Demons and Nutrition: A Weird Lesson on Holiness

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.” — Matthew 12:43-44, RSVCE

As a personal trainer, I have to work against a lot of myths and bad practices that put people off from something that should be healthy and enjoyable for them.

“No, you shouldn’t lift for 3 hours a day.”

“Please don’t squat that low.”

“No, you shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights after just starting a routine.”

One of the biggest fitness/health issues when it comes to general wellness has to do with nutrition. Too many people look at a healthy lifestyle in negative terms.

“I can’t do this,” or “I can’t eat that.”

This is known as deprivation. It’s a practice that works short-term, only to end in binge-eating and disappointment. Deprivation actually fosters resentment in people who are trying to make a positive change in their life, as the entire approach is defined by strict limitations.

A better practice for which I advocate has to do with the positive. “I need to add/do more of…” Instead of dwelling on the fact that one can’t eat snack cakes, why not focus on eating more protein and plant foods per meal/snack? Rather than act like a monk who isn’t allowed to drink alcohol, why not place an emphasis on drinking more and more water on a daily basis?

The point here is that positive transformation isn’t just about getting rid of things. It’s important to emphasize how we fill the void left by our unhealthy practices. Any addiction, negative attitudes, or habitual sins have to be replaced with something healthy for the transformation process to take full and lasting effect.

This is where Jesus’ lesson from Matthew 12 comes into play. Jesus has been casting out demons and illnesses all over the place, but the religious authorities keep seeking signs and explanations from Him instead of recognizing the Godly power at work within Him. In response, Jesus brings up an interesting point about exorcised demons, or “unclean spirits,” and what it takes to keep them out.

Even though Jesus is sending away the various afflictions that are brought to Him, the unbelief of the people and authorities obstructs any lasting improvement. Because they don’t recognize the Kingdom of God in their midst, and because they refuse to accept and embody the teachings of the Messiah, the empty void left by their demons and diseases only leaves room for more negativity to come and wreak havoc. Though Jesus leaves all in His wake “swept, and put in order,” the fact that hearts remain “empty” means there is room for the powers of evil to return.

This passage reveals our place in Gospel. While God’s gracious work in Christ cleanses us of evil and sin, we are responsible for maintaining that relationship so that we don’t fall back into habits that place a barrier between us and God. God’s love and grace are always there, but we have to decide whether or not to embrace them.

Too often, as Christians we think in terms of what is or is not allowed. We shouldn’t do this or that, and unfortunately this has the same negative effect we find in the fitness/nutritional world. We come to resent all the rules and regulations, ultimately falling away.

Instead, I suggest we look at filling the empty space left by our sin with the things that bring us closer to God and each other. Our addictions can be replaced with support groups and service. Our greed can be replaced with generosity. Our closed-mindedness can be replaced with a heart of compassion. Our judgmental words can be replaced by words of love, affirmation, and the pursuit of understanding. If we do this, we leave no room for the powers of evil to return and dominate us, and that sounds good to me.

Peace be with you!

 

On Living “The Good Life”

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life. — 1 John 2:24-25, NRSV

Life is hard.

What? You already knew that?

Of course you did. We all do. The majority of our time on this (sometimes) pleasant little planet is figuring out how in the world we can make this difficult life somewhat enjoyable and worthwhile. We pursue what some would call “the good life.”

So how do we do that? The “good life” could be determined by one’s career, perhaps their family. Maybe it’s how well-off you are in life or how much one accomplishes in their brief existence. According to the world, these are the kinds of things we need to focus on to achieve a meaningful life.

Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that your career, family, comfort, and achievements don’t matter. Of course they do, silly goose. However, when it comes to truly living life in a manner that is complete, I am going to argue that all of these things are means through which “the good life” can be lived, but they do not produce it.

