Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
Romans 8:1-2 (NIV)
I looked in the mirror this morning. There it was again, right in the middle of my forehead… “Failure.”
The label peeled off. But some residue was left behind. I could feel it. Every time I knit my brow, Every time I tried to smile, Every time I tried to look up.
I cried out, “God forgive me. I’m a failure.” But I thought I had been forgiven before. Why was I still wearing the label? Why did it keep coming back?
I looked closer at the label I had thrown away. “Made in USA.” Not “Made in Heaven” Labels are made on Earth. By other people. In my own mind.
This time, when I looked up, I couldn’t feel it. But I saw the others– Wearing labels, just like me. “Failure” “Hateful” “Unwanted” “Used” “Unworthy”
And the labels were all made somewhere on Earth– “USA” “Pakistan” “China” “Zimbabwe” “Honduras”
The labels were hard to ignore. Someone had put them there for all to see. But what if I could look beyond the labels And just see the faces? Look into the eyes of my sister, And see the beauty God had intended to be there.
Father, Help me remember that there is NO Condemnation for those who belong to you. Condemnation comes from others. You are the righteous Judge, NOT the prosecutor. You have the authority to condemn– yet you offer Grace to anyone who will repent. Your only label is a banner of Love that says “Precious to the Lord.” Help me see Your label– whether in the mirror on on the street– whenever I look around.
I was being pestered by telemarketers the other day, and it struck me that God is the exact opposite of a telemarketer. Telemarketers call, generally when it is inconvenient, to sell you a product you did not know you even wanted! They may ask polite questions, but their goal is not to help you– rather, their goal is to sell you their product. They may have your name from a list (they usually slaughter the pronunciation of mine) , but more often than not, they simply call your number at random. They’ve never met you, nor do they intend to develop a long-term relationship with you. They are not interested in your family, your background, or your most pressing needs.
God is not a telemarketer. He isn’t trying to “sell” you anything. He cares deeply and personally about who you are, and what you need. He knows you– even better than you know yourself! And He says, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20) He doesn’t say that He will make an appointment to come to your door at His convenience. He doesn’t say that He will pound on your door and insist that you answer. He doesn’t say that He is there to make you a “limited-time offer you won’t want to miss…” The image in Revelation is that of a close friend who is always as close as your doorstep and waiting to fellowship with you.
The wonder of prayer is just that– God is ALWAYS, ALWAYS available and ready to listen, comfort, protect, encourage, forgive, advise, and just “BE” present. He invites Himself, but waits for our response to His gentle knock. He doesn’t walk away in disgust when we pretend we’re not at home. He doesn’t break in to our house, or peer through the window or blow up our voice mail box with frenzied messages.
Sometimes, WE are like the telemarketer– calling on God, insisting that He come to our rescue, or answer our doubts and questions, only to speed off without so much as a “Thank you.” And God still waits on the doorstep, waiting to come in and “sup” with us. So often, we have an agenda; we believe that God must have one, as well– that He wants a certain phrase or certain action, and then He will “go away” again, satisfied that He has “made a sale.” But God wants us to walk with Him in relationship (see Genesis 5:21-24; Genesis 6:8-9; Micah 6:8; Matthew 9:9; John 8:12; John 10:27; 1 Peter 2:21, etc.) In this sense, prayers is not an activity, but a pursuit and a way of life– an ongoing conversation between companions along their journey.
May we enjoy today’s journey and welcome the company of the One who created us, pursued us, redeemed us, and who loves us best!
I’ve been exploring the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and how I think they relate to prayer. Today, I want to look at the second one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v. 4).
I know a lot of people who are mourning. I know people who have lost loved ones to COVID, to suicide, to cancer, etc. I know those who are mourning the loss of a job or a house. I know those who are mourning the loss of health– either their own or that of a loved one. And I have been a mourner. I know those moments when the grief hits unexpectedly– a song comes on the radio, or a certain photo pops up in my Facebook memories; even the smell of freshly cut grass or the taste of popcorn can remind me of loved ones lost, and bring a tear to my eye.
I also know the mourning that comes from regret– the painful consequences of ill-chosen words or reckless actions– even missed opportunities. Mourning is painful. It is uncomfortable. The world around us is made uncomfortable by our mourning. People spend billions of dollars and spend countless hours trying to avoid mourning; trying to deny, placate, drown, or forget their grief and sadness. We take pills, we binge watch entertaining programs, we run away, we distract, we seek to mask our feelings, suppress them, or eradicate them.
