Thursday, February 26, 2015

Love one another as I have loved you

If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
'He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.'
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness;, 'by his wounds you have been healed.' (1 Peter 2: 20-24)

How do you react when someone hurts your feelings, insults you in some way or mistreats you? It is natural to desire to retaliate and likewise injure the other person in the same way you have been hurt. Even worse might be our reaction when someone offends a loved one, especially our child. I remember with shame how I reacted many years ago when one of my children was excluded from a birthday party. Not only had a young boy not included my son, but he handed invitations out at school noticeably eliminating my child. Today, I realize that this young boy had a right to invite whom he wanted to his party. But at the time, I was livid and angry with the boy and with his mother, a friend of mine. I called up this friend and expressed my anger and then avoided her for months thereafter.

Our Savior was repeatedly insulted. The Pharisees were jealous of the attention and devotion the crowds paid to Christ. Rather than admire the care and concern Jesus extended to the poor, the weak and the suffering, they despised and rebuked Christ. Our Savior was spat upon, whipped, nailed to a cross and crucified - yet, how did He respond? He left us an example that we should follow (1 Peter 2: 21). Jesus was sinless, yet He did not curse at those who cursed Him. He did not retaliate when insulted. He didn't threaten those who inflicted pain on Him. "He bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness." By His pain and suffering, we have been given new life. We are forgiven and healed by His wounds (v. 24).

My son who was not invited to the birthday party is now a grown man and most likely doesn't even remember the hurt he had felt that day nor his mother's pained reaction. I have mellowed with time, but I still experience grief when my children are suffering. Last week at our church's Ash Wednesday service, a woman acted out a drama depicting Mary, Jesus' mother at the foot of the cross. In her hands, she held the garment her son had been wrapped up in when lying in the manger shortly after his birth.  Like most mothers, Mary probably hung on to mementos from her son's childhood. Mary recalled the night of Jesus' birth, how much she had loved her baby boy at that time and how her love for Him had grown throughout the years as she came to realize that her baby boy was not only her son but also her Savior. The demonstration of pain on the actress' face as she looked up at Jesus, hanging on the cross in excruciating pain, brought me to tears. What depth of loss must Christ's mother have felt as she watched her baby die? Not only Mary suffered while watching her son perish; Christ's heavenly Father also suffered with the knowledge that His Son was in pain. Yet God loved us so much that He allowed His Son to die so that we might have eternal life. "This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4: 10).  We are likewise reminded to follow Christ's example of love:
"We should love one another" (1 John 3:11).
"Anyone who does not love remains in death" (3:14).
"Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (3:18).
"Let us love one another, for love comes from God" (4:7).
"We love because he first loved us" (4:19).

Our world is full of anger and hatred. It is easy to respond in the way we feel we have been mistreated. Yet each day, we must deny this urge and make the decision to be known -  not for anger and revenge. As followers of Christ, we want others to see in us people who are known for their love.

Dear God,
You have commanded us to love one another. This is often quite hard to do. Help me to follow Your example and not respond in anger when I am insulted. Thank You that You live in me and Your love is made complete in me (1 John 4: 12). In Jesus' Name. Amen

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

Remember that you were...separated from Christ, alienated...having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the  blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a hold temple in the Lord. In him you also being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:12-22)

What is the meaning of Ash Wednesday? Today marks the first day of Lent, a time to prepare for Easter. In the Old Testament, sinners poured ashes on their heads and wore sack cloth to indicate regret for their sin: "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42: 6) Since the Middle Ages, in imitation of the Old Testament books of the Law, Christians likewise wear ashes on their head to mark the beginning of Lent and demonstrate their repentance. In the 10th century, rather than sprinkle the head with ashes, Christians began wearing ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross. The cross give us a glimpse of the joy that soon will be celebrated when we acknowledge the hope and new life that are ours because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection three days later.

During the application of ashes at Ash Wednesday services in our time, the pastor will usually recite, "For dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). What is the purpose of wearing ashes in our day and age? And, why would we want to be reminded that we will die? How can this give us any consolation? The symbolic practice displayed on Ash Wednesday calls to mind that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Each of us is in need of forgiveness and hope. The ashes and Scripture remind us that we will surely die. Yet, the cross points us to the forgiveness that can be ours through Jesus Christ who cleanses us from sin and releases us from the threat of eternal damnation.

When teaching at a local college, some of my students came to class early Ash Wednesday morning with the imprint of the cross still on their foreheads. Some Christians leave ashes on their forehead through Ash Wednesday to publicly confess their sins and demonstrate that everyone is sinful, that each of us is in need of forgiveness and to proclaim that we are forgiven and made new through faith in Jesus Christ. Today, each of us can be open about our frailty and honestly admit that we are all guilty of sin. Every human will experience death. And, each of us is in need of a Savior.

