Tuesday, December 19, 2017

December Tinsel

I think it was Beth Moore who said that waiting makes time rich. She was talking about Mary and Elizabeth anticipating the birth of their boys. This year the children are anticipating Christmas by running about the house telling one another how it will go. There will be Christmas Eve with the cousins: the Jensens and the Barnes. Then there will be Christmas at home with stockings and breakfast and presents followed by the Taylor Christmas. The next day will be the second Christmas at the Stevens. They jump up and down as they talk about what will happen. And they practice gifting each other their own toys wrapped in their comfort blankets.

They are very proud of their Christmas tree, which we purchased late November and has already crisped. They are proud of the ornaments and the stocking that hang on the brass and porcelain knobs of our built-in drawers. Rose practiced filling the stockings with the ornaments from the tree. And for nearly two weeks the bottom half of the tree had to be redecorated.

Outside, the wind makes our rabbit frisky and the local squirrels are eating our avocados off the tree. Our late November harvest included lemons, avocados, mandarine oranges, pink grapefruits, and purple figs. I think the prolonged heat extended our fig harvest this late. The figs started in July and I picked the last ones in December before chopping the branches back to a knee-high stump. The branches will grow back in the spring and stretch beyond our heads by the summer.

Thanks to Mama Mina, the children experienced their first amusement park, Knott's Berry Farm, and decided they could do that all day. They were able to ride many of the rides unattended. Lines were short and the thrills were perfect for their age. Lee enjoyed retelling how robbers came onto our train with candy canes for guns, and they sang sad songs because they were going to jail.

They didn't care so much for the log ride and both were nearly in tears at the dark part where the wolves howl and a raccoon is stealing a camper's hat. The picture taken as we plunged down the last drop shows Rose with a look of utter terror and Lee with my Mom's hand over his eyes. Strangely enough, afterwards they both declared they liked it.

Mini-roller coasters, cotton candy, icee's, the ferris wheel and merry-go-round. It was definitely one of the month's highlights.

The wonderful thing about taking the children to Knott's or to see the annual Uptown Whittier Christmas parade is that they continue the play long after the event is over. Lee came home from Knott's to draw trains and some squiggly lines on the sidewalk that were supposed to be a roller coaster's track. They marched around the house wearing ridiculous getups and making a racquet after seeing the bands play in the parade. And after Megan Hotz and Duanne Litz' wedding, Rose has been walking around the house with a long train and telling Lee how they need to get married. 

What I like most about their play is that they seem to be having just as much fun playing as they did on the rides at Knott's Berry Farm. Thank God for simple kids. Their imagination and their riotous laughter is the tinsel of December.

Phil's spoons decorate the house these days. I love the wholesome, earthen look of them on a shelf that I cleared in the kitchen. Every few days I find a new spoon on the kitchen counter, a presentation of his work the previous night when I went to bed early. Some are made of soft pine, others are dark walnut. Then there's the cracked avocado. He even made a spoon using the 100-year-old wood that was an old stud in our house. He has learned a lot about carving and wood types in the last month or so. 
Once again, the season has inspired me to slow down and digest the good and wholesome things this time of year. It must be because of my contrariness. When I hear advertisements on my Pandora station urging me to hurry up, or when I'm caught in the current of mad drivers, or when I see the neighbors put up their colored Christmas lights and giant metal stars in their trees, I'm inspired to walk slower, to sit and observe, and to take in the details that I would otherwise miss.
Like the bright red Nandina berries that grows on our neighbor's Heavenly Bamboo this time of year. Or the little piles of raked leaves that Lee made in the backyard during his quiet time. Or the sound of a midnight cloud burst after days of heat and sunshine. Or the smooth texture of Trader Joe's Greek yogurt. Or the taste of food that others made. Or the warmth of the sunlight on a day when the high is seventy. Or the sprinkles of glitter on my pants and on Rose's car seat from her new Christmas dress given to her by Grandma Stevens. Or eating monstrous chunks of crab meat at Auntie Jessie's birthday party. Or the children apologizing and forgiving unprompted. Or seeing them rise with wide eyes and start singing along to the Hallelujah Chorus with the church choir. Or the way they get around with their five-year-old-boy and three-year-old-girl vocabularies, saying things like, "Two weeks behind me," and "Mommy, I was terror-rerizing the rabbit and tret-tening her." It is all tinsel this time of year.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Why You Matter

The world is currently populated by about 7.4 billion people. Population Estimate Bureau estimates about 108 billion people have been born from the beginning of time until now.

