The Difficulty of Receiving and the Greatness of the Giver

‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ Nehemiah 8:9-10

As the people weep and mourn for their sinful, law-breaking ways, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites call the people to look no longer at themselves but at Another, God himself, because His unmerited joy in them is their strength. All hope rests in Him not in them, the people. Look no where else! They proclaim, look to the One who is your strength, hope, comfort and who will rescue you. Because if we do look somewhere else, especially at ourselves—at how unworthy we are—we will despair.

I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life as a Christian having difficulty accepting God’s free, gracious gift of grace, of being freely justified by faith in Christ alone. Because of some of the events of my past, I’ve always felt—deeply and palpably—my unworthiness, my unseemliness, my dirtiness. It’s not pushing the hyperbole to say that I would have rather had Christ’s eyes look anywhere else than in my direction—do not look upon me, my shame, my wretchedness. Even as I embraced—desperately—the doctrine of Justification and the actuality of God’s two words, and as I understood to great depths that it was free and by faith alone, the free gift didn’t sink in personally. It remained out there, for others, and not for me. How could God really love someone this abused, this broken and unworthy? 

As I looked at myself and looked at the Gift, I couldn’t reconcile the two, surely some merit had to be involved on my end, and surely I did not possess it. I could understand the Gift for others—self-righteously presuming they were somehow less dirty than me. I saw myself, a teacher of this very theology, as merely a signpost on the way to condemnation and death, don’t follow me, but go in the direction in which I point, it is not too late for you. I remember the first time, a little over a year ago, when my therapist requested that I say the words, “I am justified by faith alone.” I pushed them out through a clenched jaw and gritted teeth. Now, those words, rather than bring shame or pain, bring comfort. They are the words I repeat when confronted with recurring feelings of guilt and failure.

I’m not alone. My experience is not unique. If we are honest, we’ve all been caught between the awesomeness of the gift and the truth of who and what we are. And that position feels like being caught between a rock and a hard place.

So why is it so hard to accept such a free gift? People mistakenly think that a free gift is easy to receive. Sure, a free stick of gum I’ll take any time. But something larger, more substantial? I really want to earn it. It’s not easy to receive a free gift. In fact, it’s quite difficult. Being naturally poor recipients, we, to some degree, abhor the free gift. We would much rather pay for it, but we can’t and the free gift is offensive because we are unworthy—in our terms—to gain such a gift. We are small in comparison to the gift, and we spurn the gift and turn away, too focused on ourselves.

Luther writes in his commentary on the book of Galatians,

“Therefore if I am little and the thing that is being given to me is great—in fact, the greatest there is—I must think that the One who is giving it to me is also great and that he alone is great. If He is offering it and wants to give it, I do not consider my own sin and unworthiness, No, I consider the fatherly will that He who is giving it has toward me. I accept the greatness of the gift with joy; and I am happy and grateful for such an inestimable gift granted to me in my unworthiness, freely and by hearing and faith.”

Luther, like Nehemiah, exhorts us not to look too long upon our lowly estate but to the one who gave the gift to us in the first place: the Giver. If it is the Giver’s will for us to have such an immeasurable, beautiful gift, who are we to deny Him? The Giver, the Lord, the Creator of Heaven and Earth has stooped low and given us the greatest and most costly gift that could ever be: His Son. All that Christ is and offers is ours by faith alone, thus the gift is free. By His love we are declared worthy to receive such a gift apart from anything we have ever done–or that has been done to us.

Now that is an occasion for a party.

 

Originally posted here at Mockingbird: http://www.mbird.com/2013/03/a-lenten-devotion-the-difficulty-of-receiving-and-the-greatness-of-the-giver/

Reading Our Fears into the Bible

While I can receive ninety and nine compliments, it’s the one complaint that I ruminate on and chase after. When I’m lying in bed, sleep eluding me, it’s not the memories of love, admiration or the friendship of others that float into my head. It’s the mistakes and moments of shame I’m bust conjuring like angry spirits. The worst-case scenario sticks to us like velcro, and our tendency to believe the worst affects everything, even how we believe.

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Your Goodness is Not the Gospel

I stopped my thoughts before they escaped into words, checking their pockets for hidden slights or contraband foolishness. I might not even say them at all… Just to be safe. There was too much chance they might offend. And who knows what would happen to the eternal soul of some poor listener if I unwittingly ruined the Good News of God with some imperfect pronouncement?

My actions went through the same rigor. I scrupulously weighed them in light of how they might affect my witness to God. I had come to believe that I was the only bible some people would ever read, and that weight was enormous. In my mind, how well I seemed to keep the imperatives of the bible (and those inferred and tacked on by various other Christians for good measure) was indicative of how many people I could lead to Jesus.

I wish someone had told me that my goodness wasn’t the Good News.

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Receive

I’ve grown into adulthood knowing full well my fierce independent streak. My mother has more than once reminded me of the two year old who would furrow her brow and exclaim, “No. I DO IT!” When I was in graduate school as a full-time stay-at-home-mom, friends would ask if they could help me. “Nope. I’ve got it.” My husband left for work one Monday morning and, when he came home at 6pm, he found the carpet from the first floor on the curb. He asked me, “How in the world did you get the carpet out from under the massive, 600lb armoire?” He then asked me if I needed any help finishing the vacuuming and putting furniture back. My response: “Nah. I’ll do it.” These are just a couple of examples emphasizing my inability to ask for help.

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Chaos, Interrupted

I watched as my pastor bounced up and down with excitement while delivering the good news of the Gospel to us one Sunday morning, even as I questioned my own faith. My spiritual life felt dry and dreary. I sang the usual worship songs, but not with much enthusiasm. I listened to the sermon, but I wasn’t moved. Where had my excitement gone over the past several months? Where was my desire for Christ?

As I sat and listened to the Good News I panicked when it didn’t move me. Something had to be done. I longed for the closeness with Christ that I felt I had as recently as a few short months ago. I was weary of my parched-desert and decided that I had to find my way out. And so I began to scheme. I made a promise to myself that I would wake up the next (Monday) morning and get back into the Word. I pledged to read and pray and write. Surely this will fuel me. Surely this will change my spiritual posture. And then maybe I, too, could hop up and down as my pastor did, Christ flooding my heart.

My well-intentioned plans were thrown out the window when Monday morning slapped me in the face: arguing kids, a missing shoe, and a reluctant kindergartner who greeted the morning with, “I’m not going to school!” All I could think about was hurrying the kids out the door so I could get to the business of getting out of this spiritual desert—surely that would make me a better mom and wife. If I had joy in Christ, then I could have joy in raising my children…or so I believed.

As I pulled my car into the drop-off line at school, my kindergartner’s protest began to escalate. I could see that this would not be a battle easily won. Even my other children saw it; they were begging me to let them out of the car quickly because they could see the gathering clouds of the impending storm.

As the teacher opened the door of the car, cheerfully greeting my kids, our eyes met. Even she could see that this was going to be another one of those days. I stepped out of the car and wrestled my six-year-old onto the sidewalk. I managed to make it to the gate before being kicked in the shin and informed that I was hated in front of what seemed like the entire school. In pain and anger, I made it very clear to him that he was never to kick his mommy again. And like that, I had terrified an entire group of five- and six-year-olds who had formed a semi-circle around our wrestling match.

Then I did the unthinkable: I burst into tears.

I broke down not only in front of my son’s friends, but in front of all the parents and teachers that I had worked so hard all year to impress.

I just cried.

In my moment of weakness, I suddenly saw very clearly what God was doing. Even though my day began by quickly spiraling out of control, my spiritual sand dunes began to transform to look more and more like lush waterfalls. In all of my planning and effort to bring myself out of my desert, God was showing me something that I needed more: weakness. In midst of the Monday morning chaos, I saw Christ more active in my public weeping than I would have on a benign morning of quiet study and solitary prayer.

I did read my bible that morning. In fact, I couldn’t wait to read it. I needed it like someone dying of thirst, crawling across the desert, desperate for a cup of life-giving water. God used my weakness—not my strength—to bring me out of the desert. Had things gone as planned, I would have forged ahead believing it was up to me to find more faith and that it was up to me to manufacture some kind of excitement toward the gospel.

When we take it upon ourselves to work to get closer to Christ, like I did, we slip back into the false notion that gaining more faith is something that we can accomplish. There is no amount of list-making and effort-giving that will give us more of him. No. He wants us to throw away those lists for a simple reason: it’s not about what we do for God; it’s about what he has done for us. Faith is a gift that cannot be earned.

It is the times of chaos and the difficult days that force us to our knees. It is on our knees where we find grace. The humiliation of that Monday morning—a suffering that caused a death to my put-together self—was the avenue by which Jesus brought life to my parched soul. No work, no matter how good and indisputably right, can make us love Christ more.

It is good news that we remain his beloved whether we are having a respectable moment (calmly dealing with an angry child) or an appalling moment (yelling at that child in front of the whole school). The Good News causes us to stand in awe of him.

It is in our weakness that we are finally able to see how much we need his strength.

