Mark of the Beast

The original Toy Story movie opens by immediately introducing us to a cowboy toy named Woody. Woody knows what it means to belong to something amazing—to commit his life to Andy and adhere to the principles and lifestyle of Andy’s toybox. The other toys look up to him, rely on him for guidance, and trust in his wisdom and knowledge. Woody realized his purpose in life, and that the purpose for all the toys in Andy’s room is to be loved and adored by Andy. Woody is committed to convincing others that belonging to Andy, and being loved by Andy, is what it means to be a toy.

When Buzz Lightyear comes on the scene, he has no clue who he is. Buzz is delusional, thinks he’s in control, and is suffering from an identity crisis. When he realizes that he’s not a real space ranger, he “literally” falls to the ground. When Buzz’s life comes crashing down, Woody’s there to “literally” pick up the pieces. Buzz learns from Woody what it means to be a toy; what it means to belong to Andy, and that the ultimate purpose for all toys is to love and be loved.

Andy’s name, written in permanent ink, signifies the love he has for his toys. The toys are marked, and they can refer to their owner’s name whenever they question his love—whenever they doubt who they truly are. Andy’s name is the sign and seal of Andy’s love.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Mark of the Beast” as described in Revelation 13:15–18 and Revelation 14:9–12, and how it could be related to the COVID-19 vaccination. Let’s unpack this appropriately and within context. In our Twitter and Facebook world, we all have the tendency to microblog our way through life and when it comes to interpreting Scripture, recapitulating something in 140 characters or less results in the abhorrent abuse of exegesis outside of the Bible’s original context.

Revelation 13:15–18 reads: “The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”

Immediately following, Revelation 14:9–12 reads: “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’ This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”

The book of Revelation is a piece of Apocalyptic literature written by the apostle John while he was in exile on the island of Patmos, around A.D. 90. John wrote Revelation to Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire in order to provide instruction, guidance, and encouragement during great persecution under Roman oppression. John uses symbolism and provides riddles in this piece of literature and he anticipates that his readers are equipped to recognize and interpret these symbols and solve these riddles in the first century. As most Apocalyptic literature from the first century, Revelation is teeming with references from the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.

Throughout the Old Testament, the right hand is a symbolic term for a position of power—the power of God. 

“I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8).

“For I am the Lord your God
    who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
    I will help you” (Isa. 41:13).

“Your right hand, Lord,
    was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord,
    shattered the enemy” (Exod. 15:6).

Not only that, but the Old Testament also makes a connection between a seal or a sign or a mark on the hand and forehead as belonging to God or submitting to whomever that seal, sign, or mark represents. 

“And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand” (Exod. 13:16)

“Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Deut. 6:8).

Even in the book of Revelation, John alludes to this fact that those who have God’s seal or mark on their foreheads signifies that they belong to God.

“They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Rev. 9:4).

Obvious to his audience, John is comparing and contrasting those who “belong” to God with those who “belong” to the Antichrist. Furthermore, the identity of this Antichrist was also obvious to John’s audience. 

On July 18, A.D. 64, a fire began in the shops at the Circus Maximus in the city of Rome and raged for nine days. Nearly two-thirds of Rome burned, and hundreds died. Most of the populace knew that the Emperor Nero started the fire, but he blamed the Christians. He threw Christians to the dogs, nailed them to crosses, and burned them alive. It was obvious to early Christians that Nero was a great persecutor of their faith. Eusebius called him “the first that persecuted this doctrine” (II.25.4). Tertullian said Nero was “the first emperor who dyed his sword in Christian blood, when our religion was but just arising at Rome” (Apology, V). After Nero committed suicide by stabbing himself in the neck, there was a widespread belief that he would return from the dead (Rev. 13:12). For decades after Nero’s death, imposters arose claiming to be the resurrected Nero. This concept of Nero as the Antichrist continued to pervade the Roman Empire at the time John was writing his Apocalypse.

In the Testament of Hezekiah, Isaiah writes that the Antichrist will manifest himself as the incarnation of the dead Nero:

“And after it [the world] has been brought to completion, Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother—this is the king of the world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted; some of the twelve will be given into his hand. This angel, Beliar, will come in the form of that king, and with him will come all the powers of this world, and they will obey him in every wish….And he will do everything he wishes in the world; he will act and speak like the Beloved, and will say, ‘I am the Lord, and before me there was no one.’ And all men in the world will believe in him” (IV.1-8).

As far as the mark is concerned, in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, letters also represented numerals. You can then assign values to letters. By adding these values, numbers can then represent words and names. John’s audience knew this, and he even points it out to them. He writes: “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Rev. 13:18). John knew that several readers of Revelation have the wisdom to put two and two together. He’s not writing to someone 2000 years later. He knows some of his readers have the wisdom to figure out who this man is. This method of assigning numbers to letters is known as isopsephia by the Greeks and gematria by the Hebrew-speaking Jews. When applying isopsephia to the name Nero, the number happens to be 666.

