Sunday, April 27, 2014

When "Thank You" Isn't Enough

Have you ever been overwhelmed by gratitude?  Have you ever been gifted with something so remarkable you could find no words to thank the giver(s)?  Have you ever been accorded favor or grace so overwhelming that it was beyond your reasoning to imagine how to repay in kind? 

Many who know our family can well imagine this is precisely where we are currently walking and they would be right.  (For those unfamiliar, click here.)The grace, love, and overwhelming kindness recently shown is staggering to our minds.  Our senses are still daily reeling from the effort exerted to repair issues of varying severity to the structure and safety of our home.  These repairs have restored health, serenity, and redefined our future in ways we could not have previously foreseen; casting aside our limited scope of planning and enlarging the potential of this home's effectiveness as the ministry tool we have always viewed it to be.  But in this, I am struggling.  I am struggling with self.

This blessing of incalculable magnitude has placed us in unfamiliar territory.   Very simply, we are the recipients of the surrounding love and grace of others for no other reason than to be the body of Christ to us.  Many who were friends and acquaintances overwhelmed us with their generosity.  Many did not know us personally and many did not even know our names, but they came and gave of their time, efforts, resources, and the sweat of their brow to serve this family.  Where we would gladly leap at the opportunity to help others, we suddenly found ourselves facing a tidal wave of outreach that seemed unreal and improbable.

This is not a statement of preferred, isolation,  bravado, or a cavalier "John Wayne" manner of living that was sought out.  Very simply, our path and our journey as we have endeavored to pursue God's calling on our lives has often led us into unfamiliar and often very lonely territories.  Our constant was our God and his promise to never leave or forsake.  People often have, but He held us firm.  Family, both biological and church, have walked away.  Friends have distanced, but our Lord has always been close, always been faithful, always provided our needs through the deepest of valleys, always been faithful to his word.  A sole reliance on God and self develops in this environment and as compassion is studied and taken to heart, a lifestyle of seeking to serve others would rarely if ever expect others to reciprocate, let alone envelope in grace and love. 

And now my foundations have been shaken.  I desire to look each and every individual in the eye that had anything to do with the blessings that overwhelmed us and whole heartedly thank them.  But this doesn't seem enough.  The previously mentioned self-reliance in me wants to reciprocate to each of them, pay back in full and show my deepest appreciation by doing in kind what each has done for me.  Yet I am left with the reality that this is an impossibility.  My early mornings find me enjoying a newly defined resting area perfected for meditation on the Word and prayer.  Upon returning home from work, I find myself stepping into a work of love and grace and defined order.  An entire ocean of gratitude seems insufficient....In fact, I've been wrestling deeply with the subjects of gratitude and grace ever since.

It is here that God gave me the following;  Would any of us try to pay Jesus back for the gift of salvation?  Could any of us attempt to reciprocate to God for giving eternal life?  Do we truly understand the depth or the magnitude of this greatest of offerings of all time?  If so, should not thanksgiving continually be on our lips?  Yet picture the absurdity of any of us struggling with the guilt of "not being able to pay God back".  Here we begin to recognize the very definition of grace as defined in Ephesians.

He did this that He might clearly demonstrate through the ages to come the immeasurable, limitless, surpassing riches of His free grace; His unmerited favor in His kindness and goodness of heart toward us in Christ Jesus.  For it is by free grace, God’s unmerited favor, that you are saved, delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation, through [your] faith. And this salvation is not of yourselves, of your own doing, it came not through your own striving, but it is the gift of God;
Ephesians 2:7,8

God's relationship with us is not defined by our ability to thank him or repay him for his works in our lives.  Yet how often do we define our relationships with each other in this manner if we are truly honest?  I can honestly say I have may not have shied away from others based on their needs or the cost to myself, but I have on occasion based upon my own needs and my potential liability for indebted gratitude to others.  And yet we all are admonished

"Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law."
Romans 13:8 NLT

And this love moves to action towards its neighbor.  It causes a family to abandon the comforts of this American existence to minister in Guatemala.  It moves hearts to partner with families on a Swazi mountainside to bring healing, education, and (most importantly) the Word of God.  It partners with and supports those pursuing God's calling to minister to the fatherless and the orphan.  It even rebuilt the home of this family, but more importantly rebuilt our hearts. 

