For days I’ve been taking turns between ignoring the issue completely, pretending it doesn’t exist, and floating in a paralyzing sense of confusion and hopelessness. And after this period of wrestling with this on my own, I came to my senses and realized the only healthy thing to do was bring it to the Lord and let God tell me what to do.
Was there ever a better friend? Savior? Parent? Spouse? Sibling? Lord? Everything? You're the best. I know lots of times I'm busy living life, whatever that means. I forget to say the words. But I look to my left and my right, I see you. And I know. You're my fence, my safety net, my engine. The lover of my soul.
Forgiving others' trespasses against us because we know that God forgave us our sins, is easier said than done. The level of pain caused when a person wrongs us, combined with how "sorry" the person seems to be, often play the biggest role in whether or not we "choose" to forgive. It is very human to hold grudges. The Gospel tells us to treat others as we want to be treated, but this may not always lead to forgiveness. How do we want to be treated? What do we think we deserve? Although we may be aware intellectually that God have forgiven us, it may be hard to feel free from the wrongs we have done. When we feel imprisoned our sins, it is impossible to release others from the weight of the wrongs they have done to us.
God wants us to know with all of our minds, hearts and strength that God has blotted out our sins and accepts us. Christ's incredible sacrifice on the cross shows us this in the most intense way possible that he loves you enough to take on the burden of your sin so that you may be free from it and come into full relationship with God.
When we can love one another and believe God loves us enough to have completely forgiven us, then we can forgive others. The capacity to do these things comes not from ourselves, our own hard work, or our own kindheartedness. They come as gifts from God.
As we pray for the gift to be able to truly forgive, both ourselves and others, we should seek to know the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, and all these things will be added unto us.
Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. 1 Corinthians 12:30-31
Lent calls us to reflect on the fragile nature of our humanity. The human condition is one filled with imperfection and impermanence. It can be easy to become uncomfortable with these thoughts and therefore dismiss them. Lent calls us to focus on where we would be without God’s unconditional love for us. We remember that we are from dust and will return to dust; that we all sin and the wages of sin are death. Sitting with this knowledge is difficult, but ultimately gives us a greater appreciation for and reverence of God’s unconditional love for us as expressed through Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. When we meditate on where we would be without the love, grace, and communion of God, we more fully and passionately take hold of all that salvation in Christ gives us. Give yourself the gift of heightening your love for God by understanding how completely and desperately we need to be saved.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39
On this Thanksgiving day, I am filled with a sense of loss. Remembering my deceased mother, and more recently my deceased aunt, I just feel sad. Perhaps you too are suffering from the well known holiday blues, missing something that is no longer in your life, which puts a damper on your celebration. The book of Psalms tells us that weeping is a part of life, that it can often endure. (Psalms30:5) Ecclesiastes also tells us that to everything there is a season. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Often I am tempted to feel that something is wrong with me in the times when I may be especially sad, while those around me seem fine or happy. These words from the Bible reminds me that it is okay to feel sad. Trusting that God will heal my wounds and mend my broken or aching heart from the sources of my sadness, allows me not to pile a feeling of guilt or judgment onto my spirit. It also relieves me from the need to hide my true feelings from others.
It's okay to feel sad. It's okay even to let others know that you are feeling sad. Often hiding the truth of how we feel from ourselves and others build up walls that serve as barriers to our own healing and the creation of a vibrant whole and transformative community. So on this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for how I feel, I am thankful for how you feel - however that may be. Most of all I am thankful that we can feel, together.
Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Romans 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
At my Grandma's church, the one with the wood floors and "old time religion", they were fond of thanking God for waking up that morning. As a kid, I couldn't relate. Every day was a given, of course. I assumed they were thankful because they were old, as a kid, everyone is old, and how long they were going to go on living was an active concern. At times when I am sick, I can certainly relate to that. But, thankfully, I'm not often that sick, so I often don't have an active appreciation to God for "just" waking me up.
This morning, as I looked out my sunny window, I found myself thanking God for this new morning. I realized that I had claimed my own meaning of a new day on which to anchor my thanks to God; another chance. Each day I get up is a opportunity to do something new, to make different and better choices.
I've been stuck in an unhelpful loop lately, doing the same thing over and over. This morning I was filled with gratitude in knowing that today I had a chance to do something different and new, to right the ship. No matter how bad things get, whether from circumstance or our own making, each day is a truly miraculous opportunity to make a different choice. No matter how amazing the days behind me have been, in the morning I get to set my sights on new challenges.
I'm grateful to God for the gift of each and every morning. Christ's resurrection inspires us to know that no defeat need be final, we can always rise again. What do you want your morning to be?
