Thinking Out Loud…

In the midst of Holy Week, with Lent winding down, I’m contemplating the season in which I consciously chose not to “give up” anything for Lent. No, the season didn’t begin with me receiving ashes. I didn’t chose to fast, or refrain from eating meat on Friday. I gotta’ confess…I don’t feel like I’ve missed that much in opting out of any particular Lenten observance. You may argue, therein lies the problem.

The observance of Lent hasn’t historically been a Protestant thing. I never knew of Lent in the church where I grew up. It wasn’t until I entered seminary that I was challenged to “observe a holy Lent,” as the United Methodist Book of Worship extended the invitation. I sought desperately to learn what this “holy Lent” was all about. It was more pronounced by the fact that in Junction City, KY, where I served as pastor during seminary that the Roman Catholic Church was literally next door. Yet, it was all still new to me.

I suppose it’s a good thing that seminary opened to door to all things Lenten because my first post-seminary appointment was in Morgan City, LA. Does anyone know where Morgan City, LA is located? That’s right. Deep in the heart of cajun, heavily Roman Catholic south Louisiana. There, almost everyone observed Lent. Sit down restaurants in Morgan City? During Lent you wouldn’t find meat on the menu on Friday. Catholic churches would have fish-fry fund-raisers every Friday. Lent was a real thing. I’ve sought to observe a “holy Lent” ever since.

Honestly, as I anticipate the coming of Easter Sunday, I think more about Christ’s call to new life, and not just to new life, but to a holy life. Too often, in my observances of the Lenten season, my anticipation for Easter was that I could have coffee once again, or re-engage with social media, or have a big, old juicy steak on Friday evening. It was about getting through Lent to celebrate what I could do once again. It was about going back to the old life, not living into the fullness of the new life.

I suppose it is for me that the Lord hasn’t called me to observe a “holy Lent,” but rather to observe a “holy life.” I rather believe the Lord has been calling me to instill the practices that constitute a holy Lent into my life throughout the year, not just for a season. It might just be that practicing fasting regularly (which John Wesley did, by the way) will take me deeper into the life of a disciple.

Perhaps I’m just over-thinking things here. Perhaps I’m convicted that I didn’t observe Lent this year. Maybe that’s what really has me thinking out loud. Perhaps it’s just that it’s Tuesday and I should be writing a blog and I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. I’m not sure what it is, but I am sure that if a “holy Lent” doesn’t lead to a “holy life,” then it’s been a wasted Lent, and I hope none of us have a wasted Lent.

Maybe I shouldn’t think out loud so much. Maybe I should just focus more on Easter. Yeah, that’s probably what I should do.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus Needs Your Ass…Again!

So, this Sunday is Palm Sunday. Because I have several things going on this week, and in honor of Palm Sunday, I’m digging back into the archives of my previous blog, theunexpectedds.com for a replay of one of the most read blogs from that site. This post originally appeared March 21, 2013. Eight years seems like a generation ago. I’ve made a few edits, but enjoy the repeat! 😉

It really is dawning on me that I have to start preaching again every Sunday. I’m preaching this Sunday, and I’ve returned again to the lectionary to begin preparations. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, it’s Palm Sunday. But, then again…it’s Palm Sunday. How does one remain fresh on a passage of Scripture that is preached every year at this same time. What is God saying to us this year that He hasn’t said for over two thousand years? Yes, I feel the pain of all my sisters and brothers who are busy preparing for their Palm Sunday sermon.

I have often sought to title my sermon and have the title serve as the “big idea” of the sermon. I try to let the Scripture guide me to the point of the message and then formulate a title around that point. That’s what I’ve been trying to do this week (while spending long hours in the Cabinet room dealing with appointments) and it’s a little more difficult because it’s Palm Sunday.

There is rich fodder in Luke 19:28-40. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry is filled with imagery for good sermon titles, and points to make. Of course, there is the whole matter of expectations. The crowd had their expectations of Jesus. The disciples had their expectations of Jesus. The Pharisees had their expectations of Jesus. Jesus had his own expectations of what the week ahead was to be like, and he was the only one who knew what lay at the end of the week.

