Beauty within the Beast

Read 1 John 4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.” (Psalm 71:3, 6).

BeautyWithinTheBeast
Art found on http://grodansnagel.deviantart.com/

This past weekend, my family and I went to see a high school production of Walt Disney’s Broadway play, Beauty and the Beast.  We had been to see the production on Broadway and, to be honest, this high school production was just as good! They were all very professional on stage and we watched with delight as the story came to life before our very eyes.

Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and it is one of my favorite Disney movies. One of the reasons I love the film so much, is because I can totally relate with the Beast.  And my guess is, so can many of us veterans of this comedy we call life.

When we were children, the world seemed big and bold and beautiful. Everything was colored by the lens of innocence and to us, as children, everything was perfect. But then, as we grew older we began to be tainted by the world. We became more knowledgeable about how harsh the world could be. Ever so slowly, we began to be changed by the surrounding world.

For those of us who were picked on, for those of us who never quite fit in, we began to grow bitter. We learned that we could not trust anyone and, in the process, we lost faith in ourselves. For those of us who have been cheated or abused, perhaps we began to mask ourselves with cold indifference, a defense-mechanism to shield us from being hurt anymore. For those of us who were popular, we began to realize the price of that popularity and felt as if we were imprisoned by it.

Regardless of what category we found ourselves in, we began to believe the images that other defined us as. We began to lose who we were created to be. We began to see something other than ourselves staring back at us in the mirror, and we despised what we saw. All we could see in the mirror was a beast glaring into our eyes.

But like the Beast, we are not meant to be prisoners. Like the Beast, we are not meant to be locked away in darkness, watching the pedals fall from what’s left of our lives. God did not create us to be depressed, cynical, angry, and stressed out. God did not create us to be successful, popular, clickish, aggressive, overly competitive or power-hungry. We let the world define who we are rather than listening to the One who truly knows us, who knew us before we were even formed in our mother’s womb.

God did not create a beast when God created you; rather, God created a beauty.  Each one of us is unique, each one of us has something special to offer, and each one of us is beautiful. Look deep inside yourself, look for the beauty that is within you. Stop look at yourself through the lenses the world taught you to wear. Stop seeing yourself as worthless and recognize that God doesn’t create worthlessness. You are a child of God, made in the very image of God, and you are unconditionally…and I stress the word “unconditionally”…loved by God. Accept that love and be recreated in that love! Learn to love yourself, and learn to love others just as God loves you!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“We are made in the image of an imageless God” – Dr. Michael Kogan

PRAYER

Lord, strip me of all of the images the world has come to define me with. Show me who I truly am. Amen.

Freedom From Within

Read Romans 7:14-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13, NLT)

Freedom

One of my favorite film portrayals of Jesus is the one found in the 1961 film, “King of Kings”. While it is true that Jeffery Hunter perpetuates the Anglo-Saxon image of Jesus with his blonde hair and blue eyes, it is also true that Hunter delicately balances the human and divine aspects of the Christ. Too often, portrayals are either of an extremely divine Christ, or an overly earthly Jesus, but Hunter finds the balance and runs with it.

In one of my favorite moments in the film, Jesus comes to the prison to see his friend John the Baptist.  After being told by Lucius, a Roman Centurion, that John isn’t allowed to have any visitors, Jesus said, “I would see John.”  Curious, Lucius asked him why. “I have come to free John,” Jesus calmly proclaimed.

“And just how do you propose to break him free from his cell,” the Roman Centurion interrogated? Jesus responded, “I come to free him within his cell.”

Half curious, Lucius sarcastically and rhetorically asks, “Freedom from behind stone walls?”

“You are free to come and go as you please,” Jesus responded, calmly walking toward where Lucius was sitting, “and yet you are still a prisoner because you place no faith in anything but your sword.”

The power of those words resound throughout my mind.  How true it is that we all find ourselves to be prisoners of one thing or another.  Some people are prisoners of hatred, while others are prisoners of fear.  There are some who are prisoners to various addictions, others who are prisoners to their pride. Some people are prisoners to their ideologies and political affiliations, and others are prisoners to their religious beliefs.  Some people are prisoners to their social lives and status, others are prisoners to isolation and perpetual feelings of being alone.

The fact of the matter is that we often find ourselves placing our faith in tons of different things. The world is like a huge buffet with a plethora of different plates to choose from. There are so many different things for us to place our faith in that we find ourselves imprisoned by all of the things that are competing over us.