And I am only one. One among billions. I'll probably never have my name printed in a history book. It's highly unlikely that I'll be an internet sensation for a week or day or even fifteen minutes. And in 150 years, most of my decedents won't even know my name.

Kind of makes one feel insignificant. Doesn't it?

In High School, I wrestled with feeling worthless. Why did I matter? And more specifically, why did I matter to God? I knew that God made me and that He died for me, but I didn't understand why. Why make billions of people so small and pathetic and seemingly similar? What's the point of us all? What's my point? Does anything that I do matter? Am I of any consequence to God?

And God answered my questions with questions:

1) Do you believe that God is unfathomably complex, indescribably beautiful, and thoroughly good? Yes.

2) Do you believe that a billion lifetimes is not long enough to completely comprehend the artistry of God? Yes.

3) Do you believe that a lifetime could be spent studying one facet of God's character, activity, or beauty? Yes.

4) Do you believe that God's facets are innumerable? Yes.

5) Do you believe that all people are made in God's image and thus image bearers? Yes.

6) Do you believe that when God made you, He made you to mirror one-trillionth of His complexity, beauty, and goodness? Yes.

7) Do you believe that that one-trillionth in you can uniquely display a part of God that no one else can? Yes.

The questions stopped there as the answers came into focus. I could reflect God in a way that no one else could. True, everyone was made to reflect God, but if I believed that God was infinitely complex and remarkable, then the tiny piece of God's remarkableness in me was enough to give me importance.

God reveals Himself through His creation, His word, His son, and His people. We better understand God's beauty and grace when we know and love others around us. When we get to know and love others, we catch a glimpse of God. And I don't mean that we see that person's humanness. I mean we catch a glimpse of the unique, intricate pattern of God that He put there to show Himself to others.

It's as if each of us is holding a colored glass pane. When we draw near the light, which is Christ, we cast a new hue of color through our glass onto those around us. It's a color that's never been seen, never in all of history because God is comprised of so many colors that not even all the people in all times could display His radiance. All glorious hues. All captivating and beautiful.

We display our colors when we draw near the Lord. Apart from Him, our colored glass windows become dull and dirty, and we do indeed begin to look like everyone else in the world.

Our significance was woven into our hearts by Him and is brought to fruition through being in close proximity to Him. That is how the soul feels its worth.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Demons in the House

“Those who are empty fear the devil as if he had power . . .” (Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 12.5 as quoted in Arnold, 110).

I recently attempted to read Deliver Us from Evil: A New York City Cop Investigates the Supernatural by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool. I say “attempted” because I got four chapters into it and had to stop because the book was keeping me up at night.

So instead I read 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare by Clinton E. Arnold, a professor at Talbot Theological Seminary. Here’s what I discovered about the devil and his power. Simple Q & A’s that I learned along the way are located at the end of this article.

When we repent and turn our lives over to the Lord, it is like inviting Him into our spiritual house: a rather broken down structure with graffiti on the walls, missing shingles on the roof, bathrooms with missing fixtures, and plenty of closets that we didn’t even know existed.

Repairs begin, but not without our consent and never by force. At each room, the Lord jiggles the door knob and asks, “May I go in?” 

Room by room the place is remade, not just cosmetically but structurally. Trenches beneath the house are dug to pour a new foundation. Walls are knocked down as towers and hallways are added. Given time and admittance, the Master Carpenter begins to turn our shabby little cottage into a mansion. 

However, many leave the Lord in the entry hall and fully expect Him to stay there. In fact, they might ask Him to stay there. The house undergoes no great transformation, and in fact, the devil still dominates there.

Perhaps I need to backtrack and explain the ruin of this house, which is a representation of our hearts. 

Our hearts have fallen into disrepair as a result of three things: the sinful flesh, the influences of a fallen world, and the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3). Those three cannot be discussed one without the other. For example, someone cannot blame his distaste for church on a congregation who may have treated him unfairly (an example of the fallen world). Nor can he blame it on his fear of being disliked by people (an example of the sinful flesh). Nor can he point at the devil and say, “The devil is keeping me from church.”

It is more likely that a person’s insecurities, which the devil might use to his advantage anyway, might cause that person to prickle at church people’s faults. This annoyance  might become another sore spot in that person that the devil can further exploit to keep that person out of a church community.

By the way, when I say devil, I mean all spiritual beings opposed to the Lord. The devil himself probably isn’t our personal tempter, but if we block certain rooms from the Lord’s entry and allow sin to fester, we can be sure the unclean spirits are ready to take residence there.

