What Costs Me Nothing…

We’re coming up to Thanksgiving in the U.S. next week. Many families will sit down to sumptuous meals–turkey with dressing/stuffing (depending on what region you live in), pumpkin pies, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, rolls or muffins, salads, mac and cheese, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and more. Some will settle in front of big screen televisions to watch American football, and parades crowded with giant balloons and marching bands. Some will have modest gatherings with family and friends.

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And the following day– Black Friday– they will rush to malls and giant box stores to take advantage of the spectacular sales. People will buy hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts, all with the satisfaction that they might have spent a lot more if they had not braved the crowds and the 4 a.m. opening times (some will begin shopping on Thanksgiving Day for the “head start.” Others will stay comfortably and safely indoors and spend their money shopping on-line).

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All of this costs money, of course. But for many Americans, it is not a real pinch to celebrate Thanksgiving. And we will say “Thanks,” and count our many blessings. We will also give. Charities and organizations are already taking donations. We can give $10 at the store to help buy meals for the hungry. We can buy small gifts to be sent overseas or to be given to the children of those in prison, or those who are homeless. We can buy coats (or hats or mittens, etc.) for those who have none. These efforts cost some money, too.

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But how much of these efforts comes from true “thankfulness” and how much from other sources– pride or guilt or a sense of duty? For what am I truly grateful at Thanksgiving? Thankful that I have so much? Thankful that I have the power to help others? Thankful that I have the day off to go shopping?

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It is easy for some of us to be thankful and generous–in our own eyes. I can give with the click of a button, and money I barely know I have is taken from my bank account and deposited in the account of a charity I may know very little about. I never have to see the people who are helped, and I never have to see what they have suffered or how my gift makes a difference. In fact, I don’t really have to see whether my gift even arrives where I imagine or does what the charity has promised. Some organizations are more transparent than others, and more reputable or honest than others, but I can feel good just by giving. In some cases, I can “make a difference” without any cost at all– just “like” a certain site, or fill out a survey. I can “give” without even giving!

In recent years, however, I have been surprised by those who have tried to make me feel bad about giving. They are not angry because I have not given, or have given very little, or given to dishonest charities. No. One lady was outraged that I should give to an organization that sends toys, hygiene items, and school supplies to needy children in countries around the world. What caused her outrage? Three things–the toys were “too American”–the instructions were printed in English, or they were “frivolous” toys like jump ropes and “matchbox” sized cars and trucks. Also, some of the boxes and wrapping were printed with cartoon-like children, which she felt were “racist” in their depiction. Finally, the spokesperson for the organization had been portrayed by the media as narrow-minded and “hateful” toward the issue of gay marriage. Her solution: she was never going to give to such an organization. She was urging people to give to groups that were providing livestock, instead. Here, she felt, was a useful gift. Chickens, goats, cows–these were gifts that would truly make a difference. And such gifts can and do make a difference– in rural areas, where there is space and enough grass or other food to sustain such animals. Her gift will have little impact on a child living in Nairobi, or Tegucigalpa, or Kosovo. I am glad she has the means and the desire to give and to help. And the organizations who provide such gifts are worthy–I mean no disrespect to any of them. But giving should be a joyous outpouring of love and thankfulness, of compassion and humility. If that means helping a rural community get milk and meat, that’s wonderful. If it means sending a stuffed animal, some silly socks, and some soap and washcloths to Lebanon, that’s great, too. Even if I don’t like the wrapping paper…

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My point is that a lot of our “giving” has become more about virtue signaling than joyously sharing with others to meet their needs. It costs a lot more in money to send a goat to Peru. But it may cost a lot more in time and energy to spend a day serving meals at a homeless shelter, or volunteer to rebuild in a community hit by a tornado or hurricane. And even though there may be a monetary cost to some of our gifts, in some ways, our “giving” costs us nothing. Not just little or nothing in dollars and cents, but little in emotion or thought or effort. There is nothing personal, or heartfelt, or sacrificial about some of our giving.

