The Cost of Change

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.Hebrews 9:22, NRSV

Yeesh, this is a verse that is uncomfortable for a lot of people. The Letter to the Hebrews itself is often a bit… shaky to those uncomfortable with “bloody sacrifice” language who assume Jesus’ life and teachings remove the need for such things. I find, however, that if we look beyond the means of expression we will find a wise and necessary teaching.

If you have ever tried to change… anything, you know that it isn’t easy. Whether it’s a move, a job switch, or *shudders* personal growth, the process of transitioning from one state of being to another can be uncomfortable, if not painful. Imagine, then, the difficulty involved in seeking to live a Godly life, a life beyond our own needs and desires, a life like that of Christ. To change from an inherently selfish way of being (taught and encouraged by the world) to one that is more selfless isn’t easy.

It costs something.

The sacrificial culture of ancient Judaism wasn’t about a disdain for animals or the need to see gallons of blood every day. To sacrifice a living creature to God for purification, for one’s sins and those of the community, sent a clear message about the gravity of our choices. Sin costs life. Holiness requires giving up sin.

While we may not need to spill a poor goat’s blood to bear this in mind (yaaay), it’s a message that is worth repeating. We see movies, read books, and hear stories about people who seem to gracefully and inspiringly turn their lives around. We know we have aspects of our lives that deny who God created us to be, and I believe many of us want to make the changes necessary to be a more faithful, compassionate, kind, and positively productive version of ourselves. There’s just one hiccup.

It’s hard as hell.

We humans fear uncertainty. We love familiarity, and we are creatures of habit. To change, even when we know it to be necessary, is a frightening prospect because the roots of who we are, the habits that define us, will need to shift, and that is not an easy ask.

But it is entirely worth it.

Jesus’ life highlights how painful it can be to seek to do the will of God in every situation. Indeed, persecution and the inevitability of walking the road to the cross make for quite the challenge. Yet the power of transformation, of the healing and resurrection that come with such a life overshadow that difficulty.

The freedom to live a life unhindered by addiction is worth the withdrawals and shadow-work needed to address one’s unhealthy coping habits.

A love life unstained by one’s relationally catastrophic past is worth the facing and acceptance of uncomfortable truths about what happened “back then.”

Leaving work knowing you positively affected the lives of others is worth the horrifying step of leaving a comfortable yet unfulfilling employment situation in search of meaning.

The peace of mind that you and/or those who depend on you are safe because you made that petrifying phone call to end an abusive situation is worth it.

Whatever the specifics, it is true that it is difficult and scary to transform your life according to God’s will for you. It means giving things up that we think we need. It means sometimes accepting unpleasant truths about ourselves or others, and it means surrendering those things that keep us from acknowledging “that of God” in everyone.

It’s also true, however, that what we give still pales in comparison to the effects of that change. To align ourselves with Christ, to walk in the way of selfless love and action, is worth the cost. His way is one of unity with the Divine and each other, and that’s something this world is in desperate need of.

Sure, we don’t have to use blood-soaked Levitical language to describe the difficulty of change. It may be enough to say that transforming into more Christ-like people is exceedingly difficult and requires that we give up certain things. But I think the severity of the author’s words in the Letter to the Hebrews is a great acknowledgment and reminder of what’s at stake in our choices.

After all, to walk in the way of Christ will cost our life as we know it, and I for one am so glad.

Peace be with you!

Balance

the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. — Ezra 3:13, NRSV

You’ve probably heard it a million times. “Life is about balance.” Whether it’s off-setting your diet with a cupcake, your exercise with a day of sloth-like relaxation, or your attempts at holiness with the odd swear word, it seems balance is something we appeal to more and more frequently.

When reading Ezra 3 this morning, I was struck by the last paragraph. The Israelites have returned to rebuild Jerusalem, specifically the temple. Having been in exile, you can imagine there are mixed emotions when confronted with the reconstruction of God’s house.

Many of the Israelites raise a shout of praise (3:11), while the older generations, “who had seen the first house on its foundations,” began to weep (3:12). What struck me is that this is all that is said.

No one corrects the mourners.

No one rebukes those who celebrate.

All of the emotion, whether joyous or grief-stricken, is held in a single, glorious tension. The entire mash up of sound rises on the air and simply… is.

To me, that is the balance of life.