It is in our weakness that he calls out to us, drawing us to him for strength.

It is in our weakness that we find Christ.

NDTD- Jessica Thompson

Sometimes the darkest darkness is the one that you aren’t even aware of. I was so blinded to dark and to light that I didn’t even know the difference. I would even say in some ways I thought the dark was the light; that is how accustomed I was to it. I loved my darkness. I loved feeling hidden from the gaze of those around me. I loved that people only saw what I wanted them to see. My darkness was masquerading as light.

I grew up in a Christian home. My parents loved Jesus, and they did the best they knew how. We were all taught that “being good” was the point of Christianity. Accepting Jesus was just another step to becoming that good person. I learned really early on that the best way to have people accept and love me was to be that good girl. I gave it all I had. I pretty much always did the right thing, and on the rare occasion that I didn’t, I would lie about it so that no one would know I wasn’t that good girl. I was enslaved to this image. I joined my family and church in worshiping my own goodness. I was the girl with the Bible verse on her letterman’s jacket. I was the girl that would always give a testimony. I was the girl that led the jr. high youth group. I was that girl. I propagated the “be good” mentality. I went so far as to go to Bible College to earn a degree in theology. All the while, I knew I didn’t love God. I knew that my heart was far. I settled into my darkness and pretended it was light.

When I was nineteen, God came bursting into my cave and amazed me with true Light. He showed me that all of the goodness I was trying to procure, all of the accolades I had received meant nothing before His command: “Be perfect.” My goodness wasn’t good enough, and I needed the goodness of Another. All of the love and acceptance that I worked so hard to get from family and friends could be mine in Christ by just believing that I couldn’t do it. He gave me the faith to believe what I had fought against my entire life: I needed more than myself.

Since that day, I have had to fight that same battle over and over again. I find myself so easily falling back into the trap of thinking I can earn an “atta girl” from God by my own works. I do this now by thinking if I can just have the right theology, if I can just love the gospel enough, then finally then I can earn my own righteousness.

I have struggled to contribute to the No Darkness to Dark series. I have read others stories and thought, “Wow. That was dark.” My story is nothing like that. I have wrestled with this thought for a month or so. Last night slapped me in the face. I was believing the lie again. I was believing that my enslavement to my own goodness actually wasn’t all that bad.

Reverend Thomas Scott said it best, “I cannot pray, but I sin; I cannot hear, or preach a sermon, but I sin; I cannot give an alms, or receive the sacrament, but I sin; no, I cannot so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are still aggravations of them. My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears need washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.”

And thank God that we do have that Redeemer who loves even those who avoid Him by trying to be him. Those who, like me, just need to hear every day that they can rest in His goodness and forgiveness.

The Gospel is Still the Gospel

No matter how big someone is or how small, their sin (both revealed and cloaked) cannot invalidate the Gospel message. The Gospel is still the Gospel even in situations when something shocking and even mind boggling is publicly revealed in someone’s life. The Gospel is no less true now in the midst of ruthless exposure, in the waterfall of horizontal consequences, in the darkness of shame and guilt than it was the 2.2 seconds right before everything was found out.

I’m not just talking about big names here; I’m talking about you and me, too. While our trash isn’t strewn about newspaper and social media headlines (and most of us are pretty glad about that), our sin is still sin and even in the midst of it being exposed (someone clearly witnessed you verbally rip apart your kidyou were caught gossiping about a friend, your lack of work ethic finally noticed by your boss) the gospel isn’t (ever) invalidated. Our sin cannot remove one iota of truthfulness about God’s never-ending, never-ceasing, one-way love for us the sinners.

 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 1 Timothy 1:15

The Gospel is STILL the Gospel.  Jesus still came to save sinners–those who know they are sinners (exposed) and those who don’t (waiting to be exposed).  God still loves the world to a great degree–He loves you, and He loves him and her, He loves me–that John 3:16 is as much a present day truth as it was way back when. He doesn’t love us because we’re now keeping the law, He doesn’t even love you more when you do or because you are; He’s always just loved you fully and completely. In fact, it’s that one-way complete love that’s got any momentum to change (radically) your stone heart, my stone heart, his and her stone hearts. The law cannot do this. Ever.

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. 1 Timothy 1:8-11

Right before St. Paul pens the words quoted above in 1 Timothy 1:15, he writes the previous portion of scripture about the law. The law, according to Paul is for our disobedient flesh (the “unjust”). The “just” part of you, the part of you that is determined by faith in Christ, and thus justified and thus made the righteousness of God has no dealing with the law.  In our united to Christ state (by faith in Him which is a gift from God Himself and no work of your own) we do not now look to the law as a good word for our soul, as a  word of remedy, or as a word of help. The law will always be a word for the flesh, of death-dealing exposure.

The law cannot prevent us from partaking in bad plans–we are quite capable of ignoring and down right overruling the law when we want to and desire to.  The law cannot prevent us from coveting for it’s jurisdiction is not the heart. The law cannot cause us to be good, righteous, and holy–even though it so desperately desires to make us such; it’s impotent to do so.  The law’s word which exposes sin cannot prevent it but sentence it and the doer…to death.

So, to now, in light of the exposure of our sin (however dire it may be in the public realm), turn and say: had so and so (you, me, him and her) had more law in their life they wouldn’t have done “x” is a misnomer and exposes a grave misunderstanding of the law.  If the law can prevent sin (deep, deep down) then I’m lead to ask, why would I ever need the Gospel?

The law can only expose the covetous and selfishness, the sickness and rottenness, the prideful of me and disdainful of you parts of my flesh. And, get this, the law works for, serves the Gospel, so that exposure is exposure into the light and that light is the light that the darkness could not, cannot, will not ever over come. That light is the light of the word that is the Gospel that is Jesus himself (John 1).  Into your exposure enters this God, into your dirt and crap and unjustness and fleshiness walks this good, good, God. And He’s unafraid to touch you, to grab you in his strong arms and carry you into real life. Repeatedly. It’s not a one time thing. We are repeatedly exposed and repeatedly loved–minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year.  His mercies are new every morning…every morning dawn that follows the dusk of our sin.

The law will always expose where we are errant and bring it and us, the doers, to death; the Gospel will always resuscitate us, the hearers, from death and replace what was dead with what is alive, what was stone with what is flesh, what was concealed with what is unconcealed, what was rejection with what is acceptance, what was condemnation with what is conviction, what was no with what is yes.

Does the proclamation of the Gospel (the word of Christ, the distinction of the law from the Gospel) fail in light of our exposures (big and small, public and private)? Does our exposure render the Gospel any less true or effective as a word that creates new life upon being heard? Does our exposure make it now necessary to add law to the Gospel, to preach more law and cut back on the message of freedom and love? No.

As far as I can tell–and I’ve looked and looked–the answer will always be no. The Gospel is still the Gospel even when broken human beings royally screw up.

 

Originally posted here: http://laurenrelarkin.com/2015/06/23/the-gospel-is-still-the-gospel/

The Holy Spirit: A Comforter of the Afflicted.

This is the final post of a three part series on the Holy Spirit – the one who is a conveyor of truth, a creator out of nothing, and a comforter of the afflicted.

The Comforter of the Afflicted

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:25-27). Jesus promises both the coming of the Advocate—who will remind them of the truth—and the gift of peace. Jesus’ twin promise is not a haphazard construction of thoughts, awkwardly joined together; the two are inextricably linked.

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The Holy Spirit: A Creator out of Nothing

This is part two of a three part series on the Holy Spirit – the one who is a conveyor of truth, a creator out of nothing, and a comforter of the afflicted.

The Creator out of Nothing

Genesis 1:1-1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Psalm 104: 31-2, “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in all his works.”

The Spirit that is hovering over the waters in Genesis 1 and the Spirit that God sends forth in Psalm 104 are one and the same. In both statements, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, creates – and creates from nothing.

“This is,” writes Regin Prenter, the Holy Spirit’s “eternally life-creating and life-saving work. And this the one work into which he, as the creative spirit, draws us away from the destruction of sin, death and hell.” The creative spirit of Genesis 1 and Psalm 104 is the re-creative spirit, fashioning from the nothingness of sin and death the new creatures of righteousness and life.

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The Holy Spirit: A Conveyor of Truth

The day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, just seems weird. Flaming tongues of fire that didn’t burn? Spontaneously generated languages? For those of us handicapped by a dominant thinking function (e.g., yours truly): Umm… No thank you. Gospel, yes. Jesus, yes. But this Spirit character, yikes.

Yet, however much the name “Spirit” and the symbolism of descending doves and flaming tongues might ignite the imagination, it needs to be said that the Holy Spirit is not Casper the Friendly Ghost, He’s not a “good vibration” or a warm sensation. He is, as Christians confess, “the Lord and giver of life, proceeding from both the Father and the Son” with the same mission as the Father and the Son.

Having just celebrated Pentecost, I wanted to reflect on the one who Jesus calls “the Helper.” In a three-part series, we’ll ask, “Who is the Holy Spirit and what does he do?”

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