No mere verbalization can encapsulate it.  It is action in motion and requires likewise.  The problem with the traditional view of gratitude in general is that we very often view it as a static or one time occurrence.  When there is no chance of ever being able to repay the giver however, when grace occurs in such overwhelming magnitude that we are unable to barter for reciprocation, we are compelled to something greater.  We are driven to live for something beyond ourselves. 

We will all spend the oceans of eternity either acknowledging through praise and thanksgiving the worthiness and indescribable splendor of our God or lamenting our refusal to do so.  What this blessing has taught me is that sometimes living beyond yourself to search out grace and love towards others is the greatest praise to a mighty God when "thank you" isn't enough.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Son's Anger

Anger.  For me this has always seemed a negative emotion, primarily because of the negative actions I've engaged in while feeling it.  I come from genetic stock blessed with the "short fuse".  I am told both of my grandfathers had fierce tempers though I never truly witnessed this.  I can name a few relatives who exhibit this trait and I seem to have been blessed with the challenge to "Simma-dahn-na" from time to time when things aren't going my way as well.  Given this predisposition, anger always seemed a force to combat and not necessarily an ally.

I am just learning in my life that anger is actually a healthy emotion.  It's what you do with it that determines whether it is harmful or not.  Anger can be a protective response for self and others.  Come against my family to harm them and anger will arise.  In recent years, I've even developed somewhat of a protective anger response towards injustices and actions against the helpless or hopeless.  I now feel I am also beginning to understand the seemingly paradoxical Biblical axiom "in your anger, do not sin".  That one has challenged me for years where we read of a God who can be angered but is also sinless.
And what of his son?  Ever picture an angry Jesus?  Have you ever pictured Jesus snapping while he tread this earth?  Certainly he came to minister but have you ever imagined him getting impatient or fed up with all of the complaining, the constant non-stop demands for his time, the "me-me-me" mentality of those who always seemed to be crowding him?  He was fully human after all.  And what about the dozen guys who were his elite?  After a couple of years wouldn't these guys have stopped bickering over "who's going to be greatest in the kingdom"?  Wouldn't they start to get a clue? 
And what about the unabashedly sinful and rebellious nature of the people everywhere he went?  Talk about a polluted merging of cultures.  Polytheistic Romans, dirty Samaritans, sexually liberated Greeks, heathens from every known nation trekking across his path, chasing him down.  Even among the chosen children of God, many didn't even try to hide the fact that they weren't really interested in doing much more than following some rote commands prescribed hundreds of years before.  But offer a show, a healing or some miracles, and they came in droves to witness the sensational.  This would have irritated many to the point that they might not have felt so generous to impart words of eternal life without some serious repentance at the forefront.
Have you ever noticed Jesus' ire was never raised towards the blatantly sinful or the obvious wrong-doer?
He was never harsh with those who were lost?  He wasn't even put off by their "in-your-face" lack of pedigree, manners, appreciation, or shamelessness.

In fact, one of the most powerful descriptions of him is simply this:

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."
John 1:14 NIV

"...full of grace and truth."

If you could have one phrase on your tombstone, "full of grace and truth" would be pretty high praise.  The fact that of Jesus' many attributes "grace" and "truth" are so prominent is fascinating to me.  He could have appeared as "holy avenger, bearer of judgement and hellfire, come to set all things right".  There will certainly be a day where judgement does occur, but this isn't what he led in with.  Neither did he ignore the mired nature of the world in which he walked.  Grace and Truth fully defined him but truth is not truth if diluted, compromised, or falsified.  Our state did not change who he was, but neither did it repel him from us or keep us from approaching him based on his grace.

