Tag Archives: Heart

Eye Opening

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He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
    and put their trust in him.

Psalm 40:3 (NIV)

In the Great Story, faith is described as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

The spiritual journey is often referred to as a faith journey, and along my personal journey following Jesus I’ve found that it is the increasing understanding of spiritual realities amidst contrasting circumstances in this physical world.

There is a great story of the ancient prophet Elisha who, along with his servant, was staying in the town of Dothan. The king of Aram wanted Elisha dead because God, through Elisha, had been tipping off the King of Israel regarding the Aramian army’s location. So in the middle of the night, the Aramian army surrounded Dothan. Elisha and his servant woke up the next morning to find themselves surrounded. Elisha’s servant freaked out.

“Don’t worry,” the prophet said calmly. “There are more with us than against us.”

“Dude,” his servant said. “What have you been smoking? Don’t you see the entire Aramian army out there?!”

Elisha then prayed, “Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.”

The eyes of his servants were then opened to see the realm of the Spirit dimension, and he saw that the hills surrounding Dothan were filled with an entire army of angels sitting on chariots of fire.

David psyched me out a bit this morning as I began to read Psalm 40. After two songs (Psalm 38 and Psalm 39) in which he has been lamenting his poor health and despairing over his circumstances, he beings Psalm 40 with a declaration of being restored and delivered. He’s pulled up out of the muddy pit and firmly established on solid rock. He’s singing a “new song.”

“Yes!” I thought to myself. “After patiently waiting, David has finally experienced healing and restoration!”

But then as I continued reading David’s song lyrics it becomes clear that his circumstances really haven’t changed. He’s still poor and needy, his troubles still surround him, and his heart is still failing.

So what has changed to inspire the opening lines of the song?

Faith.

As with Elisha’s servant, the eyes of David’s heart are being opened to see the realities of Spirit amidst his physical circumstances. His spiritual confidence is growing and allowing him to actually experience that for which he is hoping for despite there being no change in his temporal earthly realities.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about our current earthly realities that are creating so much fear and anxiety. It can feel a bit like being surrounded with no possible way out.

I’m personally praying Elisha’s prayer.

“Lord, open the eyes of my heart to see Your reality in the realm of the Spirit dimension.”

Jesus said to His followers, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The Question That Makes All the Difference

All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.
Exodus 35:29 (NRSVCE)

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When I studied acting back in high school and college I was trained to repeatedly ask the question “Why?”

“Why is my character saying this?”
“Why is my character doing this?”
“Why is my character so fond of that character?”
“Why is my character being such an ass in this scene?”

The most common and classic question that has often been parodied is, “What’s my motivation?”

Here’s what I learned in the process. The question is more important for me in life than it is as an actor on stage.

“Why do I repeatedly do the thing I say I don’t want to do?”
“Why am I staying in a job that I hate?”
“Why has my marriage been an interpersonal war for fifteen years?”
“Why do I go to church if I don’t even believe?”
“Why am I always buying stuff I don’t need just to fill my life with things I don’t use?”
“Why do I feel such rage all the time?”

Notice that all of those questions are reflective of negative feelings and behaviors, but the same question of motivation is important for the positive things we think, say, and do as well. Jesus was constantly pointing out that pious, religious people who were doing things with all the wrong-motives weren’t part of the Kingdom of God while humble, sinful outsiders with all sorts of baggage who lovingly sacrificed themselves for others were.

In today’s chapter, we find Moses and the Hebrews still camped at Mount Sinai. Moses has spent a total of 80 days (and we’ve spent a total of 15 chapters) on the mountain with God downloading God’s vision, instructions, and commands. Now it’s time to implement the vision and actually construct this traveling tent temple called the Tabernacle. So Moses calls on the Hebrews to pitch-in, donate the materials needed, and help with the labor of construction.

What struck me was the repeated phrases that spoke of the motivation of those giving of their time and resources:

  • “…let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering…”
  • “And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing…”
  • “So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart…”
  • “…all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill…”
  • “All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.”

For me, the message was loud and clear. God wanted those who were motivated to help, not those who were doing it under duress like the slaves they were back in Egypt. For the thing God was doing among them, God wanted those who were genuinely generous of heart, willing spirit, stirred within, motivated and compelled by souls open to God’s Spirit.

