Even Death will Die

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. -John 1:14

[A loud voice from the throne said,] “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Revelation 21:4

The book of Revelation holds a series of visions recorded by John of Patmos, the same John who followed Jesus and became a “fisher of people” with his brother James. In each vision, there is a different image of God’s plan to defeat death and all its power forever. There is a sense of victory even in the struggle. John sees that sin and death are no match for forgiveness and life in God.

In the final vision, John sees that the whole creation is being remade by God into a new heaven and earth, filled with all who have trusted God and are now raised to eternal life. In that new creation, death itself has passed away, along with pain, crying, and mourning.

It’s a strange thought: even death will die. And, once dead, it will not be raised again. Death never gets the last word, not for us. It gets quite a few words, loud and insistent, but never the last word. The only Word that persists is the Word that became flesh to live and die and live again. That’s the Word that lasts, whose very name, Jesus Christ, means “the chosen one who saves.” With the Word in our lives, death’s words don’t stand a chance at holding us for long.

That’s one of the things I love about Halloween and All Saints Day coming one right after the other. Halloween is a reminder of death. We decorate with skeletons and graves and vampires and zombies, all emblems of death’s power. It’s spooky. It sends a shiver down our spines. But we also laugh at death on Halloween. We know that the skeletons aren’t real, that the vampires can’t suck the life out of us, that the tombstones are just a joke.

Death, no matter how much it blusters and threatens, no matter how much it tries to claim for its own, is a joke compared to the Word of grace and truth. Its power is nothing to the promise of God. Even so, we can feel a bit frightened of the skeletons and the graves, deep down. What if, when night comes, hope does seem lost and death looks stronger than life?

But then, right on the tail of Halloween, comes All Saints Day. A day when the church boldly looks death in the eye and laughs in its face. We name the saints: those who have died in their bodies alongside those who have been newly baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You and I and all the baptized, we are already dead. Our sinful self has been drowned in the water of baptism and a new creature was raised that day. A creature called by name: Michael. Judith. Denise. Joshua. Adelynn. Joseph. David. Sara. Each of us, dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ forever. That’s the last Word.

When death seems strongest, remember that Word: you belong to Jesus Christ. The life that you live is not your own, but the Holy Spirit’s in you. Christians can laugh when death threatens and blusters, knowing that the last Word is always, always the Word of God: beloved, belonging, baptized. Death will die. Only life will remain.

God of grace and truth, some days death is all around. It seems so strong, too strong. Even so, I trust your Word that life is stronger. I trust your Word that death itself will pass away. Until that day, keep me in your Word. Amen.

Keep it Simple, Sinner

The guard led Paul and Silas outside and asked, “Honorable sirs, what must I do to be rescued?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” – Acts 16:30-31

Last week, I was watching a baking contest. The judges told the contestants that they needed to make brownies for the first challenge. The contestants could use any recipe they wanted, so long as they had 18 chocolate brownies ready to eat by the end of 90 minutes. As the contestants set to it, melting butter and sifting flour, the host of the show asked the judges a few questions backstage. What, the host wondered, was the mark of a perfect brownie?

One judge answered: it needs to be fudgy on the inside, with a lovely crinkly top. She went on to say that it would be a mistake to try to bedazzle the judges with elaborate frostings or fillings that might overpower the brownie or add too much sweetness to an already rich dessert.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the contestants were describing their ambitious plans to the other host. Two were making s’mores-inspired brownies with a cinnamon cookie base and marshmallow frosting. Several were coating their brownies in salted caramel sauce and whipped cream. One was making layered brownies with raspberry cheesecake on top. No one was making simple brownies, fudgy on the inside and crinkly on top.

Each baker had problems getting their creations finished in 90 minutes. Some were underdone and oozed when sliced into. Two bakers were afraid to take their hot brownies out of the pan, so they served up a whole pan instead of eighteen sliced brownies. A few had so much embellishment that the brownie itself was obscured by all the fluff.