In Christian language and tradition, “the good life” is known as eternal life, and it’s important to note that eternal life is not just a reference to post-death existence with God. Of course, this is included, but as indicated in this text from the First Letter of John, eternal life is life that is lived as soon as one begins walking with God. Life lived from that point onward no longer consists of simple survival and checklists, and it no longer relies on worldly favor to feel valuable.

Ponder this for a second.

For the world, living “the good life” is about what we accomplish and the relationships that define us. Our value fluctuates based on fickle standards that change day-to-day. What I am telling you is that this is all nonsense, and when we realize that and live accordingly, not only will we be changed for the better, but all of those other important things (our work, families, relationships, etc.) will also be powerfully transformed. Further, we don’t have to wait for this to happen! As soon as we realize that our value is God-given (inherent), and as soon as we decide to “be” in a way that honors that value in ourselves and in others, “the good life” is already being lived!

As we see in Jesus, God is already with us (Matthew 1:23). God is in our corner, earnestly desiring to bless our lives. His mark rests upon us all, as we are all made in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26-27), and His breath is what gives us life (Genesis 2:7). In short, what makes us valuable and beloved is already walking with us every day, and all we have to do is recognize it. If we acknowledge it in ourselves and in the rest of our brothers and sisters, shunning the fragile and empty values of this world, life becomes complete.

Now, is this a cheap inspirational trick that promises to make life easier? Absolutely not. Life becomes even harder when we try to live “outside the lines.” But I guarantee you that this added difficulty pales in comparison to “the good life” that we will all be living should we see ourselves and each other as was always intended.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

Making a Difference

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”– Matthew 13:33, NRSV

We live in a world full of people who want to make a difference. When we are children, we dream of being astronauts, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, pastors, nurses, ground-breaking reporters and authors, along with a myriad of other professions that lend themselves to making big differences in the lives of others. In college, I was one of thousands of starry-eyed undergraduate/graduate students ready to get out of school, land the “dream job,” and get started on changing the world.

Once graduations took place and careers were begun and ended, though, I came to a common realization: this crap sucks. Every day is not some life-altering engagement with people that produces loads of positive ripples that transform the world before our eyes. More often than not, even the “dream job” is full of mundane details, seemingly useless conversation, and just trying to survive whatever bureaucratic tedium might be in place.

Recently, I have really been struggling with this. As a pastor, I had influence. People had a reason to listen to me, and my word carried some actual weight. I was able to counsel, guide, educate, comfort, and correct. When I lost that job, I felt like I lost a piece of myself. I have been feeling like I matter less, even in the eyes of those I love, because my pastoral authority is no longer there.

Today, I realized this is total bull.

Nonsense.

Horse hockey.

Balderdash… Alright, I am done. But seriously.

We have such a hero-worshiping culture, that we actually despair because we aren’t among the loudest, busiest, or biggest names in the world-changing business. The falsehood of our world tells us that unless we have a dangerous or high-profile job, we can’t make a real difference. If we aren’t the doctor, astronaut, cop, soldier, philanthropic billionaire, or amped-up, full-time missionary, we just aren’t doing that much, just benefiting from what these extraordinary people do.

Load of trash.

Jesus warns us of high-profile attempts at making a difference. Check out His admonitions here in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, where he encourages us to be seen in secret by our Father, without letting even our left hand know what is going on with the right hand (Matthew 6:3-4). Further, we are even instructed to look at the Kingdom of Heaven as something that arrives in seemingly small, unsuspecting ways.

If we look at the text that kicks off the article, found here in chapter 13, we see that the Kingdom of Heaven, the transformation of the world into a place under the blessed reign of God (in short, a pretty big deal!), doesn’t come to us via bombast and spectacle. Instead, the Kingdom is made up of mustard seeds and yeast, small things applied and nurtured consistently until everything falls into place. This, dear reader, is how making a real difference in the world works.

