Crazy grace

IMG_0589

I recently had the chance to see the musical Les Miserables. The music is excellent but the message of the play is even better.

As the play begins we’re introduced to Jean Valjean. He did 19 years of hard labor in prison, simply because he stole a loaf of bread to help feed his starving family. He gets out but he has to carry around a piece of paper that identifies him as a convict. No one will hire him. A priest takes him in and gives him dinner and a place to stay for a night. During the night Valjean steals silver from the priest and tries to run but is quickly caught. The police bring Valjean back to the priest, refusing to believe Valjean’s claim that the silver was given to him. The priest says he did give him the silver but he forgot the candlesticks. After the police release Valjean and go on their way, the priest tells Valjean he has claimed his soul for God and he is now to live as a changed man. And that is what happens. The rest of the play is about Valjean living a new life of service to others, all because of the kindness and grace he was shown by the priest.

Who gives expensive candlesticks to somebody who eats their food and steals from them? Even more so, who gives their Son to die for rebellious, undeserving sinners like us? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the nature of grace. It’s crazy. It gives gifts to thieves. It suffers and dies for ungrateful sinners.

While in prison Valjean suffers under the cruel hand of Inspector Javert. Javert continues to pursue Valjean after his release, and tries to throw him back into prison. In one confrontation Valjean pleads for mercy, telling Javert of people he is helping and how he has changed. Javert dismisses the idea and tells Valjean, “Men like you can never change.”

Late in the play Valjean has the chance to get revenge on Javert and kill him, but he doesn’t and he lets him go. Javert is furious and can’t understand it. “Who is this man? What sort of devil is he, to have caught me in a trap and choose to let me go free? … I’ll spit his pity right back in his face. There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert!”

It is either Valjean or Javert. It is either grace or law. Many view life like Javert. They think life is all about keeping rules. Grace angers them like it did Javert. It doesn’t seem right for criminals to receive forgiveness. Good things should only come to those who keep the rules. Punishment comes when you break them. There is no mercy or possibility of people changing.

Thankfully, because of Jesus, we can live like Valjean rather than Javert. Change is possible. God is merciful and forgiving. He longs to give His gracious gift of salvation to undeserving sinners like us. We rejoice in “the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We give thanks for the amazing, crazy, doesn’t-make-any-sense grace of God.

Fantine is a lady in Les Miserables who is treated terribly and suffers much painful humiliation. She finally gets some help from Valjean. She looks at the misery of her life and with sorrow sings, “There was a time when men were kind. When their voices were soft and their words inviting. … I dreamed a dream in times gone by; when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving.”

The good news of Jesus proclaims that those dreams come true, because of God’s grace. Jesus is kind and gentle and His words are inviting. His love for us never dies. Because of Jesus and the cross, God is forgiving. His grace is not a dream. It’s real.

The song in Les Miserables that moves me the most is “On My Own” sung by the young lady Eponine. She loves a young man who loves somebody else. From the despair of her heart she cries out: “On my own, pretending he’s beside me. … I know it’s only in my mind, that I’m talking to myself and not to him. … I love him, but when the night is over, he is gone. … Without me, his world will go on turning; a world that’s full of happiness that I have never known. … I love him, but only on my own.”

Many struggle with that kind of sadness. What helps the most is the good news that God really does love you. You don’t have to pretend He is with you. Prayer is not pretending you’re talking to Him. He is real, He hears us and He won’t be gone when the night is over. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). When we know His grace and love, we’re never on our own.

 

Advertisements

The power of encouraging words

At a school in Dubai an experiment was conducted to see if words had an effect on plants. A recording was made of students insulting plants and another was made of compliments. The recording of put downs like, “You look ugly” and “Are you even alive?” was played to some plants on a loop for 30 days. Another recording of positive comments such as, “I like the way you look” was played to other plants for 30 days. The plants that were continually insulted withered, while the ones that heard positive comments remained healthy.

