A Love Story

I snatched the book out of my mail box Saturday morning before heading out for a day of camping. And I’d finished it before I headed back home today. It’s the easiest hard-to-read book I’ve read in some time. And I was so moved by the story that I think everybody really ought to read it.

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The title suggests the pages will speak of peace and grace. It certainly has that, but it’s also full of love and redemption.

Kara’s story starts as a youngster in a home with an angry father whom she struggled to please. After rebelling from the pressure and unattainable expectations, she was introduced to Jesus. His love drew her in and her life took a drastic turn away from the destiny she had been carving for herself. Shortly afterward she met a young man, Jason, who became the love of her life and the story unfolds as the two of them, and eventually their four “littles”, learn to love in a way she had never experienced previous to that. The same vulnerability that was required for her to walk that journey with him is what makes the story so compelling for the reader. She openly shares so much of her raw struggles of humanity that her story becomes all of our stories.

The depth and love of the story is beyond beautiful. The ending – tragic. The particular “hard” for Kara mentioned in the book title was breast cancer. She found a  deeply grace-filled, loving God along that journey.  Her “hard” eventually took her from this here, this now. She passed away about a year ago.

The book presents an amazing quality of relationships that few of us experience. Her marriage to Jason really seems to have been blessed and rare. They were endlessly focused on loving with kindness. But as Kara points out in her book, the best we have here is simply a shadow.  We are living in Shadowland. The real love story that can fill our hearts without compromise or end is available to all of us. It is the love of our Savior, Jesus.

So while I would wish for you a marriage and relationships filled with grace and peace, above all I would wish for you a relationship with Jesus. It is through the author of Love that we can learn to know Love. And when we allow Him to be the hero of our story, grace and peace are promised – even in the midst of hard.

The Gospel ~ Big Picture

The story of God is a story of love. For He is Love. My story, your story – our story as the human race – is but a small part of God’s story. He is the hero of all stories.

In the beginning, before time on earth began, God existed in the form of three – but yet in one. Being three in one God has experienced love, shown love, been love for all time. As an expression of His love, and no doubt also as an expression of His power and creativity,  God created. God created angels. And He created our world and the human race. We were made to be in relationship with Him. We were made in His image, to give and receive love.

Doubting the goodness of God, Adam and Eve broke the relationship.  Each of us has been born into that state of brokenness since that time.

Knowing His creation could not repair what had been broken without eternally losing their lives, God came to the garden with good news for Adam and Eve. He would make a way for the connection to be regained. It would be expensive for Him, but He had a plan.

God sent His Son, not as a third party to punish and bear the brunt of His anger, but as a part of Himself, to take the consequence of sin. Coming as a baby, to grow and experience life as a human, Jesus could identify with the plight of humanity. In this exchange, He gave up His omnipresence being now limited to space and time, omniscience – having to grow in wisdom, and omnipotence – doing nothing but what His Father empowered Him to  do.  He came as an expression of the Father – to reveal the Father. Jesus is God.  

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As a result of bearing our sins at the end of His ministry, His guilt ridden soul was shut from the Father’s presence. He who had known ever-present, perfect love was now entirely alone and the separation broke His heart. The wages of sin are death, not as a punishment or revenge from God, but as a natural result of choosing to be separated from the source of life. Jesus bore that price by choice to provide a way for us to be free from the penalty. By His wounds we are healed. Being fully divine, Jesus conquered the grave. His payment was accepted by the Father. Hallelujah! Our Savior lives!

God offers this payment to any who would believe. Reaching out our hand and accepting the gift is all that is required. And once accepted, life eternal is ours – beginning now. What God calls real, is real – now – even though I’m not experiencing it yet. That’s part of the faith process. Believing involves trusting what God says more than what my senses say.

“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21.

It’s not the ending we deserve. That’s the gospel. And that’s good news!

