Growing in Grace

Read Matthew 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:8)

vbc_gig_screenWhen I was in my later teens, I went through a period of trying to identify who I was as person. I knew who my parents told me I was, I knew who the church thought I was, I knew what society expected me to be; however, I needed, as do all young people, to discover who I was.

For many years, the church was a place I found my identity in; yet, as I was going through this period of change, the church became less and less so. I got tattoos, pierced my ears, and started to change from the little boy everyone knew me as, into something different. And of course, different is not always a welcome thing. I remember the looks I got when I first walked into church with my newly inked skin. I was proud of them, clearly some of my fellow church members were not. It’s not that anyone said anything nasty to me, but I could just tell by the way they looked at me.

So, to make a long story short, I walked away from my Christian faith for many years. That does not mean I stopped believing in God, or in a higher power, but I sought for that connection in other things. I started to have a negative perception of the church as a whole as a result of my previous experiences. That was sad, looking back, because most of my childhood years in the church are fond memories for me.

Thankfully, the story does not end there. While some of the reactions I got from some of the members of my church were negative, there were other people in the church who did not look at me, or treat me any differently. The pastor of my church at the time, kept on embracing me and treating me with the same respect and dignity as he always had. He patiently answered questions, invited me to be a part of different ministries in the church, all the while allowing me to find out who I was as a person.

One of my Sunday School teachers was another person who kept on loving me despite my changes, as did some of the other church members and, of course, my parents. Despite my walking away from my Christian faith, I could not walk away from the impression those people, and others, left on me. Despite my focusing on the negative that happened, I still could not wipe away the miraculous positive reinforcement that those people had on my life.

And those experiences, in part, inform who I am today as a pastor and spiritual leader. I have come to learn over the years that even just a little grace goes a long, long way. It’s like a mustard seed, that starts off as the smallest of things but grows into a giant tree, sheltering the birds of the air from the desert sun. Grace is the doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven. At firsts it looks small, distant and hard to enter, but as you journey closer to it you realize it is a door wide open, and all who enter it will be changed forever.

As Christians, we are called not only to receive grace, but to be bearers of it. In fact, if we are to grow at all as Christians, we are to grow in grace. It is so easy for us to fall into legalism and judgmentalism, for that is the way of this world; however, though we live in this world, we are called to transcend it. We are called by God to extend grace to all, even to those whom we feel don’t deserve it. After all, who are we to judge who deserves God’s grace. Let us err on the side of grace and extend that grace to all people, no matter how different they might be. You just never know who’s life God will touch as a result of that grace.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“If we are to err, and err we shall, then let us err on the side of grace.” – Rev. Alec C. Park

PRAYER

Lord, help me to extend my grace to all people. Soften my heart that I may bear witness to the undeserved grace you have given to me. Amen.

A Phantom Lesson

Read 1 Corinthians 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

'phantom-of-the-opera'-at-25-offers-a-special-showThe chamber is dark, hollow, desolate. All that can be heard are the echoes ringing through the darkened chasm and corridors like sounds of moaning bellowing through an old, dank mausoleum.  The song of two lovebirds pierce the ears of the silhouette of the man left behind in the chamber; their words of loving devotion will haunt him for the rest of his days.  Yet, he knows that what he did was right. He knows that he could not hold on to her any longer. He knows that he shouldn’t have held on to her at all. After all he loves her, and it was his love for her, for his precious angel of music, that brought him to the realization that she was never his to begin with.

This is how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera ends. It is my favorite Broadway musical and it tells the tale of a deformed man who masks his deformity and masquerades around the Paris Opera House, extorting money from the Opera House owners.  He also is teaching a young woman, by the name of Christine Daae, whom he loves.  He pretends to be her father’s ghost or, rather, her father’s angel of music.  You see, Christine’s father died while she was a child and, before he died, he promised to send his angel to her. It was kind of her father’s way of assuring his child that he’d always be with her.

