Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Courage for the Battle

‘Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.’ Revelation 19:11
Revelation makes it clear that there is a battle raging- A battle between Satan and God, between the Destroyer and the Creator, between evil and good.
Yet it also makes it clear that the battle has only one already determined outcome: Satan ultimately is no match for the victory won through Jesus Christ, who appears in Revelation 19 as a triumphant rider on a white horse.
So majestic and powerful is Jesus in the vision, that no one name sufficiently describes Him. He is called Faithful and True (v11), The Word of God (v13), and the King of kings and Lord of lords (v16). He has even a name that no one knows but Himself (v12), so far is He beyond our comprehension. He is accompanied by all the armies of heaven (v14), and yet all the action in the passage is His. Whereas Satan must make use of all his resources-the beast, the false prophet, and the kings of the earth-God, by contrast, is totally sufficient in and of Himself to judge and make war.
So, if there is a battle raging, it poses the question, which side are we on? Or, as Paul McFarthing put it in his message on Sunday, do our lives reflect the total reign of Jesus, or the world that is destined for destruction and will pass away? Because this vision of God in Revelation 19, as Paul pointed out, does not leave room to consider God as an add-on to our lives, a vitamin supplement that we can take on the side as a nice bonus to our general health.
Revelation continually challenges us to live in the truth of who God is, even when it seems like Satan is winning. And that takes courage. And, if I’m honest, sometimes I don’t feel like I have enough courage for the task. On Sunday, I was pondering how I battle both to make Jesus the king of my personal struggles and doubts in private, and to make him known as my king in public among my friends and my family. In both cases, my dominating thoughts are ones of fear-specifically, a fear of God not being enough for the situations I face. Fear can really hold us back and give Satan a foothold.
But the thing about courage is that it doesn’t mean that we will not feel afraid. You may be surprised, like I was, to find that courage is defined as ‘the ability to do something that frightens one’. It means that, in spite of our fears, we choose to step out in faith and trust that God is enough for us. We choose to say that, despite the battle raging around us, we believe that God has already won, and we will live our lives accordingly.
And for those who overcome, Revelation 19 promises that a banquet with much rejoicing awaits. Our God does not do anything by halves, and when the world finally realizes the battle is over, you better believe there will be a party to remember!
‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!’ (Psalm 27:14)

  1. What evidence do you see around you that you are living in a spiritual war zone? How can you better equip yourself for battle? Consider choosing a verse of Scripture that encourages you and making it your battle cry!
  2. Spend some time thinking and praying about Paul’s question from Sunday; How can your life better reflect the total reign of Jesus as King?
  3. Meditate on Psalm 27 and let your heart take courage.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Falseness of the American Dream

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Luke 12:32-34)

There’s a pretty well known song out there that tells us “You can’t always get what you want.” And yet, funnily enough, that’s the exact reverse of what the American culture (and Western culture in general) tells us. We are constantly told, through the billboards, commercials, and other advertisements that have embedded themselves in our lives, not only that we CAN have everything that we want, but that we SHOULD have everything that we want, that we DESERVE it, and that if we obtain all the material things we crave, then we will be happy. As David reminded us on in the message on Sunday, the idea that America is the “land of opportunity where you can achieve your dreams” is built upon the idea that we have certain God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or, as David explicated, that “you have a right to the life that you want, that you should have the liberty to pursue that, and ultimately you should pursue your own happiness.”

And yet, in our attempts to live the lives we want, to pursue our own happiness, we find, ultimately, that we can never gain all of the things we want. As David explained, “When you’re pursuing comfort, your hope is that you will never know mourning, you will never know pain, you will never know injury.” However, we all experience these things: mourning, death, and broken-heartedness is just part of the human condition in this fallen world.

More importantly, God will not allow the false promises of comfort to last forever. In Revelation 18, we see that even though the city of Babylon (representative of all cities) in her heart says “mourning I shall never see,” that for this very reason, because she has pursued pleasure and comfort instead of pursuing God, “her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her” (Revelation 18:8).

So what should our response be? It is so hard, when surrounded by companies telling us to BUY, when surrounded by magazines and books and TV shows and music telling us to ENJOY and CONSUME (not just things, but one another), to pull ourselves away and realize that none of this will last. In Luke 12, Jesus tells a parable of a rich man who says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). How often do we say this to ourselves? While it is not wrong to enjoy the good things that God has given us or to save up money to provide for our future, what we do need to do is change what we are focusing on. Jesus tells us not to spend our lives focused on material things, things that “all the nations of the world seek after,” but rather instead to seek God and his kingdom, “and these things will be added to you” (Luke 12:29-31).

