Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Grace Is the Final Word

Once upon a time, there were two women -- sisters -- and they lived together. Word got around that a very famous man -- a superstar -- was coming to visit them, and he was bringing his entire entourage. Their house was nice enough, and cozy, but would it be nice enough for such a highly regarded public figure? And their furniture was almost brand new, but would it fit his sense of style or meet the standards of comfort to which he was accustomed? And food! What on earth would they do about food? They'd definitely have to go grocery shopping. The one sister -- we'll call her Martha -- took charge. After all, that's the kind of person she was -- a doer. She handled the planning, the procuring, the cleaning, the cooking, the decorating. In short, she did it all. While Mary, the other sister, sat around absorbing the moments of anticipation -- or some kind of silliness like that. Mary was all about living in the moment. (Who really "gets" those type of people? How can you live in the moment when things haven't been made ready, flawless?)

The day arrived, and so did their guest. By this time Martha had just about had it with her lazy, crazy sister.

"Mister," Martha said to their famous guest, "look at all this work! Look how I'm sweating! My nails are chipped from all this cooking and pot washing; I haven't even had a moment to change into something decent after all this cleaning. She'll listen to you -- tell Mary to get off her duff and help me out!"

Their prestigious guest replied, "Martha, it's OK. I didn't ask for all of this. You've gotten yourself all uptight over trivial things, but Mary's heart is really where it's at. I'm not going to take her peace or her grace from her. In fact, you oughta try it some time."
Every time I read this account in Luke 10:38-42, I get a little miffed. You see, for years I have been a Martha. I watched my mother scrub baseboards and iron white cotton curtains like a madwoman in the days leading up to the holiday season. When I got my own place, I was proud of my things and my ideas for decorating; I wanted everything to stay just as it was -- on display, like some kind of museum of good taste and refinement.

Well, there are so many things wrong with all of that. First, the obvious: Greed. "Don't touch my stuff. Don't flatten my cushions. Don't handle anything you might break." And with that comes Pride. "It's all mine. I did this." Thirdly, there's the silliness of missing the point. We are supposed to enjoy our guests, enjoy the time spent with friends and family -- not spend it popping up and down like some kind of neurotic prairie dog, hurrying and scurrying to make things just right. It's time spent with those we love that lasts, not impeccable decorating or spotless tableware. Fourth is delusion. It will never be flawless. Why waste whatever time you have with those you've invited, pursuing futility? Fifth is fear. The fear of others judging you. "Did you see her TV? It's not even a flat screen! And one of her dining room chairs had a big scratch on it!" Who gives a rip?! Anyone who judges your stuff should be more than happy to add you to their Christmas list.

But the sixth problem with Martha's (and my) attitude is the ignorance of grace. And folks, the Lord just brought this to me today -- this passage in Luke is about grace. Martha was doing all of these things to make herself and her home ready. She was working to appear acceptable and worthy of the company of such an esteemed guest -- a King, the King, Jesus! She wanted to impress Jesus with her ____ -- well, you fill in the blank. Things? Works? Abilities? For years I believed being a Christian was about getting it together, being righteous, living an exemplary life, smiling through the pain, denying myself through gritted teeth. And then I'd snap. I'd be some ranting, crazy shrew who was sick and tired of doing everything herself, who couldn't take another minute of the ignorant swine and indolent freeloaders around her. "How can I ever be the kind of Christian I'm supposed to be when I'm surrounded by people like this?! Lord, do something!"

The truth is, for Martha and all the Martha's like me, He already has. Mary chose to rest in the knowledge that no amount of toil could prepare their home or her heart enough for a King. That she must step aside and let God's grace make things right. That getting ready for the King to stay with you means nothing more than opening the door and listening to Him, looking toward Him, staying near Him. Our work, our scrubbing, our straightening out, our redecorating will never hide the true shortcomings from a God who formed us and knows the innermost parts of us; it will never be enough to fully make the homes of our hearts good enough for Royalty. We must come to Jesus exactly as we are, sit down and accept His grace. It is finished.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Could You Use a Bit of Good News?

