Tag Archives: Mercy

Willingness

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said.
Matthew 8:3a (NIV)

When my daughter Madison was about four years old I called out to her from my home office in the basement of our home. She came scampering in my office from the next room where she had been playing. I needed something (I can’t remember what it was) retrieved from upstairs. “Will you go upstairs and get it?” I asked.

“Sure Dad!” she said with a big smile and child-like excitement. “I’ll be happy to!” And with that she ran off, immediately did as I asked, and cheerfully returned with the item.

I sat there for a moment thoroughly dumbstruck by her willing attitude. I can vividly remember sitting there and enjoying that little moment. She didn’t do what I asked grudgingly. She didn’t do what I asked dutifully. She didn’t do what I asked because I paid her allowance. She didn’t do what I asked out of obligation or familial obedience. She did what I asked out of a cheerful, willing attitude. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

One of the rarely demonstrated service skills I teach my clients is the simple act of expressing your willingness to do what a customer asks.

“Can you…?”
“I’ll be more than happy to do that for you.”

“Will you…?”
“You bet I will. I’m on it.”

“Is it possible…?”
“It sure is. And I’ll be glad to take care of it.”

In this morning’s chapter, Jesus begins by using this simple service skill when asked by leper if He’d be “willing” to heal him.

“I am willing,” Jesus said, and I imagine the warm smile on his face as he reaches out to touch the contagious, infected, deformed leper.

The rest of the chapter reveals so much about Jesus willingness:

  • Willingness to heal the son of a member of the despised Roman occupational force. (I’m guessing that Jesus’ disciple, Simon the Zealot, would have preferred Jesus kill both the Roman Centurion and his son).
  • Willingness to cast out evil spirits and heal anyone and everyone who came to him.
  • Willingness to heal the mother of his friend, Peter.
  • Willingness to use His power and authority to calm both the sea, and his followers fears.
  • Willingness to show mercy, even to His spiritual enemies, and grant the demons’ request.’

This morning I’m enjoying the memory of Madison’s cheerful attitude. I’m thinking about Jesus willing attitude, and I’m recalling what He said in yesterday’s chapter as He concluded His “Sermon on the Mount”:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

I must confess that I, too often, approach God and Life with the attitude of scarcity. I expect that God wants to punish more than bless, and even if He does bless me He will be miserly doling out those blessings. “After all,” I think to myself, “I’m such a wretch that I should be grateful for anything I receive.” I sometimes attach to God my own warped image of the begrudging parent. Ugh. I see God out of the lens of my own personal shortcomings.

“If you’re willing,” I hear Jesus whispering to my heart this morning in the quiet of my home office, “you can choose to see me differently. To see me as I am: Willing.”

Yes, Lord. I’d be happy to do so. By the way, thank you for your willingness to be patient, and to help open my eyes.

Changing Rules & Healthy Development

So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that;
    a little here, a little there—
so that as they go they will fall backward;
    they will be injured and snared and captured.
Isaiah 28:13 (NIV)

When our daughters were young children there were a lot of rules that had to be made, repeatedly communicated, and enforced. Children, by their very nature, lack of development and require these rules for their safety, instruction, and healthy development.

There came a time in their development, however, when the rules alone were insufficient. The girls’ growth and natural development as  human beings allowed them to think, reason, and act with greater and greater complexity and autonomy. The black and white world of a parent’s rules were trumped by their ability to think and act as individuals.

As a parent, I recognized that my role had to change. Instead of authoritarian rule maker I had to introduce reasoned instruction to my role as father. It was no longer wise or practical to use my parental authority as a battering ram of family law. While I had a license for policing, judging, and punishing my children at will, the black and white approach that worked so well on young children was inadequate for the task of dealing with teenagers and young adults.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah prophetically finds a similar situation with  the religious leaders of his day. As the shepherds of Israel they found it easier to parent their flocks by making endless black and white rules to control behavior rather than wade into the admittedly more difficult pedagogy, understanding, and demonstration of love, wisdom, mercy, and forgiveness.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Jesus faced off against the same human tendency toward legalism when he angrily told off the religious leaders of his day (cf. Matthew 23). Today, we still have religious leaders and their followers who reduce the power of divine love to the spiritually impotent authority of fundamentalist legalism.

I was by no means a perfect parent, and our daughters are quite capable of providing you with evidence of that. Nevertheless, I am enjoying watching each daughter, now in their mid-twenties, finding and developing their very own unique and life-giving relationship with God. This was not the result of rules and parental penal authority. I did my best to be an example and to show them the way, but I couldn’t legislate them into maturity and spiritual openness.

