Tag Archives: trusting god

Crash and Learn

Life goals and dreams of success might look different in different ages, but sometimes after we start our journey with Jesus we start to wonder, “What are you up to God? Am I missing out by being a Christian, and putting you first in my life?”

Peter was the bold disciple, the one who swore he would follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to the grave if need be. He was the one who kept stumbling onto the truth. He was the leader, when the group was talked about it was often talked about as “Peter and the 12.” This was the guy who walked on water with Jesus. The one Jesus called the Rock. And yet when the chips were down Peter had abandoned Jesus, he had denied him three times. And though Jesus had risen and Peter was overjoyed, his joy probably very quickly brought him full circle back to shame. Everyone knew his boldness had flickered. The group was in serious need of restoration, but Peter probably needed it more than anyone else. He had failed as a leader, and he had failed as a follower. It was probably pretty tempting to just go out on the water, turn off your mind, and return to the simple life of fishing. This is where we see Peter in John 21:1-19. After Jesus has died, Peter goes back to fishing… but Jesus was fishing for Peter’s restoration.

Jesus showed up again. He came once as a stranger, and pointed the way to the fish, the way to the catch of a lifetime; a catch so big the nets were breaking. And it is almost like Jesus and had Peter started over, full circle back at the beginning. All through the story Peter is called Simon Peter, or simply Peter, the name Jesus had given him, but now Jesus calls him by his former name, Simon son of John.

Jesus almost pretends he doesn’t know Peter anymore. Yet he brings Peter back to restoration! In almost a reversal of the three denials, Jesus asks, “do you love me?” and by the end of it Peter feels hurt. Jesus asks him to show his love for him, not by being a fisherman, but by serving as a shepherd. Scholars argue about what Jesus means by “these” when he asks Peter, do you love me more than “these.” Some think it is the boat and the life of fishing, but the best answer I could find is that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples. Peter once had claimed boldly that even if the others would fall away from Jesus that he would not, but instead he had fled… along with the rest of them and after denying Jesus three times.

You have probably heard a sermon on this text that speaks about the different Greek words for love, and their basic differences. It is true that Jesus uses agape here, a word that is often used to describe the selfless love of God, and that when Peter answers back he is using phileo a different word for the love of a friend, or brotherly love. There is a difference in these words and John clearly means for us to notice the difference here, but the difference in the words is not as extreme as people used to think. Contrary to what you may have been taught, agape has been used in some ways that might seem surprising to us. It is at times used to speak of false love, or even the love of the world, and phileo has been used even to speak of Jesus’ love for the Father. These words are in many ways synonymous at times, and not as radically different as many people have often been told. Peter does respond in a slightly softer way than Jesus asks him to, but this is not Peter denying Jesus all over again. There is something specific here about the word choice, and I believe John uses this choice because Jesus and Peter are talking past one another, but this is kind of a subtle thing.

As we come before God with our need for restoration, it is true that we can—even in our relationship with God—talk past one another. It is true that God asks for a deeper love than we are sometimes willing to give. Our priorities about the love of God can sometimes get confused. But I think most importantly what this story teaches us is not to be found in the difference in lexical meanings of Greek  words about love, but in the example of love Jesus shows us in how he approaches Peter’s restoration. Jesus makes them breakfast when they come in to the shore! Though he comes to them as a stranger… we see love shown in the hospitality of Jesus to make them something to eat right there on the shore. We see the patience of Jesus as he waits through all of Peter’s waffling… as his questions start to break Peter’s heart and get him to see his need for his savior. We see Jesus’ compassion in his seeking out Peter to take care of the unfinished business of Peter’s reconciliation and his restoration to his calling…

How many of us would do the same to someone who turned their back on us in betrayal, while we had suffered and died? No… the love of God is not about the definition of Greek words, it is about the love of God going all the way to the cross, and all the way back to the banks of the lake where Peter, James and John had started out at when Jesus first called them. Now they were all together again, to be called away from the water again, to be fishers of men and nothing else. They were once again presented with the decision to be committed to the cause of Christ.

