Flax Spiritual Lessons

We went to the Maritimes with our friends for a little rest and recreation after our short-term mission, which vacation turned out to be educational as well. For example, at King’s Landing, New Brunswick, we learned a bit of history about early settlers from the British Isles to Canada. The agricultural setting gave us some reminders of biblical truths. For instance, the yoke recalled Jesus’ yoke in Mt 11:29-30, or “unequally yoked” in 2 Co 6:14. And the muzzle brought to mind how we should look after our pastors in 1 Co 9:9 or 1 Tim 5:18.

But a very interesting lesson came from the flax plant. Farmers grow flax for both food and fiber. The plant is pretty with small bluish flowers. The seed is like brown sesame and rich in omega-3. The stem is long like that of rice or wheat. However, it is how the plant is turned into useful products that provided the object lesson. Going back to the old days when most jobs are manual, the mature plant is pulled up by the roots, sun-dried, and the grains removed by threshing. The straw is then retted for up to two months, during which time the sun and the rain produce an enzyme that breaks down the bond between the straw’s outer stalk and the inner fibers.

After retting the outer straw is broken into smaller pieces on a crusher, which is shaped like a paper-cutter except that the edge is not sharp. The “chopper” breaks the stalk but leaves the long fibers intact. The fibers look like long blond hair, and are drawn through a bed of long nails called a hackle or heckle to separate them into strands. The individual strands are then spun on a spindle into threads, which are 2-3 times stronger than cotton, and transferred onto a loom to be woven into cloth.

The preparation process is an analogy to the Christian life. To be useful in God’s hands, Abraham, Jacob and Joseph had to be uprooted for their training. Paul had to suffer beatings (2 Co 6:5; threshing). Retting is soaking flax or hemp in water to soften it and separate the fibers. It is removal of the woody tissues by partial rotting. In the same way, Joseph, Moses and David had to be put on the sideline and wait to learn humility. Heckling resembles afflictions. Paul knew about being afflicted in every way, but not crushed; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Co 4:8-9). Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Co 4:16).

Most of us would shy away from any form of suffering, because we have not learned its value. But not Paul, who said in Rom 5:3-4 “but we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character”. If only we’ve truly learned the theology of suffering, we would have been much better Christians and the Church would have a much greater impact. Pray that all of us would learn to pay the cost of discipleship.

Top - horn yoke; bottom - neck yoke

Top – horn yoke; bottom – neck yoke

Muzzle

Muzzle

 

Flax plant

Flax plant

Flax chopper

Flax chopper

Heckling

Heckling

Spinning into yarn

Spinning into yarn

Weaving into cloth

Weaving into cloth

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Does Prayer Change Things? (3 of 3)

prayer changes things 7

(Continued from yesterday)

2. There are good alternative explanations to the verses that speak of “not change His mind” other than taking them nominally without considering the context:

• 1 Sam 15:29 – this pertains to the nature of God who will not lie. In His essence God never changes (Heb 13:8), but in His actions He provides room for people to respond without compromising His ultimate will.
• Ps 110:4; Heb 7:21 – the latter quotes the former with respect to the election of Christ as priest forever. This is God’s eternal decree for the salvation of mankind and of course will never change.
• Jer 4:28 – this must be interpreted in the light of what God said later in Jer 18:7-10 At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of (reconsider) the good with which I had promised to bless it.

Clearly God responds to whether people repent or disobey. What about passages in which God said, “I will not relent”:

Ezk 24:14 I, the LORD, have spoken; it is coming and I will act. I will not relent, and I will not pity and I will not be sorry; according to your ways and according to your deeds I will judge you,” declares the Lord GOD.’”
• Zech 8:14 “For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Just as I purposed to do harm to you when your fathers provoked Me to wrath,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘and I have not relented,

Ezk 24:14 must be interpreted in conjunction with Ezk 24:13, “Now your impurity is lewdness. Because I tried to cleanse you but you would not be cleansed from your impurity, you will not be clean again until my wrath against you has subsided.” Taken together, the LORD will not relent because He wanted to cleanse Jerusalem, which won’t repent until it is judged.

Similarly, one must continue reading Zech 8:14 to v 15, “so I have again purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear!” As in Ezk 24:14, “not relenting” was meant for Jerusalem’s good. The end, or the intention, was always for her benefit, not harm. In this sense God did not change His mind, though in the means, His action, God changed from forbearance to judgment specifically to accomplish His purpose.

