Sunday, March 25, 2012

Your Mission: Why Wear a Hat This Week

We traipsed through the Little Hundred Acre Woods again just last week and paused by the osage orange thorn bush growing wild in the fence line. Although Spring has come early, its branches have yet to show its beauty in bloom.

My farmer husband calls it a horrid weed to be painted with full strength RoundUp. My children know it as "a crown of thorns," a plant that is so precious, one must touch it gently, examine it, discuss it repeatedly and at length, all because its prickly branches are a reminder of our Savior's suffering.

Years ago, my mother fashioned some of the wild branches into a circlet, an Easter decoration to focus her family on Christ's pain and sacrifice before the beauty of the resurrection. My three children beg for the privilege of placing that literal crown of thorns of tender heads each time they visit. When they are finally granted permission, it is never with grins but is always a serious, somber moment, for this crown, too, will pierce and draw blood.

My oldest, Wyatt, named it a "God hat," and I haven't been able to think of it otherwise since.

John 19:2 describes Christ on the day of His crucifixion: "And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put [it] on his head, and they put on him a purple robe."

Those thorns, though, didn't just sprout from the earth on that day. They had been growing all across the earth's surface, digging in deep and entwining their roots around the sin-stained heart of mankind ever since that day back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve chose disobedience and became permanently separated from intimacy with God.

Those thorns were part of the curse, when God said, "Cursed is the ground because of you...It will produce thorns and thistles for you" (Gen. 3:17-18).

Hanging on that cross, Christ both symbolically and literally took the curse of sin represented by the curse of thorns upon Himself.

Righteousness became unrighteous. Sinlessness because sin for all time. The curse of Eden came full circle and pierced the head of the One who had come to undo its power.
Earlier, Christ spoke of thorns in a parable, thorns that "grew up and choked it [the Word], and it yielded no fruit" (Mar. 4:7). It was these same thorns that He willingly bowed His head to accept so that we may be able to bear fruit in Him.

Without His taking on that crown, that curse, we would be like the ground that "yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned" (Heb. 6:8).

As Palm Sunday grows ever closer, we must remember the thorny crown that our Kingly Savior chose to wear so that we would not. I'm challenging you to do what I plan to do--take one day this week and wear a hat--any hat. When you do, let its presence remind you of the weight of that "God hat" crown of thorns placed on His head for you and me.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Drink of Cistern Water

Once the thermometer inches above 80 degrees like it did this past week, our household begins consuming more water to replace what the body loses through profuse sweating in the south Louisiana sun.

I take for granted being able to walk in the kitchen and turn on the tap for a high pressured stream of crystal clear, filtered water. But in other parts of the world, water is much more difficult to come by.

In the deserts of ancient Israel, fresh, pure living water was scarce, which led people to dig individual or community cisterns for storing large quantities of rainwater. A typical cistern was 2-3 feet wide at the top, 15-20 feet deep and was carved out of solid limestone to hold several thousands of gallons of rainwater underground .* Still, during the severe drought of summer, many would dry up.

Although most cisterns were covered with a large chunk of rock to keep out critters in search of a drink, you can imagine how much debris accumulated over time in these giant water vats. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Cisterns, belonging to the common natives, are rarely cleansed, and the inevitable scum which collects is dispersed by plunging the pitcher several times before drawing water. When the water is considered to be bad, a somewhat primitive cure is applied by dropping earth into the cistern, so as to sink all impurities with it, to the bottom.”

In other words, having access to cistern water was better than having no water at all, but the water was stagnant and stale, at best. And at worst, it was contaminated with animal excrement that washed in the cistern along with the rainwater and perhaps even small dead animals who fell in and drowned.

Knowing how cistern water would taste, why would anyone choose it if she had access to living water?

In Jeremiah 2:13, God criticizes Israel for just that…for choosing to dig its own cisterns rather than rely on Him for the refreshing, living water: “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns That can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).

The problem isn't the physical act of digging an underground rain barrel. Instead, it's the attitude of self-sufficiency. When the rain failed to fall, Israel would rely on its cisterns to provide rather than on God to sustain them through the hard times.

Jesus tried to explain this concept to the Samaritan woman, a woman who would have understood the benefits of living water over cistern water: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water…. Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life" (John 4:10, 13-14).

Christ identifies Himself as the living water that purifies, as the only sustainable source of water…quite the opposite of what a cistern provides.

Each day, we can choose to carve out our own cistern. To do so means we are choosing to trust in ourselves to meet our needs and wants instead of relying on God to satisfy our thirst. And since by nature, we are all broken, human vessels, we should realize that trying to provide for ourselves in our own strength, with our own talents, through our own successes—it’s useless. The water collected by our own hands will seep out slowly until we are dry and unable to provide for ourselves any longer.

My prayer is to leave the cistern of self-sufficiency and rely in faith on the fountains of living water like David did: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2).

* “Ancient Cisterns” Bible Background Study.

(Posting from the archives this week as I am literally overwhelmed with a twin's sinus infection coupled with packing for a last minute car trip to see my brother and his wife at the 100th Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C. Pray for us all good health and journey mercies.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Happy New Year!!! (Again)

My calendar reads March, the third month of the year. With the first quarter of the year nearly gone, I'm already looking ahead to the half-way point, lining up my summer teaching load, evaluating progress in the year's goals, and crunching the numbers to see if the bank account can swing an above-ground swimming hole for lessons.

In my father's office, is another calendar, one that shows a year is now ending and another one ready to begin. This is the Jewish calendar, which sets the first month of the Jewish year in the middle of March-April.

