blessedly slowing down to gather one’s thoughts (and more)

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Ecclesiastes is one of those books of Scripture which has always fascinated me, but also on which I struggle to get a handle on. The writer, mostly “the Teacher”- Qoheleth, takes us through a whirlwind of life experiences “under the sun,” with the conclusion that in the end none of it really satisfies. The book makes it clear that we should give ourselves fully to whatever our lot is, and enjoy the simple gifts of God. With the conclusion in the end that when all has been considered we’re to fear God and keep God’s commandments, with the realization that we will be held accountable for the choices we make.

All of us live in experience, even when we’re trying to understand Scripture texts. If we approach that correctly, it seems to me that it all has to do with life, yes life “under the sun” as we read in Ecclesiastes, as well as life in the context of God’s kingdom come in Jesus, present now, and to be consummated into its fullness on the renewed heaven and earth in the life to come. To want to escape from experience is not a good place to be. Instead we need by God’s grace to begin to get a grip on reality, on the true basics, we might even say basic basics. And set ourselves to live in that.

Fearing God is perhaps the most basic starting point of all. It’s simply the realization that God is the “Source of All Being,” the “Eternal Word,” and “Holy Spirit.”* We owe our existence and everything else that is good to God. And with that privilege to us humans indeed comes responsibility.

Jesus fulfills what none of us can accomplish ourselves, so that we can slow down, and blessedly let God catch up with our feverish, often misdirected steps. So that we might gather our thoughts so that we can begin to settle down on what is most important and what will bring us life. Out of the whirlwinds of the world and of our own making. Into the grace and peace of God. In and through Jesus.

*From morning and evening offices in Voices Together hymnal. 

leave no one behind

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God…

Hebrews 12:15b

Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity.

Hebrews 12:15b; MSG

I wonder if we as Christians where I live and have lived for some time now really think and act like the writer to the Hebrews wants believers and the church to do. To leave no one behind.

Of course we can’t make anyone do anything. We’re in such great need ourselves, that to suppose we can somehow control others even for their good, is not even a good thought. What self-control we experience for ourselves is only a fruit of the Spirit.

That we’re all in need of God’s grace is exactly the point made in this passage (click above links for context). Much is involved in that, but in essence it’s about being present in love with each other, the love of God by the Spirit in Jesus. It’s being present for each other both in giving and receiving.

It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s rendering is so helpful here, given the pastoral wisdom he had.

Work at getting along with each other and with God. Otherwise you’ll never get so much as a glimpse of God. Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears.

Hebrews 12:14-17; MSG

It’s all about being in this together. We can’t make it, or at least certainly cannot make it as well or well enough on our own.

And let this be especially true for those who are marginalized whom our Lord would welcome with open arms. Be it anyone of the LGBTQ+ community, the poor, those ethnicities and immigrants who struggle in a system which does not make room for them or even worse. We especially need to be attentive to all such, to have God’s help through the Spirit and with each other to be aware. Acknowledging that we too need the Lord’s help in this ministry of Christ’s body, ourselves.

This is the heart the Lord wants us to have for each other. The heart God has for each one of us, for everyone. In and through Jesus.

in praise of not having it all together

…they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”

2 Corinthians 10:10

Tim Gombis’s book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry is most helpful, and possibly even groundbreaking in giving us a view of Paul, pre and post conversion, and how that affected Paul’s service to God. And how that might speak to us today, even those who are in the trenches in ministry, and yet doing so in a way that is often more like Paul before his conversion to Christ, completely flipped after that conversion.

Too many of us have taken on the worldly attitude that we are out to sell something, have a big impact on our communities, be successful in terms of numbers: growing and growing, and just be the epitome of success inside and out. Win, win, win is a big part of that, being winners. Or having just that image that people imagine is good, maybe even Christian, and perish the thought: even like Jesus. After all, some have compared Jesus to images contrary to the “love your enemies” cross bearing picture given in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

We ought to not only much prefer, but accept nothing but honesty to God and to each other. And while we should pray and do our best to present the truth in Christ as fully as possible, faithful to Scripture, to what we’re hoping God has given us, that should be done in utter humility with a willingness to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, maybe to trip over our words some. That might encourage the kind of church the New Testament envisions in which everyone is a participant. We’re not out to impress each other, but to seek God together, and be faithful together in God’s covenant in Christ.

