Who doesn’t love getting gifts?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” ~Ephesians 2: 8-9
Anytime I receive a gift, it is not my doing.
If I earned it, it’s called a wage.
If I deserved it, it’s called an honorarium.
Being Grandma’s favorite means getting stuff the others don’t. It’s those secret conversations that leave you holding an heirloom, an extra batch of cookies, or a crisp hundred dollar bill.
What’s incredible about Grandma’s favor is that you didn’t do anything to get it.
Well, nothing you know about. Face it.
Grandma’s grace has more to do with who you are than what you are doing.
Sure, you thought it was because you are the first one in the family to go to college…or the only grand-kid who ever goes to church… but Grandmas are far more intuitive than that. The discernment of that denizen of older age sees more with her aging eyes than your pitifully acute, young eyes ever possibly could.
Grandma sees the person you are, the one you are becoming, and who you may yet be.
So, there is this gift given. It is a sign of relationship; an expression that is both parts knowing and loving you.
A gift has nothing to do with justice. Juries deliver verdicts. Judges hand out sentences. Grandmas give gifts.
Grace is a gift. It is the favor of God bestowed for no other reason than your actually being known and loved by God.
Grandma gives you an heirloom; you treasure the legacy; preserve it and pass along its story to others.
Grandma favors you with a handmade sweater; you wear it proudly.
Grandma grants you a special batch of homemade cookies; you gobble them with yummy noises and grunts of appreciation between mouthfuls.
Grace is a gift from God. The gift says everything about the gift giver, but it is also saying something about the one receiving the gift.
It says you are loved.
And we say “I love you back” by what we do with the gift.
Gifts, after all, aren’t meant to be left in packages with pretty bows.
Gifts are given to be opened; put to use; acted on; employed.
Grace is a gift.
The question was never what did you do to deserve that?
The question has always been, what are you going to do with that?
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. ~1 Peter 4:10
When did we give up on faith, exactly?
Since when is Faith, alone, not good enough and we had to send Assurance along to walk it to the corner market?
The anxiety gnawing at our innards; the spoiled children demanding to know what is in the package beneath the tree. That peculiar drift from faith in Christ toward an insistence of an assurance of salvation astounds.
I’m still waiting for Calvin’s peer review to publish.
Faith does not satisfy like assurance. Faith is covenantal not contractual.
Assurance is binding; demanding. Our ways, human ways, like things strapped down.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. Isaiah 55:8-9
Leave it to a lawyer like Calvin to draft the closing argument for (his) justification before Christ in the divine courtroom. How clever to use sacred scripture to compile an adjudication; using God’s words against God to pronounce his own sentence, claiming innocence on the merit of the Judge’s righteousness and demanding the inheritance of heaven!
So odd that among the Greekophiliac biblical scholars and their insatiable taste for tenses, that not one of them remember Paul saying we are “being saved”. Or, that not one has bothered to mention that assurance and faith are apples and oranges.
A witnessing believer declares, “Your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life! Your sins are forgiven and salvation is sure!” when those magic words are whispered: Jesus, come into my heart and save me.
Somehow, this statement declaring a final judgment is not blasphemy.
Just saving Jesus some time at the end of all things
Yet, should a Catholic priest say to a repentant person:
May God, who has enlightened every heart, help you to know your sins and trust in his mercy…God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
This, we are to believe, is an act of violence against Divine privilege and authority.
Even though Jesus taught us to forgive one another. James teaches us to confess our sins one to another. Jesus delegates to his disciples the function of binding and releasing sin as a function of shaping church (community) culture.
But the sacred scripture is quite clear about one thing.
Christ alone was declared worthy to judge. You cannot declare me “saved.” No one can. Not you. Not Calvin. Certainly not myself. How could any of us make such a claim? Would you care to know what the Bible actually says about our salvation?
Jesus decides. And only Jesus knows.
See, I am being saved. I am charged to remain faithful. I have the works Jesus began to carry on.
Well there’s an uncomfortable concept. A judgment.
