Agents of Grace

28 02 2014

Have you ever read something and did a double take. You reread it just to make sure it said what you think it said. That happened to me as I was reading Exodus. In Exodus 24:9-11 we are told about Moses, Aaron and his sons along with the seventy elders going up to see God. Verse 11 is what made me pause, “But God did not raise his hand against these leaders…”

The reason I did a double take is God was the one who invited them up. Why would he raise his hand against them? Here are my thoughts.

At the end of the day God is holy. He also has the true “big picture.” As he saw these men walking up, he would have known that Aaron would soon fail as a leader and make an idol for the Israelites to worship (Exodus 32). Aaron’s sons would choose to disregard the requirements laid out by God for proper worship and would put God in the position of maintaining the holiness of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10). You could add to this the number of times the Israelites would complain and talk about how good life was when they were slaves. The seventy elders never seemed to help lead the people in a better direction. Instead they just went along with the crowd.

Have you ever had a meeting with someone you know is bad? Have you ever gone to a function where a person who makes really poor choices is placed at the same table as you? Thanks to the power of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other internet tools we can “raise our hand against them.” We can fire off that perfect poke in the eye. We can bash them and get “likes.” We can even text while we talk with them making sure people know what an idiot they are.

I am thankful God takes a different approach. God extends grace. At the core we see God’s desire to have a relationship with us. His desire will result in inviting guys like Aaron to eat with him. It also meant Jesus would get the reputation of being a glutton and drunkard (Matthew 11:19).

Technology is allowing us to set our own borders. We can isolate ourselves with “friends” who are just like us. When we argue, we seem to be crueler and sharper in our attacks with those not in our circle. In an ocean of words we feel the only way we can be heard is if we get creatively ugly.

The world is in desperate need of the unique grace offered by God. I say unique because in our own circles we tend to be really good about sending encouraging and uplifting messages. There is never a shortage of inspirational stories or pictures on my Facebook news feed. What if we extended grace outside our circles? What if we did something kind for a person we despise? What if we took Jesus seriously and loved our enemies?

God never condones sin. There are plenty of examples where God steps in and demonstrates justice and holiness. God also extends grace. God does it perfectly. The rest of us do it a little less than perfectly. There will be times when we need to take a stand because something is immoral or harmful. I would offer there are plenty of times we can follow God’s example and extend grace.

Grace changes the world. Grace tears down walls, restores relationships and offers hope. Ultimately it was God’s grace that opened the door for our salvation.

Will it be hard? Yes. Will we be misunderstood? Likely. We will always get it right? If you are like me, no. However, if we focus on grace and extend it to others then I think we can have the opportunity to truly impact our world.

There is also a blessing that comes back to us. I wanted to write about grace. God is awesome in bringing things together. Where I ended up is different from my initial thoughts. I wanted to remind us that we live by grace. God tweaked my message to focus on offering grace outside our circle of friends. However, I believe as we offer grace the byproduct will be a reminder of the grace given to us. God loves you and me not because of what we do. As we meet with God, he knows how we will blow it next week. However, he loves us and desires to have a relationship with us. He doesn’t raise his hand against us. Instead, he extends grace and offers us a seat.

Our challenge for this upcoming week is to be an agent of grace. Some of you need to accept God’s grace. All of us need to be intentional about looking beyond our circle of friends and finding a way to show grace. I am going to trust God on this one. Say a prayer and ask God who you need to give grace to.
Warning: God is most likely going to bring up the one person you absolutely do not want to give any grace to. He does that to grow you. Trust me it will be worth it.

What will it look like? It may be going out to lunch with someone you normally would not eat with. It may be saying an encouraging word to someone you normally ignore. It may be asking forgiveness for your part in why a relationship has soured. It will be critical that there be no strings attached. You are simply following Jesus.

My prayer is we will be agents of grace in the weeks to come. It will give God an opportunity to work through us bring hope, peace and reconciliation. If you are like me you are very thankful and humbled by God’s grace. Those we give grace to will hopefully be grateful but no matter what you will have given them a snapshot of God’s heart.

PS. Yes God has prompted me on who I need to extend grace to. I am praying about how to do it well.