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And if that is true of our giving to strangers, what does that say about what we “give” to our families, our neighbors, and to God?

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During the reign of King David, there are many instances of celebration and thanksgiving. But there are also stories of heartbreak, loss, and repentance. In one of these incidents, King David angered God by taking a census. His conscience caused him to ask God’s forgiveness and ask what could be done to take away the guilt. God sent the prophet Gad to give David three choices, but David left it in God’s hands. God sent a vicious plague that swept toward Jerusalem. When the angel of death reached the threshing floor of a man named Araunah the Jebusite, God told him to stop. David could actually see where God had stopped the plague, and immediately went to buy the threshing floor, so he could build an alter and sacrifice to the Lord in repentance and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy.

Read more about the story of David in 2 Samuel 24
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King David had plenty of money. He also had authority, and the respect of his people. Araunah offered to give David not only the field, but the oxen to make the sacrifice. As the king, David could have taken the land and oxen– he could even have demanded them of Araunah. But David paid for it all, saying that he would not give to God that which had cost him nothing.

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In this season of giving, it can be tempting to measure the value of our gift by the monetary cost, or by the value WE receive from giving. But true giving should involve a willing and joyful sacrifice of our pride and our time. Sometimes, this may mean NOT giving a toy or a goat–it may mean giving an apology, or a second chance, or being willing to give up a turkey dinner or a shopping trip, in order to visit a shut-in, or spend some much needed time on our knees.

Having said that, there are plenty of things we can give that cost us “nothing”–smiles, a warm welcome, a listening ear, reaching out for reconciliation, and most of all, a heart-felt “Thank You.” Sometimes, these gestures cost us nothing– sometimes, they are a sacrifice. But they are gifts that really make a difference.

The Work is “Donne”

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do them still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Sun
Shall sine as it shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I have no more.

A Hymn to God the Father John Donne, 1623
John Donne

I enjoy studying the poetry of John Donne. https://www.biography.com/writer/john-donne Even though he lived 400 years ago, he wrote about very timeless and personal topics. Donne lived during a time of religious tumult and persecution. Born into a Catholic family, he later converted to Anglicanism and became a powerful preacher, as well as a poet, and lawyer. Throughout his life, he wrestled with deep theological questions of sin, guilt, redemption, and death. Yet he did so with wit, humor, and passion. The poem above, written during a long illness and near the end of his life, is filled with puns on his last name, Donne. Would God’s redemptive work ever be “done” in “Donne?” He struggles with the knowledge that his sins, having been forgiven, must be forgiven again and again. Does God never say, “Enough! I am done!?” What about stubborn sinful habits? What about sins that have led others to sin? What about last-minute, unconfessed sins?

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The real question is, “How sufficient is God’s Grace?” Does God sprinkle out Grace sparingly on each sinful act, or does Christ’s blood cover All? Do our stubborn, habitual acts of rebellion pile up to a point where God cannot forgive? Having forgiven us once, twice, seventy times seven– is there a limit to His willingness to pour out Mercy? Theologically, the Bible is clear. The answer is a resounding, “NO.” God will not withhold His Grace from those who have sought it. God will never be “Done” with “Donne.” Nor will He be “done” with any of us who have chosen to follow Him. But in his all-too-human logic, Donne jokingly suggests that though God “hast” done/Donne, He “hast not” done/Donne. In other words, while Donne “belongs” to God– he has confessed his sins, and eagerly seeks to follow Christ, he still wrestles with fears that his small sinful acts prove that God does not fully “have” him– that He still lives separated from God.

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But the final sin of the poem is fear– fear that somehow, at the last, Death will prevail, and Donne will “perish on the shore,” rather than be taken into Heaven. He pleads that Christ’s blood (“Thy Sun/Son”) will be sufficient; that God’s promise of eternal life will indeed hold true, and that the work of salvation is indeed “done.” In the end, the poet hopes that “Thou hast Donne.” And he must trust that God’s promises will hold, for “I have no more.” Donne cannot stop death, he cannot do anything to save himself from sin, but he can be “done” with worry and trust in “Thy Sun/Son.”