This wasn’t shocking to the Jews of John’s day and it shouldn’t be shocking to us. John is suggesting that those who swear their allegiance to Nero are wearing his mark upon their head or their hand, and those who swear their allegiance to God are wearing God’s mark upon their head or their hand. Unfortunately, in the Roman empire, sometimes you had to swear your allegiance to the emperor in order to buy or sell goods. Furthermore, the emperor’s mark was “literally” on their currency. If you didn’t possess money marked with the face of Nero in your hand, you “literally” couldn’t buy anything. 

Now, let’s get back to the COVID-19 vaccine. The people who received the mark of the beast in the book of Revelation knew what they were doing. They weren’t deceived into receiving the mark and it had nothing to do with protecting themselves from a deadly airborne virus. If God torments someone for all eternity for doing something they were tricked into doing in order to save their lives and the lives of others, I don’t think I want to worship that God. If you have a valid reason for not getting the vaccine, I completely understand. If you’re afraid of side-effects…fine. If you don’t think it’s been researched enough…fine. If you’re unwilling to make a small sacrifice for the betterment of society…fine. Those are reasonable excuses. I don’t want to hear you complain about the pandemic, however, because you’re perpetuating the problem by not contributing to the solution. But fine. Misinterpreting Scripture to rationalize your cowardice and condemning your family and friends to torture upon burning sulfur and watching the smoke of their torment rise for ever and ever is—in my most humble opinion—cruel, crazy, and definitely not Christ-like.


Sacrifice

                                                            


“This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

—King Henry V, Henry V by William Shakespeare

“So the boy…the boy must die?” asked Snape quite calmly.
“And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential.”
Another long silence. Then Snape said, “I thought…all these years…that we were protecting him for her. For Lily.”
“We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength,” said Dumbledore, his eyes still tight shut. “Meanwhile, the connection between them grows ever stronger, a parasitic growth: Sometimes I have thought he suspects it himself. If I know him, he will have arranged matters so that when he does set out to meet his death, it will truly mean the end of Voldemort.”
Dumbledore opened his eyes. Snape looked horrified.
“You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?”
“Don’t be shocked, Severus. How many men and women have you watched die?”
“Lately, only those whom I could not save,” said Snape. He stood up. “You have used me.”
“Meaning?”
“I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter!”

                           —Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Valar Morghulis” (“All men must die”)

                        —Game of Thrones

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!”

                        —William Wallace, Braveheart

Moments after the temptation and the power of The Ring consumed his heart, Boromir redeemed himself by protecting Merry and Pippin from the onslaught of Uruk-Hai. One arrow after another pierced his torso as he struggled to fight off his enemy. He dies saving the Hobbits and urging the Fellowship to continue in their sacrificial journey to save Middle Earth.

Held up on a bridge, leaning against a motorcycle, on the outskirts of Ramelle, Captain John H. Miller makes his final stand after losing six out of eight Rangers from his company in order to save one man: Private First-Class James Francis Ryan.

I chose six meaningful scenes from stage and screen in order to illustrate the natural, visceral, human response to self-sacrifice. Sacrificial themes instill in us a sense of humility, compassion, and honor? We find ourselves responding to speeches by William Wallace and Henry V. We feel compelled to stand beside Boromir, Captain John H. Miller, and Arya Stark when they rush into battle without a semblance of cowardice. Tears flow down our cheeks when Harry Potter gives his life so his friends have a chance to live.

Why?

Truth be told, the entirety of human civilization is the result of self-sacrifice. The spread of Christianity and the success of the American Experient both rest on the shoulders of those who sacrificed their lives in order to instigate and propagate that in which they wholly believed to be true and right. If this wasn’t true, sayings like “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” or “Freedom doesn’t come without a price” wouldn’t be regularly displayed on the back of pickup trucks next to their “JUST SAY NO TO VACCINES” bumper stickers. 

In the infamous chapter on biblical heroes of great faith and action, Hebrews 11, we read about a son of a harlot named Jephthah. Since the author of Hebrews said he didn’t have time to go into detail about Jephthah, we have to go back and find out what he did. I’m convinced that the author of Hebrews mentioned Jephthah because of the sacrifice not only made by Jephthah, but the sacrifice made by his daughter. While fighting against the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, promising that if he was victorious over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing to come out of his house to meet him when he returned. Seems like a very risky oath to make. Jephthah defeats the Ammonites and returns home. When he arrives, who comes out of his house? An old goat or a wooly sheep? Maybe a chicken? Nope! Shockingly, his daughter walks out his front door. Weird! So, now he has to sacrifice his daughter, because he keeps the promises he makes to God. Jephthah is devastated, but his daughter consoles him. She agrees to make this sacrifice in order for her father to maintain his integrity (Judges 11). To me, she deserves mention in Hebrews 11 more than Jephthah, but I digress. The essence of Jephthah’s heroism is self-sacrifice.

