How Will I Answer?

hearts

I learned early in life that things aren’t always what they first seem. What looked to six-year-old me like a murder in the making, turned out to be nothing nearly so nefarious. After tearful consultation with my mother about a possible rescue mission, I learned from her that momma cats aren’t trying to kill their kittens when they pick them up by the neck, crying and mewing, and carry them off to an undisclosed location. (Life on a farm can get complex pretty fast!)

In my last entry on grace, I talked about how Isaiah witnessed the holiness and power of the Lord and immediately assumed the worst: “Woe is me!” Isaiah feared for his life when he realized how unworthy he was to approach the King in such a sinful state; instead of using his power to punish, though, God chose to forgive. Through the redemptive powers of God’s loving grace, Isaiah became “holy and blameless” in the eyes of God. Not quite the death sentence Isaiah had first expected.

In the opening doxology of Ephesians, Paul reminds his Jewish listeners of this ancient call, but he doesn’t stop there:  “In [God] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will… In [God] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…” (Eph. 1:11-13).

Paul says the Lord has called EVERYONE – Jew and Gentile – back to him. Because of God’s lavish grace, all who believe may live in the presence of God as a part of the Church, Christ’s body, of which Jesus is the head (Eph. 1:22-23). The question, I think, for the universal Church today is this:  How will we answer God’s call?

Paul’s doxology – a listing of God’s spiritual blessings, one cascading into the next, three times acclaiming “to the praise of his glory” – leads one to ask… How can we possibly accept such gifts from God and not respond with the same zeal as Paul? No longer are we separated from our Maker. God calls us! Through no action of our own, but by grace alone, God has redeemed us! God has adopted us! God has united us in Christ!

What looked like unavoidable death, is now eternal life.

So how do we respond?  To start with, I believe the Church should fall on our corporate knees in gratitude for the grace of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the bonding together with every other Christian in Christ, and work to strengthen the entire body through our individual voice, enthusiasm, and action.

Theologian Karl Barth writes, “Grace is not a state of being; peace is not a commodity to possess. Both are gifts we receive over and over again.” In other words, grace and peace aren’t static. They’re dynamic, constantly being given to us by God as we need them. Every day (maybe even multiple times a day!), God calls me and says, “It’s okay. I’ve got you,” and I wonder… how have I been answering him? Have I answered with love? Have I answered in ways that strengthen the body of Christ?

God calls. He always has, does, and will.

How will I answer?

God’s Loving Grace

gardenglow

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1:1-2)

Grace. Paul begins and ends every letter he wrote with talk of God’s grace. It is the foundation of everything else included in his theology. I wonder if we really grasp the significance and meaning of grace. As a student of the revered Jewish Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), young Paul learned early on what God’s grace had meant to the Old Testament fathers.

When we first acknowledge our belief in God, we ‘feel’ our sin as guilt. If we’re not careful, we can become stuck in this feeling of unworthiness. God provides us with the gift of grace to keep us moving forward in our faith. In Isaiah 6, the prophet has a vision of the Lord “sitting high upon a throne,” surrounded by seraphim, his voice shaking the foundations. But Isaiah’s first words aren’t spoken in awe. Rather, the guilt of his sinfulness in the presence of God’s holiness, leads Isaiah to speak out of fear:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5)

Then the unexpected happens, for God doesn’t strike Isaiah down out of anger because of his sins, as Isaiah fears God might do. Instead, God meets Isaiah’s fear with grace. In a moment, God removes Isaiah’s guilt, declares his sin atoned for, and sends him out as his personal messenger to Israel – a job that Isaiah now feels worthy enough to volunteer for!

Let that sink in: God has the power – and desire – to return us to a state of holiness so that we may come into his loving presence without fear. No longer will sin and guilt be wedged between God and his creation. Keep in mind, we don’t deserve this second chance. We don’t deserve new birth. We don’t deserve new life.

But just like he did for Isaiah, God gives us grace anyway.