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I am strangely encouraged by Donne’s poem. We all have moments of questioning and niggling doubts. And even though we “Know” the truth, our fears and emotions can play tricks on our mind. But Donne, even while putting such doubts and fears on paper, takes them to the Source of Hope. This is not a poem of accusation or despair. It is an honest and passionate desire to hear God’s calm assurance. And it is part of a long tradition that runs through the Bible. Jacob literally wrestled with an angel of the Lord (Gensis 32), Moses argued with God about going back to Egypt (Exodus 4), David questioned God (Psalm 10); even Jesus asked God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27). But in our doubts and questions, God’s still, small voice echoes, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).

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God’s work is ongoing, but it is also “done”– it is complete, whole, sufficient, and eternal. And even if we occasionally wonder and even question, we can choose to rest in His promises. Just as the poet concluded, if God “hast” done/Donne, “I have no more”– he needed to have no other fear of sin or sin of fear. And through Donne’s poetry, God’s assurance is being passed on– the work continues to be “Donne!”

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Face to Face

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The other day, someone complained that she couldn’t “hear” me because we were both wearing face masks, due to COVID restrictions at the doctor’s office. I remarked that the masks didn’t cover her ears, but I know what she meant. Not only did the mask cover my mouth, which limited my volume, but, more importantly, it covered the lower half of my face, so that she couldn’t see my lips or read my facial expressions. Nor could I see hers. It is terribly frustrating to be sitting half-face-to-half-face!

Effective communication is up to 90% non-verbal! That means facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, etc.. When we cannot see fully “face-to-face” we lose a lot of our ability to understand and interpret what someone else is saying– even if we can hear the words.

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The same is true in communication by phone or social media. Someone can read my words or listen to me talk, and still be confused about my meaning. Am I being serious or sarcastic? Am I fully engaged, or just “throwing out” words? How can I know if someone has understood what I’ve said or written?

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We crave the intimacy of “real” communication– talking and being “heard;” listening and being engaged with another person’s thoughts and feelings. Knowing that someone else understands and sympathizes. Someday, our human limitations will be removed. The Apostle Paul writes about it this way:

12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)
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The Apostle John also comments:

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

1 John 3:2 (NKJV)
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What an amazing promise! The next time you are having a “face-to-face” conversation with a friend, imagine what it will be like to be able to talk and share that kind of intimacy with God! And then, when you pray, remember that God ALREADY sees and hears you with perfect clarity and understanding!

There is a flip side to this, however. Imagine that your thoughts and “hidden” comments are also uncovered and known by all. One of the dangers of living in a digital, global age is that we feel free to post our immediate thoughts and feelings without regard to how they may be received and interpreted. We post things and say things that we might never say “face-to-face.” We spew out indignation, sarcasm, arrogance, snide criticism, and offense, assuming that others will admire our cleverness or our virtue, rather than seeing our selfish conceit and our rush to judgment. We spill out all the supposed “wrongs” done to us, but we excuse our own wrongs and failings– even brag about them.

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Someday, we will see how very hurtful, selfish, and short-sighted we have been– and so will everyone else. This will shock or embarrass many of us, but God will not be surprised or upset– He has already known the worst about us. And He still listens to us and speaks words of compassion that we often ignore or dismiss. Someday we will not only hear the words, but see the compassion, love, and mercy in His eyes as they meet ours.

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That’s the image I want to take into prayer today– and every day. Even though I can’t see it today, it is already eternal reality!

“What Must I Do?”

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 

Luke 18:18-27 ESV via biblegateway.com

I love that Jesus didn’t just give pithy answers to questions, but often went in roundabout ways to explore the motives behind them. I also love how He would use others’ questions, mixed with parables, metaphors, or other figurative language to stimulate further thought. And His parables and word pictures, while short and simple, have layers of meaning that cause us to ponder deeper issues.

