Monday, October 23, 2017

The Shack - Movie Review

Image result for the shack main character

Alert! This review contains some small spoilers.

First I haven’t read the best selling book, The Shack by William P. Young. By the way did you know that he is worth 2.2 billion dollars from this franchise?  Evidently a lot of people besides myself enjoyed his book or movie.  I was a little hesitant to watch it because many people I respect have criticized the theology of the book, but  I'm not on a heretic witch hunt here. For one thing an author who is writing a fictional work should not, in my humble opinion, be held to the same standard as professional theologians. He is writing fiction - fiction whose main message is we are not God - we do not see things from God’s perspective - we are not the ultimate judge of people or events. To which I say “amen.”
The Shack tells the story of a man who has been damaged by an abusive father who claims Christ.  Mack, the main character, manages to overcome his childhood, marry well, and have a lovely church going family when the worst kind of tragedy hits.  His small daughter is kidnapped (and we assume raped) and killed.  It is over the top bad. I think he used this as a device for the worst thing that could happen to a father. Young comes to his grief over abuse honestly, however.  He was the son of missionary parents in Papua New Guinea, where (unbeknown to his parents) he was repeatedly molested by some of the leaders of these stone age tribe people.  It’s a really horrific secret that he kept for years.
Mack is, of course, devastated by what has happened to his daughter and has pretty much withdrawn from his hurting family.  He is also very angry with God.  That is when he has an encounter with the God of the universe (called Papa) in a shack in the middle of the woods where his daughter was murdered.  The God of the Universe happens to be a warm plus size black woman who likes to cook.  She happens to also look like a neighborhood woman who befriends him as a child.  At one point in the movie she said that she didn’t think he would be ready to see God as a father (because remember his father was an abusive drunk who beat him and his mother). This is OK with me.  Yes God is referred to as He in most of the Bible, but really isn’t God beyond gender? God is spirit, and we should worship him in spirit and in truth. Moreover, there are places in scripture that God is compared to a mother (Matthew 23:27).
Besides God the father as a black woman, The Shack portrays the Holy Spirit as a beautiful Asian women named Sarayu, and the Son is a young Middle Eastern man.  I’m not particularly fond of these personifications - it seemed a little too politically correct, diversity police approved to me, and it was all a little confusing.  I wouldn’t suggest this movie as a way to explain the trinity.  Ironically, it is probably Young’s unorthodox portrayal of the godhead that brought it much of its popularity (and certainly most of its controversy).  In case you haven’t noticed white men are sort of out of style at the moment - and I guess that includes their portrayal as the divine.  Another complaint I could address but won't is about all that tricky Second Commandment stuff.  Anyways the message of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu was, as far as I could tell, about love, faith, trust in God, and forgiveness.  My favorite part of the movie is Mack’s encounter with Wisdom in a cave. (She also happens to be played by a woman.)  She has Mack sit on a throne representing God’s work as a judge because in the whole story, Mack has been judging God for all the terrible things that have happened in his life.  It is an old question.  How could a loving God let such terrible things happen to an innocent child?  When Mack tries to sit on the judgement seat he realizes, to no surprise, that he is totally incapable of judging God for anything.

The end of the movie helped me to understand  the literary devices and choices that Young chose for his story. I would not use this movie as a replacement for the bible or good biblical exegesis from a pastor, but that is not Young’s purpose here.  My favorite line from the movie is when Papa tells Mack that everything that he (and by inference all of us) do and say is important and makes a difference. Again to that I say a hearty “Amen.”  I think this move could be of help to anybody who has suffered loss and tragedy. And isn’t that most of us? A warning - be prepared with handkerchiefs if you plan to see this.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

My Proud Stubborn Mother

My mom Helen at about 23 years old (front right) at her mother Lucille's 3rd wedding to Doc Boyer - Late 1940's I'm guessing.  Her cousin Betty is 2 seats down.  Betty's mom Muriel is front left.