The Gospel Lens ~ Speaking Gospel Truth

Badness contained is not goodness. It is simply badness that is not leaking out yet. ~ Lee Venden

Most of us have no experience in the realm of speaking Gospel Truth to each other. In general it seems our interactions tend to land at one extreme or another. Either we say nothing at all when we see another person struggling in life, or we’ll swing to the exact opposite and tell them what they should be doing and how they need to change their behavior.  We might even read a Bible verse to show them it’s not just us who says they should be doing what we’ve told them, but God. And we call that speaking truth. But I am finding that at its heart, Christianity is not a behavior modification system, and the overarching message of the Bible is not good advice about living. So what does it mean to speak truth and how do we incorporate that into our relationships?

What I’m sharing here are some summary thoughts from a presentation by Jeff Vanderstelt (click here to watch his presentation).

Using the Biblical metaphor of our lives being trees that bear fruit, what we believe about who God is makes up the root of our tree. We have decided who God is based on what we’ve read and have experienced of the person Jesus (the Bible tells us that Jesus is the revelation of the Father). From that we decide who we are in Christ, which is displayed by our actions – or the fruit of the tree.  Speaking truth is a process of leading others (or even ourselves) to understand what they are believing based on how they are acting and to repent of their false beliefs about God.  By realigning their beliefs with what Jesus has shown us to be true about God, their fruit (behavior) naturally changes.

In the video presentation Jeff walked through an example of how he applied this process to a real-life situation. His wife was struggling with anxiety. The Fruit of the Spirit is peace. Her life was not showing the fruit of the Spirit. I’ll share with you a brief synopsis of the conversation as he shares it on the video.  His actual conversation with her lasted several hours.

Jeff – When you are experiencing anxiety, what does that tell you about who you believe you are?

Wife – I am the one in control.

Jeff – If you believe it is all up to you, what does that say about what you think God has done?

Wife – He has stopped loving me. He is not in control. He has abandoned me.

Jeff – Then who do you believe God is?

Wife – I believe God is unloving, impotent, and distant.

His wife understood that the fruit of her life revealed the root of her faith. In that moment she was acting as though she believed in herself and she was honest enough to speak the beliefs she was holding as truth about God. Those were not consistent with the beliefs she intellectually held to be true about God and she quickly repented of the beliefs she was acting on. She actually believes God is loving. She knows this because Jesus died for her while she was still His enemy. Because God is loving and cares for her, she does not have to be in control and can have peace.

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Repentance is the turning away from false beliefs we are holding about God and turning toward what we know to be true as revealed in Jesus. As you may have noticed, the discussion was not “you need to get more peace”. While peace is what she needed, telling her she needed to get peace for herself by trying would have only reinforced the root belief that was already bearing the fruit of anxiety in her life ~ namely, that she was in control of life and that it was all up to her. We don’t bear the fruit of the Spirit by trying hard to bear the fruit of the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit comes automatically as we seek Jesus.

Empathizing with others in their time of distress helps them know they are not alone and is beneficial to the one hurting. Giving good advice about choices to one who is asking has its place. But only Christianity offers the Good News of the gospel. Only God is able to change us from the inside. Do we believe it? Why don’t we remind each other of that more often? Why do we try to fix our external fruit problem instead of addressing our internal root problem?

The Gospel Lens ~ An Evolution of Theories

Over the years I’ve had some defining moments that have prompted me to put my beliefs into words. The first was about this time six years ago. My late husband was on hospice. He and I, and our kids, signed a family pledge. It went like this: “Because Jesus is coming again to take His friends to Heaven, we will, therefore, dedicate our lives to Him.”  I had a considerably longer version written out, but the challenge of writing it in calligraphy on a 12 X 16″ sheet of paper inspired me to distill it down to as few words as possible. So when push came to shove, the essence of my beliefs landed on, “Jesus has something I want, so I’m willing to give Him something back in order to get it.” I will always treasure that piece of paper with all of our signatures on it, but I find my gospel view… well… interesting.

About two years ago I had occasion to give a synopsis of my life view again. This time it read: “Because of all Jesus has done for me, I am a bond servant to Him.”  The essence of this statement sounds more like “Jesus has done something for me… and I will work at paying Him back.”  Again… interesting.

