Last Thursday I did something I've wanted to do for a long time. I got up early in the morning and drove to New Hampshire to hike one of my favorite mountains -- Mount Chocorua. I say early, and I do mean early. Normally when I'm hiking, I hike with other people, and they never want to get started as early as I do. I left the house at 4:45 a.m.
Why did I want to get started so early? Because I wanted to be on the summit while the sun was still low on the horizon, on a cool fall morning. I had something particular in mind...the contrast of light and darkness.
The colors on the mountains are always interesting, but there's something special about the colors early in the morning and late in the afternoon. When the sun is low on the horizon, much of the land is in shadows, because it lies behind hills that block the sunlight. These areas of darkness make the light stand out as all the more beautiful.
As I stood on the summit looking out at the scenery around me, enjoying the fall colors, and appreciating that visual interplay of light and darkness, it occurred to me that in this simple scene, there was an important spiritual lesson for me.
"You are the light of the world," Jesus says. What Christ wants of me is that I be like an autumn leaf, ablaze with color, standing out brightly from the shadows of the dark world around me. Except, to be honest, I don't always feel all that bright. And suddenly it dawned on me (literally and figuratively!). The leaf, by itself, is not much to look at either; its true beauty comes from having the full glory of the sun shining upon it.
So it is with us. I, in myself, am just another dried up, dying fall leaf. But I'm not "just me" anymore; the full, glorious light of the Savior shines on me!
And if the world around me is in shadows and darkness, shouldn't I stand out all the more? 2 Corinthians puts it this way:
Like a fall leaf, I turn my face to the glorious Light of the World, and let his brightness transform me with ever-increasing glory!
A year ago I went to see my dentist and he said to me, "Doug, you have great teeth. They are solid, the gums are good, everything looks great!"
This year I went back for my checkup and he said, "Oh, Doug, you have two big cavities, right between the teeth." Long pause... "Have you been flossing?"
Ouch. Of course -- that task I know I'm supposed to do every day, but I don't. Flossing helps to clean out the food particles between the teeth, so they don't cause the teeth to start decaying.
Do you floss? Every day? I didn't floss at all, until I had to have two fillings this spring. Now I do.
I started thinking, though, that Bible reading is a lot like flossing -- it's one of those tasks that everyone knows you should do on a regular basis, but we often say, "Oh, I don't have time for that today," or "Maybe tomorrow."
And reading your Bible is a lot like flossing in another way -- it's a way of cleaning out the garbage that your brain picks up on a daily basis, just from living in a messed up world. Every day, just from living in this world, you daily come in contact with bad attitudes, bad actions, and bad ideas (and this happens even when you're just hanging out with other Christians, because -- let's face it -- Christians aren't perfect either!). And these bad attitudes, actions, and ideas can get lodged in your brain, where they do not belong.
Reading God's word is a way of dislodging some of that stuff that can cause spiritual decay. Romans 12:2 says to renew your mind, and so in a sense, we could think of a regimen of regular scripture reading as your "mental floss."
A couple more thoughts about the idea of scripture reading as your spiritual floss or mental floss:
1. Just as you should never say, "Oh, I've already flossed 500 times, I don't need to do it again," you should never say, "Oh, I've already read God's word 500 times -- why should I bother reading it again?" The answer should be obvious; the fact that you've flossed in the past doesn't do any good when it comes to cleaning out the garbage you've accumulated now. In the same way, since you're continually collecting spiritual garbage in this world, the spiritual flossing needs to be ongoing as well -- no matter how many times you've already read it!
2. If I hadn't told you that I had two cavities, you never would have known it. In the same way, if you allow spiritual decay in your life, you can probably hide it from people for a long time. But if you hide it, and don't do anything about it -- if you pretend it doesn't exist -- sooner or later, everything will collapse in spiritual decay, and you (and everyone else) will be saying, "What in the world just happened?"
If you've been following the content of this site for very long, you've probably noticed by now some of my hobbies, because I do write about them from time to time. I like to play the violin and the guitar. I like to climb mountains. And I like to to paint.
Interestingly, each one of these hobbies has, in some way, changed the way I view the world.
Because I like to play music, whenever I hear music, I don't just sing along with it, I notice how it is structured. I notice the timing, the bass line, the percussion, and a lot of things that I never would have noticed before I started learning to play a musical instrument.
Because I like to climb mountains, I can't even drive down a country road without noticing every single mountain in the distance, and being amazed by their beauty. Strange...before I started climbing, I never even noticed those mountains.
And since I've started up painting again, I can't go anywhere without noticing the brilliant, vibrant colors all around me, and thinking things like, "What color paints would I mix together to get that particular shade of blue?" or "I wonder if this scene would make a good starting point for a painting?"