When the judges returned to evaluate the brownies, it wasn’t good. They found fault with every baker’s finished product. By the end of the judging process, the contestants were equal parts disappointed and relieved that there were more challenges before the end of the day. One reflected afterward, “I reckon that if any of us had just made plain brownies, we’d have won. We made it more complicated than it needed to be.”

We made it more complicated than it needed to be. Hmm. That could have been said about all sorts of things. I wonder- do you ever make being a Christian more complicated than it needs to be? If not you, do you know someone who does, making long lists of things Christians must do or avoid in order to be assured that they are saved? Lists like: don’t swear, don’t drink, don’t dress in certain ways, do volunteer work, do sign up to be on a church committee, do read the Bible every day… and so on. But Paul and Silas don’t say any of those things to the guard who wants to be saved. They tell him: “Believe in the Lord Jesus.”

That doesn’t sound too complicated. It sounds so simple, in fact, that we can have trouble accepting it. Are you sure that I am saved by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by any good works that I do? Don’t I have to do something? Pray a certain prayer or go to church a number of times or change my life in some way to prove my salvation? That’s adding marshmallow frosting to your brownies, and trust me, that’s not what you need. All you need is trusting faith in Jesus.

And, yeah, having the Holy Spirit in your life certainly will change the way you live, speak, and relate to other people. Of course. But that’s all the result of being saved by Jesus, not a requirement before the Holy Spirit will forgive you.

Too often we get ourselves turned around, putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. To be very clear: the Holy Spirit is the horse and we’re the cart being pulled along to salvation. If the cart brings any good to anyone, it’s simply because the horse pulled it on the right roads. Being saved is simple: believe, have faith, trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. Period. We don’t need to make it any more complicated. It’s simple.

God, sometimes I make things more complicated than they need to be. I do it in my everyday life, in my relationships, in my worship. Help me trust the simple truth: I am saved by faith in you. Amen.

God is God

My plans aren’t your plans,

nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

and my plans than your plans.

Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky

and don’t return there without watering the earth,

making it conceive and yield plants

and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,

so is my word that comes from my mouth;

it does not return to me empty.

Instead, it does what I want,

and accomplishes what I intend.

-Isaiah 55:8-11

Some days, I have to tell you, I just wonder what God is thinking. How could “this” (whatever “this” is) be the plan for my life? It’s not the plan I would make, let me tell you. Then, well, I look at the lives of the people around me, my friends and family: seriously, God? And then I take a deep breath before looking at the state of the whole world. I wonder what sort of plan God could possibly be working on, and then I turn off the news and take another deep breath.

My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Hmmm. Wouldn’t it be nice if God’s plans would suit themselves to yours and mine a little more? I mean, just think how much easier it would be if God would just do things our way. I’d spend a lot less time wondering what God wanted from me. Congregations wouldn’t have to wonder about their mission or purpose. If only we could see exactly what God plans!

But it’s not that easy.

Even different Christians don’t agree on what God’s plan might be! I got a “how to vote faithfully” guide last week in the mail, and, well, I faithfully disagree with some of that particular publisher’s conclusions. Then later in the week, another Christian asked me to pray for our country. I replied that I often do, but in my heart I know that person and I are praying for very different outcomes when we pray for our country.

So who does God listen to? Which of us is following God’s plan? How can people following the same God and reading the same Bible come to such different conclusions? What if I pray for something that isn’t in God’s plan? What if different Christians are praying for opposing outcomes?

I thought of the verses above. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. Or, to put it another way: God is God. I am not. Human ideas of how things should be are never entirely in line with God’s, even though we try to listen to God and live our lives with faith and integrity. There’s always room for us to make mistakes, to misunderstand God, or to deliberately let our own sin get in the way of God’s plans.

