“It Is Finished!” Isn’t it?

Just before Jesus took His last breath on the cross, He called out, “It is finished!” Theology teaches us that His statement reflects the completion of His mission– to defeat the power of Sin and Death, and pay the redemption price for all who will call on His name. The ultimate victory has been declared; the ultimate battle won!

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The past two weeks, I have wanted to say, “It is Finished!”– as I struggle with a hundred different tasks that never seem to end. I missed my self-imposed deadline to publish a blog entry on Monday; I stared at a pile of extra dishes in my sink and a growing mountain of laundry as I added “extra” tasks to my weekly list. My work here is not finished; my mission is not complete.

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But Jesus’ words remind me– It IS finished! My “mission” is not to wash every dish, make every deadline, “fix” every small problem that arises, or answer every question. My mission is to follow Jesus. He didn’t heal every leper, end poverty, sweep away the armies of Rome, or even convince the Pharisees to repent. Because THAT wasn’t His ultimate mission.

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That does not give me an excuse not to do the dishes or try to make sure I post this by my next deadline. But it gives me Grace to keep going– not in my own strength or achievement, but in dependence on God’s power, timing, and mercy. His Grace is sufficient!

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This is true of our prayer life as well. God doesn’t “grade” us on each prayer, or each day’s efforts; rather, He waits, patiently and lovingly, to hear us call on Him and listen for His voice in return. The “judgment” has already been given–Jesus’ work on our behalf has been accepted and declared “complete.” His Kingdom has come; His will is being done, even if our prayers seem small or inadequate for the mission.

There are some tasks that we will never see “finished” during our lifetime or through our limited efforts. But we can work and pray heartily and confidently in the knowledge that we will see it “finished” in God’s perfect timing. And we can rejoice in the privilege of working toward that end– even our smallest efforts and weakest moments are woven into the story of Eternity!

Debt Free!

7“Blessed are those

    whose transgressions are forgiven,

    whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

    whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”

Romans 4:7-8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com (See also Psalm 32:1-2)

Ask me about my most embarrassing moment, or my greatest failure..better yet, ask one of my friends or relatives! We tend to hang on to our past, especially our mistakes, our hurts, our missed opportunities, and our shortcomings. When I taught public speaking in a local high school, I heard horror stories about why “I can’t get in front of people and talk.” The fear of public speaking rates higher in some studies than the fear of Death! And often, the fear is based on an incident from early childhood of people laughing at a small, but very public mistake. Such moments haunt us.

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As we grow older, we let our regrets live large– those things we “would have, should have, could have” done, or the things we shouldn’t have said, but can never un-say. And even if we try to move on or forget the past, there always seems to be someone who cannot let go, cannot forgive, or cannot forgive. Lives have been stunted and ruined by the ghosts of “what happened” when…

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God is all-knowing. There is nothing we’ve ever done, said, or even thought, that He “missed,” ignored, or “lost track of.” God has total recall over all the centuries and eons of time– past, present, and even future! And yet, God offers to forgive ALL our sins, and to “remember them no more.” God will never bring up “that time when you disappointed me…” God will never look at you with condemnation over anything you have confessed and repented over. It’s not that God will never be able to recall what happened; but He will no longer “charge it to your account.” He has chosen to pay the consequences in His own Blood, so that you can be debt free.

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Imagine if you had no bills. If all your mortgages, utility payments, credit card debt, medical bills–everything that you were responsible to pay– all were stamped “Paid in full.” You never had to worry about interest payments, late fees, repossession, evening phone calls from bill collectors, credit scores, etc. What a weight off your shoulders! Imagine if you had no reason to fear getting in front of a room full of people to speak or sing or give a presentation– no fear that others would judge your every hesitation, or whether your tie was straight, or your hair was mussed, or you stumbled over a word or phrase or tripped on the steps leading up to the podium. Imagine being accepted and embraced by the very one who, by rights, should be your most severe critic.