One last point, what about God’s sovereignty? Wouldn’t His responding to prayer make God subject to man’s action, and therefore not sovereign? No, not at all! God is always sovereign and in control, but His method is not to dictate everything. In His dealings with man, I believe God’s way is the way of wisdom. Instead of programming each incident to one static outcome, He gave people not only rules and principles to obey, but also freedom to choose for which they are accountable. His way is dynamic, interacting with people in a way that keeps their freewill intact, yet maintaining His sovereignty all the time simply because He is infinitely above His creatures. I have not touched on Jn 14:14, but we will leave that for some other time.

Does Prayer Change Things? (2 of 3)

prayer changes things 4

(Continued from yesterday)

Yesterday we looked at the healing of Hezekiah which prompted opposing views as to the efficacy of prayer. Today we examine the evidence supporting each side.

Those who believe “God does not change His mind” feel that since God is omniscient, He already knows Hezekiah will pray and He will heal him. He just did not tell him in advance so that he will turn to God for everything, big (e.g. Sennacherib 2 Kings 19:14-19) and small (personal illness). They explained the verses indicating “the Lord changed His mind” as only apparent from man’s perspective, as “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

Those who believe “God changes His mind” feel that with respect to major decrees – what God has sworn and purposed – indeed the LORD does NOT change His mind. These decrees are of eternal significance and can never be changed. However, with respect to lesser issues, e.g. pronouncing misfortune on His people in order to make them repent, God’s plan provides for alternative outcomes based on how they respond to His warnings. If they repent, God will relent on the punishment. If they persist in their evil, then God will send the harm He threatened them with.

To use a journey as an illustration, the “No Change” school is like God planning the complete itinerary, including destination (ends) and side tours (means). Everything is predestined, unchangeable. The “Change” school is like God fixing only the final destination, but allowing “options” giving people choice for side tours. You always end up where God wants you, because God is sovereign, but there is flexibility in the means.

Which school is correct? I believe the weight of the evidence is on the latter, as follows:

1. Besides Ex 32:12,14; Jer 26:13, 19; and Amos 7:3,6, there is a preponderance of passages speaking of the LORD relenting from calamity when His people turns from evil:

2 Sam 24:16 When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the calamity and said to the angel who destroyed the people, “It is enough! Now relax your hand!
• Ps 106:45 And He remembered His covenant for their sake, And relented according to the greatness of His loving-kindness.
• Jer 15:6 “You who have forsaken Me,” declares the LORD, “You keep going backward. So I will stretch out My hand against you and destroy you; I am tired of relenting!
• Jer 18:8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.
• Jer 42:10 ‘If you will indeed stay in this land, then I will build you up and not tear you down, and I will plant you and not uproot you; for I will relent concerning the calamity that I have inflicted on you.
• Joel 2:13-14 And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness And relenting of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent And leave a blessing behind Him, …
• Jonah 3:9-10 Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
• Jonah 4: … for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.

All the passages speak of God relenting (changing His mind) when His people turn from their wicked ways, because of His great loving-kindness.

(To be continued)

Does Prayer Change Things? (1 of 3)

Hezekiah healing 1

Q. Hezekiah became ill and God told him that he will die. He prayed and wept and God healed him, adding 15 years to his life (2 Kings 20:6). Manasseh, one of Judah’s most wicked kings, succeeded Hezekiah when he was 12 years old (2 Kings 21:1), which means he would not have been born had God not healed Hezekiah. Did Hezekiah change God’s will and the course of history by his prayer?

A. The account of Hezekiah’s healing is in 2 Kings 20:1-7, and Isaiah 38:1-6. The subject is on the immutability of God, and there are opposing views. Some believe “God does not change His mind” because He knows everything and makes the best decisions, and there is no need to change His mind. Furthermore, if God changes His will in response to prayer, His action is contingent upon man’s petition, then how can God be sovereign? Supporting verses include:

1 Sam 15:29 Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”
• Ps 110:4 The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind, “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.”
• Jer 4:28 “For this the earth shall mourn And the heavens above be dark, Because I have spoken, I have purposed, And I will not change My mind, nor will I turn from it.”
• Heb 7:21 … but He with an oath through the One who said to Him, “THE LORD HAS SWORN AND WILL NOT CHANGE HIS MIND, ‘YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER’”);

Others, however, believe “God changes His mind” because that’s what this passage plainly implies. If God does not answer prayer requests, why did Jesus ask us to pray? He said, “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” (Jn 14:14) If He didn’t mean it, why say it? Other supporting verses include:

Ex 32:12, 14 Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. … So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
• Jer 26:13, 19 Now therefore amend your ways and your deeds and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will change His mind about the misfortune which He has pronounced against you. … Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and the LORD changed His mind about the misfortune which He had pronounced against them?
• Amos 7:3,6 The LORD changed His mind about this. “It shall not be,” said the LORD. … The LORD changed His mind about this. “This too shall not be,” said the Lord GOD.

