Friday, November 23, 2012

Do You Get What's Coming to You?


For two solid months, from mid-September to mid-November, I woke up every single morning with the words of the same song playing over and over through my mind:
“Oh Father won’t You forgive them
They don’t know what they’ve been doing.”

     The Holy Spirit has not only been speaking to me, but faithfully reminding and encouraging me in this area, holding before me the example of Jesus as He hung dying on the cross. Here is the first verse and chorus of the song, titled “Losing” by Tenth Avenue North:
I can’t believe what she said
I can’t believe what he did
Oh, don’t they know it’s wrong?
Maybe there’s something I missed
But how could they treat me like this?
It’s wearing out my heart
The way they disregard

This is love, this is hate…
We all have a choice to make

Oh Father won’t You forgive them
They don’t know what they’ve been doing
Oh, Father, give me the grace to forgive them…

     “Give me the grace…” But what IS grace?
     Somehow we’ve acquired the idea that grace is some kind of intangible virtue expressed through personal poise and decorum. This is a misunderstanding of what “grace” means in the Bible!
     The “grace” of the New Testament is articulated by the Greek word charis, from which we derive our English word “charity”. It is best understood in an active sense: as being proactively charitable towards another. In terms of God’s grace towards us, it literally means “a proactive favor that we do not deserve, acting in and upon our lives”.
     Grace is not some kind of nebulous, esoteric abstraction that God gives us in some intangible way! God’s grace is an active force working to produce undeserved favor on, in and through our lives. It works in three ways:
1.      Psalm 103:10 tells us that God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. Scripture tells us that God views jealousy, bitterness, slander, and gossip (to name a few) as just as sinful as murder and immorality. We can never claim the moral high ground before Him! What we see as our own “righteousness” is little more than filthy rags to Him. The expression “filthy rags” refers to what in that culture was considered to be the most disgusting uncleanness. This means that every last one of us deserves nothing less than God’s punishment for wrongdoing that is disgusting to Him!
     Yet instead God’s proactive and forceful favor – favor we do not deserve – goes to work in both taking that punishment on Himself, and lavishing on us His favor, bestowing His own unblemished righteousness on us as a free gift.
     At the very point of this grace in action, as Jesus was pouring His life out for the sake of humanity, His gift of grace was met with contempt, disdain and mockery by His onlookers. Yet rather than retaliating in judgment, He spoke those timeless words of undeserved favor upon His tormentors: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
     Just when we most deserve His judgment for all our "uglies", God responds favorably towards us with His grace and forgiveness: the power of undeserved favor He pours out upon our lives!

2.      God’s grace additionally works in our lives, as an active force enabling and empowering us to go through trial, heartache, and opposition in strength and victory. In 2 Corinthians 9:8, Paul tells the believers, “God is able to make all grace abound to you…” “Abound” means that this favor never runs out, but keeps being replenished, over and over. Three chapters later, in sharing a deep struggle of his own, Paul says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in (your) weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Here God’s grace works as an enabling power, giving us His strength to proactively engage our most difficult experiences in favorable ways!

3.      We are recipients of the lavish, undeserved favor of God! And yet… how do we respond when in turn somebody hurts or offends us, is hostile or malicious or mean-spirited or rude towards us, betrays or slanders us…? While we are only too grateful for the grace of God extended to ourselves, are we simultaneously guilty of wanting others to “pay” for their "uglies" – or at least acknowledge their wrong and “stand corrected”? 
     The grace God gives us is not only intended as a gift to be received. As recipients of the abundance of His grace poured out into our lives, we are simultaneously empowered to in turn give what we have received: Grace, spilling from our lives into the lives of others. Grace to those who don’t “deserve” it; grace as a force for good, given freely from our grace-filled hearts into our most difficult relationships and encounters. 
     Often the most “difficult” people are those whose hearts most cry out for grace. Why not give it away, since God has so generously given it to us when we did not deserve it? This is the grace of God working through us to others. We don't have to wait until we're "feeling it" before we respond this way: when we choose this by an act of our will, the enabling grace of God is activated to come alongside with His strength to release His grace through us.

