Getting through Lent with Grace

We’re a week into our journey of Lent for this year and I’m working through a couple of different Lent devotionals. I’ve been enjoying them because they each bring a different perspective to this journey that we’re on and to spiritual life as well. One of the things I struggle with regarding Lent may be something that you struggle with as well, and that’s the continual focus on our sins. I know it’s important to recognize our sins, to ask for forgiveness of them and to make changes in our lives based on not living those sins, but it’s not exactly encouraging to talk about our failings all the time.

Maybe it’s my fault because I’m immersing myself in Lent and not just reading one devotional each day, since it gives me a lot more exposure to the topic of Lent and those that go along with it like looking at your failings. On the other side of the story sometimes it’s good for us to really take a solid look at all aspects of our lives. About how we treat people, how we use our resources, how we treat ourselves, how we think, how we worship, how we go through our day-to-day lives. Taking 40 days out of 365 to make sure we’re leading lives God would be proud of isn’t so bad.

Since we’re human we know we’re going to mess up as we go through life, it’s a consistent messing up-seeking forgiveness-healing cycle. The reason we can do the solid 40 days of Lent and reflecting on our imperfections is because we know that after doing the hard work there will be a great reward, and that’s the celebration of Easter and the promise of God’s eternal love. Whether this Lent journey speaks to you and invites you to take time for reflection more frequently throughout the whole year, or you just take this time to experience God’s grace and love, I encourage you to be open to whatever God will be showing you.

“Lent is a time for us to take an honest look at ourselves and receive the grace of Jesus’ healing love.” Loyola Press

30 Days of Thanksgiving: God is gracious

I’m amazed that God still calls us His children, even after all the ways that we screw things up or don’t follow through in the right ways. It’s an honor and privilege to be called His children, one I think we forget about from time to time because we don’t have a relationship with God exactly like we do with most of the important people in our lives. Most of them we see on a regular basis or talk to on the phone or over Skype or something similar where we see them. Even long distance relationships aren’t the same as the relationship we have with God.

But God never forgets us, He continues to be giving towards us and one of the most important things is that He gracious and forgiving of us. God doesn’t want us to sin but knows that’s part of our human experience that we’re (hopefully) working on getting better at. It can’t be easy for God to forgive us as often as He does for some of us, but it has to be rewarding when He sees we’ve learned our lesson and don’t repeat the same mistake again.

While we shouldn’t enjoy trying God’s patience, and it’s humbling to realize exactly how patient He is with us, God’s patience is something I’m very thankful for. It’s a good lesson for us to learn, that if He can be that patient with us, surely we can be a little more patient with and forgiving towards the people we interact with on a daily basis.

If you’ve been trying of God’s patience lately I encourage you to find the motivation in you this holiday season to really step up and work on yourself.  Holidays are a time for celebration, and there’s no better reason to celebrate than personal growth and a closer and healthier relationship with God.

Found by Grace

A topic I come back to time and again is grace. It’s one of those topics like love that can’t be simply defined and is always changing and evolving throughout your experiences and as you learn from and spend time with God. Matt Redman sings a song about grace, you can check it out here, but the lyrics are as follows:

“It’s there in the newborn cry
There in the light of every sunrise
There in the shadows of this life
Your great grace

It’s there on the mountain top
There in the everyday and the mundane
There in the sorrow and the dancing
Your great grace
Oh such grace

It’s there on a wedding day
There in the weeping by the graveside
There in the very breath we breathe
Your great grace

The same for the rich and poor
The same for the saint and for the sinner
Enough for this whole wide world
Your great grace
Oh such grace

There in the darkest night of the soul
There in the sweetest songs of victory
Your grace finds me
Yes your grace finds me

From the creation to the cross
There from the cross into eternity
Your grace finds me, yes your grace finds me…”

There are a couple things we learn from this song about grace. First, that grace exists. Second, that grace is anywhere and everywhere. Third, that God’s grace will find us anywhere we are and in whatever situations we’re in. Finally, grace is for each of us. Grace isn’t something set aside for only some of us only on some days or in some situations, it’s for all of us at all times no matter where we are. What grace do you need today?

Together for Christmas

We’re just a few short weeks away from Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth again. Today I wanted to share about a story from later in Jesus ministry, when He was an adult: the story of Zacchaeus. If you remember the story in Luke 19, Jesus is walking along and gathers the usual crowd of people wanting to see him, short Zacchaeus can’t see over the crowd, climbs a tree and Jesus finds him there and asks to come over and hang out at Zacchaeus’s house, which really annoys people because Zacchaeus is a tax collector and they weren’t well liked back then (or now for that matter). Zacchaeus ends up giving much of his wealth away because of Jesus’ gesture and willingness to be with him even though he was probably not the “best” of men.