It may seem strange to think plants respond to what they hear and the science may be questioned, but it would fit with how the Creator has ordered His world. It is not surprising if plants wither if all they hear are insults and negativity. That is what happens with people.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. … The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:1, 4). We can’t be exactly sure how it affects plants whether the words spoken to them are gentle or harsh, but we do know how it affects people. Harsh words, spoken in anger, lead to more anger. Mean, nasty put-downs cause much discouragement. Constant criticism with no encouragement crushes a person’s spirit and makes them want to give up.

Gentle words bring peace and ease tension. A soothing tongue and loving encouragement can inspire a person to keep going and not give up.

Words can knock a person down or lift a person up. They can cause deep hurt or bring gracious healing to wounded souls. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. … Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12:18, 25).

In our hi-tech world with email, Facebook, texting and Twitter, words are constantly being spread around the world. Many of them are negative and critical, focused on failure, expressing anger and knocking people down. Those kinds of words cause relationships and spirits to wither.

Words of blessing and encouragement, words that describe the beauty and grace of God, words that give thanks for good things God is doing are words that build up and give life. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Some words that are shared are truthful but not beneficial. The person sharing them may feel good about “getting it off their chest,” but they aren’t words that help the listener or build them up.

We give thanks for God’s loving, gracious Word that builds us up. In this world full of words that wither souls, we give thanks we can turn to Christ and find the gentle words we need to hear and the encouraging words that give life.

Honest about our hurts

The other night I took a break from what I was doing and watched some of the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. At the ceremony those who are inducted are given the opportunity to give a speech. It was interesting and enjoyable to hear what these successful athletes had to say at this significant moment in their life.

During a couple of the speeches it seemed like they were almost ready to sing a hymn and give an altar call. Some of the players gave strong and powerful testimonies about their faith in the Lord. They wanted people to know they didn’t achieve this honor on their own. They gave thanks to God and told about times of struggle and how the Lord Jesus had helped them through the challenges.

A couple of them told about growing up as sons of single moms. They were poor, living in tough, dangerous neighborhoods. Most people would have looked at their situation and said there was no chance they would turn out well. But they had a mom and a grandmother who prayed. That made a world of difference.

They admitted mistakes they had made and told of times when they were headed down the wrong path. They expressed appreciation for how God brought people into their life who helped them get going in a different direction. It was refreshing and encouraging to hear their honesty about things they had done wrong and their humble admission that they needed others.

Brian Dawkins told about a time early in his career when he was struggling with depression and contemplated suicide. He gave thanks to God and people who watched over him, encouraged him and helped him get on a path to healing. He encouraged others who were going through similar struggles to look at his life and find hope that God can help you get through the hard times.

At a Hall of Fame induction ceremony you expect players to talk about how great they were and tell stories about their success. You don’t expect someone to show such transparency and talk about his battle with depression.

We expect a happy face. When we ask someone how they’re doing we expect a quick “Great.” We expect boasting, but in a subtle, humble way of course. We get scared to do like Dawkins did and admit our struggles. We worry about what people might think of us.

I have been blessed that I haven’t struggled with depression like many others have, but I did have a period when sadness was camping out a lot in my life. I don’t know if I would have been considered depressed at the time, but I was pretty down for quite a while. Your pride doesn’t want to admit you’re hurting. You want to be a poster boy for “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). So you try to fake it. I found out I’m not as good at faking it as I thought I was. I’m thankful for good friends who asked, “Something’s wrong. What is it?”

That’s how it ought to be in a congregation and with friends in Christ. We don’t need to fake that we’re fine. We have freedom to ask our friends how they’re doing and share with our friends how we’re really doing. We can do like Paul did with the Thessalonians: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (I Thessalonians 2:8). God’s love enables us to find hope and strength as we share our lives with one another.

I appreciate how Brian Dawkins courageously and humbly shared his life. His speech can be found on YouTube. It’s worth a listen.djzg5eux4aeack

 

The meek win?

During his campaign for president 30 years ago the first President George Bush spoke of a longing for a kinder and gentler nation. He also described those who volunteer and serve others as being like a thousand points of light, with service shining bright in the midst of a dark world.