Jesus calls on us to mourn. He wants us to bring all the ugliness of our grief and shame and give it to Him. He will not ask us to cover it up, or hide from it, or “get rid of it.” He will not tell us to “get over it” or “put it behind us.” Instead, He will comfort us. That doesn’t mean we will never again feel grief or shame or sadness in this life. But our mourning will be transformed into Joy. Joy is not the absence of, nor a denial of grief. It is the triumph of life over death; of hope over despair; of purpose over futility. We are not commanded to be “shiny, happy” problem-free people. Nor are we to let mourning and grief overwhelm us or turn us sour and despondent. Instead, we are to share our grief– and to share in the grief of others–just as we can then share in the comfort we have found!
In the same way that the “poor in spirit” can embrace all the riches and glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, those who mourn can receive from God the kind of Peace that “passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), and the joy the “comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5) God does not want us to be forever depressed or wallow in our despair–but He also does not want us to pretend that we are invincible, or untouched by sorrow. Jesus wept. Jesus felt sadness and frustration during His earthly ministry. He was tired, He was misunderstood, He was betrayed. He suffered losses. And He grieved over broken relationships and the horrible consequences of Sin in the lives of those around Him.
Those who do NOT mourn– who do not feel sorrow or regret or loss– will never know the healing power of God’s consuming comfort. They will never know the full measure of Grace. They will never cry out for it, never be surprised by the light in the darkness, never feel the joy of being held and cradled by compassion. And they miss out on the true Joy that comes from being comforted and being able to comfort others.
So the question I have to ask myself today is– what have I mourned lately? When was the last time I collapsed under the weight of my own grief or shame, only to find myself upheld and wrapped in the arms of the Lover of my Soul? When was the last time I extended comfort to someone else by mourning with them?
I went on a “weight-loss” plan because my doctor said I should. Even so, I didn’t give up meat or chocolate, Or sweets, or even television, like some others did.
I didn’t give up shopping. I didn’t give up social media. I didn’t give up…anything for this short season.
But today I acknowledge that Lent isn’t really about What I have or haven’t given up. It’s about what YOU gave up. You gave it all: Your Glory; Your Power; Your Majesty. You became a simple man. A servant of men. A man without a home; Without prestige; Without a title.
You were betrayed; Falsely accused, Corruptly tried, Shamefully condemned, Brutally beaten, Crucified. So that I might gain eternal life.
You do not judge me for what I haven’t given up for a season. You do not withhold your love and forgiveness; Waiting for me to learn the disciplines of Lent. You ask for more than that– and less. You ask me to follow you–to leave it all behind. You ask me to give up my life– only to find it again in You.
Let me reflect today on what more I need to give up: My pride. My apathy. My selfishness with time and money. My need to have my own way; My own comforts.
May I be free to serve you; To serve others. May I be ready to give up whatever is Keeping me in thrall; Keeping me enslaved; Keeping me from serving you with abandon.
Show me how to let go Of all but You– That You may be my All.
The story of “The Little Drummer Boy” is nowhere in the Bible. It is very unlikely that such an event ever took place. Yet it has become a classic Christmas song. I think it is easy for us to identify with the singer– a poor boy who wants to honor the Baby Jesus, but has no gift to offer. What he does have– a drum and the ability to play it– he offers gladly. He asks permission of Mary and she nods her consent. But the highlight of the song is when the Baby Jesus smiles His approval.
At Christmas, we welcome a Christmas card-picture perfect stylized Baby Jesus, who smiles, never cries, charms all the animals of the stable, and merits the singing of angels choirs among the heavens. But we have a tendency to leave Him in the manger, where He can be a tiny miracle; a gift from God, bringing hope of peace on earth, and teaching us to give gifts and celebrate life.
Somewhere along the way, our picture of Jesus tends to change. The adult Jesus is kind, wise, compassionate, and even passionate– but He is a man of sorrows. This is not “wrong” theology– the Bible describes Him as a man of sorrows; one who was despised and rejected by His own people, and condemned to die by those He came to save (see Isaiah 53). But we don’t tend to think of Jesus smiling, His eyes crinkled in a grin, dimples appearing as He delights in sharing time with us. Yet this is also Biblical (see Zephaniah 3:17).
