Works and Grace

His thoughts and wisdom come from years of walking steadily towards God.
Steadfast
This father of mine who has read the Bible through every year for years upon years, who yet still is searching and seeking, discovering new depths in this Word that he loves.
Walking
We walk through the woods, sunlight blazing through the red and yellow leaves, the sounds of fall in the leaves at our feet.  In spurts, in between the happy screams of children running up and down hills, he speaks to me of his latest wonderings.
He wonders about the difference between the writings of Paul and words of Jesus.
“What if…” he feels his way forward.  “What if we didn’t have Paul’s letters?  What if all we had were the gospels, the words of Jesus?  Jesus speaks much more of actions, of behavior, of thoughts and emotions.  He almost never speaks of grace.”
He’s right.  Jesus doesn’t dwell much on the beauties of grace.  His business seems to be with the practical, with the fruit that a life of a disciple should bear.
Only those who do the Father’s commands will enter the Kingdom.
By your words you will be acquitted or condemned.
When asked, What must I do to be saved?, His answer is simple: Keep the commandments.
It is enough to bring despair, if that were the only way to be saved.  Obedience for salvation?  This is not gospel.  This is not good news.
Yet when someone comes to Him for healing, Jesus tells them that it is their own faith that has saved them.
Healing
What does it mean, this faith that is a saving faith?  What kind of a faith will save us?
Perhaps a clue comes from the times that Jesus tells us, Whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. 
Bible Reading
Perhaps it does all come down to whether or not we truly believe Jesus.  If we truly believe that His way is best, that He is who He says He is and therefore knows what in this crazy upside down world He’s talking about, then we will obey Him.
Not perfectly and not all the time (Which is where Paul’s grace seems to come in.  Which is where Jesus’ statements like it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God…but with God all things are possible seem to bring in grace), but if you really believe then you will allow your heart to be changed.
Sometimes it is dramatic and fast, like Paul.  Other times it comes slowly and painfully, small choice by small choice, like the disciples.
It does seem, at times, that there is an apparent contradiction between works and grace in the New Testament.
Searching
It also seems, though, that while we can never be good enough to earn our way in, and while it is only by the blood of Christ that we are able to come near to God at all, at the same time, once we have decided that He is truth then our lives should reflect that truth.
A life that is given up to the Lordship of Christ should bear fruit.
We do not try to obey so that we can be loved, but rather the love of Jesus allows us a beginning of the ability to obey, however imperfectly.
The grace brings about the works.
I am still learning, however, and welcome your own wisdom.  What would happen if we only had the gospels and not the letters of Paul?  How are grace and works reconciled, and should we put a greater emphasis on works?

Terrible Love

It is Thanksgiving time and there is light.

Happy kids eating

Happy eating

Fine dining
They sit around the table laden with food, this family bound together by blood.  There is light and laughter, talk of sports and of God, there is caring and kindness between generations.  There are eyes shining bright, shining with love and with joy in the company around them.
And there is darkness.
There is one who is recently bereft of the comfort of spouse, struggling to find what is normal.  There is one who sits heavy with the weight of marriage that is harder than expected.  There is one who wonders if anything they do will ever seem good enough.
There is one who struggles with getting older, one who struggles with trouble at work and money that slips through the fingers, one who wonders if there is anything good coming when they can’t see what lies further down the road.
The Road
There is darkness in all of us.  It is a part of being human to feel the weightiness of the absence of God.  And there is an absence of God in this world.  The Bible we profess speaks of it.  The prophets and psalms all speak of Him who is not there when He is most needed.  The author of Hebrews strips all of our pretense away when he speaks of Noah, of Abraham, of Gideon and David and the rest who “all died without having received what was promised.”  It is the anguish of glimpsing the briefest glow of the light of presence without being allowed to bask in the sun.
Glimpse of light
It is a terrible love, this love of God for us.  It is a love that means His absence as often as it means His presence.  It is a love that Jesus speaks of when He utters in His darkest moment the piercing cry of Where are you, God?
You who are in heaven for us, why are you not down here in hell with us?