If I’m doing it for all the wrong reasons I need to just stop. I need to walk away. Doing the right thing with all the wrong motivations is not what God’s Kingdom is about. First, I must honestly and sincerely deal with the “Why?” Did you know Jesus actually turned away would-be followers? In each case, it was never a matter of sin, but of motivation that He questioned.

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself taking a spiritual step back and asking myself “why” I do the things I do. Why do I follow Jesus? Why have I spent my time and energy writing these posts for almost 15 years with nothing of any worldly value to show for it? What is it that Wendy and I do with our time, energy, and resources on a daily basis, and why the heck are we doing it?

Along this life journey, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for humans to live on auto-pilot. Life is a series of rote words and actions motivated by nothing more than base human appetites and a lifetime of the systemic conditioning of family, education, and local culture. When I decided to follow Jesus (not just be a religious church member, but really follow what Jesus lived and taught) and then when Jesus led me to follow the stirring of my heart to study theatre, I was taught to honestly ask the question that has made all the difference in my life:

“Why am I…[fill in the blank]?”

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Seeds, Soil, and Fruit

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Mark 4:9 (NIV)

As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus was famous for speaking in parables, similes, and word pictures. In today’s chapter, Mark chronicles four different parables. All of them are examples from the everyday life in the agrarian culture in which Jesus and His listeners lived:

  • A farmer sowing seed over his field and the different things that happen to the seed that is sown.
  • An oil lamp like the kind of lamp every one of Jesus’ listeners used in their homes at night.
  • Crops that grow to maturity and produce fruit despite the sower doing nothing other than scattering the seed.
  • A tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant tree.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Romans 1:20 as I read:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

In the same way that an artist’s work reveals things about the artist, God’s creation reveals things about his divine nature. Jesus simply identified the ways that creation reveals truth of God’s Kingdom and turns them into a parable.

The thing I found myself contemplating this morning was the fact that Jesus knew not all of His listeners would hear and understand what He was getting at. Some would have the spiritual “ears” to hear what He was saying. Others would hear the words but be deaf to its meaning. Jesus accepts this as a matter of course and embraces it.

I became a follower of Jesus during my Freshman year of high school and was an active follower during those high school years. This past year I attended my 35th high school reunion and really enjoyed renewing acquaintances with my classmates. In the course of conversations, I got to hear stories of others who had themselves become followers on the course of their own journeys even though it happened on a different stretch of road than it did for me. Wendy has had similar experiences with former classmates and sorority sisters whom she has discovered became followers; Individuals she would have never expected to have any interest in spiritual things.

That’s the thing I’ve observed about soil as I’ve lived most of my life amidst the farm fields of Iowa. Some years a field might be less productive because it’s too wet, too dry, or the soil isn’t right. Another year, the soil might have changed because the farmer worked it a certain way and the weather cooperated so that it was ready to receive the seed and allow it to take root, grow, and produce. And, there’s another parable.

Not every heart is ready to hear or see at the same time. Some soil takes time and seasons of preparation. Jesus drew large crowds with His miracles. It’s easy to draw a crowd if you provide a good show. At the same time, Jesus knew that not every one in the audience was ready to hear and He was okay with that. He was speaking to the few who’s hearts were ready to receive the seeds He was planting. In another message He would identify them as those who were asking, seeking, and knocking. Not everyone is.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded of another parable that comes from my observations in the Iowa heartland. Fruit from one season becomes the seed for the next season. The spiritual fruit my life produces today in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and the self-control that I extend to others today is the seed that I scatter. Without me ever knowing it, some of that seed will land in a heart or life that is primed and ready to receive it. Based on Jesus’ example, that’s the way it works.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Scarcity Thinking Before the God of Infinite Resources

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Luke 11:13 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve learned in this chapter-a-day journey is that God’s Message never ceases to meet me right where I am.

One of the things that I’ve learned about myself along my spiritual journey is that I have a spiritual Achilles heel called scarcity. It’s a particular form of unbelief rooted in my own toxic shame. The following passage describes me well:

Remembering that God is my source, we are in the spiritual position of having an unlimited bank account. Most of us never consider how powerful the Creator really is. Instead, we draw very limited amounts of the power available to us. We decide how powerful God is for us. We unconsciously set a limit on how much God can give us or help us. We are stingy with ourselves. And if we receive a gift beyond our imagining, we often send it back.

