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Personal Religion

There are some stories in the Bible which might make you laugh, but there are often deep lessons in these stories. One such story is found in 2 Kings 14. Here we read that the king of Judah made war against the Edomites and it says in verses 7-8 of 2 Kings 14:

He slew of Edom in the valley of salt ten thousand, and took Selah by war, and called the name of it Joktheel unto this day. Then Amaziah sent messengers to Jehoash, the son of Jehoahaz son of Jehu, king of Israel, saying, Come, let us look one another in the face. (2 Kings 14:7-8)

The king of Judah has won a battle against Edom and he is feeling great. He sends to the king of Israel and says, “come let us do battle.” Maybe there was some friction between them from before, maybe Israel had taken some land that belonged to Judah or something like that. Anyway, he sends to the King of Israel and he says, “come let us go to war.” It’s the answer of the Israelite King that amuses me. Verse 9 says:

And Jehoash the king of Israel sent to Amaziah king of Judah, saying, The thistle that was in Lebanon sent to the cedar that was in Lebanon, saying, Give thy daughter to my son to wife: and there passed by a wild beast that was in Lebanon, and trode down the thistle. (2 Kings 14:9)

A thistle is just a little blade of grass. This insignificant weed proposed to marry the daughter of the cedar, which is a huge tree. But a wild beast passed by, stepped on this poor thistle, and destroyed it. At first glance it looks like this is a strange parable and you cannot figure out what the meaning is. But there is a very striking interpretation.

They were very good at telling parables during Bible times. The king of Israel was really disrespecting the king of Judah. He was saying, “you the little blade of grass, you are just a little bush, you are nothing and you want to come and measure yourself against me? You are daring to think of doing battle with me, the great cedar tree…” in other words, you are rising above your qualification level. You are so insignificant that a little beast can pass by and step on you and crush you down, yet you want to come and interfere with somebody as great as me!

But the king of Judah pushed ahead and eventually they actually went to war. The king of Israel, as he had predicted, defeated the king of Judah.

This is the way life is in this world, we have categories and classes. In India, they have a very well developed system where some people are regarded as inferior to others. They call it a “caste” system. I have never lived in such a society, but even in places like the USA for example, there was a time not long ago where people of a certain colour were considered too inferior to marry people of another colour.

In Jamaica we may not have the colour barrier, but we still have class barriers where rich people, for example do not mingle with poor people. Generally, this kind of situation is founded on the idea that certain people are inferior to others.

What is Man?

The reason why I focused on this passage (about the thistle and the cedar) is because I wanted to compare it to another verse that is found in Psalm 144:3. It says:

LORD, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! (Ps 144:3)

This is a great question. Recently I spoke with a group of brethren, and I explained to them that the greatest thing that happened in my life was when I realized that there is a God. I Grew up in a Christian home, was exposed to the Bible all my life, yet I never really grasped the true implications of what it means that there is a God. When I was converted at age 22 and discovered that there is a God, it was like someone took me from this world and carried me to another planet. It was like I was reborn as a different creature. The new awareness of God’s existence changed everything in my life.

People love to talk about many different doctrines, but the thing that made this great impact on my mind was simply the becoming aware of the fact that there really is a God. I do not know if that reality has ever hit your mind the way it really should. There is a God! The other thing that came with that reality is that this God wanted to be my friend. That really blew my mind as well, and it changed my life. Everything else became secondary.

The truth is, if there is a God who cares for us, why should we be concerned about anything at all? With such a being is our friend, everything else means nothing. That is the great reality of the universe, but this question, does come to us from time to time: What is man, (the little thistle in Lebanon) that you take knowledge of him?

Is it really true that The Almighty, who has eight billion people dealing with on this planet cares about me? There are ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands of angels in heaven, and for all I know there are many other worlds scattered all over the universe. Yet this God takes time to know David Clayton! He takes time to consider this little speck of dust, this little thistle on the ground which a wild beast can pass by and trample, and wipe out of existence!

As the Psalmist says,

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Ps 8:3-4)

The Power of Words

One of the problems with words is that they have the capacity to become so common place that they become irrelevant and meaningless. Like most of us, I read portions of the Bible from the time that I was a child. I went to Sabbath school and they taught me these memory verses. But for the most part, I merely read the verses and memorized them without really thinking about what they meant. This is not something unusual in religious circles, In many churches the preachers read Bible verses, but few of the listeners really hear what is said, because it is the same old words they have heard over and over again. It means nothing, and in instances like these, the words of God become trivial and meaningless.

