Monday, February 27, 2012

Good News! I'm a Miserable Wretch.

My goodness – it’s Lent already! It’s the season when God’s people like to think a lot about how sinful they are – they rejoice in being dirt and completely unable to ever be sinless and deserving of God’s love. Woe is me…I am a miserable wretch! At first, it may sound like fake humility (and I’m sure there’s probably a lot of that going on too) but really, the best thing we can do as human beings is to fully realize just how hopeless we are.  Even the most righteous human being is nowhere close to being pure enough to be in the presence of our Holy God. Honesty demands that we admit it’s useless, and even pathetic, for us to try to live up to God’s standards of acceptance. And that, my friends, is very good news! Here’s why:  We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all… Therefore, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:10, 19-23) Or in other words - Because of Jesus, we’re in! We’re good with God for all time. Jesus took all of the world’s sinfulness, your sins, my sins, everyone’s sins, upon himself and all our sins died with him on that cross. All of our hatred and greed, willfulness and pride and everything else separating us from God atoned for and removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) in that one amazing act of redemption that only Jesus, in the giving of his own life, could offer. On Easter, he rose victorious over death and we with him.

Yet, even having said all this, I still come to you a sinner. I can’t stop sinning. Oh, I try. I want to live a life pleasing to God, but I don’t always. Does that mean that something didn’t take? Maybe I’m not sincere enough in my devotion to God. Maybe I’m the exception to the rule. I mean, if I’ve been made holy in Jesus’ sacrifice, how can I still be sinning? How can I enter the Most Holy Place with confidence when I know I’m not perfect? Scripture says my heart has been sprinkled to cleanse me and my body has been washed with pure water, but maybe God missed a spot or two. If I’m made perfect in Christ’s sacrifice, why am I not perfect?

That was my question to God this week and here is the answer he gave me:  By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14) It’s like when a little girl begins to take dancing lessons. Perhaps she even has a natural grace and ability. From that first lesson, she is a dancer, even if she can keep her legs under her yet. She has to learn and grow into the dancer she is. What God taught me this week is that because of his grace and mercy, he sees me as the woman of God he created me to be, even if I haven’t quite completely figured out how to be that woman yet. It’s a growth process. His love and grace has redeemed me and his love and grace sustain and refine me as I learn to be the child of God he has made me to be in Jesus.

About the photos:
Fichter Fairy Garden (June 2011)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Betrayal and Repentance

This week, I’ve been dealing with a deep pain caused by someone who hurt and betrayed me. My heart is raw, as if someone ran a coarse grit sander over it. I’ve gotten so lost in the pain that I’ve had to remind myself to breathe at times. I’m angry, sad, hurt, and numb all at the same time. I admit that amid my pain, I can’t help but think that I want this person to suffer as I am suffering, even though I know how unbearable it is. If thoughts could kill, this person would be dead. A normal human response, albeit, but not Christ-like in the least.

Ephesians 4:26 says not to sin in your anger - not to let the sun go down while you are still angry. Yet, the sun has gone down many times and it will go down many more times before I am empty of this fury. In my desire to work through this in a way that honors God, I searched scripture and found not comfort but condemnation. Jesus tells us that if a man looks a woman in lust, then he has already committed adultery in his heart. I refer you back to my thoughts in the first paragraph where, as Christ sees it, I am a murderer. Why, when I am the injured party, am I the one being convicted?

Perhaps because God is love and I’m not feeling very “love”ly right now. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11) God reached out to us first. We hurt him deeply time and time again, and yet, he reaches out to us without fail. He doesn’t wait for us to grovel on the ground in repentance to love us. In his love, he seeks us out and calls us to him. His love is not conditional on our repentance. In fact, it seems to me that our repentance is a direct response to his love and grace. This is the kind of love we are told to extend to others. Love first, always, and without condition. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:12)

I know that with God’s help and healing, in time, I will come to forgive this person whether or not this person seeks forgiveness. It’s a very hard thing to do, to put aside one’s pride and claim to justice, and to forgive those who do not seek forgiveness. How can there be forgiveness without repentance? God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:8) For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24) God didn’t wait for us to come to him in repentance – in his great love he provided forgiveness, the means for our reconciliation in Christ, first. I am to forgive freely as God has forgiven me. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer:  Forgive us our *debts (trespasses, sins) as we forgive *our debtors (those who trespass against us, those who sin against us). How can I pray that and not offer forgiveness to this person?

At first, I was concerned that I was taking too long…that I might let too many suns go down. But then I remembered Psalm 103 that reassures me that He knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:14). No one knows the human heart better than he who created it. He knows that our sinfulness has penetrated our whole being and will continue to be a part of us, a part that we constantly struggle to reject, fail to deny, and repent of. Unlike humanity, the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. (Psalm 103:8) I am a work in progress, and he knows it. By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14) Christ sacrifice is enough to redeem all of me for as long as it takes.

It seems that my hunt through scripture this week was a great comfort after all. My situation hasn’t changed. However, I’ve been reminded that we’re all the same. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. The difference now is that I no longer feel the guilt and separation from God I did when I started this week. Instead I have been led to recognize the sinfulness in humanity, specifically in myself, making me even more keenly aware of my great need for a Savior and even more blessed to know and love Jesus Christ.