Sure, I am not a pastor anymore. I am a freelance personal trainer, currently writing my own devotional, and I write a blog. That said, I bring a smile to my clients’ faces every day. I help them feel good about their bodies and improve their quality of life. I continue to work with people like my good friend Ekram, who just published a wonderful book that relies on some of my Christian perspectives (he is a Muslim). My blog has followers from all over the world, people who feel encouraged and comforted by what I write about. On top of that, my looser schedule enables me to love and support my wife. I can be there for friends and family at any moment, and I am still involved at our new church.

All of these things are small, but they add up. They are little things that God can act through if they are maintained consistently and applied with a heart of love. You may feel like you do nothing, or that you have failed because you have yet to make the “big difference” you had always hoped for. I guarantee if you look around, you will find that you have opportunities in front of you. These may not be opportunities to feed a whole third world country or tackle systemic racism, but they are opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of those with whom you interact.

Jesus’ instruction boils down to feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and comforting the afflicted. These are things we can do in a variety of ways, to some degree, every single day. You don’t believe me? Check out Matthew 25 here.

You, as you are, are enough. You possess all you need to make a difference in this world, and God is just waiting for you to realize it. It doesn’t take money, power, or overwhelming influence to change the world. Jesus had none of those things as we know them. It doesn’t take major mission trips, deployments, or excessive sacrifices, though none of these are necessarily bad. If you allow God to open your eyes, and if you look intently at your daily life, you will see that work, school, sports, home, friends, neighbors, and family all afford more than enough opportunity for you to get those transformative ripples going.

Vote, raise your kids, help your parents, donate to charity, get involved at church, sit with that lonely kid at school, listen to your friends, share your thoughts, ask questions, volunteer, pray for a co-worker; do what you feel moved to do, a little bit every day. If we all plant these small seeds, if we all add that little bit of yeast to the batch of our daily lives, we will soon look back and see the Kingdom of Heaven breaking through in ways we never thought possible.

Peace be with you!

 

Violence and Christian Compassion

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. — Luke 13:5, NRSV

When I look at the world and all of its violence, I always try to look and see how we as a nation are responding to it. News articles from a variety of sources, social media, church and dinner table conversations, all of these are indicators of our position regarding the death and violence that occur on a daily basis. For the most part, our position looks pretty bad.

Take, for example, the shooting of Botham Jean in Dallas. He was a man in his own apartment, which was mistakenly entered by Dallas police officer who proceeded to shoot him dead. In the wake of the shooting, news reports emerge regarding the marijuana later found in his apartment. It may seem like a trivial detail, but it’s actually an act of character assassination that is all too common, as if to say, “Sure, it happened. But look! It wasn’t one of the good ones!”

We tend to be stingy with our compassion. When someone is killed or suffers violence, our response is proportional to their innocence. Death row inmates (understandably) garner very little compassion, along with anyone who was committing a crime of any kind at the time of their death. Certain states even have laws that seem to say property is worth killing another human over!

For the Christian person, this must become unacceptable. Too many of us in the faith operate by this system of selective compassion, and it is exposing a frightful hypocrisy on the part of a belief system that centers on a God-Man who was put to death according to laws of His day!

So, if you’ve stuck around this long, you may be asking, “Why?” It’s an expected question.

After all, why should we show compassion even toward the worst of the worst? After all, don’t they deserve what they get? Perhaps they deserve worse!

Let me ask you this: do you want God to treat you as you deserve? He will, you know. Jesus says so multiple times, and it is even a central part of our most sacred prayer, remember?

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus teaches us, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 5:14-15). If we know this and repeat it every Sunday, why in the world do we treat others according to a standard we hope God will set aside for us?

God weeps tears for even the worst killer in existence. He may even weep more for this lost soul. On the cross, God even bled for the worst of sinners. How then, as His people, can so many self-professing Christians not see the danger in refusing to practice the spiritual discipline of unrelenting compassion? It doesn’t amount to a lack of desire for justice, nor is it a means of condoning wrongdoing, but it is an expression of the grace we believe we have received from God. It is our way of loving back the One who died because of our hard hearts. Further, it is a practice that is applicable without regard for race, creed, profession, nationality, or any other worldly criteria that are often used to determine the worthiness of others.