But you know what? Even then, God is still God. I don’t know about you, but I find this reassuring. Even if I plan for things that are totally in opposition to God’s will, God is still going to act like God, not like me. Even if a billion Christians all agreed to pray for something, if it’s not consistent with God’s character, God’s not going to do it. God is God. We are not.

And, well, when it comes down to it, I trust God’s judgment and plans. It is reassuring to know that I can’t mess up God’s actions by praying for the wrong thing or investing in the wrong plan. Neither can you. We are not God.

So I don’t know everything God has planned. Sometimes that drives me up a wall. But I do know this: God’s plan includes that you and I and the people around us would get to hear this good news: no matter how much we’d done to work against God’s plans, to hurt ourselves or others, God’s promise is that we are forgiven through Jesus Christ. And just as God’s ways are different from ours, so is God’s word different. God’s word does what it says, “accomplishes what God wants.” Whatever questions I have about the specifics of God’s plan, I am certain that God will act like God. God loves you, forgives you, and keeps promises to you. This is most certainly true.

God, your ways and plans are different from mine. Sometimes that frustrates me. Other times it reassures me. Help me to trust what I know: that you are God and I am not. Amen.

Mountains

… Jesus said. “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.” -Matthew 17:20

What’s the biggest mountain you’ve ever seen? The Rocky Mountains? The Appalachians? Mount Rainier out in Seattle? Those are all bigger than any mountain in Palestine, but still, can you imagine hearing Jesus say that faith is enough to move even the smallest of mountains?

Before we even ask how faith could move mountains, a word about what faith is and what it is not. Faith is often misunderstood to mean having it all “right” about God. Faith isn’t about having the right answers for every question. Faith doesn’t happen in our heads alone. Faith is trust. Faith happens in our hearts and in our guts, as well as in our heads. Faith in Jesus Christ is trust that he keeps his promises, to put it simply. We trust that God is true to God’s word. That is faith.

Faith, or trust, whichever word is clearer to you, has another quality. Faith persists. That is, even when faced with opposition and obstacles, faith keeps on going. Why? Because faith holds onto the promise that God is with us to bring us safely through the challenges we face. Faith clings stubbornly to God’s Word.

What does this kind of trusting faith have to do with moving mountains? Everything. And nothing. Huh? Let’s back up. Just before Jesus tells his disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed will move mountains, he chides them for lacking faith to help a father seeking healing for his child. Which is easier, moving a mountain or helping a desperate parent care for their child? On my own, I am not sure I could set out to do either. The disciples clearly didn’t think so, either. I imagine them shuffling their feet, muttering that there’s no way they could move mountains with any amount of faith. Just who does Jesus think he is? God?

Uh, yes, actually. Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to believe in themselves, as so many people often encourage, but to believe in him. With Jesus Christ, all things are possible. Even helping in un-help-able circumstances. Did you notice, though, that Jesus never asks the disciples to move any mountains? Now, if he had, persistent faith might simply set to it with a shovel, moving that mountain one scoop of rocks at a time. Faith would stubbornly set to that mountain with a pickaxe, trusting that if Jesus commanded its demolition, God would see it through.

Instead, Jesus commands us to face other challenges. “Feed the hungry,” he said. “Welcome the stranger.” “Love your neighbor.” “Do not worry about tomorrow, what you will eat.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” “Forgive as your Father in Heaven forgives.”

Those are some mountains. Big, rugged, solid. I don’t think I could do much to move them on my own. What a relief that I am not supposed to move them on my own! With faith, with trust, with persistence, with reliance on Jesus Christ: that’s the only way a mountain moves. You can think of other mountains: the acrimonious division between people with different politics, asking for help without feeling ashamed, racism, reconciling with that person who hurt you, and all the rest.

They won’t move with a snap of the fingers. Not with a single prayer flung out without another thought, either. It’s persistent trust in Jesus Christ that gets us to work, moving those mountains one shovelful at a time. If God tells us to do something, God will see us through it.

