their situation, and even the best become hardened themselves, often times succumbing to committing the crimes that once plagued them as victims.

And a hardened heart is just the beginning. The result of a hardened heart frequently leads to further complications, heading the individual down a continuously wrong path.  The author of Proverbs 28.14 writes about these complications with, “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”  According to the verse, not only does a hardened heart lead one towards further destructive issues, it also denies that person God’s plan and blessings.  A hardened heart can block what God’s love intends for you.  However, the verse also provides a way out for the hardened individual, a means for that person to receive His gifts:  humility.  If we are able to come before God and acknowledge His sovereignty, the result can be nothing other than a thawed and softened heart.  Recognize Him, and your path will be corrected.

In a month or so, the spring sun will begin to melt the hardened winter snow, and what was once impenetrable will become soft and accessible.  Much like the penetrating rays of the warm spring sun, God’s sovereignty can penetrate even the hardest hearts, a fact that gives hope to us all, whether on a personal or global level.  For ourselves, we can seek Him in prayer at the foot of the cross, humbling ourselves and accepting His love, allowing it to wash over us, resulting in a thawed heart filled with understanding and kindness.  However, we are also living in a time where entitled, proud world leaders unwittingly criticize everyone who seemingly goes against them, and then with hardened hearts, move forward with their plans, regardless of how it affects others, barely taking into consideration the human ramifications beyond themselves.  For them, much prayer is needed, that they too would see God not as a tool for achieving an end, but as the Heavenly ruler over all of us.  Now, more than ever, we must be praying for them and their paths, that their decisions be guided not by hardened hearts but by the humility that comes through knowing and worshiping Him.  Amen.