I would boldly say, that the essence of our faith in Jesus Christ is self-sacrifice. What does it mean to say that I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins? What does it mean to confess one’s sins and pledge to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior? After Peter finally declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter rebuked Jesus and was like “No Way!” Jesus responds to Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:16–24). 

Sounds like self-sacrifice to me.

A friend of mine just posted a quote on Instagram by Reverend Ben Cremer that read, “If we Christians somehow arrive at the conclusion that giving up some personal liberties for the sake of other people’s safety somehow makes us less free, then we have deeply misunderstood the cross.” Really makes you think doesn’t it? 

Getting vaccinated—if you can—or wearing a mask to prevent respiratory droplets from infecting others around you is a small sacrifice to pay in order to save lives, isn’t it? How can we honor and remember the lives of those who sacrificed far more for the betterment of our society and the freedoms we enjoy, while at the same time refuse to make this simple and minute change to our lifestyle? 

How can we, without a hint of irony, embrace the assurance of our salvation that was paid for by the Son of the living God while at the same time refuse to save the lives of others by wearing a mask or injecting a safe and effective vaccine in our arms? 

The foundation of our country and our faith is self-sacrifice. We have honored our heroes from the cradle of civilization for the sacrifices they’ve made in order to save lives and provide us with freedom, liberty, happiness, and redemption. Why wouldn’t we want to be in good company with the heroes rather than hiding behind our pithy slogans written on bumper stickers?


Millstones

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” —Romans 13:1–5

Can we all please stop interpreting this passage so narrowly as to condone leadership no matter what direction those leaders take us? 

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Twenty-eight days later, the Reichstag is set ablaze. Two days after that, hundreds are arrested as the Nazis round up their political opponents. On March 15, Hitler proclaimed the Third Reich. Five days later, Dachau, the first concentration camp, was completed and ready to open. On March 21, 1933, Protestant theologian Otto Dibelius preached a sermon at the “Day of Potsdam” in which he invoked Romans 13 to urge all German Christians to support Hitler and the Nazi regime. Dibelius proclaimed that Martin Luther taught that Christians should always support the state even when the state acts hard and ruthlessly. We all know how that turned out. 

Years later, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer urged Christians to refrain from such a narrow and blind interpretation of Scripture. They wrote powerful anti-Nazi theological treatises in hopes of convincing Christians in Germany that the actions of Jesus and Paul contradicted this narrow reading of the Roman epistle. 

One can’t help but process the events that have occurred for the first six weeks of 2021. After years of stoking the fires of insurrection and propagating lies of fraud and corruption all under the guise of conservative leadership while obtaining the support from Evangelical Christian leaders throughout the United States, Donald J. Trump incited a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol to overturn a fair election. The very fabric of democracy and the entire United States experiment was undermined. 

How can one blindly follow and submit to a leader who does that? Why would one ignore the whole of Scripture that calls us to strive for justice, to seek mercy, to walk humbly with our Creator, to calmly and peacefully resist anyone who threatens the unalienable rights and freedoms of ALL human beings? While at the same time, those same people invoke a narrow reading of a specific passage from a specific letter written to a specific church in Rome, under a specific ruler, undergoing specific circumstances, at a specific time. 

Romans 13 reads, “the authorities that exist have been established by God.” God provides these leaders with gifts, power, and skills to lead their people effectively and nobly. So, what happens when our leaders misuse the gifts, talents, power, and authority bestowed upon them by God to mislead others, incite violence, or even murder those who may oppose them or prevent them from fulfilling their desires? Does God automatically remove them from power? No. 

In fact, in almost all examples of this in Scripture, God raises up noble people who go about removing that individual from his position of authority. On a few occasions, a millstone plays an important role in that removal.

After Gideon died, his son Abimelek murdered his seventy brothers and had the people of Shechem crown him king. Only Abimelek’s youngest brother, Jotham, escaped his wrath. Before going into hiding, Jotham cursed his older brother and the people of Shechem saying that someday, in the near future, they would turn on each other. This curse obviously came true or I wouldn’t have mentioned it. When it did come to fruition, Abimelek had pursued the people of Shechem into a strong tower. The people locked themselves inside the tower and climbed to the roof. As Abimelek approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman on the roof dropped a millstone on his head (Judges 9). Ouch!