So don’t believe in yourself. Believe in God. Trust Jesus Christ, and that he will get you through whatever he has called you to do. Even moving mountains.

Dear God, the mountains in my life often seem too big to climb, let alone move. Strengthen my faith. Help me trust your promises and listen to your words. Whatever you call me to do, I trust that you will see me through it. Amen.

 

Pretty Good Cucumbers

Even the Israelites cried again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our lives are wasting away. There is nothing but manna in front of us.”

-Numbers 11:4-6

Those must have been pretty good cucumbers, huh? You probably remember that when the Israelites first escaped from Egypt, they complained that they were hungry. There was no food. God, always generous, always providing, sent manna and quails for the people to eat. All through the wilderness, the people had enough to eat because God gave it. All along their way to the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey.” they had enough.

So what gives? Why are they complaining about food? I love a good cucumber, and I never say no to garlic. But… did they forget what Egypt was? This was the place they were slaves! Their infant sons were murdered! Pharaoh refused to let them go until ten plagues had passed through Egypt! And they’re reminiscing about the produce?

They aren’t just venting or lamenting, which would be a perfectly reasonable response to years in the wilderness eating the same thing every day. Instead, they’re complaining to Moses, blaming him for their dissatisfaction with the menu.

The “good old days” aren’t always all that good, if we’re honest. What they are is familiar. It is so easy to look backward, to think of how things used to be, and to gravitate toward what was. We might long for how it was, back seven months or seven years or seven decades ago. But are we being honest about remembering the bad along with the good?

If we only ever look back, we start to sound like the Israelites crying for cucumbers. Could Egypt’s produce really have been good enough to make up for slavery, oppression, and infanticide? Of course not. Yet, in the wilderness in-between, it was easier to look back to the cucumbers than to look ahead to the land flowing with milk and honey.

There are a lot of in-between wilderness spaces. The pandemic, of course, is the one that is on so many of our minds. We can’t go back, but going forward is harder than we thought it might be. There are other wildernesses: unemployment, a damaged relationship, the space between childhood and adulthood or between working and retiring, the journey from injustice toward justice, the change from who we were to who we will be next. Whenever we aren’t where we were or where we are going, we are in the wilderness.

Whenever we go to somewhere, we also have to go through somewhere. Moses was leading the people to the Promised Land. The only way there was through the wilderness. The people got focused on the through instead of looking toward the to. Wandering in the wilderness, it got easy to complain. Even Moses, when he received the complaints about the food, turned around and complained to God about the very people he was leading!

But God was leading the Israelites, God’s chosen people, through the wilderness and to the Promised Land. They went through all sorts of challenges: disease, fighting, and disagreement, to name a few. Those wilderness experiences were not the destination. They were the pit stops and detours on the way to the Promised Land.

Ask yourself: what are you going through on your way to where God’s leading you? Is it possible that you’ve gotten too caught up in looking around and looking back that you’ve lost sight of what’s ahead? We all do it sometimes. Those were pretty good cucumbers, after all. God doesn’t want us to go back to good enough, to how it was, to the good old days. God is always leading us to something better, out of captivity and oppression to the freedom only Jesus Christ gives. Let’s let the cucumbers go.

God, going through the wilderness is the hardest part of any journey. Give us the courage and persistence to keep our focus on the destination you are leading us to. Save us from looking backward and longing for what is past. Bring us through the wilderness to your Promised Land. Amen.

Walk Humbly

He has told you, human one, what is good and

what the Lord requires from you:

to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.

-Micah 6:8

I recently read a story about a pottery class. The instructor divided the class into two groups. She told group one: I don’t care what quality your pottery is, but I want you to make as many bowls as you can over the next month. She told group two: I’m not interested in quantity. Just make the perfect bowl.

Group one went right to it, making bowl after bowl. Group two listened to the instructor, sat at their wheels, and tried to make bowls. Any attempt that wasn’t perfect was immediately returned to a lump of clay. By the end of the class, group one students had made dozens of bowls. Each group two student had one to present to the teacher.