Imagine how our lives would be different if we expected that next week would be our last. I am reminded of what Steve Jobs said after he discovered he was dying with cancer: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Yeah. I could do something with that. I might title it “Expecting the Unexpected” or “What Did You Expect?” That could work.

I might make something out of the whole idea of Jesus as Messiah. After all, that’s what this whole scene is about, isn’t it? I mean donkeys and palm branches take us back to prophetic readings in Zechariah and the Psalms that deal with the Messiah. Jesus was making a great proclamation by choosing to enter Jerusalem this way. We could talk about that, and I could have a title like “A New Kind of King.”

Let’s see…there’s the issue of Jesus crying. How about “From Cheers to Tears”?

Or, Jesus talking to the Pharisees about the rocks crying out in praise. Maybe “The First True Rock Star”?

I think what I really like is the part about Jesus, his disciples and the donkey. That’s an interesting account. Jesus simply sends his disciples to get the colt. “Go over there and get it. You’ll know it when you see it.” And, the disciples go, and sure enough they find the donkey, and sure enough, the owners asks the disciples, “What are you doing with my ass?” I can imagine the disciples’ response being, “The Lord needs your ass.”

Well, now, that’s a loaded question, and the response is equally as loaded. I can probably get a lot of mileage out of this point. Do we all have an ass Jesus can use? Not quite sure how the folks this Sunday would respond when they show up and the title of the sermon is printed across the bulletin “Jesus Needs Your Ass.” I suspect it would be somewhat akin to the reaction of the Pharisees when Jesus came riding into town that day. Hm? Maybe I’m on to something here.

This is a confusing scene for us who live in 21st century North America. Seriously, think of it this way. Two guys walk up to your garage, jump in your brand new Ford F-150, start it up and begin to drive away. You look at them and ask, “What are you doing with my truck?” One of the guys responds, “The Lord needs it,” and you just look dumbfounded as they drive away. If you’re like me, I’m calling the police to report a stolen vehicle. Not these owners on this day.

So why would they let the disciples take the donkey? Well, there might be this whole hospitality thing going on. Remember, it’s the beginning of the Passover week, and the city is teeming with activity. Travelers from all over the ancient world are making their way to Jerusalem. Hospitality was a big thing in 1st century eastern culture. To be known as inhospitable was one of the worst things you could be. To lend the donkey was seen simply as a way to help another.

Another reason may be pride on the part of the owners. Jesus was in town. I don’t think there would have been too many folks in Bethany or Bethphage that would not have known who Jesus was. Remember again, that it was only a couple days earlier that Jesus was in town doing a little thing like raising a guy named Lazarus from the dead. Recall the scene from John 11…there are a lot of people who witnessed that miracle, and word got around pretty fast. Jesus had made quite the name for himself in that little miracle. He was a famous rabbi now. There would have been honor in allowing a famous rabbi to ride my donkey.

Then again, some have suggested that Jesus had pre-arranged this scene. Perhaps the animal belonged to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus had already made preparations with them for the disciples to come get the donkey. I don’t believe this to be the case, otherwise, Luke, the historian, one who is intentional in giving us details, would have given us a clue that this was what had happened. Surely this was not simply some pre-arranged business deal on Jesus’ part.

Perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps the key is found in the use of the term “Lord.” Perhaps the owners knew who Jesus was, and when the disciples referred to “The Lord,” there was little doubt in the owners minds that Jesus was who he claimed to be. If Jesus needed something they had, to offer it to him would be an act of devotion and love. No, it became an act of worship.

Here’s why I believe this is the case. Two significant pieces of evidence: One, no questions on the part of the owners. What questions would you and I ask? 

  • What are you doing with my donkey?
  • Who is “the Lord?”
  • How far will you take him?
  • Will you bring him back when you’re done?

Again, these are not details Luke is likely to omit. But he does.

The second significant piece of evidence Luke gives us is the telling of the story of the king and the ten servants immediately preceding this scene. Jesus tells the story of the nobleman who went away to be crowned king, but before he leaves he entrusts his silver to ten of his servants. Upon his return he calls the servants to give account of his silver. The first two return the king’s silver with interest. The third, because he was afraid of the king, simply returned what had been given to him. The story is about stewardship. 