We hear about this story again after David sent Bathsheba’s husband Uriah back to the front lines in hopes that the enemy would kill Uriah, widowing Bathsheba and covering up his indiscretion. David’s general, Joab, recalls the millstone that was dropped on Abimelek’s head as a reminder of the dangers that occur when you venture too close to a building (2 Samuel 11). Scripture brings up this story to remind us of something else.

One thousand years later, Jesus mentions a millstone again. Jesus says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18).

I’m beginning to think that when a millstone shows up, it may be a sign that someone is skirting his or her responsibilities; that they’re failing to actualize God’s purpose for their life; that a leader’s power is out of control; that you’ve caused someone to stumble. This millstone isn’t there to help you grind wheat into flour. It’s probably there to teach you a lesson. In Scripture, that lesson doesn’t end well for the leader. 

Our leaders need to be held accountable. As Christians, we can’t politicize this situation. Millstones need to show up. Maybe we don’t throw one from the top of the roof at Mara Lago onto his head or wrap one around his neck and throw him into Atlantic Ocean, but we don’t just stand idly by and use Romans 13 as an excuse to do nothing. Leaders are ordained by God, but they are held to higher standards as well. When they fail and lead others astray, they need to be held accountable to those high standards. God will raise up noble people—and sometimes a large millstone—to do just that.


Less is More

“We won’t be banging on drums to let them know we’re coming”

—Ygritte, Game of Thrones

I always found ancient warfare fascinating. Even the not-so-ancient warfare is interesting to its very core. Battles were fought on an agreed-upon field and victory typically lied with the numbers. Battalions marched toward one another, carrying flags or banners and banging on drums. Soldiers knew their enemy’s next move before it even occurred. Those on the front lines could almost guarantee their demise. War was a numbers game, and nine out of ten times, more was always more.

Occasionally, history teaches us about brilliant military tactics that involve a few brave soldiers overcoming astronomical odds, through the use of alternative guerilla warfare. There were the 300 Spartans who defeated thousands of Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae before eventually dying in the pass. There was the attack on Vienna by 100,000 Ottomans against 20,000 Viennese. By using bowls of water with peas floating on top, the Viennese could detect when and where the Ottomans were attacking along their walls. And then there was Gideon, who under God’s instruction, cut down his army from 32,000 men to 300 in order to defeat the Midianites (Judges 7:1–8). Gideon’s situation was definitely a case of less is more.

Why did God do this? The passage makes it clear that God wanted to prove to the Israelites that it was by God’s own prowess that they overcame the Midianites and not by their own military might. This, of course, is surface-level theology. We’ve all heard the famous memory verse from the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). We can look at this from a practical sense as well. Like the scene from Game of Thrones when Ramsay Bolton convinces his father to allow him to ride out with twenty of his best men to sabotage his enemy in a nocturnal raid, destroying siege engines, torching supplies, and killing horses. This, in turn, defeats the enemy before it even has a chance to attack. Robin Hood and his band of merry yeomen attacked the wealthy on their way through Sherwood Forest, robbed them blind, and then delivered their riches to the poor, thereby cutting off the financial lifeline of their enemy—The Sheriff of Nottingham. In “real” history, during the Revolutionary War, a ragtag band of militia soldiers from South Carolina relied heavily on similar terrorist attacks to drive Cornwallis from the Carolinas and eventually defeating him at Yorktown, Virgina. You may recognize that story from the movie The Patriot. Either practically or theologically, the concept of less is more often rings true.

Today, we are at war with an invisible enemy. We can’t sneak into its camp, cause confusion, madness, or torch its siege engines. We can’t steal from its financial lifelines and give that money to those who are suffering from this pandemic. We can’t attack its soldiers while they travel from Charleston to Georgetown. What we can do is recognize the significance found in the lessons of Gideon, Ramsay Bolton, Robin Hood, and the South Carolina militia. Less is more! With less interaction with our friends at the local pub, we can play board games with our families. Since evenings out at loud restaurants are no longer possible, we can now share a meal around the dining room table sharing stories and bonding with those we love. Instead of watching the Cubs lose to the Cardinals, we can actually go out and toss the ball around or play cornhole. In lieu of heading to the office, the stadium, or the bar, we can go for a run, lift weights, pray and worship our Creator, and make love to our spouses. Through these types of circumstances, we recognize those things in our lives that truly matter. Money, success, and possessions no longer become our driving force. God, family, love, and health suddenly take the forefront. When circumstances take away the 31,700 things that don’t matter, we are left with the 300 things that do. Through this pandemic, I’m once again recognizing that LESS IS MORE!


