A stuffed turkeyWhile most Americans give thanks for their blessings this time of year, I’d like to look at a different side of the coin using Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, found in Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus often aimed his stories straight at the spiritual elitists of the world. In his day, that would be the Pharisees. They (not the Roman Empire, as is commonly believed) embodied the worst of God’s enemies because they, unlike Roman/Greek/Gentile societies, were supposed to know better. After all, didn’t they constantly proclaim themselves the experts?

The Pharisee mindset isn’t unique to them and is still alive and well among scientific, academic, religious, social, and political elitists of all parties and cultures, including many Christians, who regard any group but their own with contempt. So Jesus’ illustration is as relevant today as it was then:

To some who were confident of their own rightness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

I disagree with the idea that God rejected the Pharisee’s prayer because he was insincere. I believe he was totally sincere. In his mind, he’s perfectly right, and therefore more than acceptable to God, for which he’s genuinely grateful. The Pharisee’s problem is precisely that he meant every word, which demonstrates a heart of condescension and contempt, a clueless heart. He not only doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t know God.

At the root of this problem is the relentless human habit of comparing oneself to others, which nearly always leads to judgmentalism and one of two extremes: self-degradation or self-superiority. Judgmentalism is different from simply making observations, i.e., discernment. It’s one thing to be aware of differences (discernment), but it’s quite another to use that to make yourself superior or inferior (judgmentalism).

The tax collector doesn’t compare himself to anyone. He’s not looking around, not obsessed with what others say and do, not distracted by how others look. I also disagree with the idea that beating his chest equates to beating himself up in self-hatred. I think he was simply discerning, which demonstrated a clean, honest heart. Aware, not clueless. Despite sin, he knew himself and God well, and that’s why he went home justified.

Now wouldn’t it be the grandest irony to miss Jesus’ point and conclude, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee”—or liberals/conservatives, gays/homophobes, atheists/Christians, Americans/rest of the world!

Isn’t that just how hypocrisy sneaks up on us like rust on a hinge? Speaking from experience, it’s a booby-trap that backfires mentally and spiritually, turning even the most sincere person into a blind, ridiculous expert. It’s why Jesus said to be careful and “watch yourselves!” (Luk. 17:3)

So I’m grateful for the usual biggies: life, laughter, family, friends, employment, enough to eat, a roof overhead, and a sound enough mind and body to enjoy it all. But I’m especially thankful for spectacular failures on my part over the years that were proverbial blessings in disguise. These are what seasoned my faith like pepper and onion in Thanksgiving Day stuffing.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone! May you live, laugh, and love (even through tears), knowing yourself and God more richly each year.

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swordI’m fascinated by the repeated Biblical pattern of separating, dividing out, and setting apart, then of a returning, re-uniting, and putting back together. All things come from God, divided out from Him. And all things go back to God.

Mankind

I see that Adam was divided out from God. Some might argue that Adam came not from God, but from the dust of the earth.  However, while this is technically true, Adam had both the breath and image of God in him. Dust was simply a physical means to “house” them. (Besides, didn’t the earth come directly from God?) At any rate, Eve was then divided out from Adam, from his rib.

Then I read that the two are to separate from their parents and come together as one flesh. The specific reason given is that Eve was “bone of [Adam’s] bones, flesh of my flesh.” (Gen. 2:22-25) Adam and Eve don’t merely unite, they reunite. So marriage, I believe, is actually a prophecy of the human race reunited with itself, and of a restored world wholly reunited with its Creator.

Then I see that Israel was set apart, divided out from Gentile nations, hand-picked by God much the way Adam was handmade by God. Yet the coming new world depicted in Revelation consists of all nations, peoples, and languages—Jews and Gentiles—worshipping God. Here is Adam and Eve’s prophetic union on steroids, the great wedding of the Lamb. (Rev. 19:6-10)

Community

And I see that Jesus says he came to bring a sword, i.e., division, to set “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Mat. 10:34-36, where Jesus is quoting Micah 7:6-7 from the Old Testament)

I can’t imagine that his purpose is grief and chaos. He aims to ultimately bring people together, healed of dysfunctional relationships, self- and neighbor hatred, and destructive life-styles. The great exodus from evil ways is ongoing and must occur even in family units when necessary.

