yes, be strong, but always in love

Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14; NRSVue

If we could just get the Sermon on the Mount into our bones from our heart by the Spirit, I’m especially thinking of the Beatitudes along with the teaching about loving our enemies, working through differences with friends, etc., etc., etc., (Matthew 5-7), our Lord’s teaching along with example, we would be better off and those around us. Yes, we’re to be strong, but always in love.

Love is to mark everything about us, all we do. Sometimes that’s not so hard. But other times it is, because we are hurt or are struggling for one reason or another. But in answer to our prayer, God can and will help us. We need to see past the weaknesses, even sins of others, to see someone God loves and to see that they too like us are vulnerable and need God’s help.

The whole package here, as Paul put it in the quote above is so important for us. Love must mark all we do. We will slip from that at times, but then we have to get up, confess our sin, and get back in, doing all in humble love. Out of all the love God continues to pour out on us by the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

prayer for a clean heart

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 51:10; NRSVue

There are those who say that this prayer is not for today since God has given us a new heart and spirit in the new covenant. I can more than understand that thought, and I don’t really care to argue about it. It may well be true on a certain level. We indeed have a new heart and are partakers of the divine nature as believers in Christ. But that doesn’t mean that our hearts might not be carried away with something contrary to the goodness and righteousness that’s in Christ.

In John’s first epistle (as it’s called, or letter) we’re told that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). If that’s addressed to believers, and contrary to a few I think it plainly is, then it’s not a stretch to pray the prayer above from Psalm 51, and to benefit directly from that entire penitent psalm.

What we’re talking about here is real life. Yes, we’re forgiven in Christ through his once for all sacrifice for sins. But in God’s love and grace, God holds all of God’s children accountable. God expects more from us.

We may not be able to make sense of everything in Scripture, and that for a good number of reasons. It’s better to ponder than simply dismiss something as irrelevant to us. All of Scripture is written for us if not to us. It will benefit us if we give it the time and space.

In this case I pray that God will indeed give me a clean heart and a new and right spirit. God is always at work to bring us into a new experience of God’s love and what that means for every part of our lives and out from our lives to others. In and through Jesus.

reconciling broken relationships

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Matthew 5:21-26; NRSVue

One must pay careful attention to Jesus’s words here to not fall into serious, even dangerous error. For example a wife might be told that she must reconcile with an abusive husband, who has shown over and over again that he needs help. This passage gives no space whatsoever for that, nor anything else in the Bible. As can be seen in the passage, it was spoken in a different time, yet the ramifications come across pretty straight forward to our present time.

What I want to dwell on a bit is the importance of Jesus followers making their relationships a priority. But add to that, when you consider all Jesus said here, doing our best in every relationship.

First of all contempt has no place. Yes, we might be shaking our heads to ourselves, but we must never do that in public and if we do, make sure we make it right. We should express all our concerns to God, this after all is a good even important occasion for praying. Everyone deserves a certain basic respect as a human being made in God’s image. That said, we do need to proceed carefully because while many people fully intend good, others certainly don’t.

When some occurrence has made a rift in a relationship with a sister or brother in Christ, then we need to do all we can on our side to mend that rift. And I would add to that any other person, whether or not they profess to follow Christ. We can’t force any kind of reconciliation, and only God can heal. Often either words or actions or some combination of both has broken the relationship and what fellowship there was before is gone. We’ll have to express our regret and seek forgiveness where we’ve been wrong.

Let’s be careful not to think we had no wrong in a given situation. That is strictly the case only with Jesus. But let’s not force some equal responsibility when clearly that is not the case.

If we take Jesus’s words seriously, this is something we need to take with the utmost seriousness. Do all we can, pray, and keep doing that along the way as needed. God can bring the needed change both in us and the other person. That we might live out the unity that is ours in and through Jesus.

the nonsense of the end justifying the means

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:12; NRSVue

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:31; NRSVue

The contexts are different for this essentially same saying of Jesus. In Luke as part of the Sermon on the Plain it’s in the context of difficult relationships or lack thereof. Whereas in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount (two similar sermons) it’s almost a separate saying from what surrounds it (it seems to me that it is). And therefore we can say, connected to all of life.