What an amazing image– Jesus, a radiant smile on His face as He listens to our prayers; a grin of delight as we speak words of encouragement to our family members and joyful greetings to those we meet throughout the day! Jesus smiling as we take out the garbage (without grumbling!); Jesus laughing along with us as we share treasured memories (or make new ones) with our kids; Jesus listening to our confession and responding with a warm smile of forgiveness and compassion; Jesus smiling as we sing along (maybe even a little off-tune) with one of our favorite songs on the radio, or tap our fingers on the steering wheel, or bob our head along with the rhythm, oblivious to onlookers!
We pray to the very Lord of the Universe– but He is not a stern and joyless God. Jesus wept while He was on earth (John 11:35)–but He also laughed, and ate, and hugged, and sang, and ran, and danced for joy! And He is no less joyful in Heaven as He watches over us. He delights in our smallest triumphs. He cheers us on in our battles every bit as enthusiastically as a fan cheering on his favorite sportsperson. And when we stumble, He is there with the kind of smile that welcomes us to get up and fall into His arms.
There is only one thing we must do to experience His radiant and glorious smile– “Come!”
“Peter, do you love me?” Three times asked. Three times answered. (See John 21) Once for each time Peter had denied his Lord. You’d think the lesson had been learned. But when Peter had a vision filled with food that he refused to eat, it took another three times before he got the message.(Acts 10) We could say that Peter was consistently stubborn. But maybe Peter is not so different from us.
Fear not. Do NOT be afraid. Be strong and courageous. The Bible is filled with such messages. Over and over, God’s people need reminders to look beyond fear and find faith. Go and preach the Gospel. Go out into all the world. Go make disciples. Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Pray without ceasing. Run the race. Don’t give up. Ask. Seek. Knock.
God is not annoyed or afraid of repetition. He uses it when speaking patiently to us. He welcomes it from us in prayer. Sometimes, I feel like I’m “nagging” God about certain things. After all, He already knows my needs, so why am I bringing the same request for the 19th time this month? Except God not only knows about my need, He knows my tendency to get discouraged and distracted. God doesn’t need to hear my request again, but He wants to hear me ask. More than that, He wants to hear me ask with confidence, knowing that He HAS heard and WILL provide– in ways and times I cannot know.
God hears. God knows. God cares. It’s worth repeating! It’s worth asking– again!
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)
The Pharisees in the New Testament seem to spend a lot of time judging and criticizing everyone. They rail at Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, they grumble about His disciples not following the ritual hand-washing customs, and they are constantly critical of Jesus for “hanging out” with sinners and undesirables. We shake our heads and lament how narrow-minded they were. But I have to wonder what would happen in today’s world if Jesus were walking among us today. Would He “hang out” at our churches? Would He praise those who spend their time pointing out the hypocrisy of others? Would He be a “social justice” warrior?
Many of Jesus’s miracles were done quietly and without pretense. No one criticized “what” Jesus was doing. No one said, “you shouldn’t be healing people,” or, “how dare you turn water into wine.” Instead, they criticized “how” Jesus did His miracles and what He said about Himself, others, and God. In the book of Luke, we have a story that doesn’t even involve a miracle. Jesus was invited to be the guest of a Pharisee. Jesus didn’t turn down the invitation. He didn’t start out criticizing the host or the food. But when a woman crashed the party– a woman known all around town for her sinful ways–and made a scene, Jesus didn’t recoil in horror, order her to leave, or stop her from making a fool of herself. The Pharisee, believing that he had “unmasked” Jesus as a charlatan, concluded that Jesus didn’t “know” what sort of woman she was. But Jesus, breaking His silence, ended up “unmasking” the Pharisee, instead.
Jesus “knew” what sort of woman made such a spectacle of herself–one who needed compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew exactly “who” and “what” she was. But He also knew who created her, loved her, and wanted to redeem her to become someone better. Moreover, He knew what kind of man Simon (the Pharisee) was. He started out with a parable about cancelled debt and a question. Simon answered the question correctly, but he had missed the point. Simon “knew” the woman was a sinner; he didn’t recognize that he was a sinner, too! Simon thought he was smarter and holier than Jesus. He didn’t know himself, and he didn’t recognize Jesus as God in the Flesh.