But the Phantom took the words of her father and used them in a way that manipulated Christine. He desired her and wanted her to not only be the most renowned and beloved Soprano in all of France, but he also wanted her to be his bride.  Needless to say, that plan fell through and the Phantom ends up kidnapping her after he realizes that she’s fallen in love with another man.  That man pursues them in order to save Christine, but he get caught by the Phantom and Christine is given the ultimate choice: either she marries the Phantom or her lover dies.

What kind of love does that? Where does love go so wrong that someone would force you into making such a choice? How can the Phantom claim to love Christine and put her into such a horrifying situation?  Somewhere in the midst of rage, those questions must have penetrated the Phantom’s heart.  Christine chooses to marry the Phantom in order to save her lover and the Phantom realizes that, even if she does marry him, she will never love him. So, he lets both her and her lover go. He does not harm either of them; rather, he lets them go and sinks back into the shadows of his lair…never to be heard of again.

Why did the Phantom not carry on with his vengeful plot? Why didn’t he kill Christine’s lover and force her to marry him? Why did he let them go? Because he loved her and true love does not force its way. Paul describes true love in 1 Corinthians 13, except that this love goes beyond eros (the kind of love that the Phantom, Christine and her lover were all feeling). The love that Paul writes of is perfect love…the love of God.

The key to this kind of love is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it lets go.  I have often heard people say that you have to hold on to what you love; however, true love lets go.  God would love for us to send the love back; however, God lets us go so that we may be free to love whoever and whatever we want.  If we were forced to love God, it would not be love.  This Lent, take a page from God and learn to let go in the areas you find yourself struggling to hold on.  In doing so, you will find that LOVE is truly guiding you!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Letting go does not mean giving up; rather, it is giving in to the understanding that LOVE will find its way.

PRAYER

Lord, guide me to surrender all of the things I hold on to. Teach me to let them go. Amen.

<3 Yourself

Read Matthew 14:22-23; Mark 6:45-46; John 6:14-15

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper.” (Proverbs 19:8)

HeartHave you ever stopped to notice how busy you are? Or have you ever stopped to notice how busy everyone around you is? This world is non-stop business, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and three hundred sixty-five days a year.  The world keeps on turning, spinning on its invisible axis, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

Before we know it, years have gone by, our kids have grown up and we are wondering where the time went and not sure where we were when all of life blew past us like a jet plane.  We hear plenty of catch phrases like, “Don’t let the world pass you by”, or “Don’t take life for granted”; yet, we often do take life for granted because we simply are too busy to do otherwise.

As a pastor of a church, a district youth director, a chaplain, a husband, and a father, I certainly know too well what being busy is all about. Each one of those titles bears with it a whole host of different duties that give me plenty of places to be and plenty of things to do. In the midst of all of the stuff that I have to do on any given day, it seems so easy to forget the one title has always defined who I am. The title of being ME.

How easy it is to forget that, in the midst of all the stuff each one of us has to do, it is important that we not forget to care for ourselves in the process.  After all, God created us, not to be eternally busy, but to enjoy God’s creation. If we are a part of God’s creation, then it certainly follows that God created us to enjoy ourselves. But how many of us truly spend time on ourselves?  How many of us truly take time away from our jobs, our chores and our families to spend quality time with ourselves? My guess is not too many of us.

But God is calling us to spend time with ourselves. God wants us to get to know who we are, to intimately spend time building a relationship with innermost selves. Jesus certainly knew this. If anyone was busy, Jesus was. Between preaching and teaching and healing and traveling and all of the other amazing things, Jesus was just about as busy as anyone could get; however, he also had no qualms about going up to the mountaintop to be alone and to pray.

God is calling us to do the same. There is nothing wrong with being busy, and there is certainly a lot of work for all of us to do; however, there is something wrong with not taking care of ourselves. And if we do not take care of ourselves, we really have no business trying to take care of others.

That is why, since January of 2012, I have made a point of taking care of myself. I run, I compose music, I write poetry, I sketch using charcoal, I hike and do a lot of different activities that get me in touch with myself.  I have made it a part of my spiritual discipline to be alone and to care for me.