The “Rich Young Ruler” in the above story came to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question, Jesus seems to get distracted by the young man’s greeting. “Why do you call me ‘Good?'” Did the young man really think that Jesus was better, or wiser, or more righteous than the religious leaders of the day? Or was he trying to flatter Jesus? Or did he think that Jesus would see him as an equal (or even superior) when he found out how righteous the ruler was? Jesus got to the heart of the greeting– “No one is good except God alone.” And therein lies the true answer to the ruler’s question, as well. There is nothing anyone can do to be “Good” enough to inherit eternal life.

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Jesus could have said this, but would the young ruler have accepted this answer? Probably not. His question betrays an assumption that he WAS good enough– that he had already done all that was required and that Jesus would surely be impressed and announce to the crowd that here was an example of someone who was worthy of eternal life. Instead, Jesus led the man through his pride by naming a few of the commandments– the very ones the ruler was so sure of. Indeed, this seemed to be exactly what the ruler was hoping to hear– proof that he had “passed the test.” Ironically, he was addressing Jesus as “Good teacher, ” but seemed to miss that fact that he was also addressing the only One who is truly Good! Jesus–God in the flesh — the very one whose death would guarantee that anyone would “inherit” eternal life. This young ruler doesn’t want Jesus to be his “Lord” and “Savior,” he just wants Jesus’s opinion.

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But then, Jesus pulled the rug out from under this man’s assumptions. “One thing you still lack.” One thing…I’m sure the young ruler thought it would be a fine point in the laws or traditions he know so well– some minor point that could be cleared up with a gift or a small offering. I find this a fascinating statement, because it is followed by “sell all you have and distribute to the poor…” It seems like such an oxymoronic statement. You lack one thing, therefore, you must give away all that you have. How is that possible? Because the “one thing” the rich man lacked was not an object; not something he could check off a list of “things I can do to impress the religious leaders.” This man lacked humility; he lacked a self-awareness of his own need. And he lacked the understanding of what it means to “inherit” eternal life. No one “earns” an inheritance. Even someone who is rewarded with an inheritance must trust in the goodwill of the person writing the will, and will only inherit under the terms of the will. Jesus’s “terms” were not that the man had to become destitute or spend the rest of this life as a beggar. But faced with the choice of his comfortable life in the here and now, or eternal and abundant life in heaven on God’s terms, this man chose earthly wealth and spiritual poverty.

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Almost lost at the end of Jesus’s surprising answer are the last two phrases, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This man wanted eternal life as an extension of his comfortable life on earth. He did NOT want eternal life enough to sacrifice his present comforts or his preconceived notions of “goodness.” He did not want to follow Christ– he only wanted to consult with Him.

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I find it uncomfortable to hear about the young ruler’s rejection of Christ. I understand the initial shock of the disciples as Jesus uses the illustration of a camel going through the eye of a needle to compare with a “rich” person coming into the kingdom of God. Wasn’t Abraham wealthy? Wasn’t Solomon rich? What about King David? If riches make it impossible to follow Christ, who can gain eternal life? Thankfully, Jesus redirects the focus– it’s not about the riches; and it’s not about what we “do”– it is God’s “Good” pleasure to give eternal life to those who choose to “follow” Him.

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“Good Teacher and Lord, help me to remember this lesson as I come before you in prayer. You have not asked me to ‘earn’ my inheritance. It is your gift to answer my prayers as you see fit; to be the Lord of my life; to be merciful and gracious to me; to prepare a place for me to live with You for eternity. What you ask of me is that I ‘follow’ you– that I listen to your call; that I accept Your “terms” of inheritance; that I share Your Grace and Mercy with those around me.”

The Ones Jesus Didn’t “Save”

“For God so loved the World, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.”

John 3:16 (KJV)
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This is probably the most well-known verse in the Christian Bible. It has given hope to millions, as it explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ allows anyone to find forgiveness, faith, and new/eternal life. But what about those who don’t believe; those loved ones (and others) who die without the hope of salvation? Doesn’t God care about them? Why does he let them die without hope? Why do they go to eternal suffering, instead of being forgiven?