Yet, Christ is seeking to come into our lives and flip the prison image upside down.  Christ comes to free us from within our prisons by giving us hope, healing and wholeness. But notice, that Christ has not necessarily removed us from the prison. Life doesn’t just become peaches and cream because we have put our faith in Christ. What does happen though, is that our outlook on this life, and on our struggles within it, changes. Rather than seeing defeat in our failures, we see growth and victory. Rather, than seeing life as a series of dead ends, we will start to see that the ends lead to new beginnings.

Christ has come to make all things new again. So, no matter what prison you find yourself in. No matter what in life has caused you to trip and stumble. Take a moment to stop and breathe. Take a moment to see the foot prints behind you and realize that in your darkest moments God has been carrying you.  See the light that comes from Christ and embrace it. Place your faith in it and praise God that you have been freed from within! Experience the freedom that comes from God’s hope, healing and wholeness!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“All who call on God in true faith, earnestly from the heart, will certainly be heard, and will receive what they have asked and desired.” – Martin Luther

PRAYER

Lord, free me from the things that imprison me and use me in a way that bring your freedom to others. Amen.

The Battle Within

Read Matthew 6:14-15; Luke 6:27-30, 32-36

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.” (Matthew 6:12, NLT)

AnakinI have always been a huge Star Wars fan. The latest three films center around a character by the name of Anakin Skywalker and takes place before the original films. Anakin is filled with great hope and promise; however, he is also filled with fear and regret.  He was taken away from his mother and taught to be a Jedi Knight.  His mother, who once was a slave, finally gets her freedom and marries a man.  But, this isn’t a fairytale for her. The man, though he loved her, failed at protecting her and she eventually gets kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed by a group of bandits.

Anakin cannot forgive the man–nor can he forgive himself. After all, he was a Jedi Knight, yet he could not protect his own mother.  Though his lover (Padame), friends and mentors alike try to steer Anakin past his fears and regrets, they cannot do it.  They have too great a hold of him and Anakin slips further and further into the dark side.

In one of the final scenes of the third installment, Anakin finds himself in a volcano fighting against Obi Wan Kenobi who used to be his greatest friend. He believes that Obi Wan has betrayed him, and he believes that Padame  has betrayed him and, out of anger, he nearly destroyed Padame and is on the move to kill Obi Wan.

In the fight, Obi Wan gains the better ground and warns Anakin not to advance toward him. But Anakin is too angry to listen and leaps forward to attack. In self-defense, Obi Wan slices off Anakin’s legs and left arm and Anakin falls to ground, his leg stumps in touching the lava.  While catching on fire and burning alive, Anakin can be seen reaching toward the man who used to be his best friend and teacher. “I hate you,” Anakin screams. “I hate you!!!” Just as the fire is consuming his body, so too the rage fully consumes Anakin. The fight may be over, the scars of the battle will forever haunt Obi Wan’s memory.

While the film focuses on Anakin’s fear as being the root cause of his problem, I see forgiveness being a key issue as well. Anakin can never find it in himself to forgive those who have done him wrong. He can never find it in himself to forgive himself either! As a result, hatred builds up in him and he becomes Darth Vader, who is a walking embodiment of Hell.

In the Scripture today, Jesus warns his disciples and followers that forgiveness is absolutely vital. If we are not willing to forgive others, including ourselves, how can we ever expect to receive God’s forgiveness?  To want forgiveness and refuse it to others is hypocritical to say the least. But beyond that point, those who don’t forgive often find themselves not being able to forgive themselves…and no matter how much God forgives someone, it is in vain if they will not receive it.

Thus, the challenge for all is to be humble and to fight the battle that rages within us. We need to recognize that none of us are perfect and that each and every one of us is in need of forgiveness. Rather than letting hate, bitterness and rage consume us, like it consumed Anakin Skywalker, we need to turn from our hate and stubbornness and learn to forgive.  If we can do that, then perhaps we’d have less to fear. Learn to forgive and learn to be forgiven. This is what God is calling you to do.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side; Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

PRAYER

Lord, soften my heart and teach me to forgive others, as well as myself. Amen.

 

The Lord is My Shepherd

Read Psalm 23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“David said further to his son Solomon, “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)

ShepherdWhen you stop and think about it, life can be an extremely crazy ride. Which one of us can look back on our lives and say that we lived everyday perfectly? Which one of us can claim to have nothing but mountaintop experiences all the way through life?  My guess, is that there isn’t a single person alive who could claim such things.