I remember when I first began to understand what righteousness by faith really means. I started to read Colossians, Ephesians and Galatians. One thought that came to me was, read it and see if you can believe what you are reading. So, I started with Ephesians, vowing to simply believe what I read, and I will tell you that it blew me away! When I saw the things said about Christ in you, and the things that God did through Christ, one day I just started to cry while I was reading it.

There is that power in the word, but the power comes from thinking about what we are reading, understanding and most importantly believing! I started just sharing that idea with other people who could not understand what we were saying about righteousness by faith, I told them, “read Ephesians and ask yourself if you can believe every word that you read.” Several of them got back to me with rejoicing and tears. They said something changed when they simply did that one little thing.

It is from this perspective that I repeat the question, who is man that God is mindful of him? Who am I, an insignificant little speck of dust, that God should take thought or care about me? There are so many issues in the world to be dealt with, so many things of great importance. And yet, somehow, He still considers me relevant. I mean something to Him. We have a God who is great, a being of immeasurable might. How can such a person really have something to do with me personally? Can we really believe that these things are true, or are they just nice thoughts in a book?

Everybody, or me?

We all can embrace John 3:16 which says,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

But, sometimes, I find my heart hungering for a word that says, “David, I mean you!” Even as a child, if your father says, “I love my family,” it is not the same as if he takes you aside and puts you on his knee and says “I love you!” There is something different when this happens.

So, most of us can understand that God considers institutions, He loves the church. But unfortunately, religious institutions have focused so much on themselves as being favored of God, that individual church members have often found it very difficult to relate to the idea that they personally, are loved and cherished by God. In the churches we often find that those who are higher in the heirarchical structure appear to be the ones favored of God, while the rank and file members are not only at the low end of the pecking order, but they also are regarded as being low down on the measure of God’s favor. They are less than the thistle on the plains of Lebanon, something a passing beast could easily tread upon and wipe out of existence.

Before I was put out of the church many years ago, (because I had been asking questions and objecting to certain things that the church was doing) the pastor that dis-fellowshipped me said to me, “you are in danger of being cast out, and when this happens you will be lost!” I was incredulous and stunned by such a statement. It was the first time somebody had said something like this to my face. I replied, ‘pastor, do you think you can take my name out of heaven?’ He smiled, and I in turn smiled back. I was blown away to think that this man seriously believed that he and his church had the power to remove my name from heaven.

But this is the kind of situation that prevails in the world. The idea that God can, and does have a personal and intimate relationship with each of his children, is something which few people really believe and in fact, most religious institutions are set up in such a way that this kind of relationship is either discouraged, or else it must be subject to the control of the institution. People are discouraged from thinking that God can lead them individually, and especially in ways that are contrary to the direction of the institution.

Keep your Distance

Even within the “One God” movement, there is currently an idea that God’s presence with us is by means of angels, and by the reading of the Bible. This has become a strong teaching in other circles as well. This teaching promotes the idea that our fellowship is not with God Himself, it is not personal contact. Of course, nobody could doubt that God is able to have personal relationship with each person on earth, but this idea that God does not Himself live with, and in his people, seems to arise from the mentality that God is too great to condescend to live with feeble, insignificant, imperfect people such as we are. It is like we have been put again in the place of the thistle in Lebanon, and God is the cedar saying, “who are you to try to talk to me? Who are you to seek a relationship with me?”

I understood the thinking behind this attitude better when I was watching a TV programme, here in Jamaica, called “Religious Hard Talk.” Two Muslims were being interviewed by the host, and they made the comment that Christians are presumptuous to think that they can call God “Father.” To think that God, who is holy and pure, could interact with things as unclean and sinful as we are, was in their opinion highly offensive. They found it ridiculous to think that The Almighty One could condescend to the level where he would mingle with the likes of us. Rather, they believed our sole duty is to be obedient servants, to bow, to scrape and do as we are commanded.