I was thinking about my mother today, Helen Chester Harms.  I remember her as being a beautiful and gracious woman.  Her father passed away when she was only five or six - early in the Great Depression.  There is a photograph of her wearing a rabbit fur coat for her first day of school - her hair in lovely blonde curls (which darkened as she grew older).   I can’t imagine what the mothers of her impoverished classmates must have thought. The depression did not touch my mother and her mother Lucille Thien Chester Boyer because Helen’s father Henry (twenty two years senior to Lucille) had been very wealthy. It took my grandmother thirty years and two other husbands to run through his fortune.  My mother told me how they lived in luxury hotels when she was young and everybody got a kick out of her because she loved to eat spinach.  Hearing this beginning, you would probably think my mother was a snob, but she really wasn’t. My grandmother Lucille was definitely a snob but not my mother.  (Grandmother Lucille told me that she could tell everything about a person by their table manners.)
People naturally flocked to my mother.  She once half complained to me with a smile that it seemed that everyone in a grocery store always wanted to stop to talk to her.  In high school she fell in love with the tall handsome football star and president of his class, Rob Lowe.  They married when she was 18.  World War II was in progress, and he was in the coast guard stationed on the great lakes.  They had my older sister Katherine within a year of marriage and divorced soon after.  My mom said women were constantly swooning over Rob, and he did not resist their attention.  Mother also told me that they basically married so they could have sex and that waiting to have sex after marriage was a big mistake.  In those days “nice” girls didn’t have sex before marriage but “nice” boys did: one of the hypocritical and unfair double standards of that generation.
As a young divorcee and single mom, Helen moved from her home in Wisconsin to California where she had a pretty awesome time dating an assortment of fabulous men. She told me how one of the owners of the famous rose company, Jackson & Perkins (I can’t remember which one) was desperately in love with her and wanted to marry her.  About 10 years ago, I saw a yellow begonia in the Jackson & Perkins catalogue called “Helen Harms,” and I must admit I did wonder.  Yellow was my mother’s favorite color.  She told me of some of the movie stars she met.  She danced with Robert Stack (who was incredibly handsome but unfortunately for my mom in love with another woman); she shared a piece of pie with Canadian actor Walter Pidgeon, and Errol Flynn had propositioned her. (She was entering a restaurant he was leaving, and he was hopelessly drunk.) Helen’s uncle, Emil Thien, was an elite plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills and had many famous clients including all of Howard Hugh’s stars, so he had Hollywood connections.  Her cousin and best friend Betty Tholen was Emil’s daughter, and they palled around together.  Betty ended up marrying a sweet man and business person from old California money.  (His family had donated the land for the University of Southern California.)
At a family wedding in Wisconsin, my mother became reacquainted with my father Wm Scott Harms whom she had not seen for many years.  He was her second cousin, 12 years older than her, divorced with no children.  They fell passionately in love. However, when my father heard that she was going to vote for Republican Dwight D Eisenhower for president instead of the famous liberal and my father’s hero Adlai Stevenson II, he almost called off the wedding.  My mother became a proper liberal thereafter.
The incidence that I was thinking about today happened many years after my father had passed away (1968) of lung cancer. My mother had been dating Frank for a number of years.  He was a decent enough man - I liked him. He was a successful engineer turned salesman in the air conditioning business, but his drinking problem certainly made my mother’s drinking problem much worse.  Once about 6 months into their dating, Frank plowed into a parked car after they had been drinking at a party together.  My mother was injured and hospitalized - almost killed.  Frank’s lawyer couldn’t believe that my mother didn’t sue.
They had been together for about seven years when Frank was diagnosed with liver cancer.  He was dead within the month.  On his deathbed he whispered to my mother “the safe,” and she knew exactly what he meant.  Frank had a big pile of gold coins in that safe, and he wanted her to get it.  But my mother had a sort of stubborn pride.  She just could not bring herself to take the gold even though she knew that Frank had never rewritten his will, and it would all go to his ex-wife.  She had the combination and opened the safe for the police a few days later. They counted out the number of Krugerrands together.  “The policeman looked at me like I was nuts,” she confided to me.  Then he took the gold to the station.  
My mother was not rich.  She had sold our family home for too little money, and lived on a comfortable but fixed income.  The gold would certainly have come in handy, but she would not take it even though she knew that Frank had wanted her to have it.  I was in my early 20’s at the time and could not understand my mom’s decision.  Now I think my mother was old school and believed that you didn’t take money from a man unless he was your husband, father, or brother.  Not even from a long time lover.  If Frank had put all that gold in a strong box, wrapped it in a ribbon, and given it to her, I am pretty sure she still would not of taken it.  He could only of gotten the gold to her through his will.
You have to understand something too.  Frank despised his ex-wife.  Frank was somewhat of a playboy bachelor most of his life- living an unmarried salesman life: drinking and partying. One girl he partied with had told him that he had gotten her pregnant, so he manned up and married her.  A couple months after the wedding he was asking, “Where’s the baby?”  No bump. “I miscarried,” she told him. Right.  The divorce was ugly. She made out like a weasel in the hen house who not only ate all the eggs but bit off the heads of a number of hens too just for the fun of it.  That woman had embittered Frank against all women until he met my mother.  My mom knew that the gold, the cadillac, the house, the vacation cabin where she and Frank spent a lot of time, and whatever bank account and investments he had would all go to the ex-wife. And it did.
Frank loved my mom.  He had asked her to marry him multiple times, but she had always refused.  She was probably the classiest woman he had ever dated, but he never “got” her.  Some men think all women have a price, but what the woman is really looking for is a man who takes authority and responsibility.  One of the things that my mom complained to me about Frank was that he refused to advise or guide her on any financial matters. For example, she once looked at a cadillac that was on sale from a friend but was unsure about whether to buy it.  Frank refused to give her advice on the matter, but when she decided not to get it,  Frank bought it saying that it was a great deal.  That just infuriated my mother - although she never told him.  If he had encouraged her to buy it, she probably would of - but he refrained. Responsibility and authority rest upon a man like golden epaulettes on the uniform of a officer.  My father naturally wore those epaulettes; Frank didn’t.
After Frank’s death, my mother moved to the Florida West Coast to be nearer to my older sister and to spend the last years of her life in a warmer climate.  She reconnected with some of her old Wisconsin high school friends and was happy that she made the move.  But she was not impressed with the men in her age group in Florida.  “They are all unbearably conceited,” she told me.  There are many more women over sixty in Florida than men.