I think it's interesting that each of my hobbies has, in one way or another, heightened my awareness of the world around me. I didn't start climbing mountains because I always thought the mountains were so beautiful. Nor did I start painting because I noticed and understood color and structure and composition.
No, it was the other way around. My appreciation for mountains, my understanding of color, and of beauty -- these things came after a lot of hard work on my part. The work came first, and then the understanding and the appreciation.
You might not have realized it, but the Christian life is very much the same way. I occasionally hear Christians pray, "Reveal yourself to me," but really, that's sort of a lazy prayer, because Jesus already told us the circumstances under which He reveals Himself to us:
If we want to more deeply understand God, and the work He is doing in this world, it doesn't just happen. It happens because we have his commandments, and are doing them. And we are doing them because we love Him.
The work comes first, then the understanding. I never would have come to such a deep appreciation for mountains without first putting a backpack on my shoulders and doing some very hard work. I would never have understood music so well if I hadn't spent so many hours doing tedious scales and exercises.
Do you want to understand God? Do you want Him to reveal Himself to you? Don't just sit around waiting for it to happen. Put your nose to the grindstone and actually do his work, follow his commands. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, it is sometimes discouraging, and yes, there are sometimes a thousand different things you would rather be doing. But do God's work with the same stubborn determination that a musician practices his scales, or a hiker keeps on climbing, no matter how tired he gets.
In the long run, the benefits are worth it, because bit by bit, God reveals Himself, His character, His love, and His work to us.
And that's more wonderful than the tallest mountain, the most beautiful song, or the most magnificent painting.
Today I did something I'd never done before in my life. I ran out of gas. I was on my way to teach a Vacation Bible School at a church about 35 minutes away. I'd been going every morning this week. On Monday I glanced at the gas gauge and said: "Oh, plenty of gas." On Tuesday I looked at it again and said: "Still plenty of gas."
And then I never even thought about it for the rest of the week.
Pretty embarrassing to have to call someone to come with five gallons of gas to get me going again! :-/
But as I was sitting there by the side of the road, with the hazard lights blinking, waiting to be rescued, something occurred to me.
Despite the fact that I'd never done it before in my life, the fact is that running out of gas is one of the easiest things in the world to do. You know why? Because all you have to do is stop thinking about it. That's it. Just stop thinking about it.
If you stop thinking about it, the only way you can not run out of gas is to never go anywhere! But if you want to go places, and you never think about your gas, sooner or later, you run out.
That made me think of the verse in Romans 12 that says:
Spiritually, it is very easy for us to run out of gas also. All it requires is that we stop thinking about it! Paul says that we should be "renewing our minds." That's the same idea as keeping your gas tank full of gas. How do we renew our minds? Our minds are renewed as we spend time in the company of other believers, who prod us on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). Our minds are renewed as we spend time reading and meditating on God's word, which can keep us going, just like milk keeps a baby going (1 Peter 2:2). Our minds are renewed as we think on our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who should be at the center of our attention (Hebrews 12:2).
If we want to go anywhere spiritually, we must keep our gas tank full. And the moment we stop thinking about it, the moment we stop renewing, we begin an emptying process, and we're headed for trouble.
A few years ago a group of fishermen from New Zealand were down in the Ross Sea (Antarctica) when they saw something rather unusual in the water -- something they had never seen before. It was like a squid, but much larger. And it was chowing down on Patagonian toothfish, which are about six feet in length.
These brave fishermen decided to capture the creature, and bring it aboard their ship. When they got it on board, they saw that it was indeed like a squid, but with some significant differences. This creature had eyes the size of dinner plates, and on its tentacles (which were sixteen feet long), instead of just suckers, it also had hooks, which had full 360-degree rotation. Thus, instead of just latching onto prey with suckers, it could dig into them with hooks.
A nasty creature.
When they brought the thing back to New Zealand, scientists there declared that the creature was not even full grown -- just a baby! They called it a "colossal squid," and estimated that, when full grown, it would be about as long as three school buses lined end to end.
Wouldn't want to meet that thing in the water!
As I read about that, I thought, "For hundreds and hundreds of years, mankind has been sailing the seas, exploring its depths, and we have never seen this thing until now? How enormous the oceans are, and how incredibly complex...and who knows what else might be down there?"
Who knows? God knows. Psalm 29 says:
The world is full of strange and marvelous things. Some beautiful, some extraordinary, some frightening, even terrifying. But God knows them all, for He is their creator, and He is over them all. And everything out there declares the glory and the majesty of its creator.
Psalms 29:9 says: "in His temple all cry, "Glory!"
The world is a scary place.