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I can’t give a complete answer to those questions…I don’t comprehend the entirety of God’s plan or His mind. But I do know this– God understands our heartbreak and our grief over our unsaved loved ones. After all, Jesus spent three years preaching and announcing the Gospel, yet He was betrayed by one of His closest friends. Jesus– God in the Flesh; Emmanuel; the Perfect Son of God–didn’t “save” everyone He knew. We have the wonderful story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus– what about others who didn’t “see the light?” There may have been hundreds, even thousands who heard Jesus preach; who watched Him hanging on the Cross; who heard the rumors that He had risen, only to reject His message–what about them? Jesus had met them. Maybe He had healed them, or eaten at their house, or studied with them at the Temple when they were younger. Some may have been His brothers, or cousins, or mentors and teachers.

On the night before He was crucified, Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish about what He would have to face, but some of His anguish and grief had to be in knowing that, while His death and resurrection would save so many, there were still others who would choose to turn away and reject the Life and Hope and Peace that He suffered to bring.

Even during His ministry, Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was diseased or lame or blind. He even made reference at one point to the kinds of disasters that often leave us questioning God’s mercy:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

Jesus could have “saved” those Galileans from having their sacrifices desecrated; He could have provided a miracle to save those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam. And just as we grieve today for the senseless loss of life in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, or New York City on 9/11/2001, Jesus felt the loss of innocent strangers. Just as we plead with friends and loved ones to repent and seek God’s face, Jesus preached the need for all people to confess and seek forgiveness.

Jesus could have forced Judas to turn from his plan to betray the Master. He had the authority to cast out demons and demand that angels come to honor, protect, or comfort Him. He has the authority to make every knee bow down and every tongue confess that He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. And someday, He will! But Jesus won’t save people against their will– even those close to him. He doesn’t compel grudging obedience, or demand abject servitude. There are some who choose to serve Him in that way, but that is not His desire. Instead, He compels us with His mercy. We choose to love Him because He first Loved us– sacrificially, unreservedly, without limits or conditions. (See 1 John 4:19)

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Jesus patiently spoke to Nicodemus in the dead of night. He chased Saul down on the road to Damascus and gave him three days of blindness to reconsider the direction of his life. He called His disciples and asked them to Follow Him– even Judas. He invited Himself to the house of Zacchaeus. He spoke with compassion to those who were broken, and outcast, and lost. And just like Judas, they had to make choices– some of His friends and followers abandoned Him when He needed them most. Some of them stumbled. But they HAD followed Jesus. They had learned from Him, and they came back and persevered.

Being loved by God comes without conditions and without reservations. Being “saved” by Christ’s atoning blood comes with a price–not just the price He paid on the cross, but the price of our repentance and acceptance of His Lordship, and yes, even the mysteries of His Grace.

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As Jesus hung on the Cross, He was positioned between two convicts who were justly condemned. Both were sinners; both were paying the penalty for their crimes. One cried out to a dying Savior, and was saved. The other mocked and cursed. Jesus had the power to save him. He did not desire that the other man should suffer. But the other man chose to reject who Jesus was, and so rejected all the mercy and power He could have shown.

Jesus died to save “whosoever” would believe. He did not die to save “howsoever.” We may not fully understand why He chose to offer Salvation in this way, but we believe it to our everlasting joy, or reject it to our everlasting anguish.

Fitting In

(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):

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
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.

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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.

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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!
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  • 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!
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  • 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.
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  • 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!

Nothing But the Blood

As I write this, it is still Sunday evening. This morning, we sang a classic hymn at church– “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” It’s an old hymn, and familiar; we often sing such hymns on auto-pilot and without really thinking of the wonderful words and truths coming out of our throats.

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“What can wash away my sin?– Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” “What can make me whole again?–Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” When I come to God in prayer, confessing my sins, it is not my prayer that makes me clean. Nothing I can say or do will give me right standing before God. I am a sinner, and I fall short of God’s glory. I also trespass against His holiness, and even His mercy. I am guilty, and there is no “magic” prayer that will heal me or exonerate me.