I remember when I was a boy going to school, there was a fellow who was overly friendly. He would sometimespass and touch the teacher, and enjoyed always clowning around. One day, as he passed by and touched the teacher, the irritated schoolmaster exclaimed, “Boy! Don’t exercise your pugnacity so ferociously!” needless to say, the entire class had a good laugh at such an expression. But what the teacher was really saying was, don’t be presumptuous! Don’t pass your place! Don’t pass your boundaries! I have come to realize that most people believe that this attitude of the teacher, is similar to how God feels about us humans.

When I ask myself if this attitude towards The Lord is justified, I have to admit that in some ways it is. Because the person we are dealing with is great! He is awesome! It is normal that when a lesser person is in the presence of one who is greater, there is a level of intimidation and reserve. This approach is normal and it is human. But is this what God Almighty wants?

Of course there is a widespread belief, even among Christians, that it is harmful to believe that God relates to each person on an individual, personal basis. The idea is that such a belief can be very dangerous and lead to fanaticism. People argue that such an idea leads to nothing but anarchy and confusion with everybody pulling in a different direction, and encourages people to have all kinds of fanciful ideas, with many claiming to receive special messages from God. The point they try to make is that we need other people to keep us balanced. In other words, we need a church to keep us straight and in line.

Safety in Numbers?

It is true that we often find many strange ideas arising in little groups or among individuals where there is this strong focus on individual communication with God, and a distrust of corporate, institutionalized religious bodies. It is often among these kinds of individuals that we find people setting dates for the coming of Jesus, making predictions about earthquakes, judgments, Tsunamis, and promoting extreme behaviors such as wearing only one kind of colored clothing, or recommending long fasts etc. Ideas like these are not normally found in large, traditional church settings. The reason for this is that they already have their creeds and established systems. The pastors go around and make sure that everything is according to the settled teachings of the body. It may seem like this approach is good, but we have to look at the other side of it as well.

Look for example at the Mormon Church, this church teaches some of the strangest doctrines. According to this group, God has a wife. Each of us was once an angel in heaven and God took the spirit of this angel, put it in you and allowed you to be born on Earth as a human being. You are here developing so that you can become a god yourself, and in the next life, you will become one fully. You will be given a world of your own, and you and your many wives will populate it and make it into a place where you are the ultimate ruler.

We can also consider the Catholic Church. Here, the Pope is the head and the substitute for God on Earth. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that God is going to roast sinners forever, but in the meantime if you are not that bad, you go to a place called Purgatory, where you are roasted for maybe hundreds or thousands of years until your sins are purged away. You then fly out of purgatory and into heaven. If you die as a baby, and you were not baptized, you do not go to hell but instead go to a place called limbo, kind of in between heaven and earth. In other words, these are the kinds of perverted ideas that come from the safeguarded teachings of these esteemed churches, protected by the “safety of numbers.” Can we really be safe depending on numbers, or popular ideas when such nonsense is institutionalized among hundreds of millions?

The popular idea is that we need to belong to an establilshed, organized institution so that we can be kept from fanaticism. But the question is, which fanaticism? Which version of perversion and falsehood are you kept from, when these are the things the traditional establishments teach? It all depends on which church you associate with, and their ‘safeguards’ are often far worse than the strange beliefs individuals sometimes come up with. The fact is, the argument that we need other Christians to keep us safe is a fallacy.

Long ago Isaiah told the truth, when he said,

And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children. (Isa 54:13)

So, do we have fanaticism among us as independent Christians? We do! What are we to do about it? I say, that is not our concern. My only determination and goal is to find the right relationship with The Lord so that I am not included in that list of fanatics who follow falsehood. Not long ago, I was having a little discussion with my family members and I was telling a little about my history as a Christian. Some of the things I did, such as leaving my job, make me look back today and wonder, was I crazy? I know I was not, but it certainly seemed that way. Many of those outside looking on said it was fanaticism.

But there is a difference between fanaticism, and believing. Everyone who truly believes the word of God will be regarded as a fanatic. This is because these words are out of sync with the ways of this world. Therefore, believing and practicing them is going to put you so much out of touch with conventions and norms of society that people will think you are crazy. Knowing this, do not let the label of fanatic be a deterrent, as long as truth is your goal.

Does He want Me?

