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Yoga and the Christian journey

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What impact does Yoga have on a Christian’s journey?  Does it hinder, help or not matter?  Is Yoga dangerous to the spiritual health of someone who engages in it?  These are all questions many Christians ponder.  I have been wondering about Yoga myself as people I know and care about practice it to varying degrees.  Is ‘Namaste’ a bad word?

Yet, questions always yield answers that stand on the prejudices of other unanswered and even unasked questions.  What is the Christian journey?  What really does hinder or help a Christian’s sanctification or journey to holiness?   Finally, what is holiness?  What does it look like?  These are questions that need to be answered before assessing the effect of Yoga upon a person.

It is also crucial to keep central the fact that we are talking about people coming to God not religion, ritual, doctrine or any other worldly practice.  It is a central tenant of Christianity that God justifies and sanctifies.  Jesus tells us this Himself; “. . .  as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should  give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”  (John 17:2,3) And; “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.  As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.”  (John 17:17-19)

So to start this reflection, I want to share a young man’s profound testimony of rebirth and new life.  His journey illustrates  how God lays hold of a man.  He wasn’t into Yoga or  church.  He was a dope dealing predatory thug.despairing-man-behind-bars

This young man had a hard life with an abusive father who died young.  His childhood was one of constant moves to different places and schools.  He learned to deal with his fear of getting hurt by his father by becoming a bully.  In his teenager years he fell into the wrong crowd and picked up the drug trade.  He was in and out of jail- youth detention – where he was tutored in criminality by the ‘best’ of the ‘worst’.  After years of this soul deforming life he found himself in ‘solitary confinement’ slowly going crazy.  In desperation he called out to a guard for something to do.  The guard handed him a book by Ernie Hollands.  The book gave the testimony of hardened criminals who came to God in prison.  It piqued the young man’s interest – not in God but he was always ready to listen to a hardened criminal.  Yet at some point he started to wonder about God.  The young man said that ‘a seed was planted in me’ and ‘I remember that day getting a strange feeling in my guts, something or someone touched me – could there be something to this?’  The point the young man stressed was that it wasn’t anyone special or even any contact with people that planted the seed.  He was in solitary confinement reading a book about criminals by a man he never knew.  The experience didn’t change his behavior or thinking.  But he remembered the strange feeling deep inside him.

A few more years of trouble and mayhem went by and the young lad found himself leading a gang that controlled the drug trade in a very ‘bad’ section of town.  He describes his feelings of isolation and loneliness even surrounded by his gang who all swore they ‘had his back’.  Overwhelmed by a deep weariness of life even at the top of his game – top dog in the drug trade,  he withdrew into an empty room while his buddies were partying.  He noticed a worn Bible laying on a bed, a Gideon’s Bible.   One of his friends must have ‘stolen’ it from a motel room.  He remembered Ernie Hollands book of testimonies by criminals.  He picked up the Bible  and started reading and reading and reading.   A man who is sick and tired will do just about anything to distract himself from his life weariness.  At one point the young man was overtaken by a profound feeling that someone else was with him.  He was overwhelmed and found himself on his knees calling out to God.  That day, buy himself in an empty bedroom with his dope dealing gang partying in the next room, he accepted the Truth of what God’s Word declared.  He no longer felt alone and he had joy!

He was still top dog in a gang of dope dealing thugs but inside he was a new man.  The young lad declared; “I had so  much joy even though I had three hundred dollars worth of crack in my pockets to sell.  For the next three days I sold the crack with JOY in my heart.  But then I started feeling that this was wrong.  I couldn’t deal in drugs anymore with this joy in me.  I quit selling.  I quit the gang!”  There was so much more to this young man’s testimony but I have shortened it for brevity, stressing the aspects of it that are pertinent to our discussion.  Notice the absence of church, doctrine and even Christian fellowship in this young man’s testimony.  Notice the absence of  clergy,  Christian education and discipleship around this young man when he had his life changing encounters.  There was nothing holy in his outward life.  He was in no danger of being led astray by anything because he was as lost as a person could be.  Yet now this young man is a Pastor, church planter and friend of sinners.   How did that happen?  Would Yoga have impeded the process?

reveal-to-me-my-true-brethren-fatherDesperation draws us to Jesus,  be it brought about by loneliness, sickness, despair, great danger  or some other trouble.  We come alone with no one else, with no rituals or practices – pagan or otherwise.  No doctrine but the doctrine of desperation – ‘Help me Jesus!’.  The Psalmist wrote; “In my distress I called upon the LORD, And cried to my God for help; He heard my voice out of His temple, And my cry for help before Him came into His ears.”  (Psalm 18:6) Desperation draws God near to us when we are broken; “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)  This young man’s testimony illustrates this.  He was broken  and living in an empty desolation surrounded by his gang.  He realized his destitution and cried out.