The teacher evaluated the bowls. Everyone in group two had made a pretty good bowl, much better than the early attempts among the bowls submitted by group one. But group one members had made so many bowls that by the end, they were making excellent bowls, far better than the one submitted by each group two student.

The first group of students didn’t get hung up on perfection. The second group did. The result was that the people seeking perfection achieved mediocrity, while the people who tried over and over improved.

This is probably not a surprise to you! The first crocheted blanket, woodworking project, trumpet scale, loaf of bread, free throw– it’s not usually very good. In fact, it’s often more full of mistakes than successes. And yet, we try again. We learn to sink the free throw with a satisfying swoosh, to bake a loaf of bread with a crisp crust and a light interior, to crochet a blanket worthy of a baby catalog, to build a sturdy table, to trill that trumpet up and down the octaves.

This “one step at a time” mentality applies to our faith lives, too. No one wakes up one morning deciding to become an expert on the Bible by noon. No one gets comfortable with praying out loud for others after one try. No one loves their neighbors perfectly on the first or second or twenty-eighth attempt.

The more public the situation and the more there is at stake, the harder it is to try something and risk looking bad at it. I’d rather make a mistake in private than in public. I’m convinced this is part of why many white Christians are reluctant to address racism. I certainly don’t want to say or do the wrong thing!

Too often, though, the concern about hurting others by saying the wrong thing turns into a paralysis that prevents us from doing anything. Like the group one students, we get so focused on perfection that we don’t give ourselves enough opportunity to try. I am grateful for the people who have made space for me to try, to make mistakes, and to learn. One step at a time, I am getting closer to the Christian values of love for my neighbors, justice for the oppressed, and unity in Christ. I don’t expect to achieve perfection, but I hope that by God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, each day brings me closer to the prayer, “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”

At its very best, the Church is a group that makes room for mistakes, for learning, for growing, for repenting, for forgiving, for reconciling. We make space for people to try and fail and try again, knowing that we need that space, too.

Let’s take the example of the group one pottery students for ourselves. One step at a time, trying not to achieve perfection but instead to get things moving in the right direction, always moving along the path where we walk humbly with God.

O God, set me free from perfectionism. Help me to walk where you lead, following with enough humility to risk making mistakes and enough faith to trust that you forgive me each and every time I need it. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

Landmarks of Grief

It has been just over six months since the first covid-19 restrictions appeared in my life. It’s been about that long for most of us. So today I’m taking the opportunity to remind myself and you that grief can keep appearing in unexpected ways, especially during an ongoing series of losses and changes, like those brought on by this pandemic.

Navigating grief is a challenge in and of itself. There’s no roadmap. Instead, there are markers, sort of landmarks or milestones, telling you that you’re on your way through grief. There’s no shortcuts through grief, either. It is a journey we must walk through.

We often think of grief as sadness. Sadness is part of grief, but not all of it. Psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified several stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. They each provide a kind of landmark. When you see yourself surrounded by anger, it might very well be that you’re grieving. When you notice that someone you care about is in total denial, is it possible they’ve experienced loss, not that they just have their head stuck in the sand?

Grief isn’t a straight line past each stage in order, though. Sometimes grief feels like we’re walking in circles as we go past denial and anger over and over. “It can’t be true! Who let this happen? It just can’t be. How can this be happening? I don’t believe it.” Sometimes grief feels like we’re stuck on a roundabout of depression, circling round and round without being able to find the exit we need.

In an extended series of losses, like the ones caused by the pandemic, it can be hard to even realize that we’re grieving. If you just feel angry all the time, it’s probably grief. If you are making deals and bargaining with yourself about “just a few more weeks of masks” or “if I don’t feel sick, it’s safe enough to give hugs,” that’s probably grief.