But I’ve come to some stark realities in the more recent past. These realizations are based on words that I’ve known for as long as I can remember being.

  • Jesus/ God doesn’t need my work. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He can command the rocks to cry out. All things are at His disposal. (Ps 50:7-10, Luke 19:40)
  • He doesn’t want my work. He’s not interested in any performance.  “Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.” (Ps 51:16,17 MSG)
  • I can’t give Him any good works of my own.  Every good and perfect gift is from Him. (James 1:17)  Anything I do on my own is as filthy as menstrual rags. (Is 64:6) That’s disgusting.

The 4 Gs

So, if that’s what the gospel isn’t, then what is it? I like this brief summary based on “The Gospel Primer” by Caesar Kalinowski (2013 Missio Publishing):

God is Great ~ so I don’t have to be in control. I can rest of my worries.

God is Glorious ~ so I don’t have to fear others. God is important, or “weighty”. In fact, He is the “weightiest” person in my life.  I can let go of seeking the approval of others.

God is Good ~ so I don’t have to look elsewhere for my satisfaction. People and things eventually fail to deeply satisfy my soul. Jesus is the better fulfillment of my every need.

God is Gracious ~ so I don’t have to prove myself to myself, to others, to God. While I was yet a sinner, God sent His son Jesus to die in my place. I don’t need to earn His love. He proclaims me worthy.

God is the hero.

He graciously gives. I gratefully receive.

Because of the gospel, I am free.

My burden is light.

That’s Good News!

Wrapping it up in Pretty Paper

The young man was angry. His life had not gone well. He had been cheated of so much that he truly needed as a child. And now as a young adult his life was spiraling out of control. Disappointed and dissatisfied, he began hanging out at the bar on his way home from his minimum-wage job, first occasionally, then more frequently and for longer periods of time. Soon his bar-mates were his closest friends. He was funny there. They liked him.  He found acceptance, but more than that, he found relief. He could forget about his troubles for as long as he was there. Reality was left at the door.

A friend outside of the bar began to notice the change in him – his lack of personal hygiene, his weight gain, and his lack of concern for being able to provide for himself. His friend was concerned and confronted him one day. His friend suggested that the young man get on a community sports team, find more uplifting friends, and get out of the bar rut. The young man saw the value in his friend’s words and did just that. He committed himself as much to the sports as he had to the bar.  With every smack of the ball he attached some of his anger. He became physically fit and attractive. Soon he was the best ball player in town. He was a hero on the field. He was valued for his skills. His team liked him. He found acceptance, but more than that, he found relief. He could forget about his troubles for as long as he was playing. Reality was left off the field.

“The function of an addiction is to remove intolerable reality.” (Pia Mellody)  We, in the human race, find some creative ways to package our addictions in order to make us feel better about ourselves and our addictions. One interesting addiction I’ve come across recently is being called “Orthorexia”.  Wikipedia has this to say about it:

Orthorexia nervosa[pronunciation?] (also known as orthorexia) is a proposed eating disorder or mental disorder[1] characterized by an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.[2][3] The term orthorexia derives from the Greekορθο- (ortho, “right” or “correct”), and όρεξις (orexis, “appetite”), literally meaning ‘correct appetite’, but in practice meaning ‘correct diet’.

That’s quite a paradigm shift. The person who looks and acts the healthiest may in all actuality be very sick.

The point of this blog post is not to discourage fitness or healthy eating. They have their place. However, I find it good to remind myself that anything can become my god. Anything can become my idol. And anything that distracts me from getting to know Jesus personally on a daily basis isn’t worth keeping.  C.S. Lewis points out in the Screwtape Letters that the devil doesn’t really mind how he captures our attention away from God. If being preoccupied with church service is what distracts you or me from a relationship, that’s just fine with him. If I spend my time studying about and fretting over the clever ploys satan may use to trap me rather than spending my time learning about who God is and how He’s already freed me ~ the devil doesn’t mind. It all works the same. In fact, sometimes the “good” distractions are doubly effective.

