Monday, April 18, 2011

Act Like Men

    Over the last three days, I've been doing some thinking related to the thoughts I penned in my last post, "Men Are Not Beautiful." In particular, I was reminded of a single verse, or rather, a single phrase from the final chapter of the Apostle Paul's letter to the Corinthians. The words had caught my eye while Pastor John Neufeld was reading the chapter, during his sermon on the Sunday in February that my friend Alison and I became official members of Willingdon Church (Joining The Body @ Willingdon!). It reads as follows:

    "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong." (1 Corinthians 16:13, ESV)

    "Act like men". That phrase has stayed in my mind over the last two months since that service. Act like men. "Be a man!" is a phrase I hear so many people utter, both women and men. The intended target is usually an individual of the male gender, who does not seem to be living up to some expectation of what a "real" man should look like. I must admit at this point that my own experience has caused me to personally and passionately detest this phrase, whether it happens to be uttered by men or women. It irritates me to no end when I hear it, because more often than not, I've heard it used in an incredibly flippant manner without much thought. But until I can articulate my thoughts on this matter with some clarity, I think I'll reserve it for future posts. One thing I do know is that in the case and context of 1 Corinthians 16:13, neither the phrase "act like men" or the Apostle Paul irritates me when I read it; I have confidence in the man and that he knows what he speaks of.

    But the phrase also reminded me of a little passage that I had read some years ago in the book "Every Man's Battle: Winning The War On Sexual Temptation, One Victory At A Time" by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker. In the chapter "Just By Being Male", Arterburn and Stoeker began by pointing out that the damaging effects of the sin of Adam have touched all men that have followed him, particularly in four main tendencies related to the area of sexual purity. The opening subsection was titled "Men Are Rebellious By Nature", with some very interesting observations - namely, that "our maleness brings a natural, uniquely male form of rebelliousness. This natural tendency gives us the arrogance needed to stop short of God's standards. As men, we'll often choose sin simply because we like our own way". But then, they went on to quote a small paragraph from the book "Straight Talk To Men and Their Wives" by Dr. James Dobson:

    "The straight life of a working pulling your tired frame out of bed, five days a week, fifty weeks out of the year. It is earning a two-week vacation in August, and choosing a trip that will please the kids. The straight life is spending your money wisely when you'd rather indulge in a new whatever; it is taking your son bike riding on Saturday when you so badly want to watch the baseball game; it is cleaning out the garage on your day off after working sixty hours the previous week. The straight life is coping with head colds and engine tune-ups and crab grass and income tax forms; it is taking your family to church on Sunday when you have heard every idea the minister has to offer; it is giving a portion of your income to God's work when you already wonder how ends will meet."

    I will honestly admit that when I first read this, my first reaction was incredulity. I had never heard it put  this way before. And when I heard the phrase in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, my reaction was quite similar to when I first read the little excerpt above:

    That's awesome; I love the idea of the "straight life"! But why does it feel like rolling a big stone uphill? I wish someone would help me!

    See, I don't have a problem with anything that Paul, Arterburn or Dobson have written in their individual thoughts and exhortations towards men. If anything, I've been edified and encouraged by them, and other men like John Eldredge, who wrote "Wild At Heart". But I guess it's the frustration and hurt I sometimes feel when I hit obstacles. I'll confess that I've felt irritated at some of the thoughtless statements I've heard from both men and women, when I'm trying to take effort to grow and change - some of which come across as plain mockery and ridicule. On other occasions, I feel like I'm just faced with blank stares and have to roll a big stone uphill in order to get other people to understand what I'm trying to communicate. Or felt brushed aside like an annoying mosquito that people would rather hit with a fly swatter. Sometimes I've felt I'm being put on trial by those closest to me, who assume the role of the "prosecution" and cross-examine without mercy: "You're not being/doing/trying/living/sharing/caring/thinking/planning/leading/following/talking/etc. about such-and-such in so-and-so manner. What's wrong with you? Be a real man! You need to man up!"