Today I was reading the 23rd Psalm, which is traditionally held to be written by King David.  Upon reading the Psalm, I began to reflect on the life story of David.  He started off as a “ruddy-faced”, handsome shepherd boy (1 Samuel 17:42). Small and insignificant, his ruddiness was all he had going for him. But that ruddy-faced boy is the same boy that Samuel anointed to be King of Israel, the same boy who knew how to defend his sheep against wolves and bear, the same boy who slew the Philistine giant, Goliath with a single stone launched from his sling.

This ruddy-faced boy grew into a great warrior and, no matter which way you paint David’s story, that means he killed lots and lots of people. David did not live a perfect life. He was known for being ruthless and he sought battle against the Philistines in which he circumcised their dead corpses after the battle. He was known for being a politically savvy manipulator…one who would have no qualms about silencing his opponents. He was a womanizer and an adulterer, who scandalously had an affair with Bathsheba and made their love-child, Solomon, the heir of his throne. He even had her husband murdered in order to keep him from finding out about the affair.

In David, we see a person who lived life imperfectly. He had his good moments and his not-so-good moments; and that is what makes him such a powerful character for us when we read about him in the Bible.  One gets the sense that David is for real…and we can relate to him on so many different levels. While many of us will never be a King, or have someone murdered, we can certainly relate to David’s propensity toward imperfection. Each of us, like David, have our good moments and our not-so-good moments. We have all shared in mountaintop experiences where nothing seems to be able to bring us down. But we have also shared in the long, lonely and desperate walk through the valley of the shadow of death, where the weight of the world seems to be crushing the very breath of life out of us.

While scholars may argue back and forth as to whether or not David actually wrote the 23rd Psalm, it certainly speaks to the kind of faith that he had in God. It speaks of a life that was not perfect, a life that was filled with twists and turns, pastures and barren wilderness, mountaintops and valleys.  It speaks of the constant danger of enemies, and yet the eternal, calming, loving, reassuring presence of God.  The 23rd Psalm was a poem, as song, from the depths of the soul of a person who knew that no matter what happened, no matter things were right or wrong, God was always there to be a guiding, loving, caring presence.  Let the 23rd Psalm remind us of the the same thing: that God is with us always. God will never leave us nor forsake us nor fail us. God will be with us always, even to the very end of the age.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

It’s as if God is singing to us, “There ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you.”

PRAYER

Lord, help me to recognize your presence no matter where I am. You are my shepherd, I shall not want. Amen.

Love is Not a Dream

Read Matthew 5:38-48

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'” (Matthew 26:52)

worldJust when Spring has finally sprung, just when warmth and life start to come back to the earth, just as people start to prepare for new hope and new opportunities for living life, a tragedy occurs that reminds us of how fragile and precarious life is. Today, as I was busy amid my day’s worth of work, a notification from the NY Times popped up on my iPhone, telling me that there were two explosions that went off during the Boston Marathon. As it turns out, these explosions were purposefully set off to harm, maim, and kill people. And the mission was accomplished. As of this writing, at least three people were killed, dozens maimed, and an entire nation is in a state of shock and panic.

Even following such tragic events like 9/11, all of the shootings that have happened and other devastating events, we still wonder who in the world would want to hurt innocent people. How can people be so cold, so calculating, and so vicious?  Why is it that the human race seems to be hellbent on blowing itself up? How should we respond to these and other acts of terror?

Before we answer those questions, let us think back to the world in which Jesus was born in. Christ was born into a world that is just as harsh as the world in which we live. He was born in a country that was occupied by a cruel and merciless Empire. He was born into a world that scourged and crucified its opponents. He was born into a world that shunned the poor and honored the greedy and powerful. It is into such a world that Jesus was born, and he was bound to experience the cruelty that this world had to offer.

Yet, what was his response? Did he respond out of fear? Did he respond out of hatred? Did he respond based off of his emotions? How did Jesus react with the world around him? What was his response to the cruelty, injustice, and horror that he was faced with everyday of his life?  The answer is as simple, and yet as profoundly irritating, as can be. Jesus responded with love.

Many, when hearing this, may think that I am just spewing a Christian cliché. Some may even go as far as to say that Jesus’ teachings work in theory, but not in real-world situations. After all, if we let people get away with murder, they’ll just keep on murdering? How does love solve the world’s problems?

The answer is, it doesn’t. But then again, neither does responding in hatred, violence and fear.  There is nothing that we can do to stop people from harming us, should they choose to. And a consequence of living in this broken world is that we run the risk of being caught in the fray of evil. And if we are honest, we sometimes perpetuate evil ourselves.