How often I make the same mistake! I think I “know” who God wants me to love and honor– those who say all the right words and wear the right clothes and belong to the right church. But if I want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, I will have compassion on the people who most need it; I will be ready to forgive those who owe me the most; I will spare judgment where I do not “know” all that God knows about someone else.
It is easy to lift up in prayer those I admire; those to whom I am already close. It is more difficult to pray for those who persecute me, or taunt me about my belief in Christ. It is difficult to withhold judgment about why they may dislike me or why they distrust Christians in general. It is tempting to pray for their “exposure” or punishment, rather than their well-being. It may be unpleasant to spend time with them or take them seriously. But it is essential that I do, with God’s help, what I would not do in my own pride and limited knowledge. Otherwise, like Simon, I am showing only how little I love the one who died for me– and the person I choose to hold in judgment and contempt.
I have a lot of work to do in this area. Just today, I read a news snippet about a political office-holder; one with whom I heartily disagree. My first instinct was to pray that she be ousted from office in the next election, and publicly scorned. And perhaps that will happen. But my first priority should be to pray that she would be protected in her current role as public servant, and that God would give her wisdom and discernment in the months ahead. Not because she is a “better” person; but because Jesus died for her. If she were the woman in this story, would I be another Simon the Pharisee? I pray not.
I’ve been very blessed with a large extended family–in-laws, cousins, step-cousins, half-cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, second cousins–well over 600! (and counting). I’ve spent a lot of time recently attending family events, and each one has been happy, encouraging, and invigorating. I know that is not always the case in families. Some families argue; some won’t even speak to each other. And there is not perfect harmony, even in the best of human families. We’ve had divorces and divides, too; but mostly, as my one cousin is fond of saying, “We like us.” We like belonging to a family, but even more, we like belonging to our family. As our family grows, it is becoming more diverse, and we like that, too. Many years ago, most of our family members were farmers from a small area in southwestern Michigan. Now, our family includes truck drivers, mechanics, teachers, architects, coaches, doctors, office managers, car salesmen, nurses, dispatchers, accountants, chefs, shopkeepers, ministers, photographers, cosmetologists, pet groomers, medical transcriptionists, cinematographers, artists, dancers, contractors, factory workers, and yes, some farmers, too. We have family members with varying skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, and differing physical and mental abilities. And we LIKE “us.”
Jesus likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a family– it is made up of many members, but we are all brothers and sisters “in Christ.” And, like a family, we are supposed to like “us.” More than that, we are supposed to LOVE one another! We are to be there for each other, in good times and bad; in mourning and in rejoicing. “For better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..” It shouldn’t matter if our brothers and sisters live close by or halfway around the world; whether they belong to our local congregation of “that other church across town.” And it SHOULD matter when we see some of our family members being persecuted or facing hardship while others live in comfortable apathy.
But Jesus went even further. We are to love those who are not “US.” We are to show love and mercy to those who don’t “belong.” We are to reach out to those who dislike, despise, and even persecute us. The way we treat each other as “family” and the way we treat those “outside” will either attract or repel others, and it will show whether or not we have learned to love as Jesus did.
God “Likes” us. He wants to share life with us –any of us who will respond to His call. And God LOVES us. He treats us with the same compassion and love, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, or how we’ve responded (or failed to respond) to His outreach.
Clearly, there are those who do not like us; who do not wish us well. And God does not call us to be victims, dupes, and doormats for abusive relatives or strangers. We are to Love– but wisely, and with the strength of God. Liking someone does not obligate us to betray our conscience, or enable abusive and immoral behavior in others. Loving someone may mean setting boundaries where they are needed. But it also may involve tearing down false walls of fear and “inconvenience” that we’ve been using to excuse action.
Who can we reach out to this week, extending the kind of welcome and acceptance we give our family? How can we begin seeing more of “us” in the people we meet, and less of “them?” And, if there are family members (either our birth families, or our church families) with whom we have a broken relationship, are there ways we can make a move to try to mend fences? How can we set wise boundaries, while tearing down false ones? One sure way is to begin praying– pray for those we meet, whether or not we consider them “family.” Pray for those who have hurt us– and those we have hurt. Pray for those who seem different and hard to understand or accept. Pray for God to bless them, encourage them, meet their needs– Pray that God will give us wisdom, opportunities, and strength to reach out.