    "Man up". That phrase has been so abused, that I have now come to loathe it with the kind of revulsion that one would reserve for lecherous lowlifes. And I'm pretty sure there are many other men who feel the same way. I don't think that people who roll it off their tongue with such fluency and frequency really know what they're talking about. I similarly doubt that if most were to be asked what a "real" man is, would know how to describe one. And I think that's the point:

    One cannot issue an order to be a "real" man, if there is cluelesness as to the specification of what a "real" man should be.

    Having said all this, I will be the first to admit that I am not anywhere near attaining the title of "Real Man." I am fully aware that I have an ever-growing list of flaws, some of which of which I have become aware of and written extensively about over the last five-odd months (e.g. The Story Of My Life). In short, I am male, and I am a sinner. But that's also why I can quietly listen to Paul the Apostle, and urge other men to do so, for he writes as one sinning man to other sinning men, indeed as "the chief of sinners" as he describes himself in 1 Timothy 1:12. Paul is credible in urging his recipients to "act like men" because as one who understands, he does not resort to verbal decimation for the sake of extracting "manly" behaviour. Instead, in all his writings, he consistently begins with a recognition of the person of Christ as the prototype for all men, Christ the Real Man. I once read in a commentary on the passage of Philippians 2:5-11, that Jesus was the only real human being who ever walked the face of the earth, for He demonstrated for us what true humanity was all about. And I believe this, not someone's demands to "man up!", is what gives motivation, purpose, hope and meaning to the struggle to act like men - because men are assured that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15, ESV).

    Someone once told me that "in the end, it will not be about how many times you fell, or how hard, or how far; what will eventually matter is whether you sought the grace of God through the cross of Christ, to get back up on your feet and keep running till the finish line." I believe they were merely echoing Paul, who at the end of his life wrote: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Hence forth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing."

    Acting like a man and living the "straight life" is predicated upon first being a man. And being a man is tough. But through Christ, for Christ and no one else, it is possible. And it is worth it. Time to go to bed; there's work to be done tomorrow and the "straight life" is calling :)
- The Wisdom Seeker

Monday, April 11, 2011

Men Are Not Beautiful

   Last Wednesday, I got to lead a Willingdon young adult's small group for the first time. Although I had led small groups at SFU while I was doing graduate school, they were always mostly filled with friends that I had known for some time. This was the first time that I was leading a small group where almost everyone was new, as well as hosting it at my house. As things went (quite well ^^), we were doing a study of John 19:1-16 on which the sermon of last week was based, titled "Behold Your King!". One of the initial questions asked in the study notes was: "If you were to describe the perfect man (or woman) by our culture’s standards, what characteristics would you use to describe them?"

    After the Bible study got over, I recalled a poem that I had seen on a Vancouver bus last December, as part of a series commemorating poets of British Columbia. Written by a poet named Kate Braid and titled "The Beauty of Men", the poem went as follows:
"The Beauty of Men" (Taken on a Vancouver Bus)

"It is not violence, but muscle-the force to do-
curling and bent and burning

They deny it. Hide it. Rip it out
With hammers and knives and guns, even crosses
if they have to.

These are the signs of the beauty of men:
set jaw, the shimmer of muscle
eager to lift beyond any limit, lost

in the wild pleasure of motion. They will move the world
with their own two hands, force it if they have to, doing
what mere thought didn't know had to be done."

    As I reflected on this poem and all that our culture uses to talk of, describe and envision men that they admire or perceive to be ideal - whether the mythological Achilles and Hector of Homer's Illiad, or the icons of our present time. The parameters are as vast as they are superficial, and as demanding as they are elusive - physique, fame, wealth, power, prestige, enemies killed, drive, ambition, success, looks, athletic ability, property, lineage, social status, glamour, sexual conquest, capacity for alcohol, toys, clothing, vehicle that they drive...

    And in the midst of the posers and self-styled sophisticates, my mind's eye falls on Jesus, as He emerges from the pages of John 19:1-16 - having not slept for 30 hours, tried, beaten, mocked, spat on, and finally put through the Roman 'verberatio' with every indignity and shame possible heaped upon Him. I thought I'd quote John Neufeld from the detailed description that he provided during his sermon:

   "In Roman law, there were in fact, three described, one more severe than another, whippings that were to be given for numerous offenses. The most severe whippings, the one that Matthew and Mark speak about, that happened at the end, was called by the Romans, the Latin word is the 'verberatio'.

