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!

 

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!

What Everybody Wants

And [God} said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” — Exodus 33:14, RSVCE

Rest is amazing. It is something we all desperately want and need, yet it is also one of the most elusive states of being in existence. Shoot, I just spent the last week not sleeping well at all due to my own struggles with depression/anxiety, as my routines had been disrupted and I had been admittedly lax in maintaining the practices that help keep things well-managed. Over the weekend, though, I picked up my consistent journal habit again, and I eliminated some “clutter” in my life (both emotional and physical) that had been adding to my stress as opposed to helping it. Add to that a weekend spent with family and friends (including the furry one killing me with snuggles, pictured above), and I found myself able to finally get some much-needed sleep after my 5:30 am training appointment today.

While all of these physical and emotional aides provided much benefit, it was the spiritual revelation of the weekend that really helped me to find my center again. While reading Exodus 33, I came across the passage wherein Moses earnestly requests that God’s presence be restored to the people after their idolatrous worship of a bovine idol in the previous chapter. This incident led to a questionable slaughter demanded by Moses, followed by a plague from God (a trend in Exodus), all of which resulting in God’s withdrawing from the people in order that they may not be consumed (33:3). After some time, however, Moses makes a request that I feel gets at the heart of our desperation for some true rest and peace.

In our quest for finding peace in life, we turn to a thousand different things. After all, if we only had that dream job, car, family, high, degree, president, spouse, house… THEN everything would be okay, right?

Ha. Sure.

What ends up happening is a meltdown, because turning to temporary things only produces temporary results. We invest so much time and energy into things that can be taken away in an instant. Our identities get bound up with what we do, who we know, where we live, and/or whatever we happen to accomplish in the eyes of humanity. All the while, true rest and peace continue to elude us because a good, spiritual return on investment cannot come from devotion to secular things.

So now that I have ruined that for everyone, I suppose you want to hear something positive.

… Fine.

While rest will always elude us if we place our hope in our own accomplishments, there is a way we can gain real peace in this life, here and now. No, I’m not selling some miracle drug or quick fix. I am, instead, issuing an invitation to the very relationship Moses manages to salvage in the passage for today. You see, Moses isn’t trying to use God to gain victory over foreign armies, nor is he begging God for more miracles by which to convince people of their need to change. He is simply asking that the relationship between God and Israel be restored because it is that relationship that makes the entire nation worth anything in the first place. As Moses says, “Is it not thy going with us, so that we are distinct” (33:16).

I am not promising that turning to God will get you everything you want, but I do guarantee you will get what you need, and that includes precious, precious rest. Your identity as a child of God, one who bears the Divine image (because you do, indicated in Genesis 1:26-27), can never be taken from you. It is irrevocable. In Christ, God is with us “always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20), and that presence brings with it immeasurable and insurmountable peace and joy.

Does this mean life will always be happy? No. If anything, challenges will multiply, as resting in God runs totally counter to our current culture. However, this is entirely worth it. Imagine a life wherein your worth is not determined by what you accomplish, what job you have, your family dynamics, your national identity, or any of the other temporarily satisfying criteria the world tries to force upon us. Imagine that your worth has been irrevocably established by Jesus Christ, who saw fit to die for you in a heartrending expression of Divine love. Imagine you now stand in the freedom to live a life full of the peace and rest that only God can give. Now imagine no longer, because it is true.

Self-care is absolutely necessary for us to live physically and emotionally healthy lives. To be spiritually healthy, however, our needs can only be met through relationship with the One who would die for us, and whose radical love imparts to us an identity that cannot be shaken down or taken away. It is my prayer that you will accept this invitation, and finally receive your share of the rest that God so yearns to give you.

Feel free to share your thoughts by commenting, or reach out to me with your own thoughts, topics, or ideas via the Contact page!

Thanks for stopping by, and peace be with you!

The Illusion of Being Right

For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. — Mark 10:45, RSVCE

I’ve just put up a new video discussion on the illusion that we are right and that we know what it is to be great. I think it’s important we recognize our weaknesses in this area, as our ignorance is becoming costly! As Jesus reminds us, greatness is found in service. See the video here.

Peace be with you!

New Youtube Channel

I have been away from writing until tonight, but that doesn’t mean I’ve taken a break from trying to get some positive, honest, faith-based stuff out there!

I have a new Youtube channel, entitled “PreacherPerk.” On this channel, I offer topical videos regarding faith, life, and how the two work together. For an example, check out the video from this past week on recent happenings in the US related to the issues of gun control and immigration.