Grief is hard. Grief, like this pandemic, often brings unexpected surprises. Grief, like this pandemic, doesn’t have a clear end in sight. And grief, like this pandemic, is not forever. Grief, like this pandemic, does not define us. Only God can do that.

In the middle of grief and loss, we need to be reminded of the same thing Paul reminded the early Christians when they experienced death: we do not “mourn like others who don’t have any hope.” Hope is our light in the darkness, our compass when we’re disoriented, our guide when we’re lost. Hope is our assurance that God will not abandon us in the darkest valley, but lead us to green pastures and quiet waters.

Why does this matter? Because we’re all cycling between these grief landmarks. We don’t judge or criticize people for going through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression from other sources of grief. We don’t need to judge people’s grief of covid-19 losses and changes, either.

The best treatment for someone who is grieving is compassion, empathy, and support. Those might be in short supply these days. Still. When we see someone acting in denial or anger? There’s probably grief behind it. Let’s use our compassion for their grief instead of our judgment for their denial or our anger right back at theirs. Let’s be defined by our hope in God, not our grief at the world around us.

God, when I am grieving, guide me through. When I go past the different landmarks of grief, help me recognize them for what they are. When I interact with someone whose grief makes them hard to be with, help me act with compassion. In all grief, God, whether mine or someone else’s, sustain me in hope. Amen.

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Wondering what grief might look like right now? Below are some examples of pandemic-related grief:

Denial: “This isn’t as bad as it seems; it’s just a different flu!” “This is only happening in other places, to other people. It won’t happen here.” “Things will be back to normal soon!”

Anger: “How dare that person not wear a mask?” “How dare that person make me wear a mask?” “Our governor/president/CDC/WHO really bungled this. It’s all their fault.”

Bargaining: “I’ll probably make it just fine if I get sick, so it’s okay to take a lot of chances.” “It’s worth the risk to have restaurants, schools, and businesses open as usual as long as not too many people die.” “If we can just hold out until a vaccine develops, everything will be okay.”

Depression: “Everything is terrible now and I’m sad all the time.” “I can’t imagine a way forward through this.” “We’ll never recover.”

Acceptance: “This is our current situation and our current best understanding of how to promote public health. I’ll act with that in mind.” “This is the situation right now. It won’t be forever, but it is right now.”

Forgiveness

As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us. -Psalm 103:12

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity, overlooking the sin of the few remaining for his inheritance? He doesn’t hold on to his anger forever; he delights in faithful love. -Micah 7:18

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” -Matthew 18:21-22

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Forgiveness is at the core of Christian life. We begin our worship with confession and forgiveness because we need it. We need to recognize our sin, confess it, and hear that in God’s holy name, our sin is forgiven. We can’t be Christians without forgiveness any more than we could breathe without air. Forgiveness is life.

Most Christians I know have two hangups where forgiveness is concerned. The first is that God doesn’t really, completely forgive them. The second is that they don’t want to really, completely forgive others.

More than any other single subject, more than relationship issues or addiction or parents worried about their kids or kids worried about their parents or Bible interpretation, the concern that is most often raised to me as a pastor is a version of this: “I think I’m too bad for God to forgive me” or “I’m worried that if I screw up again, I’ll hit God’s forgiveness limit.” If you have ever thought that about yourself, you are not alone.

That’s not how the Bible talks about forgiveness, though. Forgiveness is not a checking account from which you can overdraft your credit. Forgiveness is not a layer of fresh paint covering up over that awful color you chose last time. Forgiveness is not even a second or third or fourth chance to get it right with God. Forgiveness is more.

Forgiveness is more like the dermatologist who slices away warts and cancer, discarding them to never come back. Forgiveness is more like the organizations that buy up medical debt from collections companies and promptly shred all the records. Forgiveness is more like stripping off the tacky wallpaper and burning it, never to be spoken of again.