Alcoholism and cigarette smoking killed my mom at sixty seven.  Her mother had lived to ninety six, but Lucille drank alcohol and smoked very moderately.  I love and miss my mother.  I wish she could have been around longer for my children growing up.  I will always remember her as a great lady.

Baptized into Community

I was infant baptized by my father under the flag of The United States of America and in the Name of the Declaration of Independence.  I’m serious. My mother told me about it when I was a teenager, and I assumed it was some rite that my agnostic father had made up and didn’t think much more about it.  Then I was doing research on my German ancestors a few years ago who had settled in Wisconsin and discovered that this was a thing.  Freethinkers baptize their babies under the flag and Declaration of Independance.  My great great grandfather on both sides of my family happened to be a Freethinker. Henry Thien bought land in Southern Wisconsin and built a mill there in the 1840’s.  Freethinking was a small popular movement in Germany at the time called  Freidenkerbund.  It is considered one of the philosophical parents of Humanism and Socialism.  Henry Thien believed that people should worship God in nature not in churches, and when he chartered much of his land to start the town of Thiensville, he sold lots on condition that no churches would ever be built there.  It didn’t make him very popular with his devout Lutheran neighbors or many other people come to think about it.  After his death, his son revoked the charter; churches started moving into Thiensville like they have in every other town in America.
In my mid twenties after years of being in the New Age movement, I began studying the Bible and became a believer. I believed that Jesus Christ is Lord  and rose from the dead. A few years after that I was baptized in a lake in the name of The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and my eight year old daughter was baptized at the same time.  I didn’t think much more about the subject of baptism until a few years later when I was fellowshipping with some Mennonites.  One of their most important books is the Martyr’s Mirror which is like an Anabaptist version of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  The Martyr’s Mirror (the full title is The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660.) is filled with, among other things, first hand reports of Catholic priests who kept records while torturing Anabaptists for the sin of having a believer or adult baptism. (Anabaptist was originally a derogatory term used against those who were “re-baptized.”)  That was when I got my first inkling that the rite of baptism was a big deal in church history.  That people were actually tortured and burned at the stake if they got baptized as an adult after they had been baptized as a child.  It seemed to me pretty obvious which ones were on the wrong side of the argument.
I didn’t become an Mennonite - I disagreed with some of their doctrines, but I had no problems with a believer’s baptism.  All the Christians that I ever spent time with or went to church with had believer baptisms.  My Episcopalian mother and my Presbyterian dad had been baptized as infants, and most of the people I knew who had been baptized as infants were like my parents -borderline Christmas and Easter type Christians, more of a cultural Christianity than a belief based one.  So this confirmed to me that infant baptism was a problem.  However, I am a bit of a historian. The more I studied church history, the more I realized that infant baptism was practiced from the earliest times and is still the most widely form of baptism for Christians around the world.
I became more reformed as I grew in maturity in Christ, and I went to reformed believer baptistic churches. I knew that my Puritan ancestors (my mother's side of the family) baptized infants.  I had visited Presbyterian churches (the heirs of the Puritans) a few times, but found them to be too liberal for my tastes with women preachers and elders and other teachings that I found unbiblical.  After I started regularly reading reformed pastor Douglas Wilson’s entertaining and pertinent blog, Blog and Mablog:Theology That Bites Back, I began to attend a CREC church where not only infant baptism is practiced but also paedo communion.  I knew that I needed to revisit the subject of baptism.
I have to admit, sometimes all the terms and debates concerning baptism can be confusing.  It seems to me that most theologians must believe why makes things simple when they can make them as complicated as possible?   Dr Michael Heiser has clarified the issue for me - even though I don’t think he calls himself reformed and is better known for his “Divine Council” studies (The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible).  What I like about Heiser’s teachings on baptism is that he doesn’t have a denominational axe to grind; he studies the subject from a scholar’s perspective, and, for a scholar, he writes clearly.  Part One of his series demonstrates how complex a subject baptism actually is ( The disagreements include when, where, who, how and why to baptise.