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Luke 24:1-5
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, " Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. -James 2:14-17 (New American Standard Bible)
Friends, I there are an awful lot of times when I just have no desire to “do good works”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very concerned about my sanctification. I’m always trying to advance my walk with Christ through prayer, devotion, bible study, fellowship in the Church, and just a generally uplifting and positive demeanor. But very rarely do I do anything for the lost, the least and the left out. Honestly, there are times when I don't even think about them.
So I have to ask myself, if God was screaming to us through the prophets, that we are really only in right relationship with Him when we are loving our neighbors as ourselves by exercising works of mercy, justice and righteousness, what use is my faith without these works?
We get a very clear picture in the Gospel of Matthew that it is about what we do, not just what we have claimed to believe. To those who are to be called the blessed of God, Jesus will say “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
I can’t remember the last time I feed the homeless. I give money now and then or buy a meal occasionally for a homeless person, but it’s really almost by accident; if I’m walking down the street and a homeless person cries out to me and my heart is pricked and I have the time to spare. I’ve hardly ever invited in a stranger in the whole of my life, and from the few times that I did I have horror stories and battle scars.
I’ve given clothes away to Goodwill, but that was more about getting rid of clothes I didn’t fit anymore and getting the tax write-off. If I visit the sick, and it’s not a friend or family member of mine, it is more often than not only because I happened to be with someone else who was already going. And prison visitation gives me the shudders. I do my best to try not to even think about it.
So then, when in the end Jesus sits on that throne and reveals to us the content of our characters, lives, hearts and souls, what will he say to me? Even knowing that whatever I do or don’t do to the least of these I do or don’t do to Him; even feeling I have Jesus joy in my heart; even believing I am a new creature in Christ and am being transformed by the renewing of my mind; i sometimes still don’t do these things. I at times hardly ever even consider them.
How can I truly be Christ-filled and reconciled with God if I am so oblivious to the Godly demands of good works as manifestations of love for my neighbor in my daily living? If, as the Book of James says, faith and works must go hand in hand for salvation to be truly and effectively worked in the individual, what is going on in this individual?
First Faith, Then Works What is the source of these good works that God wants us to perform? James tells us in our text that true generator of good works is faith. So it is that without the guidance, power and motivation of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of our human and earthly endeavors are just a crapshoot. But, this line of thinking – which is deeply inspiring and true – can be used in a very damaging way. Confidence in God’s ability to move through me can in practice easily become complacency in my activity. If I believe God will always generate the motivation and strength within me to do as I ought, it can become all too easy not to examine my motives or myself.
If it were something I should be doing, surely God would motivate and empower me to do it, right? But good works clearly are something I should be doing, and yet I’m not doing them at times. How do I address this disconnect?
A Baptism of Good Works While it is certainly true and a cause for rejoicing that God is the one source that can guide us and empower us, it is just as real that He in no wise overpowers us. Only those parts of ourselves – body, mind and soul – that we submit to God, loving him with the totality of our being, can He transform and make new. Attitudes and behaviors, fears and blind spots that we refuse to sacrifice to God, or which function as hidden sins we are unaware of will not be involuntarily redeemed when we confess Christ.
God tries in His grace to make us aware of and convict us of the ungodliness of those unsurrendered parts of ourselves in different ways. Only when we are ready to repent of them, can they be baptized; renewed and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Friends I know that I need to receive a baptism of good works. I have never let God transform my imagination of what God’s justice and good works on earth could look like because I have assumed the way it is is the way it will be until the end times.
I didn’t even know it was wrong to think this way. The Psalmist says, “Against you and you only Lord have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:4) While this is true, I still beat my breast to think on the damage and consequence that sin has had on the people I failed to even see, much less aid and stand in solidarity with, because of this blindness.
We may all need to repent of such a lack of imagination for what Godly justice is and how it can break forth on earth through the power of our good works. Once I get my baptism of good works, God can at last begin to reconfigure the way my mind works. When I begin to see the lack of good works in the world, things the old me used to just see as “business as usual,” I will find my imagination of what could be by the power of God will catch fire, inspiring me to work for that reality. The Holy Spirit will rejoice to at last be able to expand into those parts of me that I had been withholding.
Man’s Works Versus God’s Works Another issue is that I have effectively removed myself from the equation of how the Kingdom of God will break forth on earth to destroy injustice. When I think about Amos’ words, which I love, I so often remove any sense of personal agency from them. “Let justice roll down like waters” sounds, when taken out of context, like a magnificent instance of God’s divine intervention in the world, not something that “little old me” could do. I combine that with my understanding that the world will not be fully redeemed until the end times, and the end result is I just lean back in my recliner and wait for God to do the work.