It’s complicated

16 02 2012

One of the people I listen to is Tim Keller.  He is a pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  I like both his teaching style and his depth.  I was listening to one of his sermon’s about struggling with personal issues.  What leaped out at me was the simple idea: it’s complicated.  He did a great job of illustrating how sometimes a physical condition will impact our emotional wellbeing, how sometimes our emotional wellbeing impacts our physical wellbeing and how a moral issue can harm our emotional wellbeing.  Our tendency is to try and make it simple.  The medical doctor will try to connect everything to the physical ailment.  The counselor will tie everything to an emotional issue.  The religious person will make everything a question of morality or the amount of a person’s faith.  The reality is the water is muddier than that.  Even as I listed the simplistic ways doctors, counselors and religious people handle situations, you were most likely thinking of examples of people who don’t fit that mold.  Tim Keller was primarily focused on passages in Proverbs.  The title was called the “Wounded Spirit” and it podcasted on August 5, 2011.  I would like to take his idea and take a broader look at our relationship with God.

If we were honest, we tend to oversimplify God’s view of us and our circumstance.  We will keep God at a distance because we already know the “right answer.”  We see the problem as being more complex and we are not sure how we can follow the “right answer” given the situation we are in.

Exodus 1 tells the story of midwives put in a situation where they were told to kill Hebrew boys as they were born.  They did not kill the infants (right answer).  However, they lied to Pharaoh about it (wrong answer?).  What if they had told the truth?  Pharaoh may have simply killed them and replaced them with midwives who would follow his orders.  This was an incredibly difficult situation.  The Bible does not try to make it simple.  God blesses the midwives for protecting the children.  So, does this mean it is okay to lie?  Of course not.  It means sometimes life is hard and there are not always simple answers.  However, God was right there helping those women walk a difficult road.

Fast-forward to Jesus and we see an interesting pattern.  There is no pattern.  For two blind men Jesus touched them and they were healed (Matthew 9:27-30).  For one man he spits in his eyes and only partially heals the man and then completely restores his sight (Mark 8:22-26).  Another time he put mud in the person’s eye and the man washes out the mud in a pool (John 9:6-7).  Why the differences?  I don’t know but I am going to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.  I bet there was special significance for each one of them.  In fact, study Jesus’ life and you see over and over again he treats each person in a way the person needed to be treated.  His focus was on the person and not just taking care of the problem.

I have to pause.  I have just taken one story from the Old Testament and briefly touched on the life of Jesus.  The Bible paints a very realistic picture of life.  As you take time to read and study it, you will find a rich and deep understanding of life and an amazing picture of God.

What does this mean for our day to day lives?  I believe the implications are huge.  As we invite God into our situation, we can have confidence God understands the complexity.  God may simply touch an area and we will see a dramatic change.  God may give us a partial glimpse at what he is doing and we will have to wait to get a clearer picture.  God may have us go and do something before we see God’s work.  If you are like me, it won’t always make sense.  However, if I can give God the benefit of the doubt and assume he is more concerned about me than just solving my problem I get pretty excited.

This also helps me stay balanced as I help others.  Where am I being too simplistic?  Am I focused on the person or just solving their problem?  Am I looking to God to give me wisdom and insight?  Do I have confidence God understands the complexity of the situation better than I do?  If we can remember to keep ourselves balanced and focused on the right things we will find ourselves in step with God and a blessing to the people around us.

See how easy is it is?  Just repeat after me: It’s complicated.

Mercy and God’s desire

2 02 2012

Most people will agree that having discipline in your life is good such as exercising regularly or skipping dessert from time to time.  There are also spiritual disciplines that have been practiced throughout the centuries such as fasting or serving that help us grow spiritually.  One of my spiritual disciplines is to continually read through the Bible.  Last year I read through the New Testament and this year I am reading through the Old Testament.  One of the reasons it is called discipline is because you have to power through those times when you don’t have the desire to do it.  That is me when I get to the second half of Exodus.  It goes into incredible detail about the Tabernacle which was the place of worship the Israelites were told to build before entering the Promise Land.  I grit my teeth and power through how wide something is suppose to be and what type of material is suppose to be used.  However, this time God honored my discipline with some insight.

In Exodus 25:17 one of the ways to translate the Hebrew word used to describe the lid for the Ark of the Covenant is “the mercy seat.”  Those who are not familiar with the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the holiest place.  Please don’t miss that in the very first place of worship God directed to be built was the picture of mercy in the most sacred area.

