Acts 7:30-40 – Full Acceptance, Not Partial

“After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’

“This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people. ’He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

“But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and, in their hearts, turned back to

Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ (NIV)

We humans are a confusing paradox of sinner and saint. We are majestic people, created in the image and likeness of a good God. We are also profoundly fallen, touched by sin in every area of our lives. Our hearts exist with both light and darkness, having the capacity for both incredible altruism as well as inexplicable evil.

So then, it will do no good to retreat into binary definitions of people as being either good or bad. No, we shine and shadow at the same time. What really gets us into a terrible mess is when we ignore or deny our shadow selves. We then demonize the other while claiming purity for ourselves.

This is precisely what occurred with Stephen and a group of his fellow Jews who refused to acknowledge their shadow side. And it resulted in Stephen’s stoning and death. Whereas Stephen lifted and brought to light the unseemly aspects of their collective heritage, the people wanted nothing to do with it. In our present day, the response might be something like, “Quit being so negative. We focus on the positive. Expel this recalcitrant troublemaker once and for all!”

Oy. Acceptance cuts two ways. We must accept both our blessings and our curses. And acceptance of reality will not occur apart from a solid self-acceptance of who we are and how we are feeling in any given situation. On the practical level, it works something like the following story…

Several years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness. We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. 

One day, it was very windy and several of us were on a lake canoeing to a destination. It was late May, which means the water was still ice cold in Canada. One of the canoes capsized and we had to act quickly and deliberately – which was no small feat in a stiff wind. More than fifteen minutes would result in hypothermia for the two people in the water.

I did not like being in that situation. In fact, I didn’t much like the Canadian wilderness. Too many black flies and giant mosquitoes for me. My shadow side was coming out. But here I was, and I had to accept the reality I was in. One of the lessons I learned in that moment was that acceptance can sit alongside other reactions and emotions.

For example, a person can be outraged by an injustice, as Stephen was, and accept that it is a reality. Acceptance does not mean complacency or giving up. We can accept something while at the same time trying to make it better.

I also needed to accept what was happening inside of me. I was cold and worried. Trying to push those feelings away would have only added to the stress of the situation. If I failed to accept what was true about myself, I would be less able to deal with the situation, and so, would compromise my ability to help two people at risk.

I needed to accept the whole circumstance, including myself. Accepting what is inside gave me more influence over the situation, not less. Self-acceptance became the key to acceptance of unwanted conditions, and more importantly, acceptance of one another as human beings.

In that moment of rescuing two people (which ultimately proved successful) I became aware of a part of myself – the part that gets afraid and irritated – and chose not to stuff it or deny its existence. I became the guy who talked to the panicked people in the water and kept them as calm as possible so that the others could get them out. I was able to do my part to help fearful people because I acknowledged and accepted my own fear.

Unlike my situation, however, Stephen’s experience ended in martyrdom. Just because we respond rightly is no guarantee that everything will work out for our benefit. Rather, we say and do the things we must say and do, while leaving the results to a sovereign Lord. It is our responsibility to work on ourselves, not others. And acceptance is the path to get there, all of it, not just part of it.

Jesus, let your mighty calmness lift me above my fears and frustrations. By your deep patience, give me tranquility and stillness of soul in you. Make me in this, and in all things, more and more like you. Amen.

An Embodied Spirituality

By Unknown artist

It is normal to feel guilty at this time of year about our bodies. Some of the more common goals for a new year are to lose weight, stop smoking, get in shape, have better sleep hygiene, and generally learn better self-care.  I am not going to add to the burden of guilt but emphasize something important: Our bodies are the vehicle given to us to glorify God. Our spirituality is quite embodied. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

One of the reasons we fail our bodies is that we do not always make the biblical connection of seeing our material selves with the same importance as the immaterial.  The Apostle Paul brought up a discussion about the body to the Corinthian Church because Corinth was a Greek city thoroughly imbibed with a Platonic philosophy of life.  At the core of Plato’s view of humanity was that the immaterial and the spiritual were of higher value than the body.  For Plato, the body is a necessary evil.  He referred to our souls as being imprisoned within the flesh.  When we die the soul is released and is freed from its bodily prison.