Light of presence

It is a terrible love that speaks of carrying our own cross, that utters the truth that all ye labor and are heavy laden.
It is a terrible love that wounds, or allows the wounds, before the healing can come.
It is a terrible love that weeps at the death of a friend, of Lazarus.  They are tears that speak of the absence of God.  Of the part of God in the very body of Jesus who would not save the life of His own friend.
This is, after all, the Gospel.  It is terrible before it is beautiful.  It is darkness before it is light.
Darkness before light
We all labor and are heavy laden.  We work so very hard to pretend that it is not so, but even when we are appalled at the darkness, we cannot help but listen to Jesus because we see in Him not only the darkness of being without God but the glorious light of what it looks like to be with God.
It is out of the absence of God that He becomes most present.  It is out of the whirlwind, out of the storm that God first speaks to Job, answering Him not with answers but with Himself.  It is out of darkness that we first begin to perceive the light.
Paul says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.  God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are”, and he points to “the apparent emptiness of the world where God belongs and to how the emptiness starts to echo like an empty shell after a while until you can here in it the still, small voice of the sea, hear strength in weakness, victory in defeat, presence in absence.” ~ Frederick Buechner
Rembrandt
The cross itself is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory and it, too, speaks of the absence of God.
When the absence is all that we see, when we are tempted to see in it a well of doubt that could lead us into atheism or at least into becoming agnostic, there is yet something else to see as well.
It was out of the darkness and absence that God first spoke.  “In the beginning…the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  And darkness is upon our faces as well, a void that sinks deep into our hearts.  And perhaps it is necessary for the reality of this darkness to fold itself around us for us to be able to glimpse the reality of the word that God spoke into the darkness, “God said let there be light, and there was light.”
And there was light
It is a terrible love that is offered to us, and perhaps we must face the truth of the terribleness before we are capable of accepting the love.

Art credits: Three Crosses sketch by Rembrandt; Supernova photo by NASA

The Artistry of God

Revel with me in the artistry of God.
artistry
Be amazed at the depth of His creativity.
creativity
Look with wonder at variation beyond number.
variation
Ponder the beauty of difference.
difference
Of large
large
and small,
small
of smooth
smooth
and warty,
warty
of single color
single color
and multi-hued.
multi-hued
Praise the loveliness of His artistic diversity
diversity
in all of the people and pumpkins around you.

Outside the World

Outside
We stand outside the world.
We dance and dream and die, and through it all we long.
We long for something else, for something more.  We long for something bigger, for something more real.
Some understand what they long for and others do not.  We long for what is true.  We long for a world that is fully real.
We catch breaths of the morning air, fresh and clean and pure.  We catch glimpses of the morning light, startling and bright and glorious.
Yet we stand outside the world and these hints of morning air do not change us.  We do not become pure or glorious.
We stand outside the world and we hear a Word.  We hear a Word that spreads a rumor.
It is a rumor that this shall not always be so.  It is a rumor that one day we will be allowed to walk through the door and stand on the right side.  On the inside.
It is a rumor that one day we will finally be changed by the Morning.  Through the Morning Star we will become pure and clean, bright and glorious.
We will be as we were made.  We will become as we are remade.  Remade into the very image of the Word.
And by moving through the Word we will be allowed to stand.  To stand in desperate gratitude.  To stand covered in another’s glory.
We will dance and we will dream, but we will not die.
We will stand inside the world.

Piety or Knowledge?

I have written before of the battle between holiness and justice.  Some say we are to focus on our own moral purity, on becoming more like Jesus.  Others say we are to focus on social justice for others, on being Jesus to those around the world.
Holiness
Justice
When describing the wickedness of Israel, Isaiah says “He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
It seems that one of the Deceiver’s favorite ploys is to take a set of discipleship practices, a pairing that works best when done in concert with each other, and separate them, throwing them into battle with each another.  In doing so, he not only diminishes the efficacy of both practices but he also divides the very body of Christ.
Clearly both holiness and justice are important.  We should not focus on half of God’s commands to the exclusion of the rest.
Another battle I’ve been trying to understand is the battle between piety and knowledge.
Is it better to obey God, to act on His behalf, or is it better to learn about God, to know what it is He commands?
piety
knowledge
Some would say that knowledge is too dry, that the life of the mind is on par with selfishness.  It brings to mind ivory towers and keeping oneself unsullied by the realities of the real world.
While it is true that focusing solely on knowledge and learning would keep one from ever actually helping this world of hurting people, modern church culture seems to lean too heavily in the direction of anti-intellectualism.  There is a growing spirit of pragmatism in our churches.  A spirit whose first question about an idea is not “Is it true?” but “Does it work?”.
“Young people tend to be activists, dedicated supporters of a cause, though without always inquiring too closely either whether their cause is a good end to pursue or whether this action is the best means by which to pursue it.” ~ Rev. John R. W. Stott in an address at the Inter-Varsity Fellowship Annual Conference
It seems this is another set of discipleship practices that when separated leads to reduced success.
On one hand you have people rushing crazily about for the next good idea regardless of the wisdom or truth of it, perhaps even causing more harm than good.  On the other hand you have people sitting stagnant with their books, not allowing any of the knowledge of God to seep into their hearts and affect the world around them.
Both piety and knowledge are desperately needed together.  Only with knowledge can you know what God truly wants, what is the wise action to take.  Only with piety can your own heart be changed, can the hearts and lives of other people be changed.
Paul says in II Corinthians that we are to take every thought captive toward the obedience of Christ.
Piety and knowledge.  Obedience and intellect.  The heart and the mind.
Both are needed.  Both are required to continue to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.
Only together can these practices nourish “a warm and fruitful devotion set on fire by truth.” (Stott)