Back in the days of homeschooling, I gave my daughter Christine (now an Army-chick, Army wife, and mother) a writing assignment: write the news as if it were really news. This was not some commentary on the lack of intelligent newscasts that flood todays networks -- "In tonight's special report we go behind the scenes at the local McDonald's to see if customers really are 'lovin' it,'" OR "An out of control car careens into a corner full of school children killing nine, a masked vigilante holds a pedophile hostage in a local synagogue for six hours, but in tonight's BIG STORY, rain hits our region again." What I had in mind for this little project was for her to see our world as it really is -- broken, dying, corrupt -- and to recognize this is not news. What is really news is that even on such a planet, among a sinful and selfish bunch of people, the goodness, kindness, peace and love of God exist. Who doesn't look at the News from time to time, and wonder just how bad its going to get? Who doesn't marvel at the depths of depravity to which we have sunk? This is not news. We have removed God from every facet of public life in this gross misinterpretation of church and state. It is much more appealing to crush candy on Facebook or press the "On Demand" button, than to pray and do family devotions. In a society where workaholics and up-and-comers are lauded and genetic lottery winners are promulgated as the status quo, why is it Breaking News that a "quiet, gentle man" snapped and mowed down coworkers in a hail of bullets, or a "wonderful wife and mother" drowned her two small children in a bathtub so she could be free to run off with her crack-dealer? Please don't think I am dismissing any personal responsibility or mitigating the severity of these crimes, but I ask, given our efforts to police ourselves, to remove any obligation to a Higher Authority, to render subjective things like standards and truth, why is this "News?" What, exactly, did we expect?

So, I have decided to complete my own writing assignment. I give to you, Murphyville's Local News at Noon:

Good afternoon, and welcome to the noon edition of Murphyville News. Our top story today is the story of Althea, whose husband has an undiagnosed nerve condition which causes excruciating pain and burning in his legs. Her husband, Larry also suffers from seizures and mini-strokes brought on by a brain aneurism. Althea is trusting God to provide for her and her family, and to heal Larry from his medical conditions. She does get a little down from time to time, but her own story of God's healing and faithfulness is proof to her that God loves her and Larry very much. She clings to the life and the hope she now has in God after He brought her from a life-threatening accident and addiction to a relationship with Him.

A Murphyville man is also crediting God with bringing him out from a life of addiction. It has been three years since Darryl has touched a drop of alcohol, and six months since he has misused pharmaceuticals. He says the Lord gives him strength for the fight everyday. He also believes God was present during the times he was tempted to give in to his addictions, such as when he lost his job. "It was difficult on the entire family, but a group from church took up a collection of food items to stock our pantry, and met with my wife each week to pray for us and shower her with encouragement," he says. Darryl's fellow brothers and sisters in Christ became a visible symbol of the love of God, and ministered to his family in their hours of need. 

In other news, the serial rapist that once threatened the neighboring town of Mount Inez has been apprehended. Police say it was the work of conscientious citizens and prayer warriors that put a stop to this man's reign of terror and his heinous attacks. They believe that without the intervention of Almighty God, this list of this rapist's victims could have grown at an astounding rate. Victims are encouraged to seek treatment at a local counselor. The rapist will be spending his time in incarceration undergoing therapy for his issues and seeking to rid his life of sinful compulsions through Bible study and prayer. One local church has begun praying for each of his victims; another is praying for the rebirth of the rapist himself. 

From our Community Page: The tensions between black and white neighborhoods have ceased after a local rally for Murphyville youth. The theme for the three day event was "Created In God's Image," and focused on the differences and the value of differences between ethnic groups. It also celebrated mankind as a single, united race -- the human race. "The fear and ignorance that sparks the fire of racial tensions is not from God," one youth explained. God created us all in His image; we all have immeasurable value. It's our differences that equip us for His work and make our world beautiful. We should never despise those differences."

And so forth and so on. Look, I know it's a little hokey, but let's face it, bad news sells. We all have this intrinsic desire to see the worst, a curiosity about those things we might not go so far as to do ourselves, to shake our heads and feel better about ourselves because "we're not a s bad as that guy." But none of this is news. Adam stood by and watched while Eve was lured into the serpent's deception. Cain killed Abel. People sought to exalt themselves to godlike power. Sin has been going on almost since the Earth's inaugural revolutions. What is really news -- good news -- is that, thanks to a God who loves us beyond measure, we can work with our hands and feet in this world and our hearts and minds in the next.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

How Can Jesus Be the Answer When My Life Is Such a Trainwreck?