A judgement conducted by the only worthy judge.
No assurance there.
–All that “Lord, Lord we did miracles and such in your name” business.
But there is hope (Paul’s language again). Faith is more formidable.
Assurance is, well, assuring. But the gospels, and the apostolic teachings, read collaboratively don’t say we are assured of anything.
Faith is a work of trust; it is relational. It is evidenced, not by a tract discovered in a bathroom stall, signed, and stuffed in a wallet, but by a life living out the works and words of Christ.
Assurance-speak must be the language of the insecure, the anxious and uncertain. Assurance defies mystery. It is the prodigal’s demand for an inheritance now. Those who fear judgment have not experienced a mature relationship; a perfect love.
Faithfulness is an enduring; a process; a growth.
Faith is the substance that substantiates hope.
Faith is the evidence of what is yet unseen.
Faith is found in sincere, personal relationships.
They do not say of a good, loyal husband, “He was assuring to his wife.”
Hearing those words, that he was assuring to his wife, implies he is yet trying to convince his wife of something she is not quite sure is believable.
Sola Fide. It is enough.
I won’t depend on magic words to seal my salvation any longer. I will no longer demand Jesus come into my heart and life. Instead, I will answer the call of Christ and follow Him. I will come into His heart and His life.
And working out that salvation, not by my works, but through His works which He began and continues through us, I will know Him better; hear Him better; trust Him more.
Then, on that day, I will trust fall backward into the arms of Christ, or else into just judgment. Who knows?
“…and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” -2 Timothy 3:15-17
Getting back to my faith roots.
Scripture was my first love. In the concrete walled halls of a small Baptist church school I fell in love with story. Bible was the first class of the day. Memory verses were important, but it was the flannel graph figures whose lives resurrected against a velvet gray each day who captivated my imagination: from the great patriarchs of the Hebrews to the socially disenfranchised who found both mercy and healing in Y’shua‘s words and touch. Some heard the stories and came away angry or confused at the cruel, punishing deity on one side of the book and the Utopian idealism of the ragged rabbi of Galilee depicted in the other. Not me. I heard the epic in a different way.
Always being smaller, slower, and socially awkward John the Evangelist dialed straight into this introvert’s frequency.
What will we play? My words dismissed by the group as if unspoken.
When the Alpha would speak, play began.
We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. – Luke 7:32
Say again, John, all after “He was in the world…but the world did not know Him.”
He came to His own…but His own… did not accept him. –John 1:11
The jealous protective fiery response of the deeply loving, ever rejected God begins with a deep wound which could not be reconciled; a bustling playground vacated at the sound of the approaching happy-excited running-steps.
When they heard the sound of God strolling in the garden in the evening breeze, the Man and his Wife hid in the trees of the garden, hid from God.
God called to the Man: “Where are you?” –Genesis 3:8-9
So my mind was attuned to the God of the Bible who gives in grandiose ways and protects by exaggerated means, just to convey affection to those who seem unreachable and unresponsive. And yet I remain keenly aware of the unresponsive ones who likewise find God unreachable and non-responsive; repulsed by the over-the-top gestures which seem to erupt out of nowhere with little to no context.
No one understands the Autistic God of the Bible quite as I have.
So I did not find the extravagant act of God: being found in appearance as a man, self-humbled, self-limited, becoming obedient to the point of suffering humiliation, even death, on a cross, such a difficult thing to grasp. The words of the cross echoing the same confused cry spoken through creation and prophet since the world began: Love me!
The God-breathed text of the old covenant whispers the same audacious promise God speaks from the cross. It is as much a promise for us as it is a promise God made to Himself: that one day God will no longer be rejected- no longer alone.
Loved, and Loving, in eternal reciprocity.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” -Revelation 21:3-4
″For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.″ 1 Timothy 2:5
Today I begin alone-ness. The first day in nearly 20 years I am a man without a church; a pastor with a congregation of one.
It is a good day.