Contrary to human ideas, Jesus and the original Christian faith didn’t put marriage or family on a pedestal, but also didn’t trample them in abuse. It simply placed them within the larger context of harmonious community. Don’t love only those who love you, such as friends and family, but love all neighbors, even enemies, as yourself.

Those who practice this seriously are indeed set apart, divided out. But when the rest of humanity “catches up” according to God’s plan, even if they go through hell first, the result is a vibrant, healthy, restored and righteous world.

Nations

Jesus knew that he came from the Father and would go back to the Father. (Jhn 13:3) I also see that he’s the first-fruit of multitudes who follow him, and that those followers are then the first-fruits of “all he created.” (1Cor. 15:23, Jas. 1:18) Mankind, the earth, and everything else comes from the Father, and, like the Son of man, goes back to the Father.

I’m not sure I have a solid point to this week’s musings. But yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and I see that our country is again deeply divided today. I wonder sometimes if it’ll end in Civil War #2 with Left against Right instead of North against South.

Then I regain perspective, knowing that division is fascinatingly related to creation, birth, and harmony that’s ultimately bigger than any one nation, including the U.S. I’m as patriotic as the next person, but in the sweep of history, I know that God has everything well in hand even when His plan unfolds, in my opinion, at the speed of a glacier.

“Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

 

 

Don't get confused between my personality & my attitude. My personality is who I am. My attitude depends on who you are.This little gem (minus the No symbol) has popped up on my Facebook feed several times lately. Oddly, I’ve only seen it posted by my conservative Christian friends, and it tends to get many Likes. Every time I see it I want to say, “Really? You’re that proud of the hold others have on you?”

So I decided to add the No symbol and explain why I’m not a fan of this “wisdom.” To me, since Christians should know better, it says something about the absence of serious spiritual training in many churches today. We’re taught to keep a single-minded focus on the cross and forgiveness.

We are not taught how to gradually take back freedom from sin’s control over daily living. In fact, a very popular teaching is that it’s impossible to do, which is why you need constant forgiveness. Apparently, it’s the only definition of victory they know.

So, (1) this saying is just a long-standing habit common to man. It’s the old way, the “world’s way,” and nothing has seized us but what’s common to man. Personally, I’d prefer to overcome common habits so they don’t eat me alive or keep me stuck with a snippy, blind, complaining spirit that sees nothing but wrongness everywhere I turn.

Jesus offers better alternatives for our blessedness and well-being, and I want to practice all of them. He assures us that habits can be broken. This is one of them. As Paul observed, it’s a matter of putting off the old self and putting on the new, one habit at a time.

(2) On the surface, I can see how this might make someone feel powerful by putting others on “notice.” It’s a kind of warning with a touch of smug superiority thrown in. “As long as you’re not a jerk, I won’t go off on you.” Conversely, if I go off, you’re the problem, not me.

But in reality, this puts others in control and, effectively, makes me their bitch. Owned.

I doubt that Christians realize how this thinking shoots them in the spiritual foot, keeping them insecure with little sense of power. But when you feel powerless, all you have to rely on is a life-style of little threats, which only bring little (or big) threats in return. Then you wonder where all the blessedness is, perhaps concluding that it only comes after you die.

The great power of Christianity is its offer of steady escape and freedom. When Scripture talks about ransoming slaves, setting captives free, or freedom in Christ, it’s talking about this very sort of thing. It offers divine guidance and modeling, and puts you squarely in control of your attitude and reactions. As we “grab hold” of new, transforming life, it also offers grace when we stumble from time to time over old, dying habits.

(3) Perhaps the greatest mark of well-practiced Christ-followers (to which I aspire) is that their behavior, will, and attitude/spirit/heart have nothing to do with what others do or say. All the NT writers made self-control fairly obvious. And they didn’t have any advantage that we don’t have, including Christ’s personal presence and teaching.

Don’t return insult for insult. Bless those who curse you. Love your enemies, because if you love only your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Let your Yes be yes and your No be no. Etcetera.

That’s power. It simply isn’t vulnerable to the whims of others. So I don’t want people dictating my reactions, thank you very much. Who wants to be dragged all over the place by other people’s randomness?

????????????????????????????Well, I’ve been flying under the radar for longer than the few weeks I predicted when I last wrote in July. But I have a great excuse. My daughter and fiancé moved their wedding date up to Oct. 19 (yes, this year), so she’s now a Mrs. and I’m blessed with a new son-in-law!

Needless to say, this induced a full-time scramble to shape tons of details into something elegant, fun, and unique for a hundred guests. Miraculously, we found a lovely venue that was available with an unbeatably-priced package.

A friend and I made the centerpieces and bouquets and did all the decorating with help from family. The invitations, cake, DJ, photography, videography, flower girls’ dresses, and I-don’t-remember-what-else were offered affordably by other friends. Through everyone’s time and generosity, we pulled off a fairy-tale wedding—complete with a horse and carriage—in just three months.

Our purple and orange Victorian-ish affair sparkled with crystal garland, antique silver, lace and pearls, tall floral centerpieces, and a stunning gown fit for any princess who also happens to love motorcycles. And her dashing prince, whom she met on Christian Mingle, and who loves fishing, happens to ride a Harley.

Me arranging the Harley vaseSo as a tribute, we tucked among the flowers of each glowing centerpiece a tiny Christian fish charm dangling from miniature fishing poles. On an old silver platter from a historic home, we parked a little Matchbox Harley beside a tiny, crystal, horse-drawn carriage. In addition to dancing, a guest photo area with silly wigs and props was a big hit, especially after a few rounds of champagne. Elegant. Fun. Totally unique!

And what is your point, Wilson? Well, I had a few reasons to waste those months all stressed out, but I didn’t. I confess that my initial reaction was panicked delight. Out-of-town family would have to sleep on couches and air mattresses; and I’d have to somehow make room for a growing collection of flowers, ribbon, vases, and such.

Moreover, my husband is a Federal worker and our income had already taken a hit from the sequester furloughs. The government eventually shut down completely until just days before the Big Day.

Really? A wedding? Now?

I write often about exercising our God-given will and freedom to choose. I had a choice. I could easily have turned it into a “this-is-just-a-big-expensive-pain-in-the-butt” thing. But I have only one daughter and one shot at a first wedding, which I knew would be over in a flash. I refused to be robbed, left with nothing but a sour memory.

Christian fish on a fishing poleSo we rolled with it and had fun in organized chaos. I invited God into the planning. And it may sound strange, but I think He had fun, too. (Is He not the ultimate wedding planner?)

There were a few glitches and not everything came off perfectly. But I think—I hope—I did a decent job of not becoming Mom-zilla, imposing all my ideas and getting huffy when some were rejected. Love isn’t easily offended, doesn’t insist on having its way, and doesn’t have to try real hard to find joy.

So I’ve been off the grid, but accomplished a lot since I last wrote. I did read the books I wanted to. I did rest and relax with no agenda on our lake get-away. Good thing, too! My house filled with family we hadn’t seen in years and I got to be part of something amazing. Now I have a dear son-in-law, a grin that won’t quit, and feet that are still numb (no lie!) because it had been so long since I last wore high heels. Who could complain?