But we are not called to change the world; rather, we are called to change ourselves. We are called to rise above the fray and to love people, even when they don’t deserve to be loved. We are called to reach out to the starving, the naked, the angry, the disenchanted, the sick, the imprisoned, and all of those who are desperate people caught in desperate times. We are called to be the very presence of God in the lives of those who are desperately in need of the presence of God. In the end we have a choice, to react in fear or to react in love, to give in to the reaction the world is seeking after, or to embrace the reaction God desires of us. The choice is yours.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Love is only a dream if you refuse to make it a reality.

PRAYER

Lord, we lay our fears down at the foot of the cross and pick up your love and your grace. Help us in this endeavor. Amen.

 

The Bedrock of Faith

Read John 20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

BedrockOver the course of the month of March, my family and I sat down to watch the Bible series, which aired for five consecutive Sundays on the History Channel.  The last two and a half episodes were centered around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is during those episodes that we become acquainted with Thomas, one of the twelve disciples.

In the series, the shaved headed Thomas always looks dour and disgruntled. He always seems to be warring with his being a disciple and the things Jesus is teaching. He is never fully convinced of who Jesus is, or so he appears, and the miracles just don’t seem to be convincing him.

Even when Jesus appears to him in the upper room, following the resurrection, Thomas still refuses to believe. “No, I can’t believe it,” Thomas exclaims, “It can’t be real.”  Even as Jesus is standing right before Thomas, he is shown to be doubting the reality of what he is witnessing. In fact, in the TV series, it seems that Thomas isn’t doubting at all…he just simply doesn’t want to believe.

While the series wasn’t entirely true to the character of Thomas, as Thomas never refuses to believe the reality of the resurrection when Jesus is standing before him in the room, it is a fact that Thomas has become known to us as the doubter.  And in his doubt, it seems that often times the Bible, and we people of “faith”, seem to look down upon him for having his doubts.

What’s more, often times we, as Christians, look down at people who struggle with doubt.  We act as if we are so sure about everything.  We say  amongst ourselves, “Oh come on! How could you not believe?” Perhaps we feel good about ourselves in doing so. Perhaps it gives us a sense of comfort to know that we are standing on a faith of solid rock; yet, even if that is the case, we are only left with a false sense of security.

Even the most solid rock in the world can be utterly cracked and disheveled by a major earthquake. There is nothing on this earth that stands the test of time without experiencing uncertainty and doubt.  I can be said that the life that denies the existence of doubt denies the very nature of what it means to be alive.  After all, what do we know? Honestly, what are we so sure of that there is no room for doubt?

The truth of the matter is that there is no life lived that has not experienced doubt. Thomas is not the weakest link in Jesus chain of disciples, he is one of the strongest links. He refused to believe something just because someone else told him it was true. He had to experience it for himself; it had to become real for him in order for him to accept it.

When we stop to think about it, one would have to say that, in fact, one cannot truly believe something unless they have experienced the truth of it. Mary had the privilege of witnessing Jesus outside the tomb, why then would we deny Thomas the experience of witnessing Jesus? Why would we want to deny anyone, including ourselves, the opportunity to personally witnessing the presence of God in our lives?

The next time you have doubts, be honest with yourself. Embrace those doubts and ask the necessary questions you need to ask.  Recognize that doubt is not your enemy, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Come to the understanding that doubt is the bedrock from which faith springs! Know that you are not alone in your doubts and that from your doubts your faith shall rise.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Doubt is the bedrock from which faith springs.

PRAYER

Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief. Amen.

The Public Servant

Read Matthew 6:1-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

il_fullxfull.252262749There once was a public servant who spent his entire life serving the public who continually voted him in. He was a decorated war hero who enlisted in the Army when he was eighteen. Following his military service, he put himself through college, then law school, and became a prosecutor who cracked down on criminals in his city. After years of service, he entered into the political arena and was elected to hold many different positions, including the mayor of his city.

One day, the mayor pulled up to city hall and found a car parked in such a way that his reserved parking spot was blocked. The mayor just couldn’t believe it! How could someone park in his spot! Didn’t they know who he was? Didn’t they know that he was the mayor, that he had spent his entire life serving the public, that he had earned that spot and was entitled to have it?

In a rage, the mayor called the chief of police directly and demanded that he take care of the situation!  “Get one of your boys down here and tow that car!” The mayor demanded. The chief of police, not wanting to stoke the mayor’s anger any further, immediately sent an officer to tow the car. Even upon the car being removed and getting his spot back, the mayor was seething over the incident.