We need to get rid of the notion once for all that we’re to have it all together, whatever that means. What we do desire is to be growing together into the image and full maturity of Christ. Nothing else matters. What we need to see is not us, but Christ in us. No pretense, all real, honest, even when raw and most often with the sense of falling short. But God’s grace in Christ making the needed difference. In and through Jesus.

grace must mark everything

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.

Colossians 4:6

Grace should mark all that we are and do. By grace I mean God’s grace in kindness; undeserved, unmerited favor; pure gift to us in Christ. We tend to accentuate the demands of life, what we and others are supposed to do, in biblical terms, “the law.” Of course what the law boils down to is simply loving God with all our being and doing, and loving our neighbor which includes our enemies, as ourselves. So love is the demand. And love is the given, I mean what we receive from God.

Because of God’s grace, gift to us in Christ, we are able to love God and neighbor in the way God desires. The Spirit within that grace enables us to actually do that, though certainly not bereft of our limitations and sins. But we confess them, learn from life, and go on.

And it’s essential that what we’re to experience ourselves, we apply to others. We need to double down in making sure that if we accept and want grace, we apply it to others all the more. Whatever may cause concern for ourselves can be an occasion to seek to apply grace to others, both through our prayers and through our lives in love to them.

So whatever little word we might think we need to say, if it’s smothered in grace, in God’s love, and with the wisdom that brings, either we might not say it or even have to, or else it will be seen as nothing but helpful, hopefully.

In and through Jesus.

unrealistic expectations

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

The world rightfully expects something more from those who profess the name of Christ as “Christians.” Unfortunately there is mostly disappointment, too often for more than understandable reasons. And really, if anyone knows any of us through and through, then likely there will be disappointment. But expectations can be mistaken, too. After all, what exactly would the world expect of Christians? The same thing they wanted from Christ? That he would be their Bread-King and take care of all their wants, and make life work they way they thought it should (John 6:15 contrast with John 6:41)?

The New Oxford Annotated Bible makes an interesting observation: “This understanding of ‘perfection’ is closely linked with the love commandment (19.19)” (1790).

“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these;[a] what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money[b] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Matthew 19:17b-21

It’s important that we stay grounded in expectations that are not only realistic for us in this life, but don’t miss the point. Life is about loving God and loving our neighbor, which means every human being on earth, if I understand Jesus’ teaching correctly. We need to be quick to make things right when we do wrong, which at heart is always a violation of such love. But our goal in life should be to simply so love, in the way of Jesus.

Love will take on many shapes and colors, and again won’t always be recognized or appreciated by the world. Certainly that was true of our Master, and will be all the more the case with us, his uneven, imperfect followers. But people need to see the difference in us. Yes, even you and I, with all our limitations, imperfections, and need I say, shortcomings. What must override everything else in our lives is a love for others which comes out of our love for God. Ever growing, of course always grounded in God’s grace to us. And shaped like a cross with the growing likeness of Jesus imprinted on it. By the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

accepting what’s unacceptable

…but [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Life is full of problems and possible dangers due to our human limitations as well as bad decisions. There’s no end to that. I love this passage, definitely one of my go to passages, because it opens the door to accepting what in and of itself is not acceptable. And that only because of God’s grace. 

Notice that it’s for Christ’s sake that we’re to accept weakness, not for our sake. We live for Christ, and find our joy in that. And we find Christ’s power resting on us as we do. Something hopefully that I can more and more accept and settle into. In and through Jesus.

 

peace of mind

Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
in peace because they trust in you.

Isaiah 26:3

Shalom is the transliteration of the Hebrew word translated “peace” which means more than inward tranquility and rest. As translations indicate and considering the context, here it could mean safety (NET), as well as the flourishing of humanity and creation. Peace of mind comes with the sense that all is taken care of, that all will be made well, and in the end be well as in whole, no longer broken.