This morning I’m thinking about the many ways we live in a world where humans love to paint everyone into a black and white world. It’s quite useful for categorization and alienation, but I have found it useless at developing the things that God requires (in either grown children or adults):

to act justly
to love mercy
to walk humbly with God.

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featured image: doctorow via Flickr

Liars and Lunatics

“If it is the anointed priest who sins…”
“If the whole congregation of Israel errs…”
“When a ruler sins…”
“If anyone of the ordinary people among you sins…”
Leviticus 4:3a, 13a, 22a, 27a

The other day a friend bemoaned that the Presidential race in the United States leaves us to choose between a “liar” and a “lunatic.” It took me a moment to think through which label fit which candidate best. I decided that they were interchangeable.

As a young man I spent a few years as pastor of a small, rural congregation. One day after Vacation Bible School one of the teachers came to tell me about the lesson on sin she’d given to her class. One of her young charges raised her hand and asked, “Does Pastor Tom sin?”

Yes,” the teacher replied, “he does.”

The girl thought hard for a moment, then asked, “What does he do?”

Oh, dear child. You don’t want to know.

It is human nature to hold our leaders in high regard and to expect more out of them than humanly possible. People are people. Call it whatever you want: human frailty, human nature, fatal flaws,  or imperfection. God’s Message calls in sin. The bottom line is the same. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do. We all fail to do things we know we should do. We all fall short of perfection.

In today’s chapter we continue to learn about the ancient sacrificial system that was designed as a temporary spiritual Band-Aid for humanity’s moral shortcomings. What struck me was that it begins by addressing the priest, who is the highest human spiritual leader in the system. How fascinating that one whom we’d expect to be the most good and spiritual person on the list is given first mention and the longest spiritual prescription. God knows that, despite the faith of little girls in VBS, spiritual leaders are just as flawed as anyone else.

The chapter goes to mention the nation, the civil rulers, and ends with talking about ordinary every day humans. In other words, every level of society both in the civil and religious camps had a prescribed sacrifice for atoning for their own human failings. People are people. We all fall short.

Today I’m thinking about my own failings. I’m thinking of my own need for forgiveness, mercy and grace. I’m also thinking of “liars” and “lunatics” who run for President, and pastor churches, and run businesses, and parent children, and work on the line, and go to school, and teach at those schools, and police our streets, and serve in the armed forces, and play professional sports, and live in the spotlight of fame, and live in poverty.

This morning, an ancient mantra of Jesus’ followers is playing on “repeat” in my soul….

Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace

Just like…

“In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”
Nehemiah 9:38 (NIV)

One of the benefits of studying God’s Message over time is that you eventually begin to make connections and see patterns across the Great Story.

In today’s chapter we have the Israelites gathered together. They’ve been defeated and enslaved by the Babylonians for 150 years, but the King has allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. They return, remember anew the Great Story and renew their commitment to God and His laws. They make a “binding agreement” to be faithful.

Just like when they were gathered in Sinai and Moses gave them the law to begin with…

Just like the multiple times they got rebellious and stiff-necked during their forty-years of wandering and renewed their commitment…

Just like at the dedication of Solomon’s temple…

Just like during the time of King Josiah when the law of Moses was found and read for the first time in a generation because the people had abandoned their faith to pursue pagan religions…

Just like… me and the countless “binding agreements” I’ve made with God at camps and conferences and workshops and worship services through the years, only to prove myself faithless again and again.

One of the themes of the Great Story is the same theme I see in my own spiritual journey. People are people. No matter how hard I try and however many well-intentioned “binding agreements” I make with the Almighty, I always fall short of keeping them. But, that’s the point:

[Jesus] saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)

…if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:13)

When in my repetitive, never-ending, cyclical faith-less-ness I finally stop trying to earn my spiritual merit badge, then I finally begin to understand the depths of God’s mercy, grace, and faith-full-ness. That’s when I truly begin to understand the Great Story. That’s when real Spirit-ual growth begins to occur.

(Not) Missing the Point

“…[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit….”
Titus 3:5 (NIV)

There is a fascinating and utterly critical matter lying beneath the structure of Paul’s letter to Titus in today’s chapter. It is essential to understanding God’s Message.

Our chapter begins with Paul instructing Titus to remind the followers of Jesus to be obedient and to do good:

  • Be subject to rulers
  • Be subject to authority
  • Be ready to do whatever is good
  • Slander no one
  • Be peaceable
  • Be considerate
  • Always be gentle

Here is a do-gooders laundry list. “Surely this is what God expects,” I can hear a heart whisper, “There’s no way. I’ve done too many awful things. I’m such a wretch. There’s no use trying. I could never be what God wants me to be.”