I've started this post a hundred different times in a hundred different ways. It begins with the joy of holding my granddaughters and the anticipation of holding a grandson. It begins with the longing for a child to return to their roots in the church, and longings for a child who has never known the love of a church family to begin growing some roots of her own. It starts with the grief and finality of losing a father to whom I could never be reconciled, and the confusion and pain of losing a mother right before my eyes. It begins with weight issues and relationship issues, successes and failures; addictions and recoveries, good deeds and relapses. In short, this is a story of many, but it is the story that I know. It is my life story.

This Thanksgiving, our pastor had asked for folks to share a testimony, the thing for which they were most thankful. In the past I would have sought "the right answer." You know, the answer that would make the pastor swell with pride, knowing his sermons were not in vain. Jesus. But this time I earnestly looked for the answer that was true, and by God's grace it was "the right answer." And the authenticity of that answer -- for me, anyway -- begins and ends with my life story. God has proven to me, time and time again, that He is real, He is faithful, He is love, and He is the answer. Yes, I know it sounds trite. Yes, I know it sounds like I am the greatest suck-up to ever sit in the third row, right-hand side of Resurrection Life Church. And yes, I know too that there are no words adequate enough to describe the importance and the value of Jesus in my life.

As I prepared my testimony, the one thing that kept coming back to me was this:
"I believe in [Christ] as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see [Him], but because by [Him] I see everything else." ~~ C.S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry? (1945)
When I think of what my relationship with Jesus means to me, Lewis captured my thoughts perfectly. And isn't this true of most relationships and experiences? Why do people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or the Towers collapsed? Why do soldiers return from combat as entirely different people? Why does the lovesick teenager drop two grade points from one semester to the next? Why do some victims of domestic abuse turn to abuses of their own -- alcohol or drugs? Our relationships and our experiences can color how we prioritize things, or how we view the people around us. If we allow the relationships of this life to control who we are or what we do, no doubt we will vacillate from good to bad and from stable to manic. If we allow our experiences to determine the actions we take in future situations, we might well be apprehensive when we should be bold, or we might rush ahead in overconfidence when we should proceed with caution.

Malachi 3:6 says, "I, the LORD, do not change." Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." When I view life from the perspective of one who has put her trust in Jesus and has committed to handing over each and every situation to Him, I can rest knowing that He will manage the issue, not my fear, or ignorance, or impetuosity.

Who would plan a vacation around the carry-on they were permitted to take on the flight? "Hm, I can only take this small tote, so I guess I'll only be staying one night." Yet, we fashion entire lives around the baggage we choose to carry, trying to avoid being unprepared, or inconvenienced, or uncomfortable. Would a mother and father beg the obstetrician to deliver their bouncing bundle of joy months before she was due? Yet, we rush through our lives trying to get from one celebration to the next, trying to perpetually relive the joy of Christmas in the long, cold winters of our lives. We want painless. We want sunny and seventy-five. We want microwaveable and one-step. But what kind of a life would that be? Is it even living at all?

Jesus never promises us a carefree story, but He does promise to be there every step of the way, holding us, carrying us, dragging us if He must. He does promise to sustain and bless us (Isaiah 41:10). He does promise to change our hearts and make us complete (2 Corinthians 5:21). He does promise us a new life in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17) -- one that is not beholden to circumstances and experiences. He does promise us a peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7) -- even when this life delivers its worst. He is our refuge and fortress when our knees are buckled under the weight of tragedy (Psalm 46:1). He is good (Psalm 136:1), He is perfect (Psalm 18:30), and He is completely, madly in love with each one of us (Romans 5:8).

Not only are we unable to do all these things for ourselves simultaneously, perfectly, thoroughly, but we certainly can't stop the bad things from camping out on our doorstep every once in a while. God can, and sometimes He does. But if we do all we can to circumvent the bad parts of the story, we have no story to tell. Best to ride out the storms with the One who is my friend and "right answer" -- Jesus.