There’s a great film that gets its name from this passage in Luke. “Lilies of the Field” stars Sidney Poitier as a traveling handyman who gets sidetracked from his journeys by a group of German nuns who are convinced that God has sent him to help them build a chapel in the desert. The entire premise of the movie rests on the nuns’ faith that God has called them to this place, and so God, just as He clothes the lilies of the field, will provide for them what they need. The great part about this movie, though, is that He chooses to provide for them through this handyman, and, subsequently, through the people of the surrounding towns.

What this reminds me of is this truth: While the City of Babylon encourages us to use and ultimately destroy ourselves and one another to find our own “happiness,” in God’s kingdom we are asked to love and help one another- to build others up, instead of ourselves, and lay aside for ourselves treasures in heaven (Luke 12:33). God’s message of sacrificing our material pleasures to help others in need is the antithesis of the City’s message to get what we want while the getting is good, because God knows that this material world will not last forever. The City of Babylon will one day be destroyed (Revelation18:21-24), and God’s True City, the New Jerusalem, will endure. And in the True City, it won’t matter how much money we’ve made, or how many things we’ve bought, or how much sex we’ve had. The only thing that will matter is whether we have been rich in God, whether we have loved and honored Him, and loved and served our neighbors. That is the legacy that will last.

Some things to ponder:

  • Luke 12:34 tells us that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Often we can tell what we are prioritizing by what we are spending our energies, resources, and time on (and what we are worrying about!). For myself, I often find that every few months I have to re-examine my priorities. If you’re able to, take a moment to journal or meditate on where your treasure (and hence your heart) is, and on where God wants it to be.
  • How can we extricate ourselves from the constant message of the City to live for luxury instead of God? One thing we can do is to be aware of how the City is encouraging us to use one another, and to fight against that. Vicky gave a great blog post last week about how to help in the battle against human trafficking. Revisit her post and pray about what role you can play.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities

"The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes, and of earth’s abominations.' " Revelation 17:4-5
On Sunday, David unpacked Revelation 17’s description of the great prostitute, who we found, in her association with the ancient city of Babylon, represents the deadly allure of the city. She is attractive and enticing, decked out in purple, scarlet, and jewels, signifying wealth and worldly beauty, and promising sensual pleasures; her golden cup overflows, she is drunk and satisfied, she is seated on a magnificent scarlet beast whom she appears to have dominion over.
Yet, all is not as it first seems. Revelation is nothing if not, well, revealing. A closer look at the contents of her cup reveals abominations and impurities. She is destined for destruction, and will eventually be laid desolate and naked by the very beast she now rides, her once well-adorned flesh burnt up by fire (Revelation 17:16).
In this powerful vision, God reveals the mystery of the cities that you and I live in. Like Babylon, they provide so much promise. The promise of wealth and luxury through commerce. The promise of sensual and sexual pleasure through the relative anonymity the big city offers. The promise of power through status, knowledge, and domination. And yet, these things ultimately lead to death. They rely on something that is in direct conflict with God’s kingdom and so cannot last. At the root of these promises, we see how the city relies on the principle of using others to get what we want. The prostitute uses the beast, and the beast turns on and then destroys the prostitute. This is such a fundamental principle of how cities operate that we have developed our own terms and expressions for it. The rat race. Dog eat dog. Etc.
This Revelation series has afforded us a lot of opportunity to examine our hearts, and certainly this passage is no exception. Poythress in his guide to Revelation writes how every day advertisements tell us, ‘If you only have enough money and toys and sensual pleasures, you will be fulfilled.’ And that little Babylons grow in our hearts as we compromise with sin to pursue our own desires, whether it be for sex, fame, power, health, or beauty (p.161,2).
What then are we to do? Renounce the city’s evil ways and turn our backs on it, lest it contaminate us with its abominations and impurities? Flee the city, lest it becomes drunk on our own blood?
Interestingly, in Jeremiah 29:7 we are told instead to ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ You see, as we draw further towards the end of Revelation, we will find out that God is building a new city, a place where people will not be used by one another for selfish gains. And as future citizens of that new city, we have a role to play in ushering in the kingdom living that God intends. I believe this means not only examining our own hearts- though it’s a good place to start- but also standing up and taking action on behalf of those who become victims of the city’s oppressive forces.
One of the ways the city's oppression happens, which David used as an example on Sunday, is trafficking. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. As defined under U.S. federal law, victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade, adults age 18 or over who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts, and anyone forced into different forms of “labor or services,” such as  domestic workers held in a home, or farm workers forced to labor against their will. As such, it’s a good example of the kind of devastation wrought by the city’s promotion of sex, wealth, and power. It makes people slaves to the gratification of others' desires.
Here are the facts. Human trafficking is the third largest crime industry in today’s world (there are more slaves today than ever before in history), and you’ll find it in Africa, in Europe, in America, and in Massachusetts – right here in our backyard. To give you a further idea of the scale of this issue, a study in 2001 showed that at least 100,000 to 300,000 youth are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation annually in the U.S., and that number is likely to have grown since then.
If you’re anything like me, when you’re confronted by issues like this you are shocked, saddened, but perhaps most of all, overwhelmed. How can we have a real impact on issues of this magnitude? Yet, there are people working tirelessly, who are not afraid to speak up on behalf of people in situations like these. And as Christians who believe in the unique value of all human beings, created in the image of the Almighty, we should be at the forefront. So, I asked a friend who has spent a lot more time researching these issues than me what I as an individual can do, and I was surprised by the everyday choices that I make that can help turn the tide against trafficking both here and abroad.
First, we can pray.
Second, we have choices we can make as consumers that have an impact on trafficking, like committing to buying fair trade. My friend writes, “This is because there is slavery throughout supply chains, especially in the fashion, cocoa, and coffee/tea industry.  Two useful tools are: fairtradeusa.org and free2work.org who rate companies according to how ethical they are. There are a number of shops I refuse to buy clothes from and some favorite chocolate that I no longer eat - yes, this means that the clothes I buy are slightly more expensive, so I have less clothes, but I think this is a small sacrifice. The most common objections I hear from my friends are: it isn't as convenient, I don't have enough money to buy fair trade, and it won't make a difference. But it definitely will - consumers have power.” We can also sign petitions online calling for changes in those industries. Or write to our favorite shops asking them about their ethical policies or telling them that we will not buy their products until they commit to eradicating slavery from their supply chain.
Third, we can educate ourselves, so we can better tell others. My friend says, “Learn about what trafficking is (and what it's not!) and how to spot the signs of trafficking (try the information here). Keep your eye open for trafficking in your community and be ready to report it if you think you see it (even if you aren't sure). Talk to friends and work colleagues about trafficking to raise awareness that slavery still exists. I started talking about slavery at work, and as a result my colleague organized for the CEO of an anti-trafficking charity to come and give a lecture to nearly a hundred students. As a result some of the students decided to make this particular charity their chosen charity for the semester and raised a large donation to give them- amazing and a completely unexpected result of me talking to my friends. One thing I have learned is that people can't care about it if they don't know about it.”
Fourth, we can join organizations that already exist who are working to eradicate trafficking, or some of its causes like poverty, or lack of education. This could be as simple as liking or following these organizations and sharing/retweeting their posts on twitter or facebook (a list of suggestions is at the bottom of this post). It could be as quick as making a donation to a grassroots organization to keep girls in school or assist women with setting up their own business which will help prevent the most vulnerable from being targeted by traffickers (consider signing up for Pure Charity who partner with companies that will donate a percentage of your spending to the cause of your choice). Or choosing to buy gifts from 'companies with a conscience' (there is a list in this blog).
A lot of these things do not actually take that much of our time or resources, but if you have more time on your hands you could even join an organization to take part in a march or walk on Anti-Slavery day, fundraise on their behalf or help to lobby for changes to law.
And should we need further encouragement, Jesus himself said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Instead of using others for our own ends, may we seek to replicate the love that God has for us, a love that is lavished on others as we seek not to be served, but to serve.

  1. What other issues today, like trafficking, do you see arising from the nature of the great prostitute, the city?
  2. Spend some time praying for these issues.
  3. Take half an hour to research an organization that is tackling these issues and choose at least one action you will take to bring God’s light into the darkness of these situations, such as those highlighted in the post above. Below are some suggested anti-trafficking organizations you could take a look at:
End It Movement (organize a march or walk on anti-slavery day)