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Yet I come before a Holy God and make my confession. Not because He doesn’t know that I have sinned. Not because my words will save me. I come because I know that the Blood of Jesus Christ has, and will make me whole and justified. I have no need to hide the truth of my condition, or try to make my own justification or sanctification. Christ has done it all.

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Prayers of confession are not for God’s benefit, but for ours. To hide our guilt, or to excuse it, is to despise God’s amazing gift of Grace. When we confess to God, it is not because He wants to humiliate us or cause us additional guilt– though this is often the lie we tell ourselves. God is eager to remove our guilt and to guide us in His righteous ways. But He will not save us against our own will or without our permission. He will not conspire with us to hide our secret sins, or pass the blame on to someone else. To do so would be to submit to OUR will. WE are NOT God, though we sometimes act as though our ways are better than His.

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I’m so glad that God is God– that His ways are perfect, and that I can trust Him completely. Even when I fall short, I can trust that God has already paid the price to make things right– something I could never do, and something I find too wonderful to fully comprehend.

Nothing but the blood can save me. And anything other than the blood will fail to set me free. My prayers of confession– no matter how polished or pious or piteous– cannot unlock the mystery of salvation and restoration. But they acknowledge the marvelous reality that it IS FINISHED! God’s Grace is sufficient! Hallelujah!

The Greatest Commandment

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a familiar Bible passage, and one that Jesus quotes from the ancient writings (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus). All the laws and regulations of history boiled down to two commands. And they are not what one might expect. The greatest commandment isn’t to believe; it isn’t a “shalt not”; it isn’t even to “obey.” Instead, the greatest commandment is to LOVE– love God wholly and without reserve, and love your neighbor “as yourself.”

It sounds so simple, but we don’t do it. In fact, we spend countless hours and waste energy trying to make the commandments MORE complicated and adding conditions, additions, interpretations, excuses, and critiques.

There is not enough time or space to list all the ways we try to avoid the greatest commandment, but here are a few I struggle with:

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  • My heart–I love the Lord, but I don’t always love Him with my whole heart. I love His creation; I love His promises; I love the “idea” of God. But I also love my comfort zone; I love my own moods (especially happiness and self-esteem); I love the admiration of my peers; I love God, but…I don’t always pray to God the way I would talk to my best friend. I don’t seek Him out ahead of everyone else. I don’t always seek His correction or welcome His Lordship.
  • My soul–Most of us would claim that we are “spiritual” on some level. But many of us (including me) don’t do a very good job of tending to our souls. We assume that behaviors and habits and a list of beliefs are “enough.” We spend very little time in prayer, worship, and Bible study (compared to the time we spend on chores, sleep, entertainment, driving around, daydreaming, etc.). I’m not suggesting that we all need to go into a cloister (especially in light of the second great commandment to love our neighbor). But souls, like bodies and minds, need to be nourished, exercised, and cared for. Very few of us make it a priority to nourish our soul-connection with God–to Love Him with all our soul. We skim over this part of the commandment, assuming it is much the same as loving Him with all our heart or all our mind.
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  • My mind– My mind wanders– a lot! And I spend a lot of time learning “about God,” instead of learning “from God.” I want to know what God is like– to be able to explain Him or comprehend Him. But God is bigger than my ability to “know” or even to imagine. And yet, He invites me to “know” Him, not just know about Him. In fact, He invites me to “follow” Him, to be His disciple, to model my character and my thoughts after His own.
  • My neighbor–I want to love humanity. I want to love “everybody”– from a comfortable distance! But God calls me to love my neighbor– that person who cuts in front of me at the grocery store, or revs their car engine outside my bedroom window at 3 in the morning, or laughs at me when I’m having a bad hair day. And not just “love” them in the sense of tolerating them– God wants me to love them “as myself.” To value them, reach out to them when I might rather avoid them, or seek peace when they are “pushing my buttons.” God wants me to offer them grace and forgiveness, when I might expect to demand justice or recognition.
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  • “As Myself”–Sometimes, I don’t love myself. Sometimes, I idolize myself. Other times, I despise myself. And the attitude I have rubs off on to others. God doesn’t call me to idolize my neighbor; to lie to my neighbor about Sin and its consequences, or to let my neighbor’s wicked behavior go unchallenged. Just as God wants to call me to repentance, He wants me to lovingly reach out to my neighbor, not enable her/him to live a lie. But if I am living a lie–not dealing with my own sin– I cannot demand from my neighbor what I am not willing to give to God. Similarly, I can’t give honest love to my neighbor when I despise myself– God created us both and loves us with an everlasting love! How can I give love I am not willing to receive?
  • My understanding of “commandment.” God has the authority to command my attention, my obedience, my worship, and my loyalty. But my “love?” God has given us the CHOICE to Love Him, and to Love others– He also gives us the imperative to live our lives filled with Love. It is not God’s will that we Love out of coercion, robot-like and against our own free will. Rather, God commands us to submit our will to Love in every situation. We are slaves to Sin, powerless to love perfectly–even when we try, or think we are doing well, we will fall into faulty thinking, ungoverned emotions, and uninformed, unloving reactions. We WILL break this greatest commandment, just as we will break other, lesser commandments. But God has also promised to listen to our confession and forgive us, redeeming our soul, cleansing our heart, and renewing our mind as we follow Him. God does not command us to Love perfectly in our own power. He does command us to choose Love–first and foremost for Him, and then for those around us whom He loves. In so doing, we will grow to understand the power of God’s commands as we experience the power of His Love!
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“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!