Then, Luke gives a living example of the parable…a man with a donkey, offering what he has to the Jesus. It was an investment, and no small one at that. This was a valuable asset for the owners. Think about wealth in the 1stcentury…often measured by the ownership of livestock. The ass was referred to as a “beast of burden,” meaning it was used to transport things…it was the 1st century equivalent of a moving van. But, the ass was used for various tasks around the family farm and so it was also the equivalent of the modern day tractor. And, then, like Jesus does in today’s passage, people would use the ass as a means of transportation…the equivalent of a car. A moving van, a tractor, a car…a very valuable animal indeed, and here, Jesus commands a brand new one, one that has never been ridden. This was no small request on Jesus’ part. This was a sacrificial gift.

The ass was a gift given to Jesus to help usher in the Kingdom. This was the dawning of the Kingdom. This unknown, unnamed person probably had little clue what he was involving himself in, but he knew Jesus, and he trusted Jesus, and he gave to Jesus…and literally, he helped usher in the Kingdom. His gift changed the world.

What is Jesus asking for from us? What do we have to offer that will usher in the Kingdom? What resource is available to be utilized to literally carry Jesus down the road?

“Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance. Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish. And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place. And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference in the long haul.

Maybe you have those questions, too. All of us have a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story further down the road. Maybe you can sing or hug or program a computer or speak Swahili or write a check.

Whichever, that’s your donkey.

Whichever, your donkey belongs to him.

It really does belong to him. Your gifts are his and the donkey was his. The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples is proof: “If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, ’Its Lord is in need.’”

Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent, pg. 54

Our resources, our time, our money, our talents, our jobs, our families, our homes…our lives are gift from God for God. What has been entrusted to you for Jesus to use? What ass is Jesus asking for?

Nah! I probably won’t use that title. A bit too shocking. A bit too much to leave to the imagination. A bit too much to be misconstrued. It’s a novel thought, though. Maybe it’s time we were a bit more shocking in our preaching. After all, it will be a shocking end to the week when Jesus rises from the grave.

My! My! My! The task of preaching on Palm Sunday and Holy Week. What’s a preacher to do? I suppose it’s time to live into the reality that Jesus needs my ass.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Spiritual Seeking…

There is a phenomenon happening in the West that has been given the name “spiritual seeking.” The focus of spiritual seeking is on personal experience, the sacred and the soul. There is little doubt in my mind as I reflect on the religious landscape of our nation that spiritual seeking, with its emphasis on individualism, choice, and quest for meaning is exerting profound changes on traditional religion. The Gallup Organization says that 80% of all Americans believe that an individual should arrive at his or her own beliefs independent of any church. That’s spiritual seeking with an emphasis on individualism. 

I mention spiritual seeking because we think it’s something we came up with. Long before we were spiritually seeking, God was seeking us. We who follow the tradition of John Wesley know that (or, at least we should). When we, as Wesleyans, talk about God’s grace, we see His grace made real in our lives in different ways at different stages. But, all grace is rooted in a relationship–the relationship that God desires to have with us through Jesus Christ. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God in His grace came seeking for us, and we know it as God’s prevenient grace.

Just as a reminder, grace is God’s saving acts toward us–His precious, unmerited favor. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it, yet God, in love, extends His mercy toward us to reconcile us to Himself–to have a relationship with Him.

That’s as it should be, right? Right! Because relationships are important to us. Vanessa and I are coming up on 40 years of marriage this year (it seems like only yesterday!). You may find this hard to believe, but Vanessa and I didn’t hit it off when we first met. We met in high school. I was the home-grown boy, and she was the new girl. Came from somewhere up north is all we knew, and she talked funny, too. She thought I was a jerk, and I probably was. After all, I was fifteen years old, and most—no, all—fifteen-year-old boys are prone to being jerks. It’s called testosterone, and it’s part of the male condition.

Ours was a relationship that started off from a distance, hard to understand with little effort put into it. But it was a relationship, nonetheless. Everyone from Oprah to Dr. Phil spend time dishing out advice on how to handle our relationships because we spend so much time trying to figure out relationships. First with our parents, then with that special someone we grow to love, then our children (especially if they are teen-agers!). Then there are neighbors, co-workers, friends and extended family.

