Swimming upstream

512px-Salmon_fish_swimming_upstreamQ – What do salmon, coho, and rainbow trout have in common?

A – They all swim upstream for reproductive purposes.

Biologists believe that odors of the home waters where they were spawned remain wired in their brain. Sciencing.com explains: “At maturity, they are instinctively drawn back to the place of their birth.”

These three species of fish hold a lesson for Christianity:

Reproduction requires swimming against the current.

Going with the flow is easier, but spawning the next generation of believers mandates a counter-cultural approach. We are upstream Christians in a downstream world.

The words of Paul to Titus have a timeless quality though they were written 1,900 years ago:

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-14, NLT).

They, too, were to be upstream Christians in a downstream world. In a society that was “evil,” Paul called Titus and the flock he shepherded to lead lives characterized by “wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.” Their attention was to remain hopefully focused on the future, the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, there was no place for idleness. In the same way the twelve-year-old Jesus insisted that he must be busy with his Father’s work (Luke 2:49), so Paul reminds Titus to commit himself to God’s good work in the world (v. 14).

What is striking about Paul’s advice to his young protégé is that living in an evil world never justified jumping out of the stream. Upstream fish remain in the stream but are strong enough to swim against it. To succeed in this counter-cultural feat, believers must remember three things:

1) Remember that our help comes from the LORD. Isaiah 26:3 reminds us:  “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV). The would-be crushing pressure from our surroundings must be matched by an internal spiritual force that pushes back. Andrés Filipe Arias knows this well. Caught up as a pawn in a geo-political chess game, this former Columbian Minister of Agriculture now sits in a Miami detention center. His petition for assylum in the U.S. hopelessly delayed, he faces 17 years of wrongful imprisonment if extradited to his home country. Such a force would have crushed many, but the husband of one and father of two has deep faith in God. When asked how he is coping, he replied: “I feel strong and at peace. Of course, every second I long for my home, my wife, and my kids. But I’ve learned to accept God’s will no matter how mysterious are His ways.” As to his sanity, he testifies that God sees to it.

2) Remember to swim together.  The salmon, coho, and rainbow trout swim upstream together. In the same way, resisting the downstream pull of our culture is best done when we stick together. This is the strongest argument for the church; there is strength in numbers. It’s no accident that it wasn’t a single Hebrew but three Hebrews brothers who together refused to bow before the idol of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:16-18). Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) teaches that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Jesus calls us to be like the light set on a lampstand that draws people in from the darkness to the warmth of the light (Luke 11:33). We shine best when we shine collectively.

3) Remember to keep on loving. Being counter-cultural is no excuse for aloof disengagement. Jesus told of a time when evil would increase. What would be the result? “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b, NIV). Our love for God and for others is the ultimate measure of holiness (Mark 12:28-31). If our churches are shrinking, could it be that would-be seekers coming in from the cold – in the words of evangelist Charles “Chic” Shaver – never found enough love to keep them warm? What kind of “love” inscribes “all welcome” on the church sign but freezes people out once they step inside?

Like Paul and Titus, we live in a world that too often is evil, yet this is no excuse for downstream living. With the strength that comes from the Lord and banding together, followers of Christ model a different path, a better way. May our love never grow cold! Instead, let us open our arms wide to all, inviting people to join us and our Leader in this epic swim upstream.


 

Image credit: By Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Parable of the trapped weaver

weaverMy wife and I live in a 3rd floor flat. This morning as we walked down the stairwell, we heard the noise of desperately flapping wings. A little weaverbird was trapped behind a closed window pushing with its beak against the glass, trying with all its might to open the window and escape. But all her efforts were in vain. Not wanting to get too close to the bird (which probably would have sent the already terrified  creature into cardiac arrest), we opened a nearby window.

I’m not sure what the attraction was for the weaver to fly into that stairwell in the first place. Likely, she came in through the gate at the bottom of the stairs. I’m no good at puzzles, but even I could see the solution. Freedom was as close as that slotted gate through which the weaver apparently had entered. To get out, she just needed to turn around and fly back to where she got in.

All around us are people just like that weaver. They once flew free, but somewhere they took a wrong turn. Now they are trapped behind the glass window of addictions. They push against the thick panes of alcoholism, drugs, gambling, or pornography. The longer they’re trapped, the more desperate they become. Through the window, they see the freedom they once knew and they long to enjoy it once more. But to get out, we too must retrace our steps to where we got in. To go forward, first we must go back.

Scripture has a lot to say about repentance, this change of mind and heart that is a prerequisite for freedom. Repentance is letting God turn us around and head us in the opposite direction. In Acts 3, God used Peter as the divine instrument of healing for a man crippled since birth, a man who used to sit begging at the Temple gate (see Acts 3:1-10). Now as the restored man jumped for joy, a crowd gathered out of curiosity. What would Peter say?

  1. It wasn’t me or my companion, John, who did this. It was Jesus (v. 16).
  2. Turn to God (v. 19).

Peter advised:

Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord (Acts 3:19, NIV).

I suspect there were a lot of people listening to Peter that day who were every bit as trapped spiritually as that crippled man had been physically. Just as Jesus freed the man physically, he was able to free the crowd spiritually. But there was something they needed to do first. They needed to repent, to be willing to let a loving and powerful God turn them away from their sinful habits and attitudes and lead them in a new and better direction.

It takes humility to admit that we’re trapped, that the only way forward is to go back. Too proud to ask for help, like the weaver, we keep pushing desperately against the window pane, thinking we’re strong enough on our own to escape some other way. Freedom only begins when we admit we that we’re powerless to solve our problem alone.

Peter’s advice to the crowd that day is the advice we need now. God longs to free us from our sin, from the dead end of our addictions. With Jesus by our side, let’s retrace our steps and head in the opposite direction. Freedom is glorious, and it’s closer than we think.

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Image credit: Flickr.com

When only heat will do

furnaceWhen it comes to working with glass, only heat will do.

The craftsmen at Anselm Kitengala glass outside Nairobi, Kenya know this. That’s why they have an oil fed furnace that glows at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The extreme heat makes the glass pliable, allowing them to mold it into useful shapes, whether vases, pitchers, plates, goblets, or a dozen other items.

What’s true about glass works is true about life. I think back on furnace times, when circumstances were hot and difficult to endure. Sometimes it was interpersonal conflict, other times sickness or financial difficulties. Yet God, the master Craftsman, used these times to mold my character, to teach me to rely on Him, to shape me just how He wanted. Though not easy at the time, I’m better today because of it.

I’m glad life isn’t always in the furnace. When the craftsman is done, he places the glass vessel into the annealer where it can gradually cool to room temperature, usually over a 24 hour period. These are the peaceful periods of life when God allows a calm stability to take hold, a time of reflection and thanksgiving to the Lord for taking us through the fiery trial.

Peter was a fisherman, not a glass worker. However, he seems to have understood the role that fire plays in developing our character. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 (NIV) he observes:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

vase

Whether we’re in the furnace or the annealer, let us thank God for caring enough to shape our character, to make us like Christ. The end result – a beautiful and useful vessel – is worth it.