Walking into the city hall, the mayor saw a woman sobbing profusely with a woman with another man sitting and sobbing next to her. “What’s going on,” the mayor asked?  The city clerk responded, that woman works here. She just found out that her son got into a car accident on the way to school and died. She called her husband who just came about ten minutes ago. He parked outside, ran in and as been with her since.” The mayor’s heart sunk. He just realized that the car he had towed belonged to the poor husband who had just lost his son and came to be with his wife.

As Christians, we spend day after day trying to do the right things. We go to church, we serve others (to the best of our abilities), we work tirelessly on building a legacy of faith for our children and their children. We come to expect things to be done a certain way, and we feel entitled to have it done the way we want because we have worked hard and earned it! We may find ourselves getting angry when we perceive that things aren’t “the way they should be” or that “we aren’t getting the respect we deserve.”

But why is it that we are doing what we do? Are we doing it to garner attention for ourselves? Are we “serving” so that, in the end, we might be served? Do we as Christians, as followers of Jesus the Christ, really believe that we’ve earned our keep and that we deserve or are entitled to preferential treatment? If so, Jesus says that we will get our reward.

We will garner attention and throw hissy fits when we don’t. We will look good to all of the right people, and we will trample the insignificant under our feet. Yet, if that is what we are doing, let us also be aware that we are trampling the very heart of God under our feet. Let us not wake up one day and come to realization, as the mayor above did, that we are no longer the person we envisioned ourselves as being; rather, let us join Christ in turning our own standards upside down. Let us start to see that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Let us realize that we are never done serving and that God has called us to be agents of GRACE not benefactors of entitlement. Let your sense of entitlement go, in all areas of your life, and be filled with the Grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’. – Erma Bombeck

PRAYER

Lord, let me not ask what you, and others can do for me, but what I can do for you and for others. Amen.

 

Power to the People

Read Matthew 28:18-20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

DARK KNIGHT RISESReleased in the summer of 2011, The Dark Knight rises was visionary director Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Dark Knight trilogy.  The trilogy follows the story of Bruce Wayne, who as a boy, watched the cold-blooded murder of his parents right before his innocent eyes. That night, the innocence of that boy was stolen and the person known as Bruce Wayne died.  As he grew up his need for vengeance grew and ended up, as an adult, taking the law into his own hands and deciding to fight against crime and corruption.

Thus, the Batman is born.  Yet, Bruce Wayne does more than just fight crime. As he combats criminals he realizes that, as only one person, he can only do so much. He also learns from some wise people around him, that he is not truly helping anyone one if does everything for him. Thus, the Wayne develops the Batman as a symbol for the people of Gotham. This symbol not only represents impartial justice, but he represents the need for empowerment. The Batman’s sole purpose is not to fight crime for the people, but to inspire and empower the people to rise up and put an end to the corruption.

In the film, the Dark Knight rises, the Batman does just that. He becomes a symbol for the people to look to and find hope. He becomes a symbol for the people to rally behind. He becomes a symbol for the people to step up and replace.  One of the most inspiring parts of the film is when the Batman can be seen, in broad daylight, fighting along side the people.  In this part he is not the highlight of the scene, rather he is just one of hundreds of extras doing his part with the rest of them.  What a powerful message to send to people in this day and age where we are on the constant look our for political leaders and local heroes to come in and save the day, as opposed to stepping up and doing what we need to do to save the day ourselves.

The church is no different.  We often look to God and ask for God to come in and save us, for God to come in and right the wrongs, for God to do what it is that we should be doing ourselves.  Yet, in comes Jesus of Nazareth who sets out to be more than a magical miracle worker; rather, Jesus’ purpose was to become a symbol for us that would give us hope and empower us to join him in the mission of bringing hope, healing and wholeness to all who need it.  Christ not only comes in and “saves us” but is a symbol that we too can rise up with the Son and be an agent of salvation in this broken world.

To be agents of salvation we must first understand what salvation means. It does not mean getting people to verbally profess what we believe to be the way, the truth and the life. Rather it means for us to allow God to work in us, through us and in spite of us in away that connects others to the hope, healing and wholeness (aka grace) that God wants them to receive. We are called to not only preach the Gospel with our mouths, but to preach it through our actions.

If someone is starving the Good News is food. If some one feels alone, then our presence would be good news. If someone is naked, clothing would be good news. For those who are lost spiritually, representing the presence of God is good news. Rather than waiting around for Christ to come in like a superhero, we should be actively seeking to rise up with Christ and work side-by-side with him to combat hopelessness in our community. This is what Christ has empowered and equipped us to do. It’s time to join the risen Son!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” – Batman

PRAYER

Lord, continue to empower and equip me to rise up alongside of you for the glory of your Kingdom. Amen.

A biweekly devotional