I hope those who read and enjoy this blog also take time to check out the videos. I will continue to do both, and I hope these two mediums are a blessing to you!

Peace be with you!

Despising the Birthright: Esau’s Lesson

Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. — Genesis 25:34 (RSV)

Here’s one of those Scriptures you’ll never see quoted out of context on a t-shirt or refrigerator magnet. I like those. I’ve never been a fan of the practice of picking inspirational Scriptures and applying them to whatever little thing we have going on, as if Paul was really thinking about high school football when he dictated Philippians 4:13. UGH. But I digress.

Esau has been on my heart and mind a lot recently, particularly after a conversation with my priest, during which the slim odds of my success in the ordination process were made known (or at least implied). I have always recognized this as a possibility. My dismissal from my first and only pastoral position was bound to have far-reaching consequences, and it seems that my being honest about it still won’t do me any favors. While I knew in my head it was a possibility that this was something to which I may never be able to return, the reality of it didn’t hit my heart until after that conversation. I very well may have despised my birthright and lost my blessing, all for something immeasurably inferior.

Esau is the firstborn child of Isaac and Rebekah, and therefore, according to ancient near eastern custom, he is entitled to the blessing of the firstborn, endowing him with the promise made to Abraham. Further, he would be the one to inherit his father’s house. God, however, predicts that Esau will be supplanted by Jacob, and (surprise!) the Lord was right. Esau stupidly expresses willingness to trade all of that blessing and honor for a bowl of soup. Later on, his brother takes advantage and steals that blessing, leaving Esau to weep and pick up the pieces.

I think we are all, at one time or another, Esau. We all have moments in our lives in which we trade our holy calling as children of God for something unremarkable that seems worth it at the time. Sometimes, we are just too dull to see that this is what we are doing.

At this point, I know I have motivated you enough (sarcasm). In all seriousness, though, there is good news. Esau still receives a blessing, though not the primary one, which means there is hope for you and I as well. We are not Esau, at least not entirely, and so we are free to look at this story and learn from it before we stumble headlong and lose it all. What we must do is both simple and difficult. Namely, we must start allowing God to touch every aspect of our lives.

Are we sexually unhealthy and dependent? We need to invite God into that uncomfortable space. Do our politics reflect our fears and selfishness more than our faith? We need to let God into the voting booth with us. Do we blame those who suffer rather than offer them our hand? We need to start making offerings to God by giving of our abundance, and asking him for the compassion of Christ. Do we harbor feelings of guilt, shame, or resentment? We need to allow God’s forgiveness to prompt our own, whether toward ourselves or others. As in my case, do our plans seem to lead us back to the same place of despair? We need to seek the will of God for our lives and keep our eyes open for the blessing he yearns to give us.

The truth is that we are children of God (Ephesians 1:5), co-heirs of the promise in Christ Jesus. We are promised salvation, not just in the future, but here and now. Take it from us (me and Esau), and don’t let the pull of worldly (read “temporary”) success, prosperity, comfort, and desire lure you from the Kingdom of God. Bring this teaching with you into every interaction, and ask yourself whether or not what you are about to say or do will bring you closer to the footsteps of Christ.

I wish I had known to do this sooner, but then again, perhaps it was meant to be this way. Perhaps I am meant to warn and encourage you this day. I hope I have done just that.

Peace be with you!

Children of Light: Finishing Ephesians

For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.

–Ephesians 5:8, RSV

Welp, we did it! We finished Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and it definitely ended on a more positive note than that of Ecclesiastes. Ephesians has proven to be inspiring, instructive, and enlightening thus far and I hope you will experience more of that as we walk through these final chapters.

Beginning with Chapter 5, we find a superb extension from chapter 4 that sums up Paul’s central point about Christian life and relationship. After exhorting Christians to live lives of humility and forgiveness in 4:32, he says to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (5:1-2). This is a fundamental teaching that should give us pause. So often, we view Christ and God as beings that are beyond us, and in one sense, this is correct. However, the whole purpose of Christ’s coming was to teach us the way we are to walk in relationship with God, and imitating God in the Flesh is the primary call of the Christian person. We can’t just treat Christ as a “far and away” hero that we categorize as entirely separate from ourselves. Instead, we should look to him as an example and do our best to walk in his footsteps as “children of light” (5:8).