One reason we are miserly with ourselves is scarcity thinking. We don’t want our luck to run out. We don’t want to overspend our spiritual abundance. Again, we are limiting our flow by anthropmorphizing God into a capricious parent figure. Remembering that God is our source, an energy flow that likes to extend itself, we become more able to tap our creative power more effectively.

from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

In today’s chapter, Jesus teaches His followers about prayer. He first gives them the words commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Then Jesus speaks to His followers about the attitude of prayer. He gets right to the heart of the scarcity thinking that Cameron describes.

Ask, seek and knock on God’s door with audacity, Jesus tells me. God is not a miserly Father to His children. God has an infinite and unlimited supply. The only limitation is my own lack of faith, my lack of trust that my Heavenly Father wants to bless me, and the cyclical loops of scarcity thinking that I allow my brain to keep playing on an infinite “repeat” mode in my head. That stinking pattern of poisonous thinking rears it’s ugly head over and over again in my head and heart.

Lord, have mercy on me.

In the quiet this morning I find myself, once again, reading exactly what I need to hear at this waypoint in my journey. Heavenly Father reminding me how limitless His love and resources are, and how limited I perceive them to be through the lenses of my shame.

Some days are a revelation just how far I still have to grow in my journey.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Do I Want Him to Come, or Go?

Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. Luke 8:37 (NIV)

Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him. Luke 8:40 (NIV)

Life is filled with mysterious paradoxes. As a follower of Jesus for almost 40 years, I have witnessed many debates and intense conversation spring up over the years among theologians, zealous followers, and various boxes of institutional Christianity who argue perpetual questions of faith and life. There are those questions that produce endless debates which are endlessly renewed and rehashed with every subsequent generation.

At the top of the list of these perpetual debates is a simple question. Does God choose us, or do we choose God? In theological terms it is worded: Are our lives predestined, or do we have free will to make our own choices?

Don’t worry, I’m not about to jump into the deep end of theology on you here to renew and rehash the question in this post. You’ll have to buy me a pint if you want me to discuss my thoughts on the matter. I simply raise the matter because of an observation in today’s chapter.

As Dr. Luke continues his biography of Jesus, he continues in today’s chapter to relate stories from Jesus’ miraculous ministry tour. He’s in one region along the shores of Galilee. There’s a local in the area who has been a lunatic his whole life and everyone in the town knew it. The man’s insanity was rooted in things spiritual. He was possessed by numerous demons. Jesus casts out the demons. The people of the town, rather than being impressed, are freaked out completely. They beg Jesus to leave them.

Jesus and his entourage get in their boat and sail back across the Sea of Galilee, returning to a town that had become a sort of base of operations for Jesus’ tour. When they arrive, a crowd is there at the dock waiting expectantly for Jesus to arrive.

Here is my simple observation from within the quiet this morning:t my spirit’s attitude towards God matters. The people in the region of the Gerasenes were afraid and freaked out. They asked Jesus to leave, and He did. The people on the dock, in contrast, were eager, expectant, seeking, desiring, and waiting for Jesus’ return. Immediately a woman is healed and a girl is raised from the dead.

Followers of Jesus around the world are in the middle of a five week ancient tradition called the season of Advent. In simple terms, it is about the attitude of one’s heart toward Jesus. It is a time of heart preparation, expectation, seeking, and longing for Jesus’ arrival like the people at the dock. We celebrate His first arrival at Christmas, and we look expectantly towards His second arrival which He promised on a day and hour that is, itself, one of this earthly life’s perpetual mysteries.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that under the weight of endless theological debate I often find a very simple spiritual truth.

I can ask Jesus to leave and stay away.

I can seek, desire, and expectantly welcome Jesus in.

Jesus responds accordingly.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Membership and Motivation

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Nehemiah 10:39 (NIV)

I had been serving as the pastor of a small church for about a year when I got a call asking for my presence at an emergency meeting of the church Elders. That’s never a comforting sign.

I arrived at the meeting to find that there was one major issue on the agenda: Me. Specifically, one of the Elders expressed grave concern that was not an official member of the church.

Big trouble.

“Um, you all called me to be your pastor. Doesn’t that, kinda by default, make me a member?”

Nope.

“So, what do I have to do to become a member?”

Write a letter requesting I be granted membership status, then present it to the congregation for a vote.

“Um…Okay.”

I happy to report that the vote was overwhelming in favor of me, the church’s Pastor, becoming a member.

Whew!” [cue: Wiping sweat from brow.]