Western civilization has been significantly influenced, even today, by Plato’s view of humanity. Yet, that is not a biblical view of the body.  Instead of being a prison, the body is a temple, a sacred place which is no better and no worse than the soul.  When we die, we will not be disembodied souls, but will experience a bodily resurrection at the end of the age.  Eternity will be spent existing in a real glorified body free from sin. (1 Corinthians 15)

Since the body is sacred, and we glorify God with our bodies, then we must steward them just like we would steward any other physical material possession we own.  We have bought into Platonic philosophy when we treat our cars better than we treat our bodies.  If a warning light comes on in our cars, we get it checked by the mechanic.  He fixes the issue and tells us what we need to do to prevent it from happening again, and we listen to him. 

Far too often, when warning lights go off in our bodies, we ignore them until our bodies literally break down and we must go to the doctor.  And even then, the doctor tells us to do something, and we do not do it.  We never avoid the advice of our mechanic, and yet we do it with our doctor.  We need to adopt the biblical wisdom of glorifying God on this earth through our bodies. 

God’s care for our bodies can be found, for example, in the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. After Elijah experienced a great spiritual victory, he became the target of evil Queen Jezebel.  Elijah ran for his life and was severely burned-out from intense spiritual struggles with the queen’s prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:1-3).  At that point, God did not come to Elijah and give him a sermon or exhortations about getting over it.  No, God restored Elijah’s body. And the Lord wants to restore our bodies, as well.

19th century Russian Orthodox icon of the prophet Elijah in the wilderness

First, Elijah needed sleep (1 Kings 19:5-6).  Millions of Americans are sleep deprived and live with a significant sleep debt (thus being continually cranky and out of sorts).  Insurance companies know this is a major issue because improper sleep habits have caused various auto accidents and fatalities. I once kept a crazy schedule with not many hours for sleep.  One day, during rush hour, I drove through a downtown expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic and fell asleep.  I woke up about two minutes later and was still alive driving down the highway.  I sincerely believe God graciously drove the car for me.  That was my “wake up” call to change the way I was treating my body.

Second, Elijah needed to eat well (1 Kings 19:6-8).  For us, that means eating healthy.  One source of being overweight is failing to make the connection that eating is a spiritual activity.  Food is important to the kingdom of God.  It was eating that got us into trouble to start with and resulted in the fall of humanity.  Eventually, we will come full circle with eating being the activity we engage in at the end of the age – a redeemed view of food and eating together with Jesus at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:1-10).  God cares about food – what we eat and how much of it we consume.  He cares because we do not own our bodies – we steward them for God.

Third, Elijah needed some vigorous exercise (1 Kings 19:8-9).  He walked all the way to Mount Horeb, which was over a month’s travel.  But that exercise was essential to his well-being, both physically and spiritually.  It was only after he slept, ate well, and walked that Elijah was ready to meet with God in a powerful experience.

Our physical fitness is a spiritual issue, and so, needs prioritization.  I am under no illusions or delusions about the difficulty of this. I prefer brownies to broccoli and rather like sleeping instead of exercise. Yet, I work at being physically fit and caring for my body.  I am personally motivated toward health because I love God and want to please the Lord with my body. After all, my body was important enough to be redeemed through the Cross of Christ.

This is not about willpower – it is about Christian stewardship. I look at my body the same way I look at borrowing something from another person: I return it in the best condition I can. When the Lord takes me someday, I do not want it to be because I hastened my own death through disregard of my God-given body.

If I were God, donuts would be health food, sitting back in the recliner would build muscle, and two hours of sleep at night would be sufficient. But I am not God, so I submit to doing what it takes to have an embodied spirituality. We are to enjoy life through making the connection between the spiritual and the physical because that is the way God created us.

It is never too late to be a proper steward of the body.  Our physical anatomy is an amazing work of God and incredibly receptive to healthy choices. Here are a few of the choices we can make…

Remember the positives

Remember that care of the body is worth it.  Being fit feels great and equips us for the will of God.  Keep the long view in mind.  Sacrificing a temporary pleasure is worth the eventual gain.

Start small

I will not be doing any triathlons anytime soon, or ever. We need to be realistic and set appropriate goals without comparison to others. Start small and build up over time with slow incremental change. The place to begin is by rearranging our schedules so that our bodies become a priority.  Maybe it is time to make that doctor’s appointment you have been putting off.