With that in mind, we come to one of the most controversial sections of Ecclesiastes, namely, the “Household Codes” of 5:21-6:9. It is here that we had to have a (passionate) discussion about the context of Scripture. Paul writes from a time when patriarchy (the inherent leadership and superiority of free males in society) was the accepted norm. As such, any familial advice he gives is going to fit within that particular framework. Unfortunately, this has led to immediate dismissal as an instructive text on the part of those who are offended by the Bible’s inherent (by our standards) sexism. However, if we take a closer look, we can see how Paul was at once a man of his time, while also (inspired by the Spirit of God) someone who saw beyond it.

The section begins (in most scholarly translations) with an essential instruction to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). This alone should give us pause, because Paul doesn’t only instruct the women, as you might expect. Instead, he instructs all believers to submit to each other, and THEN he details what that should look like. He does tell wives to submit to their husbands, but then, he does something that is unexpected in patriarchy by instructing the men on how to love their wives. They must do so selflessly, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). If such instruction were to be taken seriously (and I believe it is), it is not nearly as one-sided as we may have been led to think in recent times, and no matter what time period we live in, putting others before the self is something we desperately need more of.

Chapter 6 continues our culture shock by giving us a view into the ancient practice of slavery, instructing slaves to serve their masters “as servants of Christ,” chaffing against our understandable modern sensibility regarding the scars of Trans-Atlantic slavery. While the two forms of slavery differ significantly, it is still alarming to see (at best) a clear lack of rebuke regarding the ownership of persons. However, again, Paul does something interesting, instructing masters to “forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (6:9). That is a loaded statement that was definitely not typical of the time.

All in all, while our sensibilities are definitely challenged by the world as presented in Ephesians (Scripture as a whole, really), we still see the Spirit of God at working to change the world into something that better resembles the kingdom of God. Further, we see God’s invitation to live life in a way that imitates and shares his love, helping to establish this kingdom.

My encouragement to you is to remember the call that is extended to you in Christ. This call is not just one to believe in our heads, but to live in our bodies as we go about our daily doings. Just as God transforms implements of war into spiritual sources of edification in 6:10-17, let us accept God’s invitation to transform our mundane, pain-filled, and hope-deprived world into a nation of peace, rooted in love. We do this as our Lord did: one person, one interaction at a time. Let’s get started!

Peace be with you!

More Ephesians: The New Creation

“…Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

— Ephesians 4:23-24, NRSV

We definitely read a lot this week! We technically went through chapter two at our last meeting, but re-visited it quite a bit with this week’s readings, referring back for common themes throughout the letter to the Ephesians. With so much to look at, let’s get started!

Check out Chapter Two.

Some of the most well-known quotes and ideas that are associated with Ephesians come from this chapter. For example, verses 8-9 (“For by grace you have been saved…”). What I would like to draw attention to, however, is Paul’s emphasis on our being “made…alive together with Christ” (verse 5). We are told that “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (verse 10). Paul’s view seems to be that we are newly created when we are resurrected in faith with Christ, and this new being that we have been given in Christ comes with a whole new lifestyle, centered on doing good things.

The idea of good works as pleasing to God is touchy. We live in a time when salvation by works and salvation by faith are separate ideas, but it is important to know that to the biblical authors, there is no distinction. If we believe in Christ, we had better be doing good things for others. If we don’t, then it is doubtful that we ever had real faith in Christ.

With all that said, what is the nature of this new creation? Indeed, in verse 15 of chapter two, Paul refers to a “new humanity,” now that Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (verse 14). In the context of the letter, Paul is discussing the hostility between Jews and non-Jews, known as Gentiles. Christianity was once an all Jewish sect, but the Good News quickly spread to those outside the Jewish community, which became a factor in impending separation of the sect from its mother religion. I would say, though, that this concept applies to far more than the historical enmity between Jews and non-Jews. In Christ, if there is a single new humanity, and we are all new creations, really ANY dividing factors are done away with. Sex, gender, race, economic status, and political affiliations are all revealed to be nothing but superficial and human means of being categorized, and our true identity is that of beloved children of God through Jesus Christ.

            Read through chapter three, and you will note that Paul is now discussing the implications of our newly established family in Christ. With all of our divisions and causes for strife gone, we are all left with “access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in [Christ]” (3:12). We are encouraged to seek the presence of Christ in our “hearts through faith…being rooted and grounded in love” (3:17). This makes for a handy transition to chapter four, which covers the specifics of how this new family in Christ, grounded in love, should be relating to one another.

