Clarification

Yesterday I posted an update here. A good friend and trusted colleague contacted me after reading that update to share a concern that my thoughts as expressed there might be misconstrued as heresy–Pelagianism, specifically. Knowing that I am not a heretic, it was gently suggested that I take the post down. Because I didn’t have time yesterday to address the misunderstanding, I agreed that this was the appropriate action to take. That call, however, came a few hours after the update posted and, therefore, was read by some. Consequently, I want to clear up any misunderstanding as to my meaning.

Particularly in American culture, it is common to begin the new year with a focus on self-discipline, especially when it comes to limiting food intake and sedentary inclinations. With that in mind, I began that post by repeating a comment made by someone else that suggested God limited himself by giving us free will, and how that concept of self-limitation had been rattling around in my mind.

First potential misunderstanding: By “limit” I was not suggesting that God compromised his purpose or his divinity in any way. What I meant was that God chose to create humans with the capacity to decide whether or not we would love him. He could have hard-wired humans to love him, but that would negate the very concept of love. So God limited–restrained, controlled–himself in that he made a choice about what qualities he would give to his creation. And one of those qualities had the potential to grieve the heart of God.

I went on to reflect on my own experience of being parented and parenting…

I grew up in a well-controlled environment. That control was often exercised through manipulation, so that’s what I learned to do. “Limiting myself” was not an option I considered when it came to my will! I was well into adulthood and my children were mostly grown before I came to understand my own manipulative behavior in trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do. It was certainly easier in some ways to employ manipulation, bending their will to what I thought was best for them, rather than watch them make poor decisions. But once I understood the lack of love in that kind of manipulation, I had to learn to limit myself. And more than once since then I’ve felt my heart would break as I watched one of my kids live out the negative consequences of their willful choices.

Giving us free will was risky. God was taking the chance that his beloved humans would choose not to love him. And that’s exactly what we did. What’s more, God knew that we would. It seems to me that it would have been so much easier on God to just create us subject to his will, rather than allowing us to choose whether or not we would be. But making someone love him was not truly love, as there is no sacrifice in it. Perfect love always requires sacrificing manipulation in favor of freedom.

My point here is that my instinct is to satisfy my own will, regardless of the means. But God offers me a better way. God invites me to love by limiting myself, those natural tendencies and instincts that do not reflect his perfect love. Again, God doesn’t make me do that. I get to choose: God’s way or my way?

Now, to deal with the second potential misunderstanding: Pelagianism. As I understand it (I am not a theologian), at the heart of the Pelagian heresy is the belief that humans can exercise their gift of free will by initially choosing God. So if you read my post and thought that I was suggesting that, I apologize for my lack of clarity. Scripture says–and I believe–that no one comes to God apart from Jesus (John 14:6), and no one comes to Jesus unless God calls them (John 6:44). Furthermore, Paul says quite clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So, let me be clear…I believe that I could not have come to the knowledge of Christ nor attained salvation through His atoning death on the cross apart from the grace of God. It is by the grace and calling of God that I considered Christ, not through any initiative of my own. God in his grace and mercy sought me out, but it was up to me to respond, to accept and receive the gift of salvation offered in Christ. God didn’t make me do that. I was given a free will to choose to believe in Christ or to reject God’s gift. That is the story of every single Christian I know. Christ was not forced upon us. Christ was revealed to us by the grace of God. And we are able to decide whether or not to accept Christ because when God created human beings, he lovingly gave us free will. God didn’t have to do that. He did not have to exercise his creative power in that way. But he did. Thanks be to God!

So, how do we respond to such an extravagant gift? When I consider THE GOD of all that is, seen and unseen, choosing to give me this precious gift of free will, offered with perfect love, I am overwhelmed. And so I choose to exercise that beautiful gift by bowing daily before God in prayer, asking for the strength to limit myself…to discipline myself…to submit my will to his. Amen and amen.

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All in the Family

Family. God’s original design for all his children.

Our society has become terribly confused about what constitutes “family.” God, on the other hand, is not confused. He has had one plan from the beginning of time, and it hasn’t changed. Family: a mother and a father, children, siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins…grandparents and great grandparents. Then one family would connect with another family, and another, and another to make one big family: the Church.

As soon as that plan was in place, the enemy of our souls began trying to thwart it, beginning with Cain and Abel.  Perhaps this has been the enemy’s master plan from the beginning. If he could destroy the biological family, the Church—the family of God—would struggle to know how to be and, perhaps, eventually self-destruct.

It’s working.

Our churches are filled with people who feel alone as they deal with the vicissitudes of life. There are some who just don’t know how to reach out for help. Others are too proud to admit that they need help. Some have needs so overwhelming that we don’t know how to help. But altogether too often, we just don’t pay enough attention to see another’s pain, their struggle, their loneliness.