Everything Before “But”

The candle standing in the middle of the table established an ambiance of romance and possibilities. The tantalizing aroma of the tenderloin seemed to match the same enticing aroma of potential that appeared to emanate between the two new lovers as they gazed into each other’s eyes. A single crimson rose lay perched at the edge of the table. The man inconspicuously glances over at the rose in anticipation.

“You are an amazing man,” the woman begins. “When we first met, I wanted to spend every second with you. We connected on every level. Our chemistry was amazing, and you are so easy to talk to. Our conversations were incredible. Any woman would be lucky to have you, but…”

“Ouch!”

The previous illustration is a pretty accurate description of an episode of the Bachelor or Bachelorette…no matter what season. It’s very typical. In fact, before meeting my wife, this scene could have easily been procured from a myriad of my own personal experiences. Nevertheless, every single person who’s ever been dumped doesn’t care what precedes the word “but”! The dumper could say anything they want to soften the blow, but it is never soft for the dumped. Once we hear the word “but” everything that comes before it is null and void.

“I understand the rules of this house, but…”
—One of my children
“I did study for my test, but…”
—One of my children
“I realize that I hit him in the face, but…”
—One of my children
“I know I passed a huge yellow school bus, with a stop sign fully extended, while flashing its red lights, but…”
—Shawn Vander Lugt
“Everything before but is bull”
—Jim Quinn

Not only is this last quote literally (a very overused word by today’s generation by the way) true, it is also metaphorically true. Once we say “but” it completely invalidates everything we say before it. The “but” signifies opposition to, and instills doubt in, the validity of whatever comes before it.

Gideon is one of my favorite characters in Scripture. Not because Gideon was a mighty warrior and defeated the Midian army with only 100 combatants. Gideon is one of my favorite characters because he was a realist, and I like realists. Like most skeptics and atheists today, Gideon also didn’t accept anything at face value, and I like skeptics and atheists for the same reason. Gideon was polite, “but” he followed that courtesy with a “but” and we know what that means.

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
—Judges 6:12-13

Gideon didn’t stop there. The angel tried to convince him that God was going to send Gideon to deliver the Israelites from the Midianites. Gideon responds with, “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15).

He goes on to doubt God and requests three more signs before finally accepting his calling. But, But, But.

I must admit, whenever I feel God tugging me one way or another, almost every time my initial response is, “Pardon me, my lord, but…”

“Pardon me, my lord, but I don’t have the time or money to do that.”
“Pardon me, my lord, but I don’t have good skills to do that. You know like nunchuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills.”  
“Pardon me, my lord, but I’m doubting your goodness and faithfulness right now.
“Pardon me, my lord, but it appears you don’t keep your promises.”
“Pardon me, my lord, but look who you allowed to become president.”

Lately, I’ve been worrying that my doubts and cynicism are detrimental to my faith. Then I read a passage like Judges 6 and I’m relieved and encouraged. In fact, today, I’m convinced that blind faith imparts stagnancy. Without ever questioning God or God’s intentions, we find ourselves in suspended animation. Gideon didn’t take God’s word at face value. Should we?

In Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich writes, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Faith, by its nature, includes separation. If there is no separation from the object of faith, then it becomes a matter of certainty, and not of faith.”

I don’t know if I’m right or not about doubting or questioning God, God’s purposes, or God’s good and faithful intentions. See, I’m even doubting that. Regardless of whether I’m right, I know that through doubting God, questioning God, and fighting with God, I’ve always come out on the other end in a more solid and meaningful relationship with my Father. That alone is a testimony to the power of doubt. I frequently doubt, question, and fight with God, “BUT” I always come out of those bouts stronger and more faithful. The truth of our hearts always comes after the “but” not before it. Because everything before “but” is bull.


In the Limelight of our Mothers

Three weeks before our wedding, Jaime and I flew to Scottsdale to plan the wedding with my parents, apply for our license, and spend countless hours at Hobby Lobby. It was a wonderful trip because it provided a myriad of opportunities to share precious moments with Mom. If I had known then that there would only be one month left with her, I don’t think I would have gone back to Colorado. I recall one conversation I had with Mom that weekend.

Jaime had stepped out of the room and Mom pulled me aside, sat down next to me in the living room, and said, “You’re different with her…better…stronger…more confident. Without even doing a thing, she instills in you the humble strength you need to lead your family without sacrificing the gentle, kind spirit that defines who you truly are deep inside. Micah told me back in February, ‘Dad’s different with this one…He’s still my dad, still fun-loving, quirky, and weird. Jaime doesn’t expect him to change who he is and that’s awesome.’ I agree completely, Shawn. That’s awesome.”