The good news hidden in this message is that God does love and is eager to forgive us, regardless of our past. The challenge is that He expects us all to pay that grace forward to all others, regardless of whether or not we feel they deserve it. The Christian’s response to violence in this world should consist of heart-broken compassion and self-reflection. These responses do not exclude a desire for justice, but they do temper it with awareness, preventing us from transgressing in thought, word, or deed.

This kind of change is not easy. It takes practice and a lot of grace with ourselves and each other. However, if we start to make the effort, the promised blessing will follow. After all, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Peace be with you!

The Gospel of the Epic Fail

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” — Matthew 1:20-21, NRSV

Many of us recognize this as the beginning of Jesus’ birth narrative from the Gospel according to Matthew. For those of us who don’t, fear not! Here is the chapter, just follow along and it will make sense.

Our story begins with a very bad situation. Mary, a betrothed young woman in 1st Century Palestine, is pregnant… and it is not a baby related to her soon-to-be husband. In the context I am writing from (21st Century United States), there would be some shame involved, lots of anger and hurt feelings, but we typically don’t shun or kill such women. In Mary’s time, that was a real possibility. The “public disgrace” referenced in verse 19 would have been pretty immense. Even if Joseph had decided to “dismiss her quietly,” a real favor back then despite our modern perception of relationships, there would still not have been much chance of her pregnancy going unnoticed.

The question here is not about Mary’s virginity. Matthew implies that she is one who is “pure” in that way because of his reference to Isaiah 7:14 in verse 23, as well as his description of the child being “from the Holy Spirit” (1:18, 20). The readers and angels are aware of this fact, but the other people involved are not. As far as the story goes, Mary is in the midst of what we would call an “epic failure.” She is in a precarious situation that results from her perceived mistakes, regardless of the truth you and I are treated to.

Interesting, though, that God chooses this situation as the occasion by which He will reveal the divine plan of salvation. The child who, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t exist will actually be the one “to save his people from their sins” (1:21). Let that soak in for a moment.

… Done?

I hope the gravity of this teaching is starting to settle within you. You see, we serve a God who is not only able but eager to take the moments of our humiliation and disgrace and turn them into occasions by which we may grow closer to Him and enable others to do so. Further, that redemption leaves us marked as witnesses who can testify to the grace of God that transforms our sad stories into lessons for the edification and growth of others, all to the glory of God.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read up on this blog, you may not know that I was fired from the first and only ministry job I’ve ever had. The situation surrounding it was one of total disgrace and brokenness, but the story didn’t end there.

In the time since, I have received counseling. I have experienced the unyielding love of friends and family. I have started this blog and writing my own devotional book, wherein the lessons I’ve learned can (hopefully) be of benefit to others. My marriage and other relationships are stronger, my faith and understanding of God’s grace have grown, and my testimony is enriched in ways I’ve never experienced.

Does all of this blessed “stuff” mean that my life is easier or that I didn’t have to take responsibility for my actions? No, not at all. Faith doesn’t make life easier. Say it with me.

FAITH DOESN’T MAKE LIFE EASIER.

Faith does, however, make life better. It makes me appreciate the grace that I have received directly and indirectly from God. Faith helps me see that my journey has not been in vain, and the same can be true for you.

Hear the Good News: No matter your own “epic fails,” no matter the darkness that lives within you or haunts your past, God is able and very willing to take and redeem all that you consider humiliating and disgraceful about yourself. God stands ready to forgive us and greatly enrich our experience of this life, if we would just turn and say, “Yes.” Within you is the image of God that, when embraced, has the power to shine a transformative light for the entire world to see.

I pray that you will join me in learning from Mary’s inspiring story. Her and Joseph’s “yes” to the designs of God paved the way for God’s revelation of incomparable love in Jesus Christ. We all have our humiliation or disgrace, but nothing is too strong or dark for God to change and enlighten. It is never too late for us to experience the blessed life God wants for us all.