The self-realization of a soul that comes to God and that God draws near to is not the same as the self-realization described by SWAMI ADISWARANANDA :

The way of Yoga is a relentless quest for our true Self, which remains buried under the covers of our body and mind, our countless thoughts and memories, emotions and volitions, habits and tendencies. Direct perception of this Self alone can unravel the mysteries of life and decisively put an end to all the maladies of life. This direct perception is our true savior, and our own effort is our only tool to attain direct perception. . . . Those who are determined in their effort, steadfast in their practice of self-control and renunciation, well established in the virtues of yama and niyama – especially continence – undeterred by the obstacles and risks, and ready to follow the path, attain the goal of Self-realization in no time. This is the promise of the way of Yoga.

Yoga is one of many kinds of works righteousness through which a person by their own efforts and diligence strive to  achieve salvation.  As such there is no more danger to a person’s soul when practicing Yoga than there is when we practice our own culturally Christian forms of works righteousness.  True Christians know; “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Yes there are things we practice to grow in wisdom – prayer, reading His Word, fellowship with one another and the Holy Spirit through worship – but none of those things save us.  Yet we forget that or worse – just don’t believe it.  At least with Yoga the practitioners are perfectly aligned with their goals if they pursue Yoga for salvation.Many Christians in name only are not!  How many of us ‘Christians’, secretly think it is highly ‘unfair’ that our dope dealing thug should be extended the grace we have worked so hard for over so many years and still do not feel?

Some practice yoga (as opposed to Yoga) for health and fitness – to stretch tight muscles, build better mental focus  and relieve tension and bodily aches.  The website Holistic WebWorks claims;

Regardless of the person Yoga has a number of lasting benefits and will aid in a wide variety of different health issues. Regular practitioners of yoga will live an overall enhanced lifestyle, are more likely to have a strong memory and better stamina combined with a stronger sense of balance. Even late starters can use Yoga to combat a range of health disorders from Blood pressure to arthritis to breathing orders.

Stretching, bending, exercising and focusing our mind on our bodies isn’t necessarily a bad thing or  a good thing.  The apostle Paul explains; “. . . discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”  (1 Timothy 4:7,8)  What is godliness?  There are many definitions of godliness, you can look them up yourself.  The godliness that counts is the godliness that makes us right with God.  It is our work and our salvation.  Jesus Himself defined this work; “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”  (John 6:29)  God said; “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”  (Matthew 17:5)  We can believe in Jesus and walk in obedience as we exercise.

Some argue that certain physical practices open a spiritual door for spiritual entities to enter in.  They are correct; especially if the person is ’empty’ in a spiritual sense even while outwardly religious and living ‘right’ by their own efforts.  Jesus cautioned us about this; “Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)  Is the person who practices yoga for health and stretching in any greater spiritual danger than the Christian who practices new age spiritual disciplines or indulges in the strange fire of charismatic excess?

We cannot even worship God properly on our own.  When we substitute our own forms of religious ritual and self-based propitiation to a god of our own imaginings we are ruined no matter how fine our dress and splendid our rituals are.  Jesus told us what God wants; “ But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”  (John 4:23,24)  The presence or absence of the Holy Spirit in a person determines the outcome of any practice.  Our dope dealing thug after he gave his life to Jesus and submitted to the rule of the Holy Spirit quit his practiced livelihood of drug dealing very quickly.  How many of us ‘godly’ Christians doubt the presence of the Holy Spirit in this young man because he sold dope for a few days after his conversion?  How we judge the work of God in others!  It is not the outward practices that define a person spiritual state or conforms a person to Jesus  Rather it is the inward work of God’s Holy Spirit – a work unseen by worldly eyes.   One writer rightly asks; “What is at the heart of your spirituality? Is it an unhealthy quest for an unmediated experience of God? Or is it driven by the Scriptures, which are the Sword of the Spirit? “maxresdefault