God takes our sin away as far as the East is from the West, remember? For the Israelites, the east was a desert that stretched on and on, and the west was the Mediterranean Sea, water too great for them to ever dare crossing it. God takes our sin away from us as far as the desert is from the sea. What’s more, God delights in this. God thinks forgiving you is just a fabulous way to spend God’s time. God’s love is faithful. God keeps loving and forgiving us forever. This is God’s character.

Which brings me to the second forgiveness hangup. It’s usually connected to the first one. People who don’t quite trust that God would completely forgive them tend not to be very willing to forgive others. There’s a fear that too much forgiveness is just plain naive. There’s a judgment that people who have messed up don’t deserve forgiveness, at least not until they get their noses clean. But remember how God forgiving us was about God’s character, not ours?

Well, I have news for you: you forgiving someone else says nothing about whether or not they deserve it. Of course they don’t deserve it. No one deserves forgiveness. That’s the point. It’s a gift. But are you really interested in setting yourself up in opposition to God’s character by refusing to forgive because somebody hurt you too many times? Or because you’re disappointed in them?

Dear people of God, you have been forgiven. Completely. You owe God nothing for your sin. Breathe in your freedom from guilt and shame. Ahhhhhh. Doesn’t it feel good?

You can give that freedom away without losing it yourself. All it takes is these three words: “I forgive you.”

God, I trust that you have forgiven me completely. I believe that you love to forgive me and all people. Give me faith to believe that forgiveness, and give me grace to forgive all who hurt me. Amen.

 

Run that Race

Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win. Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything. The runners do this to get a crown of leaves that shrivel up and die, but we do it to receive a crown that never dies. So now this is how I run—not without a clear goal in sight. – I Corinthians 9:24-26a

I was out in the city park recently, where I saw the high school cross country teams getting ready for practice. They stretched as they listened to their coach give instructions for the day’s practice. After a few more minutes, they began to run.

At that time, all over town, student athletes were stretching, lifting weights, running drills, practicing lifts and kicks, and listening to their coaches. Each in their own way was working toward something: making the varsity team, or working on a difficult play, or breaking the record, or improving their personal best, or getting the team ready for the tournament, or learning a new cheer, or …

Athletes work hard, practicing endlessly, often for just a few minutes at the game or the tournament. Think of swimmers- they put in hours of practice, and when they get to their meets, they might only swim for ten minutes of competition. It’s the same for any sport: the hours of hard work and preparation all build up to a relatively short performance. But any coach will tell us that those hours of preparation and practice are necessary. No one is born ready for the big game.

In some ways, following Jesus is like being an athlete. As Christians, there are a lot of seemingly mundane, everyday things we need to do over and over to build strength to face those big challenges. When we put in the practice, it makes us better prepared for life’s struggles.

Take prayer, for instance. It’s a simple thing, really, talking with God. About ⅔ of American Christians say regular prayer is essential. Taking a few minutes daily for praying builds the muscle memory of prayer. It can be as simple as a “Thank you God for… Please help with… Amen.” Then, when a loved one is sick or a job is lost or a risk is taken, prayer comes naturally. To be sure, God loves to hear prayers whether we’re praying for the thousandth time or the first time. Like anything, it’s easier for us when we’ve practiced.

Or think of muscle memory. Once a basketball player has practiced shooting free throws enough, they hardly even have to think about their stance and aim. The muscles themselves remember how to stand, how to aim, and how to shoot. Similarly, some Christians make a point of memorizing Bible passages so that when they need encouragement, hope, or guidance, it comes to them like muscle memory. Someone who easily remembers “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is less inclined to listen to gossip or repeat rumors. Someone who easily remembers “it is by grace you have been saved, not by your own doing; it is the gift of God” can take comfort in God’s faithfulness when they mess up.

The life of a Christian also includes worship, service, self-reflection, and love. All of these things take work. They take practice. Often, they require someone else pointing out flaws. There’s always room for improvement. This is discipleship. We run the race as athletes seeking the prize.