Sometimes, when we see God as our critic, our judge, or our opponent, we’re not seeing God as He really is– we’re seeing a reflection of ourselves– harsh, judgmental, unwilling to forgive others; unwilling to forgive ourselves. The very first deception of the Enemy was to distort God’s image from Creator and Sustainer to Judge and Tyrant. Yet Satan is called “The Accuser,” not God. God’s Holy Spirit may convict us of Sin– causing us to see that we have done wrong– but His purpose is always to correct and restore us, not to haunt and condemn us. Even the “worst” sins are not beyond God’s ability or willingness to forgive. Jesus forgave His accusers, His betrayers, and His executioners from the Cross!

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Forgiveness is not easy. Sin is real; it has real and terrible consequences. Sin hurts, humiliates, victimizes, and traumatizes. And its effects do not simply vanish if we say, “I forgive.” But hanging on to the pain and anger keeps us from finding and experiencing the healing and wholeness that Jesus offers. Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, or the pain, never happened– God will not “forget” injustice just because we forgive the unjust. Forgiveness means that we no longer need to try to collect the debt from someone else– because God has already promised to pay it back with interest! And forgiving yourself doesn’t mean that your past actions didn’t happen or didn’t cause pain. In fact, whenever there are opportunities to atone for past actions, or ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, we should take them. But where such opportunities are impossible for us, even when we cannot see how such pain could be redeemed or relationships restored, God has promised that we can move beyond our past mistakes and live a new , blessed, and debt-free life.

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When we approach God in prayer, we come as we are– people with past mistakes, very human emotions, including doubt and fear, and unworthy to stand on our own before a perfect God. But it is God who invites us to come to Him– debt free and embraced by His limitless Grace!

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A Miss is as Good as a Mile

I heard a phrase, an idiom, recently..one I hadn’t heard in many years: “I’m as good as dead.” It is an odd phrase, but English is filled with similarly odd sayings, like, “good as gold”, “good as finished”, or “a miss is as good as a mile.” “As good” in each case signifies being close to, or similar too, without being the same; nearly or akin to being. A child who is “good as gold” is one whose behavior is nearly faultless, whose actions and demeanor shine like gold. Someone who is “as good as dead” is someone who is either in very poor health or in dire trouble, and expects to die soon. “A miss is as good as a mile” refers to the idea that a miss, whether narrow or wide, is still a miss..an inch or a mile makes no difference. A puzzle of 1000 pieces, minus one, is still incomplete; missing one’s train by a minute or an hour still leaves one at the depot.

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In hearing this phrase, “as good as dead,” I was arrested by the juxtaposition of “good” and “dead.” There is nothing good about death or dying, yet we don’t say, “I’m as bad as dead.” We compare being close to anything as being “good as..”

I think there is an important spiritual and psychological reason. Deep in our soul, we have a desire to be “good.” To be whole, and righteous, and complete. And we also know that we are not whole; not really “good” as we now are. We long to be “as good as” our aspirations; as good as…God. We spend our lives comparing and measuring and striving to be better, and closer to His perfection. And sometimes, we feel comparatively “good.” Other times, our goodness only seems to measure up to failure and death. https://www.theidioms.com/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/

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But we cannot be “as good as dead” any more than we can be “as good as gold” or as good as God. Because “a miss is a good as a mile.” Being almost as good as God will never be enough to save us from the wages of sin, which is death. Being “almost dead” cannot separate us from God’s love, or His gift of everlasting life.