     In just a few weeks we will be celebrating the birth of a baby born as the greatest gift of God’s grace to you and I: God Himself, who took on human flesh, just so that He could personally bear the punishment, in our place, that our sins deserve.
     As we consider what gifts to give one another in celebration of this event, can we open our hearts to give what He has so freely given us? Gifts of grace, poured into the lives of others who don't "deserve" it, in forgiveness and kindness, out of a generosity of spirit that reflects the character of the One who gave Himself for us. Jesus said, "Freely you have received, freely give" (Matt. 10:8).
     It is ourselves we rob, when we withhold this. We cannot have a closed heart towards others, while maintaining an open heart toward God. When we close our hearts to another, we close God out also, and rob ourselves of intimate fellowship with Him. When we do open our hearts to Him, we hear His voice clearly telling us to walk in the love, compassion, and forgiveness we ourselves have so generously received from Him. Additionally, to choose to be instruments of grace, is to choose personal growth and deepening maturity. Conversely, holding out stunts our personal growth, and keeps us trapped in immature patterns.
     This alternative is further sobering, as expressed in Matthew 18 and many other New Testament passages: To the extent that we withhold these things from others, God will withhold them from us; to the extent we criticize and judge others, God will judge us. But to the extent that we freely give to others, God will give to us, pressed down, shaken together and running over (Luke 6:38).
     I pray that as we remember God’s greatest gift of grace to humanity, the active grace of God will be poured out afresh in each of our lives in proactive power that will transform hearts, interactions, and relationships. And as His grace is poured out in abundance, may we each become powerful instruments of His grace into the lives of others who, just like us, are also treasured by God.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Shifting Seasons

  “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will restore us, that we may live in His presence. Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge Him. As surely as the sun rises, He will appear; He will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth” (Hosea 6:2, 3).

     Recently a close friend and I set aside a few days for a time of personal retreat together. On one lovely autumn day, we set out on a walk with the express purpose of each finding ourselves a quiet spot in which to be still before the Lord, and hear what He had to say to us individually.
     I was particularly drawn to a sprawling tree, still heavy with golden leaves. Beneath it spread a carpet of the golden leaves that had already fallen. It had rained during the previous night and the ground was wet, but the day was dry and mild, so I spread my rain jacket at the foot of the tree, and sat with my back resting against the tree trunk. This reminded me of Jesus’ disciple Nathanael, of whom Jesus said, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:48). I prayed that Jesus would “see me” under my tree also, because I longed to hear His words to me personally!
     In the hour or so that followed, God spoke to me clearly in several different ways. One of those ways was to do with the golden leafy canopy over my head, and the golden carpet of leaves I sat on. I gradually became aware of the faint smell of plant decomposition. When I looked more closely, I saw that underneath the immediately visible golden layer, was a further layer of the leaves that had fallen earliest from the tree. These had already turned into brown fragments that would shortly become indistinguishable from the soil on which they lay.
     I am a summer, sunshine girl! The hotter the weather is, the better I like it! I love the vibrant color and light of the summer months, and often deplore the passing of that season. Cold weather is not my friend, and winter is my least favorite time of year! As much as I love the colors of autumn, I mourn the passing of the summer.
     Yet as I sat under my tree on this autumn morning, my eyes were opened to the God-given intention in what was happening around me: Leaves fall from a tree when the season is over. For a while, as they fade, they look beautiful, but ultimately their falling and decomposition seems like a kind of death. And yet there is great purpose in this. Those dead leaves are not wasted. Instead they are absorbed back into the soil in order to nourish it so that, replenished with nutrients, it is restored to ground fertile enough to support and nurture the new, vigorous growth and fruitfulness of the next spring and summer.
     I was overwhelmed with a sense of God urging me not to be sad for what seems like a death from a season that has passed – that nothing has been wasted, but instead the very thing that seems to have “died” will provide nutrients in the soil of my life to bring forth new, vigorous growth and even more fruit in the season to come.
     Winter is a time of rest in the natural world. Yet it is not a season of redundancy. Rather it is a necessary period during which plants and seeds are being prepared for the burgeoning life of spring. Without winter’s repose, spring’s vigor would not be possible.
      The same is true in our own lives: When a season in life or ministry has past, there may come a period during which it seems something has withered, and “nothing is happening”. We should accept this not as a time of redundancy, but rather as a period of rest and preparation for the abundant life God has purposed for us in the season to come. Instead of mourning, we should open ourselves to His work deep within us, in the secret places of our spirits, allowing the Holy Spirit to replenish, renew, reinvigorate, and prepare us for His new season of fruitfulness to come through our lives.
     If we embrace this process and surrender to the Lord in it rather than resist it, surely the time will come when we will again hear the voice of our Beloved calling, “Arise… and come with Me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land” (Song of Solomon 2:10-12). 
     He is Lord, sovereign over our moments and our days. Let us rest in and embrace His purposes for us in every shifting season of our lives.