We have so many relationships to keep straight that we almost overlook one relationship that is the most important one of all, our relationship with God. Our relationship with God often goes unnoticed until the day we come to faith in Jesus Christ, and then we go to work reading our Bible, attending church, praying and serving God. We think our relationship with God began the day we came to faith. And you might be right. Our relationship with God did begin the day we came to faith, but God’s relationship with us, now that is another matter altogether. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said long ago as he communicates his understanding of the depth of God’s knowledge of who Isaiah was:


“Listen to me, all of you in far-off lands! The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

And the prophet Jeremiah, announcing his ministry to the nation of Israel could proclaim:


“The Lord gave me a message. He said, [5] "I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

Both of these Old Testament prophets understood that God had a relationship with them long before they were aware of it, and that fact, in its bare essence, communicates the idea of prevenient grace. Let me illustrate.

The Bible is God’s story. The earliest chapters of the Bible reveal a God who is seeking a relationship with humanity. In chapter three of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, God appeared toward evening and called out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” Yes, the story begins with a seeking God. God seeking humanity to reconcile us to Himself.

God’s story finds Him offering this relationship with Noah (Gen. 9: 8-13), with a nomadic livestock trader named Abram (Gen. 12: 1-3). God renewed his covenant search for the redemption of humanity with Moses after God delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery (Exodus 19:3-6). God sought a man after His own heart in King David, and it was David who said, “It is my family God has chosen! Yes He has made an everlasting covenant with me. His agreement is eternal, final, sealed” (2 Sam. 23:5).

Humanity broke God’s covenant, but He continued to search. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied:


“The day will come,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the old one I made with their ancestors...They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant I will make with them...I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people...And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God’s new covenant was made real for us in Jesus Christ. On the night Jesus was arrested he was gathered with his disciples. There he took the bread, blessed it, and told his disciples to eat it for it was his body. Then he took the cup of wine, and blessed it, and with the cup said to his disciples, “Drink this cup, for this is my blood, which seals the covenant between God and His people. It is poured out to forgive the sins of many” (Matt. 26:28).

That’s right, God took the initiative in the relationship with His creation, and He, through His Son, Jesus Christ, takes the initiative in His relationship with us. When we were powerless, God moved in His Son Jesus Christ so we could experience what the Apostle Paul calls “friendship with God.” It is through a wonderful thing called grace that we experience God’s friendship. And we thought it all started when we “got saved.”

The idea of prevenient grace can be summed up by saying, “God has been busy searching for us in order to have a relationship with us.” One of my seminary professors defined “prevenient grace” as “grace that goes before.” In other words, prevenient grace is God reaching out to us even before we know it. It is a grace that prevents us from moving so far from God that we cannot respond to God’s offer of love.

Prevenient grace is seen in the most quoted verse of the Bible–John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever would believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus himself said, “I come to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). Our response to God’s seeking is our response of faith. Prevenient grace is God working in our lives from the moment we are conceived until that special moment when we, by faith, receive God’s free gift of salvation.

The experience of God’s prevenient grace may be different for all of us. The experience of prevenient grace can come through friends, family members, parents or grandparents, even events may serve as vessels of God’s grace. Prevenient grace is also made real through the church as the church faithfully administers the Word and the Sacraments. Every sermon preached, every song sung, every time the elements of communion are received, every time a person is baptized, it is a testimony to the fact that God is seeking a relationship with us. The Holy Spirit is active in and through all these elements to make God real in our lives. 

There is a profound reason we Methodists baptize infants. The sacrament of baptism is our acknowledgement, our assent of faith that we believe in prevenient grace. We proclaim that God is at work in this child’s life even before he/she is aware. It is not an acknowledgement of salvation. No, we must respond in faith to God’s call, but we affirm the presence of God’s grace.

The Holy Spirit also speaks directly to our own hearts and minds as we face life every day. Even our conscience becomes a tool of the Holy Spirit in making us aware of God’s presence and calling. The Holy Spirit courts us, woos us, encourages us, calls us, but never forces us, to repent, turn to God and receive eternal life.

Max Lucado, in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, tells the story of Maria and her daughter Christina. Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Christina wanted to see the world. Discontent living at home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. 