We’re never going to be perfect in anything we do in this life. That’s an impossibility given a number of factors, although of course God’s work in and out from us itself is perfect, all pure love. But our intent must be perfect. And for that to be so, the end never justifies the means.

In the name of Christ, “Christians” have gone to war over the centuries, and so-called Christian causes, steeped in some form of Christendom are engaged in using a lot of un-Christ-like, essentially antichrist ways of supposedly achieving it. Of course what you accomplish won’t be good if the way you accomplished it was bad.

Jesus showed us the better way. We should pay no attention to that done in his name which doesn’t line up all the way with that way, with the Way himself, Jesus. It’s the way of the cross, of self-sacrificial love. Done in the Spirit; we can do it by the Spirit. In and through Christ, that is what is laid out before us, indeed given to us to live and walk in. Love for all in all we do. That certainly will involve confession of sin and repentance along the way as we inevitably fall short. But as individuals and the church, that is the only way in the Way, Jesus. Doing to others as we would have them do to us. Tough love a small minority of the time, yes, we all need that. But by and large, gentle. But always love, through and through. In and through Jesus.

getting rid of “if only’s”

I like to put up a scriptural text since I find grounding in that, leading me to Christ and the good news in him along with specific directions for life. For this one I couldn’t come up with anything, except to think of Judas Iscariot hanging himself over his betrayal of Jesus, and Peter weeping bitterly when he denied the Lord three times. They both handled it drastically differently, but although Peter came out in the clear, it certainly wasn’t easy for him.

We probably have some pile of regrets, things we wished we would have done differently, or not done at all. When you think about it, there’s probably some small regrets each day, maybe a few bigger ones along the way, but we get caught up in this or that, and wish we would have done better, that something of the edge might be taken off of us. We can immediately repent, and count such times as learning opportunities, so that we might be aware of our deficiencies and work in God’s grace to do better and keep growing in goodness in Christ.

But to the topic. “If only’s” easily plague us. Yes, most certainly we can learn from them, and we should count that as a plus. After all, at the time we somehow thought or felt what we were doing was alright or good enough. We can at least take away from having failed, all the way from a miscue to a sin, that we can learn from that, and do better. Hopefully not just because of the pain experienced, though that’s entirely legitimate. But most importantly along with that, over concern out of the love of God to love God and others.

“What if’s?” or “If only’s!” are simply a waste not only of time, but even worse, a waste of our minds and hearts. We’re led down a track and put into a pit in which it isn’t easy to escape or get out of. Much easier to fall into it, then get out of it.

None of this will help us in the least. We certainly can’t time travel and reverse this or that, though I’m sure most all of us would be happy to do that if we could. It is not only wasted thinking, but harmful. It can lead us to a dark space devoid of grace. With God’s help and commitment to do better, we can find God’s grace and light to bring a peace that surpasses all our own understanding, lack of understanding, along with misunderstanding, but add to that, even what we think we understand all too well. And giving us even a cheer and joy that seems inexplicable, but right from the heart of God to our hearts.

We have to look at this as part of the spiritual warfare we’re engaged in. We have to commit ourselves to not going there, but with the realization that we can do this only by God’s help. Yet at the same time knowing too that it is we that have to do it. God isn’t going to do it for us. Although there are those strange occasions, and rare, when it does seem like God is doing it for us, so that what we do is nearly effortless.

God will help us to get past this, but let’s not expect it in a flash, or think we can just leave all of this behind in a day. It will be a part of our spiritual growing process, and ongoing spiritual warfare along the way. God will help us and see us through, as we trust and keep going in the right direction, sometimes confessing our failure to do so along the way, then getting up to move in the direction that God will give us. In and through Jesus.

trying to see the big picture

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light,
as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:18-24; NRSVue

Trying to see the big picture, things as they really are will require both an openness and sustained effort on our part. Amos is a prophet who certainly saw, something inherent within prophets, earlier called seers, receiving a vision from God. And often that vision had everything to do with the times in which they lived, seeing the current situation in light of God’s revealed will, eventually in light of the kingdom of God which was and is meant to bring flourishing to all of humanity, to all of creation.