Every time I look over at my wife, I remember these affirming words from my mother—one of the best leaders I’ve ever known. Good leaders lead without comparison. Ineffectual leaders feel compelled to stand next to other leaders at the urinals of competition, seeing how far they can pee or comparing their small “hands” with the “hands” of others. Godly women leaders like my mom bring out the best in their husbands, their brothers, their sisters, their daughters, and their sons. They affirm and guide women and men, boys and girls, to seek God for wisdom as their ultimate leader and then humbly allow others—often those less worthy—to take the credit. I often question the justice and righteousness of this fact. As a feminist, I would love to give credit where credit is due. At the same time, as a follower of Jesus, I cherish the significance of humility. “Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life (Proverbs 22:4).

Mom was a humble leader and Dad would never argue with the fact that she not only led us all into the arms of our God but she enabled and encouraged my dad to do the same. Mom and Dad led and the led together—giving the credit to the Lord God so that all who love Him would “be like the sun when it rises in its strength” (Judges 5:31). I can’t thank my parents enough for their spiritual guidance. I also can’t thank my wife enough for seeing the strength that lies amidst my gentle spirit—and summoning it forth through love and encouragement.

Deborah, “a mother in Israel” was this kind of woman as well. She humbly led others to seek the Lord for their strength. She didn’t take credit or compare herself to other leaders. Instead, she encouraged others to seek the Lord for strength, “cowboy up,” and do what God called them to do.  Then there’s Jael. I probably like her even more. Where Heber the Kenite did everything wrong, his wife, Jael, did everything right. Jael was fearless, God-honoring, and stable in her faith. Perhaps we aren’t supposed to use these two women found in Judges 4 as the poster women for modern feminism. Some argue that these women are only exemplified because the men around them were so weak. I, however, want to point out these these two women are identified for a reason. They do represent God-honoring leadership. They do take charge when the men who are supposed to take charge fail. They do encourage others to embrace their strengths and seek God for wisdom.

People argue that the examples found in Judges 4 and 5 in no way overrule the Apostle Paul’s take on women leading men. They argue that Paul’s argument that women should abstain from leading men is a general rule not an exception to the rule, where Deborah’s leadership was an exception to that rule. To be honest, I personally feel that an individual’s stance that women should not be allowed to lead men is an antiquated perspective and contributes to submission, inequality, and even abuse.

Oh no…my liberalism is rearing its ugly head.

Regardless of how I feel, or how some of these archaic theologians feel, Godly women don’t care. Women like my mom and my wife take Deborah’s lead, and lead. They lead men, women, and children into the arms of God and then take a step out of the limelight. If Paul needed the men of his churches to feel empowered, so be it. Godly women leaders don’t even care where the limelight is shining—they back out of the light and divert it so it shines on the people they love and let God lead their loved ones into his Kingdom where they’ll all shine like the sun when it rises in its strength” (Judges 5:31).


Obese Overlords, Excessive Excrement, and Flagrant Fuller Faculty

The long drive during rush hour up the 710 Freeway from my apartment in Paramount, California to my classroom at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena was exhausting. The fact that class began at 6 p.m. and ended at 10 p.m. didn’t help matters. Some would argue that Medieval Church History would be the cherry on top of this sundae of fun. I, however, was looking forward to this class. I’m a history buff, and the middle ages was my absolute favorite of all the ages. I walk into the classroom and look to the back corner of the room—the few seats located along the left wall. John was already sitting there and he waved me over. John, Casey, and I were the few back-row dwellers in this class. I’m a firm believer in the fact that one learns best when sitting in the back row as far over to the left as possible. I sit down, pat John on the back, open up my legal pad, and lean back in my chair. The instructor, a PhD from University of Marburg, enters the room, spreads out his notes, and says, “Let’s pray!”

We all fold our hands and close our eyes like the good seminary students we all are.

“Heavenly Father,” the instructor begins. “We all have so much shit in our lives. Shit we need you to remove and remove quickly.”

I peek over at John, who is already laughing under his breath. Casey’s eyes were still closed as if this kind of prayer happened every night at his dinner table growing up.

Initially shocked—and definitely awake—I continued to listen to the prayer, and as the semester moved forward, I found these prayers refreshing. I concluded that perhaps there isn’t a more appropriate word for our personal sin than the word our brilliant, Marburg educated instructor used and continued to use throughout the class.

Over two years ago, I wrote about two items that still sit upon the desk in my office. One item is a die cast collectable, Case International Harvester tractor that my Grandpa Vander Lugt gave to me. Every time I look upon this tractor, I think about Grandpa Vander Lugt and remember the wonderful times we shared, the grace and love he exuded, and the fun we had together on his farm. The other item is a Breyer Arabian Horse my Grandpa Van Hill gave to me. Every time I look upon this horse, I remember his humor, his inventions, and the fun we had together playing games, massaging his feet, and riding in a cart behind his donkey Jake.