The call for a kinder, gentler nation was mocked by many 30 years ago. It still sounds strange today in our society that is so often mean, cruel and violent and going the opposite direction of kinder and gentler. Kindness and gentleness is too often looked down upon instead of being valued and encouraged.

The vision of a multitude of humble servants shining like a thousand points of light was a confusing concept to some 30 years ago. Recently it was described again as not making sense. Kindness, gentleness and humble, sacrificial service doesn’t make sense to the world. The world understands putting yourself first; looking out for your own interests and not the interests of others. The world understands promoting yourself and boasting about what you have done. The world understands being assertive and going for what you want, even if it means knocking others down to get it.

Gentleness and kindness seem strange to the world. Meekness appears to be weakness. It is that way now and was also that way in Jesus’ day. At first His own brothers didn’t understand His humble service and why He would do great deeds but not want to draw attention to Himself. “Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:4). Letting people know how great you are – that makes sense to the world. But that’s not Jesus’ way.

Pilate couldn’t understand Jesus failing to fight back and defend Himself when He was attacked. “‘Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.’ But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed” (Mark 15:4-5). The world’s way is stand up for yourself and return insult for insult. If somebody posts something that appears to be an attack and a slam, you better slam them back. That’s what the world thinks. Jesus’ way of silence and meekly letting them nail Him to the cross amazes and confuses people. But it brings salvation and hope to those who trust Him.

First Timothy 6:11 says to “pursue … gentleness.” Are you pursuing gentleness or running from it? We can pursue gentleness because we are chosen and loved by God. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).The world doesn’t think so, but the meek are the ones who are going to come out ahead. “I will remove from you your arrogant boasters. … But I will leave within you the meek and humble” (Zephaniah 3:11-12). Arrogant boasters can intimidate at times and deceive people into thinking they are far more impressive and important than they really are. The arrogant boasters of this world are not to be feared for they have no future. It is the meek and the humble who trust in the Lord who will win in the end. They are the ones who can look forward to a victorious and glorious future.

God doesn’t have a favorite color

Little kids ask, “What is your favorite color?” Some like blue, some purple, some pink. We have favorite colors when it comes to shirts we wear or cars we drive, but God doesn’t have a favorite color when it comes to people’s skin. He makes some dark, some light and some in between. He likes all the colors equally.IMG_0196

I met these two beautiful little girls in South Africa. One has a darker skin color than the other, but they are both dearly loved by God; both a special creation of His with immeasurable value. Both like to laugh and play and eat candy. It was fun to watch them play together. Their different skin colors didn’t seem to matter to them.

South Africa, like the United States, has some very sad chapters in its history regarding race relations. The evil of slavery is part of the history of the United States. South Africa suffered under the wickedness of apartheid for nearly 50 years. Under apartheid, the whites, even though they were only 15 percent of the population, controlled the government and owned the land, often by taking it away from blacks. The ruling whites passed laws forbidding the races from things such as living in the same neighborhoods, sitting together at public events and going to the same schools. It was a miraculous and gracious work of God that apartheid ended in the 1990s without massive bloodshed and the exacting of revenge.

In the United States it was only after the terrible bloodshed of the Civil War that slavery became illegal throughout the land. Even after the war the wickedness of segregation continued as many tried to prevent blacks from doing things such as eating in the same restaurants as whites, drinking from the same water fountains, and playing on the same baseball fields.

Some claim blacks didn’t have it that bad during slavery, segregation and apartheid. Blacks who had loved ones lynched, who suffered oppression and were treated as less than human don’t say that. The claim that it wasn’t that bad possibly comes from an unwillingness to admit our ancestors did some wicked things.

Conflict between different ethnic groups was a major challenge faced by the New Testament church. Most people thought it was impossible for Jews and non-Jews to ever get along and live in true peace. But the Bible declares that peace is possible when there is faith in Jesus. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

Along with the two sweet little girls, in South Africa I also met some families where white parents have adopted black children and blacks and whites are living together in one house as one family. It was an encouraging picture of what the family of God should look like and how Jesus can make peace. God’s family should be full of a diversity of colors because God loves all colors and doesn’t have a favorite. We give thanks for the beautiful peace that is possible in Jesus.