In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), there is a short story of a young man who struggles with this concept. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A17-27&version=NASB The young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In asking the question, the young man already reveals a certain lack of understanding. An inheritance is not something that can be earned; it is a gift that can only be received by an heir after someone’s death. It can be accepted or rejected, or divided between many heirs. There may be stipulations or conditions– and this may be what the young man meant to find out–but inheritance is determined by the giver, not the conditions of the person or persons expecting to receive an inheritance. Secondly, the man assumes that whatever is required, he can accomplish it easily. He expects, in fact, the beginning of the answer Jesus gives him. But Jesus doesn’t begin with the answer. He cuts directly to the heart of the question: “Why do you call me ‘Good?’ No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) At the heart of this man’s question is the desire to become “Good” like God– to earn eternal life– to be complete and whole through his own actions. This young man doesn’t want to be challenged. He wants to be justified, lauded, and congratulated on his own wisdom and performance. And Jesus starts by giving him the answer he expects. He lists several commandments– five things NOT to do, and one general principle (honor your parents). One can almost hear the sigh of relief from the young man. “I’m as good as guaranteed to get into heaven!”

But that’s when Jesus speaks again. He doesn’t offer a lengthy list of impossible feats; no pilgrimages or vows of silence, no special diets (not even a reminder to follow the Jewish dietary restrictions), no pledge to give more money to the Temple, or lead a rebellion against the Romans. Instead, He gives a single challenge– sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven– followed by an offer to follow Him.

Jesus did not offer this challenge as a kind of “gotcha” to the man’s initial question. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus felt a love for him as He responded, and a great sadness when the man walked away. But “a miss is a good as a mile.” The young man wanted to know what he could do to be (or if what he had already done was) “good enough” to inherit eternal life. He had done all the things he expected would be enough. He had compared his life and actions with others around him. But he had missed the heart of the matter– inheritance. When he walked away, he was depressed and discouraged– “as good as dead.” Not because there was no way for him to have eternal life, but because he could not hit the target; he could not do the one thing Jesus asked of him, and he could not trust Jesus enough to “follow” the “good” teacher.

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The disciples, too, missed the point at first. Jesus had not given the young ruler a simple task in earthly terms. But it wasn’t the action that was difficult; it was the heart attitude. The young man wanted– he wanted the respect of the “good” teacher (not a relationship with Him), the acclaim of all those surrounding him, the honor and prestige his wealth had brought him, AND eternal life– because he was “as good as perfect” in his own eyes. He did not want eternal life more than any of these other things, but in addition to all of them, and by his own efforts.

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Lord, forgive me for the times that I have wanted to earn eternal life for myself. Help me to seek you with all my heart, so that I may not miss the blessings you have for me by even the narrowest margin. And thank you, thank you(!) that in those times when I do stray and miss the point, I am not “as good as dead”, but you are always gracious and loving in showing me how to “follow you” and live!

Hannah and the Priests

The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is filled with priests. Her husband, Elkanah, is of the priestly class, and regularly goes to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Chapter one quickly mentions Hophni and Phinehas who were the resident priests there. And of course, there is Eli, their father, the High Priest at that time. Hannah has access to counselors, spiritual guidance, and men whose ancestral calling is to bring people closer to God. Yet none of them can bring Hannah out of her anguish and offer comfort.

Hophni and Phinehas are noticeably absent in this story. The mention of their names calls attention to this absence. They were supposed to be the acting priests, but they don’t interact in any way with the grieving Hannah, or her husband, Elkanah. Further reading reveals that they were very wicked and due to be judged for abusing their priestly role. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A12-36&version=NIV

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Eli himself is an indifferent priest. The first mention of him is as the father of the wicked Hophni and Phinehas. Next, we find him sitting in a chair at the doorstep of the tabernacle. He is not serving; he is not overseeing; he is not doing anything. When he first observes Hannah, he jumps to a wrong and judgmental conclusion– that she is drunk and raving. He doesn’t go over to see if he’s right in his assumption. In fact, there is no mention in the passage that he ever rises from his chair.
We might gloss over this passage, without grasping the importance of this detail. Nowhere in the long lists of a priest’s duties was there an option of sitting at the door and just watching people go in and out. The priests all had duties– some were in charge of the sacrifice (as Elkanah sometimes was). Others were in charge of the lamps, the incense, the care of the utensils and tools, offering prayers, singing, playing instruments, reading from the books of the law, and keeping the tabernacle clean and in good repair. None of them required sitting. Eli isn’t busy doing the work of the Lord; he is literally sitting down on the job.
In short, Eli is not a spiritual giant– he offers a standard blessing after Hannah pleads her case for not being a drunken disturber of the peace, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of true comfort or counseling. His first words to her are to “Go in peace.” The blessing seems to be almost an afterthought. Still, Hannah goes away encouraged, and comes back the next day to worship before returning home.