What’s both funny and ironic is that the “membership” issue has arisen in almost every church I’ve attended and served. I admit that I am a bit of a maverick after having experiences like the one I’ve just related. It is a piece of the institution of church that is obviously very important to certain individuals. I take issue with it, however. Every church institution I’ve ever attended has had a large number of people who jumped through the institutional hoops to become official “members,” but they never come or participate in any way. No one ever complains or has a problem with this. Meanwhile, if I actively participate with my consistent attendance, service, and offerings but don’t jump through the institutional hoops to get a piece of paper telling me that I’m “in,” then certain people get their undies in a bunch.

Thank you for letting me vent.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah records what amounts to a legal document that records the commitment of the exiles to follow the Law of Moses and to provide prescribed offerings that would be necessary for the carrying out of the sacrificial system of the Temple. This was no small thing. The sacrificial system established through Moses was an intricate, even burdensome, system of sacrifices that required a large population’s offerings to keep it moving as laid out. Their legal contract was signed and sealed. It is obvious that Nehemiah felt it important to make the people’s obedience to the sacrificial system legally binding.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I mull things over in the quiet. The sacrificial system had been in place for roughly a thousand years. Time and time again it fell apart and became given over to various forms of religious and political corruption. That was part of Nehemiah’s “recounting” in yesterday’s chapter. So, Governor Nehemiah decides to try a legally binding agreement to try and keep people in line.

It didn’t work.

Some 400 years later when Jesus arrives on the scene the Temple system had become a corrupt, powerful money-making racket run by Godfather-esque high priests bent on lining their pockets and controlling the system. That’s why Jesus went postal on the Temple’s currency exchange marketplace not just once, but twice. It’s why he brutally denounced and called out the priests and teachers of the law for their corruption (read Matthew 23).

It’s also why Jesus time and time again taught the masses by starting with “You have heard it said…” then “But, I say….” The crux of Jesus’ message was that God’s concern was not about rule keeping and legally binding adherence to prescribed religious practices. God’s concern was for a change of heart that motivates real, tangible change in the way we love, live, give, and relate to others.

As a follower of Jesus, that’s where I want to follow. I want to invest my time, energy, and resources through my local gathering of Jesus followers because the love of Christ compels me, not because I have a piece of paper telling me I’m a “member” of an institution subject to the responsibilities thereof.

For the record, I am an official member of my local church out of loving deference to my brothers and sisters who find such things important. But, that’s not why I serve, give, and support. My motivation for doing my part is a matter of the heart.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Bad Blood Boiling Over

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:2 (NIV)

I recently read a fascinating op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali by birth who became a member of the Dutch Parliament. In the article, she shares about her journey of understanding that she was culturally and systemically raised to hate Jews and blame them for everything, and how she overcame that hatred.

Feuds are as old as humanity itself. Whether it is unresolved interpersonal conflict, blood feuds between familial tribes, or long-standing hatred between people groups, there are countless examples of systemic hatred and generational conflict throughout history.

For the casual reader, there exists in Esther an underlying conflict that is not easily detected on the surface of the text. Mordecai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin had a famous ancestor in the person of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul had warred against the Amalekites and their King, Agag. Saul’s disobedience to God’s command in the battle against King Agag led to Saul’s downfall which, in turn, brought shame to the tribe of Benjamin. Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of Saul’s famous enemy. There are over 500 years of bad blood between Haman and Mordecai’s tribes.

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to the story. Mordecai had thwarted an assassination plot against Xerxes in yesterday’s chapter, and yet he received no real reward for his courage. Haman, in contrast, is elevated to a place of unprecedented power within Xerxes administration and no reason is provided to explain why he was deserving of such favor. The King demands that everyone bow before Haman. Bowing and kneeling before others was a common form of public respect in ancient Persian culture. It would be similar to shaking hands in our culture or taking your hat off in respect. Mordecai’s refusal to offer this basic courtesy to Haman was not treated as treasonous, but as culturally impolite and disrespectful. Mordecai was scolded and lectured, but still, he refused to bow. Each day he stood as Haman passed by and each day the insult pricked Haman’s ego and pride. With each passing day the 500 years of cultural bad blood between Benjaminite and Agagite, between Jew and Amalekite, slowly simmered to a boil. Haman plots to have Mordecai and all of his people annihilated.