 

Bench time

fullsizeoutput_aad

This bench in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seems to have an unproductive purpose. You don’t do much on the bench except sit and look at the creek and the waterfalls. People probably don’t get a lot checked off their to-do list when they are sitting there.

The whole idea of national parks seems unproductive to some people. A lot of valuable land has been set aside. One of the main things that happens in the parks is people doing what I did recently when I was at the Great Smoky Mountains: they go for hikes and enjoy the artistry of what God has made.

As I spent a day driving and hiking in the woods and looking at creeks and waterfalls, I was thankful this land had been set aside for people to enjoy its beauty. It is possible God made some places not for us to build on or grow food on or extract metals from but just for us to look at and enjoy.

Taking time to enjoy God’s beautiful artwork can teach us about God and ourselves and bring renewal to our soul. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). David took some time and sat on his version of a park bench and considered the work of God’s fingers. Contemplating the majesty of what God had made spoke to him about the greatness of God, his smallness in comparison and the wonder that the God of creation cared for him. What a wonder it is that the God of creation loves us and came to save us.

The waterfalls make some noise but the message of God’s creation is much greater than simply water flowing over rocks. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). The mountains, the ocean, the creeks, the trees, the waterfalls; they declare the wisdom of God, the power of God, the skillfulness of God, the creativity of God. It is good to go for a hike or sit on a bench and pray for ears of faith that can hear what God’s artwork has to say to us.

Some of us feel guilty if we take time to sit on a bench and look at some waterfalls. We have so much we think we have to do. People may think we’re lazy if we just sit on a bench and enjoy the beauty in front of us. We need to spend more time thinking about God’s great work and less time worrying about what people may think. It is okay to have some time when we’re not doing but instead thinking about what the Lord has done. Time spent looking at some of God’s beautiful artwork and reflecting on what it teaches us isn’t wasted time. It can be very productive time as it can deepen our understanding and refresh our soul. Take some bench time this summer and find rest and renewal in the beauty of what God has made.

Trust not try

“You suck. Try harder.” That was the main message Jim Belcher heard in church growing up. After reading that recently, it has been much on my mind. That is probably because I know Jim is not the only one who grew up thinking that is the main teaching of Christianity. “You suck. Try harder” is the basic message a lot of people hear in churches and youth groups and at home. I’ve been to Christian events that were basically an hour of being told to try harder. I’ve left discouraged because I knew I wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t know how I could try any harder.

Many people are trying hard. Some are trying hard because they feel guilty. They hope they can do enough good to make up for the bad they have done. Some are trying hard because they are worried about what people think, and they long to make a good impression. Some are trying hard because, like the Galatians in the New Testament, they say they believe a person starts a relationship with God by faith, but they seem to think staying with him, growing in Him and serving Him is all about how hard you work. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? … Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:3, 5).

The call is not to try harder but to trust more. Trust the promises of God’s Word more. Trust God when He says your sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Trust the Lord when He promises to take care of you and keep you safe. Trust God when He says He loves you and wants you to be with Him forever.

It is humbling to have to admit our best efforts at trying harder are never going to be good enough to meet the demands of God’s perfect law. We keep falling short. What Paul said about himself is true for us: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18). We can’t try hard enough, but the wonderful good news is Jesus did enough at the cross for us.

I came home once from a conference where the theme was mostly, “You suck. Try harder.” I wasn’t motivated to try harder. Instead I felt like giving up. But then God reminded me of the good news of Jesus. God’s love for us isn’t based on how well we do. He loves us and wants us even though we keep falling short. Our sin has been paid for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ. My salvation is secure because of Jesus. We try to serve Him, but we won’t always get it right. But we can always trust in the mercy and grace of God.

Jud Wilhite wrote, “… conquering our idols and habitual sins is ultimately a matter of being swept up by His love rather than gritting our teeth and trying harder.” Instead of gritting your teeth, open your heart and get swept up by God’s amazing love.