When Peter said before he would not fall away even if the others did, that he would be willing to lay down his life with Jesus, he had not lived it out. He had run away from the questions of even a lowly servant girl. But now he was right back to square one, right back to where it all started, and he could have a second chance at radical obedience. He could chose again to follow Jesus, knowing exactly how much it could cost him.

At the end of the passage, when it talks about another dressing you and leading you where you are to go, the word for dressing really means girding. It is not the usual word for dressing, but the usual word for binding. On the cross, Jesus was pierced with nails, but nails alone would not be enough to hold a struggling crucifixion victim on the cross until their death. The arms and legs of people on crosses were also bound by cloth or ropes, they were girded. The death John points to that Peter would experience was not the death of an old man, in his senility and perhaps poor vision, being lead around and dressed by others.

According to early church tradition from ancient church historian Eusebius, Peter’s example of commitment and sacrifice did end up being radical. Peter would be martyred in a time of intense persecution under the oppressive emperor Nero. But according to Eusebius, Peter requested to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die in the exact same manner that Jesus did. Peter would be restored, he would live up to his name as a rock, he would follow Jesus in radical obedience, even knowing it would eventually cost him his life.

The question God has for us today is not what kind of witness we will bear in death, but what kind of witness we will bear in life. Where there is boldness and passion, people will follow. Steve Jobs, the innovator behind Apple, had tons of followers. He believed in himself and he believed in his product and his mission. Jack White might be the greatest Rock Star that ever lived, certainly the greatest of our time. People follow him because of his passion, a passion that matches his talent. Marshal Mathers believes he is the greatest rapper of all time, and because he believes, other people believe it, and follow him.

Peter was a passionate guy. Enough so he stripped his clothes off and swam to shore when he heard Jesus was there. His boldness was shown in many places like his sermon in Acts where he defied the religious leaders of his day saying, “We must serve God rather than men.” He was willing to face—like Jesus—death on a cross.

Are we inspired by Peter’s passion? Do we have the courage, the passion, to bear witness for Jesus,
not dramatically in our death but today in our life? People follow other people with passion… Do we have passion? Are we passionate about Jesus? Are people following us to Jesus? God may not ask us to die for Him, but he does ask us to live for him. He asks us to suffer for Him; to serve with Him. He promises we will reign with Him.

Some of us might be a bit gun shy. Some of us need some restoration. God knows what we need, whether that is hospitality and patience, or a swift kick in the pants to now and then to fire up our passion. But either way God is still searching us out, still trying to show us the depth of His love, still getting us to see we can trust God to provide for us as we walk with him. That he could fill our nets so full they might break, or call us to a cross, and that either way we can trust Him. Sometimes it takes a second chance to get things right, and God—in my experience—has always been faithful to provide one. But often we do not see that opportunity until we have come full circle and notice that Jesus is there, calling us once again to follow Him.

Agape,
James


Paths Through the Desert

In Job we get to see something interesting about how God uses suffering to reveal what is in the hearts of humans. Job, a righteous man, suffers immense tragedy at the hands of Satan. While God ultimately restores Job, his “friends” keep coming around telling him he must have done something. His friends are saying God is not protecting Job because he must have messed something up in his relationship with God. “You got your troubles by your own mistakes Job, because God would have protected you if you were really righteous,” they argue.

A while back we went through 1st Peter, another book that reveals how God uses suffering to refine us, to identify us with the sufferings of Christ. God sometimes uses fiery trials to re-form us closer to the image of Christ, the God who suffered for us and suffers with us. This book was written for an audience who was experiencing intense persecution and yet, it kept pointing them back to the example Christ. This experience was not lifted up as something God would protect them from and help them escape, it was seen as an opportunity to be refined.