As a reformed Christian, I believe in the continuity of God’s people in the Old and New Testament and that God guides his people through covenants. The typical justification of infant baptism for the traditionally reformed is that circumcision in the Old Testament is similar to baptism in the new.  Heiser says that circumcision in the Old Testament didn’t guarantee salvation or mean anything for Israelite women (actually it performed a very important health benefit for Israeli women but that is off topic.)  Heiser states:Circumcision granted the recipient admission into the community of Israel. Female children were also admitted by virtue of being the property of an admitted male (this is standard patriarchal culture, so women were NOT excluded just because they could not be circumcised).”  Heiser continues in Part Six of his series that baptism, in the same way, grants admission into the community of the church whether the one being baptized is an infant or an adult.  
It is pretty obvious that being baptized whether one is old enough to confess one’s faith or not, in no way confers salvation because, unfortunately, people fall away from Christ no matter what method of baptism they receive or how old they are when they received it.  If you believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and that he has risen from the dead, you should certainly be baptized and be part of a church that believes the same thing.  In my opinion, if you were baptized (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as a child and only come to faith as an adult, there is no need to be baptized again, but if you are, it is no sin.  I once heard a Messianic rabbi teach that there were five different baptisms performed by the Jews in Old Testament times.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why the rite of baptism is not more clearly defined in the New Testament.  
My views of baptism have evolved to a satisfying place where my family history and church practices and traditions come together.  My father baptized me into the community of Freethinker where I did not choose to stay.  In fact, I am the opposite of a freethinker. I try to confirm my thoughts, beliefs, and practices to the Word of God (aka the Bible).  Confirming my thoughts to God’s thoughts is a radical act which actually produces true freedom. Biblical thinking frees us from conforming to the ever changing current trends and philosophies of our society.  Biblical thinking frees us from the slavery of sin.  Biblical thinking values the acutely logical and delights in the  supernatural.  And the best part is I get to fellowship with others who think the same way I do.   I am part of a community of believers through baptism, a community of saints who believe in loving God and loving one another.   I think of it like this: Many are called, but few are chosen.  Baptism proves one’s calling not one’s election. Election is demonstrated by continuing love and obedience towards God and persevering to the end.
From accepting infant baptism, my church’s practice of allowing children to partake of communion seems perfectly reasonable.  For one thing, it is generally agreed upon that the communion of the very early church was a meal.  Surely children were included. I also look to the first passover meal as a model for communion. Each household of the Jews living in Egypt were protected by the blood of the lamb upon their doorpost the night that Death came visiting for each first born.  When the Angel of Death saw the lamb’s blood protecting the family, he would “passover.” Inside the home, the whole family ate the passover meal. They were all “baptized” together in the Red Sea.  Clearly Jesus was showing the connection when he initiated communion (this is my body: this is my blood) during Passover.  Some are concerned about the injunction in Corinthians 11 to not receive communion in “an unworthy manner.”  But small children cannot receive communion in an unworthy manner because they are innocent.  As they become older, the parents teach their children what communion means and the importance of faith and confession.  Sharing communion with children installs in them the practice of being part of the Christian community from the earliest age instead of keeping them out of that community.  It is a blessing to them that should not be withheld.
I love sitting in church on Sunday morning; watching all the well behaved children sitting with their parents through our rather long service, and sharing in the bread and the wine of our Lord’s supper.  Belonging is a very good thing.