When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. The author of Hebrews said in 4:16, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We know as we continue to read Hebrews the Tabernacle was a picture of what was happening in Heaven (Hebrews 8 and 9). God’s desire has always been to give mercy.

We like mercy for ourselves but we have to be honest; we are not too excited about mercy for other people. One of my favorite passages capturing this comes from the book of Jonah. Jonah had been sent to tell the people of Nineveh God was about to execute judgment on their city because of their sins. The people’s response was remorse and they repented. God’s response; mercy. Jonah’s response; pouting.

Jonah 4:1-3 says “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  He prayed to the LORD, ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”

Hmmm, does it strike anyone else as funny to think someone would be mad at God for being gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love?  However, that could easily be me when someone receives grace and mercy when I believe they deserve to be punished.  I am really glad I am not God.

Is God holy?  Yes.  Does God desire to give mercy?  Yes.  The Tabernacle acknowledged these two aspects of God.  God is holy and in the midst of that holiness is mercy.  Mercy invites us to a relationship with God.  God wants us to come close and have confidence as we approach him.

How do we apply this?  First, we have to look at our own relationship with God.  If you view God as distant and just waiting to pounce when you make a mistake, I hope you will reevaluate your view.  I hope you can grasp that God’s desire is to give mercy.  This does not mean we do whatever we want.  That would be disregarding his holiness.  It means God starts with the desire to give grace and mercy.  There is more depth to this and I would recommend talking with someone you respect who is mature in their faith to help explore this.  Second, we need to really look at how we are treating the people around us.  Is our desire to give mercy?  Is our hope that we can extend grace and be compassionate?  If we can make it our desire, then we will be in step with God.  Someone else can pout about how we are slow to get angry and we seem to be gracious and compassionate to the people around us.  Yeah, I would find it funny if people were complaining about that.

PS.  This devotional came as a result of practicing a spiritual discipline in my life.  I would encourage you to look at practicing spiritual disciplines in your life.  If that is a new concept for you, talk with someone you respect and let them help you.

It is easier to be a slave than to be free

26 01 2012

I hope my title caught your interest.  How could it be easier to be a slave than to be free?  I have to offer a disclaimer.  Thankfully, it is safe to say that those able to read this are not physically in slavery.  So my focus is on slavery that we slip into.  I heard a speaker say one of the harshest forms of slavery is to be a slave to our own passions.  When we are controlled by things such as lust, greed or anger, they become fierce task masters.  They control and dominate us.  We become their slave.  I know you are thinking, “But I thought you said slavery was easier!”  Yes, I did.  So, let’s look at this together.

The idea came as I was praying and reading during my own devotional time.  I am currently reading through Exodus.  It is amazing to see how the people continued to look fondly at slavery and wish they could go back to being slaves each time they experienced a hardship.  This was in spite of seeing God do one amazing act after another.  While it would be great to pick on them, I see the same tendency in my own life when things get hard.  I want to go back to being a slave.

I think I see why.  What struck me was slavery removes two huge words from my vocabulary: ownership and responsibility.  If I am free then I can take ownership of the situation or circumstances.  Let’s take the example of anger.  If I am a slave to my anger then it was outside of my control and the circumstance or the other person is to blame.  They should have known better.  If I am free then I own my response to my circumstance.  I own the actions I took in responding to the other person.  This naturally leads to responsibility.  I have to take responsibility for my actions and I have figure out how to manage my anger instead of simply being a slave to it.  Taking responsibility means that I both acknowledge the need for change and, because I am free, I take the steps to change.

Imagine if the Israelites embraced their freedom.  They would have realized they needed to be part of the solution as each challenge came up.  They would have taken responsibility for their part and wanted to work with Moses and God to find a solution.  They would have come to God as free people looking for God’s guidance and direction ready to take ownership as they needed.  They would have become partners with God and Moses.

Galatians 5:1 Paul says:  “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Paul wrote this because people had slipped into another form of slavery, legalism.  We have to be honest.  It is nice not to have to take ownership and responsibility for our lives and the things that go on around us.

My hope is that if something has you in slavery, it is eating at the back of your mind.  You know you have to take ownership and responsibility but you are honest that it would be easier to stay a slave.  What do we do?  I think the secret is with God and Moses.