The fact is God can use suffering, and does use suffering. He uses it to refine us, and every now and then it’s actually good for us. It can shake us out of our complacency and turn us back to God. It can purify our motives. Suffering can draw us closer to God in ways that comfort can actually get in the way of. As John of the Cross reminds us, when we are comfortable, often the first thing to suffer is our relationship to God because we begin to forget how much we really need Him.

The truth is, God seems more likely to use suffering to refine us than we are comfortable with. God is not in the business of handing out golden parachutes, but in raising up true disciples who like Job can weather even the biggest storm this life can throw at us and have our relationship with God remain intact. We might freak out a little bit, but the center holds. God holds us together though the mess. Sometimes God draws us to a desert experience so that we would thirst for Him…to show us we have been drinking from other places than the water of life. Like Jesus in the wilderness God sometimes calls us to travel the way of the desert: The way of trusting God on an unfamiliar path.

God’s grace sustaining us on the desert way—puts us in a place to see things as they really are: We see ourselves, and our relationship with God with new eyes. We see the end of ourselves. We see our dependence on God. We see our utter need, but we also see God sustaining us in ways we never believed were possible. God doesn’t just give us new eyes to see ourselves, He gives us eyes to see our tethers (the things William Penn called cumber). We see the things that control us for what they are…and as they are unmasked we learn to be free of them once again.

Like the children of Israel before the exile, we can limit God. We can mentally trap Him inside a building on Sunday morning, we can even trap Him inside the Bible, if we read it in unbelief that the Spirit is still moving and still leading us today. The children of Israel had a way of seeing God that was bound to the land. It was bound to the Temple, the monarchy. It was bound to the shadow of mount Zion. They would point to the promises of God, but their actions were no longer rooted in the character and nature of God. They no longer depended on God, but on external things. They pointed to the blessing God promised them, but they ignored the warnings about their own part of the covenant. All their encounters with God were past encounters, because they had long since gotten comfortable with their sin separating them from God.

So God called them to Babylon. He would no longer protect them from themselves. He would strip it all away to show them something new. He would show them how as Creator, He was unfettered and free. He would keep His promises on His own terms, not on their terms. He would show them that outside the protections of their armies. Outside the protections of the Promised Land. Outside the elaborate Temple system and blessings of the priests. God was there, even in Babylon. God was not limited by the limitations they tried to put on Him…

God is still trustworthy to sustain us. The same God who parted the Red Sea would also make a way through the exile. After all these things were stripped away, the one thing they would know they could count on would be the promises of God. They would one day get back these blessings they were about to lose. They would one day return to the land they knew, but first a lot of chaff would be stripped away. God had to make them thirsty for the right things once again…

Isaiah writes:

“Look, I am about to do something new. Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it? Yes, I will make a road in the desert and paths in the wilderness.  The wild animals of the desert honor me, the jackals and ostriches, because I put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness, to quench the thirst of my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so they might praise me.” (Isa. 43:19-21)

After a long experience of God stripping me down, revealing the good and the bad motivations for ministry still kicking around within me, revealing the parts of my mind still needing to be held captive by Christ. I went through a long process of letting go all control, and trusting God to lead me once again. It was a process that brought me here, and a process still at work within me in some new ways. Maybe you’re in that place. It is messy to watch something we love fade. To mourn it. And to wake back up to the hope of God resurrecting something new in its place…

We have been through quite a time of testing these last few months at College Avenue. It has been hard to lose so many people we love and walk with them through various trials. These last few months I feel as I have come to the end of myself, and yet broken through to that place where God’s presence floods back in, bringing beauty to the brokenness. God’s Spirit has sustained me recently in ways I could never begin to describe. And as Isaiah reminds us, we can come out the other side of a desert experience with hearts filled with praise. I long for that, for me and for you. I long for God to bring about something new and wonderful, bearing fruits only He can bear in us. We bear these fruits only through being connected to the Vine. Sometimes nothing reveals that like the desert. May our many trials make us thirsty for God, and help us trust Him to satisfy our thirst as only He can. May we learn to trust Him in these uncertain times. May we be grateful for His streams in the desert, filling our hearts with hope and even wonder at the journey. God wants his people to be freed from slavery, and sometimes that means trusting God through the desert, and then finally to the Promised Land beyond it. Let us keep walking, keep hoping, and keep dreaming for the new things God wants to do among us.