All those years ago I believed I would be the pastor people wanted: Biblically savvy, Powerful preacher, Wise in counsel.
People didn’t want that pastor. I did.
I’m not even sure I was that pastor. I think I just wanted to be.
Probably, I wanted to believe I was.
People wanted the Entrepreneurial administrator.
People wanted the effective Proselytizer.
Well, whatever it was the people wanted, I wasn’t it.
There were so few baptisms in my pulpit days. Most weddings the bride and groom made me feel as if I were part of the ornamentation rather than the officiant. Why did it seem I was the only one excited about communion on any given Sunday?
Maybe the stole was stolen; an office that never was meant to be mine. It is quite possible that this call felt in my heart to pour out my self into the cause of loving God and blessing others was meant to find some other means of expression. It is possible that Christian formation, the art of discipling, has become so dumbed down that persons with an awakened inner passion can no longer be connected to any kind of diverse and creative ministry comprehensive of all the talents God gifts to us. Do the roles needed for the Church’s work today even remotely provide offerings as diversified and varied as those divine graces?
If you sense a calling, it is the pulpit or nothing. Well, maybe you can teach a Sunday School class. There’s always a shortage of those…and nothing else in the “Help Wanted” ads of contemporary Christendom.
Today is a good day. I overreached in my desire to grab hold of God’s will for my life.
Today I walk in Christ alone. A great journey is just beginning. Care to walk a bit with me? Company might be nice. This is a journey to discover my true vocation. Is there a place in the Church for me? Does the Church even need people like me?
For now, I am extra Ecclesiam… and walking. I think it’s going to be a long walk.
Better bring a jacket.
Irritable Jesus isn’t someone we recognize. At least, we don’t readily envision Jesus as the short-tempered, fed-up, tired-of-people type.
The Gospels take us behind the scenes. Jesus, having a literal mountain top experience, is back home for a time.
The presence of the Divine, familiar souls..Jesus glows with exhilaration. Even the conversation sounds like party planning: his departure. This is homecoming, right?
But once the lights are turned out and the old friends are headed home, Jesus sounds anything but thrilled. His tone is scolding; His words scalding.
If the Gospels were mere hagiography, the epic hero would remain unchanged. But in a real life, like the one we read about in Scripture, real people react to bad news.
Like the news that your best friend will betray you. That your closest friends will desert you. That your enemies will shame you: mock you, spit on you , beat you. They’ll hang you naked, stuck to a post by nails, where you’ll be suffocated to death while suffering from anemia and dehydration due to blood loss, in front of loved ones, racial haters, and curious creepy types who enjoy watching people tortured.
That’s the news. That’s how you’re going out. That’s the send off from the public you loved with healing, and forgiveness, and restorative wisdom given at times you were completely exhausted or grieving the death of a close cousin.
Someone should tell God to get out of this abusive relationship.
But they’ll say they’re sorry. Sure they will. Don’t all abusers? They don’t know why they did it. They love you so much.
Here are some gifts. Will that make it better?
Take some money for missionaries.
I’ll be at church 3 times next month instead of just 1.
See, I’m over here at the service project, on a Saturday.
But then it happens again.
The cheating on God with other obsessions . The lying about it. Covering up. The rage fights. The screaming.
It’s God’s fault and God knows it!
Just stay in your place, God!
Do what you’re told!
Stay outta my business!
I’ll do what I want!
You really need to get out of this relationship, God. Humans are not good to you. Have some self respect, Most High. You need to affirm the Divine You. You deserve better…
Jesus feels it. Deeply. The anger. The confusion.
Just before the Cross moment, it’s decision time.
Are you breaking up with us, God?
Are you giving up on the marriage? Is the long, ugly separation finally going to end in divorce?
Let this cup pass from me
Only natural that God, in flesh, wants out. Who needs co-dependent, destructive, hurting relationships?
But God, divine, knows something.
Your will be done
The difference between God in an abusive relationship and you and I in abusive relationships…
We can’t change the abusive broken deceiver-hurters into new, whole, healed selves.
