Mercy Not About Us, Justice Not About Others

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… — Matthew 5:44, NRSV

We love mercy and we love justice… As long as they benefit us. Don’t get me wrong, we like people who are merciful and just. We admire them and appeal to their example in certain situations. But when it comes to imitating such people (Jesus, for example), that’s when things get a lot more interesting.

As humans, we don’t like being held accountable for our actions. We value forgiveness most when we would prefer to be receiving it. On the other side of the coin, justice is our friend when it comes to those people getting what they deserve.

Jesus has every reason to leave us in the dust and move on. Throughout His entire ministry of healing, teaching, and releasing us from the powers of darkness, He met resistance. He was crucified by those who He came to guide into the way of peace. His followers were persecuted to a frightening degree, and then, once they gained power, the institution that became known as “the Church” embarked on thousands of years filled with good and holy things that were also marred by endless scandal, violence, and abuse.

Even before the Church was established, humans proved to be greedy, violent, and cruel. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is grace, and it is this merciful grace that is offered to us all still by the One who loved us first.

But it is offered to us all, and we don’t like that. We like when mercy is offered to us, but we deny mercy and forgiveness to those we feel do not deserve it. For example, many of the Christian faith harbor and express hatred for those who follow other faiths (Islam, for example). We feel this way about those who hold different political views or who lead a lifestyle we consider to be inappropriate. Our mercy runs out when it comes to convicted felons, accused persons, and the “lazy” poor who beg for money on street corners. I mean, they’ll just buy drugs with it, right?

All of this judgment is going on in and among people who claim to have experienced the transformative grace and mercy of Jesus Christ… See the disconnect?

If Jesus is our master, and if the God who raised Him from the dead is the One we worship, shouldn’t we embrace their way in our daily lives? Instead of reserving judgment for others, shouldn’t we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, judging ourselves first that we may not come under condemnation?

That’s the way Scripture tells it.

Jesus let’s us know that God is merciful to all, and that is how we ought to be. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” and so we should “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45, 48). This doesn’t mean we will not mess up, but it does mean that, in the end, we choose to act and speak with love, even to those we feel don’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean liking them or condoning their behavior with which we disagree, but it does mean we are opting to show love and forgiveness rather than condemnation.

Paul and Peter carry this teaching forward in their epistles. Paul encourages us to “not repay anyone evil for evil” and to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17,21). Further, Paul asks us a haunting question later in 14:4. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Judgment is the work of God, for only He can do so justly.

Peter also exhorts his listeners to “not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). This is in line with Jesus’ teaching that mercy and forgiveness not be restricted to the “chosen few,” but it is even for our worst enemies. After all, if we, who so often act as enemies of God, are eligible for mercy, who are we to deny that for others?

It is my prayer that we who are the people of God (yes, I include myself in this) will find our way onto the path of Christ. This is a path that is uncomfortable by nature, and it takes practice. We will be growing into our new, eternal life until we depart this life, but the journey itself will be a source of powerful transformation. If we can learn to choose something different, we will experience something different, and I think we can all agree that “different” is something we could use.

Peace be with you!

 

 

Finding Hope In Judas

The Gospel of Matthew has long been my favorite. Mostly, I love the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7. I also dig the promise of God’s presence with us that bookends the entire narrative (1:23, 28:20).

Another plus for me, though, is the fact that Judas gets a fair shake. I know, I shouldn’t care because this is the guy that betrayed Jesus. Hang with me, though. It’s worth it.

In Matthew 27, Jesus has been betrayed and is about to be condemned by Pilate and the people (acting as puppets on behalf of the religious authorities). Before all of this, though, Judas makes one last appearance.

We are told that “he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders” (27:3, NRSV). Further, he openly admits that he “sinned by betraying innocent blood” (27:4). The response by those who were supposed to be his religious leaders, his pastors in a way, is cold and unconcerned.

What is that to us? See to it yourself.”

That is the actual, screwed up quote from 27:4. After this, with no hope in sight, Judas flees the temple and hangs himself. In the words of the chorus in Jesus Christ Superstar, “So long Judas. Poor, old Judas” (PLEASE watch this somewhat corny scene. It is disturbingly moving).

Judas repents. Do we really get that? The man REPENTS. He realizes his sin and tries to fix it, only to be partnered with Christ as a victim of the authorities.

It’s true that Luke and John (especially John) smear Judas pretty badly. He doesn’t repent in any other Gospel. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t take this seriously.

Have you ever royally screwed up? Yes, you have. I have, too. We all have.

I am also willing to bet that all of us have tried to make up for our failings, only to be disappointed by the results. Like Judas, we know what it is to feel trapped by seemingly hopeless and irreparable circumstances. Often we fall deeper into our destructive spirals, fulfilling what appears to be the end of his story.

I want to propose we try something different, though. Remember how Jesus and Judas are both victims of corrupt authority? Well Jesus doesn’t stay that way. In fact, He defeats the deathly powers wielded by the Empire. He rises again, assuring those who repent of their sin and believe in Him that they will share in eternal life.

So if Judas repented and recognized Jesus as innocent, meaning He was who He said He was, perhaps the story of the traitor ends differently. I believe there is a chance Judas is at peace, reconciled to God. I also believe our stories can end this way.

Instead of continuing down the path of destruction, acting as though we are unworthy of anything good until we meet a miserable end, how about we repent? Why not turn around and realize that just as there is hope for the one who betrayed God in the Flesh, there is also hope for you and I! Our story is not over until we are gone from here, and even then, we need to remember Jesus’ resurrection promise.

As long as breath remains in our lungs, we can make a different choice and take a different path. I don’t know where you are in life or what spiral you feel trapped in, but I do know this: there is hope for you, just as I now know there is hope for me.

In Christ, even the darkest and most dismal circumstamces can be turned into occasions for repentance and positive transformation. A betrayer can become an advocate, a sinner can become a saint, and the lost can be found. No matter where you are in your life’s journey, I hope you will join me in learning from poor Judas. After all, the story may not end how we think.

Peace be with you!

A Grace-Full Reminder

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus… — Romans 3:23-24, RSVCE

Every once in a while, I get aggravated. It appears to come out of nowhere, but once I get the journal and pen out, I find that the same conclusion is reached almost every time. I realize time and time again that it’s hard to balance aspirations to holiness with the reality of sin in the world. We always want to be the best version of ourselves, and we expect the same of others, but every once in a while we get a reminder that there is still a very great need for the grace of God.

Such reminders would be more welcome if they didn’t apply to us. We love the idea of being gracious to others, but we don’t like the reality that we stand in dire need of unmerited favor as well. We fall short, just like anyone else, and when we forget that, we eliminate our ability to act compassionately and reflect unto others the transformative forgiveness we receive from God. To be reminded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is a painful but necessary truth of which we need to be consistently reminded.

Now, this is not for the purposes of guilt. Too often, we shy away from confession and the acknowledgment of the reality of sin because it makes us feel bad. This is my problem, and it is why I get so aggravated when something comes along that reminds me of my human frailty. I have a problem with self-judgment, and I tend to fall into a cycle of self-condemnation and despair rather than taking the lesson for what it is. I believe this is a truth that many of us can relate to.

So what do we do?

The Scripture above from Romans is a good start. We need to recognize that it isn’t just us. We aren’t a particularly broken or sinful case, no matter what our struggle may be. Our world tries to portray brokenness and pain as exceptions that can be rooted out, rather than the painful “other side” that always comes with free will. When Paul says “all have sinned and fall short,” he means ALL OF US. Everyone has a struggle, a battle they wage. Everyone has a journey they are on. God’s reminders of our need for His grace are not meant to be condemnatory, but encouraging. The pain of sin is something we all have in common, and the need for grace is universal.

In short, YOU’RE NOT ALONE. None of us are.

Now, take a look at this passage from Matthew, please.

Did you do it? I’m trusting you…

Anyway, I believe this story is an excellent view of discipleship. Following Jesus isn’t about “making it.” There is no time or place we can reach where we will not need occasional reminders of our dependence on God. Peter learns this first hand, as he even walks on water with Jesus, and yet, like the rest of us, the time comes when even he must cry out, “Lord, save me!”

In the future, I’m going to try not to get frustrated when those “save me” moments come my way. I hope this brief word will encourage you to the same end. If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we will find consistent reminders from God that are not designed for our guilt or shame, but for our enlightenment. If we pay attention, we can see that we are not alone. We are all walking this road of life together, bound in the love of the One who will always extend His hand to pull us out of the waves of our sin and despair. Our job is not to be pulled up, stay above water, and spend life helping others see the light. Rather, we are called to recognize that as we are constantly being pulled up, so we must also constantly reflect that saving grace to others, not from a position of superiority, but of camaraderie.

Peace be with you!

 

 

The Gospel of the Epic Fail

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” — Matthew 1:20-21, NRSV

Many of us recognize this as the beginning of Jesus’ birth narrative from the Gospel according to Matthew. For those of us who don’t, fear not! Here is the chapter, just follow along and it will make sense.

Our story begins with a very bad situation. Mary, a betrothed young woman in 1st Century Palestine, is pregnant… and it is not a baby related to her soon-to-be husband. In the context I am writing from (21st Century United States), there would be some shame involved, lots of anger and hurt feelings, but we typically don’t shun or kill such women. In Mary’s time, that was a real possibility. The “public disgrace” referenced in verse 19 would have been pretty immense. Even if Joseph had decided to “dismiss her quietly,” a real favor back then despite our modern perception of relationships, there would still not have been much chance of her pregnancy going unnoticed.

The question here is not about Mary’s virginity. Matthew implies that she is one who is “pure” in that way because of his reference to Isaiah 7:14 in verse 23, as well as his description of the child being “from the Holy Spirit” (1:18, 20). The readers and angels are aware of this fact, but the other people involved are not. As far as the story goes, Mary is in the midst of what we would call an “epic failure.” She is in a precarious situation that results from her perceived mistakes, regardless of the truth you and I are treated to.

Interesting, though, that God chooses this situation as the occasion by which He will reveal the divine plan of salvation. The child who, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t exist will actually be the one “to save his people from their sins” (1:21). Let that soak in for a moment.

… Done?

I hope the gravity of this teaching is starting to settle within you. You see, we serve a God who is not only able but eager to take the moments of our humiliation and disgrace and turn them into occasions by which we may grow closer to Him and enable others to do so. Further, that redemption leaves us marked as witnesses who can testify to the grace of God that transforms our sad stories into lessons for the edification and growth of others, all to the glory of God.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read up on this blog, you may not know that I was fired from the first and only ministry job I’ve ever had. The situation surrounding it was one of total disgrace and brokenness, but the story didn’t end there.

In the time since, I have received counseling. I have experienced the unyielding love of friends and family. I have started this blog and writing my own devotional book, wherein the lessons I’ve learned can (hopefully) be of benefit to others. My marriage and other relationships are stronger, my faith and understanding of God’s grace have grown, and my testimony is enriched in ways I’ve never experienced.

Does all of this blessed “stuff” mean that my life is easier or that I didn’t have to take responsibility for my actions? No, not at all. Faith doesn’t make life easier. Say it with me.

FAITH DOESN’T MAKE LIFE EASIER.

Faith does, however, make life better. It makes me appreciate the grace that I have received directly and indirectly from God. Faith helps me see that my journey has not been in vain, and the same can be true for you.

Hear the Good News: No matter your own “epic fails,” no matter the darkness that lives within you or haunts your past, God is able and very willing to take and redeem all that you consider humiliating and disgraceful about yourself. God stands ready to forgive us and greatly enrich our experience of this life, if we would just turn and say, “Yes.” Within you is the image of God that, when embraced, has the power to shine a transformative light for the entire world to see.

I pray that you will join me in learning from Mary’s inspiring story. Her and Joseph’s “yes” to the designs of God paved the way for God’s revelation of incomparable love in Jesus Christ. We all have our humiliation or disgrace, but nothing is too strong or dark for God to change and enlighten. It is never too late for us to experience the blessed life God wants for us all.

As always, feel free to like or comment. Also, feel free to make topical suggestions or offer feedback via the Contact page!

Peace be with you!

 

Charitable Thoughts

In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. — Sirach 18:25, NRSV

I think one of the hardest things to do in ministry is convincing successful people that they still need God. Because of our cultural emphasis on wealth, status, and accomplishments, there are many people who feel that they have “made it,” and because they are successful, their relationship with God must either be on-point or unnecessary. For too many of us, this is a form of forgetfulness and idolatry that makes daily discipleship (and the transformation that comes with it) impossible.

Now it’s important that you don’t misunderstand me. It’s not just the rich and powerful that fall prey to the lie of self-sufficiency. All of us, at one point or another, find a little slice of prosperity. When the time comes to share it, our forgetfulness is evident in our refusal to lend the helping hand that all of us have at one time needed. The man on the corner should just work like we work, and he wouldn’t have to beg. The mother on welfare should “flip burgers,” as anything is better than nothing (despite the fact that getting hired for fast food work still requires things many poor American citizens lack). Those with multiple jobs who still can’t make ends meet should have “aimed higher” and done more with themselves.

See the pattern?

We who forget that we owe our very lives to One greater than us tend to be so quick to pass harsh judgment against those we perceive to be less worthy. We are tight-fisted with our compassion, not to mention our resources! These attitudes may seem like impolite, private conversation, but to hold such opinions flies in the face of Christian discipleship. The faith of Christ is grounded in receiving the grace and gifts of God that we may share them with those around us, and there is no escaping that fact.

So what do we do? The word “repent” comes to mind. We must first recognize and take responsibility for those moments in which we failed to exhibit Christian charity, whether in thought, conversation, or action. This is something we must seek forgiveness for, and, rest assured, God will forgive our confessed transgressions. But what about the other half of repentance, wherein we change direction and go about life differently because of our dependence on God’s grace? This is where our text from Sirach comes into play.

Now, if you are staunchly Protestant and don’t like the idea of taking life advice from the Secondary Canon, check out Deuteronomy 8. Both of these texts deal with not forgetting. Deuteronomy asks that we not forget that God is the one that gives us the power to get what we get. Even if we are “successful” through what appear to be totally worldly means, it is God who gave us our very life by which we make our gains.

Sirach is concerned with our forgetting what it is like to be in need, to be hungry, to require the assistance of others. When we forget this, we lose our ability to fully see the needs of others. In turn, that inability keeps us from acting in the self-giving way Christ models for us.

When we put all of this together, we come away with some excellent Scriptural advice on how to proceed. We must remember that our success does not absolve us of our discipleship responsibilities. When we reach a place of comfort, we shouldn’t hoard our newfound gifts for ourselves “just in case.” Rather, we should be gracious and open-handed, trusting that God will continue to bless us that we may bless others. Even if we have nothing material to give, our attitudes and opinions should be shaped by the love Jesus shows us on the cross. This love is self-giving and all-encompassing. Just as the grace of God is offered to us in that moment, so we ought to honor that by offering grace to others in every moment.

This post isn’t meant to make you feel guilty or bad about having a comfortable life. Rather, it is an encouragement to both recognize and reflect the grace of God that is freely given to us all. If all that we have received is ultimately a gift, we are in no position to be miserly with it, nor should we boast as if it is all due to our own greatness.

Take a moment to imagine a world of reckless generosity and compassion. Imagine a world wherein we actually realized we all have so much more in common that we originally thought. In a world of such divisiveness and selfishness, I hope you find such a vision comforting and worth working toward.

So let’s all repent and get to it! Peace be with you!

 

The Burdens Others Bear

…He sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. — Matthew 14:10-11, NRSV

Oh, goodness, this is an unpleasant text. If you don’t have a Bible handy, this is one of the closing quotes to Matthew’s telling of John the Baptist’s beheading in prison. John criticized Herod and Herodias, the wife of his brother, Phillip, as they had become an “item.” In response to this, John was thrown in prison until his death.

Interestingly enough, John wasn’t immediately killed by Herod or Herodias, despite his prophetic denunciation of their adulterous relationship. Rather, Herodias’ daughter, who has nothing to do with any of this, dances for Herod and pleases him so much that he promises to give her anything she desires (14:7). As you can imagine, this excited young woman rushes to her mother, asking with feverish anticipation, “What should I ask for?” Herodias’ answer must have absolutely crushed her daughter’s spirit, as she used it for her own selfish and sinful revenge.

This poor girl had to go to Herod and ask for the head of a man she didn’t even know. On top of that, she had to carry that head back to her mother. Can you imagine that? How must that girl have felt? Surely it makes you feel a bit sick, and yet we do this sort of thing all the time.

True, we don’t normally have our enemies beheaded and make our kids carry that head around. We do, however, hold on to our anger and hatred to the point that it causes those who care for us to suffer. Our children, spouses, friends, family, and God all get to bear the burden of our selfish need to harbor resentment and anger that may have nothing to do with them. Even if it does, is that the kind of life we want to live? I used to live such a life, so let me go ahead and say that it is definitely not.

Today is a new day, and it is also a new opportunity to start letting go of those deep feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment that you may be harboring. After all, it hurts you and your loved ones more than it could ever hurt the intended subject of your ire. If you don’t feel you struggle with this, take a moment to pray and safeguard your heart against such malice, and spend today more aware of your impulses and emotional reactions to the challenges you face. Should you be someone struggling with this, I hope you will join me in realizing that there is no shame in asking for help. It may take therapy, spiritual counseling, a change in setting, or any number of things, but I promise, the benefit of letting go and trusting everything to God far outweighs the alternative. If we all recognize this, we can honor the suffering of John and this young woman, preventing others we care about from bearing such heavy burdens.

Peace be with you!

Wrath and Righteousness: Never the Twain Shall Meet

Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. — James 1:19-20, RSV

I did a pretty dumb thing this weekend, but I feel it must be shared. I’m not going into too much detail, but I don’t feel it necessary because we have all made this mistake at one time or another. Really, this is an effort to take responsibility and honor God’s grace in my life by sharing an instance in which I re-learned my own need for forgiveness.

This weekend, someone I consider a friend said something rude to someone very dear to me. I had been frustrated with some on-and-off rudeness all weekend, and this was the last straw. Therefore, I did what many humans do. I took the stand, gave a taste of the same medicine, took the shots… and made everything worse. What ensued was a fight, some tears, and what should have been a joyful weekend cut short.

This morning at church, James 1 was the Epistle text, which is perfect because of the quote above. The truth is, people, evil begets evil. My anger and rudeness in response to someone else’s only made for twice the anger and rudeness previously existent in the world. I think we forget that this is how it works. A shot fired, met by a shot in response, makes for twice as many bullets out there. An angry word or action prompted by similar choices makes for twice the damage. Death for death is just more death.

For me to grow from this, I had to realize my own error, first and foremost. I had to practice what I have taught numerous times: remove the plank from your eye before going after someone else’s speck (Matthew 7:3-5). I had reason to be upset, but I should never have reflected what I was so bothered by. None of us should do this, but we do it ALL THE TIME.

Whether it’s our politics, faith, family, work, or other social issues and interactions, we tend to fight fire with fire, which just burns more stuff down. We reflect rather than combat those things we consider unacceptable, thereby actually strengthening their hold on us and our world!

So, before a new week begins, take a lesson from my mistakes and from the Scriptures: your angry actions don’t produce righteousness. Only reflecting the love of God will do that. Join me in walking in a new way, wherein we strive to minimize the negative forces of the world by refusing to imitate them, looking instead to love, grace, compassion, and truth. For if we want these things in our darkest hour, we must first be willing to give them to others in theirs.

Peace be with you.