What can we learn from this encounter and these details in Hannah’s story?

One possible reaction is to become critical and dismissive of the clergy. I think this is the wrong reaction, but I want to address it in this context, because it can keep us from finding help and blessing if we let it. I know countless people who have walked away from the church because of one disappointing encounter with a minister, pastor’s wife, deacon, or fellow parishioner. Eli was not a stellar example of Israel’s priesthood; he was a flawed human. He had rebellious sons, and was likely depressed or anguished over his own troubles. Yet, he was still faithful to turn Hannah’s attention to the One who is always able to bring comfort and strength. Hannah could have chosen to focus on his rude and judgmental assumption about her, but she chose to focus on the hope he was able to offer.
I have gotten dismissive, even bad, advice from people in the church. I have been hurt, judged, and ignored by those who are supposed to be serving God. But just as God provides grace to cover our own failures and mis-steps, He asks us to extend forgiveness and grace to those–even those who serve Him.*

Having said that, I think there is a warning here for those who serve the Lord. Eli ends his days in tragic fashion, his family legacy in ruins, because of some of the details we glimpse even in this short passage about Hannah. Eventually, her son, Samuel, will be tasked with the job of delivering the fullness of God’s judgment against Eli and his sons. Eli’s priesthood was not a cushy position of sitting at the door of God’s tabernacle enjoying an afternoon breeze. He was in charge of setting the tone of reverence and worship for the nation. His sons were corrupt; everyone knew it, including Eli, but nothing was done about it. He sat there, and let evil happen around him.
Church workers, pastors, and priests who do evil and abuse their positions may get away with it for awhile, but God will not hold them guiltless. Nor will he hold those guiltless who cover up or deny the guilt of those around them. No matter how high the position, no matter how much “good” they have done, unless they repent of their actions, they will face God’s wrath over their evil acts.

Finally, we need to see Hannah’s response. Regardless of how evil the sons of Eli were, or how spineless Eli was as a parent and a High Priest, Hannah found faith– not in the priests– but in the God they served. She had seen the dedication of her husband, Elkanah. He served God with reverence, and he served his family with love and honor. She saw that Eli, even sitting down on the job, was still aware that hope and healing come from the Almighty.

Hannah’s response to Eli, and the God he served so imperfectly, deserves another look– one we will take in the next post.

I pray that today, we will be grateful to God for the faithful servants he sends into our lives, and for his grace when we or others “sit down” on the job of serving others and showing Him the reverence He deserves.

What Might Have Been…

One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.

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Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date.  It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well.  But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.

Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey.  George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life.  His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear.  While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father.  He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the  “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter.  Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough.  The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll.  When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates.  After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown.  In desperation, he prays.  It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst.  It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”

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What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him.  We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers.  And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George.  But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.

Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer.  He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab.  Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at.  Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.

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While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view.  Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive.  But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.

 

And so it is with our lives–all the “might have been”s and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness.  And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”

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There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.”  George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s.  But George’s choices, while “right” were not  in his own immediate best interest.  What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life.  What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices!  God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life.  But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment.  George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.”  But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.*

God answered George’s prayer.  And He answered the prayers of his friends and family.  But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect.  In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw.  But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself.  God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000.  He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful.  But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”

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  • For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort  and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death.  God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine.  Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..

 

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