A kingdom of mercy

I am convinced that the hope of the world is found in a kingdom that is not of this world – the kingdom of heaven. I’ve been studying the kingdom parables because I believe that God’s kingdom is the perfect antidote to the troubles that plague this world. Of all the kingdom parables, I think the easiest parable to understand is also the most difficult to put into practice.

Jesus told the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant after Peter asked him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus replied, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus then told a parable that compared sins to debts.

In the parable, a servant who was deeply in debt to the king begged the king for patience in settling his accounts. The king was more than patient; he took pity on the servant and canceled his debt in full. The servant then went out and demanded payment from a fellow servant who owed him far less than he owed the king. The servant’s debtor also begged for patience but the servant refused. Instead of being merciful, he had the man thrown into prison. When the king heard that his servant had not shown the same mercy that had been shown to him, he was angry and handed him over to the jailers.

Jesus said, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I say this parable is easy because the message is clear. We are all so deeply indebted to God that we could never repay him. And yet, because he is merciful, he cancels our debts in full. We are to forgive others just as our Father forgives us. We are to be merciful just as our Father is merciful.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8 (NIV)

I struggle sometimes to forgive others as I have been forgiven. The Lord’s prayer presupposes that we have forgiven our debtors. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” How can we pray this prayer if we have not forgiven those who trespass against us?

This parable is hard because many of us do not forgive easily. We hold grudges. We keep score. We are so full of pride that we take the slightest offense as a personal affront. We don’t use the same standard when judging others as we do when judging ourselves. Instead of being honest about our own transgressions, we minimize them and make excuses.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Matthew 7:1-2

How easily we forget how much we have been forgiven! God sees us at our worst and he still loves us. He sees the darkness in our hearts and still forgives us.

As I was contemplating how difficult it can be to forgive, I read a few stories of forgiveness (and unforgiveness) in The Washington Post. As the author notes, sometimes we have to choose to forgive over and over again because the wounds are so deep. And some people cannot bring themselves to forgive at all.

Forgiveness may feel unfair. It may feel like you are letting someone get away without paying the right price. But unforgiveness is an awfully heavy burden to carry. As Joyce Meyer points out, unforgiveness is a poison that hurts the person who chooses not to forgive. Forgiveness frees the forgiver.

To all those who struggle to forgive deep hurts, I pray for healing. I pray for an obedient and humble heart. And I thank the Lord for his never ending mercy and forgiveness.

Deep and Wide

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song called “Deep and Wide.” Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing, deep and wide. We used our hands to illustrate the deep and wide part as children love to do. But as a child, even though I believed that Jesus loved me, I had no comprehension of how deep and vast that love is.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:17-19 (NIV)

Before his life-changing conversion, Saul fought the spread of the gospel. He threatened to arrest and take the Lord’s disciples as prisoners. But on the road to Damascus, the Lord confronted him asking: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” After his encounter with Jesus, Saul became Paul, one of the greatest proponents of the gospel. It was his mission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles – to the very people he had once condemned.

The apostle Paul understood the “boundless riches of Christ.” With great enthusiasm, he wrote to the Ephesian believers about the great mystery that had been revealed to him (Ephesians 3:6): that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. Because of Jesus, those who were once shut out of God’s promises were able to approach God with freedom and confidence.

As a child, I would not have understood the mystery that Paul was so excited to reveal. The word “gentile” was not in my vocabulary. There was no need for it; everyone in my small hometown was gentile. I was never excluded from the promises of God because of my heritage.

As a child, my knowledge of the love of Jesus was quite simple. He loved me because he loved all the children of the world. He loved me because he is good. He loved me because he is merciful. I was shy and self-conscious and felt like I didn’t fit in but God loved me just as I am. Even as a child, I knew that I could approach God with confidence because he knew me.

As an adult, I have seen the ugly side of humanity – the ways we fight with and hurt each other and treat others as less than ourselves. I see how we delight in building walls instead of bridges. I see how superficial we are in the ways we judge one another – on the basis of skin color or beauty or social status.

Now I see how radical the love of Jesus truly is. I see it in the way he told us to love our enemies and to bless those who curse us. I see it in the way he chose the despised Samaritan as the exemplar good neighbor – not the priest or the holy Levite. I see it in the way he responded to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees when they brought the adulterous woman before him hoping to trick him:

Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?

Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

The love of Jesus is a love that is so wide and long and high and deep that it extends to everyone. There is nothing about us that he does not already know. He sees right through to the mess inside of us and loves us anyway.

As an adult, I am rooted and established in the love of Jesus and yet I don’t fully grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is. It’s hard to find the words to describe the love of Jesus. Amazing. Unchanging. Unfailing. Ridiculous. Scandalous. Just call it what it is. Call it Grace (Unspoken).