So which is it? Does God change His mind in answer to prayer or not? Does prayer change anything?

(To be continued)

Our Belarus Trip (2 of 2)

(Continued from yesterday)

One of our Belarusian friends is a gifted singer who recorded 3 CDs, 2 in English and 1 in Russian. She has a deep devotional life and her songs reflect her faith. Here is a snipet:

We attended a baptismal service on Sunday, which is rare. Official statistics in 2011 cite 59% of Belarusians are believers, of which 82% are Orthodox, 12% Catholics, and 6% all other denominations, including Protestants, cults, Jews and Muslims. The percentage born-again is therefore small. Making a decision is easy, but public witness by baptism is hard to come by.

Protestant baptism service

Protestant baptism service

The church’s music director has a strong tenor voice and tours often to present in other churches. Here is a sample:

A challenge we faced cooking an authentic oriental mean is the lack of condiments to season the food. This is the only Vietnamese grocery store we know of in Minsk that has a supply of Chinese and SE Asian spices to prepare a decent meal. We actually saved up seasoning packets from instant noodles to bring on trips to help out in a crunch!

Vietnamese grocery store in Zhdanovichi Market

Vietnamese grocery store in Zhdanovichi Market

Of course we can always eat out, budget permitting. The best Chinese restaurant we tried in Minsk is “Chinatown”, opened just last week and where our friend is a junior partner. It is a first class diner with good food, excellent decor and service, and reasonable prices. Many of the decorations are imported from China, as is the chef who comes from Szechuan. We were the first customers on opening day, and it does not disappoint!

Ready for a hearty meal!

Ready for a hearty meal!

Among our Vietnamese merchant friends, the mood is sombre because of the poor economy. The Belarusian currency had depreciated 1/3 from US$1 = 10,000 BLR (Belarusian Ruble) to US$1 = 15,000 BLR, and sales had plummeted. Some shops have closed and the owners returned to Vietnam. Those staying open are eating into their capital in the hope that business will improve by year-end.

Many stores closed as a result of the economic downturn.

Many stores closed as a result of the economic downturn.

Despite the gloomy outlook, life goes on. Believers are helped by their faith and hope for a brighter future. Here we are in front of the white Holy Spirit Cathedral, a famous landmark in Minsk dating to nearly 400 years ago. The original building burned down about 100 years later, and the Bernadine monastery was rebuilt over 270 years ago.

Holy Spirit Cathedral (Orthodox)

Holy Spirit Cathedral (Orthodox)

Our Belarus Trip (1 of 2)

We recently took a trip to Minsk, Belarus. One of the first things you need to do upon arrival is to register at the OGIM – Отдел по гражданству и миграции within 5 business days. If you stay in a hotel, they’ll do it for you automatically. However, since we were invited by friends, they have to take us to the Citizenship and Migration Department, fill out the form, pay 90,000 BLR (US$6)/person, and spend half a day there to do it. Don’t lose your migration card, you’ll need it to leave the country.

Citizenship and Migration Department

Citizenship and Migration Department

One of the first places we visited was the Zhdanovichi flea-market, which has several acres of both covered and outdoor stores selling everything from clothing, shoes, electronics, building materials, restaurants, and even sub-machine guns!

Fruit market within Zhdanovichi

Fruit market within Zhdanovichi

There are many Vietnamese restaurants in the market, over 20 of them called Сайгон (Saigon), possibly because they were a franchise, but with different layouts. The menus, however, offer essentially the same things, at identical or almost the same prices. One look may give you “sticker shock”, as a bowl of pho (beef noodles) costs about 55,000 Belarusian Rubles (BLR). But don’t worry, as the exchange rate is about US$1 = 15,000 BLR. So it costs only US$3.67, and you become a “millionaire” if you have as little as US$67!

One of over 20 Saigon Restaurants.

One of over 20 Saigon Restaurants.

Menu of traditional Vietnamese dishes

Menu of traditional Vietnamese dishes

One of the best deals in Minsk is a metro ride. A single ride costs only 4,500 BLR i.e. US$0.30! In comparison, a one-way subway ride in Toronto costs C$3 or about US$2.40, 8 times as much! Unlike Toronto or Hong Kong, subway stations have few advertisments.

"Moscow" metro station.

“Moscow” metro station.

Our favorite supermarket is корона (Crown), near a State University and where many foreigners, including students, have lunch and do their grocery shopping. Most prices are very reasonable, except when you buy imported brands.

Korona, or Crown Supermarket.

Korona, or Crown Supermarket.

July 3 is Belarus’ Independence Day, celebrated by fireworks at 10 pm. This shot was taken from our apartment.

Independence Day fireworks.

Independence Day fireworks.

(To be continued)