We are pressed in on every side by the world and its many gods.  We are steeped in paganism and its practices.  How do we get clean and stay clean?  When we strip away all the vanity and religious claptrap, we find His way.  We get clean and are kept clean in the same way our dope dealing thug got cleaned up and became a man of God.  Yoga doesn’t get in the way of that, nor does dope dealing or speaking in tongues or singing in the choir. Nor do any of these practices promote the justification and holiness of a person.  The bottom line is a Truth the world hates and few believe, even in the church; “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  (John 14:6)

Don’t waste your breath and effort warning people away from anything.  The Holy Spirit is working on them  already.  They know what they are doing falls short and if they don’t how are they any different from self-righteous ‘saved by works’ cultural Christians. Point to Jesus. Lift Him high in your life and testimony by your love for God and neighbor in word and deed.  Always reach out in Jesus’ name to help people stand on the solid rock of His Truth!

. . . till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting,  but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:13-16)

Come, Lord Jesus!

Paganism – the roots go deep, can we clear them out?

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A good friend asked me about the practice of Yoga.  Should Christians engage in it?  Should we warn others about it?  Yoga stands out because it is eastern in origin and so isn’t part of our western cultural heritage.  Yet much of our culture is pagan in origin but so much a part of who we are that we don’t notice.  Are there pagan influences in our churches as well?   How deep do these roots go and what can we do to get clear of them?  What can we say about paganism to those within and outside of the church?   It would be wise to examine the pagan influences in our own life, sacred and secular before looking at  any particular practice.  I will specifically look at Yoga in a second essay.

Enlightenment in natureTo make the situation even more confusing, churches and clergy have a wide range of opinions on what pagan practices should be accepted and what should be rejected.  Anyone sincerely looking for guidance will quickly become confused by the diversity of opinions and practices among the ‘Christian’ church.  Some  reject Halloween pumpkins but embrace the Christmas tree.  Others may reject both but practice unBiblical meditation rituals and make pagan circles.  What can a sincere Christian wanting to witness to the world say in the midst of all this confusion?  Where can we go for advice?

We are blessed with a great deal of Biblical advice on how to live in a pagan world and deal with its influences.  Does the existence of hidden pagan roots and remnant practices hinder our Christian maturity and witness?  What can we do about them. And more importantly what does the Bible say God is doing about the paganism rooted deeply in us?

Our world is filled with non-Christian influences and practices that we have come to accept as normal and even Christian.  We can find idolatry in the names of the days  of our week.  Sunday is named from an ancient Roman pagan holiday, Monday comes from  the Anglo-Saxon moon goddess’ day,  Tuesday, Thursday and Friday are named after the Norse deities –  Tyr , Thor and Frig (Encyclopedia Mythica).   Does our practice of using these names for the days of the week affect our faith or Christian witness?

We have just celebrated Christmas and many of us  put up Christmas trees in our living rooms. We even decorate our churches with them.  The practice of venerating a tree is very pagan.  Truth and Light Ministries writes: “Many Christians today believe that Christmas is a Christian holiday. The fact is that people have been celebrating Christmas, long before the birth of Christ. The festivity was known then, as Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a festival in which the Romans commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn. As winter approached, they were losing harvest & were in need of the sun in order for their harvest to grow & bear fruit. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture and harvest.”   The Christmas season itself has an antecedent that is pagan.  Does that take away from our celebration of His coming?

Does having a Christmas tree in your living room and at the front of your church where you worship constitute veneration?  For me the Christmas tree brings back memories of my childhood and my mothers love for the holiday.  She taught me about Jesus and read scripture to me.    But does the fact that the pagans venerated trees before the Christmas tree came into being condemn the practice?  I will not even discuss the celebration and practice of letting our children go out on ‘Halloween’ because it is so obviously pagan that nothing more needs to be said.