Several years ago I took a business trip to Israel. While I was there, I stayed in Beersheba, which is known for Abraham's Well. Some of us decided one evening we wanted to see this little piece of Biblical history, so we asked the hotel clerk how to get to it.
He told us to go out of the hotel, down the street, turn in at the bus station, walk through and out the other side of the station, then turn down that street, and the well was at the end.
So that's what we did. Abraham's Well was not really all that exciting -- a hole in the ground with a grate over it to keep people from throwing things in (or falling in, I suppose) and a fence all the way around it.
So we turned around and came back to the hotel, retracing our steps, going back through the bus station, and down the street as before.
And I didn't think anything about it until about four days later. I was back home, and I got a call from Matt, who was with me on that trip. "Doug, have you seen a newspaper this morning?"
"Go get one."
So I went and picked up a newspaper. On the front page was a picture of a building that had been utterly demolished. The caption read: "Terrorist bomb destroys bus station in Beersheba."
YIKES! I was in that bus station four days earlier!
The world really is a scary place. But this story makes me think of two verses in the Bible. One is John 16:33 in which Jesus says: "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." Isn't that good to know? There is nothing in this world which takes God by surprise. He knows it all. Yes, the world is scary. Yes, we will have troubles. But He is bigger than all our troubles.
The other verse I think of is 1 Corinthians 15:30. This verse is right in the midst of Paul's discussion on the resurrection, and Paul says that he is "in danger every hour." How can you live with such trouble and tribulation? Because what happens to this mortal body is only temporary, because for the believer, there is something far greater waiting for us.
Did you know that Amazon.com occasionally sells products at a loss? It's true. They occasionally have items that they sell at a slight loss. If it costs them $10.00, they sell it for $9.50, losing $0.50 on each sale.
Why do they do this? Because they hope that customers who are attracted by that inexpensive price will be lured into putting something else into their shopping cart before they check out. And even if they don't buy something else, they've made one purchase, and a customer who has made one purchase is more likely to come back and make another later on.
It's an ulterior motive.
I do the same thing. One of my game websites has some free games. Why? It is my hope that people who come back day after day to play the free games will sooner or later say, "I wish I could play those other games," and then pay the subscription fee for the site.
It's an ulterior motive.
Ulterior motives are okay in the business world; it's part of what makes our system of business work. But ulterior motives have no place in the world of the church and the followers of Christ.
When Jesus's disciples were arguing about who was greatest (pick a passage, any passage -- this appears to have been a common argument!) Jesus said to them:
It would be easy for us to think "Oh! I'll be a servant, so I can be great!" But servanthood is not something we take on for the sake of gain; servanthood is, in itself, true greatness. Because servanthood is part of the character and nature of Christ (see Philippians 2:1-8)
Why did Jesus leave the glory of heaven for this miserable, broken world? It was not because he would one day be exalted for his service (see Philippians 2:9) but because of His great love for us.
So it must be with us; I shouldn't serve with an ulterior motive, seeking greatness in this life (if I do, I might be disappointed!). I should serve because of my love for Christ, because of my love for my fellow man, and because I desire to have the mind and attitude of Christ.
Last week I took my nephew to see the Movie Ice Age 2: The Meltdown. There was one section of the movie that made me think of a passage in 1 Peter.
If you've seen the movie, or a preview for the movie, you're familiar with the squirrel who, throughout the movie, is on a never-ending quest for the acorn. He tries and he tries to get that acorn, and meets with a variety of misadventures along the way. He never succeeds in getting the acorn.
But towards the end of the movie, the squirrel has a "near-death" experience, and finds himself at the gates of Squirrel Heaven. A place where the streets are paved (of course) with acorns. The entire scene is utterly silly and absurd (but also quite funny!).
The squirrel grins, and dances, and gathers up acorns, and feels more at home than he has ever felt back in the ice age. And then he sees it. The mother of all acorns -- a giant acorn to put all other acorns to shame. And just as he is about to grasp the giant acorn...
...someone back in the ice age gives him mouth-to-mouth, and brings him back to life.
That was one very unhappy squirrel, who would never again feel at home in the ice age.
In 1 Peter 2:11, Peter calls us "sojourners and exiles." The implication is that we are foreigners, that we do not belong in this world.
We are born into this world, and we feel right at home in this world, until we are given something different -- until we are given a taste of the grace, forgiveness, and love of Jesus Christ. And when we experience this love, we discover a citizenship in a world entirely separate from this place of trouble, this place of unrealized hopes, desires, and dreams. And once we have discovered that citizenship, we are forever spoiled for this material existence. We will never again feel at home in this world.