We Eat One Another Alive

Why do we eat one another alive?
 Stalking
It happens all the time.  Just look at what happens any time a Christian leader is found out or, worse, confesses.  Just look at what happens whenever a Christian public figure says something that is outside of our comfort zone.  Just look at what happens so many times when someone in our own churches does or says something we don’t agree with.
We talk, we rant, we fill up the air with our words.  And our words are not of grace.
It is too easy to speak harshly within the anonymous confines of the internet.  We forget at times that those on the receiving end of our arrows are as beloved as we are.
Why do we do it?
Fear, perhaps.
We fear that others will think poorly of us or of our faith if we do not speak out quickly and harshly against whatever was wrong.  We fear that we will be viewed as the same if we speak words of love instead of words of condemnation.
We fear, perhaps, that we are the same deep down inside, and we do not want anyone to know the truth.
Yet the irony of it all is that the very One we are trying to defend is the same One who shared meals, shared life with those who made the most public of mistakes.
Loving those with public mistakes
The irony is that the Bible is crammed full of one another verses…and not one of them mentions devouring one another.
Show kindness and mercy to one another.
Love one another.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Welcome one another.
Bear with one another.
Be kind to one another.
Forgive one another.
These are just the beginning.
Jesus said that people would know that we follow Him by our love.  Too often love is not what we show to the world.  I confess that perhaps I would not think very highly of Jesus if all that I knew of Him was what I read on the blogs and Facebook pages of His followers.
May God help us.
May the God of love and grace teach us how to get rid of our motto of We eat one another alive.
May He instead change our hearts to adopt the motto of We never leave a fallen comrade behind.

Art Credits: Lion photo by Juliane Riedl; Christ and Samaritan Woman painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

When Praise is a Sacrifice

Sacrifice is hard.
I suppose that is clear from the very definition of the word.
The idea of a sacrifice of praise seems a strange sort of concept.  We tend to view praise as spontaneous, as rising from our rising and joyful emotions.  How can such praise be a sacrifice?
Easy to praise
Easy to praise
That sort of praise is not such a sacrifice.  But what about the praise that comes from a woman who has just lost her child?  What about the praise from a man who does not know how he will feed his family?  What about the praise from Christ-follower who lives every day in fear of torture or death because of Who he follows?
Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name. (Heb. 13.5)
The praise of the one ravaged by cancer, the praise of the one dying inside from loneliness, the praise of the one who isn’t even sure that God is really there…these are a sacrifice.  These are that sacrifice of praise.
Suffered years of illinesses
Steph – Suffered years of illnesses and still chose to try to praise God
Kristina - died of cancer, leaving her husband and baby behind
Kristina – died of cancer, leaving her husband and baby behind, yet still sought God while alive.
But how?  How is it even possible to praise God while living through such circumstances?
Through Him
Through who?
Look back just one chapter.
…looking to Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb. 12. 2-3)
How?  By looking to Jesus.  By looking to the One who was able to offer up His own sacrifice of praise while enduring the physical pain of the cross, while enduring the emotional shame of the cross, while enduring the heartbreaking separation from His own Father.
Jesus - crucified, humiliated, abandoned, yet still offered praise to God
Jesus – crucified, humiliated, abandoned, yet still offered praise to God
By keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, and therefore off of ourselves, we are given courage and strength to do what we think is impossible.  We are kept from growing weary and fainthearted.
By fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we are able to continually offer up a sacrifice of praise.  An offering of praise that endures all time and all circumstance.  An offering of praise that is beautiful to God.

Art credits: Sunlight through tulips photograph by Kirk Sewell Photography; photograph of Jesus carrying the cross sculpture by Asta Rastauskiene

Be Right or Love the Person?