First, we have to look to God and trust God.  We have to really believe that God is a better master than what we are slaves to.  God invites us to freely submit to him.  God wants us to live free and rely on him.  This means finding out what God’s standard and expectations are.  Second, we need each other.  Moses continued to point people in the right direction.  We need people we trust who will point us in the right direction and hold us accountable.  A sign a person is being like Moses is that they are looking to God and they have our best interest at heart.  I will boldly say we need both.  God works through people.  God used people to write the Bible and God continues to use people to be a part of his work in our lives.  When we trust both God and others the result is freedom.  Is it hard? Yes.  Is it worth it?  You better believe it!

I invite you to look at your life and see if you find yourself in slavery.  It may be an attitude, a bad habit, or even an unhealthy relationship.  Honestly evaluate what ownership and responsibility would look like.  Look to God and others who can help you become free.  It will be hard and there will be struggles.  Depending on how big the issue is, there may even be times when you will want to go back to being a slave.  Stick it out and work through it.  In the end you will experience freedom.  It will be truly worth it.

Is my love selfish?

14 12 2011

Have you ever noticed how quickly we can become dissatisfied with what we have? We could really want ice cream. Once we get it, we start wanting particular flavors. Once we have a variety of flavors we want a variety of toppings. Heaven forbid we ever go back to not having any ice cream and just have to hope for it. We have this tendency of having our desires fulfilled only to have them become expectations that need to be met. When they are not met, we become frustrated and angry even if we really don’t need it.

The real danger is when this perspective seeps into relationships with people we love. One danger is we only love the person if they do what we want. As long as they are meeting our needs, we will love them. What is more common is placing expectations on a relationship that should be unconditional. In either case, as my needs are met I slowly increase my expectations. Even if my needs are met I become dissatisfied and have more needs. Life is drained out of the relationship.

In Exodus 15:22-17:7 you see this happen in the relationship with the people of Israel and God. First, they have bad water; God makes the water drinkable. Then, they are worried about starving; God provides them bread called manna. Next, they want meat; God provides them quail. Back to needing water, God once again comes through and provides them water. This all happened after they watched God do incredible miracles to get them out slavery. They grumble and complain and damage their relationship with God.

It is easy to pick on them but I am guilty of having the same perspective in both my relationship with God and those around me. I can find myself asking, “What have you done for me lately?” As faithful as God has been, I can still forget when I am frustrated by a current situation. It is even worse in relationships with other people because they are humans which mean they make mistakes and sometimes don’t know what I need or expect from them. Either way I drain life out of the relationship. It makes me ask the question: do I really understand what unconditional love is suppose to look like?

What do I do?

It starts with my relationship with God. We see God’s incredible unconditional love for us. It makes us ask if we are giving it back. Do I only love God if he answers my prayers the way I want them to be answered? Am I willing to follow God no matter what my circumstances are? Can I see God’s faithfulness in my life and am I truly grateful? I hope there are even more questions that are coming to your mind. Take the time to pray about them and look to see what the Bible has to say. It may also be really good to talk with someone who is spiritual mature and you respect. I believe this is the foundation that helps us look at unconditional love in all our other relationships.

I will just briefly touch on three key relationships.

In marriage, we have it the easiest. (It is okay if you find yourself smiling because it may be the hardest.) In marriage we have one person we can focus on loving and making sure their needs are met regardless if our needs are being met. The reason it is easy is because if each of us is focused on the other person, then both of our needs can be met.

In parenting, we have the opportunity to freely give love. Let’s face it. A six month old child is going to be very needy and not be able to do anything about our needs, especially our need for sleep. Sadly, many parents place expectations on their children to meet needs they are not capable of meeting. When there is unconditional love, parents have a profound influence on their children and children have an opportunity to truly honor their parents.

In friendship, we have the opportunity to support and encourage one another that helps us grow. Ideally, our churches should be places where deep unconditional love for one another is nurtured and developed. In fact Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

I encourage you to take some time and really be honest about how you are showing love. If you find you are being selfish and are expecting the other person to meet more and more needs, then stop, ask for forgiveness if necessary, and learn how to be unselfish and unconditional in the relationship. You may need to have a serious talk about expectations and the health of the relationship. You may find that you need to talk with someone else to help you. It will cause you to be more transparent with who you are and what you need. It won’t be easy but it will be worth it. As I learn more about unconditional love, I fall more in love with God and a foundation is laid for me to fall more in love with the people around me. Trust me, it is incredibly rewarding.