Most of us join a church based on our consumer mentality. We like the preaching, the music, the programs, the building…it’s about what appeals to me, the individual.

Families don’t work that way. We are born into a family, having no choice in the matter. We may not like a parent or a sibling, but we are still part of that family, like it or not. And if we are to exist peacefully under one roof, we have to learn to get along. At least, that’s the ideal, right?

But the ideal has almost been forgotten. We don’t have to look far to see that it’s pretty easy to walk away from a spouse we no longer want to be with, from children that demand our attention, from parents who are no longer able to care for themselves. We can just go find someone or something that suits us better, that is more personally appealing.

And as goes the family, so goes the church. When a new preacher comes, the music changes, the building is no longer looking good, or someone expects us to give more than we are prepared to part with—be that money, time, or energy—we walk away. We go find another church that is more to our liking. Or maybe we just abandon church altogether.

It’s a pretty bleak picture, isn’t it? But…

We are children of The Promise.

We have Hope.godsfamilynew480x3401

We can learn to get along.

We can do better than just get along…

We can learn to love one another with the love of Christ!

Amen and amen.

(This is the second of three related posts. You can read the first post here. I invite you to come back next week, and to share your thoughts and experiences!)

Precious Commodities

My friend Jill recently posted a great article on her blog about praying for one another. You can read it here. This business of the church family praying for one another has been percolating in my mind and heart for a while now. Why does it take such effort? If we truly love one another as Christ loved us, it should come quite naturally.

Perhaps we are lax in our praying because we are afraid of what might come next. Prayer selfless-love-in-actionoften begets action. If I pray for someone, God just might ask me to actually do something for them. God might require that I be his hands, or feet, or voice—all of which takes my time and energy.

Time and energy have become our most precious commodities. The advent of “easy credit” along with the development of technology has reoriented our priorities. Money may be easier to come by for many of us. Time and energy, on the other hand, are essentially finite. There are only 24 hours in a day, and there is a limit to the energy my body can expend before it has to rest. If I give my time and energy to something beyond my personal concerns, how will my needs be met? Will someone look beyond their needs in order to meet mine?

Yet as I reflect on Jesus’ life in the scriptures, I don’t see Him particularly concerned about having His needs met. What I do see is a perpetual awareness of the needs of those around Him, and a willingness to give of Himself in order to meet those needs. And when He was in danger of running out of time and energy (remember that Jesus had to live within the same human restrictions that we do!) Jesus turned to the Father in prayer, trusting that God would meet His every need. And, as far as I can tell, God never failed Him.

So perhaps the reason we don’t pray for one another as we should is because we don’t want to be faced with the possibility that our trust in God’s provision is lacking, or that God might ask us to sacrifice some of our valuable time and energy to meet needs other than our own.

And yet, that’s exactly how God—Father—weaves his children into one family.

(This is the first of three related posts. I invite you to come back next week, and to share your thoughts and experiences!)

Embracing Downward Mobility

Throughout my working life, I have often borne the title of “Assistant.” I’ve been a medical assistant, an administrative assistant, a loan assistant and a ministry assistant. My current title is “Associate Pastor,” which means I serve as assistant to the pastor, among other things. I am also an ordained deacon and, as such, one of my functions is assisting priests and bishops.

I came of age during a time when assistants were often thought of as second-class workers, people who couldn’t quite “make the grade” for anything more. Yet I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school, and made the dean’s list in college. Being an assistant has always been more about my personality than about my abilities. My natural dispostion is to help and to encourage; my spiritual gifts align with my dispostion, as do my learned skills and natural abilities.

There have been seasons in my life when I objected to the assistant title. I didn’t necessarily object to what I was doing, just to what I was being called.It felt like I was being relegated to a lesser role, to second chair. It precluded recognition as any kind of leader. I preferred to identify with Jesus the King rather than Jesus the Suffering Servant.downward mobility

What about Jesus? He certainly practiced downward mobility. God became man–Jesus–and came down to earth, where He willingly stepped into the role of  Suffering Servant. From God to man, to servant washing feet, to criminal nailed to a cross, to death. Downward mobility…in order that He could lead us out of death into eternal life.

I am reminded of the wisdom of two Anglican bishops. In commenting on his role as bishop, one said that it appears to the world that he is climbing the ladder of success. “In reality,” he said, “becoming a bishop has nothing to do with upward mobility but, rather, just the opposite. It’s about downward mobility, becoming more and more a servant.”  In the Anglican tradition, one is first ordained a deacon before he/she can become a priest; one must be a priest for years before being considered for consecration as bishop. Deacon means “to serve.” Which brings me to the wisdom of the second bishop. As he was preparing to ordain a priest, he said to the ordinand, “Remember, once a deacon, always a deacon.”

It has taken most of my life to embrace downward mobility, to realize that being an assistant is a good thing, and that I can indeed lead from “second chair.” This is who God created me to be; it is what God created me to do. And it is where I find true joy.