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For readers local to Northern Virginia, I recommend Virginia Oaks Golf Club as the best-kept secret in the area for weddings. I’ve never experienced such stellar customer service! Virginia Oaks Golf Club

Also, a huge shout-out to Harmon’s Carriages. Thank you for the magic, and on such short notice. carriage[1]

Lastly, to our daughter’s wonderful new parents-in-law, thank you for the rehearsal dinner and killer honeymoon you provided. What a blessing you’ve been and continue to be!

Gift box

Gift box (Photo credit: sparkieblues)

I think Christians agree that grace is a free gift from God. But they argue over how it relates to faith, behavior, and redemption.

In the Christian circles I come from, I think we need a functional definition of faith. And the best I’ve ever heard came from a wise, old pastor. “To have faith means to act as if something were true.”

I board an airline flight because I have faith that it’ll get me where I want to go. I refrain from jumping off a bridge because I have faith that gravity will turn me into a gelatinous blob when I hit the ground.

One day, I decided to test this definition. I went to my Scripture search engine, entered the words “faith is,” selected the New Testament and NIV Bible, and specified only what Paul wrote containing that phrase. I figured I’d get plenty starting with just that, and sure enough, I got six pages of verses.

Scanning through them, I mentally substituted the word “faith” with “acting as if Christ (or what he says to do) is true.” Ding, ding, ding—the clarity it brought was amazing! Hebrews 11 is an entire chapter on faith and action. And this didn’t even count the other NT writers.

The great thing about authentic Christian faith is that it isn’t blind, irrational, reckless, or a blank. It’s confident and certain. Faith always acts (even if restraint is the action) and is always “creditable” as right for this reason.

Yet somehow, over centuries of drift, and particularly the last 350 years or so, a “saving faith” in Christ has come to mean the opposite: inaction. Modern evangelical leaders and churches teach that human action in their own redemption process is sinful, not righteous. “Works!” they cry, as if warning of a plague; as if faith excludes effort and obedience; as if workers are too many rather than too few.

Grace Unwrapped

So we need to define grace, too. Like faith, it’s also action. For example, God’s grace is His continual action in my life and the lives of countless others throughout history. My grace is my action in the lives of others. So, for Christians, grace is the basis of interactive relationship with both God and neighbors.

Also like faith, grace doesn’t exclude effort; it excludes earning. God’s grace is a free gift because no one can earn it. But it doesn’t cancel obedience. It empowers and amplifies it. If grace were money, it would function like any other grant, precisely to enable work, not kill it. This is hardly surprising from a God who not only created us to do good works, but prepared them in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).

Yet for many people, to “accept” God’s grace means to merely carry it around like a package all wrapped in ribbon. They never open it or study its contents. To me, this explains the passive, empty faith so prevalent in sincere, but confused and powerless Christians.

How much better to open the gift and use it! It’s like finding a map, a flashlight, and instructions, along with an invitation and a coupon for unlimited consultation with Christ on how life works and how to live it to the max. For “life to the full,” as he put it, is the best definition of redemption there is.

In this light, his Great Commission makes more sense: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mat. 28:19-20) Once you understand faith and grace as action—God’s and yours—the phrase “faith alone in Christ alone” engages like warp engines on the Enterprise. And you can move mountains.

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I’m taking the next few weeks off from writing. As vital as action-oriented faith is, it’s equally important to rest. So I want to re-charge, something else Jesus says to do and which, I must confess, he practiced more faithfully than I do.

The family lake vacation is coming in early August and my oldest son and his girlfriend will be joining us from out of state. My daughter’s fiancé (he just popped the question this past weekend…EEEEEE!) will join us for the first time, too. Plus, two books I got for Christmas—Heaven is for Real and Spirit of the Disciplines—are collecting dust, still unread. So I can’t wait to relax and celebrate, catch up and have no agenda. It’s good for the soul.

English: Bratislava; New Year 2005; FireWorks

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, “God loves you” can sound patronizing and meaningless because, in my experience, Christian culture often seems to be on a mission to minimize human value.