Paul wasn’t aware of this truth only from his scripture lessons as a young boy, though. Paul could speak of God’s miraculous grace from first-hand knowledge. At one time, Paul (known also by his Jewish name, Saul) had imprisoned Christians and even witnessed the stoning to death of the deacon Stephen (Acts 7:58 – 8:3). One need not hurl a stone to be complicit in murder, though, which brings to mind the words of Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Woe is me, indeed.

But just as he did for Isaiah, God extended to Paul his unexpected, unmerited, undeserved grace. Paul never writes of his dramatic conversion to Christianity, but Luke gives an account in Acts 9. Struck blind by God for three days and asked by God, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me,” Paul is later revealed to be chosen by God to spread the gospel to the Gentiles and is filled with the Holy Spirit, strengthened through Christ Jesus.

Grace is the power and the depth of God’s love made visible. Grace allowed Paul to understand his sin as separation from the Creator. Grace transformed Paul from persecutor to Apostle. As Paul later writes to the Ephesians, God has the power to make us “holy and blameless” in his eyes (Eph. 1:4).

God’s grace knows no limit. Paul experienced God’s infinite grace personally. He would never again persecute Christians. Rather, Paul began a new life with new purpose and urged Jew and Gentile alike to do the same, united as one body in Christ. Paul preached a theology of forgiveness, sanctification, election, and the revelation of God’s divine mystery – a theology he lived and experienced, only... because God first showed him grace.

Call and Response

Do you believe in pure coincidence? Serendipity? The human mind, I think, is always looking for connections, ways to make sense of what happens in our world. It’s like proof-texting scripture, though. Oftentimes, we come to a conclusion and then work our way back to its origin, falsely concluding that correlation equals causation.

At the same time, I’ve lived long enough to have had a moment – and sometimes my entire life – completely altered, taken down a path felt always meant for me, by a domino effect of “sheer coincidences.”  It’s then that I think… this can’t be just coincidence.

When I applied to seminary, I knew it might take me ten years to finish because I could only pay for one class at a time (I did not want to take on more school loans). Then – out of the blue – I was told my application had been referred for a scholarship I didn’t even apply for. A scholarship that eventually covered all my tuition.

A couple of days ago, I pulled an old journal of mine from a stack, looking for quotes or scripture notes I might be able to use for an essay on Ephesians. I didn’t flip through it, though, as I might normally do.  Instead, I opened the notebook to the first page:

layout

It was Ash Wednesday 2018, and I had started reading A Way Other Than Our Own by Walter Brueggeman. It’s now a year and a half later, and I’ve been steeped in Ephesians for weeks. By randomly opening an old notebook, I immediately spotted a connection between the OT book of Isaiah and the NT letter to the Ephesians. I would never have looked in Isaiah otherwise.

What I had read in Ephesians, coupled with what I found in Isaiah, brought me to tears:

In him, we have redemption through his blood… Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… (Ephesians 1:7; Isaiah 55:1).

The OT prophecy and the NT message say the same things:  We – all of us, everyone who thirsts – are invited to come back, return to our original identity in God. We – all of us, even he who has no money – can buy wine and milk without price. Because we – all of us – have been redeemed by the grace of God through Christ’s sacrificial death and rebirth.

Our bill has been paid . We have been called to return. All of us. Everyone.

In Christ… Together

hands.png

Have you ever had to write a letter from a prison cell? I haven’t, but I think – no, I’m certain – if I did, it would include whining, pitifulness, more whining, sad faces, and a big helping of extra-whiny on top just for good measure. That’s not what we find in the Letter to the Ephesians, though.

It’s debated who actually authored the letter, but if it was the apostle Paul (as many believe it was), then he would’ve written it while imprisoned in Rome. However, Paul didn’t spend even one sentence wallowing in self-pity about his situation. Rather, he was laser focused on reminding Christians of everything God had done for them and, in turn, how they should live their lives in light of those gifts. No matter he was in prison… Paul had a mission. And nothing would get in his way.