But Jesus was intolerant.  In reading the Gospels, some of the people I read he was most intolerant of were those who were most religiously intolerant of others - those who were from "proper" backgrounds and upbringing; those who were most strict in their observances of what was right and were put out that this self-proclaimed 'Son of God' would mix with and spend time with those who had made a mess of their lives through rebellion, bad choices, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

When I see Jesus coming to blows, it wasn't towards a tax collecting thief, or a loose living woman.  It was against those who turned a sanctuary into a profit den, preying on those bowed under the weight of pious men's interpretations of God's commands.  When I see Jesus bristle, it isn't against a man who's wrestling to figure out how to hold onto his wealth and still enter the kingdom, it's against those who are seeking to hold onto their position and have no interest in the kingdom except for how to lord it over others and maintain their societal status.  I see a Savior weeping while overlooking a holy city, not because the temple wasn't grand enough or the priests weren't precise enough in their following of the Mosaic law, but rather because in the following of the law the people had stopped following the One who gave the law.  The masses milling through the dusty streets were broken, lost, and destitute of hope. 

Times haven't changed much between when Jesus walked the earth and today.  Our temples are certainly more numerous.  Our pedigree, our level of education, our affluence might be a bit higher.  But we all can probably picture the intolerant individual in our lives or our past who has done more to drive people from God then towards him with their judgements, rules, or regulations.  "Pharisee" we would call them, or "hypocrite".  The truth is we have probably all been those people at one point or another. 

Yet I repeatedly see the call in scripture to walk as our Savior walked, to love as our Savior loved, to serve as our Savior served.  I don't see his finger pointing at others in the gospels and saying "you better straighten up and change - you better get this right!".  I see him pointing to others and saying "these are my sheep - love them".  I don't see him demanding an apology before we can approach, I see him accepting us and telling us to accept each other (Romans 15:7).  I don't see him walking away from those who are difficult or unloving, I see him commanding us to walk in the ways of his love (Ephesians 5:2).  I don't see him exercising rightfully entitled position, I see him modeling the foundations of kingdom principles where to serve is the highest nobility (Philippians 2:5-8).  Certainly a call to accept him, to let him revolutionize lives is present - but so is the truth that there is nothing we can do can earn this free gift of salvation.  Nothing good about ourselves or our acts of piety or personal holiness have purchased our relationship with him - it's based solely on his grace, his sacrifice, his love.

Only towards those who would inhibit the broken, the abused, the cast down and the hurting from approaching the open arms of a Savior filled with grace and truth do I ever see a smolder in Jesus' eyes.  We should all take care never to forget we are all saved by grace and a costly love; that we are never in position of anything short of inexhaustible gratitude.  Those who do forget, those who harm "the least of these" in the name of righteous and moral fervor risk a Son's anger.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The King Who Bowed Low

To Bow.  Have you ever performed this act to another?  What does this mean to you?  For some it might conjure images of cultural greetings.  For others, pictures of heads of state as they extend handshakes and nod.  For others, a polite curtsy.  Ponder the significance of this peculiar act of deference.

The literal definition has many applications that we are all familiar with though we often do not associate many of them with modern necessity.  I cannot actually recall the last time, if ever, that I bowed to another human being other than to take a knee to my bride when I proposed to her.  For most of us, the physical act of bowing to a person rings of defeat and serfdom and this does not sit well.  Ponder the definition.

To bow is to show reverence, recognition, and acknowledgement.  To bow is to yield, or submit.  More in line with conflict, to bow is to be forced into a position of subjugation or even to be crushed.  We prefer the polite niceties of the first while obviously desiring to avoid the ramifications of the latter.  In fact, the whole of bowing should be left to social graces devoid of any depth of personal investment or cost to self.  Yet each of us could probably imagine a historical figure or two who was forced onto their knees by a conquering power to acknowledge supremacy.  This loss of control is probably what is most intimidating about the word, for to truly bow to another is to yield oneself to the temperament, preferences, and power of that individual.