About the pictures:
Parkwood Presbyterian Church Prayer Garden (July 2011)

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Order of Things

Blackwater Falls, WV
The Psalms are poetry. They're songs, hymns actually - the music of God's people. Some months ago, I began an unusual study of Psalm 119.As I began to study the first eight verses of the psalm, I was inspired to write a poem. The experience was so fulfilling that I knew I had to meditate and respond to the rest of this psalm in kind. I'm not retelling scripture, but responding to it's message. In my poetic response to Psalm 119:73-80, I found a prayer I needed to pray. May it bring you hope, and if need be, to your knees as well.

Here I am again, Lord
on my knees
I thought I could handle it,
make the right decision without You
just this once. It seemed so easy,
so simple a choice
and again, I’m amiss.
Why didn’t I seek Your wisdom, Lord –
Eternal, holy wisdom
which You’re only too pleased to impart?
Didn’t I know that You created it all?
It was Your plan, Your power
that formed everything there is
out of the chaotic emptiness that was.
You formulated
and fashioned
the order
that makes moment flow into moment,
that cycles water from air to land to air,
that pulls the waves into the shore
and thrusts them back upon the sea.
Yours is the order that provides precious air
for man and animal and plant alike
to breathe.
The order that ties brother to brother
and You to me –
it all exist because of Your hand.
And yet Your Word, Your Will, I did not seek.
So now I’m here in humility, on my knees
awaiting Your command.
Grant me understanding, GOD.
Bring to life Your Word
in my heart and mind.
Place Your Word on my tongue
and grow in me the desire
to follow You all of my days
every step of the way
to my journey’s end.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven...

I want to share with you an experience I had last Sunday. But before I do that, you have to know some things about me. First I am not a “traditional worship” kind of person. It’s a personal preference. Reciting the same scripted words with a large group of people too fast for me to really mean the words I am saying isn’t worship to me.  And there are very few traditional hymns that stir my soul and speak my heart to God.  However I am very aware that for many people, that is the way in which they are most worshipful and therefore am grateful it is available in my church for those who worship God in this way.

As a child, I remember sitting in traditional worship, hearing the droning of the congregation as they chanted the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, thinking to myself that there had to be more. More than repeating the same words every week to the point of losing the meaning and depth of gratitude or shame or need being articulated. As a preteen, I began exploring my faith and asking myself – Do I really believe God exists or am I doing all this because it’s something my parents told me to do? While in church one Sunday morning, I drifted out of a daydream and found that I had, completely unaware, been reciting the Lord’s Prayer with the congregation the whole time. As I look around the sanctuary, I saw the empty eyes of the other parishioners who, like me, weren’t really involved in worship. This event sparked an anger and resentment towards all things church and ultimately led to my choice to believe that there was no God.

Well, you know the end of the story. God, in his infinite love and mercy, pursued me until I couldn’t deny his existence and grace any longer and then he brought me into the wonderful church family I have been a part of for twelve years now. Since that time as a young girl, I haven’t been able to recite the Lord’s Prayer in a congregational prayer setting. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Now to the story I wanted to tell you – Last Sunday, I woke up feeling very much like rolling over and going back to sleep. I’m sure you know the feeling. As I struggled to drag myself out of bed, it occurred to me that I am so blessed to live in a country where I am free to attend worship anywhere, anytime, without fear of retribution. There are many countries in the world where admitting you are a Christian is like signing your own death warrant. Christians in those countries take their lives and the lives of their families in their hands just to gather with a few others in quiet worship. Yet still they gather because their God, the God of Grace and Salvation, is worthy of worship and praise.

I leave what happened next to your own discernment as to whether it was simply my imagination or a spiritual blessing given by God, both or neither. As I was getting ready to leave for church, I began feeling connected to a Middle Eastern woman (whom I don’t know and couldn’t describe) who was huddled in a corner in fear that she would be discovered. She was praying to God that she could be in worship with other Christians just once before she died. To reach out her hands in worship and sing at the top of her lungs of how glorious God is. To hear the Word spoken and expounded by God’s preacher and share with others what God has done in her life. I felt I had to go to church for her that day because she couldn’t.

As we sang some of my favorite songs that morning, I felt her singing with me and when we got to the prayer time, the pastor closed with the Lord’s Prayer. All the anger, resentment and hesitation I usually experience when I hear him start those familiar words, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” never surfaced. To my surprise, I heard my voice say those all too familiar words with the rest of the congregation. In my mind and heart, I was praying this hand-in-hand with my Middle Eastern friend. I realized that the Lord’s Prayer was one of the few things she and I could share together, even with our language barrier, differing social customs, and worldview, we have the Lord’s Prayer in common.

I don’t know if that will change how I react next time our pastor begins that prayer or if I will ever again experience that kind of spiritual connection with another that made worship so unique that day, but the memory of it will remain a blessing in my life for many years to come. There is no lesson, no moral of the story for you to take away except perhaps to recognize the blessings in your life and pray for those who are not so fortunate.

About the pictures:
North Park (May 2010)