   The verberatio was a whipping that was terrible beyond belief. During the verberatio, the victim was stripped naked, and he was tied to a post, and then he was beaten not by one, but at least two soldiers with whips so that they would beat one after the other as drumstrokes would come down...I've also pointed out in the past that the whip that would have been used was a leather whip made of numerous strands and each strand would have found, in that strand, braided bits of bone, and braided bits of metal, perhaps braided bits of lead with hooks in them so that when the whip goes down and its pulled up it tears out the flesh from the victim. In normal cases the verberatio would have gone on until the soldiers, who were battle-hardened men in physical condition would then have become so weary that they simply couldn't lift their arms to go on. From the eyewitness accounts that we have in our day, from the verberatio, that whipping, we find that a number of them describe that large sections of the bone would have been exposed in the victim, and in some cases, intestines would have been left hanging out of the back. Many died of this treatment. 

   That is why, when Jesus received the second whipping, recorded in Matthew and Mark, He could not even carry his own cross, his body was simply beginning to fail Him, and go into shock...and because Ceasar would sometimes wear what was called the 'radian corona', that is the olive leaf around his head...they make His radian corona, and they made it out of thorns. Many bible teachers believe that the kind of thorns that would have likely to have been used come from the date palm, which is abundant in that area. The date palm, interestingy enough, has thorns that are up to 12 inches long. They are huge, they are like spikes. And if this is right, they would have taken this and it would not have been just prickly things, but would have been spikes that would have driven into His skull. The response would have been an instant result in heavy bleeding, and would as many commentators have pointed out, would have distorted His facial features...His appearance in the end, by the time He was on the Cross was then so marred that He was unrecognizable."

    When I first heard this delivery, I was left in silence. I am still rendered silent as I listen to it now. In the midst of the political/cultural/academic/musical/mythical personalities that we put on pedestals and ascribe titles such as "icon", "visionary", "revolutionary", "guru", "trailblazer", "figurehead", "iconoclast" "powerhouse", "maestro", the person of Jesus seems ludicrous. The idea of giving Him any recognition is laughable to those who would would point to 'common sense'. Yet as one approaches the indistinct silhouette of this figure, He swells to towering proportions over all who aspire to be given titles and remembered. Long after the Shakespeares and Ceasars have vanished off the historical landscape, the Christ and His cross still overpower the imagination of all who come to know Him - including me.

    The more I come know to Jesus, the more I am forced to ask the proverbial question: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?" And the image that appears is not me. Or any other human being I know.

And the more I know my Christ, I don't want it to be me. It must never be me. Ever.

    Psalm 147:10 says of God that: "His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who delight in his steadfast love." Romans 3:11-12 quotes Ps. 14:1-3 and 53:1-3 in saying: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." And in a scathing indictment against us, John 3:19 says of Jesus: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil."

    There is nothing beautiful about men who do not want Jesus. But there is everything beautiful to be found in the Christ, the only perfect Lamb of God. Even as His suffering is just beginning, as He stands in the horror of all that has been done to Him and awaits His crucifixion, my Master is beautiful.

May I not be ashamed of His beauty; May I not turn my face away from Him.
- The Wisdom Seeker

Sunday, April 3, 2011

You Call This "God"?

    While planning for "Redeeming Marriage" is still underway, I've been getting back to my reading of "The Cross of Christ", which I wrote about in "I Must Know Him." I've just made it through the foreword and the first 9-10 pages of the opening section, "Approaching The Cross", and it's already given me cause for much reflection. So I thought I'd put some of my thoughts down here in my apartment's laundry room, while waiting for my clothes to go through the drying cycle. The more I read of Stott, the more conscious I am of my ignorance regarding the depth behind Christ and the Cross.