But the thing about the story that I wanted to talk about this week was the order of the story: Jesus met and talked with Zacchaeus and told him He wanted to have dinner before Zacchaeus made the decision to go straight and not be a bad person (assuming he was). We assume that Jesus was willing to be with Zacchaeus regardless of whether or not he was willing to turn his life around, disregarding the whole All-Knowing God aspect of things of course. Jesus didn’t care about Zacchaeus’s past, He only cared about the future.

One of the things that always amazes me about Jesus was how forward thinking He was. Yes, He knew the scriptures that were written before He came to earth, including those that predicted His arrival. But Jesus wasn’t concerned with what they said or how people had interpreted them for the most part, He was focused on a few core teachings: love, acceptance, forgiveness, and hope. These core teachings totally threw the spiritual world of His time into turmoil and his time on earth totally changed the future for everyone.

As we think about the holidays, and the Christmas celebration, it’s really a story of acceptance, of bringing together people of different walks of life to celebrate being alive, having a future and the gift of being alive. It’s not a time for judging, denial or hatred, but a time of healing and celebration of each other, differences and all.  What will you choose to accept this Christmas?

Jesus Lived Among Us

Christmas is the time that we all remember when God’s Son came down to earth to live with us.  He came as a little baby, in human form like us, with needs and maybe even a few issues like acne and problems with women.  In 2014 we may not have the whole story of exactly all that went on when Jesus was on earth, but we do have a pretty good idea simply because He was human so while he lived on earth He was like us and probably dealt with most of the limitations we do.

I think back to the story of Jesus asleep on the boat.  Maybe life just got to be too much for him.  I know that I’ve slept through the doorbell, phone calls, TV shows and people talking to me before, not to mention something simple like a little thunder and lightning when I was exhausted, so why wouldn’t Jesus need the occasional nap too?  After all He had way more pressure on Him than I ever do and there are days I can’t make it through.

We also see his joy in healing people like the men with leprosy in Luke 19 and being able to celebrate with the one who came back.  We see his love in building relationships with his disciples and people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  And we see his caring for those who the world has rejected like the woman caught in adultery and the tax collector.

Jesus knows what it means to live life here on earth.  He’s not removed from our sadness, our passion, our love, and our joy.  He’s been there, he’s done it and each Christmas is a reminder to us of that.  Celebrate with Jesus this Christmas.

“For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” Zephaniah 3:17

Celebrating Others Victories

Thanksgiving is all about what we ourselves are thankful for, but what about what everyone else is thankful for?  As kids we’re asked to list things we’re thankful for, as adults we’re told to express our thanks to those who help us, but is being thankful really that self-centered?  Is it all about us?  Are we just thankful that things go our way or are we truly grateful when things go well for others?

It can be challenging for us to accept, let alone celebrate, the good things that happen to other people, especially if we don’t think that person is particularly deserving.  When the crooks, the cheats, the liars and the stealers get away with their crimes we’re not happy, but when they seem to just receive good things in response to the shameful ways they live it’s enough to drive a person crazy.  Maybe it’s luck, or maybe it just looks like they’re getting all the good stuff, when the reality is that that’s the only good that they have in their lives, but because that’s the most public aspect of their lives it certainly seems like life is really unfair.

The tough lesson to learn is that everyone has things to be thankful for as blessings and good things don’t always see people the way that we do.  It’s a lesson that’s not just about the blessings of life but about the grace and forgiveness as well.  Life isn’t all sunshine and roses, and sometimes we make decisions that we probably shouldn’t have made but we felt like that was our only option at the time, and perhaps it was.  It’s a challenge to honestly celebrate the promotion you wanted that someone else got.  It’s also a challenge to accepting that God forgives us and those around us when mistakes are made.  It’s almost too hard to grasp sometimes, especially if we don’t feel like we’re worthy of forgiveness, or the other person is.

But that’s really what Thanksgiving is about; it’s about coming together to celebrate with each other.  I may not be thankful for what you’re thankful for, but I can be thankful for and with you.  Just because it’s not my victory doesn’t mean that I can’t celebrate equally with you.  It’s when I let those doubts, fears, and old prejudices sneak in that I start to judge and compare, and struggle to celebrate with you.

This week I challenge you to be honestly happy with one person who is celebrating something in their life.  Just let loose and celebrate life the way it was meant to be lived: together.

“It is delightfully easy to thank God for the grace we ourselves have received, but it requires great grace to thank God always for the grace given to others.”  James Smith

Compassionate Generosity

This month we’ve been talking about compassion. Today I thought we’d talk about compassion and how it relates to generosity. As a reminder, compassion is feeling upset about someone else’s (bad) situation and feeling the need to do something about it. I love this word because it shows that you’re not just upset and ranting about something unfair or unjust, no, you’re actually going to do something about it.

In some ways this is exactly what generosity is: giving freely to others. Generosity can be associated with grace (unexpected favor) as well as giving to right wrongs as we’re discussing it today. When compassion and generosity meet amazing things can happen. There’s no wonder that both words are ones used in reference to God frequently.