Presumptuous Prayers

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
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“Father, help my neighbor see her sin. Change her heart, Lord Jesus.”

“Heavenly Father, I know it is not your will that I face this diagnosis of cancer. Help the doctors to see their mistake.”

“God, this job opening is a perfect opportunity– I claim this job in Your Name.”

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I’m not saying that the above examples are all about presumption, especially taken out of context, but I think it is easy to fall into a dangerous habit of thinking that our will must also be God’s will, and not the other way around. What if God is waiting for me to reach out in Love to my “sinful” neighbor? What if it is MY heart that needs to be changed? What if God’s plan for my life includes cancer– or a miraculous healing from it? What if my response to cancer is an opportunity to show God’s peace? What if God has a better job, or better timing for that job?

I actually had that experience. When I was first out of college, I applied for many teaching positions– nothing was open the first year, and I ended up working at a public relations firm as a proofreader. I was laid off nine months later– just in time to apply for teaching positions again. The “perfect” job came up at my old high school, where they needed an English teacher. I interviewed well, and thought I had the job. But they went with a teacher who had more experience. So I signed up to do substitute work– not what I wanted, but it paid for my room and board, and not much else. It was late January when I got the call. The other teacher had been chronically ill, and they needed me to “substitute” for the rest of the year, with a possibility of a contract the next year. When I arrived, the classes were in chaos. The students were unruly and way behind in their studies. It wasn’t the “perfect” job– it was difficult. But I prayed– agonizing, humbling, needy prayers. I stayed at that position another seven years. Any I prayed through every day. But what if I had gotten the job at the first try? Would my prayers have been as pure, or would they have been laced with presumption?

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I pray every day. I read God’s word every day. But I am in need– every day– of God’s mercy, His wisdom, and His Holy Spirit to guide my thoughts. Too often, I presume when I pray– that God will do what I want, that He will see things from my perspective, that He will not ask me to go through hardship or disappointment, or pain.

Our prayers don’t need to be as arrogant as that of the Pharisee in this parable to hold certain prideful presumptions.

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“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner! Give me strength to face the day ahead, grace to share Your Love with those around me, and eyes to see Your hands at work. Thank you for Your salvation, for Your promises, and for Your faithfulness. Amen.”

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