It’s the light that pierces through you
To the darkest hidden place
It knows your deepest secrets
But it never looks away
It’s the gentle hand that pulls you
From the judgment of the crowd
When you stand before them guilty
And you’ve got no way out

Some may call it foolish and impossible
But for every heart it rescues it’s a miracle
It’s nothing less than scandalous
This love that took our place
Just call it what it is
Call it grace

Become an everyday vessel for God to use

For the past five months, I have been studying a list of steps my pastor gave the congregation of my church to help us go deeper in our faith. His last piece of advice is: “Become an everyday vessel for God to use.” A vessel is a hollow container, a pitcher or vase, for example, that is used to hold something. How do we become a container that is useful to God?

Become like clay in the hand of the potter

The people of Judah turned their hearts away from God, just as people do now. God told the prophet Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house where he would receive God’s message (Jeremiah 18:1-6).

So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel…” 

We are the clay and God is the potter. Those who are fully committed to God, who have given their hearts to the Lord, are like clay in his hands. The clay is marred. It is not the finest material for the potter to work with. Yet God can shape and transform the most imperfect materials into something beautiful and useful.

To become like clay in God’s hands, you must submit yourself to his handiwork. Give yourself fully to the work of his hands. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always (Psalm 105:4).

In God is the Potter – We are the Clay, Michael Bradley points out that the potter can only work with the clay if enough water is added to the clay to make it soft and pliable. Bradley explains that water symbolizes the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26). If you really want God to shape you into the person He wants you to be, you must spend time reading the Word of God.

When I see Word capitalized, I think Jesus. Jesus is the Word. If you want to know what God wants you to become, look no further than Jesus. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12

Painted in mercy’s hue

The potter and the clay is a great analogy for God’s transforming work; a painter and canvas are another. Danny Gokey’s song, Masterpiece, reminds me of a few powerful truths. God is moving in ways that I cannot see. What I will become is not known. It takes time to create a real work of art.

Heart trusts you for certain
Head says it’s not working
I’m stuck here still hurting
But you tell me
You’re making a masterpiece
You’re shaping the soul in me
You’re moving where I can’t see
And all I am is in your hands
You’re taking me all apart
Like it was your plan from the start
To finish your work of art for all to see
you’re making a masterpiece
Guess I’m your canvas
Beautiful black and blue
Painted in mercy’s hue
I don’t see past this
You see me now
Who I’ll be then
There at the end
Standing there as

Your Masterpiece

God is the painter and we are the canvas. God paints us in mercy’s hue – the color of love. He sees the potential in the ordinary canvas. With every stroke of his loving hands, he adds something beautiful to our hearts.

Fill me up, Lord

In the introduction to Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr wrote that the first task of life “is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second task is to find the contents the container is meant to hold.” Many people, even religious people, never figure out what the container is supposed to hold.

The premise of Rohr’s book is that we grow spiritually by stumbling and falling. “Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”

I have found that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the real source. He said, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them (John 7:38).” The Lamb will guide them to springs of living water (Revelation 7:17).

When you recognize your own sinfulness and need for redemption and throw yourself on God’s mercy, he fills you with living water, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit infuses the believer with grace. God’s grace gives you the power to become the person he wants you to be.

A work in progress

I know what it is to be painted with mercy’s hue. I have been forgiven for falling and stumbling and making a mess of things, over and over again. I know what my container is meant to hold – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I have been filled with God’s grace and want to extend it to others.

And yet, God is not finished with me. I am not a masterpiece. The words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart are not always pleasing to God. Sometimes, I want to hide my imperfections or to retreat in shame. But I think that having the courage to be real is one way to be an everyday, ordinary vessel that God can use.

Reading List

Psalm 105:4
Jeremiah 18:1-10
2 Chronicles 16:9
Matthew 5:16
Acts 13:36
Romans 12:11
1 Corinthians 15:58
Ephesians 2:8-10
2 Timothy 2:20-21
1 John 2:1-2; 3:1-2
*****
Photo Credit – By Creator: Euphiletos Painter – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57852656
Per Wikipedia, the image is a “Panathenaic ampora,” a large ceramic vessel showing runners, awarded to a victor in one of the Panathenaic Games, c. 530 BC. This vessel would have been filled with oil from the sacred olive groves in Attica.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Come out of hiding and confess your brokenness

My church studied 1 John in a sermon series called “Living Deep.” My pastor then gave us a list of practical steps to help us go deeper in our faith. I am slowly making my way through the list and am now on step six, “Come out of hiding and confess the reality of being broken.”