Friday, July 21, 2017

The Apple of His Eye - A poem in an essay

Deuteronomy 32:10 (KJV) “He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.”

Psalm 17:8-9 (KJV) “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings, From the wicked that oppress me, from my deadly enemies, who compass me about.”

Zechariah 2:7-9 (ESV)“Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. For thus said the Lord of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye:“Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me.”
Strong’s Definitions
בָּבָה bâbâh, baw-baw'; feminine active participle of an unused root meaning to hollow out; something hollowed (as a gate), i.e. pupil of the eye:—apple (of the eye).

I am the apple of  Elohim’s eye. He follows me everywhere I go. He sees everything: what is behind me, and what is in front.  I am like his cherished infant, his beloved wife, his greatest treasure. He never lets me out of his sight.  

He sees me from all directions at once- inside and out. What I feel; where I walk. Since I walk in his sphere, his influence is everywhere. Each person I connect with, each object that I touch all exists within him.  If an accident should befall me, it would only be by his permission, in his purpose, and for his glory. 

When I remember the Lord in this life, he is pleased.  The yellow snapdragons that delight my sight are for me.  The lilacs fragrance the air for me.  The warmth of my blanket upon my lap, the light of the lamp at my side, the friend who calls me on the phone - are all his good and perfect gifts.

The mystery is how does God see all the apples of his eye at the same time? When we meet with each other, are we not each chosen and precious in his sight?  It is like a circle within a circle -his eye on me and around me - yet also on all of those he calls his own.   My eyes upon him and upon those I love. So we circle round each other and live in interconnecting rings. Yet we are more than rings - we are three dimensional and full. Like polished stones built upon each other creating a living structure greater than our individual parts.  

How mysterious - how this takes me outside of myself and my own small world - Are we not also becoming transparent - seeing His Spirit in each other? Like glass stones filled with light? Like streets of gold and buildings bright?  Like fruit hanging from a tree? Or Christmas lights hung on boughs and eaves? Like stars flung across the night: we twinkle and dance and build the very structure of the great expanse called space.  Even in the tiniest cell of life, are we not still quarks of light?

So the universe becomes our playground, our building site, our garden bright, our amphitheater.


Praying to Saint Nick

I was thinking about the veneration of saints as practiced by Catholics and Orthodox believers.  To most Protestants, this is a strange custom and practice, but I think I understand its beginnings.
Let’s say my pastor is arrested for the sermon he gave this week.  A rather uncompromising exposition on Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God.”  As you can imagine, not a favored verse by the ‘transgender community.” Reverend Spratt explained that anything that messes with God’s image or human sexuality (which is made in God’s image) is called an abomination by the Lord.  Of course the thought police think that anyone who calls transgenders or homosexuals an abomination are themselves abominable.  Which puts us into a difficult dilemma - Do we believe God’s word or current cultural beliefs and practices?  
Let’s say the thought police have taken over all government offices (or have they done that already?).    My pastor is found guilty of hate speech and (after refusing “reeducation”) “accidentally” dies in prison.  The rest of the church is put on notice.  We would certainly have the greatest respect and reverence for our martyred pastor who basically died for preaching God's Word.  We might even put a photograph of him on a wall in our church.  We might even have a yearly remembrance of his bravery and sacrifice.
I am sure this is how the veneration of the saints began.  Early Christians remembered their leaders who stood firm and loved not their life unto death.  Some of my former Soviet Union students - adults and mostly Baptists - have told me that in their churches in Ukraine and Russia, they fasted on Fridays for all of their loved ones who had been sent to Siberia and were never heard from again. Remembering our brothers and sisters in the faith who have sacrificed much is a good thing.  It puts our lives in proper perspective.  It reminds our children that at many times in history, being a Christian has required great sacrifice. It gives us courage to stand for difficult and unpopular positions.  There is one potential problem with this kind of veneration however.  
Synonyms of venerate include regard highly, reverence, worship, hold sacred, exalt, adore, honor, respect, and esteem.  The multi-faceted definitions of this word are part of the problem. To regard highly, respect, and honor a Christian (and fellow saint) who has lived and died for the Lord is good.  To worship, hold sacred, or exalt this person is not.  We are to only worship our God and creator. We are to only pray to him.  Praying to a fellow servant of Christ is idolatry. Jesus told us and showed us how to pray - we are to pray to our father in heaven, not to our brother who died before we were born.  Worshipful veneration of a human being does not happen in a person's life time. It takes time - at least a generation or two after a person has lived when most of his/her friends and family are dead - before one would consider praying to this person to ask for assistance. Because our acquaintances are well acquainted with their friends and families' many shortcomings. Even though I think my Pastor Spratt is a very nice man, if you actually knew him, it would probably not occur to you to pray to him.  Human beings only get that kind of reverence if no one actually knows them.