Agape,

James

 


Sacrifice Made Alive

turkey-sacrifice-feastI once heard a friend describe how his experience following Jesus seemed to require two conversions, in one Jesus became his savior and in another, Jesus became his Lord. I had never heard it described that way before, but it fits with my experience too. I came to Jesus on my own terms, and despite knowing I needed salvation, I was not in any big hurry to give Jesus all the keys to all the doors of my life. I still had some skeletons out there. I still had some places where my prayers, though unspoken, were like that of St Augustine who famously described the misery of an inappropriate relationship and his wrestling with God’s call in his prayer, “Lord deliver me, but not yet!”
For me, accepting Jesus as Lord was a call to obedience, to integrity. It called me to look at my actions, and look at what I said I believe—what I wanted to believe—and the reality of my falling short. The reality of where there was a disconnection between what I said and what my life had to say I really believed. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12 puts this kind of spiritual growth where we step out into faith and learn to walk in the ways of God like this:
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I may have come to God on my own terms, but eventually I began to grasp his mercy. I started to see my story in light of God’s gospel story, and the Holy Spirit frustrated me with a kind of Holy frustration. I came to God on my own terms, in a way, but faith started to get a hold of me and meddle with my life. I knew I needed a Savior, that was the easy part. The hard part was dying to my rebelliousness and submitting to Jesus as my Lord.
I think a lot of us like the gray area. We like to have Jesus be our Savior, but we hold back. We do not want to submit. Instead of letting God get a hold of us and have His way in us, we approach life through the lens of what I like to call Jesus+. Jesus + what I was already going to do anyway. Jesus + the career I had already chosen… Jesus + a wife and 2.3 kids, and a comfortable life in the suburbs somewhere. I will follow Jesus, but only if it leads me to where I already want to go. Instead of letting our minds be transformed, we try to transform the things we give God permission to tell us. We want to have it both ways, Jesus as Savior…but not really Lord.

But Jesus+ doesn’t cut it; we need to live a God first life. There is no real growth until we give God all of us. Paul describes it in the form of offering our bodies. It is not how much money you put in the offering plate; it is whether your life is in the offering plate. It is whether your hopes, your dreams, your actual body, are completely in the tank for Jesus. Someone once said God gives where He sees open hands. I think that is true. At the end of the day, God gives us what we really want, not what we say we want… but what we really want. If we want to serve Him, we will find our lives reflecting that. If we want to put on a mask and have a faith that is only skin deep—and not much use for God, we will find that too.

And there is no growth without sacrifice. Jesus calls us to put on his easy yoke, but he also calls us to daily take up our cross and follow him. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice was meant to represent your very best. Not the animal that was going blind, the animal in its prime. It was costly. There are all kinds of stories that show us this, Eli’s sons offering strange fire… Malachi rejecting the people giving sick and lame animals as sacrifices, Ananias and Sapphira wanting the glory of giving it all while lying about holding back… God doesn’t want our leftovers, our leftovers are not worthy of God, He is worthy of our very best. He gave his very best for us. He gave us blessings to his dying breath, and beyond. He offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that paid the ultimate price… and in response to that we are to set our lives apart for him as a living sacrifice. We may die for Jesus…but he asks that we live for him instead.

I know some of you may feel differently than I about prosperity. I believe there are many benefits to righteous living, but there are also dangers. Jesus calls some of the righteous to suffer persecution in his name. I think a lot of people think being a Christian means God will be on your side and give you everything you want. That following God is nothing but rainbows and lollipops, if you just put God first in your life. I believe that is only half true. My experience felt more like Jesus wrecking my life until I understood what God was trying to do!

I think the closer we walk with God the more he changes us to want what he wants, to care about what he cares about. I think when we give our lives to God he takes it and gives our lives back. He takes our plans and then shows us his plan. Our lives become more about sacrifice and service, than about bucket lists and our already decided Jesus+ plans.