(Today, I am republishing a post from last year. I will be back with a fresh post on Monday.)
Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV via biblegateway.com):
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
No one likes to feel “left out.” We have a deep desire to be accepted, liked, loved, respected, and needed. We want to “fit in.” But sometimes, acceptance and inclusion are not possible. Sometimes, they are offered, but at a price too steep. Sometimes, we make unhealthy compromises in our efforts to avoid conflict or to win respect.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us at least seven principles/actions that will bring us blessing. But they are in opposition to human nature– NOT designed to help us “fit in” with most of society. Elsewhere in scripture, we are told to stand apart from what others are doing or saying. God wants people who will follow HIM, not the world.
People who are poor in spirit— this can be taken at least two ways: those who consider themselves poor in a material sense, and hold their money and possessions lightly; or those who are aware of their spiritual poverty, knowing that they need guidance and wisdom from above. Such people will “possess” the kingdom of heaven– not by fighting and straining and striving and grasping for sole ownership–it is God’s gracious gift to be shared by all who are poor in spirit.
People who mourn–not people who are eternally gloomy and depressed, but those who mourn the loss of innocence, the injustices of the world, the suffering and grief of others. Such people also rejoice at the sight of a glorious sunrise, or laugh to see children playing– but they do not deny or circumvent the realities of a fallen world. Such people will be comforted, even in the midst of mourning, by God’s sovereignty and righteousness.
People who are meek (humble)–there is a difference between being meek and lacking confidence or being a stooge or a fool. Meek people still have boundaries– and they respect the boundaries of others. They stand up for what is right, but they don’t insist on always being “right.” Such people will not stake a claim on the earth or try to grab their “fair share.” Instead, they will inherit all that God has in store for them!
People who hunger and thirst for righteousness–hunger and thirst are natural and ongoing processes. There are people who want “justice” or “righteousness.” They want it NOW. They want it to be retroactive. They want it to be a foregone conclusion. And they want it to be eternal. But they don’t long for personal righteousness, and they don’t want to feel hunger or thirst for it. They don’t want to seek after true righteousness; they just want the results. They just want the world to spin righteously all around them. But for those who hunger and thirst– Jesus is both the Living Water and the Bread of Life. He brings a daily portion of all-sufficient Grace, wisdom, and forgiveness to keep us filled.
People who are merciful–I was struck as I read this again by the term merciful. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about God’s Grace– the fact that God gives us untold blessings that we don’t deserve. But here, Jesus is talking about the merciful– not giving others the condemnation or punishment they deserve. I find it much easier to be Graceful than to be Merciful. It is easy to bless others; to be charitable, or charming, encouraging, or bountiful. It is much more difficult to bite back an insulting or critical retort, to forgive a debt, to let go of a grudge, or keep from passing on a juicy morsel of gossip. It is easier to focus on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you, than to Love your enemies. Jesus asked us to do both– but the blessing here is for those who show Mercy!
People who are pure in heart–not just shiny on the surface. I can say all manner of spiritual-sounding things; I can do all kinds of good deeds; I can even write blog entries on scriptural truths– but God looks on my heart, to see if it is pure. And if I haven’t covered my heart in posturing and false rituals, justifications and excuses, denials and rebellion, I should be able to “see” God– to have a clearer picture of who He is, what He is doing in the world around me, what He wants me to do and say and become…
People who are peacemakers–not just people who “go along to get along,” but people who are willing to help bring about peace, and who will create an atmosphere of unity and respect–at home, in the workplace, and in their neighborhoods. When we bring peace to a chaotic relationship, or create a peaceful atmosphere, we are doing the work of reconciliation, and we are showing others the nature of our Father.
When we cultivate (or allow God’s Spirit to cultivate) these characteristics in our lives, we will not “fit it” with the world around us. We will stand out and stand apart. And that will make us targets for persecution, abuse, misunderstanding, insults, and false accusations. But we can be encouraged, not only because of the blessings Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, but in the reminder that we stand in very good company. We may not fit in at the office; we may be ostracized by our family; we may be targeted in our community– but we fit in with a host of prophets, apostles, saints, and with Christ Himself!