It’s not how often you nap or do goat yoga. It’s about fully experiencing the broad range of emotion and beauty and pain that this life has to offer. To live a balanced life is to find peace in the tension between our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, knowing a well-lived life is comprised of both.

We are in a world afraid to feel, and afraid to hurt. Our culture forces down “negative” emotions in favor of the “sunny side up” approach to everything, not realizing that to paint pain as abnormal is to reinforce unhealthy emotional processing and coping mechanisms.

My prayer, then, is that we will instead accept this Scriptural representation of balance. I hope we will be bold enough to feel, to sing, to laugh, and to grieve. I hope we will decide, no matter the experience, to just “be” in it. After all, we only get one chance.

Peace be with you!

From Within

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defileMark 7:15, NRSV

I’ve always looked at this teaching with an emphasis on the “all foods are clean” thing (Mark 7:19). After all, it means I can enjoy bacon guilt-free and it represents a shift from religious box-checking to a more transformative spirituality. But the last part… the “defilement from within” part… that didn’t truly sink in until recently.

We as humans always look to external causes for our inappropriate actions. It’s never our fault. It’s the unclean “stuff” out there that got us.

We see this when the media crucifies an assault survivor for what they were wearing; we hear it about the victim of a careless police officer for what they may or may not have been doing out so late in that neighborhood OR we see the same logic used to justify the assault on a police officer. After all, there’s this back story…

It’s never our fault.

I’ve done this in my own life. Old habits die hard, and all the more so when changing seems too scary or painful. There was always a reason, whether it be my childhood, my losses, or my depression.

We always look for external sources of trouble and salvation. We don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes because then we might be responsible for fixing them. Jesus rightly criticizes this attitude.

Agreeing with James (4:1-3), Jesus asserts that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly(Mark 7:21-22). Our desires and our fears produce the evil we enact in the world. Other people or situations may stimulate or add specificity to these things, but our response is ours alone.

Now this is not a guilt trip or a statement about my own perfection. I am simply indicating that this passage has taken on new life for me because I now understand that I must heal what is within rather than waiting for something from without.

When many of us entered into faith, we are taught that God is a Savior, which is true. But what often follows is the expectation that God will do it all, which is actually a blatant denial of free will. God gives us the means and awareness, and He is with us always, but to change and grow and leave behind our harmful practices is our work. We must desire it, initiate it, and see it through while relying on God’s grace to keep us moving with compassion for ourselves and each other as we all embark on our roads to healing.

For me to change, I have to want it. If any of us have habits in need of changing, it must be us that seek to enter into that process with God. God’s already where He needs to be, He’s just waiting on us to meet Him at the station.

Whatever is plaguing your life, and whatever negative habits or behaviors are manifesting in you, I pray that you will know that it is never hopeless or too late. All that you need to make the change is already with you, waiting for you to find that motivation and get started. Is it your relationship with your family, friends, or kids? Your relationship with God or yourself? Are you simply sick and tired? Whatever it is, may the grace of God light a fire within, and may we all choose to take a step into that transforming Light.

Peace be with you!

But Did You Change, Though?

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! — Galatians 6:15, NRSV

I grew up mostly “in church.” I was baptized, confirmed, took Communion once a month, and attended all the Bible studies and youth events I could. When I became an adult in ministry, I read the Bible daily, studied the faith at seminary, prayed multiple times throughout the day, and participated in service and worship projects all. The. Time.

With all of that said, it’s only been in the last year or so that I feel I have actually experienced the grace of God for myself. When I was a kid and when I was a minister, I made lots of selfish and harmful decisions. I had scars that I had never healed and unacceptable ways of coping with them. While I had affirmed all of the doctrines, aligned with all of the beliefs, and performed all of the pious acts, I had not yet been transformed by a real encounter with the grace of God.

A lot of us are like that. We use the symbols, say the right words, agree to the right doctrines, and do all the right “stuff,” yet our scars remain unhealed, our habits remain unholy, and our lives have yet to be transformed. We talk about the grace of God we see in Jesus, but we don’t feel or know that grace on a real, personal level.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, the Christians in that area were being led astray by those who valued the outward expressions of faith more than the internal transformation brought about by it. Adult Gentiles were getting circumcised to please a particular religious faction, but that sign ultimately proved empty because it amounted to “checking a box” rather than transforming one’s life to follow Jesus. This leads Paul to say what he says in chapter 6, part of which is quoted above.