As I sit here typing this reflection I notice my wedding band on my left hand.   A ring as important sign of status also has its roots in paganism.  Samuele  Bacchiocchii states:  “The Romans were also the first to use finger rings to “tie” people not only to their social classes, but also to their marital partners. During the betrothal ceremony the bridegroom gave a plain iron finger ring to the family of the bride as a symbol of his commitment and financial ability to support the bride. Marriages were not made in heaven but over a negotiating table. Originally the betrothal ceremony was more elaborate and important than the marriage rite, which was a simple fulfillment of the betrothal commitment. It was only much later in Christian history that the ring was made part of the wedding ceremony.”  Even the sign of this most important relationship in my life, second only to Jesus, is stained with paganism.  Do I remove my wedding ring?picture71353272706518

The architecture of our most sacred spaces, our churches arose out of pagan temples.  J. Powell points out that not only did the architecture of the church come from pagan roots but also the order of worship; “It was Constantine who first constructed buildings to be named churches, built after the pattern of pagan basilicas. It was Constantine who decided that Christians should have books available to instruct Romans how to be Christians; so he ordered Eusebius to gather Christian gospels, letters, and other literature, evaluate them for authenticity, and compile canonical documents into a book to be called the ‘Holy Bible.’ Constantine suggested all Romans should attend church services every Sunday (Until then, Christians were not accustomed to attending a structured weekly religious service). Clerics would continue to follow the pagan order of worship, including song services with robed choirs and sermons about ethics and morality. But clerics would add everything devout Christians felt should be included in the services, especially Christian communion.” Even our most sacred spaces and experiences have been influenced by paganism?  Does this block the presence of the Holy Spirit in our gatherings?

We Christians, whether we know it or not, are surrounded  by pagan traditions and influences.  Our sacred places, practices and even the signs of our most intimate relationships have been influenced by paganism.  What can we do about it?  Some seek to purge themselves and urge others to abandon certain customs like the Christmas tree but they do not purge all pagan influences.  Yet, they judge others for not following their example.  They fall into the trap of legalism and  do to themselves what they claim the devil’s paganism does to others.  They become corrupted; “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:5)

0f39c7954a2d5ffa59b453c76c9937feWhat can we do about  paganism?  Nothing on our own, we are steeped in it?  Paganism pervades and influences everything in our lives.  There is only one way out of the pit of paganism (John 14:6) and it isn’t by our own efforts (Ephesians 2:8,9). If we can’t rescue ourselves how can we rescue others?   Convicting others of the true spiritual condition of their soul isn’t our job; it’s the Holy Spirit’s.  Jesus told us very clearly that He had to leave to make way for the Holy Spirit to work in this world; “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” (John 16:7-11)  And how does this work in an individual? Jesus explains; “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”  (John 6:44,45)  There is no talk of the work of any human intermediaries and we are saved in the filth we stand in; “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)

How are we and others cleaned up?  Again it isn’t our job to clean others up because we can’t even clean up ourselves.   When we try it always ends up badly; “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:3) How are we cleaned up?   Jesus tells us; “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. ‘Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me'” (John 15:3)  His Word when we accept it makes us clean and when we stick with Jesus we are continually cleaned up of the daily grime of living.  This cleaning goes deep; “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”  (John 17:17) God’s Word cuts deep exposing and convicting us of our paganism; “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)  Instead of warning people away from pagan practices we must point people to God’s Word made flesh – Jesus!  We must have faith to believe Jesus when He says the Holy Spirit is up to the heavy lifting required to clean up a person. This is the Work of God; “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:29)l909646777

So what do we do living in a pagan world, steeped as we are in paganism which has worked its way into our most sacred spaces and intimate relationships?  How do we witness to each other and others?  Point to Jesus!  Jesus tells us; “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”  (John 12:32)  This is not easy because the world hates Jesus and hates those who point to Him.  It is far more tempting to point people away from something we don’t agree with or feel doesn’t measure up to our standards of holiness because the world can deal with that.  For the world it’s ‘OK’ to be holy as long as you don’t mention Jesus because everybody has a right to be their own kind of holy.  The trouble starts when Jesus is high and lifted up – the devil hates that.

Jesus tells us that holiness that can be seen by the world is expressed in the love people in the church have for each other; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)  Holiness is expressed in how we, the church treat outsiders; “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Holiness is loving Jesus; “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever . . . ”  Through that love we receive His Holy Spirit.

Our greatest witness to a world living in darkness – to people steeped in paganism even to ourselves – is to show that we truly have come to Jesus; “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrew 12:22-24)

God will do the rest: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” (Hebrew 12:28,29)

Thank you Jesus!

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