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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Rituals and Christmas Lists

Black Friday…Cyber Monday… Our Biggest Sale of the Season… on and on it goes, this gift-giving frenzy that characterizes an American Christmas.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those anti-gift-giving rants that invariably pop up every year. I happen to love gift-giving! OK, yes, and gift-getting, too!

However, reading Isaiah 1:10-20 this morning has reminded me how we can get so caught up in the ritual that we completely lose sight of its purpose.

For at least the past decade, my family has employed Christmas lists. They used to be written on paper, then copied and shared. When email came along, we began sending them electronically. This made life simpler because we could also share what we were giving each individual (except the gift recipient, of course) to eliminate wasted time standing in long post-Christmas gift return lines. Then Amazon developed Wish Lists, making it even easier to create our magnificent gift registries, share them with each other, let Amazon keep track of purchases by simply taking the item off the list once it wasamazon-gift-list purchased, and–the ultimate convenience!–now Amazon even allows us to add items to our list that are not found in Amazon’s vast warehouse! Perfect, right?

 

It was really fun for a while, but I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with it the past couple of years. I have become so caught up in this path to gift-giving…so enamored with the tool for facilitating gift-giving…that the method has supplanted the underlying reason for the action itself. The giving of a Christmas gift is meant to represent my love for the person I’m giving it to, and the gift should be a result of thoughtful consideration.

Back to Isaiah… The prophet exhorts us to hear the Lord’s rebuke to the Israelites, who have become so enamored of the rituals of worship that they have completely forgotten what the rituals  are intended to do: remind us of the One we worship, why we worship Him, and what He most desires from us and for us.

I worship in the Anglican tradition, which has plenty of rituals. I’m grateful that we are encouraged to make use of those which are helpful in our worship rather than become a slave to any of them. When we process in for worship, the lead person lifts up a cross. As I follow behind it, I’m reminded that I follow the risen Christ. When I make the sign of the cross, I do it because at that particular moment in the worship service I’m reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for me, or of the mystery of our triune God. After the offering is collected, the priest lifts the basket heavenward as we sing, and I am reminded that all things do come from God and with grateful hearts we give back a portion of what’s been given to us. All of these rituals are designed to help me remember and reflect on God’s goodness, to foster a humble purity of heart for worship and obedience. This is God’s desire for me and from me, so that I will be fitted and ready for the day when the rituals will no longer be needed because the Kingdom has come in its fullness and worship is the continual reality.

Whatever rituals you may use in worship or in celebrating Christmas (I’ll leave you to ponder which might need attention!), take a little time this week to consider whether they are achieving their intended purpose or whether they have become more prominent than they were ever meant to be. If the latter is true, don’t resort to drastic measures. Rather, allow that awareness to guide you gently back to a proper perspective.

I think I’ll take a little break from Amazon Wish Lists and shop locally for one or two gifts that will be a total surprise!

 

Forgiving God

Forgiving God may well be the first step in trusting him.

Does God need my forgiveness? Absolutely not! That would imply that God has done something wrong. He is God–incapable of doing anything wrong.

Do I need to forgive God? Probably. We all experience disappointment in life, and sometimes we blame God for it. Of course the blame is not his, but he is generous and so full of grace that he allows the blame to rest on him. For a while, anyway.

At some point, however, I am blessed if I realize that it’s not God’s fault that I am disappointed. It is mine. I most likely decided that I knew better than God, and so I did what I wanted to do–what I thought was best–rather than what God says is best. That means those consequences I was so mad about were absolutely my fault, not God’s, and it’s really me that needs forgiveness.

If I can see that God was right and I was wrong…

If I realize that he is so full of grace to allow me to blame him for my stubborn decision to have it my way in spite of his warnings…

If I repent of ever thinking that God needed my forgiveness…

If I ask God to forgive me…

If I accept God’s forgiveness…

I just might learn to trust him more fully.

Interestingly, this process repeats itself throughout the life of any Christ-follower. It’s how our faith grows.

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Sunday Commute

The Sunday morning commute has become one of the best prayer times of my week.

At the beginning of this year, our church moved from our suburban location–which was a two-minute drive from my home–to a soup kitchen downtown. Now it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to church, with several traffic lights between home and my destination. My husband will tell you that I will drive miles out of my way any day of the week to avoid sitting at traffic lights. But not on Sundays…not anymore. driving_praying

A few months ago I began thinking of the Sunday morning commute as a prime time for prayer.

I’m the associate pastor at my church, so you may think that it’s a given that I would be prayerful on Sunday mornings as I prepare for our worship service. Not necessarily! (If you are a pastor, perhaps you are smiling in agreement!) It’s far too easy for my mind to drift to whatever I need to do when I get to church, who I need to speak with, or anticipate where I might have to fill in for an absent volunteer minister. If I’m preaching, my tendency is to review and critique my sermon for the umpteenth time. When engaged in that line of thinking, I arrive at church wired and ready to get busy with work…not worship.

I spent ten years on staff at a church where I went to work on Sunday mornings. When I left, I was on the verge of burnout. I did not practice self-care. I allowed the demands of ministry to take precedence over my need to worship, to give God the honor and glory that is due him, and in turn to experience the satisfaction of doing what I was created to do: worship God.