The twist is that the greatest prize of our faith is a participation trophy that blows all the other prizes out of the water. We receive God’s grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness not because we are so good, but because God loves us. We don’t pray, worship, serve our neighbors, and seek to live holy lives for God’s sake. We do it for our sake and for the sake of the people around us. The people of God are our team. We rely on one another. It’s more like a relay than a sprint, really. The fans cheering in the stadium are as much a part of the victory as the players in the field. In Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, our victory is assured.

God, help me see where I need to grow as your disciple. Give me the discipline, support, and encouragement I need to be stronger in my Christian life and witness. Let me run my race as well as I can, trusting that my victory is secure in you. Amen.

Peeled Away

[Jesus said,] “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” -John 3:8

I was driving along Interstate 80 last week. I glanced up and saw a cluster of billboards. I looked again because the billboards didn’t make any sense. On the second look, I realized that the billboards had been peeled away by the derecho winds. Layers of ads had been partially removed, leaving a glimpse into “HOTE-” and “-EXT EXI-” and “-RGERS AND FR-” and “-EE WIFI,” the remnants of ad campaigns past. In some cases, only the skeleton of a billboard remained.

That wind was something else, wasn’t it? It peeled away those billboards as easily as you or I peel an orange. Talk about power.

In our Bible, we hear about another powerful wind: the Holy Spirit. In Hebrew and Greek, the languages our Bible was first written in, the words for wind are the very same as the words for spirit and breath (in Hebrew, a feminine noun, “ruach,” and in Greek, a neuter noun, “pneuma”). The wind, whether it came as a gentle breeze or a rushing blast, was like a breath of God’s Spirit, unseen and powerful.

Those peeled off billboards got me thinking. What if the Holy Spirit sometimes shows up like a derecho to peel away the layers we use to cover ourselves? We cover up with all kinds of layers, after all. We talk about putting our best foot forward, but we seldom admit to the times when we’re feeling wrong-footed.

Instead, we cover up fear with bravado. We cover up uncertainty with disdain. We cover up guilt with excuses. We cover up wrongdoing with good deeds. We cover up worry with “I’m fine.” We cover up prejudice with self-righteousness. We wrap ourselves in layers of attempts to look good. We layer up our broken pieces with duct tape and super glue, hoping it’ll hold up to inspection.

It never works. We’re not billboards, you and I. We can’t just cover ourselves up with something new and shiny when the old self doesn’t satisfy. We can’t even strip off the layers to find something better underneath. When the Holy Spirit blows through, it peels away all that we try to wrap ourselves in to look good. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth, not the Spirit of Reassuring Half-Truths.

The Holy Spirit reveals the truth of what’s beneath: broken, worn out, wrong; in other words, sinful. By the time the Holy Spirit is finished peeling our sin away, we look worse than the broken billboards. We’re like skeletons scattered by the wind.

Fortunately, we’re not billboards, you and I. The Holy Spirit might come like a derecho sometimes, peeling away our covers to reveal what’s beneath, but the Holy Spirit never leaves us broken in a ditch.

Instead, that mighty wind circles back to us in a way that is infinitely gentle, but no less powerful: breath. Sin, no matter how it’s packaged, only offers death. The Holy Spirit gives our dry bones her very breath for new life.

The Spirit, like the wind, blows where and how it will, not according to our plans. We need the layers of our sin to be peeled away as surely as we need the breath of new life. The Holy Spirit brings us both mighty wind and gentle breath according to what we need. If you keep wrapping up in layers to cover your sin and give the impression you’ve got it all together, know that the Holy Spirit will come at an unexpected time and blow your cover away. If things are coming undone in your life as the layers are being peeled away, fear not: the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit will come to your dry bones and breathe life into you.

O Holy Spirit, breath of life and whirlwind of truth, blow in my life. Peel away what hides my sin. Peel away my attempts to hold it all together. Peel my sin completely away from me. Breathe into me the life that only you can give. Amen.