“Just as flies and rats are attracted to garbage, unclean spirits are drawn to unclean thoughts and behaviors.” (Arnold, 120).

The devil can use the sinful flesh and the fallen world to keep us from God. That is his ultimate goal: use any and all means to prevent us from worshiping God, uniting as a body, and accomplishing the Lord's work.

But I suspect you might be growing uneasy with so much mention of the devil. Why give him more credit than is due to him?  

Perhaps you, like I, have been prone to believing you are the source of all your destructive thoughts and actions. When your mind starts to wander into dark territory, you are either overwhelmed with guilt at the awfulness of you. Or you rely on your own strength to overcome those dark thoughts. Or you excuse the thoughts as not being that bad. 

But if instead, we remember that we've been born into a world that encouraged us to nurture these dark thoughts, we might better see that our battles are not unique to us. Then, if we acknowledge that the devil is trying to keep God from working in our house, we might better ward off the attack. We might even say, “What!? The devil is trying to keep this door shut? Well then, move over, Devil. The Lord is coming in!” 

I’m always encouraged to obey when I know I’m defying someone else.

Then again, perhaps the very idea of the devil makes you terrified. What!? He can’t be involved. I have Christ in my heart! Besides, the devil is scary! He makes spooky things happen. I don’t want to think of him in my house or in my mind or anywhere. Just keep the devil-talk out of it.

Yes, the devil is scary. Yes, the devil is spooky. Yes, the devil can do awful things to people like possess them and haunt their houses and whisper terrible lies to them. He is like a prowling lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And while studying the lion’s behaviors and tactics might help you avoid becoming lion chowder, I think it’s best if we just stay really close to the guide with the big lion-killing gun. I mean Jesus.

“Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you, 
no plague come near your tent. . . 
You will tread on the lion and the adder; 
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
‘Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.’” (Psalm 91:9-10, 13-15)

Staying close to the God of all power and authority means letting him into all the rooms in your house. Don’t let him stay there in the entryway. When he goes to the door knob of each room, let him enter. By all means, give him a tour. When you get into your car to drive, invite him there. When you go to visit the in-laws, bring him along. When you feel your anger rising in your heart, call him in. Where Christ is, the devil has no power.

“Submit yourselves then to the Lord. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

“Therefore the demons themselves, knowing the amount of faith of those of whom they take possession, measure their stay proportionately. Wherefore they stay permanently with the unbelieving, tarry for a while with the weak in faith; but with those who thoroughly believe, and who do good, they cannot remain even for a moment” (Clementine Homilie 9.11 as quoted in Arnold, 111).

Questions and Answers

Disclaimer: While I did use some information from Sarchie’s Deliver Us From Evil, I wouldn’t recommend reading it because he focuses primarily on studying the devil’s tactics in order to defeat him and NOT how to draw near to the Lord.

Question 1: Does the devil cause lights to turn on and off, objects to fly around the room, footstep sounds down hallways, and other such creepy poltergeist-like activity? And if so, why?

Answer: Yes. Because by doing so the devil can:

   1. Stand in the way of our thinking that God is all powerful and able to forgive and protect us. We might think that a ghost is haunting us because of something we’ve done wrong, which could mean God hasn’t forgiven us or can't forgive us. It might cause us to lust after controlling this strange power apart from God.

   2. Instill self-doubt and emotional turmoil which can in time eat away at a person’s self-will and lead to servitude and possession (Sarchie, 10).

   3. Cause a person to fear and fear can (Yes, I know I sound like Yoda) lead to hate and sin.

   4. Create divisions among family members as they may blame one another for causing these peculiar happenings or—as they may not all experience the same thing—doubt each other’s testimonies.

   5. Deceive people into believing there are benign powers out there that intend us no harm and can actually be lived with comfortably. This can cause a person to open themselves to being controlled by a demonic presence. 

“What I do object to is parapsychologists who investigate hauntings from the scientific point of view, going in with their cameras and gaussmeters instead of holy water and relics. They take their readings, snap some pretty pictures of spirit energy, and go on their merry way, while the family is left in a nightmare. How the demonic must delight at this! What better spin to put on their mission to destroy humanity than to claim its just the harmless mischief of so-called poltergeists?” (Sarchie, 24-25).

Question 2: Can holy water and icons and incense and medallions drive away demons?

Answer: Let’s just say the Lord can use anything to show His power. He can use spit and dust in His hands to give sight to the blind. He can use a stick to part seas. He can use handkerchiefs to heal people. He can use donkeys to tell people they’re an ass. The point is that the Lord is doing the work, not those inanimate objects. When we believe the objects hold the power, we lose sight of the power of having a relationship with God and start turning to an alternative power to fight Satan.