For example, we are asked right off the bat “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1). This includes:

  • Humility
  • Gentleness
  • Patience
  • “Bearing with one another in love” (4:2)
  • Maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3)

Note that all of these things make us subject to one another, rather than giving us an edge or advantage. Love in the Christian world is a sacrifice, acceptable to God and loving toward our neighbor. Our lives are no longer to be lived for ourselves, but for “building up the body of Christ” (4:12). This includes not just our actions, but also our words (4:29) and the management of our emotions (4:26)! There is to be no part of our lives left untouched by our new reality in Christ Jesus!

I hope that you really took/take the time to read these few chapters of Ephesians, and I would like to finish with the thought that began this article. We are encouraged to “be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and…clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:23-24). We are all created in the image of God, but our sin distorts that image. When we come to God through Christ, we regain that image, and must live accordingly. I encourage us all to go into our week and find the things we have kept from God, turning them over to Him in order that we may be truly renewed. It could be our politics, our words, our thoughts, the way we act around or toward certain people, or our self-care habits (lack thereof?). You know what those parts are, and it is my prayer that you know that God’s all-consuming love is enough to heal and inspire you, no matter who or where you may be. Love like this changes the world, and it is about time we got started, don’t you think?

Peace be with you!

 

***Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churhces of Christ in the United States of America.

Ephesians: Digging into God’s Promises

“[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”

–Ephesians 1:5, NRSV

Since my departure from ministry in the church, my wife and I have been hosting a home-based Bible study that has acquired interest from a growing handful. It’s been great to just sit back, enjoy some coffee, and dig into all of our questions and thoughts as we explore Scripture. The next few posts, I’d like to share what we cover as we are now exploring a really inspirational New Testament text that I think we could all benefit from: Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Now, Ephesians is a fun little letter. We don’t know if it was really Paul that wrote it, as there are features of the letter that seem a bit “off” from Paul’s usually rigid structure. On the other hand, even if it wasn’t Paul, it was definitely someone who was familiar with his work.

The Letter to the Ephesians is written “to the saints who are in Ephesus,” which tells us that this letter is not written to all Christians or to Jewish Christians, but to Gentile Christians. Remember, Christianity was once a sect of Judaism that eventually broke away, partly due to the large numbers of non-Jewish believers being brought into the fold. With this in mind, we can already say that Ephesians is going to emphasize the Gospel’s call to those outside the Jewish religion. Let’s look at the text!

Read Ephesians chapter 1, either in your own Good Book or by following the link, and note what you think are the talking points of the letter.

Done?

Some points include: adoption as God’s children (verse 5), redemption through Christ’s blood (verse 7), the mystery of God’s will (verse 9), inheritance (verse 11), and Christ’s ultimate dominion (verses 20-23).

If you picked up different points or have questions about these, that’s fine! You can even comment and let me know. After all, I could have missed an important one, and you could be the one to help me learn something, too!

As you read over Ephesians 1, really note this language of redemption and inheritance. We are redeemed through the blood of Christ, which sounds morbid to us in the 21st Century, but remember, the ancient world understood that life can only be redeemed (purchased) by life, and blood was seen as that which carries the life of a person. Christ paid the price to free us from slavery to sin, but because sin costs life, he offered up his to settle the debt. This fits perfectly within the ancient model of slavery, economics, and sacrifice, so just remember that when the blood talk seems a bit… much.

As a side note, if we forget this contextual information, then the whole concept really does become a bit morbid, serving as the basis for a lot of poor ministry practices. Domestic abuse, imprisonment, and oppression have all been justified by the idea that suffering (in general, but especially undeservedly) connects us to Christ and should thereby be accepted and even invited. Leaders have sent women back to abusive husbands, claiming that they are suffering as Christ suffered, and God will eventually pay them back. This is way wrong. It ignores the reasons why Christ’s sacrifice and the cross actually make sense, and it costs people their lives and sense of peace.

Now, finally, this notion of inheritance bears mentioning. You and I, unless we happen to be Jewish in descent, are Gentile believers. This letter is great for us because it emphasizes the fact that we are still children of God (literally, “sons” in Greek, as sons were the ones who could actually inherit; yes, ladies, y’all are sons!). As such, we are included in the ultimate hope, love, and blessing of God’s presence in our lives, right here and right now. This is great news, especially if you, like me, have always struggled with belonging, wondering if there is a place for you in this crazy world. The truth is that there is a place for all of us, and God is ready for all of us to come inside and spend some quality, eternal time with Him, each other, and all the saints that are a part of this big ol’ family in Christ.

Peace be with you! See you next week for a more in-depth look at chapter 2!