One morning she ran away, breaking her mother’s heart. Her mother knew what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, so Maria quickly packed to go find her daughter. On her way to the bus stop, she went to a drugstore to get one last thing—pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all the money she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she got on the next bus to Rio de Janeiro. 

Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. At each place she left her picture–taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a corner phone booth. On the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before Maria’s money and pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The tired mother cried as the bus began its long journey back to her small village. 

A few weeks later, Christina was coming down the stairs in a seedy hotel. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times she had longed to trade all those countless beds for her secure pallet. And yet the little village seemed too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back Maria had written this: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” 

And Christina went home.

God is the same way. He wants us to come home. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’ve become. We can always come home to Him. It is like Maria, reaching out for her daughter even when her daughter didn’t realize it. 

It is like God reaching out to us while we are living a life of sin and we are lost and yet, Christ is there, reaching, longing, desiring to bring us home.

It is prevenient grace. Like Vanessa and I began a courtship over 40 years ago, so God began a courtship with us long before we were aware. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, even from our mother’s womb, He called us. Are you “spiritually seeking”? Good, there is a God who loves you who is spiritually seeking you, too!

Until next time, keep looking up…

My Word for the Day…

It’s Tuesday! That means I have to write something. No, there’s no law that says I do, and it’s only been a few weeks since I didn’t write on a Tuesday (I wrote on Wednesday that week), but writing has become a discipline for me, so it is a way for me to hold myself accountable. Of course, if you’re going to write, it helps to have something to write about. Paraphrasing an old preacher: “It’s better to have something to write than to have to write something.” Yet, I write for the sake of writing. I suppose this is your invitation to join me in my scattered thoughts.

TRUST?

There is one word on my mind today that I really should write about. That word? Trust. Actually, what’s on my mind in the trust that is lacking in our world today. It bothers me. Hardly anyone trusts anyone else these days. Democrats don’t trust Republicans. That’s fine. Republicans return the favor. Average everyday citizens don’t trust the government. That’s fine, too. The government pretty much returns the favor.

I could expand the thought to include the lack of trust that exists in the religious world, too. Let’s face it, the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the split in the Anglican communion and the soon-coming split in the United Methodist Church has created an environment where trust has been greatly diminished in the venerable institution that is called “The Church.” I could write more on the lack of trust in the church, but it wouldn’t be helpful in restoring trust (it might actually hurt), and as disciples of Jesus Christ, we’ve been committed the ministry of reconciliation, so I’ll just move on from the topic.

Of course, there is a growing distrust of our educational institutions, as well. Let’s see? What are people distrustful of? “Progressive” curriculum. Parents who chose to home-school. Teacher’s unions. The student loan debacle. School closings during the pandemic. I don’t know, these seem to only be scratching the surface of where people are displaying their mistrust of the educational institution.

I could probably go on, but I hope you get my point. Trust, or the lack thereof, is on my mind this morning, but I refuse to let distrust dominate my thoughts today. Rather, I’m going to chose another word–grace. Why? Because as I ponder the trust deficit among us, I am concerned about the part I’ve played in increasing that deficit, and I am reminded of how much I need grace.

GRACE

I am going to chose this morning to allow my mind to be drawn to what has been called the Magna Carta of grace:

     8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2: 8 – 10 (New Living Translation

Grace, God’s grace is the only thing that will save us, and I need it in abundance, not only today, but everyday, so I’ll focus on His grace today, rather than my distrust. God’s grace can take a heinous murderer and turn him into the world’s greatest evangelist. That’s powerful stuff right there!

Need I remind you of the Apostle Paul? When the church was in its infancy, Paul was a Pharisee threatened by the insurgency being created by these rabble rousers who followed an itinerant rabbi put to death by the Roman authorities. Paul was so zealous to squash this “movement” that he went and offered himself as a bounty hunter to the religious authorities so he could hunt down these people who followed “The Way.”

He was successful, too. The Book of Acts tells us a young man named Saul was consenting at the death of Stephen. But, we also know Paul as the person who would pen 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. We also know Paul as the person most responsible for modern Christian theology, and we know Paul as the person most responsible for the spread of Christianity into Europe. This Paul, would place God’s grace at the center of his theology, and thus it became the center of ours, too.

