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Archive for the ‘Grace’ Category

“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” – Hebrews 2:10-11 (NIV)

As we get into the Christmas season, the days seem to go by rapidly with thoughts of shopping, cards, and preparations for our annual celebration and the end of another calendar year. We don’t often take time to reflect on the reason we celebrate Christmas and our personal stake in it all.

At Christmas we who are followers of Jesus are often aghast at how the world around us prepares for the season with a mad frenzy. However, we ourselves become so caught up in the process that we forget our own sins, failures and shortcomings that were actually the reason God chose to send His Son to redeem us. This is denial at the highest level.

We are all subject to denial. For years of my life I tried to avoid or admit to personal failure not realizing that by doing so I was standing in the way of my own transformation. I’m sure during that time I never missed a Christmas Celebration.

The news this year has been full of heartbreaking stories of the victims of war, refugee movements and other major calamities. We don’t have to look very far to see the depths to which humanity has fallen.

If we ever needed personal and societal redemption it certainly is now! However, I’m not sure that true transformation of heart and character can be genuine without failure and personal setbacks. It’s very much an enigma to me.

Even though Jesus Christ did not experience failure as a result of personal sin, as fully human He did identify with all of us in His sufferings. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that He was “made perfect” through His sufferings. And in doing so He invites us into His family! He accepts the broken, the wounded and suffering and dares to call us family – brother, and sisters.

There was something that would have been incomplete about the life and ministry of Jesus without suffering and setback. I think the same is true for us. There’s something incomplete about our own transformation without suffering and failure. I’d rather this wasn’t the case but now I see there is no other way.

Jesus Christ came into this dark, broken world to bring transformation to our lives. We don’t often realize it was because of our personal failure and brokenness that He came. We’d like to think that we are “pretty good and decent” people who try to do our best and don’t have to ask God for very much. It’s that very attitude that blocks our personal transformation.

Now for me, Christmas is a time to reflect on my own neediness and failure for which I have no answer other than the Incarnate Son of God and His work in my own life and soul. Without His redeeming work I’m stranded without transformation and my sin and failure have no redemptive value whatsoever.

Christmas should be a reminder to us all the God sent His Son into a broken world to transform it. It won’t happen through political movements or self-improvement programs. God’s plan is more personal and profound that we ever realize.

Whatever failure, setback or suffering has been part of this year for us we must remember that Jesus joins us in our deepest struggles and doesn’t shrink back from accepting us as brothers and sisters. When we surrender to Him even failure can be transforming if we allow its lessons to transform our hearts. That seems to be what God’s family is all about and I’m so grateful to be accepted into it – all because of Him.

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Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  – Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)

I don’t know about you, but for many years I had the fear that people would really find out that I was much more of a mess than I appeared.

I’ll never forget the day that I had to sit down before my family and close friends and admit to a string of failures that had spanned a number of years. Sparing the gory details, just believe me when I say I was a train wreck. Without realizing it, I was missing out on major sources of wholeness in my life – for many reasons. Among them was the fact that I was trying to be “the hero” as I call it, moving through life like a knight in shining armor while neglecting key relationships with those around me.

As I interact with people on a personal level more and more I see that people, especially men, are much more alike than we are different, at least when it comes to opening up about our fears, failures and imperfections. I realize that I’m speaking in generalities but I do see some consistent trends.

We men, in general, don’t like to admit that we have needs.

We men, in general, work hard to cover up fears, failure and imperfections so that others will think the best of us.

We men, in general, think that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and if we go there will make us even more of a failure than we think we already are.

Several years ago, through a God-ordained and defining experience of personal failure and brokenness I discovered just the opposite.

When I started to shed the cloak of “perfection” and began to more openly confess and admit my sin, failure and imperfection I actually discovered that people can be forgiving. They can be loving and accepting too.

It’s fascinating to me that true confession is actually getting the bad stuff out in the open so everyone, including myself, can say, “Yes, that’s horrible! But I love and forgive you. I know the bad stuff is not the real you!”

One of my first experiences of confession outside of my closest family members came when I asked to see a couple with whom my wife and I had come to know very well. I was almost certain when I walked into their home that it might be the last time I would ever enter their door. After they heard what I had to say that might, in my thinking, be the last time they would ever talk to me. Confession was on my heart and rejection was my expectation.

To my amazement, after hearing my broken, heartfelt confession my friends embraced me in a way I had never experienced before. Their response was just the opposite of what I was expecting.

I stumbled reluctantly into the reality that humility and vulnerability hold the key to the door of forgiveness and restoration.

Really, we don’t relate well to people who are fake – trying to make others believe they are something other than who they are.

As I’ve lived with this new lease on life for some years now I see that I grew up with a perspective that some counselors call “splitting.” It’s the idea that internally we “split” ourselves, others and the world into “all good” or “all bad.” This perspective will not endure reality over time. The very best of us have badness and imperfection all mixed together and it’s reflected in our world as well.

Since we all have failings and imperfections, why not admit to them? I have found that to be healthy and whole I have to live this way.

The verse quoted above from the Apostle Paul is an instruction to people of faith in Jesus to be kind, compassionate and forgiving. It’s not a suggestion! It’s a command based on what Jesus has already done for all mankind. The perfect man gave His life for completely imperfect people. How can we follow Him without confessing our sin to others, asking for their forgiveness and forgiving them?

In order to pull this off we need to have communities of people who express faith in Jesus and follow Him to be modeling this – daily! That’s a challenge to me, but it’s a challenge to you as well. We need environments of grace and relationships of trust in order to make this work, but that’s another subject!

What are you hiding today and from whom? What do you fear that someone close to you might find out about you? What are you not disclosing to a friend or family member?

What I didn’t know was that what I was hiding with the greatest passion could actually lead to greater wholeness and happiness in my life if I only would admit to failure as a starting point.

When I started taking more steps toward vulnerability in my own life, carefully exposing my failures to trusted friends and family and dropping my “appearance” of arrogance and perfection, I found people to be much more forgiving and accepting than I realized.

Humility and vulnerability truly hold the key to the door labelled “forgiveness.”

I’m certainly never going get everything right and I’ll never be perfect in this life. But I can say that greater wholeness of life came home to my heart when my imaginary “knight in shining armor” got down off of his horse and started seeking grace and forgiveness. It’s freely available to the humble of heart.

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“’So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’  But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” Exodus 3:10-11 (NIV)

One of my earliest childhood memories, of which there are many, is that of constructing a home-made bomb that I nearly threw at a neighbor’s house.

I must have been around five or six years old at the time. One day our neighbors across the street had unexpected company and as a result I wasn’t being invited in to play with their children that day. It really messed up my plans! I got so mad that I thought I would construct my own bomb and throw it at their house!

The idea actually came from a television show that we had watched as a family some days prior to this. I can’t recall the name of the show but the lead character was being stalked by the bad guys on an island. To defend himself he found some gunpowder and rags and stuffed them in a hollow gourd he found in an old shed. Covering a strip of the cloth in gunpowder as a fuse the bomb was complete!

I followed my television counterpart by finding a small glass jar with a lid. I stuffed strips of cloth and soaked them in lighter fluid my father had for his cigarette lighter. The bomb came complete with a fuse which I was ready to light when my parents caught me looking for matches. Fortunately disaster was averted and my punishment was swift! Discipline was administered soundly in those days although I do recall my parents being more merciful than just!

Looking back on the experience, on the positive side it took real creativity, initiative, planning, and bravery to pull that off that stunt.  But you could also call my actions childish, selfish, stupid, cruel, and yes – evil!

That was my first and last experience of constructing bombs, although I grew quite fond of fireworks! Fortunately my life has not been defined by that mistake. However, since that time I have made other major blunders, mistakes and even evil practices that could so easily define me. I’m sure the same could be said about you.

In the passage quoted above God appears to Moses as He speaks from a bush that continues burning. It’s one of the most critical passages in all of Scripture where God commissions the His new leader of the nation Israel. Moses will go on to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt through the wilderness right to the brink of the Promised Land, a journey which will last for forty years. There are many things that define the life of Moses and his faithful leadership of His people under God’s direction. He’s known as one of Israel’s greatest leaders.

It’s not often that we reflect on the fact that Moses is also a murderer who some years earlier had killed an Egyptian slave, hid him in the sand and then fled to Midian. We tend to focus more on Moses’ identity as a chosen leader rather than a murderer but somehow in God’s economy there is room for both.

A significant lesson here that continues throughout Scripture is that God is continually redeeming people, especially in their sins and failures, and using them for His own powerful purposes.

Upon hearing God’s voice Moses first response was, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Neither God nor Moses make any mention whatsoever about the murder incident that is recorded just a few verses earlier, although it may have occurred around forty years previously. I wonder if Moses, after all those years still felt unworthy of such a role as God had for him.

Whatever we think of our sins, failures and shortcomings, either our own or others, it’s important that we don’t allow them to define or control us. I think God showed Moses and every generation since then that failure need not be final but even in our failure God can bring us on to a better place if we allow Him to do His work in and through us.