This extends to all the saints who have passed before me.  Even the Lord’s mother - who perhaps I would be tempted to kneel before if I ever met her - but I am most certain she would refuse this kind of attention as do the angels from heaven (Revelation 22:9).  “Look to my son,” she would say.  “Pray to our father in heaven.”

The Great Tribulation

“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world,” (John 16:33).

The term tribulation comes from an ancient agricultural tool that was used to separate the wheat from the chaff. The tribulum is a thick rectangular board that has sharp razor like blades which are used to cut up the wheat so when it is winnowed, the wheat kernel is easily separated from the straw or chaff.  The Greek word thilipisis is used 42 times in the New Testament.  The King James Bible usually translates it as tribulation, but other translations often use the terms affliction, anguish, burdened, persecution, pressure, and trouble instead. Besides wheat and barley harvest, thilipisis is also a term used for the grape harvest when the grapes are pressed down to release their juice.  Breaking up grains and crushing grapes is what humans do to increase their enjoyment of these crops. However people do not usually want to experience any breaking or crushing in their own lives because that sounds painful!   Very few among us volunteer for afflictions, burdens, and troubles except maybe those headed to the mission field.   However, if we view our Lord as the harvester who wants to enjoy his crops (his followers), perhaps we can see our problems in a better light.
When Jesus told John that in the world we (the followers of Jesus) will see tribulation this is an observation for all believers in all times.  Life itself is filled with trouble and pressure that beats us down.  When burdens, affliction, and persecutions are added to this we can feel the metaphorical blades of the tribulum cutting us up into small pieces.  The greater the trial, the more superfluous the worthless chaff in our life becomes.  We experience a divorce - how important is the steak we planned for dinner?  We find out a parent is dying - Do we even think about whether we can afford to buy the latest gizmo in those times? Sometimes it is not a sudden problem but a small trial that has been festering for a long time.  When unexpected troubles hit our faith either grows or shrivels up.   Has the word of life been planted in good soil or in rock?  If our faith grows, then we trust that when God is done winnowing us there will be something of value left behind - some wheat that can be ground into flour to make bread that nourishes others.
The most difficult affliction may come from circumstances out of our control.  Tribulation for believers is now occurring throughout the world.  Christians are being persecuted in many countries and even in the US, many see increased persecution in the near future.  However without the tribulum, we get no wheat.  The winnowing not only works within our life but also in the greater body of the church.  Tribulation separates the casual Christian from those who are willing to give up their lives.  And persecution gathers together those who claim to follow Jesus Christ.  When the chaff is blown away by the wind, I expect we will be delighted and surprised at who remains - especially those who worship in a different houses on Sundays.
Tribulation is a gift to the church and in our own life.  Tribulation tests our faith. It spots our weaknesses and our sins that yet need to be burned.  For the chaff that does not get blown away gets burned in the fire.  This shaking of the church is leaving behind what is true and good.  Yes, an occasional stone is left in the wheat, but this too will get picked out before the final grinding.  That grinding when flour is turned into bread and our lowly bodies are transformed into something beautiful and eternal.