The letter begins in remembrance, thankfulness, and praise:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  (Ephesians 1:3-6 NRSV)

In these three short verses, Paul praises God for:

  • Spiritually blessing us in Christ
  • Freely and by grace alone choosing us to be made one in Christ
  • Viewing us as holy and blameless when we stand before him in love
  • Adopting us as his own children through Christ, his Beloved

Throughout these verses (and as we’ll see, the entire letter), Paul repeatedly emphasizes that we – corporately, not individually – are one body in Christ. As Klyne Snodgrass states in The NIV Commentary on Ephesians, Paul uses the specific terminology ‘in Christ’ as a way to talk about Jesus as our Lord. A believer’s life merges into the life of Christ (and all other believers) to become one body of which Jesus is the head. It is ‘in Christ’ that we find our salvation and spiritual blessings. It is ‘in Christ’ that we are at home.

We can’t help but give praise and thanks to God as we’re reminded that he chose to reveal his love to us by his grace shown through his Son Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence. Paul’s theology emphasizes our blessing as one body and reminds us that corporate worship is essential to our life in Christ, who lives in constant relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit; therefore, we are to live in loving relationship with others – a relationship we will examine in detail as we move further into the Letter to the Ephesians.

Willing to be Led

sign

Romans was going to be my first post-seminary exegesis project… a project all my own that wouldn’t involve a teacher’s deadlines or assignments or awkward “conversations” in online discussion groups. Just me and my NRSV, ESV, NIV, a couple of other alphabet Vs, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

I. Was. Ready.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit had other plans.

The first time I tried to study Romans, I didn’t even make it to a chair before I was waylaid.  I was at work, headed to my reading nook where I take my morning break, when a coworker hijacked my thoughts with his wedding plans.  Before I knew it, “As One” was written and posted, including a reference to John 17:20-23. In my Bible, right next to that scripture, I had written, See Ephesians 4.

After posting “As One,” I headed over to Eph. 4:1:  I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

It just so happens, I’m in a season of discernment and this scripture reminded me of something very important I’d overlooked in all my moaning, wailing, and gnashing of discernment teeth:  God has called everyone to become one in the body of Christ and to use our gifts in the fulfillment of that call. After meditating on the scripture and consulting two commentaries (as well as Os Guinness’ book, The Call), “The Universal Call” was added to my 5 A.M. Thoughts collection.

Sorry Romans – You’ll have to wait till another day because there’s no way I’m leaving Ephesians right now. I’m fascinated by the intersection of God’s universal call with the individual gifts he’s given to each of us, and nothing short of overwhelmed at the thought of being created for the purpose of serving him – individually and as the Church.

It may not be a class requirement, but it’s no less of an assignment that I’ve been given. The Spirit has led me here, and it’s here I’ll stay until I learn what I need to move forward.

 

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

Review: Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

heartlandIn Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, author Sarah Smarsh honestly and fearlessly tells her story of growing up in poverty during the 1980s and 90s on Kansas farmland.

Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother—and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita—she gives us a unique, essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country.  (Scribner Publishing)

In telling her story, it felt as if she ploughed up memories from my own farming childhood in Kentucky; not that I have experienced all the same traumas. However, we do share feelings of being “less than,” embedded by societal dualism of poverty vs. wealth, as well as a sense of family dysfunction that no one seemed interested in calling out by name.

“Nothing was more painful to me than true things being denied,” Smarsh writes. “The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.”  A book about class, identity, and the plight of rural farmers also became – for me – much-needed confirmation that my similar memories have value. A very personal, yet unexpected, response to her openhearted memoir.

From conversations with her imaginary daughter to strife-filled stories of her family’s generational struggle with poverty, Sarah Smarsh holds nothing back. She laments being constantly reminded as a child of all she didn’t have, “like running a hot marathon next to a cool reservoir from which you’re not allowed to drink,” while also celebrating her ultimate success as a professor and journalist – tempered by the process of trying to reconcile where she is with where she once was.

Heartland also gives frank insight into the lives of those waging daily battles against dysfunctional family cycles while simultaneously struggling to earn a living wage. As Smarsh’s story explains in heartbreaking detail, “It’s impossible to pay the citation for expired auto insurance” when you can’t even pay the initial insurance bill after “fifty hours a week holding metal frying baskets at KFC.” Then try explaining such a situation to a person who has never missed a payment on anything and never had to work a double shift to pay the insurance bill.

Bottom line:  The people who need to hear such stories are maintaining their distance from the people who are living them out. Heartland helps shorten that distance.

The Universal Call

Jack Wilson

Today I received calls from Oregon, New Jersey, a very small town in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Jamaica. No, I don’t know people all over the US or the Caribbean – these are dreaded telemarketers who keep offering me “better” interest rates on [credit cards, mortgages, car loans] and warning me about the perils of continuing to operate in the world while unprotected from [hackers, scammers, the dark web]. One call was even so kind as to offer a consolidation loan for my husband’s school loans. Only problem is, he doesn’t have any.

So, note to all my friends who may be calling from a number NOT in my caller ID: I’m sorry you’re [in jail, caught under something heavy, running from reality] but I no longer take calls from numbers I don’t know. If you’re actually someone I’ve been in contact with at some point in my life but for some reason I don’t have your current phone number in my current cell phone, you’re just gonna have to leave a message and wait for me to call you back.

Hopefully you won’t have to wait long, because I totally understand your frustration if you do. Waiting for people to call me back is an irritation that runs a close second to telemarketers blowing up my phone and filling my voicemail. I tell myself it’s building my capacity for patience, but in reality I’ve chewed all ten fingernails while waiting “patiently.” (And I’m eyeballing my toenails.)

I have a bad habit of anthropomorphizing God, so I find myself envisioning his response to waiting. Does he flop on a cloud with the remote dangling off the edge in his hand, mindlessly scanning through the cable channels? Maybe he cuddles with a cat, perusing Instagram photos, mildly annoyed when he discovers his ginger ale has lost its punch from all the melting ice (and passing time)? The impressive thing is, no matter how long we keep him waiting… no matter how many infomercials he watches, or how many watery drinks he ends up pouring out… God continues to wait for all of us to answer his call. And don’t ever doubt that you’ve been called!

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul literally begs them to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you have been called (4:1). Paul isn’t talking here about “calling” in terms of what profession or career each person chooses. He’s talking about the one call that everyone has received: God’s call to join the one, unified body of Christ. It’s a call to everyone – and it’s a call everyone can accept.

I think the problem might be that we forget (or don’t realize) that God called us first. Through Jesus, God called us and offered his gift of reconciliation – a gift that we have done nothing, nor can do anything, to earn or deserve. It’s not like first opening a new credit card and then getting six months without interest. God asks nothing of us in advance for us to be given his gift of love, reconciliation, and redemption. He’s already called and left a message. The next move is ours.

God called you up a long time ago and not recognizing the number, fearing what it might be or what it might mean, you let it go to voicemail. Now that you’ve figured out who’s calling – that it’s an old friend who needs/wants nothing other than just to get everyone together again – how long will you wait before you answer? How long before you begin living a life worthy of the call to which we have all been called?

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

As One

IMG-3856

 “Awesome!”

That was a co-worker’s assessment of his day so far – and it was only 8:30 am! For him, every day lately has been Awesome! because it brings him one day closer to his wedding day. His walk, his talk… everything about him says, I cannot wait to marry her!  As I watched him float down the hallway back to his desk, I thought of my own wedding day… fourteen years ago.

My husband and I say it sometimes feels like fourteen days, other times like forty years, but either way, neither of us can remember the last time we told a story starting with “I” instead of “we.”  And, we are okay with that! Fourteen years later and we still say “I love you” countless times a day. We pride ourselves on our ability to sicken those around us with our googly eyes and mutual admiration. We still kiss each other goodnight – every night.

Don’t get the impression, though, that my hubby and I have led a charmed life together. We haven’t. Money worries, kid rebellions, job stress… You name it, and we have most likely fretted and fought with it or wrestled and struggled over it. Major move? Did it. Go back to college? Did that too. (Twice.) Depression? Lived through it. (More than twice.) Hospitals? Know more than we care to. Death? Unfortunately, yes. We’ve both lost someone we deeply loved.

The past fourteen years haven’t been absent of heartache; but, they haven’t been absent of blessings either. Through both, there has never been any question in either of our minds about the depth and commitment of our love. Life has thrown us for a loop sometimes, but we have never – not once – lost an ounce of our love for each other because of ill circumstances. Likewise, we can’t say that we’ve loved each other more simply because life was treating us well.  The measure of our love hasn’t fluctuated with our situation – good or bad.

Marriage made us one through love, and it has blessed us with a small glimpse of God’s larger plan for the world.

[F]or God is love… if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:8-12 NRSV). God is present wherever steadfast love abides. I believe the love shared by two people who choose to marry is nothing short of the presence of God on Earth. Such love is not intended to live in isolation. God’s love is meant to be perfected in us as we steadfastly love those near to us and far from us, for we are all one in his love. This was Jesus’ request when he prayed to the Father in the hours leading up to his arrest:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 20-23, 25-26)

I view the marriage of two people who pledge to love each other through thick and thin as a celebration of the marriage that is to come between God and his church. When all the members of the church’s body are joined together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – that they may become completely one – there will be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready…” (Rev 19:6-7)

 

“God, grant that the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another, and the living to the dead, may be so transformed by your grace, that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven; where, O Father, with your Son, and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign in perfect unity, now and forever.  Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer)

Every Tattoo Has A Story

unnamed

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and OCD in my twenties, and while I’ve aged far beyond those years I still have days when I struggle—and even suffer—with feelings of hopelessness and despair. Granted, they aren’t as frequent or extreme as they once were (thanks in no small part to brain chemical research and modern pharmaceuticals), but those feelings are a part of who I am, and they can rise to the surface before I even sense their advance.

In art, the spaces around and in between objects are referred to as “negative space.” Sometimes those spaces themselves can take on the appearance of shapes and real objects. (Google “vases/faces illusion” for a good example of this.)

I envision my depression to be like negative space in my brain, taking shape between my rational thoughts, insidiously growing larger and larger, taking over first one thought and then another… pushing, distorting, and completely transforming them until the mere thought of getting up and out of bed becomes too much. I then become only what I envision in my mind, and my mind holds nothing but disfigured lies.

My tattoo is a reminder that I am more than this.

In Acts 9:36-42, the apostle Luke recounts the story of Tabitha, a woman he describes in the original Greek as μαθήτρια (math-ay’-tree-ah) – a female disciple. This word is used only once in the entire New Testament and Luke chooses it to singularly identify Tabitha.

As Luke tells her story we learn that Tabitha was most likely wealthy, given her acts of charity and what would have been an atypically large home for that time and place. (Tabitha had died and the women placed her body upstairs.) But before any of this—before even giving us her name—Luke writes, ἦν μαθήτρια: There was a female disciple.

Yes, Tabitha was a woman devoted to good works, sharing her money, time, and skills making clothing for the widows of Joppa—women of limited means with few ways to support themselves. But first and foremost, she was a Christian disciple. She had a heart devoted to Jesus Christ that brought focus to her individual days and, ultimately, her entire life—a life that wasn’t quite finished…

Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

Depression tells me I’m alone…

but God surrounds me.

I am μαθήτρια.

Depression tells me I’m worthless…

but Jesus claims me.

I am μαθήτρια.

Depression tells me I can’t even move…

but the Spirit fills me.

I am μαθήτρια.

And I am alive.

 

Counterfeit Books: Be on the lookout!

LOTOEarlier this week, Christianity Today reported that both Amazon and several of its third-party sellers sold counterfeit copies of Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren issued a statement on her blog, as well as photos to help identify counterfeit copies of her book. According to Christianity Today, it is estimated that IVP Press has lost around $240,000 in retail sales over the past nine months as a result of these illegal sales—which also means no royalties for Warren.

Check out the links above for all the ugly (albeit informative) details, and head over to IVP Press to purchase the real version of Liturgy of the Ordinary at its current 40% off sale price of $9.60.  It’s an amazing piece of writing—one that Tish Harrison Warren and her publisher deserve to get paid for.