What we need is to find the answer to this question; Am I so insignificant that God pays no attention, or does he want me to have a relationship with him? I know that I want a relationship with Him, but the question is, does He want a relationship with me? I know that I would like to meet this great personage, but does he want to meet me? Is my desire one-sided? It is God who says,

And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. (Jer 29:13)

Some one might be tempted to ask, but what about you, God? Are you not seeking too? Are you not looking to find as well? It is one thing when a man is pursuing a woman because she is attractive and beautiful, and he wants her. But it becomes hard when she constantly gives him the cold shoulder, and she is not returning his calls. Maybe when he calls, he sees that she is blocking him, and his efforts are not reciprocated. No matter how much you love a person, if this continues, after a while, you get discouraged and you will go and look somewhere else.

I know we want God, but the real question that needs to be answered is, does He want us? I do not mean, does he want the church, I mean, does He want me? Does He want this little speck of dust with greying hair and aging body, and a life filled with mistakes and faults and problems? Does he really want such a person? The answer to that question is what this whole article is really about.

Christianity depends on faith and what you believe. It is not about what you see, but rather what you believe and what your faith grasps, as you come to understand. With this in mind, let us look at a few verses which relate to the question we are asking. In John 14:21 Jesus says:

He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. (John 14:21)

So, the first thing He says is, there is a way that you can show that you love me, and it is that you keep my commandments. We have long ago settled the question that Jesus was not here speaking simply of, the ten commandments, although it is probably true that you could include them as well. What He was really saying is, “the way you respond to what I say will be the evidence of whether you love me or not.”

These words have been applied in the context of Christ speaking to a community. In other words, he was saying, “here is a set of rules, these are my instructions to the believers as a body.” It is not his personal, intimate instructions as he directs me individually as his friend and child, but rather a standard set of mandates. “You just follow this set of rules which I am giving to everybody and I will extend my favour towards you.” If we view this verse in this way, the true message it gives is lost. Jesus goes on to say,

“…he that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him.”

Clearly, he is speaking about individuals. I love the fact that Jesus is not here addressing the church, or some collective, corporate body. He does not say, I will manifest myself to my people, but rather, I will manifest myself to him! He is talking about a personal interaction. If any of you love me, what will you do? You will respond to what I ask you to do, you will keep my commandments. You will obey my words. And if you respond to me in this way, if I can see your love towards me being exercised in your life, my love for you will intensify, and I will show myself to you. This is what He is really saying.

The Cedar wants the thistle

It is interesting that Jesus says, “I will love him. He shall be loved of my Father.” If we take this statement superficially, it would suggest that he does not love people who do not keep his commandments and His words. But this of course as we know, is not true. What I would say is that the people who do not keep His word, who have no relationship with Him, fall under the category of John 3:16. “God so loved the world.” God loves everybody, and He has generally blessed all men. But in the context of our discussion, He is talking about intimacy, one on one relationship, personal interaction.

He is talking about how we can go outside at night and look up at the stars and say, “my Father, I love you!” He is talking about feeling His presence around you, knowing a person. We are not in love with a principle, or an abstract concept, we are not in touch with God through organizations or through theories, or through some kind of hierarchical system or setup. It is living interaction, heart to heart, person to person. This is what it is talking about and this is what my heart wants as a Christian, This is what religion is about for me, and if this is not in religion, I do not want it!

In verse 23 of the same chapter, Jesus repeats the same sentiments a bit stronger:

Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (John 14:23)

Notice he does not say commandments here, but instead says, ‘keep my words.’ When Abraham was told to go and kill his son, that was found nowhere in the Ten Commandments. But this personal commandment was given on the basis of a friendship, and his friend said to him, “go and offer your son for a sacrifice!” He loved and trusted this friend so much that he went to do even that! Because of this relationship, in Isaiah, God refers to him as, “Abraham, my friend (Isa 41:8).” I think that this is the only place in the Bible where God calls somebody “my friend.” But there is a desire in my heart that if ever there was another book, similar to the Bible written sometime in the future, in it would be found the words, “David, my friend (referring to me)!”

I am not out of reach; I can have the same kind of relationship. That is what New Testament Christianity is about. Not relationship by proxy, or through an organization, through a nation or through a church. But personal, heart to heart fellowship because I was made for Him. He made me for Himself and He is the only person that can satisfy me. But this is a reciprocal need. Nobody can satisfy that need in me, apart from Him and likewise, no one else can fill that David-shaped space in his heart except me.