The uniting factor of tribulation is perhaps the most exciting aspect, for although we strive for unity, it is really a work of the Holy Spirit.  Our unity will not be found in church affiliation, but in our our love and obedience to Jesus Christ.  This love and obedience is most evident when we stand together on his word and his creation.  In our day and time both marriage and gender seem to be the defining issues that bring us together or divide us.  For the Christian the issue is not political or cultural  but a matter of trust in God’s good and perfect design and in his word.   The instruments that the Lord uses to thresh us are different in different ages and cultures, but these instruments help us to grow in faith.  Faith in the final work of our bloody savior, his resurrection from the dead, and his glorious ascension to the right hand of the father.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Enormous Benefits of Fasting at Lent: How & Why

Did you know that the older you are, the more cancer cells there are right now lurking in your body?  The decay that we see as a whole when we age - less muscle, more aches and pains, poorer vision and teeth, etcetera etcetera - this decay is happening first on a cellular level.  Apoptosis is the technical term for programmed cell death. This is a good thing because our cells become old and junky - like food that has been sitting in the refrigerator for too long, it needs to be thrown away. Physical health problems and diseases can begin to develop in our bodies when the rotten food in the refrigerator is not thrown out.
The older we get, the more these bad cells accumulate.  The more bad cells we have, the faster we age and the greater our odds of getting sick.  We can assist in getting rid of these bad actors by encouraging autophagy  (which means self-eating).  The most effective way to promote autophagy is to fast.  Fasting is the absence of eating.  Our first meal of the day is called break-fast.  Most people go at least 8 hours a night without food, so in a sense we have all fasted.  However the most effective fasting lasts 24 hours (which is how long it takes to burn up most of the energy present in our liver and intestinal tract).  Fortunately  fasting is flexible - there is more than one way to go about it.  I will define fasting as going without any food, certain foods, or severely limiting calories for a specific period of time.  
The benefits of fasting are being rediscovered by science and health practitioners.  “The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine recently went to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries into the mechanisms of autophagy. .. His work has already led to a better understanding of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's and type 2 diabetes.  Pharmaceutical companies are trying to produce drugs that imitate autophagy, but the easiest and quickest way to get your cells to eat themselves is through not feeding them food.   Although the biological mechanics of autophagy  have not been previously well understood, the benefits of autophagy by fasting have been known for millennium.  Fasting is the original method of healing and is more than likely intuitively practiced by your pets and children when they are sick.  When I googled “testimonies of diseases cured by fasting” I got 380,000+ results.  If you are part of a religious community, you might be surprised at the stories people can tell you from their experiences fasting.  For example, a girlfriend of mine had been trying for many years to get pregnant.  She had a severe case of Endometriosis which is very painful and often prevents conception.  Her husband and her fasted and prayed for three days for her to get pregnant.  God answered their prayers; they got pregnant (3 times in the following years - all boys), and her endometriosis was cured - it never came back.
Many religions practice some form of fasting.  In the past decade the Mediterranean Diet has been touted as the best for health and longevity.  However, most of the studies proving its effectiveness have failed to mention that fasting plays an important role of life of these people.  It is possible that it is the fasting which has more health benefits than the diet. Three of the four original studies were conducted in Crete, Corfu in Greece, and Dalmatia in Croatia.  The researchers studied what the people ate, but they neglected to note the importance of the fast in their Greek Orthodox lives.  The Greek Orthodox calendar has numerous days for fasting. There are short term total fasts from all food and drink before communion and special feasts or holy days.  Lent and three other extended time periods during the year have partial fasts from meat and often from dairy products, olive oil, and wine - also the size or number of meals can be decreased during those times.   Partial fasting is also encouraged on Wednesdays, Fridays, and other special days.   This adds up to over half of the calendar year!  I think it’s safe to say we are all slackers in the fasting department compared to Greek Orthodox.  Not every church member participates in every fast, and exceptions are made for children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and people who do hard physical labor.  Abstaining from sex and worldly entertainment are included in the fasting.  Fasting is (or was in the 1960’s) a part of their community.  However, feasting and celebration with large groups of family and friends are also integral parts of their life and religion.  Both fasting and feasting are good gifts from a good God.