I think in this life we have to hold on to promises like this, because so much seems in flux, unstable, threatening: undermining what is good. We certainly do need peace of mind, which is often the way this Scripture passage has been applied, even if that’s not its precise meaning. It certainly is included. And notice that it’s dependent on whether or not we trust in God. When we do, no matter what, God will give us God’s peace. This reminds me of another Scripture passage, Paul’s words to us:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Notice that the promise here is not that everything will turn out just the way we like. We know better than that in this life. But that no matter what, God will be at work through our prayers is implied, with the promise that God’s peace which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. We need to hold on to this promise and not let go of our faith, putting that faith into practice by doing what Paul tells us to do here. God will always answer. According to our faith, it will be done for us. And God values our efforts, even though inevitably imperfect.

We know that in the new creation we’ll live in God’s care with no concerns whatsoever, whole and fully at peace in the love of God. But even in a world which is often turbulent and tearing at the seams, we can still have God’s peace. Yes, right in the midst of the storm. And in spite of so many things we wish would be different. Peace of heart and mind. In and through Jesus.

God’s grace is enough

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

2 Corinthians 12:9: MSG

I believe we’re not on this journey alone. Not only is God with us in Christ by the Spirit, but we in Christ are in this together, or we’re meant to be. Oftentimes though it seems like we’re more or less all alone. Paul experienced both. He had rich fellowship with the churches and that encouraged him in his own faith as he tells us in his letter, Romans. But he also felt abandoned at times, all alone.

We really need each other in the church, in all our weakness, because we have plenty of it. When we can share our struggles and burdens, then others can come alongside of us and pray. And we can offer our weak hopefully heartfelt prayers by the Spirit for others.

I keep coming back to this. God’s grace is enough for us even in all our weakness. God is present for us. It is actually hard to live a life in weakness. Just ask Paul. Or read the passage above (click the link). It wasn’t easy for Paul, but he found God’s grace and strength in ways he would not have without the weakness. To the point that Paul learned even to delight in weaknesses. That way Christ’s power could rest on him.

A problem within the church nowadays is the idea that we should look like we have it all together. And that feeds the lie that this should be so in our lives. But in this present life we’re often going to feel weakness. We need to be present for each other. And we need to accept our weakness, believing that Christ will be with us in a special way in it. I believe not only true for us as individual believers, but for churches as well. In and through Jesus.

what are we here for?

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:34-40

When it’s all said and done, we humans exist for two reasons: To love God, and to love people. All of this within, from and through the God who is love. God’s work in Christ in forgiveness of sins and new life is given that we might fulfill this. This is not something we drum up ourselves. We live this out only through God’s grace: God’s undeserved gift to us in Christ.

Everything else in a way is secondary to this, or better is a part of this love to God, as well as love to our neighbor including our enemies (real and imagined). It is through God’s love that we live out this love in response to God. But regardless of how we feel- our experience, our commitment should be to love God and love people.

This same truth comes up in a different context in Luke’s gospel account (10:25-37). Jesus made it clear there that this love is demonstrated on the ground, where people live. We show it by good works of loving service to others, particularly those in need. As well as simply loving everyone, our expression of love to God. In and through Jesus.

learning to feel good when feeling bad

Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10; MSG

Yesterday I quipped to someone that I was learning to feel good feeling bad. And though I look up to him, he said he does the same. For me the dam broke then, and a peace eventually flooded my heart, taking away the angst and deadness which had me down for a couple of days. But getting home, something came to my mind, another problem, and by and by I was submerged in something of the same fear.

I turn back to the same passage, which has become go-to for me. And the part when Paul accepts the Lord’s word to accept his weaknesses, even that “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan.”

I like the way Paul sums it up. As The Message puts it, taking limitations in stride, letting Christ take over. The first part might be easier than the second, but it seems a prerequisite, meaning necessary for it. We learn to live well with our weakness, in Paul’s case it seems both exterior and interior. Paul’s list would include all the above.

Naturally we humans resist any of that. How easily we drift when all is going well inward and out. We want to avoid problems. But life is lived in the midst of problems, including weaknesses and limitations. It’s how we deal with that which is important. Where is our faith? Do we trust God to see us through? To work in those things for good, even for our good? To deepen us and help us grow in ways we haven’t and actually can’t imagine?

We need the Lord’s help for sure. We want that sense of the Lord’s strength in the midst of our weakness. His grace is indeed enough for us. We keep doing what God has called us to do as we read in Scripture, “in Christ Jesus.” Knowing God will help us in ways that only God can do. In and through Jesus.