This is what worship was always meant to be, not just going through the motions in empty ritual or kept in the box of what happens on a Sunday morning. Worship takes your whole life, not just a few hours one day a week. We have to worship God with everything, our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength.
Only when we put some skin in God’s game do we begin to know the heart of God and his desires for us and our world. Only when we hold our plans loosely, and submit to God’s will… do we truly become a living sacrifice. Sacrifice has to be made alive in how we live our lives.

There are a lot of people who live as though their bodies are their own, as if there can be a disconnect between their behavior and their beliefs. I know it because I did it myself. Sometimes we want a savior, but still want to be masters of their own destiny. We would rather “reign” in hell, so to speak, than “serve” in heaven. But there is a part of faith that is more than simply knowing the right answers; it is about living into the truth. There is a part of growing deeper in God where we have to say, like Isaiah in response to God’s call, “Here I am Lord, send me.” Where we let God renew our minds… where our every action can be an acceptance of Jesus or a rejection of Jesus… where we come to the end of ourselves and humbly come before God as an empty vessel asking to be filled.

Grace is a wonderful thing, and God’s grace abounds, but that doesn’t mean we can have a faith that asks nothing of us. I think it is easy to make fun of people from bible times that worshipped statues made of rocks or sticks. To wonder, why would anyone ever do that? I will tell you why. Rocks and sticks ask nothing of us. It is easy for us to fall into a kind of empty Christianity, where we go through the motions… show up and listen to preaching or hear the songs, or just sleep in… expecting that we can come to the living God, and yet hold back—to be warmed by the fire of his holiness and yet not let ourselves be fully consumed. To pray that prayer of Augustine, “Deliver me Lord, but not yet.” I will follow you later Jesus, after I have made my life everything I want it, and all the big decisions have already been settled. Like the rich young ruler, our comforts sometimes are too heavy to drag with us after Jesus…

But let’s get real, where do you hear God asking for sacrifice? Where is God getting your best? Are you holding anything back, and if so… what is that anchor, what is that chain God wants to break you free from? There can be no real growth without all of you on the altar, your whole life in the offering plate. There can be no real growth if your faith has no room for sacrifice.
Agape,
James


Resolving for More

newyearseve1

It has become traditional for many of us to reflect on our lives in the twilight of one year fading and the next approaching. Often most of what guides that thinking is regrets we want to learn from, or goals we want to strive for. Unfortunately for many who have reflected on their lives, despite the best of intentions, New Years resolutions often burn out before winter even begins to thaw. The Quaker view of simplicity as I understand it has a lot to say about how one might approach this time of reflection. At its core it is about evaluating what produces addiction in us; what controls us. Often we find that we can bend who we are around how we want others to see us, or what pleasures we might lose ourselves in. But the goal of simplicity is not merely sin management, pleasure seeking, or knocking things off our “bucket list,” in short it is more about getting in touch with our truest convictions, and living from them, than it is about “resolving” to add something new to our lives.

One of my growing convictions is that I was made to tinker and create. This does not mean I am not called to be a pastor, but it does profoundly shape how I approach serving as a pastor and how I spend healthy time at play. When I say creativity is one of my convictions, I am not saying creativity is something I value as much as I am saying that I “cannot not” create. The way my mind works and my passions are orientated necessitates I do the life giving work of creating, whether than means writing, building a project in the garage, or developing new skills that help me grow to my potential. Lately I have been playing with metal casting, building a forge, designing an anvil, and learning French. But none of these endeavors have anything to do with resolutions for a new year. They each in their own way, fit into my convictions about living a simple life, as surprising as that might be to hear.