I am not a Catholic so I have never “been to confession.” I have no idea what it is like to confess my wrongs to a priest. When I became a Christian, I learned that “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I confess my sins to God directly because Jesus intercedes for me.

Come out of hiding. Many of us want to hide our sins because we feel guilty and are ashamed. But there is no point in trying to hide from God. He is all-seeing and all-knowing. In one of my favorite psalms (Psalm 139), David wrote that God knows everything I do. He knows my every thought. He knows what I’m going to say before I say it. God created my inmost being and knows everything about me. God is everywhere. It is impossible to hide or flee from his presence.

You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you (Psalm 69:5).

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Eccl. 12:14).

He who conceals his sins does not prosper but whoever confesses and renounces finds mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

Sometimes we sin willfully and sometimes we don’t even know that we are sinning. For example, we may not be aware of our own pride. We often excuse the same selfish behavior in ourselves that offends us when we see it in others. God knows ever corner of our hearts. We can ask him to show us our hidden faults and to reveal the ways we offend him.

But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:12)

See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:24)

Be honest. Just as there is no point in trying to hide from God, there is no point in lying about our sins and our struggles. There is no point in pretending to be better than we really are with anyone, but especially with God. He sees right through the kind of hypocrisy that Jesus called out. We can be real with God because he can’t be shocked by what he already knows.

In Psalm 139, David admits that he hates those that hate God. He counts the enemies of God as his personal enemies. I don’t find permission to hate anyone in David’s confession; I find the freedom to be completely honest with God about my feelings about wicked people. I am ashamed of myself when I catch myself hating God’s enemy, a man who opposes and exalts himself above all that is good, a man who sows deception, hatred and division. My heart convicts me because Jesus holds me to a higher standard – love your enemies. Getting real with God, I can say, God please help me not to feel this way.

Confess your brokenness. Confession starts with recognizing our brokenness before God. Many people don’t confess their sins because they think, I am not as bad as other people. They don’t understand that we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Too often, the sin of pride gets in the way of admitting out failure to live up to God’s perfect ways. People avoid facing the reality that they are broken because it’s painful and messy.

Confessing our brokenness is good for the soul. Confession breaks the spirit so that it is open to being transformed by God. It puts us in the right posture before God – humble and contrite. God is pleased when we come to him with a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).

We Are All Broken. That’s How the Light Gets In.

It is only when we confess our sins and renounce them that we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is only when we confess our sins and repent that God can give us a new heart and a new spirit.

Reading List

Psalm 139:16-24
Proverbs 28:13
Ezekiel 36:26-28
Matthew 11:28
Galatians 3:4-7
1 John 1:9,4:16-18

Look Beyond What You Can See

My church recently studied the First Epistle of John in a sermon series on “Living Deep.” At the end of the series, my pastor handed out a list of fourteen steps to help us go deeper in our faith. Step four on his list is “Pray and look beyond what you can see to the deeper realities of God’s work.”

Look beyond what you can see

I have presbyopia. My old eyes need help seeing things that are far away. It is much easier for me to focus on close objects. My mind’s eye also has trouble imagining the future. When my mind is not occupied with work or ordinary daily activities, I tend to worry about the crisis or scandal of the moment. I get discouraged because it feels like evil is winning.

I am limited by what my eyes can see and by what my mind can conceive. How can I look beyond the chaos I see to the deeper reality of God’s work? My pastor said, pray and look beyond. Pray for insight. Pray for wisdom. Pray for understanding. Pray for hope.

According to 1 Corinthians 2, God’s wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit reveals deeper spiritual realities to those who love him. The Spirit explains spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. Not everyone can accept these words. Not everyone can understand these words. But the person who has the Spirit understands spiritual truths because he has been shown the mind of Christ.

However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:9-10

The deeper reality of God’s work

The prophet Jeremiah wrote that the Lord has plans for us – plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us a hope and a future. But even though God promises to make all things work out for the good of those who love him, he doesn’t promise that there will be no trials and tribulations along the way. Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance builds character, and character produces hope.

Now I see things imperfectly. Someday I will see everything with perfect clarity.

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:11-13

Mahatma Ghandi had the right perspective: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.”

Ghandi looked beyond what he could see to the invincibility of truth and love. This is the deeper reality of God’s work. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

When I despair, Lord help me to remember that love never fails. Love always prevails.  Always.

Reading List:
Jeremiah 29:11
John 8:32; 10:10
Romans 5:1-21; 9:16
1 Corinthians 3:19
2 Corinthians 5:15
Ephesians 2:8-10; 4:24
Philippians 4:13
1 John 3:19-24