But we can’t stop with the list. The very next thing Paul does is remind Titus of what both of them were, in the past tense:

  • Foolish
  • Disobedient
  • Deceived
  • Enslaved to passions
  • Enslave to pleasures
  • Malicious
  • Envious
  • Hated by others
  • Hating others back

What a contrasting list. Here is a description most of us can identify with. We know the struggle against our own selves, our selfishness, foolishness, and out of control appetites. We know the shame of our own failures.

So, how do we get to the former list when our lives are described by the latter? Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s next words to Titus this way:

But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life!

Here is the crux of Jesus’ teaching, and what I believe is the most amazing piece of it. Gods acceptance isn’t the result of being a do-gooder and earning some kind of spiritual merit badge. We are accepted by God amidst of our ever present laundry list of failures simply by His mercy. We don’t become do gooders to earn God’s mercy. God’s mercy is poured out over us, because of what Jesus did on the cross and because of the empty tomb, so that our lives might be transformed. The transformation is not our doing; It’s God’s work in  and through us after simply accepting this amazing, gracious gift.

Today, I’m reminded that goodness is not a prerequisite of God saving me, but the result of God saving me. If I miss this truth, than I miss the entirety of Jesus’ teaching.

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Context and Color

If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.
Deuteronomy 22:22 (NRSV)

The ancient books of law are not always an easy, inspirational read. I like it, however, when I come across something that provides a layer of context and color to other stories in God’s Message. Today is a good example. The law of the ancient Hebrews was  that when a man and woman committed adultery they were both guilty and were to be punished by being stoned to death.

In John’s biography of Jesus there is the story of a woman caught in adultery. The religious leaders brought the woman before Jesus, stones in hand, asking Jesus to render judgment whether they should stone her to death. But, according to the law we read into today’s chapter, both the man and woman were to be stoned. So, where was the man?

The context helps provide evidence of why Jesus was so angry with the religious leaders of that day who liked to use the letter of the law when it worked to their own advantage, while they conveniently ignored the parts that weren’t. Jesus deftly handles the situation by telling the religious leaders that whichever one of them is without sin could cast the first stone. The religious leaders split and Jesus forgave the woman and sent her on her way.

Today, I’m thinking about my own heart and life. Who do I most resemble in the story? The religious hypocrite using God’s Message for my own advantage? The disgraced sinner doomed to die? Or am I like Jesus, extending grace and mercy to the condemned? As I sit here in the morning quiet I must admit that I am a mixture of all three. Today, I want to be more the latter and less the former.

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featured image by Rembrandt van Rijn (wikipedia)

Words in My Heart

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Deuteronomy 6:5-6 (NRSV)

I’m posting a little late today because, I’ll be honest with you, it’s been a really rough couple of weeks. I don’t want to whine and I’m not complaining. It just is what it is. There has been unexpected trials in business. There has been unforeseen relational conflict with friends that hit like a blind-side tackle. Then last night we discovered our basement flooded. Somehow the electrical plug to our sump pump got pulled a tiny bit out of the outlet. The heavy rains of last week and the watering of our newly seeded lawn backed up into our storage room and family room. I’ve spent much of the past 24 hours in Noah mode.

As I was working the wet-vac into the wee hours last night, I found myself thinking about Job, for whom things were much worse than a wet basement, and yet he said, “The Lord gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I had other verses come to mind like those from James when he wrote “Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Or, the prophet Isaiah who said, “Don’t fear for I am with you. Do not look anxiously about you, for I am your God. Surely I will strengthen you. Surely I will help you.” Or the prophet Jeremiah who while looking over the desolation of his home town said, “This I recall to mind. Therefore I have hope. God’s love never ceases. His compassion does not fail. His mercies are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness.”

These various words are not just in my head. They are in my heart. And, as I read Moses command this afternoon to keep God’s Message in our heart, it struck me that the difference between having these words in your head and having them in your heart is all the difference in the world. When they are in your head they affect your thinking. When they are in your heart they affect your life.

Last night was a long evening of sorting through our ruined belongings. Many of them were irreplaceable and with priceless sentimental value. We had a very short night’s rest and woke sore and worn but got right back to the clean up. Mid-morning, Wendy and I took a breather. We found ourselves laughing. We hugged, and between the two of us we found a few silver linings for which to be grateful. Among the things for which we are grateful are God, His promises, and His mercies that are new each morning – even when that morning calls you back to the clean up.