Sometimes Christians work very hard at "fitting in," and "belonging" in this world. But we are like that squirrel in the ice age: once we've tasted the goodness of God, there is no hope of ever truly fitting in again. We are foreigners and strangers to this world, whether we like it or not. And the healthiest Christians are the ones who come to terms with this notion that though we are now in the world, we will never fit into it.
Life is like a roller coaster? I've heard that statement before, but I don't think it's accurate. When people say "Life is like a roller coaster," what they mean is, it's got "ups and downs." But really, that's not a great analogy, because when you're riding a roller coaster, it's all thrills and excitement...and the "ups" are actually less thrilling than the "downs."
No, life is not like a roller coaster. It's like waiting in line for a roller coaster.
One of the boys in our youth group went out to Cedar Point last year, and rode on The Top Thrill Dragster, which is currently the second tallest roller coaster in the world.
"How long did you stand in line for the roller coaster, Josh? An hour? An hour and a half?"
"More like three hours."
"Wow. Was it worth the wait?"
Life is like that. While we are here on earth, for the few years that we have, we are simply waiting in line for the real excitement, which is our eternal life with God. And, unlike a roller coaster, that's a thrill which will never end.
This is a perspective very few people have. Most people think of this mortal existence as all that we have. But when we lose sight of what is waiting for us at the end of our mortal existence, we lose sight of purpose, and life becomes pointless.
Who would stand in line for three hours for a non-existent roller coaster? And if you found yourself stuck in a line with no ride at the end, and no way to get out of the line, what would you do? You would try your very hardest to convince yourself that you were having fun, that there was some point to you being there.
This is how most people approach life. Without the eternal view, we have to convince ourselves that we are having fun right now, and life has to be about squeezing every bit of enjoyment out of the now.
An eternal perspective on life is especially important when we face difficult times. The person who has no eternal perspective is bowed down and even broken by their circumstances. But the person who understands the perishable nature of this life and the imperishable nature of the life to come, can find strength to suffer through difficult times, knowing that their trials and troubles will come to an end...nothing of this world is intended to last forever.
A week ago I was teaching our youth group from 1 Peter 2:1-3, in which Peter tells us to put aside (among other things) malice.
I told the teens that having malice in your heart is like being fitted with the wrong prescription eyeglasses. Nothing looks right to you, and you never see things as they really are. People who are filled with bitterness and malice never see the world as it really is; they see it in the way that best feeds their bitterness, and allows their malice to fester.
Today I saw a perfect example of that. Our youth group went to a high school boys' basketball tournament between the Christian academy in our area and another Christian academy in the state (which I will leave nameless).
When our boys were running out onto the court to be introduced, a woman -- through no fault of her own -- walked unsuspectingly into the path of our team, and the situation was such that neither she nor they saw the other in time to avoid a collision.
The woman was knocked to the floor, and was knocked unconscious. Someone called 911, and the woman was taken to the hospital (before she left she had regained consciousness, and was coherent, and had full mobility).
Our boys were just standing around with that "deer-in-the-headlights" look when they realized what had happened, until it became obvious that there was nothing they could do, and were sent to begin warming up for the game.
But I happened to be sitting in the bleachers right in the middle of a group of fans from the other school. Not a big deal, right? I mean, we are a group of Christians, and we can maintain cordial relationships, even in the midst of a sporting event. Right?
Tragically, that was not the case. The group sitting behind us personally knew the woman who was knocked down, and became enraged over the accident. One woman, who (by the testimony of her own mouth) didn't even see what happened, within minutes of the accident was telling all her friends about how "that boy who knocked her down just kept right on going and never stopped to see if she was alright."
Blatantly not true.
"He's laughing about the whole thing. What a jerk."
Likewise not true.
"That whole team is a bunch of jerks. They're so stuck on themselves."
"I hope God makes them lose this game. Serves them right."
"I hope that boy gets hurt. If I get a chance, I'm going to go punch him in the face."
And in the area of the bleachers where we were sitting, we actually had fans around us cheering and laughing when "that boy" was fouled and knocked to the floor.
Honestly, I was embarrassed and ashamed to be sitting in the middle of such an ungodly display of malice and deceit. The viciousness of the woman's slander was disgraceful. But as I thought about it, I realized that, although this woman was spewing out blatantly false statements about the boys on our team, she probably didn't even realize she was doing it.
Though she didn't see what happened, she latched on to the story that would feed her malicious anger, and because malice prevents you from seeing things as they really are...I think this woman actually believed the story she had invented, and was spewing out to all her friends.
Tragic. But it was exactly what I had told our teens about the week before.
It's easy to shake our heads in disgust at stories like that, and think "I would never be like that," but in reality, every one of us has probably -- at some time or another -- let our anger, our malice, our bitterness and rage, cloud our view of events, and destroy our ability to perceive things as they really are.