The lesson for us is to believe in ourselves and others despite their failures. And more importantly to believe in our Lord and Maker who in His Son Jesus is bringing redemption and restoration to all who turn to Him in faith.

If the Bible’s record is accurate – and I believe it is – it’s good to know that if there’s a second chance for murderers there must be many more chances for all of us. Yes, even for childhood explosive experts!


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My thoughts on healthy acceptance of what we cannot change in life

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ . . . Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” – Romans 15:1-3, 7(NIV)

A New Resolve: “I cannot change others and must strive to accept them as they are, not as I would wish them to be.”

If you are anything like me, it’s often a struggle to accept people as they are. Especially those who are close to us!

The crunch comes the closer people get to each other –

Wives accepting husbands

Husbands accepting wives

Parents accepting Children

Children accepting parents

Brothers accepting sisters

Sisters accepting brothers

Co-workers accepting co-workers

And the list goes on!

The reality is that people will not and cannot change to meet all of our demands and expectations. To live in hope that this will happen is a false reality.

The verses quoted above come from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament. This age-old dilemma of not being able to accept others was of course an issue in the early church. Paul’s words are quite challenging for us even today.

The model for the follower of Jesus is to accept others regardless of their failures and weaknesses just as God has accepted us in Jesus.

When we stop and reflect on it the word “unconditional” should come to mind. God’s love toward us is not conditioned on our ability to change ourselves and “clean up our act” so that we can make ourselves more acceptable to God.

When we were hopeless and heartless cases God reached out to us in His Son. Jesus Christ demonstrated His love for us through sacrificial service even to the point of death. Throughout the ages God has been making allowances for us to come to Him in a personal relationship just as we are!

Several years ago my wife was talking to a woman who had been attending Bible Studies for several months but had been unable to commit her life to Jesus in a personal way. When my wife discovered what was blocking her it was the problem of her smoking! Another Christian worker had told her that unless she “gave up” smoking God would not accept her.

This is actually the opposite of the Gospel of Jesus. The good news is that we can never “clean up” our lives enough to be acceptable to God. That is why God has made our redemption possible through Jesus.

It’s also helpful to realize that as we take a closer look at Scripture we see that God has the ability to separate us from our sins and failings and does not judge our value as people based on what we do or don’t do.

Finite beings though we are, we often have difficulty separating people from what they do. When the actions of others displease us we tend to judge them and “write them off” in our books as being unacceptable.

I think this works in tandem with how we view ourselves. If we are unable to separate our own failings from our “worthiness” as human beings and forgive ourselves it will be difficult to forgive and accept others. The deep knowledge that our sins and failures do not define who we are will pave the way for us to extend the same grace to others.

Paul’s instructions to us are for the stated purpose of “building others up” instead of tearing them down. When you think about it this is what God is in the process of doing with us. Paul says that being able to accept others unconditionally is a sign of strength – not weakness. The more we grow in this area the stronger we become.

If we truly believe in a personal God who has revealed Himself through Jesus and accepts us unconditionally when we turn to Him how much more should we be accepting of others regardless of their shortcomings or attitudes toward us?

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If I were to rebel today where would that leave me tomorrow?

I am today where I came from yesterday and the day before.

Today I find myself at odds with the man I am and the man I wish to be.

 

Rebellion does me no good but feels like freedom in the moment

I can go there in my mind without the pain of consequence

I can also stay with You and choose to enjoy the fruits of our relationship.

 

If I were to rebel today I know You would be there with me, and you would be there tomorrow.

Like many men I struggle to feel Your presence,

It makes the rebellion easier to justify but does nothing to soothe the consequences of my poor choices.

 

If I were to trust You today and see beyond momentary gratification,

I could experience a better life free from condemnation.

 

If I were to praise You today and consider my high position,

the foolish ways of selfish rebellion would fade into insignificance.

 

The choice is mine and the fruits are mine to enjoy.

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“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:37-39 (NIV)

Do you ever wonder if Jesus ever had any bad hair days? With all the important things on His mind it’s doubtful that Jesus, The Son of God, ever worried too much about things that concern most of the rest of us humans.

In all the Gospel accounts you never hear Jesus complain about the state of his hair, the dusty roads or his dirty feet. And He did have dirty feet. We know that because he walked the same paths of first century Palestine as did his disciples and the rest of humanity. He also got tired and frustrated like the rest of us.

Jesus, however, seemed to have a focus that transcended the mundane things that seem to distract us on a regular basis, but that’s a different subject.

I’m learning more these days about the concept of “self-compassion.” It’s actually a very liberating concept which differs greatly from self-esteem or self-indulgence. It simply means that in order for us to have true compassion for others, we must first have compassion for ourselves.