So, He says:

“If a man love Me, he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”

God loves everybody, but there are some people that He is able to demonstrate this love to, more, because they let Him into their lives. What the cedar of Lebanon wants to say is, “I care for the thistle; I want to be friends with the thistle. But do you believe that I want to be? Will you allow me to come down to your level and get into your life? Or will you think so little of yourself, that you keep a barrier between you and me?”

The Three Parables

There are three parables in Luke 15 which I find interesting. This is the chapter of the three lost things: the lost boy, the lost sheep and the lost coin. What I love about these parables, is that in each one, the person who is represented as having lost something, has many more of that thing. In the parable of the coin, the woman still has 9 coins. In the parable of the sheep, the shepherd still has 99 sheep. In the parable of the lost boy, the father has another son at home who is very observant of the rules of the house.

In the parable of the lost boy and in the parable of the lost sheep, somebody wanders away from home. In the parable of the lost coin, through carelessness, this one gets lost. In one case, the shepherd goes looking for the lost sheep while in the other case the woman sweeps the house, and searches with a lamp until she finds the lost coin. In the third, the boy is able to turn towards home, but he is returning beaten, ragged and dirty, defeated and with very poor self-esteem. He thinks very little of himself. He knows he is worthy of nothing, but in every one of these stories, the Son of God, the redeemer with the heart of the Father, the one who is His express image, is letting us understand how God feels about you and me as individuals. Praise God!

It is wonderful that God says, “you will seek me and find me when you search with all your heart,” but more amazing is the statement in which he says, “I will seek and I will find you, even when you are not looking for me!” He then says in Luke 15:7

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)

So Heaven rejoices, not because the General Conference made a new decision or because the church reached a certain target, but because of you, the individual! The celestial hosts laugh and sing, they jump and dance for joy, and God the Father has a great feeling in his almighty heart because you, the individual sinner, the one little speck of dust, turns your heart towards Him! I can love and want a God like this! I can find joy in fellowship with a God like this!

A Love that is Just Mine

I am going to suggest something to you which I believe to be true; every person who becomes a strong Christian, will have a sense of being special to God. I do not mean special in the sense of feeling that you are better than other people, but you will have the sense of being specially loved. This is what makes you a strong Christian. God loves all men, but if you stay in that mindset, telling yourself that ‘He loves everybody’ you will be just a unit, just a number in God’s database. That is what it will be in your mind. It is the personal relationship that knows, I am loved, that means something.

Sometimes I pick up my grandson and I see him looking into my eyes. Those little eyes stare intently, even though he cannot even speak yet. He leans backwards and interlocks his eyes with mine; it does not do the same thing to my heart when he looks at my wife or his parents like that. When he looks at me, it does something for me. It endears me to him.

This is how life is. If the woman you love comes to visit your family and declares that she loves them, that is very nice; it is great to know that she wants interaction with your kin, but it is not what you desire ultimately. What I really want to hear her say is, “I love you!” That is the way we were designed and created, and this is the way God wants us to relate to Him. He loves the world, He loves the church, He loves the large bodies and groups! But wonder of wonders, sweetest of all truths, the greatest story ever told is that God loves me. This is what my heart responds to, this is what I want! This is what I have found, and I praise and bless Him for this truth, this experience so wonderful.

I hope that all of us who are not yet living in this way, who do not yet experience this personal relationship with the Lord might refocus, and make it the centre and the heart of our religion. Someday they may take some of us and lock us in dungeons. I have often thought about this, I have found that people who have really developed a relationship with God often seek solitude, they look for places to be alone. It is not that they do not like people’s company, but they enjoy the time alone with God because it helps them to focus better on Him.

They may lock some of us in solitary confinement to punish us, but they will unwittingly be letting us into heaven. Because we would have the opportunity in that lonely place to be alone with our God, what a joy! In a place where they think to isolate, torture and punish you, you are saying, thank you Jesus! I have undistracted fellowship with you! You are with me, even to the ends of the earth! Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!

This is the joy of true Christianity! They cannot take it away from you. They can take away riches, possessions, property, your comfort, and even parts of your very body, but they cannot take away Jesus! When we have found Him, we have found the true meaning of life, we have found something that will keep us, and sustain us through any situation in life.

(Source: Restoration Ministry)

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