Amos’s words, indeed his calling was not an easy one, certainly true of all the Hebrew prophets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Amos’s words in the most difficult task he undertook of seeking racial justice, equality, and reconciliation. King’s passion was rooted in the gospel, the good news of Christ, and the vision cast through that, calling America to the best in its tradition, though it’s not certain that the US Constitution advocated for individual liberty for all, but that’s another topic, and well beyond what I could address (interesting article on this). But after decades and decades, not to mention centuries of wrongdoing to the Africans enslaved in America, the United States went through the upheaval it did hitting against the climax of the Civil War. Yet not ending with that as more was in the works given that much was not healed and made right. True to a significant extent right up to the present day, in fact becoming most evident in recent times.

There’s no question that just like during Amos’s time, we are up against what seems to be intractable forces, or to try to make it clearer, it seems like the fallout is here, that we are going through a perfect storm as it were, that the result of our ways (I include myself in that, too) has pressed in on us. That people on both sides have had enough. During Amos’s time the poor and oppressed could do little. During our time there is both the sense in which they think they can do more, but those who give up are often tempted to despair with a few giving into violence. And those whites who feel their lives are needlessly threatened by all of this, a few of them are ready for violence as well.

Both Amos and Dr. Martin Luther King’s call is entirely different. It is about stepping back and trying to see the big picture both in terms of what actually is, and what God would have be. That comes through being in scripture (Hebrew scripture and the New Testament- considering the Apocrypha with that) and prayer. And doing so in community, but all of this with an eye to try to see the current reality. Listening to everyone, especially those who are marginalized or feel that way. The poor, the stranger, and in this time where I live, first of all the people of color beginning with African Americans and the indigenous, and along with them all others: refugees, Muslims, Chinese, etc.

Unless we do this, we’re not actually seeing as either the prophets or Jesus saw. With the goal of acting in the love of God which Jesus brought with the willingness to suffer in love and out of that same love, for others. Knowing that the good news in Jesus is one of reconciliation of all, involving working through everything that means. In and through Jesus.

ratcheted up a notch

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washer’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD, as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”

Malachi 3:1-7; NRSVue

I’m not sure if anyone actually likes difficulty in and of itself. For other reasons, people might like it. To meet the challenge, to achieve some goal through it, maybe winning in competition, along with other reasons why people embrace what is hard. Hardship might be another matter, after all there’s surely a line drawn for each person, which they wouldn’t care to cross.

God was out to change the descendants of Levi, to purify them so that sin was being dealt with in their lives, and so that sin could be dealt with through their assigned task in the lives of others.

What about when we run into difficulty and what for us are impossible things to accept? Life won’t let us down that way. For some, especially who have plenty of material wealth, they may be able to glide through and pretty much avoid what are the common struggles for others. But even they can’t avoid everything, like possible sickness and eventual certain death. And difficulties will come their way as well, even if not so much circumstances, but disillusionment over emptiness in spite of being so well set.

God is active in people’s lives, and especially in those who name God’s name as those belonging to God and supposed to be the Lord’s followers. And part of that activity is not at all comfortable. “Refiner’s fire” and “washer’s soap” imagery above refer to purification and cleansing. We all need it. In the heat of life, what arises can be anything but pleasant, and not good. This can come through a multitude of small nagging things as well as a major concern which hangs over our heads.

But God is at work in that. It’s up to us to respond in being aware what sins need to be confessed, and the change that needs to come in our lives. And actually God is at work to ratchet us up a notch so to speak. So that we are becoming what before certainly was not the case. God is at work for great good, certainly including us. But we need to endeavor to accept that fully. So that we might be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2).

In and through Jesus.

casting the demon out

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

Matthew 12:43-45; NRSVue

Sometimes I think, and it’s beginning to feel settled to me, that often a demon so to speak inhabits institutions, and yes, even families. When one thinks about it, there’s really no family nor institution that is perfect. It might be “picture perfect” in reputation or even in its own imagination. But there’s a brokenness in everything as certain as the cracks that show up on the walls or ceilings of any house.