As always, feel free to like or comment. Also, feel free to make topical suggestions or offer feedback via the Contact page!

Peace be with you!

 

What Everybody Wants

And [God} said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” — Exodus 33:14, RSVCE

Rest is amazing. It is something we all desperately want and need, yet it is also one of the most elusive states of being in existence. Shoot, I just spent the last week not sleeping well at all due to my own struggles with depression/anxiety, as my routines had been disrupted and I had been admittedly lax in maintaining the practices that help keep things well-managed. Over the weekend, though, I picked up my consistent journal habit again, and I eliminated some “clutter” in my life (both emotional and physical) that had been adding to my stress as opposed to helping it. Add to that a weekend spent with family and friends (including the furry one killing me with snuggles, pictured above), and I found myself able to finally get some much-needed sleep after my 5:30 am training appointment today.

While all of these physical and emotional aides provided much benefit, it was the spiritual revelation of the weekend that really helped me to find my center again. While reading Exodus 33, I came across the passage wherein Moses earnestly requests that God’s presence be restored to the people after their idolatrous worship of a bovine idol in the previous chapter. This incident led to a questionable slaughter demanded by Moses, followed by a plague from God (a trend in Exodus), all of which resulting in God’s withdrawing from the people in order that they may not be consumed (33:3). After some time, however, Moses makes a request that I feel gets at the heart of our desperation for some true rest and peace.

In our quest for finding peace in life, we turn to a thousand different things. After all, if we only had that dream job, car, family, high, degree, president, spouse, house… THEN everything would be okay, right?

Ha. Sure.

What ends up happening is a meltdown, because turning to temporary things only produces temporary results. We invest so much time and energy into things that can be taken away in an instant. Our identities get bound up with what we do, who we know, where we live, and/or whatever we happen to accomplish in the eyes of humanity. All the while, true rest and peace continue to elude us because a good, spiritual return on investment cannot come from devotion to secular things.

So now that I have ruined that for everyone, I suppose you want to hear something positive.

… Fine.

While rest will always elude us if we place our hope in our own accomplishments, there is a way we can gain real peace in this life, here and now. No, I’m not selling some miracle drug or quick fix. I am, instead, issuing an invitation to the very relationship Moses manages to salvage in the passage for today. You see, Moses isn’t trying to use God to gain victory over foreign armies, nor is he begging God for more miracles by which to convince people of their need to change. He is simply asking that the relationship between God and Israel be restored because it is that relationship that makes the entire nation worth anything in the first place. As Moses says, “Is it not thy going with us, so that we are distinct” (33:16).

I am not promising that turning to God will get you everything you want, but I do guarantee you will get what you need, and that includes precious, precious rest. Your identity as a child of God, one who bears the Divine image (because you do, indicated in Genesis 1:26-27), can never be taken from you. It is irrevocable. In Christ, God is with us “always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20), and that presence brings with it immeasurable and insurmountable peace and joy.

Does this mean life will always be happy? No. If anything, challenges will multiply, as resting in God runs totally counter to our current culture. However, this is entirely worth it. Imagine a life wherein your worth is not determined by what you accomplish, what job you have, your family dynamics, your national identity, or any of the other temporarily satisfying criteria the world tries to force upon us. Imagine that your worth has been irrevocably established by Jesus Christ, who saw fit to die for you in a heartrending expression of Divine love. Imagine you now stand in the freedom to live a life full of the peace and rest that only God can give. Now imagine no longer, because it is true.

Self-care is absolutely necessary for us to live physically and emotionally healthy lives. To be spiritually healthy, however, our needs can only be met through relationship with the One who would die for us, and whose radical love imparts to us an identity that cannot be shaken down or taken away. It is my prayer that you will accept this invitation, and finally receive your share of the rest that God so yearns to give you.

Feel free to share your thoughts by commenting, or reach out to me with your own thoughts, topics, or ideas via the Contact page!

Thanks for stopping by, and peace be with you!