It would be really easy to define grace again, but rather than do that, I invite you to click here. Suffice it to say that for reasons I don’t fully understand, yet rooted in the nature of God, God gives Himself to us, attaches Himself to us, and acts to rescue us. Because of His mercy and love, God saves us, and that saving is a result of God’s grace. If we were to read Ephesians 2: 1 – 7, we would see that Paul is clear—wrath should have come, but grace comes instead. The gospel of grace says God gives Himself to us without any preconditions or complaints, and if so, then we are given significance, and we find our value in God’s relationship to us. The attention is not on us, though, but upon the One who loves us so deeply. 

THE CHALLENGE OF GRACE

The gospel of grace challenges us. It challenges us by the very fact that a murderer’s life can be changed. We applaud the Apostle Paul for the transformation that God did in his life. Our trust in the gospel of grace wanes though when we think about Jeffery Dahmer (caution–graphic material). Dahmer was a child molesting, cannibalistic, serial killer responsible for raping, murdering, dismembering and consuming 17 men and boys. After his arrest and conviction Dahmer had, by all accounts, an authentic conversion to Christianity. He experienced the gospel of grace, and that makes us incredibly uncomfortable.

Why are we surprised that God could do that for Jeffery Dahmer? He does it for us, doesn’t he? J. D. Walt, who was Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Seminary for a while, expresses this sentiment in a recent devotional:

“Grace is incomprehensibly comforting yet incomparably devastating. Grace kills the human made economy of performance and merit. Grace breaks down every good thought (and every bad thought) I have about myself and replaces them with God’s good thought about me alone. He does the same for Jeffrey Dahmer and Saul of Tarsus. In and of myself, I bring before Almighty God the same merit that they do– which is none. If I can enter on these terms, I will receive the very same gift they do– which is everything. If I can’t exchange my nothing for God’s everything, just like everybody else, Jesus may as well be speaking to me when he says, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you’.”

J. D. Walt, The Seedbed Daily Text

There is so much more I want to write about grace, but my time is short this morning. I’m simply going to put distrust out of my mind and focus on the wonderful gift God has given me (and you, too!)–the gift of grace. I need to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God this morning. By grace, I’ll see it. I have to trust Him. I have no other choice. May I invite you to do the same?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Life’s Greatest Challenge…

I’ve spent the past few weeks learning to love again. I say again. It may be for the first time, but I rather hope that it’s simply a reset of love. I have learned that love from the biblical perspective—that sacrificial, self-denying love—is first, the greatest characteristic that is displayed by those called disciples of Christ. I’ve also learned that love is also the greatest commandment as Jesus himself affirmed that we are to love God and love others. What I’m learning more and more is that love—transformative, life-giving love—is also the greatest challenge I will face as a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus tells me as much in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7. Most times, it’s enough to let scripture speak for itself:

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5: 43 – 48 (New Living Translation)

The Transformative Power of Love

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has called his disciples together and said, “Come here and sit down. Let me tell you what life will look like as my disciples.” Jesus is seeking to give his disciples a new worldview—not so much new as corrected because Jesus wasn’t making new laws for his disciples but correcting some false assumptions about the law as it had evolved through the years.

Jesus would say to them, “You’ve heard it said…,” yet it’s like Jesus was recalling other parts of the law—parts like Leviticus 19:18–“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Or, perhaps Exodus 23: 4 -5–“If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.” Jesus was saying, “Let’s remember what the Law really says, and I remind you that we love everyone—even our enemies.”

Hard words, indeed! Love God? Sure. Love our neighbors? Working on that one. But, love our enemy? How do we do that? More importantly, why would we do that? Because Jesus knew that love–biblical love–is the most transformative force in the universe.

A little girl was given candy by her friend. She got home to show her mother, and mother said, “Your friend was really sweet.”

“Yes,” said the little girl, “she gave me more, but I gave some away.”

Mom said, “Who did you give it too?”

The daughter said, “I gave it to a girl who pushes me off the sidewalk and makes faces at me.”

“Why in the world would you do that,” the mother asked?

“Because I thought it would help her know I want to be kind to her, and maybe then she won’t be so unkind to me,” the daughter replied.