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The pretty wrapping paper is deceiving. 

The Woman

Broken.

The woman lay sprawled on the cold, unforgiving marble floor. Her body ached from her fresh scrapes and bruises, but she did not tend to them. She was hardly mindful of them. What she had just experienced had been horrible, but she knew what she had coming would be even worse.  As she gasped for breath, dust filled her mouth. She choked and coughed. She wished she could cough her insides out and crawl out of her skin. She was filled with anger and hatred, certainly toward the men who had put her in that position, but mostly toward herself. In her gut she had always known it would get her into trouble one day. But she never imagined it would be like this. Not here. Not like this.

Their voices drifted far away as if in a tunnel. The harsh words they shouted were true. She screamed them at herself internally. She was dirty. She was shame-filled. She was worthless. She slowly moved her hands and curled them over her head – partly to block the sounds, and partly to provide what little protection she could from the blows that were sure to follow. She was somewhat grateful for her long hair to provide partial covering for her body. But what did it matter anyway? So many of the men standing there had already seen all of her.  But who was she to stand up and accuse them? She was just a woman.

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She waited, but the strikes never came. The noise slowly quieted until there was just awkward silence. Was she alone? For the first time in several minutes she dared look up. He was there. His eyes were locked on hers. He was taking off His coat to cover her. His eyes. They weren’t like most men’s eyes. His eyes never strayed from looking into hers. And the depth. The tenderness. The compassion. He held out His hand toward her. She began to reach for it but then realized He must not really know. She couldn’t risk the hurt of Him turning her away after He knew. “You know I…” she started in. But He cut her short with a finger to her lips. “Shh… I know. I already know.” And His eyes said He really did. “That’s so good that you know that about yourself, too. But let’s not stay there. It’s your past – not your future. Take my hand and walk with Me. Let’s do it different this time – together.”

And the woman took His hand.

Restored.

Religiosity

A poll completed nearly one year ago by Gallup shows that 77% of Americans consider themselves to be Christian.  The largest group, 52.5% of the polled population, considers themselves to be Protestant/ non-Catholic in their beliefs. Of that group, 79% stated that religion was important in their daily lives. What exactly is religion? What does that question mean?

According to the Meriam – Webster on-line dictionary, religion means the following:

re·li·gion

 noun \ri-ˈli-jən\

: the belief in a god or in a group of gods

: an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods

: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group

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The way I see it, there are actually three things at work in the question: religion, traditions, and spirituality.  We’ll consider the second definition first. “An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.”  I will call that “traditions” or “religiosity” [Religiosity, in its broadest sense, is a comprehensive sociological term used to refer to the numerous aspects of religious activity, dedication, and belief (religious doctrine).] .  It says, ” Here are the rules for our group. If you want to fit in with us, you will look like this, act like this, speak this way, wear your hair like this, etc, etc, etc.” In my experience, it makes people more prone to compare themselves with others and to cause superficial lifestyle changes without a heart change. It may help with your emotional well-being. It may give you a place to feel good about yourself (or not – depending on your level of self-control). And it may help keep you out of trouble, which will improve your quality of living. But I find no Biblical support that outward actions will provide eternal life. Comparing Matthew 7 with Matthew 25 you will find that the saved and lost will have done many of the same things.  It is not saying that there is anything wrong with traditions or good works – in fact, there is a place for them and they are expected to be the natural out-flowing of a follower of Jesus – but they aren’t the ticket.

The first definition of religion – “the belief in a god…”, may spark a relationship that I would call spirituality.  This spirituality will also cause a change in behavior, but the relationship came first. Some say it is a behavioral change that we choose out of our love for God and what He has done for us. The more experience I have with life, people and God, the more it seems our behavioral changes themselves are only because He brings about the change in us. Our behavioral changes are gifts from the Holy Spirit. The only choice we really have is where and when we will be willing to submit our lives to Him and allow Him to change us.  The Bible tells us that our best is equivalent to filthy rags. The Bible provides no differentiation between the “best” of a sinner or the “best” of a saved person. So if something good comes of us, from us or through us, it is a gift from God.  All good and perfect gifts come from the Father above.

“Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” Ephesians 2: 7-10 The Message

Broken Dream

She was beautiful.  She was dressed in frilly white with turquoise trim.  Her hair was just so.  Her eyes shone and cheeks blushed.  The moment was magical as the gift was unwrapped. The girl was ecstatic.  Her new dolly was all she’d ever dreamed it would be.

The girl loved her dolly.  She cradled it carefully and spoke softly to her dolly.  She kept the dress white and the hair just right.  Then one day the girl shared her dolly with her friend thinking the friend would value her dolly as she had.  The friend did not care for the dolly or guard it and carelessly left the dolly in a dangerous place where the flood waters swept it away.

Now the dolly lay in the street.  Broken.  Covered in the filth of this world.  Lost.  The little girl cried.

Broken Dream

God says, “I love you, My hurting child.  Come to me.  Bring your broken dreams to Me.  Bring them covered in the filth of this world.  Let Me take them from you.  I’m not going to wipe them off and give them back. No, I’m going to give you what you’ve always wanted but didn’t know yet.  What I have planned for you is better than you ever imagined.  Just come to me with your broken dreams and I will give you rest.”

Big girls dream, too. And the invitation still stands.

Do it Right

I enjoy making orthotics.  They are devices that go in your shoes to correct biomechanical problems.  They can be very beneficial for relieving areas of pain.  Some podiatrists make orthotics by using foam compression boxes or gait plate scanners.  I do it the old fashioned way.  I make casts using plaster gauze wrapped around the bottom of the feet.  The casts then get sent to the lab where they make the orthotics per my prescription. 

Some people can be so hard to cast for orthotics.  They just don’t do it right.  It can be extremely frustrating to try and get a good mold.  I explain as best I can how to do it right, but some people just don’t get it. 

The gal I just casted for orthotics did it prefectly.  She… did NOTHING at all.  That’s exactly what I asked her to do.  NOTHING.  Do not try to help me.  Let me do it.  I know where her feet should go and how I want them so that I can get a good pair of orthotics that will function well and relieve her pain.  She just had to let me move her feet where they needed to be without trying to control them herself.  She did it right.

Sometimes I think I hear God saying, “Quit trying so hard and just let Me do it, please.  I know what works.”

“And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 NKJV

His Hands

Before I cared about his hands, they were scarred.  His hands had been rope-burned as he dropped three stories after the scoffolding had given way, holding on to life, until his safety harness stopped his fall.   The scars were minor.  The scars didn’t take away from the talent of his hands.  They were hard-working hands.  They were strong.

Over the years he had trained his hands to do many things.  They could take down a wall and build a new one.  They could handle a horse, a gun, and a tractor.  His hands welded, hammered and dug.  They caught fish, pitched a tent and made a fire.  His hands could be detailed and gentle, too.  They tied flies.  They changed diapers.  They loved.

His hands had become frail.  The veins had been stabbed with innumerable IV’s.  Their color had changed from tan, to yellow, to gray.  The fat was completely gone making the shape of the bones visible.  The fingers and palms had changed from callused and tough with hard work, to peeling and painful with chemotherapy, to thin and fragile with dehydration.  His hands shook with weakness. 

Now they were quiet.  They were resting on the cover of his cherished Bible.  They were a good color.  The flesh had an appearance of some fatness over the bones.  His hands were as I remembered them.

“Thank you,”  I paused at the reception desk in the mortuary on my way out.  “Thank you for what you did with his hands.”

There is another pair of Hands.  Before I knew or cared about His Hands, they were scarred.  His Hands were scarred as He gave His life so his hands could one day live again.  They were scarred so my hands could live eternally.  When I see His Hands for the first time I will bow low on my knees and say “Thank You!  Thank You for what You did with Your Hands.”

His Hands

    “But He was wounded for our transgressions, 
      He was bruised for our iniquities;
      The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
      And by His stripes we are healed. ”  Isaiah 53:5