This morning I find myself contemplating Jesus’ command that I forgive my enemies. This not only includes the interpersonal conflicts or wrongs which I have suffered, but I believe also includes the deeper cultural, ethnic, moral, and religious prejudices I may hold against other people groups; Prejudices that I may have been systemically and culturally taught without even realizing it.

Which brings me back to Ms. Ali, a woman from a different culture, tribe, and religion than my own. I found her willingness to confess her hatred of the Jewish people and turn from the cultural enmity she’d been taught a shining example of what Jesus asks of me. I find myself taking an honest inventory of my heart this morning. As King David (ironically, God’s replacement for the disobedient King Saul) wrote in the lyrics to his musical prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart.” Addressing prejudice and cultural hatred has to begin with me.

Two Kinds of Fitness

…train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:8 (NIV)

It was last year’s annual physical that motivated me that I needed to do something to improve my physical fitness. I was having some heart concerns and my doctor put me on meds and told me to “get moving.” As I’ve mentioned in these posts, I began going to a local CrossFit class. It’s been just about a year now, and, while my work and travel schedule regularly interrupt my routine, I’m still going at it. Early on, one of my instructors asked me if I had a goal. Without hesitation I answered, “Yes. To keep showing up!

Last week I once again had my annual physical, and I was anxious to get my results. My blood work revealed that I still have to watch what I eat and be cognizant of my cholesterol levels. The big difference was my heart rate and blood pressure. My resting heart rate was very low and my blood pressure was down. My doc told me to go off of the meds for a few weeks and see how I do. So far, so good!

This came to mind as I read today’s chapter. Paul tells Timothy to “train yourself to be godly,” adding that physical training is valuable, but godliness is profitable for all things. This, of course, got me to thinking about the meaning of godliness which I believe our contemporary culture would ascribe some notion of moral purity and a puritanical life.

The Greek word Paul used, which is translated into English as “godliness” is the word eusebia which comes from two words meaning “well” and the other meaning “venerate” or “pay homage.” The lexicon gave this definition of the word: “someone’s inner response to the things of God, which shows itself in reverence.” In other words, godliness isn’t pointing toward some set list of moral purity, but rather it’s spiritual cardiac training. It’s the spiritual heart response to the things of God. I couldn’t help but think of David of whom God called “a man after my own heart” despite having a less than stellar morality scorecard.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about working out today, which I have to force myself to do when I’m away from home and can’t get to CrossFit. I’m also thinking about what it means to “train” in my “inner response to the things of God.” What am I doing to keep my spiritual heart healthy? What am I putting in? Am I being aware of the Spirit connection to everything in my life? Am I taking time to rest my soul, to spiritually breathe? Am I making time for conversation with God and for contemplation of spiritual things? Am I concerning myself at all with the effect that my daily physical, relational, and moral choices are having on my spiritual heart?

As I enter this week, I’m mindful of the importance of training both my body and my spirit, that I can stay holistically healthy.

“Oh Yeah. That’s One of Mine.”

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

One of the thematic threads I’ve observed throughout the Great Story is that the Spirit of God is not confined by the trappings of religion and its human penchant for systemic merit. Our human systems love things to fall into rigid rules and lawful order. Follow these rules, dress like this, talk like this, use these phrases, be seen doing these things, act like this when you’re in public, and everyone will know that you’re one of us.

Yet, as I’ve journeyed through the Great Story time-and-time-again I observe that there are those who follow the systemic rules on one hand while the whole time they are breaking the spirit of the law with the other. At the same time, there are those who don’t fit the meritorious religious system and its list of requirements, but who totally get the underlying Spirit that the system was trying to accomplish in the first place.

Then there is God accomplishing their purpose through the most unlikely character in the scene. The fool confounds the wise. The child shepherd kills the giant warrior. The least rises to rule over the greatest. The greatest enemy becomes the strongest ally.

Jesus channeled this theme over and over again. Perhaps the most challenging parable that Jesus taught was right at the climax of His teaching. He was getting down to the very core of his Message, and the leaders of the systemic religious order of merit would kill him for it. (See Matthew 25)

In the parable, Jesus divides everyone into two groups which He labels “sheep” and “goats”, but He might as well have labeled them “religious” and the “heathens.” Or, for the theme that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter, the “Jews” and the “Gentiles,” or perhaps it’s best labeled “God’s people” and “Those people.”