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that without God, we have no hope in the world (v. 12). Yet now, because of Christ's love for us, "in Christ Jesus [we] who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (v. 13). Just as we have sinfulness in common, "through Christ, we are united in faith. We are no longer separated from each other and from God but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."

Dear God, whether or not I openly wear ashes today on my forehead, I recognize that I am sinful and in need of Your forgiveness. Thank You that through You and by Your Spirit, I am united with other believers. Because of Your sacrifice, I am no longer separated from You. You have promised me eternal life with the "saints and members of Your household."  I want to open my heart to You so that it is a "dwelling place for God by the Spirit." As I prepare for Easter, I remember the redemption You extend to me and the hope You give all who trust in Your mercy and grace. In Jesus' Name. Amen

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lost Sheep

I headed out to jog the other day, excited about the sunshine and warm Colorado weather, when a large, brown Labrador began to follow me. More accurately, I followed him but could not get him to leave me in peace. He ran just a tad in front of me and would veer into my side or stop, forcing me to run around him and begin the process once again. This continued for several miles. The dog's loud panting concerned me. Was he thirsty or just out of shape? I was a bit irritated and yearned for quiet and space, and yet, I feared that the dog was lost. Several trucks drove down the country road, and I waved them over to inquire about possible owners - to no avail.

The story of the lost sheep popped into my head. Jesus told this parable when the pharisees complained about the time Christ spent socializing with sinners. In the parable, Jesus shares about the forgiveness He extends to sinners such as you and me.
"Then Jesus told them this parable: 'Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep." I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.'" (Luke 15: 3-7)

This parable commences with a sheep, not a Labrador, who strays from his home. Any of us who is not in Christ, not abiding in the Word, not rooted in the Vine, not spending time in prayer...strays from his intended home. Apart from God, we are all lost. We don't even know our purpose in life without God. Each of us has sinned (Romans 3:23) and yet, because of Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross, we are healed and made new. We can become in Christ what we could never be without him - healed, righteous and saved.

The shepherd in this story is not irritated at us as I was at the dog who accompanied me. Jesus, a compassionate shepherd, values and loves each sinner who has gone astray. Christ's love for us led Him to die on a cross and take on the punishment that we, sinners, deserve to bear. "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2: 24-25)

Like the shepherd in the parable, Christ rejoices when we find our way back to Him. He is the Good Shepherd who saves us, His lost sheep.

By the way, I did eventually help the Labrador find his way home. As I returned on the original path I had taken, we passed a little yellow house with a white picket fence. Inside the fenced yard played a little boy, no older than 7. I asked him if he knew whose dog this was still panting at my side. "That's my dog," he nonchalantly replied. He had not been concerned that the dog was lost. Evidently, the dog must frequently wander away from home. The young boy came around and brought the dog back into the yard with him, acting as if this were a regular occurrence.

Dear God,
Apart from You, I am lost. Keep me close to You so that I can be the person You created me to be. Thank You that You are my Good Shepherd who continues to find me when I go astray. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Multiple Choices

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brother and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

I am presently taking a course that deals with language assessments. One of my assignments for next week is to create multiple choice vocabulary questions for an exam. I find myself thinking of all angles of the topic I've chosen and searching for varying ways to incorrectly depict a situation--these incorrect answers would designate the distractions from the correct answer. I am distracted searching for distractions!

I began thinking about other distractions that I focus on from day to day. I am not a cup-half-full person.  I tend to concentrate on what is not going right and fixate on fixing what is not perfect. This makes life difficult for me and for those who have to spend time with me! Life is not perfect, and much that comes our way is tainted. I have found that it is better not to have expectations, because unfulfilled expectations lead to disappointment.

Paul exhorts us in Philippians to rejoice in all circumstances, let go of anxiety and release our worry by leaning on God and going to Him in prayer: "Present your requests to God" (verse 6). What good does our fixating and anxiety do for us or for those who spend time with us? A fretful person is usually not a calm or gentle person; Paul tells us to "Let your gentleness be evident to all" (verse 5).

Contrast the behavior of one who frets with one who is able to release his concerns to God, perceive what is good, right, pure, lovely, and admirable and be thankful for God's blessings. Such a person exudes the peace of God that transcends the unease of a worrier and guards the heart and mind in Christ Jesus. I want to focus on what is praiseworthy and not be distracted by the multiple choice concerns that keep me from experiencing God's peace.

Dear Lord, Thank You that I am forgiven and loved by You. Teach me to think about whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable. I want to put these skills into practice and ask Your guidance in this endeavor. Only in You will I find real peace.
In Jesus' Name. Amen.