 

Believing Prayer

wisdom

There’s something exhilarating about a new Bible! Thumbing through my new ESV Study Bible, I found myself smiling with renewed interest and anticipation for digging into the scriptures, mining for God’s gold: wisdom.

I love the Psalms, and so I began there. Right away, I found a little nugget in the third Psalm. According to the study notes, in verses 1-2 the psalmist acknowledges what he sees. His enemies are many, and on the rise against him. They are taunting him, saying there is no hope that God will rescue his soul.

In verses 3-6 the psalmist acknowledges what he believes. He remembers that God has protected him, has answered his cries for help. He reflects on how he has been able to sleep peacefully, and he believes that it is God who has sustained him. And as he ponders his belief in God’s faithfulness, the psalmist’s courage and confidence are bolstered and he confronts his fear, refusing to let it deceive him.

Verses 7-8 are the psalmist’s prayer, calling again on God to save him, to crush his enemies, and to bless God’s people.

This pattern from the psalmist is one I need to practice consistently:

  1. Acknowledge what I see. Sticking my head in the sand is foolish. How can I effectively deal with something I refuse to see? Ignoring an issue doesn’t make it go away.
  2. Remember what I believe. Call to mind what God has already taught me, the wisdom I’ve already mined from God’s word. Reflect on God’s faithfulness, not just to me, but to all those who love him. There I will find the confidence I need to face the fear.
  3. Pray accordingly. I can either pray based on what I see or I can pray based on what I believe. 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds me which is the wiser choice: “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Imagine our fate if Jesus’ final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane had been based on what he saw coming–torture, abandonment, and a cruel death–rather than on his belief that God would resurrect Jesus, conquering death once and for all.

What do you believe? Your prayers may provide insight.

The consummate question…and the second one that is like it.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asked this question of his disciples, and He continues to ask it today. It echoes through the ages, like a resounding bell. It is a rock that never erodes, over which everyone will stumble.

It is undoubtedly the single most important question we will ever answer.

I’m not sure what happens if we simply ignore the question, if we just turn a deaf ear. Perhaps it fades until we can no longer hear it. I’m guessing, however, that to choose not to hear is, in effect, an answer. To reply in any way other than Peter did is to endure a death that never really dies.

But if, like Peter, we profess Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, more questions will follow. Question after question will find its way into our hearts and minds every single day, and each one will hinge on our answer to that first question.

“Who do you say that I am?” is the consummate question.

The second question, “If you believe that I am the Christ, now what?” is like it.

No, you won’t find Jesus explicitly asking that question anywhere in the gospels. But it is implied repeatedly, as the follow-up to the consummate question. And Jesus asks it of us again and again. When we tune our hearts to His voice, each time we are about t0 make a decision about what to do or what to say, we hear Him ask that question. And slowly but surely, our life is changed, transformed into something more, something much better than it was before or would have been otherwise.

However we choose to answer the consummate question, the implications are question marklife-changing. To answer as Peter did, “You are the Christ,” is to grapple with the second question for a lifetime. But the prize for getting the right answer is truly priceless.

 

 

 

How much do we care?

There are two kinds of, “I’m sorry.”

The first kind is the apology of responsibility, of blame and of litigation. It is the four-year old saying to his brother, “I’m sorry I hit you in the face.” … The other kind of sorry is an expression of humanity. It says, “I see you and I see your pain.” This is the sorry we utter at a funeral, or when we hear that someone has stumbled.

You don’t have to be in charge to say you’re sorry. You don’t even have to be responsible. All you need to do is care.                                                                                                            -Seth Godin (read the entire post here)

I just returned from a healing prayer ministry conference. For two days I experienced people who cared. They cared enough to say, “I’m so sorry you have had to endure that.” They carecaringd enough to pray for me and every other participant. They cared enough to speak words of blessing and encouragement over us, corporately and individually. They cared enough to labor on our behalf to plan and execute the conference that brought healing of body and spirit to so many.

How many people do I pass by each day who are wounded and hurting, who just need someone to truly see them and offer them a respite from their pain. Perhaps it’s a smile or a kind word they need. Maybe they just want someone to literally look them in the eye rather than a passing glance. A prayer may be the lifeline they desperately need.

“Pray for–bless–everything that moves, and leave the results to God!” the conference leader exhorted us. Amen!

As a Christian, I can offer the love of Christ to those in need, a healing balm like none other. What’s more, I am called and empowered to do so! And isn’t the body of Christ as a whole called to do the same? Christ himself is the great Healer! The Church is the hands and feet and mouthpiece of Christ, bringing healing and truth, freedom from sin’s chains.

[Jesus said] “And so I am giving a new commandment to you now—love each other just as much as I love you.  Your strong love for each other will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  -John 13:34-35

How are we doing, Church? How much do we really care?