When I refer to institutions, I’m not leaving out churches. Christ’s presence is what makes up a church, where two or three are gathered in his name. But as we see in the seven letters to the church in the Revelation and elsewhere, the devil can get into the details, into the works. And families, the same. Some are very broken, and some seem to get along remarkably well. But no family is any more perfect than any individual.

But while there’s a sense that there may be some truth in this for any institution or family, I’m thinking of special situations such as we find ourselves in today. There is so much anger, division, and there appears to be little if any hope that anything will change perhaps before catastrophe or the worst part hits, hopefully with some cushion and limited fallout. And hopefully as well, to give the needed realization that change is needed.

If we’re concerned about such a situation, chances are it’s close to us, or we’re somehow involved in it. Like Daniel of old, who from all appearances even in Scripture was blameless and upright, we too need to pray to God, confessing our sin, our part in the problem, be it in family, or any institution. We most definitely need to be open for the Lord’s insight and correction in our own lives, before we can imagine God’s breakthrough in the lives of others.

As we do that, then maybe God will give us the understanding and sense needed to become part of or fit into the solution. And as Jesus said, some do not come out except by prayer and some manuscripts add, fasting.

There’s always hope, even if it doesn’t come easy. In and through Jesus.

forgiving others so that we might be forgiven

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:12, 14-15

and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

Our Lord tells the parable of the unforgiving servant who although he was forgiven a huge debt outright, would not forgive a servant of his who owed comparatively little, but didn’t have the resources to pay it back readily. And in the Lord’s teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re taught to ask for forgiveness of our sins, since we’ve forgiven others of their sins against us. And then after the prayer that unless we forgive others, we ourselves won’t be forgiven. Yet Ephesians tells us to forgive each other just as God in Christ has forgiven us. What are we to make of this?

I think this might be akin to John in 1 John telling us that we’re to confess our sins, and that as do so, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins (1 John 1:9). We’ve been forgiven which we’ve been taught is past, present and future because of Christ and Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. But we’re to live that out in the present. 

We might hold grudges against others, against another, and we withhold forgiveness from them, maybe in some kind of passive aggressive way, but oftentimes that apparently being so receded that we’re unaware of it, but we simply don’t forget the offense and still hold it against the person. Instead we’re told that we’re to forgive them. As we’ve already been forgiven as we’re told in Ephesians. But also so that we might experience forgiveness ourselves for the sins we inevitably commit. Including the sin of not forgiving that other person.

This is something we have to do, and keep working at doing. It may involve struggle, and time, but in our hearts and minds we need to be committed to that. God will help us follow through as we set our face toward that goal. In and through Jesus.

no, it’s not wrong to have a broken and contrite heart. quite the contrary

The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17

After we’ve sinned, and I refer not just to “great transgression” (Psalm 19:13), but to all sin, when we confess and repent we’re often told to forget about it. That our sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) which is true upon genuine confession and repentance. But if we’re to take seriously the great penitent Psalm, 51, then we need to accept the fact that what pleases God is not only acceptance of God’s forgiveness to us in Christ, but also God’s acceptance and I would even say pleasure in a broken and contrite heart over our sin.

That doesn’t mean we should wallow in our sin, or hate ourselves. We hate what we’ve done, and not merely the consequences. If we hate only the consequences, then we certainly don’t have a broken and contrite spirit. For most sins the consequences are only a reminder that we haven’t arrived in this life, and that we do well to be more and more humble. For some sins the consequences may be greater along with the realization that there’s work for us to do to be rid of our tendencies without ever thinking we’ll come to the place in this life when we’re actually above the possibility of falling again.

No, with thanksgiving and praise to God we accept God’s forgiveness upon our confession of sin. But we also take our sins seriously, out of love for God and others allowing our hearts to be broken. So that our lives following will become different. Hating what we’ve done, and making amends as best we can with an entirely different life. Letting God, as the psalmist, probably David in Psalm 51 aspires, to do God’s work of thoroughly cleansing us on the inside, so that our hearts might be inclined in love toward righteousness and justice, wanting to avoid all wrong.

In and through Jesus.