The obvious reality is that, as we all know, the Church is the body of Christ until His return, so we must commit ourselves to acting in that capacity. We are his physical presence on earth, so we can’t be armchair quarterbacks in any way when it comes to engaging the oppressions at work in the world. After all, almost all of God’s miracles and blessings are worked through human beings. So me saying that I’m too insignificant and human to make a big difference in God’s establishment of a just and good society on earth ultimately rings hollow.
An Empty Pitcher Before a Full Fountain I’ll let you in on a little secret. I've made an amazing discovery; it is exhilarating to be used by God.
I have so often heard in prayers is, “Lord, I come to you an empty pitcher before a full fountain,” and it simply means that we are in need of the Living Waters that are the overflowing abundance of God. That well of salvation is satisfying, joyous, invigorating, empowering; it fills us with God’s sweet presence.
So when Amos as the mouthpiece of God says, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a never ending stream,” the motivation is not out of an unyielding and unfeeling discipline, but out of love. God is actually doing us a favor and extending to us the most fantastic advice we could ever receive! Doing justice and being wholeheartedly on the side of righteousness through our commitment to good works will unleash a torrent of Living Waters in our lives and the world the likes of which are exceeding abundantly above all we could ask or think.
Amos is imploring us to do as God would have us to do as a way to enter into our Master’s rest, where there is peace that surpasses understanding and fullness of joy. Doing good works fills, nay overflows, our empty pitchers.
Living Faith “Doing good works” means being about our father’s business. All the hallelujahs we may shout faithfully day in and day out are meaningless unless we engage the world around us. Christ never preached to someone in need of help. He helped first and then preached. That is in part what it means to say that in Christ, God reconciled the world to himself, which is to say that in Christ Godly belief and Godly action could finally be unified.
I am abiding in a dead faith until I can give these words some traction in my daily actions. If I can’t get myself out of the self-centered mindset that my Christianity is about primarily about me and my church, the dry bones of my faith will never have the breath of life reinvigorate them.
I want every part of me to be alive in Christ. For me to have a living faith, I must have living works. And when I have living faith, things get better, because the waters of justice and streams of righteousness flowing through me bring God’s presence nearer, not to only me, but also to all those I come into contact with; particularly the lost, least, and left out neighbors I am charged to love as myself.
The Journey of a Thousand Steps So how do we start on this amazing path? There are some practical steps that, once we have received our baptism of good works by the Holy Spirit, we can take to begin this transformative process.
We first must put energy behind the new imagination God has given us. When God allows us to see that things could be different than they are, that perspective could simply become an errant thought if we don’t develop it further. We must invest these God-given possibilities with a passionate belief and desire for them to become reality.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus rebukes his disciples for having “little faith.” In all of these situations, there are material threats or obstacles pressing in on them, and they fear those challenges will overwhelm them. To that fear Christ says, only believe. We need to have the same boldness to have faith that the injustices, oppressions and daily atrocities of life can be changed for the better.
Jesus called on us to have faith, proclaiming that even the faith of a tiny mustard seed could effect great change. We should similarly keep in mind that big things can come from small beginnings. Let us not overwhelm ourselves by trying to eliminate world hunger in a day, for example. We should place ourselves in an environment where God can reveal our particular talents and callings in doing justice.
You needn’t quit your job today and join the Peace Corps tomorrow. Volunteer two days a month at a soup kitchen. Open your eyes and actively look for ways to be a force for equality in your day-to-day activities. God will reward those seeds your sow by continuing to pour Himself into you, and into others through you.
The Buddy System
Christ sent out his followers into the highways and byways two-by-two, never alone. So we too, when doing good works, should be mindful that challenges are often best engaged when we have the support of someone else. When trials come, and there will be a great many trials when we seek to do Godly works in the world, having another person to encourage us can make all the difference. Partnering with one or more people can also serve as a covenant relationship where others serve as accountability partners to help each other stay faithful to their commitments to justice.
It can be all too easy to fall into thinking that good works are a purely earthly endeavor, not an effort inspired and empowered by God according to His purposes. We run and not grow weary in our efforts only if we stay mindful of the fact that when we engage in good works with our whole selves, we stand in solidarity with Christ and are living up to God’s call that we bind ourselves to justice and righteousness through faith and action. We must ever remember that we rely on God for direction and strength and that it is not we ourselves but the Christ within us that effects real change in the world.
If we keep that in mind, we will be better able to stay humble and deal with the painfully slow pace it can take for true change to come, the seemingly insignifigant fruit that our hard fought good works may bare. We are called to work, however the Holy Spirit directs us, towards the Kingdom of God.
Conclusion We Baptists put a lot of stock in the moment of our salvation, as well we should. But let us never forget that salvation is both an event and a process. We should all be continually examining the roles that engaging in good works has in our lives and how closely it is knit to and flows out of our faith in and relationship with God. Let us secure our salvation by committing to maturing it continually with the grace of Christ, the clove of God our Father, and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit!
