Tag Archives: Grace

Called Still Deeper

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV)

I have a confession to make this morning. I’ve been aggravated recently with a particular relational scar. It’s a past injury. Call it near ancient history. I forgave. We moved on and our paths led different places in life. It’s easy to forget past injuries when you don’t really have to continue in relationship with the person you’ve forgiven. Now,  years later I look to the horizon and our paths appear to once again be converging.

My scar itches.

I was struck this morning by Peter’s command, not just to love but to love deeply. And the reason for the call to this deep love is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a tough one, and Jesus certainly addressed it head on. Peter knew this only too well, because it was his question that prompted Jesus to address the matter:

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”

Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’

“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Ironic that Peter would ask about forgiveness when it would be he who three times denied that he even knew Jesus, who heard the rooster crow, who looked into the eyes of his Lord at that very moment and experienced the need of seventy-times-seven forgiveness. Peter knows all about deep love and forgiveness.

Some other words of Jesus come to mind this morning as I ponder:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I sit in the quiet this morning with my itchy scar, and I’m reminded that Jesus command to love others was never just about loving those who are easy for me to love and those with whom I don’t have to be in relationship. Jesus calls me to follow deeper on the path of love. To follow Jesus is to push into the deep waters of Love that He waded into when He forgave my heaping helpings of weakness, foolishness, and failings. That was the whole point of His parable of the indebted servant. I have been forgiven for so much, how can I not forgive another for so much less even if I have to keep forgiving in exponential measure.

I’m seeing myself in Jesus parable this morning. If my love is not deep enough to salve itchy old relational scars of an already forgiven issue in the past then it is, plain and simple, not deep enough.

Today, I’m pushing deeper.

Hope and Despair in a House of Cards

So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)

Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.

As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.

I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.

I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.

As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.

Liars and Lunatics

“If it is the anointed priest who sins…”
“If the whole congregation of Israel errs…”
“When a ruler sins…”
“If anyone of the ordinary people among you sins…”
Leviticus 4:3a, 13a, 22a, 27a

The other day a friend bemoaned that the Presidential race in the United States leaves us to choose between a “liar” and a “lunatic.” It took me a moment to think through which label fit which candidate best. I decided that they were interchangeable.

As a young man I spent a few years as pastor of a small, rural congregation. One day after Vacation Bible School one of the teachers came to tell me about the lesson on sin she’d given to her class. One of her young charges raised her hand and asked, “Does Pastor Tom sin?”

Yes,” the teacher replied, “he does.”

The girl thought hard for a moment, then asked, “What does he do?”

Oh, dear child. You don’t want to know.

It is human nature to hold our leaders in high regard and to expect more out of them than humanly possible. People are people. Call it whatever you want: human frailty, human nature, fatal flaws,  or imperfection. God’s Message calls in sin. The bottom line is the same. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do. We all fail to do things we know we should do. We all fall short of perfection.

In today’s chapter we continue to learn about the ancient sacrificial system that was designed as a temporary spiritual Band-Aid for humanity’s moral shortcomings. What struck me was that it begins by addressing the priest, who is the highest human spiritual leader in the system. How fascinating that one whom we’d expect to be the most good and spiritual person on the list is given first mention and the longest spiritual prescription. God knows that, despite the faith of little girls in VBS, spiritual leaders are just as flawed as anyone else.

The chapter goes to mention the nation, the civil rulers, and ends with talking about ordinary every day humans. In other words, every level of society both in the civil and religious camps had a prescribed sacrifice for atoning for their own human failings. People are people. We all fall short.

Today I’m thinking about my own failings. I’m thinking of my own need for forgiveness, mercy and grace. I’m also thinking of “liars” and “lunatics” who run for President, and pastor churches, and run businesses, and parent children, and work on the line, and go to school, and teach at those schools, and police our streets, and serve in the armed forces, and play professional sports, and live in the spotlight of fame, and live in poverty.

This morning, an ancient mantra of Jesus’ followers is playing on “repeat” in my soul….

Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace

Just like…

“In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”
Nehemiah 9:38 (NIV)

One of the benefits of studying God’s Message over time is that you eventually begin to make connections and see patterns across the Great Story.

In today’s chapter we have the Israelites gathered together. They’ve been defeated and enslaved by the Babylonians for 150 years, but the King has allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. They return, remember anew the Great Story and renew their commitment to God and His laws. They make a “binding agreement” to be faithful.

Just like when they were gathered in Sinai and Moses gave them the law to begin with…

Just like the multiple times they got rebellious and stiff-necked during their forty-years of wandering and renewed their commitment…

Just like at the dedication of Solomon’s temple…

Just like during the time of King Josiah when the law of Moses was found and read for the first time in a generation because the people had abandoned their faith to pursue pagan religions…

Just like… me and the countless “binding agreements” I’ve made with God at camps and conferences and workshops and worship services through the years, only to prove myself faithless again and again.

One of the themes of the Great Story is the same theme I see in my own spiritual journey. People are people. No matter how hard I try and however many well-intentioned “binding agreements” I make with the Almighty, I always fall short of keeping them. But, that’s the point:

[Jesus] saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)

…if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:13)

When in my repetitive, never-ending, cyclical faith-less-ness I finally stop trying to earn my spiritual merit badge, then I finally begin to understand the depths of God’s mercy, grace, and faith-full-ness. That’s when I truly begin to understand the Great Story. That’s when real Spirit-ual growth begins to occur.