The question is not if you can do it…but will you do it? God wants you to get to know yourself, to spend alone time praying and meditating on Scripture. God wants us to not only be in relationship with God and with others, but to also be in relationship with ourselves.  It is only then that we will be able to find the strength to do all of the other things God is calling us to do.  Think about it. God is calling you to relax a little and enjoy being you! After all, you are a part of God’s good creation! So praise God and enjoy yourself!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” – Lucille Ball

PRAYER

Lord teach me to love myself just as much as you love me. Then send me out with that love so I can share it with others. Amen.

History or Not, Here We Come!

Read Isaiah 55

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’” (Mark 9:39-40 NRSV)

the_bibleJust recently a new series came out on the History Channel called, “The Bible”. I was so excited to sit down and watch this series as I am a huge fan of films that are based on biblical stories. So, when I heard that this new ten hour miniseries would devote five hours to the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament) and five hours to the Christian Scriptures (aka the New Testament), I must admit that I got very excited indeed.

Of course, as soon as I started to watch the series, my excitement grew into disappointment. I mean, the film opens up with a Sean Connery look alike playing Noah, the rainbow is arching over the ark while it is still afloat on the flood waters. They show a glimpse of creation from a 21st century, scientific understanding of the universe. The majority of the actors looked like they came out of a church in Nebraska and look nothing like the people of near eastern descent; they all had British accents, which confounds me as I do not believe that Israel is in Great Britain. And to top it all off, they had Jesus walking around in the Hebrew Scripture stories as “The Angel of the LORD”, which is certainly not what the Hebrew authors intended being that they had no clue who Jesus of Nazareth was, since they were writing about 500 – 1,000 years before Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth.

But then I realized that I was missing the larger point. Perhaps I was letting my theological stance, my historical stance, and my other academic stances get in the way of what was really going on there. After all, the producers of this series never claimed to be producing a historically accurate, word-for-word film on the Bible; rather, they were producing an adaptation of the most beloved Bible stories in the hope that the series would spark and interest in reading the Bible.

Despite the fear that people will stop short of reading and just take the series’ account of the Bible as being the Gospel truth, I realize that God can and does work through all things. Gods ways are not our ways, and there is nothing too great or too small for God. Often times, we let our own conceptions of God get in the way of what God is calling us to be a part of. Instead of getting caught up on the minute details, we should be celebrating the miracle that God is working in and through many different people, who come from many different walks of life.

While, as a theologian and a historian, there is much to cringe at when it comes to the presentation of the Biblical stories found within The Bible series, as a Christian and an avid Bible-reader, I celebrate the miracle that a successful couple in Hollywood had the courage to take a risk on such a series, and I celebrate the miracle that a major network such as the History Channel, took the risk to air it on their station.

So, what I am going to do is encourage you to click your way over to the History Channel and view the new miniseries every Sunday through Easter at 8 p.m. But I am not going to stop there. Enjoy the film series, get enraptured in the epic drama of it and in the special effects; however, when you are done watching it, pick up your Bible and read the stories for yourself. After all, don’t you know that the book is ALWAYS better than the movie? Read the Bible, you won’t regret it.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars. – Martin Luther

PRAYER

Lord, I thank you for creating such a broad and wide stream for us to swim in. And I thank you for placing me in it to swim. Give me a desire for your word and a desire to experience it in all the ways I can. Amen.

Mount Doom

Read Esther 4:1-17; 5:1-8; 7:1-10

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

frodo-bagginsOne of my favorite books and films is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, written by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Within its pages is a tale of a little hobbit by the name of Frodo Baggins who has a mysterious and dark ring come into his possession. It was not his wish nor his choice to possess the ring; rather, it was forced into his possession by his friend, the wizard, Gandalf the Gray.

Gandalf did not force Frodo to take the ring because he had malice in his heart toward Frodo, he did it because Frodo’s uncle was being slowly and surely corrupted by the ring and the only one Gandalf could trust was this little hobbit boy.  This turn of events thrusts Frodo and Gandalf into a perilous race against time to take the ring to Mt. Doom, where it was created, and to throw it into the fires of the mountain in order to permanently destroy it and the evil that is bound within it.