My hope and prayer is that each of you makes space in your life for your convictions to thrive. So much of our lives can easily become more like slavery to a multitude of obligations than growing into who God is calling us to be. As Christians, we have a robust theological understanding of being the body of Christ, and this understanding means our strengths come from our unity and diversity. Indeed we were created to be different on purpose, and yet were each made to work in unison to the glory of God. As our lives lose touch with the wisdom of simplicity, instead of saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things, we often say yes to too many things and only say no when we are drowning. Yet God has a much saner and life giving way for those who would take on the yoke of Christ. If we are hoping to attract others to the way of Jesus we must first demonstrate that the way of Jesus has something more to offer than the hurry and stress of a secular life! As Jesus said, we must examine the plank in our own eye….

While I find myself disagreeing with John Piper about a great number of things, he has an interesting understanding of doing what we were made for he confusingly calls “Christian Hedonism.” Piper defines that as briefly in his statement “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” What Piper means is that as we grow into who God is calling us to be and take on the mind of Christ we will naturally enjoy good Christian things. These things are not limited to prayer and bible study or regularly attending worship, though those are all good things. What I mean is that God will create in us desires for good things, and also a deep satisfaction in doing the things we were made to do. At its core, I think this speaks to the heart of simplicity.

As we approach a new year, let us do more than settle for fleeting convictions fast forgotten. Let us go deeper into the lessons this last year has been trying to teach us about how to be satisfied, not as an end to itself, but as a byproduct of living out our calling and finding the freedom of desiring the will of God to reign in our hearts and minds. A simple life is a life seeking righteousness, earnest faithfulness, and the Holy Spirit convicting us not only of our sins, but of about righteousness (John 16:8). While it may not be the soundest argument about the overall thrust of that verse, I do believe God brings convictions into our lives about how we are to live free from sin, but also how we are to let the righteousness of Christ shape how we live our lives. Paul describes his way of living out the gospel among the Thessalonians as one stemming not “simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). May we strive to live out our faith to those around us in touch with God’s leadings, and in touch with the truest things God is creating in our hearts.

Agape,
James


Friday Lenten Journey of Justice: “A Vision of Renewal”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read Mt 19:16-30

Devotion

Jesus’ command to give to the poor is perhaps one of his most controversial in the American church. We truly are a church of “Rich Young Rulers” who are attached to our wealth like an anchor. Like a camel passing through the eye of a needle, what would be left of us if we followed Jesus in this way that seems so impossible? As Jesus reminds us, what seems so impossible is not impossible with God’s help.

The disciples were amazed because they believed something about prosperity that is challenged at nearly every point by Jesus’ teachings: they believed that the rich were God’s favorite. They believed that the material blessings the rich received were the benefits of a righteous life. Now it is true that there are many rewards of a righteous life, and prosperity of many kinds is somehow mysteriously attached to it.  It is true that the wisdom of God can work itself out in life in a way that can result in accruing wealth. But it is also true, as we all know, that injustice is just as likely to produce prosperity in a material sense. Sometimes it is the richest among us who are the most corrupted, the most self serving, and selfish. The most likely to do anything to make a buck. Jesus points us to a vision beyond what we can get out of this life, he points us to the renewal of all things. He points us to a vision of justice transforming life at every level.

One of the harshest railings against the truth of this can be found in the book of Malachi. There we see that God at times lets rich and arrogant people just have these short term “blessings” that will eventually be their own undoing. And many are the rich people who would never follow a man who said things like “foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head.” Sometimes the things we own can end up owing us. Sometimes we are all to willing to forsake the hope of final judgment and heavenly reward for a few glittering trinkets and material comforts. Though Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” he also said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The greatest rewards one could ever receive are not the kind that can be bought in a store or clung to with a clenched fist, they are not the kind that are even found in the best of human relationships: the greatest treasure of all are those who choose Jesus now over all other things. As Jim Elliot, the martyred missionary to Ecuador once wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Friday Fools Challenge

Take a 20 dollar bill and pray over it asking God to use help you use it to bless someone today. Continue to pray that God might open up your eyes to some need around you. In some cases, handing someone money can be a bad way to go. For instance if you give 20 dollars to an alcoholic it might do more harm than good, or if you give cash or a gift card to someone they might not spend it in a way that really seeks blessing. Pray seriously about this adventure and see if there is a more tangible way to turn this physical dollar into a blessing for someone. If you can somehow give it in secret you will be even more blessed.