Nissan . Nissan (in Hebrew)

For those who follow the Jewish calendar, the old year is winding to a close. Even for those Christians like me who are not Jewish, we are still grafted into the vine, adopted into Christ's family. As such, this "new year" is important for us, too.

And such a new year starts out with a bang!

The first month of the Jewish year began with the Festival of the Passover where on the fourteenth day, each family would kill a lamb and put its blood on the doorpost. As commanded in Leviticus, "The LORD’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month" (Lev. 23:5).

This part of Passover was then followed by the Feast of the Unleavened bread, starting on the fifteenth day of the month and lasting for seven days: "for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast" (Lev. 23:6). In Jewish households, all leaven had to be purged from the house, symbolizing the purging of sin.

Finally, the Passover season would end with the Feast of the Firstfruits, the day after Sabbath, wherein the priest would wave a sheaf offering as a promise of the harvest to come: "bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the LORD so it will be accepted on your behalf" (Lev. 23:10-11).

The very first Passover was celebrated in Exodus 12. Before that large group of Israelite slaves took one step towards the promised land, before they crossed on dry land through that wall of water at the Red Sea--they celebrated Passover.

Their new year, their new life symbolically began with that Passover, one where they were covered by the blood and purged of sin as they looked forward to the cross where Christ would play the part of the spotless lamb.

Generations later, the Jewish exiles returned home after 70 years in Babylon. Once there, they rebuilt the temple, dedicated it, and then came the start of another year and, you guessed it, another celebration of Passover:

"On the fourteenth day of the first month, the exiles celebrated the Passover. The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel. For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the LORD had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. " (Ez. 6:19-22)

This Passover was very similar to that very first celebration in Egypt. Those who once were slaves were now given their freedom. Those who were once far off had found their feet making desert tracks again to the Promised Land.

With that celebration of a new year, the Scripture above shows the people's attitude was one of joy. Their focus was on setting themselves apart from the world, on purity.

We're still about a month away from the Passover Festival (Jewish Year 5772: sunset April 6, 2012 - nightfall April 14, 2012). Yet, this side of the cross, how much more should we be excited about this coming of a new year?

When God became flesh and dwelt among us, He became our passover lamb, covering us with His blood and making us "unleavened" before being raised as the"the first fruits of those who are asleep" (1 Cor. 5:6, 15:20). With His death, He started not only the New Year, but also a New Age with a calendar now counting down to eternity.

As we prepare our hearts for our Lord's death and resurrection, our attitude looking forward and backward to Passover should be one of joy. Our focus should be on setting ourselves apart from the world, on becoming more pure.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Diagnosis: Habit Resistant

How long does it really take to form a habit? "Thirty days to a better you" seems to be the mantra of glossy magazine covers at every checkout counter.

Yet, a 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology concludes that the answer isn't nearly that swift. There is no magic day that once you reach it, you're home free. Instead, "it depends."

On average, forming a new habit takes 66 days. Simple habits like "drinking a daily glass of water became automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast required more dedication."* It makes sense that the more the new habit requires of us, the longer it takes to become second nature.

What interested me, though, was one of the researchers' conclusions: "A sub-group took much longer than the others to form their habits, perhaps suggesting some people are 'habit-resistant'."*

Ouch. Habit Resistant.

I've felt this resistance. It's especially strong when the new habit I wish to form involves overcoming my flesh?

Being in the word daily. Bending the knee in my prayer closet. Fasting. Ministering to others. Doing physical, intellectual, and spiritual exercise. It's these good habits that strengthen my relationship with God, that improve my mind, body, and soul.

But these are also the habits I'm most resistant to, when I must die to self, sacrifice something else to cultivate the new habit.

God's Word recognizes this. The New Testament constantly encourages believers to form good habits, even when the resistance of the flesh seems overpowering.

Paul said, "Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude...For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete" (Col 2:6-7,9-10).

Here, Paul reminds us that a Christian is already complete in Christ when he became "firmly rooted" in Him. Yet, Paul also emphasizes that a Christian is still becoming complete, is still being "built up" and "established."

To be built up in Christ, to be established in Him requires what others have referred to as "spiritual disciplines,"** the practice of which is for our sanctification, to make ourselves more like Christ. These spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, confession, frugality, etc.) don't come easily. We must intentionally, habitually strive to be more like Christ--not in an "Uh, it's time to do that again" type habit, but in a habit that we desire to practice, striving to overcome the flesh and create a deeper relationship with Him.

Cultivating a habit can make our relationship with God second nature, automatic, like breathing.

Paul again tells the Colossians of this need to become complete in Christ: "We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me" (Col 1:28-29).

Here, Paul emphasizes that becoming complete in Christ isn't easy but requires "labor" and "striving," not in our own power, but in His power.

And therein lies the key to overcoming habit resistance--Christ, Himself, who works within us.

When we find it difficult to cultivate habits that we know God's word commands, that we know will bring us into a deeper relationship with Him, then, we must ask the Spirit within to help us overcome our fleshly resistance. And we must not give up.

God's word says that "a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again" (Prov. 24:16). Our flesh is weak. It is resistant to habits that don't feed it. Yet, in Him, we can be strong enough to dust ourselves off and keep going.

* "How Long to Form a Habit." PsyBlog: Understand Your Mind. 21 Sept 2009.
**For a discussion of spiritual disciplines, see: Charles R. Swindoll. So, You Want to be Like Christ, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN. 2005.