Jesus certainly tried to teach us a lot about generosity and compassion through the many miracles He did during His time on earth. He was always willing to meet someone and hear their story, and do something to help them if they were willing to accept His assistance. Not everyone was, but of course not everyone we meet is ready for for our generosity or compassion either.

But the thing that made Jesus different was that He didn’t just want to give people things to make them happy, he wanted to right wrongs so that they would be able to have a different future. When you’re faced with a situation that calls for compassion you don’t want to be generous and help them so they can go right back to being miserable, no, you want them to have the opportunity to do or be something better. Does Jesus still encourage you to be generous even if they refuse to accept the gift or change their ways? Yes, but He also knew that you couldn’t force someone to take something they didn’t want or weren’t ready for.

“If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?” 1 John 3:17

Is God Listening?

This weekend in my Spiritual Strength newsletter I shared about why we pray and how we know what to pray, which got me thinking about God hearing us. I mean there are a lot of people around the world that He has to listen to at any given time during the day or night. Does He really hear me? I know He’s God and all powerful and all knowing and everything, but let’s face it, I’m not perfect, I’ve messed up before and will again. Does He really care about me?

There’s evidence throughout the Bible of many people asking this exact same question. And over and over God says that He does listen and does care about them, and us. Why? Because He’s compassionate and loving and gracious, and most of all, because He says so. But what about my screw-ups? Does that make a difference to God? We know that God doesn’t like when we sin or screw up. He hurts when we disappoint Him or go against Him or forget about Him. But until we are made perfect again He understand that we’ll be going through this cycle.

The challenge for us is to do what we can to not make the cycle repeat and try to be more compassionate with ourselves and the people in our lives so that we don’t sin and our relationship with God stays healthy. When we’re able to coexist and work together in ways that support each other and do good for the world we’re learning how to live in a way that is honoring to God.

But back to the question, does God ignore us? Zechariah 10:6 says:

“I will strengthen Judah and save Israel; I will restore them because of my compassion. It will be as though I had never rejected them, for I am the Lord their God, who will hear their cries.”

So God will wash His hands of us for a period the time we’re rejecting Him, but because He’s compassionate He welcomes us back and continues to work with us on doing better next time. So this week if you’ve been distant or feel like you’ve been off the path take time to reconnect with God.

Giving Thanks at Christmas

“God gives his people a free gift—eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord…This is a free gift … being made free from sin through Jesus Christ.” Romans 6:23, 3:24

Christmas is the time for giving gifts, one of the greatest gifts to recognize is the gift of freedom from sin and an eternal life from Jesus.  If you think about it, we really have a lot to be thankful for at this time of year, beginning with this fabulous earth we live on, and going above and beyond with the birth of a Baby who would save us and offer eternal life.  But when it comes to gifting, hearing the word “free” always makes us wonder: Is it really free?  What am I giving in exchange for it?  Why is it free (is it that bad?)? Are just a few of the questions we ask.

Technically though, there isn’t a catch to this free gift.  We just have to be willing to accept it, and accept Jesus’ presence in our lives. The good news is, as I shared in my devotional this week, is that:

“…while Jesus was fully divine and fully human, we are not.  We do not have to be, nor are we God.  God has never asked us to take on the responsibility of bearing or fathering his son, all he has asked of us is to be the person he has created us to be.  God doesn’t need or expect you to be God or anything close to that, just to be yourself.”

Accepting the miraculous free gift of salvation, freedom and eternal life isn’t meant to be a leg-shackle, nor does it turn us into God, nor does God expect supernatural miracles of us or our lives.  He asks us to be ourselves, to trust him, to follow his leading as often as possible, and to share the gift of freedom with someone else.  Will you accept the free gift today?

Only with God’s Grace

Grace is a topic that always fascinates me.  It’s one I’ve written many devotionals and blog posts on as well as taught many youth group lessons.  It’s one of those topics that never fully reveals itself, and there’s always something new to learn.  What is grace anyway?  A really simple definition is “God’s mercy and goodness to us.”  It doesn’t really describe the whole package, but it’s a start.

Hebrews 4:16 says “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it.”

Grace is that unknown factor, that last second touchdown, that surprisingly answerable question on a math test, that free drink from the person in front of you in line, that delay on a deadline, that forgiveness when none is deserved.  It can’t be predicted or expected, but without it hope would have much less impact or relevance.  Not to mention that each of us need mercy and blessings in our lives almost on a daily basis.

The awesome thing is that God is there ready for us when we need help.  Maybe we won’t get the exact answer we were looking for or be freed of consequences, but whenever we need that peace that passes all understanding it’s waiting for us just a prayer away.  We all have those dark-night-of-the-soul days too where the only thing that can pull us out is a touch from God.  The next time you’ve screwed up, or just don’t know what to do, don’t worry, you can get through this challenge too, just lean on God’s grace.