How do you relate to yourself? Does that influence how you relate to others?

To be honest for most of my life I’ve given myself a harder time than any other human being I know. It’s doubtful that I would ever hear Jesus speak to Himself, or to me, the way I regularly talk to myself.

Can you ever imagine the Lord Jesus Christ making these comments to Himself?

“You’re a dumb human being!”

“Your feet stink!”

“You’re a hopeless case!”

“Why don’t you crawl in a hole where you belong?”

Of course we know that Jesus wouldn’t say that to Himself because He was the perfect Son of God. But how would Jesus speak to us about our concerns both major and minor?

Jesus valued each human being as worthy of love. He knew that every human was made in the image of God and was worthy of His affection and admonition. He gave His very life for each and every human being regardless of nationality, race or intellectual aptitude – despite all of their faults and failings.

He taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, implying that we should love ourselves and others as God’s image-bearers.

He bids everyone to come to Him by faith and find redemption, soul-rest and restoration regardless of their situation in life.

If the Divine Son of God never had a bad word to say about Himself, or us, then perhaps neither should we.

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“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” – Philippians 2:5-9 (NIV)

I’m not really sure why the concept of “vulnerability” keeps smacking me in the face everywhere I look. It could be that for much of my life it’s been a hidden theme lurking in the background.

In the spring of 1980 I took an intensely practical week-long course in graduate school entitled “Applied Leadership and Teambuilding.” All the participants of the class went to a conference center and broke up into teams. In addition to reading and lectures we went out on practical teambuilding exercises. Each team member had the chance to lead the group in an exercise at least once during the week. By the end of our time together we had come to learn a great deal about each other – and ourselves!

Our small group leader, Bob, happened to teach Leadership and Psychology at the US Air Force Academy at the time. He was gifted in many ways but was an especially keen observer of human nature. At the end of the course he invited each of us to a private session where he gave us his observations about our strengths and weaknesses. I was obviously more interested in my strengths!

“You’re not very vulnerable. You don’t give much away,” Bob observed in our interview.

I confess at the time I didn’t really have a clear idea of what he was talking about, but I took it by faith that being more of an “expert” in personal relations than I, he must be speaking the truth.

Since that time I have come to learn much more about vulnerability and why I put it to death for so long in my life. It’s a scary place to go. I’ve tried to reflect on what it actually is and why I avoided being vulnerable for so long.

Vulnerability, if you look it up in the dictionary, actually means “open to attack.” When you stand up for who you really are, what you like and dislike, share your opinions, etc. you are subject to being loved, hated, cherished, despised, or any number of other responses.

When you look at the person of Jesus Christ, you see a vulnerable man. He never hid who He really was and was comfortable being who He was. As mentioned in the verses above, being God He was willing to empty Himself of Divine privileges and come to earth as a humble human. He faced suffering and death for who He was, but He also was exalted to the highest place of honor in the universe.

There’s something very powerful and humble about vulnerability that we dare not miss.

Some of us close up, myself included, so that we can avoid or escape the potential criticism or judgment of others. I’m finding now in reading the research on vulnerability that we close off the potential for life and growth, connection and relationship when we take that approach to life.

Looking further back I think vulnerability died very early in my childhood and was never significantly resuscitated until recent years. Painful childhood experiences can shape us in many ways.

When I was either in Kindergarten or first grade I recall a little square dancing exercise we did in class. Boys and girls would cross arms and hold hands with each other, couples standing in a circle. When the music started we began skipping around the circle to the music. It was something about the tile floors in the school or the shoes my parents had me wear, but I kept slipping and falling on the floor whenever we really got going around the circle. My obvious reaction was “I’m not doing this! I’m not making a fool out of myself for the sake of this dumb exercise!”

I still recall the feeling of shame and vulnerability of that experience and internally I probably recognized that I would rather die that visit that place again.

The rebirth of vulnerability has been a gradual reawakening in my life in recent years – with some dramatic steps forward at times. I’m finding now that it takes courage to be vulnerable and to avoid it stems from fear – particularly fear of “what would others think of me.” It took some cataclysmic life experiences of personal failure and the love and rejection of others to allow vulnerability to be reborn in my own life. Painful but intensely productive!

As Easter Sunday approaches this year I’m reflecting once again on the beauty, humility and yes vulnerability of the Lord Jesus Christ. It took immense courage for Him to do what He did – even though He was God in the Flesh.

In humility, love, openness and courage Jesus Christ shared His very life – and death – with a hurting and broken world. Perhaps that’s what He calls His followers to do as well.

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