At one point in the journey, Frodo  (who is exhausted, worn down, beaten up and discouraged) looks up at Gandalf the Gray and says, “I wish none of this had happened.”  Gandalf certainly understands the boys wish, and there is no doubt that he, himself, wished that none of those events had happened. But they had happened, and nothing would change that.  Gandalf looked down to where Frodo was sitting and said softly, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

I am sure we all can relate to Frodo and the feeling of helplessness that he was lost in.  Many of us find ourselves in situations we never planned for ourselves, doing things we never intended to have to do, and faced with trials we never would have anticipated coming our way.  But they did come our way, and we have had to respond to those trials and be tested by them.

What is important for us to realize is that while God is very much to us like Gandalf the Gray was to Frodo. God does not wish for us to be tried the way we are, nor does God cause the bad times to fall upon us.  Perhaps, like Gandalf, God too wishes that the trials we face never had to happen. But they did and do happen and, like Gandalf, God is there with us to comfort us in such times. God is there with us to encourage us in such times. God is there with us to equip us to keep pressing forward through such times…all the way until we finally are able to climb the summit of whatever Mt. Dooms exist in our lives.

It is natural for us to wish that none of it existed or happened, but God is there to remind us that all we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. Once we know that we are not alone, and that there is no mountain in our way that God can’t get us over, then we will at least be at peace that God will see us through the fire.  God will never leave us, nor forsake us…EVER. Know that and experience the grace and peace that comes with it!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a [person] perfected without trials.”  — Ancient Chinese Proverb

PRAYER

Lord, though I may go through tough trials in my life, I know that you are there with me and that you continue to carry me. Into your loving and guiding arms, I commit my spirit. Amen.

 

Winners and Losers

Read Romans 3:1-31; 7:1-25; Matthew 25:31-46

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

SETH MACFARLANEThis past Sunday night, for the first time in years, I actually sat down in front of my T.V. with my wife and daughters and watched the Academy Awards. I don’t normally let them stay up that late; however, this year was special because my family loves the theater and this year, Les Miserables was up for a number of awards, including Best Picture.

We sat there through all of the awards, watching the song and dance that was in place to keep us entertained through what would have otherwise been an extremely long and boring show.  And there were moments where we shouted with joy and clapped anytime Les Mis or another movie we liked won an award, particularly when Anne Hathaway won the award for best supporting actress. No doubt, she deserved it.

But, by the end of the show we found out that, after sitting there for three and a half long  hours, our favorite movie did not win best picture. What a disappointment that was in and of itself; however, to make it worse, the host and another woman sang what they called, “The Loser Song” naming the movies, directors, and actors that were “the losers.” That is what it is all about in our society, isn’t it. That is what we teach our children is the number one value…WINNING.

At the end of the show, my daughters’ excitement turned to glum expressions of regret. “I feel like I wasted my time,” my one daughter stated. My other daughter asked, “Why didn’t Les Mis win?”  For them, the message was clear…you either win, or you’re a loser.  If you are a loser, then it wasn’t worth the effort. That is is the message they, and I am sure countless others, have picked up from our society at large.

Sports are performance based. If you win, you make the big bucks…if you lose, you end up skewered on page seven of the sports section. I remember, prior to his being recognized as an elite quarterback, Eli Manning was constantly being ripped apart as a loser when the Giants lost. Whether it be sports, theater, film, music, school, or work, we are always seeking the greatest performance. Anything else is considered sub par and unacceptable.  According to the world, you’re either a winner or you are a loser.

And this ethic certainly goes beyond Hollywood and the wide world of sports; it can even be found in the church (just look at how we measure up the value of our ministries). Often times, we are very much merit and performance driven. Yet, God does not measure us by such standards. God does not look at how much success we have attained, nor does God judge us as winners and losers.

What God judges us, is based off of whether we took it upon ourselves to care enough to try. If we try and fail, so be it. At least we tried. At least, in our heart of hearts, we cared enough to do something.  It does not matter how many awards or accolades we’ve received, nor does it matter how many times we’ve succeeded or failed. What matters is that we try and have the faith to keep on trying in the name of the one who calls us to believe that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

In is better to lose while trying than to win at trying nothing at all.