There I was, ordained, with a ministerial position, and with a preaching style I felt was finally starting to gel together and define itself. I was quite comfortable with myself and my preaching style; personal, persuasive, practical. It was one of those, perhaps rare, moments when ministry and your place in it makes sense...Then God gave me my latest sermon topic. I watched in baffled amazement as a sermon began to form on the page before me that was nothing like "me" - all fire and brimstone, talking of consequences and wrong-mindedness. Horrifying. I had gotten quite comfortable being the "love preacher," who brought up challenging but liberating truths gently and personally.
I have learned that when I get comfortable, God loves to stretch me and grow me to the next level. I had gotten comfortable with a style of ministry that involved very little confrontation. (How very un-prophetic of me.) So, of course, God appears to tear down the reassuring fences and limitations I had built around me.
This Sunday I'm preaching a sermon on Amos 5:20-24 entitled, "Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself," and I'm more than a little bit terrified. I often get that way when I sense God is going to do something beyond what I can anticipate. There is always something exhilarating and unpredictable about serving a Living God, as opposed to a figment of my imagination.
I am reminded of a pastor's comment to me, "We want good for ourselves, but God wants best for us." - Thank you Reverend Kouadio!
So I will leap forward, heart racing, into the path God has placed before me, dying (daily, as Paul said) to see how God continues to transform and enliven me.
I've been in bed, either in a hospital or at home, for an entire week now. Finally I am felling better and more like my "normal" self. But severe illness was wholly alienating to me as a young(-ish?) adult. I had to gather up my strength and focus if I wanted to turn from one side to the other in bed. I pressed a call button and waited for a nurse to come and help me to the bathroom or to refresh my medications. Once home, a big day consisted of getting the energy up to sit in a chair for a few hours instead of my bed. I found I didn't know how to be "sick." Despite my certainty that I had left the impossible folly of my teenage youth behind, I found myself confounded by a circumstance that assured me I was not invincible or immortal. Apparently I still thought I was untouchable, and this episode had come to teach me otherwise.
"I need Thee, oh I need Thee. Every hour I need Thee," says the famous hymn. I thought I had as deep an understanding of that sentiment as possible. But there was, and ever remains, more room to grow in understanding that of myself I can do nothing, it is the Christ within me. I became dependent on God for life, comfort, movement and healing with a new and urgent kind of intimacy.
My faith has grown in this last week because I could no longer lay any claim, however subconscious, to the egotistical thought that I was the source of my own power and life. Being sick will teach you that every moment and movement is a gift from God.
Some, like myself on this occasion, get out of their sickbeds while others breath their last in them. I pray we all, whatever the outcome, feel the kind of closeness and dependence on a loving and giving Source that I have this week. Being sick has taught me the calm assurance that I am not alone and that it is not all up to me. Thank God!
But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Matthew 5:39
This, as other passages support, exhorts the hearer to avoid repaying evil with evil, even when confronted directly with physical violence. It is certainly true that Jesus thematically eschewed earthly victory gained through force or defense in favor of an ultimate victory through obedience to and freedom in God. But it is not equally true that Christ’s messages are entirely esoteric and largely irrelevant to earthly struggles. Many may view this as Jesus advising that we be a punching bag for others, not only taking abuse but also volunteering for more. Based on this interpretation, this course can and has been minimized; deemed as impossible or foolhardy and dismissed as a behavioral ethic or relegated to the internal aspects of Christian living.
There is, however, an important exegesis of this text with a different and nuanced understanding of Christ’s intent that keeps the behavioral relevance and concreteness of this saying intact. Slaps -it says slaps not punches, so this means the palm of an open hand- to the right cheek were done with the left hand. In the time and place of Jesus, open-handed blows from the left hand were acts of humiliation and abasement as opposed to ones of severe violence and harm, as blows to the left check or elsewhere would have been. Christ advises in this scripture that we not respond in kind to our assailant. We are instead to take the power from the person trying to humiliating by not resenting indignities but instead “daring” them to truly harm us. This indicates to them that their efforts to abase us – and the institutionalized systems that support this – have failed and are flawed, and the only way we can be wounded is with a true act of violence – which “bullies” are often unwilling or afraid to perform.
In this way, Christ is indeed advising us not to strike back. Taken in its proper context, however, this advice is given not to victimize, but actually to liberate the follower from humiliation and victimization by those that would attempt it in this manner. What can easily be read as pointless and abject cowering and cowardice is in fact the opposite. In this case non-violence is a valiant act that can lead to liberation; the liberty in Christ of which the apostle Paul revels.