    At the same time, Pastor John delivered two insightful sermons over last week and today. Titled "What Is Truth?" and "Behold Your King!", respectively, they were a detailed look at the Gospel narrative of the events leading up to Christ's crucifixion. Cautioning us that we sometimes come to the Cross and the statement 'Jesus died' too quickly, he wished to provide a detailed backdrop of the historical and cultural context of the events leading up to the actual crucifixion. Together, John Stott and John Neufeld reminded me that like many others, I too am culpable of skimming over the surface, neglectful of the import of all that lies beneath the statement 'Jesus died on the Cross'. In particular, I was reminded of one of the most crucial implications that I need to keep in mind if I want to understand Jesus better by starting at the Cross:

    The Cross is confounding to human intellect, for God chose to reveal His beauty and glory in an essentially shameful and humiliating death on a horrific instrument of torture devised by his own creation.

    Tracing the historical emergence of the Cross as the symbol by which early Christians chose to identify themselves, Stott wrote:

    "The Christians' choice of the cross as the symbol of their faith is more surprising when we remember the horror with which crucifixion was regarded in the ancient world...How could any sane person worship as a god a dead man who had been justly condemned as a criminal and subjected to the most humiliating form of execution? This combination of death, crime and shame put him beyond the pale of respect, let alone of worship...It is probably the most cruel method of execution ever practiced, for it delibrately delayed death until maximum torture had been inflicted. The victim could suffer for days before dying...Cicero in his speeches condemned it as crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium, 'a most cruel and disgusting punishment'".

    Reading that, I went back a few pages and reflected on Stott's observation that of all the possible symbols that the early church could have chosen to identify themselves, they did not choose "the crib or the manger in which the baby Jesus was laid, or the carpenter's bench at which he worked as a young man in Nazareth, dignifying manual labor, or the boat from which he taught the crowds in Galilee, or the apron he wore when washing the apostles' feet, which would have spoken of his spirit of humble service. Then there was the stone, which having been rolled from the mouth of Joseph's tomb, would have proclaimed His resurrection. Other possibilities were the throne, symbol of divine sovereignty, which John in his vision saw that Jesus was sharing, or the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit sent from Heaven on the Day of Pentecost. But instead the chosen symbol came to be a simple cross."

    In the process of better trying to understand all that I'm coming across, I'm realizing that I need to develop a better understanding of and respect for the history and traditions of the church over it's 2,000 year history. I think I'm often too dismissive of the sincere traditions and practices of those who have gone on before, without researching their history and asking the all-important question - "Why?". It's sobering as I think of countless men and women of almost two thousand years past who have given their lives under suffering, persecution and ridicule so that the essential truth of the Cross and the Gospel might be preserved, because it was precious to them. I'm so often ignorant of all this, taking so much that I have for granted. I was especially reminded of this in the closing paragraph of the section that I stopped at in "The Cross of Christ":

    "So then, whether their background was Roman or Jewish or both, the early enemies of Christianity lost no opportunity to ridicule the claim that God's anointed and mans' Saviour ended His life on a cross. The idea was crazy. This is well illustrated by a graffito from the second century, discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome, on the wall of a house considered by some scholars to have beenused as a school for imperial pages. It is the first surviving picture of the crucifixion, and is a caricature. A crude drawing depicts, stretched on a cross, a man with the head of a donkey. To the left stands another man, with one arm raised in worship. Unevenly scribbled underneath are the words ALEXAMENOS CEBETE THEON, 'Alaxamenos worships God.'...Whatever the origin of the accusation of donkey-worship (which was attributed to both Jews and Christians), it was the concept of worshiping a crucified man which was being held up to derision."

    I looked up a picture of this artifact on Google, and have put it below:

"ALAXAMENOS CEBETE THEON" (Alaxamenos woships God)
    As I close this post, I am reminded of the words of Christ in Mark 8:38: "For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels." The author of the letter of Hebrews encouraged its recipients to endure, "looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2, ESV).

    As incredible as the shame of the Cross is to those who contemplate it, it seems that the greater shame comes upon those who having encountered it, find only an object of comedy and ridicule. 

May I not be ashamed of the road that my Master walked on.

- The Wisdom Seeker