PRAYER

Lord, teach me that you in you, there is no such thing as losing and give me the courage to keep on trying. Amen.

Scapegoat

Read Genesis 3; John 11:47-53

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

GoatHave you ever read or seen the play, “The Crucible”, by Arthur Miller? It tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials, which happened from February 1692 – April 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts.  In the story, while dancing and casting spells in the woods, a group of girls were caught by the village’s minister, Reverend Parris.  Parris’ daughter was one of the girls and, upon seeing her father, fainted and did not regain consciousness.  Knowing that much of the town was divided over the effectiveness his leadership and ministry, Parris was fearful of what might become of the girls behavior and proceeded to interrogate the girls.

The girls, in turn, blamed Tituba the slave out of fear for being scolded and beaten.  Parris then brought in the Reverend John Hale of Beverly to interrogate Tituba and to investigate whether or not the devil had indeed been raised in Salem. Tituba was harshly interrogated, and after she had been threatened with severe beatings and death, she confessed to being in league with Satan. But that confession wasn’t enough. Her accusers wanted her to give up any names who might have also joined her in signing Satan’s black book.  Afraid for her life, and just wanting the nightmare that had befallen her to come to an end, Tituba calls out the names of four people who lived within the community.

The stage had been set, the spark ignited, the fire kindled, and the blazing flames were about to engulf the entire village of Salem. Historically speaking, by April of 1693 over 160 people were accused of Witchcraft, most of whom were jailed and deprived of their property and legal rights.  Fifty of those people confessed to witchcraft in order to save themselves from immediate trial and certain death. In the end, twenty-five of the accused died: nineteen were executed by hanging, one was pressed to death by stones, and five died due to the horribly unsanitary conditions of their imprisonment.

It seems to be human nature to scapegoat people in order to save our own hides.  We see this reflected in the Adam and Eve story, where Adam points the finger at Eve, followed by Eve pointing the finger at the serpent who, unfortunately didn’t have any fingers left to point. And this pattern of playing the blame game can be seen throughout history. Early Christians in the mid-first century were scapegoated by Nero for the fire that burned down a large portion of Rome. And let’s not stop with Rome, for we need look no further than the Inquisition, the holocaust and some of the reactions to the attacks on 9/11 to see that Christians have certainly done their share in scapegoating too.

Let us, in the spirit of Lent, remember that Jesus was a scapegoat and was executed for crimes that he didn’t commit. In the spirit of Christ, let us repent of the times we have participated in scapegoating others, whether it be as small as scapegoating our siblings to avoid a spanking or as large as scapegoating minority groups in order to maintain the socio-economic and political status quo.

God is calling each of us to swallow our pride, repent of our sins, and accept responsibility for what we have done.  It is only then that we can rise out of the water of our baptism with Jesus and follow him into the wilderness of preparation. It is only then that we can truly be his disciples. It is only then that we will can bear the Good News of God’s hope, healing and wholeness to the people in our midst.  During this Lent God is calling us, not to be perpetually guilty, but to repent and move forward in the direction God is calling us…the direction of witnessing to God’s unconditional love of us all!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Jesus of Nazareth, in Luke 5:31-32

PRAYER

Lord, bring me to the point of true, and liberating, repentance so that I may truly serve you and represent your unconditional love. Amen.

Billboards and Bumper Stickers

Read Jeremiah 31:31-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Read-the-InstructionsEvery once and  a while I will pass a billboard sign or see a bumper sticker that will just irk me a little bit. It is usually a pretentious saying word, “Co-Exist”, that is made up of all different religous symbols. I mean, on the one hand, I get that the bumper sticker is telling people to get along, hold hands, and skip along the yellow brick road with one another while practicing different religions. In essence, it is calling for acceptance of religious pluralism. On the other hand, the problem in the world is that we ARE CO-EXISTING!!!  We often don’t co-exist peacefully, but we are definitely co-existing. Co-existence does not equal peace.