These small items—toys to the untrained eye—are reminders of two amazing men who touched my life in profound ways. We all have things that remind us of those we love. We all of things that remind us of who we are and where we have been. After crossing the Jordan River, God told Joshua to choose twelve men, one from each tribe of Israel. Each man was to choose a stone from the middle of the Jordan and stack them up at Gilgal. This stack of stones was to serve as a sign, so future generations could remember that God cut off the Jordan so the people could cross from the desert into the Promised Land. The stones were a memorial to an amazing God who delivers them, protects them, and provides for them (Joshua 4).

After conquering most of the Promised Land, the people unfortunately sinned against God. When they did this, God sent an angel from Gilgal (the exact place where the stones remained—still stacked to remind the people of God’s love and deliverance). Speaking about the nations of Canaan, the angel said to them, “I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you” (Judges 2:3). Regrettably, because the people decided to let “excrement” overpower their lives, God decided to let their enemies stay in the land. Not only this, but those same enemies spend the entire book of Judges capturing the people, submitting them to slavery, and causing continual distress in their lives. In the same way, the stones at Gilgal reminded the people of their deliverance, the angel reminded the people that even though they’ve broken covenant, God will still deliver them. Fortunately, throughout the book of Judges, God selected judges to rise up and deliver his people over and over again.

One of my favorites, and most disgusting narratives in the Bible is about a judge named Ehud. Ehud was left-handed, which most scholars suggest means he was disabled and unable to use his right hand. The people of Israel did evil, so God had an obese king named Eglon attack and conquer the Israelites while making his headquarters in Jericho. Can you imagine how painful it was to see foreign invaders take over the city they so easily destroyed when they first entered the Promised Land? Eglon was gluttonous, greedy, and overindulging—he was the manifestation of Israel’s disgusting sin. As my Medieval Church History professor would have so eloquently said, “Eglon represented Israel’s feces.” After eighteen years of servitude to Eglon, God provides Israel with a disabled deliverer. Ehud fashions a double-edged sword and straps it to his right thigh—directly under his useless right hand. After presenting tribute to Eglon, Ehud walks back to the stones set up near Gilgal. Perhaps he was afraid to attack until he witnessed the stones that Joshua and the tribes set up earlier and was reminded of God’s love, power, and faithfulness. Seeing the stones, Ehud turns around, enters the palace, and stabs Eglon in the gut, spilling his bowels all over the place. Ehud then leaves the palace, again walks past the stones at Gilgal, and escapes. When he arrives at Seirah, Ehud blows a trumpet, and the Israelites repossess the land where they are free for the next eighty years (Judges 3:12-30).

How often do our problems seem so obese that we wonder if we’ll ever be able to overpower them? How often do we need to be reminded of God’s love, faithfulness, and power to remove the excrement from our lives? It isn’t a coincidence that Ehud is disabled or that he uses a double-edged sword to destroy his obese overlord—casting out the stench of sin. We need to be constantly reminded that God and God’s word provides the power and authority we desperately need to overcome those obese obstacles and disgusting dung that so often overwhelm our lives. The next time you pass by those “Stones of Gilgal” remember that wonderful message of freedom: God sent Jesus, the Word made Flesh, to help us overcome all our obese overlords and remove the stench that so often consumes us.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”

—Hebrews 4:12


40 Days in the Wilderness

Do you ever wonder why life can be so painful and why God allows us to suffer so much? Did you know that God’s chosen people endured many trials while wandering through the wilderness? Perhaps, by reading some of those painful experiences, you will come to a new understanding regarding your own trials and how they relate to God and God’s purpose for your life. This book not only looks at the trials God’s people experienced in the wilderness, but it also connects to our relationship with Jesus in a profound way.

You can purchase it in paperback for $8.99 or digitally for $3.99. Order three copies of the paperback and receive free shipping. Order one copy of each 40 Days book and receive free shipping. Wow! You can’t beat that…and just in time for Christmas!

 


We’ll See You Again!

Yesterday, in an honest tribute to my mom, my brother said, “Mom was always present in the moment and perfectly content. She dreamed and aspired, but she was never discontent with the circumstances that life presented.” Even upon the horrible diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer, Mom didn’t complain. Mom embodied contentment. Both my brother and I have lived a significant portion of our lives in a state of permanent discontent. We cast our eyes over the proverbial fence and convince ourselves that the grass always looked, smelled, and probably tasted better on the other side.