There is a story in Genesis about Jacob when he was working for his future father-in-law Laban. They agreed that Jacob could have all the speckled and striped animals that were born to the flock. So Jacob put striped branches in front of where the animals drank, believing this would cause the animals to produce striped offspring. And guess what? They did. Not because of what Jacob did, but because God had already decided to bless Jacob.

Do not think that using holy water and incense is a base or elementary form of spirituality. If using these things increases people’s faith in God’s power, by all means use them. If wearing a cross around your neck, helps you remember that you are God’s, wear a cross around your neck. If getting on your knees helps you submit to God in prayer, get on your knees. Do what you need to do, but do not scorn those whose faith isn’t as cerebral as you believe yours to be. God understands our need to ground His power in the tangible, and I think He’s okay with that. (By the way, this is me talking here. I didn’t read this part in Clint Arnold’s book. So if it’s wrong, I am to blame). 

Question 3: Can the devil posses a Christian?

Answer: If we mean, can the devil take God’s place in a Christian’s heart, then no. If we mean can the devil get into our minds or occupy the unclean places of our hearts, then yes. The devil is looking for a foothold in our hearts and if we provide him the opportunity, he will take it. But let’s remember one thing: “One needs to recognize that this sort of spatial language is a metaphorical way of speaking of spiritual presence and control” (Arnold, 138).

Question 4: Does the devil ever cause good to happen? Guidance or help with problems?

Answer: I think there’s a category of spiritual activity that people often believe is harmless. They sense spirits guiding them, giving them answers, and maybe even helping them. The Orthodox religion gives a great amount of power to saints and angels. How could that be bad? The question is where does this spirit or good energy or prayers to saints lead? If it leads to a greater reliance, understanding, and worship of the Lord and his son, Jesus Christ, then great! But if it leads to undermining God’s power, worshipping anything other than God, or surrendering a part of ourselves to an unknown force, this can lead to idolatry or devil worship. 

Our houses are either occupied by darkness or light. There is no middle ground. So sitting in a trance and surrendering yourself to the power of mother earth or the spirit energy of peace is like ringing a dinner bell to the spirits that want to dominate and control, and not God’s Spirit that wants mankind to use His freewill to choose what is good.

"Satan doesn't have to get us thinking blatantly satanic thoughts to have victory over us. All he needs is to get us looking at life from man's perspective rather than God's" (Moore, 121).

Question 5: How much harm can the devil do me?

Answer: The answer is two-fold. As much as we allow him, and as much as the Lord allows. Luke 22:31 tells of how the devil asked to sift Simon Peter. There was no haunting or possession here but a temptation to deny Jesus and run. I find it interesting that Satan had to ask permission to tempt Peter. Can we conclude from this that no temptation is given to us, except what first has been approved by the Lord? I think so. Remember, however, that not every temptation is automatically from the devil. Our temptations can come from either the flesh, world, devil or a mixture of the three. Just because I sometimes find my children annoying, doesn’t mean that the devil is using them to tempt me to strike out in anger.

Question 6: How can I tell if the devil is at work in me or if this is just in my head?

Answer: While I was reading Deliver Us From Evil, I suddenly became acutely aware of all the odd noises in my house. And I started to pray a lot more too. I became highly interested in all the movies out there that portrayed demonic-like things. For example, the popular television series, Stranger Things tells the story of a boy stuck in another dimension who tries to communicate to his mom through flashing lights, alphabet letters, and stranger things. I can see how someone could easily become obsessed with learning about the dark side, and I’m not talking about Star Wars.

But I think that’s focusing on the wrong things. When we fall into temptation or when we sin, I don’t think we should start looking for who to blame: Satan, ourselves, or the world. This is what so many people do and get stuck. It’s the moment that the Lord rattles the door knob. Suddenly, we’re aware of the sin in us. Don’t spend your thoughts trying to find who’s responsible. Rather, admit this is a dark room in your house and let the Lord in. Trust him to make improvements. 

I think our misguided thoughts and sinful mistakes should be a constant reminder to stay next to the Lord. He forgives. He provides a way out. He can teach us new habits. He is there to make a mansion of our shacks. 

A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther

A mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His Name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.

Arnold, Clinton E. 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997.

Moore, Beth. Jesus the One and Only. Nashville, TN: Lifeway Press, 2000.

Sarchie, Ralph and Lisa Collier Cool. Deliver Us From Evil: A New York City Cop Investigates the Supernatural. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.