Sunday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Walking the Walk”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Devotion:

In Micah 6:1-8 God offers the people of Micah’s day a picture of what He desires from His people, three things just as radical in his time as in our own: To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. I want to explore these each a bit further.

Acting justly might seem to us the height of simplicity. But as the people of God we bear witness to God in how we live our lives. And as we seek to live lives of justice this flies in the face of a world that says to us at every turn, “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t trying, the ends justify the means.” To live just and righteous lives is to live at odds with the controlling forces of fear at work in us; to live at odds with the oppressive system that we benefit from that keeps us safe.

To be fair and impartial like God is breaks down all the barriers of “us versus them” it breaks down all our justifications about choosing the lesser of two evils. As I mentioned during the section on the prophet Amos, justice and righteousness are two halves to the same coin. And the face stamped on that coin is Jesus’ face. As we strive to live justly we also strive to grow in the image of Jesus, and to demonstrate a radical reorientation of our whole selves to the character and nature of God.

In one of my previous sermons I talked about what grace is with the example of how we might respond to being punched in the face. If we were to punch them back… that would be justice—a black eye for a black eye. If we refused to punch them back… that would be mercy, it would be not giving them what they deserve. But grace meant to go even farther, to not only not hit them back…. but even to forgive them enough to take them out for ice cream afterwards. Grace is that radical of a thing, it is not only “not giving what is deserved” it is giving what is not deserved.

The command to “love mercy” is particularly striking to me. Loving mercy is a radical thing in a world that says “mercy is for the weak, they would do the same to us if they had the chance.” God does not only prescribe for us to do justice, he pushes us past justice into mercy. But he does not merely ask us as His people to BE MERCIFUL, as hard as even that is for us. God asks us to go beyond being merciful to the point where we have our hearts changed so that we LOVE mercy.

This calls us to walking in a kind of pre-forgiveness. It calls us to be changed so much that mercy is a natural response for us. And this is essentially a command…

It does not seem strange to me that we would need that kind of “strong word” from God to get us up off our seats and on with the business of actually doing it. The way I read it, to love mercy is essentially to offer grace. In a sense, justice is fair, but mercy is unfair. It requires us to go beyond fair. If it was earned… it would not be mercy–it could not be–by definition. To love mercy is one of the clearest calls from the Old Testament toward what we refer to in the New as Christ-likeness. To love mercy is to follow Jesus’ example of loving even enemies, of turning the other cheek, of walking in a kind of pre-forgiveness, and of dying to ourselves for a people who did not deserve it.

The very heart of God is one that loves mercy. To be a people after God’s own heart requires us to not only “be” merciful, but to let God reshape our hearts into hearts that love mercy and practice grace. It calls us not only to sacrifice and to “give until it hurts,” but to love to do so. In our human understanding, justice and mercy are opposites, yet in God’s understanding they can become two halves of the same coin: love.

Lastly we are called to walk humbly with our God. This takes it to the next level beyond even loving mercy. I have met my share of people who strive for justice, but often that can end up just being a new form of legalism where we keep score between ourselves and others. For instance, I have some friends back home that are animal rights activists, and to be fair, they are right about a lot of things. But their striving for justice at many points just felt like they were finding a new way to judge others and question their compassion, intelligence, and motives. This can easily happen to people who act justly, they can start keeping score and make it about self-righteousness.

Even loving mercy can be a source of pride. As we strive to be like God in this way, we can—because of our growth—see the areas in others that lack growth. Our love for mercy can actually make us less merciful to those we perceive as being hard hearted or having bad motives. As we give mercy to others we can do so in a way that counts the debts we have forgiven.