Perhaps Solomon knew something about the transformative power of love when he wrote “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25: 21 – 22).

I’ve learned that love–any love–requires an emotional engagement. If I love God with all my heart and soul, that requires emotional engagement. If I would love my neighbor, I must be moved with compassion (or pity), and that’s an emotions. If I would love my enemies, it’s really no different. It’s likely only to be that I hate them, but guess what? Hate is an emotion! The truth is our engagement may not necessarily be a positive one, but at least it’s a starting place.

Love is a Decision

Beyond connecting on the emotional level, I’ve also learned that love is a decision of the will. It is a decision of the will that transforms the heart. It is a victory of over our rational and our natural instincts. In Jesus’ day, the natural and rational had taken over the law. The Law was used for revenge and retribution. If we were to read the surrounding passages of scripture we’d hear all that “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” talk. That’s our natural inclination. Jesus wants to elevate us to a different level. He wants to elevate his disciples to God’s level, and he knew our love for even our enemies would do just that.

Corrie ten Boom shares this true story:

     “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

     He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

     Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

     As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

The love that loves our enemies is not a natural thing. It is a supernatural thing. It comes only from God, yet it comes when we act in obedience to his call on our lives. See, we don’t have to like it to be faithful, we just have to do it.

If love is a decision of the will, I have to make three decisions to be obedient to Jesus. First, I must decide to bless my enemies. That’s how Luke’s gospel records this account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke 6: 27 – 28 (NIV), Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In this same sermon, Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek,” and he introduces the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do to you. That’s what we do when we decide to bless our enemies.

Robert E. Lee was asked what he thought of a fellow Confederate officer who had made derogatory remarks about Lee. General Lee rated him to be a rather satisfactory fellow. Perplexed, the man who asked Lee the question said, “General, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you?”

“I know,” Lee responded, “but, you asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.”

The second decision I need to make is to pray for my enemies. I am thoroughly convinced that I can’t pray for a person and hate them at the same time. It’s impossible. William Barclay says, “The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.” While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us. I must decide to bless my enemies, and pray for my enemies.

Finally, I need to decide to forgive my enemies. Forgiveness, like love itself, is a choice. As Corrie Ten Boom gave testimony, forgiveness was transformative, not only for the relationship between her and the guard, but inside herself. Why is that so? Because forgiveness is what makes us “perfect.” The word Matthew uses for perfect is teleios, and it doesn’t mean without flaw or blemish, as we so often use it in English.

While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us.

The word Matthew uses means “brought to completion, mature, full-grown.” We are made in God’s image. We are made to be like God, and when we love our enemies we are acting like children of God.  The Bible teaches that we realize our full humanity only by becoming more and more like Christ. The one thing that distinguishes us and makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for people, no matter what they do to us. We realize our humanity, we become perfect, when we learn to forgive as God forgives and love as God loves.

Bambalang

That’s exactly what the people in the village of Bambalang, in Cameroon, Africa discovered. Pastor Pius Mbahlegue tells the story in March, 2011, the village had a dispute with a neighboring village over traditional burial rights. The rival village attacked. 300 homes were burned, and 3,000 people were displaced. The residents of Bambalang were unable to return to their village until the Cameroon military came and drove the rival villagers out.

The Bambalang residents returned and found nothing left. Even their rice field had been burned. The attack began on a Sunday and lasted through the following Thursday. As the villagers returned to worship the following Sunday, it was the very day planned to dedicate the Gospel of Luke which had been translated into their native language. As the residents read from Luke’s Gospel, they came to chapter 6:27 and read of loving your enemies.

One resident, upon reading the words in her own language said it was like a dream, that the words were for her and for her village, and with that the villagers made the decision to overcome hate with love, and to love the rival villagers with the love of Christ. Thus, began a transformation in them, and in their relationship with the rival village. As one villager said, “I can’t hate them and not forgive them because I would want people to forgive me.” 

I’ve learned a lot as I’ve sought to reset the love in my life. I’ve learned that love is, indeed, hard work. It’s hard work to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And, it’s hard work to love my neighbor as myself. As hard work as those two loves are, there is no harder work than loving my enemy. It is, perhaps, this life’s greatest challenge.

Until next time, keep looking up…