(Not) Missing the Point

“…[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit….”
Titus 3:5 (NIV)

There is a fascinating and utterly critical matter lying beneath the structure of Paul’s letter to Titus in today’s chapter. It is essential to understanding God’s Message.

Our chapter begins with Paul instructing Titus to remind the followers of Jesus to be obedient and to do good:

  • Be subject to rulers
  • Be subject to authority
  • Be ready to do whatever is good
  • Slander no one
  • Be peaceable
  • Be considerate
  • Always be gentle

Here is a do-gooders laundry list. “Surely this is what God expects,” I can hear a heart whisper, “There’s no way. I’ve done too many awful things. I’m such a wretch. There’s no use trying. I could never be what God wants me to be.”

But we can’t stop with the list. The very next thing Paul does is remind Titus of what both of them were, in the past tense:

  • Foolish
  • Disobedient
  • Deceived
  • Enslaved to passions
  • Enslave to pleasures
  • Malicious
  • Envious
  • Hated by others
  • Hating others back

What a contrasting list. Here is a description most of us can identify with. We know the struggle against our own selves, our selfishness, foolishness, and out of control appetites. We know the shame of our own failures.

So, how do we get to the former list when our lives are described by the latter? Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s next words to Titus this way:

But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life!

Here is the crux of Jesus’ teaching, and what I believe is the most amazing piece of it. Gods acceptance isn’t the result of being a do-gooder and earning some kind of spiritual merit badge. We are accepted by God amidst of our ever present laundry list of failures simply by His mercy. We don’t become do gooders to earn God’s mercy. God’s mercy is poured out over us, because of what Jesus did on the cross and because of the empty tomb, so that our lives might be transformed. The transformation is not our doing; It’s God’s work in  and through us after simply accepting this amazing, gracious gift.

Today, I’m reminded that goodness is not a prerequisite of God saving me, but the result of God saving me. If I miss this truth, than I miss the entirety of Jesus’ teaching.

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Faith-full Father Abraham

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:3 (NIV)

There is no one in history quite like Abraham. He was a wayfarer and a nomad as he followed God’s call to follow toward unknown places. As an ancient man with an ancient wife beyond childbearing years, Abraham was promised that he would be the father of many nations.  He believed. He became the father of the Israelites and the Ishmaelites, both the Jews and the Arabs. The scriptures of Christians, Jews, and Muslims all journey back to the same forefather: Abraham.

And what did Abraham do that was so great?

He believed God at His word.
His faith motivated him to live according to what he believed.
God credited Abraham with righteousness.

In today’s chapter, Paul is making a religious legal argument against those who believe that our good works earn us a place in heaven. Exhibit A was father Abraham. Righteousness, Paul argued, was not rendered by God as payment for Abraham’s good deeds. It was credited (unearned) because of Abraham’s simple faith, his believing God.

In a world in which I must earn my way in almost every respect, it is easy to slip into the religious world view of heaven being earned like a divine 401K plan, just like everything else in this life: “A buck to charity here, refuse to give in to temptation there, and a good deed or two and the Big Boss in the sky puts a credit or two in the Pearly Gates Retirement Plan for me. I just hope I have enough in the account for retirement.”

But God says, “my ways aren’t your ways” and God’s Message is clear. Grace and favor is not about what I have done or not done. It’s simply about me believing what God has done and promised through Jesus. Then my faith will motivate me to live according to what I believe. John makes the link clear in his biography of Jesus when he writes that those who receive Jesus, who believe Jesus, they are credited the right to be children of God.

Just like faith-full father Abraham.

 

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From Monochrome to Living Color

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
Romans 2:1 (NIV)

When I was a young man first endeavoring to follow Jesus, life was far more monochromatic. I was unaware just how black and white my world really was. I delineated life into binary camps: good and evil, godly and ungodly, believers and unbelievers, things allowed and things not allowed, right and wrong.

Towards the end of his ministry, Jesus said that He would, on the day of Judgement, divide the nations into sheep and goats. Those on His right would go to their reward in eternity and those on His left would go to the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. One of the most important lessons, and one that is oft forgotten, is that judgement will be Jesus’ job.

The further I get on this life journey, the more clearly I see that when I presume to sit in judgement on others I am presuming to take up Jesus’ job. If I presume to do Jesus’ job for Him then I am setting myself up to be equal to Him; making myself God. That is really the core sin of Eden. Therefore, when I do this I am proving exactly the opposite of what I presume. When I presume to sit in judgement on others I am proving that I am as much a sinner in need of salvation as the person I condemn.

Life is much less monochromatic than it used to be. While there are things that I can perceive are still clearly black and white in this world, my view from the path is a colorful place with infinite hues. I seem to have lost my label maker somewhere along the way, and I haven’t really missed it. Life is an interesting place, a mysterious place, a beautiful place. I find that I am more fascinated and feel less need to understand. I am more intrigued and feel less need to be convinced. I am more given more to faith and less concerned with my doubts. I am more given to grace and am happy to let Jesus have the job of Judge.

 

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