In the case of many around us, we would often refuse this kind of submission unless deep trust had been established.  No one wants to fall backwards unless they know a network of interwoven arms is there to catch them.  But what of the powerful, the mighty, those imbued with seemingly everything necessary to charge forth and rule their world.  Do we ever picture the need for them to bow to others?  Do we ever see them brought low in subservience as a necessity for their position, their influence?  Historically I do not. 

Historically, I envision this to be the antithesis of the powerful.  Gazing upon those listed as great and mighty amongst the "conquerors" and "shapers" of history I see very few, if any, notes of those who created empires, shaped continents, and altered their times by yielding to the passions of others except in the name of self interest or personal appetites.  "Self serving" more characteristically defines the interests of these individuals.  Whether it be to etch a name for self or for nation in eternity, most who expanded empires, grew nations, conquered countries and dominated economies did so on their feet and rarely if ever bowed the knee. 

Everyone of them, though, shared this commonality; they each ultimately bowed to the pull of death's indomitable tug upon this flesh.  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, each bowed as they stepped into eternity as we all must.  Many were acutely aware of this inevitability and strove to outlast their own lives in stone and deeds remembered.  Many disillusioned believed they were beyond the power of the grave and through mysticism and myth sought to outlive their peers through accomplishment.  All were brought low with finality; the works of their hands undone in the cessation of a heartbeat. 

Picture, however, a king not subject to this mandate.  Eternal, possessing of all true power.  This king was present when the stars were commanded to burst forth from the void, he witnessed the oceans roar forth from the deep places.  Lightning adorned his throne and creatures innumerable and indescribable existed simply to continually utter reverence and praise to his name.  Immortal, death could not touch this king, could not approach his presence.  This king truly need yield to no one for there was none more powerful, more deserving of absolute reverence and awe than he in all of the most divine or the most abominable planes in existence. 

This king, though, did something unthinkable and uncharacteristic of one imbued of royalty...he knelt.  He knelt in the filthy soil of a spoiled creation.  He knelt in the squalor those who rejected him.  With compassion, this king knelt and touched a blind man.  He reached for a cripple.  This king knelt and grasped a woman caught in adultery.  He embraced an embezzling tax cheat and clasped a leper.  This king cradled a dead girl and endured the scorn of mockers as he named her "sleeping". 

There were those who faintly grasped with whom they walked while this king tread our plane.  Their tainted knowledge led them to believe this king would rise up in might, overthrow usurping armies and establish an immediate eternal power.  They were perplexed when this king stripped himself near naked and proceeded to perform the lowliest of duties - the washing of their dusty, road-weary feet.

For this was the model of greatness in this king's eyes - the true wisdom of power that the mighty and powerful of this sphere have squandered centuries railing against in futility.  This king's kingdom is not built with the mighty, but with the broken.  It is not built by the powerful, but with the vulnerable.  This king's kingdom is not built by the wise of the earth, but by the helpless. 

We would argue these truths as ineffective and foolish for what progress can ever be made in any undertaking with such deficiencies.  Our misunderstanding stems from our own misguided understanding of our own importance in the tapestry of God's unfolding history where each of us is but a small thread.  The phrase "God plus me = everything" is true just as the phrase "infinity + zero= infinity" where we realize we are the sum zero in this equation and only through the grace of a loving and all powerful father have we been invited to participate in the most grand of redemptive stories in existence. 

But this was only possible as the king who knelt in our soil, walked in our flesh, and touched our diseases ultimately yielded himself, of his own accord, to bow low under the crushing weight of wooden beams; to be nailed to those same beams and to be elevated on a cross as a substitution for my filth and wrong doing so that I could approach a pure and holy God without blemish once and for all time.  He did this for me as he did this for all.  This is the king who bowed low and his call is for us to follow his example.