“Is it more important to be right or to be loving?”
Angry
I ask her the question as she stands with her hands on her hips, righteous indignation quivering through every inch of her little body.
Frustrated
It seems an easy question when put in such stark terms, but which of us answers it correctly in each one of our little choices every day?
Certainly not me.
I find myself struggling with whether loving the person or desiring to be right is more important.  I wrestle with the decision of whether having the perfect event or loving the person is better.  I fight hard against the desire to let my agenda, my task list trump the to-do of loving the person.
Love God.  Love people.
Love the Lord your God
It is that simple.  It is that hard.
Pride stands in our way.  Desire for an experience to be amazing puts up a wall.  Need to feel accomplished plants its roots.
Yet it truly is simple.  Will we obey our own desires or will we submit ourselves to God?
Stubborn
“To be loving.”  The answer barely escapes through her gritted teeth.  She doesn’t want that to be the right answer.
I know, my darling.  I know.  I, too, want a different answer.  I, too, want to protect myself, to protect my perceived interests and rights.
The trouble is that when you commit yourself to this God of power and love, you commit to letting Him defend you.  Your job is to obey.  In this case, that looks like love.
It is making yourself vulnerable in order to love the person.  It is making yourself nothing in order to love the person.  It is making yourself a servant in order to love the person.
Love God.  Love people.
Love your sister
It is that simple.  It is that hard.

Belong

I watch my littlest follow her sisters around like a puppy.  She is desperate to be big enough to join in with their play.  She is willing to try anything to keep up with them and to feel a part of their games and, more importantly, their friendship.
Following
Following Along
I see myself all too well in her.  I, too, find myself following after others with whom I desire friendship.  I will do things that I don’t enjoy or participate in too many activities just to feel as though I belong.
Joining In
Tagging Along
I find it hard to understand why I do this, to figure out what lies behind this quiet, desperate feeling.  Part of the trouble is that there have been too many occasions of friends drifting away as though I weren’t quite worth the effort.  I think, though, that an even bigger part of the trouble is my disbelief of what God has told me, of what He has told all of us.
 Playing
Striving
I don’t truly, deep down inside, believe that I am worth being loved.
Joining
If I did, it wouldn’t matter how many friendships ended quietly, I would still be ready once again to make myself vulnerable for another.
Following
I don’t believe that I am valuable and that all I truly need is Him.  So I chase after other people, trying to prove my worth to them and to myself.  I think that I need other people more than I need the approval of my God.
One of the bunch
I forget, you see, that I already belong.  I belong to the One who tossed the stars into their orbits and who crafted the sweet violet.  I belong and I am worth more to Him than all the birds in the air.
One of the crowd
Part of the team
Maybe someday I will do a better job of believing it.

Certainty and Faith

There sometimes comes into the heart of all of us a desire to be sure.  A sudden longing for certainty about that which we profess to believe.
Light
We wish to be able to say I believe with no niggling of doubt that causes us to draw back from the ringing shout we had wanted to pronounce.
Light
Doubt is that persistent shadow that startles us now and again just when we’d thought we’d left it behind for good.  It is that small voice that sometimes lingers and sometimes only whispers and is gone.
Light
We want it to disappear for always.  We long to be certain, to be troubled no longer by questions.
Yet I am beginning to discover that certainty is not faith.  Certainty is based on evidence, on proof, on concrete and unassailable fact.  Faith, however, is relationship.  It is risk and it is vulnerability.
Offering
Vulnerability
Certainty is about control, about predicting behavior.  Faith is a gift from me to you, a gift of myself placed into your hands.
Risk
I have read about certainty and faith in the context of a marriage.  Certainty in marriage is secretly reading all of your spouse’s emails and texts and journals.  Certainty in marriage is hiring a detective to follow your spouse to be sure he is being faithful.  Certainty in marriage is tapping the phones to be sure of the trustworthiness of your spouse.
Faith in marriage is a gift.  It is an offering of myself, of my vulnerability and my heart, to you as one whom I believe to be faithful.
When I trust you, I take a little piece of myself…and put it into your hands.  And then I’m vulnerable.  Then you respond, and I find out whether you are trustworthy…I give you the gift of my trust, and you give me the gift of your faithfulness. ~ John Ortberg in Faith and Doubt
Perhaps, after all, certainty is not what we truly long for.
If by it (the intellect) we could prove there is a God, it would be of small avail indeed.  We must see Him and know Him. ~ George MacDonald in The Curate’s Awakening
Perhaps, after all, certainty is not such a prize to be pursued.  Perhaps, after all, God is more pleased with the vulnerable gift of faith than He is by the chasing after an elusive proof of His existence.
Faith
May He be pleased by my trust.

Art Credit: Photographs of light by Kirk Sewell