God says, from Calvary, “…but I can.”
9:37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.
9:38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.
9:39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.
9:40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
9:41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”
9:42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
9:43a And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
Your Package Has Arrived
Today is a long awaited package that has just arrived.
The return address tells me this gift is from You.
That’s the thing about packages from far away.
When I open it, I find the sender is very near.
Inside this day will be
each person that I meet
every moment that decides what the next will look like.
Inside this day I will learn
when to speak
when to listen
when to linger with my thoughts
when to share my ideas and feelings
This package has challenges and decisions
carefully wrapped in bubble wrap and packing peanuts.
I’ll be cautious with those.
Inside this gift I also hear the whisperings of your Wisdom.
And I find beneath the packing paper ordinary and unnoticed tasks,
that were nearly overlooked.
I’m glad I didn’t miss those! They are the simple joys.
Inside this package I am also unwrapping
It’s very clear to me, gracious God,
That what you have sent is a care package
To restore my Peace and Harmony.
In this day you have given as a gift to me,
My long awaited package,
I find your Goodness.
Adapted from “Morning Prayer” by Pat Bergen, C.S.J. (Xavier University)
A Strange Dream
Last night I dreamed a dream.
In a cold room for general purpose we were gathering.
Just a few.
No one was expecting much of a crowd.
White clothed tables with pew-like seats began to give the room some character.
A small crowd appeared and sat; scattered
all across the room.
At my table was a young man with Italian dark hair.
I go to bring us the juice.
And now I know the reason we have gathered is Eucharist.
We will break the Bread together at this table and I pray
O, I pray
Deep, pastoral, and full
I pray for him as he receives the communion juice.
But he slouches. Disinterested. Disconnected. Bored.
Now I am moving across the room to find the Bread.
But when I return he is gone.
Dejected, I go to where the Bread is.
Standing. Alone. I consecrate the Bread and receive its sacred power
nibble by nibble
and scanning the room which is emptying now.
I reach for the juice
but the juice is Wine now.
The trays of juice are being whisked away by the white waist coat type folks.
In its place platters of Wine in tulip shaped glasses.
It feels as if my time is up; my crowd has moved on.
A new party is moving in.
Quickly I take the Wine and complete this Eucharist.
And looking up I see more and more people at more and more white clothed tables with chairs like church pews.
And they love the Bread and drink deep the Wine.
And I know that I want to stay with them.
It Was the Singing
There is a poem by Ian Crichton Smith
TWO GIRLS SINGING
It neither was the words nor yet the tune
Any tune would have done and any words.
Any listener at all.
As nightingales in rocks or a child crooning
in its own world of strange awakening
or larks for no reason but themselves.
So on the bus through late November running
by yellow lights tormented, darkness falling,
the two girls sang for miles and miles together
and it wasn’t the words or the tune. It was the singing.
It was the human sweetness in that yellow,
the unpredicted voices of our kind.
Source: Scottish Poem Book
May you find yourself, this day, together with another – singing.
Singing with raucous voice released by darkness and adventure and the courage that comes with company,
In the human sweetness, with the unpredicted voices of shared struggle and shared hope.
An attribute of good character is Courage.
It is the stuff respect is made of.
Heart like this is not bravado
Real bravado is heart like this: risk takers and justice seekers who win over the mind of others because they conquered themselves first.
Today we practice courage:
When we are afraid, still we will act.
Fear and courage are brothers.
We will follow our heart.
To dare is to lose your footing for a moment. To not dare is to lose yourself.
We will continue on in spite of adversity.
Emerson said, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary person, but the hero was braver five minutes longer.”
We will stand for what is right.
From caring comes courage.
We will go farther and see more
No one ever sees new oceans without the courage to no longer see the shore.
We face everything with dignity.
There is no need to be ashamed of tears. Tears are courage packaged in suffering.
Today, we will practice courage.
Let the exercises begin.
And be stronger because of them.
Adapted from the article: