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.

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)

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.

 

5 AM Theology

beliefs

Since the recent passing of a beloved Christian writer, a lot has been written in articles, blogs, and opinion columns about her theology, both in agreement and dissent. Her passing—and particularly the ensuing battle of beliefs—has led me to take a long look at my own theology, my own religious practices, and try to articulate the framework I operate in when I conceive of and talk about God. I’ve also reached the end of my Master’s coursework in theological studies. All combined, I’ve had a few things to think about lately.

My brain has been busily pulling out aspects of Christianity and sorting them into piles of “yeah, I believe that” and “no, I can’t go there.” It’s a healthy exercise, if tiring, and it’s one that everyone probably needs to do every few years. Like author Sarah Bessey says, “If our theology doesn’t shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we’re paying attention.”

I believe in a Holy Trinitarian God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three entities in perfect union with each other, mysteriously one. There are days, however, when I don’t believe God is triune. Honestly, some days it feels more like an idea cooked up by the Church Fathers than something revealed in Scripture. But as strange as it sounds, and as much Scripture and as many theological rabbit holes I have to dive into for a full explanation, I always return to an acceptance of God as three in one.

I do not believe God is male. I did, however, grow up in a church where God was referred to using only male pronouns and that is how I formed a vision of my relationship with God. I am not opposed to using the female pronouns to refer to God, I simply choose not to use them myself (as you’ve probably noticed). I am also not opposed to the neutral “Godself.” As with most things, I believe everyone should use whatever pronoun they’re most comfortable with when they speak of God. I choose to use male pronouns. Don’t hate me for it.

And don’t think it means I’m a complementarian. I do not believe God forbids women to preach to men in the church, be it from the pulpit or on the front steps. I’ve met too many women called by God to do both things.  In much the same way, I’ve met too many LGBTQ people who were called to preach for me to ever say that God doesn’t want them in the pulpit. People who are truly called to serve God–no matter who or where they are–will live out that call to God’s glory, and not for my (or anyone else’s) worldly approval.

I believe in Scripture. I believe that God inspired the writers of works included in the Bible and because of that, it should be viewed as holy. I believe the writers of Scripture wrote from Godly inspiration, but I also believe their writings reflect their distinctly male experience in an ancient society as part of a patriarchal culture. Holy? Most assuredly.  Completely devoid of gender and cultural biases? Um, no.

I believe Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were an act of salvific grace. I believe if I have genuine faith in God, Jesus, and the Spirit, I will show that faith through my actions. I do not believe that I will never act wrongly or badly, nor do I believe I can complete any activities to earn my forgiveness. My forgiveness was given through the death and resurrection of Christ. If there was anything I could do to earn God’s grace or lose God’s grace, then the death of Jesus on the cross was pointless.

I believe God longs for human beings to choose to live in love and peace with each other, and we’ve chosen the path of hatred and war instead. I believe God longs for a relationship with us, but he wants us to freely choose him. God doesn’t want us to love him because he’s our Father or because we think we’re supposed to; he wants us to love him because we feel love in our hearts for him.

Which is what all of this boils down to for me, really:  God is love. God is grace. God is forgiveness. God is relationship. Jesus said the two most important commandments were to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. He didn’t give any exceptions to those two commandments.  And he most certainly did not say for us to love the sinner, but hate the sin.

He didn’t.  He didn’t have to issue any qualifiers like that because he knew ALL were going to continue to sin in thought or action, in one way or another, big or small. In my church, we acknowledge that fact every time we come to the table for the Eucharist when we pray:  Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We haven’t done your will, we’ve broken your law, rebelled against your love, not loved our neighbors, and ignored the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray.

I believe God tells us to just love people the best we can.  Let him be concerned with their (and our) sinful nature and need for forgiveness.  Just love him and each other well.

My theology is actually pretty simple:  Look around you. If it isn’t of love, it isn’t of God. So try to leave everything with a little more love.

 

Want me to write more about these or other topics? Drop me a note in the comments, and we’ll see what happens!

Lent – Holy Tuesday

IMG_2753

Today’s Thought:  The greatest commandments.

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. (Mark 12:13)

Jesus is accumulating followers, making the Romans and church leaders nervous. He’s been attracting large crowds when teaching at the temple, so Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians begin gathering there as well. They inundate Jesus with questions in an effort to catch him in a lie or blasphemy.

They ask who gave him authority to teach in the temple; whether or not the religious should pay taxes to Caesar; and quiz him on hypothetical situations dealing with the resurrection. (Those last questions were from the Sadducees who didn’t even believe in resurrection.)  And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (v28)

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ [Deuteronomy 6:4-5].  The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ [Leviticus 19:18]. There is no other commandment greater than these.”  And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher….”  And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions (v29-34).

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you turned an instrument of shameful death into a means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (Book of Common Prayer)

 

Lent – Day 33

IMG-2747

Today’s Thought:  Who do you think Jesus is?

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 

“But what about you?” [Jesus] asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  (Matthew 16:13-16)

In John 6, Jesus has gone up the mountain with his disciples as a large crowd of about five thousand (!!!) gathers because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus looks out over the crowd and then he turns to Philip.  The gospel writer tells us that what happens next is a ‘test.’

Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (v5-9)

Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish from the young boy, divides it among the five thousand—giving them as much as they wanted—and they were satisfied!

This is an example of the test Jesus administers over and over throughout the gospels. It only has one question:  Who do you believe I am?  When Jesus asks Philip where they can buy bread for all those people, Philip doesn’t say anything to indicate his belief that nothing is beyond the power of Jesus. He doesn’t reveal any faith in Jesus’ ability to solve this problem.  Instead of answering Jesus’s question about “where” bread might come from, all Philip can think about is “how.” And he limits his possible answers to the “how” of this world—a world absent the living power of God incarnate though Jesus. (Likewise, Andrew focuses only on what he can envision through earthly power.)

Just a few short chapters back, Philip was the one proclaiming, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote” (John 1:45). Yet, when his faith is tested, he forgets that the one of whom Moses spoke has promised to always take care of his people. Even when more than you were expecting show up for dinner.

Friday’s FaithfulTo know the Cross is to know that we are saved by the sufferings of Christ; more, it is to know the love of Christ Who underwent suffering and death in order to save us. It is, then, to know Christ.  ― Thomas Merton

 

Lent – Day 32

picture

Today’s Thought:  Can faith and questioning co-exist?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

There have been many times when I’ve read Hebrews 11:1 and felt immediate guilt about the long list of questions I have about the Bible and God. If I really have Christian faith, doesn’t that mean I’m supposed to stop asking so many questions? Aren’t I just supposed to have faith?

Oftentimes, those feelings of guilt originate with the Christian community we grew up with—the faithful around us who told us to stop asking so many questions. I don’t know about you, but that just made me want to ask more questions! Were they afraid of questions? Worried that others would assume they were lacking real faith? Which brings up an interesting question:  Why do questions equate to unfaithfulness for so many Christians?

Author Sarah Bessey writes:

“Just when I think that this time I’ve settled something once and for all, I find a new angle or a new question arises or I read something that pushes against my answer – relationships, encounters with God and Scripture, circumstances even – and I’m left again, wondering. Perhaps this is the shift we’re really talking about – not settling down on our answers, building temples their weight was never meant to hold…. my catalog of right answers grows smaller every year.”  (Bessey, Out of Sorts)

It was a game-changer for me to read authors like Sarah Bessey, Rob Bell, and Rachel Held Evans—questioners who also had deep faith. To know it’s not only okay to question, but to keep questioning, and to keep adjusting the answers, is a truth reaffirmed by my seminary professors and fellow students. Questioning doesn’t even mean that you’re having a faith crisis or some dark night of the soul. It means we can strengthen our faith and sharpen our insights even in the blurriness of not-knowing. Admitting we have questions, yet still believing there’s a God in heaven… that’s real faith.

Thursday’s TheologianI pray that when people, often well-meaning, try to quiet your questions or placate you or numb you, you would remember that God has not given you a spirit of fear but a spirit of love and power and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).  –Sarah Bessey, Christian author and lay theologian

Lent – Day 30

IMG_2742

Today’s Thought:  ‘New’ is a process.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

I remember reading those words from the Apostle Paul about being a “new creation,” then taking a look around me one day and wondering why my big box of new hadn’t arrived yet. Surely it should be here by now!

It has taken years of making mistakes, rebuilding, more mistakes, worse mistakes, starting over (multiple times), and seriously… where-in-the-world-was-my-brain mistakes, for me to realize that becoming a new creation through the love of Christ isn’t accomplished in a single altar call. So if that’s what you’re expecting, well… You might want to sit down for this.

Becoming that new creation doesn’t happen in a blink of the eye. Becoming that new creation is a continuous, oftentimes lifelong, journey. It’s showing up every day and learning—many times the hard way—what it means to let the old self die on the cross with Christ, while the new self walks with the resurrected Christ. This quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister and theologian, says it perfectly:

“God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new. New doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, new is often messy. New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I’m right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming—never even hoped for—but ends up being what we needed all along.”

I am a Christian. I am a new creation. And, I’m still working some of the kinks out… but now I do that with God.

Tuesday’s Truth: “Radical obedience to Christ is not easy… It’s not comfort, not health, not wealth, and not prosperity in this world. Radical obedience to Christ risks losing all these things. But in the end, such risk finds its reward in Christ. And he is more than enough for us.” ― Dr. David Platt, Southern Baptist pastor and author

 

Lent – Day 28

IMG_2738

Today’s Thought: You’re pregnant!

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (Colossians 3:10 NLT)

Congratulations! Bet you weren’t expecting to hear that this morning, were you! One of my sweet nieces just received news that she, her husband, and son will be welcoming a baby girl in August. New babies are so exciting! Anticipation like no other builds over the course of a short nine months as we wonder what this new life holds. What will her personality be like? Whose eyes will she have? How will her existence impact the people around her and the world beyond these walls of home?

But, back to you. You’re pregnant too! Yes, yes, YES you are! The question is, what are you pregnant with? Is it compassion? Perhaps even empathy? Is it happiness? Or, maybe—unfortunately—the heaviness of sadness is filling you in this season of your life. Maybe you’re full of questions, like “why?”

My niece doesn’t have to tell anyone she’s pregnant; it’s obvious, and not just because she has a growing tummy. From Day 1, she has radiated love and kindness. Mostly because she was already ‘pregnant’ with those qualities before she became pregnant with her baby girl.

What pregnancy news are you sharing with everyone around you? What has filled you, your life, your soul, to the point that everyone knows you’re pregnant with it before you ever say a word?

Think about it.  And have a gloriously ‘pregnant’ weekend filled with life overflowing!

 

Saturday’s Scripture-in-Sync

Old Testament: And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

New Testament: I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18-19)