With that said, the other day I was driving down the road and I happened to see a billboard sign that read, “When all else fails, read the instructions.” Underneath those words was a large picture of the the Holy Bible. On the surface, those words seem to make sense. I am a Christian who actively reads the Bible and try to live by what I believe to be the core teachings within it. But the words on that billboard are overly simplistic, they imply that the Bible is a last resort, and they do not accurately depict what the Bible actually is.

If the Bible is a divine manual given to us so that we can follow its “instructions”, which instructions should we follow first? Perhaps, we should stone our children when they’ve dishonored us (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Perhaps we men should remain unmarried and make ourselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12). If we are going to follow the “instructions” then shouldn’t we get rid of our personal property and share it in common with the church (Acts 4:32-35) and shouldn’t women cover their heads (1 Corinthians 11:6) and remain submissively silent (1 Timothy 2:11-12)?

The fact of the matter is that what we have in the Bible is much more than a set of “instructions” for us to follow. While there are laws, rules and regulations, the Bible is also a collection of writings that reflect each author’s understanding of the human-divine relationship, as well as their commentary on the socio-economic and political situations of where they lived. The Bible is very much a living testament to the faith journeys of the ancient people who wrote and compiled it. The Bible is also a foundational text that we relate to and from which we spiritually grow.

While the Bible is certainly an important part of our Christian journey, and while I certainly encourage people to read and study it, I do believe that we Christians tend to get confused on what the Living Word of God really is. Is God’s Word a mere book, a mere set of rules and regulations on how to not upset the big daddy in the sky? Is the Word of God a book that has both a beginning and an end, a book that is finite and limited to words on a page? Is the Word of God bound in a book that can be used and misused?

If we are going to have a traditional Christian theological understanding of what the Living Word of God is, we might want to take a hint from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The Living Word of God is not a bound collection of ancient books written by people who were inspired by God; rather, the Living WORD of God is the risen Jesus Christ.  That WORD cannot be bound nor contained. It knows no limits and it reaches different people in different ways. The WORD of God is not stagnant and typeset on flimsy paper, it is living and breathing through Christ who not only lives in us, but also through us.  When all else fails, know that the Word of God, which living within you, does not!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Every creature is a word of God” – Meister Eckhart

PRAYER

Lord, I thank you for the Bible and for the inspired words within it. But my greatest praise is for your WORD, Christ Jesus. Amen.

Forgiven

Read 2 Samuel 11; Psalm 51; Matthew 6:14-15

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

Then Peter came to Him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven! “ (Matthew 18:21-22)

King_DavidHave you heard the tale of King David?  When I mention his name, images of a ruddy-faced shepherd boy might come to mind. Perhaps, you are seeing a sling-shot and a stone in the hands of a puny boy facing a monstrous giant named Goliath? Or perhaps you see the rising star of a man, named David, who quickly climbed the political ranks in Saul’s military. Perhaps you see David being chased down by an envious King who was desperately trying to hold on to the power that was never his to begin with.

But, when the name David is mentioned, do you think of the man who slept with another man’s wife and got her pregnant? Do you think of a man who had her husband sent to the front lines in a battle to be killed so that her husband would not know of the affair? Do you think of a King who has gained so much power that he forgets the very God who gave it to him?  When we read Psalm 51 and reflect on the lamenting of its author, it is hard to not think of David when he finally realizes that he was not powerful enough to hide his sins from God.

Whether or not Psalm 51 was actually written by David or not is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that the Psalmist, whoever he or she was, was certainly feeling desperately in need of God’s forgiveness. It is fitting that this Psalm gets traditionally attributed to David, in light of the great and scandalous sin that David committed. It is a Psalm that we all can relate to, as we have all found ourselves getting caught in the act of doing something we should not be doing.  We have all found ourselves on our knees, at some point or another, begging God to forgive us.