Walking humbly with our God is to go beyond simply doing justice and loving mercy. It is to do these things in a way that makes no sense, because we do them not simply because they ought to be done; we do them as a humble act of obedience, in submission to God. And in a way that does not keep score; does not try to use these good deeds as bargaining chips with God or ways to measure ourselves against others.

I can think of nothing more radical that to walk humbly with God in a world that says “arrogance, pride and self-importance are the real ways to get ahead in this world.” Walking humbly with God is to be so close to God, so transformed in his likeness, that we literally let that relationship be enough for us.

As David Crowder sings of it:

“And we are His portion and He is our prize

Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes

If His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking”

Walking humbly with our God is a race to the bottom of an upside down kingdom. And our King is the one who describes the journey of those who have ambition for seats of honor like this:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We can at times forget how radical God’s call is. It is not a call to comfort and feeling we have arrived, it is a radical counter-cultural call to living holy lives with holy motives. It is a call to be transformed into the image of Jesus.

So where are you on this race to the bottom? Do you live justly? If so, are you willing to let God show you how to love mercy? If you live justly and love mercy, do you need to grow in humility? Even if you do all of these, is it still like functional atheism, or is it something that flows from your deep relationship with God? No matter where you are in the journey, I bet there is still plenty of room at the bottom…

 


Friday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Beyond the Present Darkness”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Devotion

The prophet Micah called his people to consider how far their hearts had drifted from the pattern of Sinai. He gave them a warning to learn the lesson their Jewish neighbors had not learned that resulted in their exile. He gave his people a sorely needed wake up call, and yet he also gave them a threefold model to follow in calling the people to just actions, hearts desiring mercy, and living humble lives before an audience of One. This model was a 180 degree transformation from the popular pattern of stone cold ruthlessness and oppression that characterized the people of God at that time. Unfortunately the words of God’s prophets are listened to far too late, yet they are preserved in Scripture in part to acknowledge that the Lord was in fact speaking: that God was pleading with the people to repent and be restored to lives of love and justice.

In Micah 7 we see Micah call the people into a kind of reorientation to God. He does this first by lamenting his way through the unjust circumstances he sees at play around him… and he does this with an eye toward hope. In the middle of chapter seven Micah describes a people who will rise from the ashes of their exile–despite being trampled under the feet of their enemies. Lastly he closes his prophetic word with both prayer and praise to God, tempering his harsh message with a reminder of who God is and the compassionate heart of God that will one day bring about deep healing and restoration.

In short Micah points to a time beyond the present darkness, a time when the people of God once again live fully into their covenant as they did before. In the book of Judges God’s actions describe a cycle of God raising up a leader who will turn back the people toward God. Micah it seems struggled mightily to bring this about in his prophetic calling, but I see his closing picture of hope as one that points to Jesus as a Judges-style Redeemer who will come and renew the covenant between God and His people. It was Jesus who would come to “pardon sin and forgive the transgression of the remnant of [God’s] inheritance.”

 

  • Read Micah 7 paying special attention to the themes of reorientation, hope, and praise to God.
  • Friday Fool’s Challenge:
    Prayerfully reflect on times in your life you have been hurt, abused or ignored.  Ignatian spirituality often uses the language of “consolation and desolation” to describe the times through later reflection we notice we felt closest and farthest from God. Acknowledge a recent or significant time of desolation and the steps of the emotional journey of once again to finding your life re orientated to the character and nature of God, and His covenant that offers a path to restoration.
  • Use colored pencils or other vibrantly colored art supplies to manually draw or sculpt whatever comes to mind as a touchstone on this journey. As an example from my life, one of my daughters was born with serious complications that resulted in me flying with her in a life-flight helicopter where we spent 8 days in the NICU. Later, I used colorful clay to make a model helicopter to commemorate the experience and the raw emotions and alienation I experienced. Whatever “monument” you create, and whatever your artistic level is, do not worry about perfection. Reflect on the consolation and desolation of your experience and on where–looking back–you can see how God was at work, and if you can, bring a sense of godly play to the task as you engage with this experience of re-orientation to God.

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