For example, suppose you increase sales at work, or write a fantastic term paper, or run a great Sunday school class. Some would say that you had nothing to do with it, that it’s simply “Christ living in you.” Any other response brings accusations of pride and embezzling God’s glory—except when things go wrong. Then it’s all you.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” is the mantra of many Christians. But I rarely hear the rest of that verse in the same breath. “…and [all] are justified freely by his grace” through Christ (Rom. 3:23-24). So it’s easy to conclude that humanity has little value or anything worth celebrating in God’s eyes.

Yet Scripture consistently reaffirms human value, even when we sin. Jesus’ earthly mission was to restore to mankind God’s vision of worth and to give his own life to defend it by abolishing spiritual Death.

You can tell what’s valuable by what people celebrate or the way they behave when something’s lost. What do you do when you can’t find your keys or wallet? Likewise, you can tell what God values. In Luke 15, Jesus illustrates this with three consecutive parables, so it must be an important point. (more…)

English: Megaphone icon. Türkçe: Megafon ikonu...

English: Megaphone icon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, I wrote that God speaks to ordinary people in different ways. This might be surprising to some who believe that today, He speaks only through His written Word, or to others who believe He’s a daily chatterbox. I believe that God communicates any way and any time He chooses.

After all, He designed us to live in a physical environment, but also equipped us to perceive and interact with a spiritual one. It’s unfortunate that this is generally considered acceptable and normal for biblical people, but highly suspect for us. Who are we to automatically dismiss or attack modern-day visions, mental images, and one-on-one voice encounters? No wonder God can seem such a stranger!

So, this week, I thought I’d share an awesome encounter of my own.

First, I’ve always been more assertive than my husband, a quiet, laid back kind of guy. But in 1988, I struggled while he was on a one-year Air Force assignment overseas. I was left with three kids aged 4, 5, and 6, not to mention managing what little money there was, running the household, and working split shifts at my job—all isolated from extended family.

Before and during his absence, I had been reading Christian articles about supposedly ideal Godly mothers. They don’t usurp their husbands’ authority; they submit. Godly mothers don’t lead; they follow because husbands are stand-ins for Christ. So I had tried to suppress my take-charge personality. Yet, despite doing everything “right,” my life wasn’t following their script.

So I remember sitting on the living room floor one night, head in my hands, sobbing and praying. In my own familiar thought-voice (for lack of a better term), my mind was a tornado. What was I doing wrong? Where was God? I must be the worst mother ever. This went on for maybe 15 minutes.

Then, suddenly, a different Voice—like an audible laser beam, calm and unruffled, clear but not booming. “I want you to raise a proper family.”

It’s hard to explain, but it came from outside me, yet within—not in the other room or outside the house. I somehow recognized it as not my own; and it completely disrupted my mental flailing and tears. I was so startled, in fact, that I snapped my head up expecting to see a glowing figure, but saw nothing.

The Voice knew that I knew what proper meant, so that wasn’t spelled out. The command wasn’t as much instruction as it was reassurance and permission—as if to say, “I know how tired and confused you are, pulled in every direction. Why don’t you try it My way? Just do what you know to be right, and stop listening to everyone else.” Somehow, this was all conveyed in a single sentence.

I, myself, was at a loss for words, feeling tremendous relief and gratitude, but at the same time, energized. I guess the astonishing thing isn’t that it occurred, but that God spoke in a way that I instantly understood. I knew exactly what direction to take in leading my kids to integrity, character, and strong faith, even without an agenda.

Looking back, I realize that was the start of my long exodus from what’s now called “nominal Christianity,” though I didn’t know it then. I’ve since learned that God’s will is to create a world of ruler-servants—men and women—who don’t need to be told every move to make.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) is about taking charge of your life without running people over and without getting run over yourself. There’s a sensible balance to it that fulfills the life and glory God happily shares, communicates, and wants us to have. The lives we’re living now are the starter kingdoms in which we practice.