Discontent, feelings of inadequacy, and hopes of a better life lead us to dig, and dig, and dig for something to fulfill that emptiness—something to sustain us and give us a full and meaningful life. The more we dig, the more we sacrifice those things that are more important in life. We ignore God, our families, and our friends while we dig for more money and more possessions. We ignore our spiritual and physical health while we dig into our addictions and unhealthy habits. Mom never ignored those things that are important in our life, resulting in her absolute contentment. Remember when God turned the water of the Nile River into blood. Remember when the people of Egypt clawed along the banks of the Nile desperately searching for fresh water—they kept on digging for that sustenance—that life (Exodus 7:24). Mom didn’t claw along the bloody rivers for life, because she knew where to find true life, joy, sustenance, and contentment. Mom found these essentials reading to and loving on her grandbabies, holding the hand of her Love, always being present with her children, and drinking readily from the well of Living Water—her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, he said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:4-14).

Mom was content and present and didn’t claw for water because she found Living Water; Mom found life to its fullest; Mom found the Good Shepherd; and she is now living with Him forever in His safe pastures.

We love you Mom! We sorely miss you Mom!

We’ll see you again!


Vigilance

“Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts!”

—Gautama Buddha

I have never in my life been angrier with God than I have been this past year. I shouldn’t be. I’m blessed beyond measure with an amazing wife, great children, a job I love, and a close-knit family where support, compassion, and joy is immeasurable. I feel selfish that my anger focuses on God’s inaction by allowing my mother to suffer through a tumultuous battle against terminal cancer. This blog post is a way for me to gain some perspective, sort through my anger, diminish negative thoughts, increase my vigilance, and find some peace in the arms of my God. Mom’s found it…she’s more in love with Jesus now than she’s ever been. Isn’t that typically the case?

The warm sun pours through the eight-foot-high windows of the west-wing of the Orange City Area Heath System—the hospice wing. I grab the corner pillar, glower up God, and weep uncontrollably. My daughter comes over to me and gives me a long hug and her love pulls me from my grief temporarily. My son asks if I’d like to play a game of chess. I agree with hopes of diverting my mind from where it’s dwelling onto something less morose.

I’m horrible at chess. I am exceptionally unobservant and I’m tactically impaired. Within a few moves, my son had already annihilated me. Why? Because I lack vigilance. My brother recently mentioned, during his best man’s speech at my wedding, that I’m a dreamer. Or as my dad so graciously put it, I—at least on occasion—have my head up my butt. My former coworker nicknamed me “The Happy Wanderer”. My head is always in the clouds because I dream…and I lack vigilance. There’s a proverb that reads: “At the end of every victory procession lies an open manhole.” Meaning, even when you think you’ve accomplished victory, don’t become over confident, throw your nose up in the air, and ride high on your horse, because you’ll fall straight down the manhole at the end of the parade route. Be prepared. Be vigilant. I know that I need to be more observant in preparation for that eventual manhole waiting for me at the end of my parade route.

After my embarrassing defeat to my teenage son, I tip my king over, lean back in the chair, and begin to listen to a conversation occurring between my siblings.

“Makes you wonder if you should have a scan performed every year just to make sure everything is okay,” my brother says to my sister. “Maybe these horrible things could be avoided if we did. Maybe doctors could catch these things sooner. Maybe we could prevent disaster, avoid tragedy, keep a careful and diligent watch for danger, disaster, and attack.”

Again…Vigilance. I think the biggest problem for me is I confuse vigilance with worry. There is, nonetheless, an enormous difference between the two. Vigilance is tactical, controllable, practical, and effective. Worry is impulsive, irrepressible, unviable, and incompetent. How unfortunate for me that I’m a proficient worrier who lacks vigilance.

As I read through my next passage in the book of Judges, I’m struck by a peculiar passage. Judah and Simeon start attacking the Canaanites to possess the land God promised them, and they chase down the Canaanite king, Adonibezek. When they catch Mr. Adonibezek, they cut off his thumbs and big toes, take him back to Jerusalem, and hold him there for an indefinite time. Later, while in Jerusalem, the king dies. Seems cruel to me, but this was an act of mercy. They would amputate thumbs and toes to incapacitate soldiers and impair them for future service. It’s difficult to swing a sword or pull a bow string without thumbs. It’s even more to march on the battlefield without your big toes (Judges 1:1-7). Judah and Simeon were vigilant instead of cruel here. They were saving the life of the king, while protecting their kingdom from future attacks. Win-win! Vigilant and merciful.

How can I learn to be vigilant without sacrificing the personality God so distinctly created to thrive within my own soul? How can I continue to dream while increasing my preparedness for inevitable evil and pain? How can I learn to be grateful for God’s providence and blessings amid grief? How can I prepare for danger, guard my mind and heart against negative thoughts, avoid worry, and dwell in peace? How can I, like my mother already has, dwell peacefully in the presence of God—this same God with whom I’d currently like to “THROW DOWN”!?!?