Sundays are for worship, not work. Yes, I have responsibilities on Sunday mornings, but my first priority is to worship God. Praying through the drive to church makes all the difference in my ability to prioritize worship over work. Rather than focus on the to-do list, I…

  • acknowledge God’s faithfulness, thanking him for a new day, and for the privilege of living in a country where I can worship him freely
  • thank Jesus for enduring the cross so that I can live free
  • thank God for those he will bring through our church door who are searching
  • lift up all those who are preparing to come to church, asking God to remove any obstacles, and to pour out a spirit of cooperation on spouses and children
  • pray for those who are struggling with the temptation to stay home, to skip church this week, asking God to stir up a holy desire for worship and fellowship with their church family
  • ask the Holy Spirit to annoint the preaching pastor as he opens God’s word, and to stir our minds and hearts to belief and obedience
  • ask God to bless the volunteer ministers as they bless those whom they serve
  • and I pray that God will be blessed by the worship we bring.

What I’m amazed to find is that when the worship service begins, when the first note of the first song sounds, my heart and my mind sync with the Holy Spirit and worship overflows!

So, what do you do on your Sunday commute?

 

What love is this?

Church-going folks talk a lot about the love of Christ. But, really…What love is this? Is it like when we really “love” a book, movie, or a new pair of shoes? Or is it like how I (most of the time) love my family and close friends?

The love of Christ far exceeds our temporal infatuations. It certainly surpasses our capacity to love those closest to us. Left to our ourselves, we are incapable of the kind of love Jesus offers…

  • Love that sacrifices. Ephesians 5:2 says that Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice for God.
  • Love that heals. Matthew 9:35 speaks of Jesus traveling through all the cities and villages, healing every disease and every affliction.
  • Love that renews. Christ himself was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so that we, too, might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
  • Love that beckons. John writes in the tenth chapter of his gospel about Jesus as the Shepherd who calls his sheep and leads them out.

It is truly amazing–a miracle!–that the love of Christ dwells in us who believe, and nothing can separate us from that love. We have Christ’s capacity to sacrifice, to heal, to renew, and to beckon…just as Christ did. Left to ourselves, we are incapable of that kind of love. But, thanks be to God, he did not leave us to ourselves!

Simply put, when we allow Christ to have his way in us, we sacrifice for one another. We truly see each other’s pain and heartache. We take the time and make the effort to pray regularly for one another, watching to see the healing come because we are agents of that healing. And a holy transformation takes place as we are renewed day by day, as we grow into the beautiful body of Christ.

That beauty, that Christlikeness, that unbelievable love of Christ that shines through us as we are transformed into his likeness is a light that attracts like no other. It beckons people to come and taste and see that the Lord is good, and that his incomparable love can dwell in them, too. They, too, can be healed and transformed as they join a family whose love isn’t fickle or shallow.

I encourage you to push the pause button on your day and engage in a little reflection. Where are you allowing the love of Christ to have its way in you? Love that sacrifices brings healing and renewal, and beckons others to do the same.

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

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!)

Little Christs

To pray for the world at large overwhelms me. There are so many needs! War, divisions, famine, disease…floods, earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes…decadence, deceit, depravity of the mind, body and soul… My own soul is almost overcome with despair at the enormity of the sheer desperation in so many places and people.

How did Jesus stand it? How could God-become-man stand to look at the world he had originally created to be a garden paradise, but had turned into a wasteland of sin? How could Jesus walk among the diseased and afflicted, the greedy and lustful, knowing  humanity was never intended to be like that?

But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. -Luke 5:16

Jesus knew nothing else but to pray. It is the only response to such overwhelming need. It is because we can’t possibly meet the need ourselves that we must turn to the One who can. We must bring the cares and concerns of our world to the One who created. It is his responsibility to heal, to provide, to redeem, and to restore.We bring the needs to God because only he can make all things well.

Is that all? Are we done then? No. No more than Jesus was.

To be a Christian means to be a “little Christ.” It is to be as Jesus was, to act as Jesus did. Jesus Himself said as much. After He had washed the feet of His disciples–the most humbling of acts!–He said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:15) Jesus went away to pray, to offer to the Father what He was experiencing in His everyday life, and to hear from the Father what He was to do about it. He did whatever the Father told Him to do, and only what the Father told Him to do.

And that brings me back to the questions asked previously… How could Jesus do anything other than succumb to despair?

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God… -John 13:3

Jesus knew where He had come from, and He knew He would return there. Pure and simple. That blessed assurance provided for Jesus what He needed to accomplish all the Father gave Him to do.

That same blessed assurance is ours, simply for the asking and the believing. With that in mind, we too can withdraw to pray, to bring all the overwhelming needs of our world and lay them before God. We can unburden ourselves so that we can sit quietly with God and listen for what he has for us to do. And just like Jesus, we are strengthened by the promise that we will indeed one day return to the God from whom we came. In the meantime, we pray, we listen, and we respond in faith-filled obedience. We become Little Christs.

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