The truth is that what we believe is irrelevant if it only amounts to being a part of “the club.” If we claim to believe all the right stuff, say and do all the right things, but our lives remain unchanged, it’s time to re-evaluate the depth and meaning of our relationship with God.

The love of God, when experienced and truly understood, is a powerful, deeply moving reality that soaks into one’s very being and provokes change. It inspires us to live differently because we simply can’t afford not to do so when we finally become aware of God’s loving presence throughout this entire created universe. We can’t help but treat ourselves, each other, and this good earth with the respect and dignity of beloved creations of God!

When I was faced with this grace, this unmerited love, I had to change. I had to see a counselor and heal the wounds that had long influenced my behavior. I had to make apologies and find a different path forward. I had to take a step away from what was causing me to stumble so that I might be free to minister effectively in my everyday life. I just had to do all this because it meant I could more fully participate in the love I was experiencing!

If you feel like you are just going through the motions, checking the boxes, and joining “the club” because it’s all you know, there is good news for you. If you have left faith behind because you didn’t see any depth or meaning to it, there is good news for you. If you feel that God can’t possibly love you because of the life you’ve led, there is good news for you.

The good news is that it’s never too late to change. The good news is that God is not a doctrine, a building, an altar, or a ritual. The good news is that God is already present with you and reaching out to you!

I pray that you will ponder this good news and seek to put it into action by changing your approach to life. Live as though the love of God is for you and for all others. Live as though the image of God rests upon you and all whom you encounter. Live like this world is not a resource, but a beloved creation designed to be cared for and protected. After all, it’s true.

Peace be with you!

It’s Nothing Impersonal

He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” — Luke 8:48, NRSV

The idea of a “personal God” always baffled me. It’s just something that took time to sink in, probably because of my own lack of perceived “experiences” that lent credibility to the idea. It’s also hard to imaging that the Source of all being in this universe would take interest in one such as myself.

This, however, is exactly what the Gospel teaches us to be true.

The Scripture for this post comes from Luke, my current devotional Gospel reading. In chapter 8, Jesus has been asked to go heal the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue (8:41), and while on the way, Jesus is touched by an impoverished and desperate woman suffering from “hemorrhages for twelve years” (8:43). Expensive treatments that left her destitute were of no avail, but, as expected, she was instantly healed by the touch of Jesus’ clothes (8:44).

Talk about a strong, moral fabric.

I am so sorry.

Anyway, that could have been the end of the story. Jesus could have went on His holy little way and never had anything to do with this woman on a personal level. The Son of God has places to be after all. At least, that’s how the human world works.

But is that what happens?

The miracle of this passage is not that Jesus clothes healed someone. It’s not. I hate when people focus on the “magic” that is not so strange for a divine being rather than the implication of said act.

By far, the most miraculous aspect of this encounter with Jesus is the fact that He is aware that He has healed, that He seeks out the person who received His power, and that He establishes a relationship with her so that the healing is complete and she can “go in peace.”

Even when the disciples tell Him it was just the crowd, even when He has other things He could be doing, Jesus takes the time to draw out this woman and call her “Daughter.” Jesus teaches us that there is no accidental or incidental healing when it comes to the Kingdom of God. It’s not just the physical aspects of healing that we are to receive, but it is also the emotional and spiritual healing that comes with knowing God and being known by Him.

Further, we are not called “you,” “pal,” or “bud” like we do when we have just run into an acquaintance and forgotten their name. Jesus calls us not as acquaintances, but as children and as family. Talk about personal!

So what does this teach us?

For me, I am reminded that actually healing anything in this world requires personal investment. Throwing money in one direction or another isn’t necessarily bad, but it pales in comparison to when our heart, body, and soul go into whatever action we decide to take. I like to stay behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t pick up food for the local pantry, co-write an inspirational book with a colleague, or participate in communal conversations/activities for the sake of improving things.

Further, the idea that God is directly invested in me also reminds me that the same is true for everyone else. That personal, consuming love is held for me, for Jairus, for the bold woman of this passage, for you, for those I love, for those I don’t like, everyone. This should, then, inform how I interact with the world, treating all others not as I feel they should be treated, but how God would like His child treated.

This is what I get from this passage, but if you get something different, feel free to comment! I hope you are reminded of the love God has for you, the value you inherently hold, and the value of others. May we all go about this day as children of God, seeking to do His work.

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!