In the Western church, Lent is the best known time for fasting for Christians, and I think it is the best time for people to learn how to fast.  There are a couple of reasons for this: First our ancestors naturally ate a little less this time of year.  In farming societies, there is less food available at the end of February and March.  There is naturally less of the vegetables, grains, and meat that were harvested in summer and fall.  The second reason is it’s also a little warmer.  It is very difficult to fast when it is very cold outside - our bodies want to eat more to stay warm.  And even though much of the US is still quite cold at this time of year, it feels warm compared to December and January.  The third reason is that millions of other Christian are fasting around the world during Lent.
I remember back in my New Age days a saying - “There is no spiritual hitch-hiking.” This meant that just because people around you, for example, were meditating, it doesn’t mean you will reap their benefits if you are not meditating as much as they are.  However in Christianity, we do have spiritual hitch-hiking.  Jesus said when two or more are gathered in his name, he will be there too.  I think the Holy Spirit is more noticeably present in people who are fasting, and we can receive this blessing into our life.  So if you have never fasted, Lent is a great time to begin.  Even if you go to a church where Lent is not observed, some of your fellow parishioners are more than likely observing some form of the fast.
The easiest way to begin fasting it to extend your time of not eating.  If you usually finish your last meal at 8 pm and begin your first meal at 8 am, you are already fasting 12 hours a day. You could eat dinner an hour earlier and breakfast an hour later.  Then eat the same meals as usual, but without meat and sugar.  That is a fast day.  If you want to try going completely without food, start with the biblical day which is evening.  If you eat lunch - skip dinner and breakfast the next morning and eat again at lunch, that is a 24 hour fast.  Congratulations, it wasn’t that difficult was it?  I would encourage people new to fasting not to start a fast in the morning.  If you don’t eat for a full day and night, it is actually a 36 hour fast when you begin eating again which is more difficult.
Many of the medical studies on fasting actually allow 500-600 calories a day during a fast day.  When I do this, for example, I have a whey protein shake (120 calories) for breakfast.  Soup broth with a little meat and vegetables or two small baked potatoes with salt and vinegar for lunch and/or dinner add another 350 - 400 calories. If I get especially hungry, I can add another whey shake or a couple of nuts with salt for an afternoon snack or for a dessert after dinner.  The advantage of this method of fasting is that your hunger hormones (ghrelin) are programmed to increase at your usual eating times. So by putting something in your stomach at these times, you experience less hunger.
Children (girls under 16 and boys under 18), pregnant and nursing mothers, people who have physically demanding jobs, and severely sick and underweight individuals might prefer to try a few partial fast days during Lent.  A day without meat, sugar, and flour would be beneficial for health and for spiritual discipline.  Beans and rice are classic stand-ins for meat (and are the major foods gratefully consumed by most of the world’s citizens). Some people prefer liquid or juice fasting - although too much juice from fruit and sweet vegetables (carrots, beets) raise insulin levels and hunger.  I like bone marrow and vegetable broths during a fast, and these keep insulin levels lower.
So far I have discussed a little about the health benefits of fasting, but there are also spiritual benefits. Protestants have generally been negligent on the spiritual discipline of fasting.  In recent years, however, fasting has in Charismatic circles.  Fasting was not discouraged at the beginning of the reformation.  Even our esteemed teacher and prophet John Calvin promoted the benefits of fasting.  “A holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not wanton, or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him,” ( Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, xii, 15).  I believe there are even more reason to fast than this.  Jesus told his disciples that they would fast when the bridegroom was gone (Matthew 9:15).  He also said “when you fast” not “if you fast.”  When we replace food and eating with bible study and prayer, we can reap a closer relationship with our Lord.  Two of the most significant spiritual events in my life (30 years apart) occurred during or right after three days of fasting. I wasn’t expecting these gifts from the Holy Spirit - and it actually took me a while to recognize what they were, but an increased sense of the presence of the Lord is often reported by people who fast.  Insights, the breaking of harmful bonds, and direction or clarity of vision can also come from fasting.
It is important to break a longer fast carefully.  It is natural to be hungry when breaking a very limited or no calorie fast.  You might eat an extra 100 to 300 calories for a meal or two following a fast, but don’t break a fast at a potluck or you might have trouble trying to stop eating.  As with anything, practice makes perfect.  Start with small fasting goals and slowly graduate to more difficult goals.  Some of the physical benefits you will experience from limited calorie fasts will be increased energy, less pain, and a sense of joy.  
Fasting is a great gift for a healthy body and a healthy spirit.   However, it is only been in the last week or so as I was thinking about writing this article that I realized the connection between some spiritual experiences I have had and fasting.  Now I am feeling joy and anticipating what good thing the Lord will do the next time I fast.   The health benefits of fasting are very good, but what I really look forward to are the spiritual benefits.

For more ways to encourage autophagy besides fasting read