Seeking forgiveness is a part of the Christian journey.  John the Baptist preached the message of repentance…as did Jesus…as did the apostles and all of the Christians since then.  But for Jesus, seeking forgiveness was not enough. Anyone, given the right circumstances, can be pushed to do that; however, Jesus taught that it was equally important for us to be forgiving of others. “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Now, most of us recognize that it is important to forgive others. It may be hard, and we may not want to forgive everyone, but we know that forgiveness is something God would want us to do. Yet, when we speak of forgiveness, we often only think of others.  After all, we are to forgive others, right?  What we don’t realize is that God not only wants us to forgive “others”, but God also wants us to forgive ourselves.  In fact, if we don’t forgive ourselves, how can we ever be in a place to forgive others?

We can beg God for forgiveness all day long; however, if we are unwilling to accept God’s forgiveness, then we will never receive it.  The fact of the matter is that God has already forgiven us and is waiting for us to move beyond the ashes of Lent and lamentation into the warm and bright light of Easter. Whether we are as powerful as King David or as humble and meek as a peasant child born in a stable, God is calling us to be a people of the resurrection…a people who have been forgiven, who forgive themselves, and who extend that forgiveness to others. Such people embody God’s hope, healing and wholeness!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

PRAYER

Lord, teach me the discipline of forgiveness…first for myself and then for others who have wronged me. Let my willingness to forgive bear witness to you! Amen.

 

Rising from the Ash

Read Genesis 3:1-19; John 1:1-5, 14; 3:1-17; Mark 1:1-15

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Rising from the AshSurely most, if not all, of us have the image etched into our head. There in a quaint little cemetery, stand a group of people dressed in black, all gathered around a rectangular hole in the ground. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” echo the priest’s voice through the thickened, damp mist that blankets the sky in a dismal, dark gray.  As the words fade out into the foggy veil, the rain begins to fall, each drop turning the dusty ground into muddy spittle.

This is an image that reminds us all of our own mortality. It is often an image that we reserve for depressing dramas, eerie horror movies or other stories that are meant to haunt us in the night.  When all is said and done, most of us try to bury the notion of our mortality until the moment in which we must come face to face with it.  We all know that we are mortal, that our time here is limited; however, most of us live our lives in a way that seeming denies what we know to be true.

Such images often come to mind on Ash Wednesday, where we are reminded of our mortality; however, it is also a day in which we are supposed to be reminded of our imperfection. The reminder of our mortality does, in fact, humble us to recognize our need for something bigger than we are.  In ancient Israel, and the surrounding regions, people who sough God’s forgiveness would wear sackcloth and roll around in ash, as seen in Jeremiah 6:26. The ash served as a reminder of the penitent person’s mortality, humbling the person into repentance. This also went along with fasting and continual prayer.

But the ultimate point of Ash Wednesday goes far beyond the grave, far beyond human mortality, and far beyond human culpability.  After all, we were not created to live in a permanent state of guilt. Unfortunately, many Christians get stuck in the mea culpa mentality, believing that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God. I remember being stuck in that state, praying for forgiveness every second of every moment I prayed. My prayers would consist of, “Lord, forgive me of this” and, “Lord, forgive me of that.”  I would sometimes repeat the words “forgive me” without really knowing what I was seeking forgiveness for.

As Christians, the ashes being imposed on Ash Wednesday should not only remind us of our immortality and/or our culpability; however, it should also be a reminder that we are constantly being sought out by a God who loves us; that God loved us so much that God chose to take on our form and live life as a mortal. A God who chose to become dust with us, and return to dust for us.  But the story doesn’t stop there, because out of the dust God rose up and conquered death, showing us that nothing is impossible for those who believe that true LOVE never dies.

While many people focus on the mortality and culpability aspects of Ash Wednesday, and those aspects have their place, I see this day of observance to be one of celebrating life in God. It is a day in which we are reminded of the mighty works God has done in and through Christ Jesus…and the mighty works God is doing in and through each and every one of us!  So, wherever you are today, when you are getting the ashes imposed, close your eyes and see the God who rose from the dust and turned the ashes into lilies. Then open your eyes and remember that this is exactly what God has done in you! Breathe in the life God has given you and go share that life with others.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“”The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ’s victory over death.” – Thomas Merton

PRAYER

Lord, help me to move forward from guilt to the new life you have waiting for me. Help me also to share that life in relevant ways with those around me who are in need of it. Amen.

 

A biweekly devotional