The first group looks like they belong to God’s flock because they look the part. They followed all the religious rules. They worked the system of merit for all it was worth. Jesus, however, says, “I never knew you” because while they followed the letter of the law on one hand, they ignored the heart of what the Law was supposed to create: love that looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

Then Jesus turns to “those people” who were never part of the religious system at all. They’d not earned one single merit badge from the meritorious order. Jesus says, “Come on in to my kingdom” because even while they were outside the religious “system” and didn’t follow the legal rules, they found the heart of God. They practiced the law of love. They looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

In today’s chapter Paul pushes into this theme big time. He’s writing to the followers of Jesus in Rom who fall into these two primary camps: Jews and Gentiles. From the Jews’ perspective it was the same systemic thought that Jesus had been dealing with. The Jewish believers saw it as “we God’s people” and “those people.” God’s people had been given “the Law” and had followed the religious meritorious order. The Gentiles, “those people,” were pagans, heathens, foreigners, and outsiders who had never been circumcised (merit badge #1) let alone practicing the exhaustive religious rulebook.

So, Paul picks up on Jesus’ theme and channels it as he begins his letter. The Gentile believers among Jesus’ followers, he’s basically arguing, are the goats in Jesus’ parable. They never had the rule book, the Law, yet they understood and obeyed the very heart of what the rulebook was designed to produce: love.

This morning I find myself challenged and taking a little heart inventory. Everyone knows that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m one of the sheep and I make that abundantly clear in these posts. But, am I the sheep in Jesus’ parable? Am I looking all religious and righteous in these posts and then ignoring the very heart of what Jesus taught?

Ugh.

In the quiet I find myself asking who are the “goats” in my circles of influence? Who would my meritorious religious system tell me is one of “those people” but Jesus would look at that person’s heart and say, “Oh yeah. That’s one of mine.”?

The Grace Response

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecutedthe church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them….
1 Corinthians 15:9-10a (NIV)

I was reminded yesterday of a high school teacher who showed me grace. That is, he showed favor to me that I did not merit. As I recall it was the last day of the semester and my grade was teetering between an A and a B. There was one assignment, a book report, that was sitting there blank in the teacher’s grade book. I hated reading when I was that age, a condition that didn’t change until late into my college years. I simply didn’t want to read a book and write a paper on it. I kept putting it off until it was too late. And so it was, I was called up to the teacher’s desk. He explained that the missing book report was the only thing standing in the way of me getting an A in the class.

I didn’t do it,” I told the teacher honestly.

He looked at me curiously. “You ‘didn’t do it’?” he asked. “That’s all you have to say?”

Look,” I answered, “I could stand here and tell you that the dog ate my paper or give you all sorts of excuses about why I didn’t get it done, but they would all be lies. The honest truth is that I simply procrastinated and didn’t get it done. I understand. I’ll have to accept a B for the course.”

Weeks later when my grades came in the mail (In the old days, you had to wait for the Postal Service to deliver your grades to your home), I was shocked to discover that the teacher had given me an A. Perhaps he was rewarding my honesty and candor. Perhaps he was simply doing a good deed. I don’t know why he graciously gave me the grade I didn’t deserve.

I can tell you that I was truly humbled by the gesture. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten away with something. It didn’t motivate me to try blowing off other assignments assuming that the “honesty ruse” would work again. Quite the opposite, the teacher’s grace motivated me to not do it again. Making sure I got my assignments done, even the book reports I didn’t want to do in college, was a way of honoring and showing gratitude for the grace that my teacher showed me. The favor I didn’t deserve.

During the early years of the Jesus Movement, there was a group within the community who argued that Jesus’ forgiveness and grace was a moral “Get Out of Jail Free” card. “If I’m forgiven from my sins,” they reasoned, “I’m going to sin all I want! Jesus will forgive me! In fact, if I increase the rate of my sinning it means I get more of grace!” Paul addressed this foolishness in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome (see Romans 6).

In today’s chapter, Paul points to the unmerited favor he had been shown by Jesus when, as a murderer of Stephen and a persecutor of Jesus’ followers, Jesus forgave him and called him to be an apostle. Paul knew he didn’t deserve to be an apostle. He deserved to by punished for what he’d done. Paul knew he deserved Jesus’ forgiveness and call to apostleship less than any of the other apostles. It motivated him to work harder than all the rest – to show his gratitude for the grace he’d been shown.

Along the journey I’ve come to observe that you can tell a lot about a person’s faith by the way he or she responds to grace.