Join others

Accountability and fun can and ought to go together. For example, preparing meals together is a chance to connect with a friend or family member. Discover and maintain a consistent rhythm of health that works for you and is enjoyable.

Reframe it

People often give up their best laid plans because they are disconnected from the rest of their lives. Reframing our view of the body as a spiritual activity helps connect and align our mind, body, and spirit in the wholeness God designed for us.

Start today

It takes time for something to become a habit. All good things are a process of realization. Consider and plan today, asking for God’s direction. Get the Lord in on it from the beginning and let it be an offering to him.

May you find the joy, contentment, and satisfaction of living with a body properly cared for and ready for use to the glory of God.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – Specially Crafted by the Divine

Psalm 139 stained glass by Dutch artist Ted Felen (1931-2016)

Lord, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it….

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
    you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
    Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
    when I was being put together in a secret place,
    when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
    and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
    before any one of them had yet happened.
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
    Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
    If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you. (CEB)

It is no wonder so many people struggle with their self-image. Beautiful people reign in television and movies; the rich and powerful are highlighted in the media; and people with perfect teeth and immaculate attire are splashed in front of us in the daily barrage of advertisements. Meanwhile, the rest of us 99% of the population quickly notice we do not measure up to such a standard. You don’t have to be a people watcher to know that less than perfect bodies are the norm and that most folks do not have a budget to live like the other 1% humanity.

If we make comparisons with others too much and for too long, it gets downright depressing. Yet, into this dark abyss of one’s self-image enters the biblical truth that each one of us, no matter our station in life, was personally hand-crafted by a heavenly Being who loves us dearly. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Creator God took great care to make us and form us just so. The psalmist, David, praised God for the way we were created. The real standard from which we ought to judge ourselves is this: God knows us intimately, inside-and-out, and neither condemns us nor shames us but loves us wholly.

Psalm 139 by Dutch painter Ellen Van Randeraat, 2013

So then, rather than wasting our emotional energy and mental faculties on wishing we looked different or were more like so-and-so who seems to always have it all together, try practicing what David did: Praise God. 

Whenever we have the notion that we do not measure up to our imposed arbitrary standard, keep in mind that the only real measurement is grace. No matter who we are, the entire race of humanity has been created in the image of God, and, on that basis alone, we have inherent value, worth, and majesty. Let us, then, treat ourselves and others with the yardstick of grace.

The inner critic, that is, the inner judgmental dialogue we have with ourselves, needs to be replaced with the truth of Psalm 139. Although we might be rather hard on ourselves and say things in the reclusive parts of our minds and hearts that we would never say to others, nor tolerate others saying about someone else – God speaks to us with tender words of grace. Perhaps you think that only you know the depth of your own sorrows, hurts, fears, insecurities, and worries.  Except….

God. The Lord knows it all intimately – and is not one bit repulsed. You see, God knows that the answer to all the self-doubts is Divine care and protection. You and I have the freedom to plumb the recesses of our hearts and souls – to bring out all that is inside the cluttered closet of our minds and lay it all on the table without fear of God calling you what you call yourself.

Therefore, please do not quickly pass over the inspired words from Holy Scripture contained in today’s psalm. Take the time to carefully digest each phrase slowly so that the message becomes internalized and believed in real-time experience.

One of the theories of human psychology is that people are driven by two primary needs: 

  1. To intimately know another person.
  2. To be intimately known by another person. 

God knows us even better than we know ourselves – and still loves us! There is nothing we learn about ourselves that God does not already know. No human relationship can even come close to the level of knowing that God has for us and about us.

To know God is perhaps the greatest and highest pursuit we could ever enjoy. God is so immense and infinite that we will spend an eternity getting to know the Lord and will never get to the end of it. That is the kind of God we serve. Be encouraged today and always with the reality that you are known and can know God – and even more, loved deeply as a specially fashioned creature.

O God, thank you that I am wonderfully made in your likeness.  I praise you that I am fully accepted, even when I do not accept myself.  In Jesus Christ you have demonstrated the height of your love and mercy.  May this grace be with me every day so that I will conduct myself in a manner worthy of being part of the human family.  Amen.