Grace in Imperfection

 

No one who is born of God continues to sin (1 John 3:18).

Matthew 5:48 ‘Be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.’

We don’t strive for imperfection. It is a natural occurrence. Imperfection is our failure to succeed in our goals or it may be the undesirable qualities in our character such as flaws or inadequacies or such.

When I buy reading material online I sometimes look for Christian books or bibles that are ‘slightly imperfect’ meaning there is something wrong somehow but whatever is flawed doesn’t change the content. It might alter the cover or something about the book that is not essential.

We tend to think of our imperfections as failings or even sin but in truth they are part of the maturation process that God is working in our lives. We made be made righteous in God’s judgment when we are in Christ but for the rest of our lives remains the process of sanctification or becoming more like the God in whose image we are made.

The image of God is not completely erased in humanity though it has been defaced even sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable. It is under the shadow of sin whereby we see dimly as in a dirty mirror. Yet in Christ, by placing our confidence in Christ, we are ‘new creations.’ (2 Cor. 5:17) Accordingly the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God remembers our sin no more under the new covenant. (Hebrews 8:12)

Creation in the Fall of humankind has distanced itself from the creator but through Christ we are finding our way back. And the way back is sustained by the Grace of God in Christ.

I think of Christians as slightly imperfect in their walk, in that sin is still a part of our lives though God doesn’t see us as our sin but through the work, the sacrifice of his Son Jesus. Slightly imperfect means we don’t have it all together, we are not as mature as we could be. We are a work, God’s work, in progress, ever moving forward. In some respects our lives might even be a mess but we are God’s mess delivered from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s son. (Colossians 1)

While some people might even not find value in us, God does. He loves us immensely even to the point where the hairs on our head are numbered indicating his intimate value and knowledge of us.

But here’s the think. Our flesh, our ego, that natural part of us still sometimes affects deeply our relationship with God. We say we trust God but we worry. We are greedy. We are fearful and rebellious. But by God’s grace we are ever more steadily making our way into the rightful Kingdom. Luther once wrote that we are sinners and saints at the same time. Jesus tells us to be perfect and our life’s work is in understanding that perfection and living into it.

Let’s take a modern example to illustrate what this all means. If we have an addiction problem we go to the ‘rooms’ where others are dealing with the same struggle. And the only requirement to be there is the desire to stop the addiction, the behavior that is ruining us. One can actually go to an A.A. meeting intoxicated if he or she really wants to stop drinking.

Now I figure it is not less meaningful for the sinner who goes before God, most especially at worship to be able to say, ‘I want to stop sinning and follow Jesus more closely. That’s my greatest wish. I desire forgiveness and new life’. That is an imperfect Christian on the right path to perfection. Much as Paul meant when he wrote ‘work out your salvation in fear and trembling because God is at work in you to bring about the best according to God’s will.’ (Philippians 2:12,13)

The imperfect Christian is allowed by GRACE to struggle without shame and doubt but is transparent about these issues before other trustworthy brothers and sisters. They believe their sins are forgiven but their memory of their sins is better than God’s memory of their sins.

The imperfect Christian is willing to engage in the disciplines of the Christ life. Prayer, reading scripture, worship, helping others and more are exercises that will help the follower f Jesus strengthen his or her faith, trust and confidence. The imperfect Christian will seek knowledge not for its own sake but so that such wisdom will help them grow.

Christ’s gracious call is to take his yoke upon ourselves for the purpose of training us to live our lives with him, by him and through him.

There is a bumper sticker, which proclaims ‘Not perfect just forgiven’. That is a loophole for not trying our best. It is a statement that we are forgiven and going to heaven; but there is a lot of life to be lived in the meantime.

Recall Jesus words in Matthew 5:48. ‘Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Jesus spoke those words with regards to loving our enemies; those who annoy irritate or even abuse us. Being perfect means being the best we can be. For example if you are a carpenter just starting out you want to frame a house as best you can. Taking shortcuts is not an option. And while you may not be as good as a 30 veteran you still do your best. That is if you are going to stay in business. The same would go for a teacher, a mom or a dad or anyone with any integrity. And as Christians we strive for our best but do not feel shame when our best might not on par with say, wait for it, ‘Jesus’.

We are on a path of following the Son of God who has called us to place our confidence in him. It was late Christian songwriter, Keith Green, who sang the words, ‘you give God your best and he’ll take care of the rest’. The Christian is called to strive for the prize. (Philippians 3:14) We are urged to press on. And when we fall we pick ourselves up and get back in the race. (Thank you Frank Sinatra)

But we don’t beat ourselves up. We don’t live in guilt and wallow in shame. And if our fall is, in our own mind, a sin- then we confess that to God and know, really know that we are forgiven and thus freed to live for Christ.

I want you to imagine a relationship between two people in love where neither has expectations for the other, where neither keeps score of any wrongs that occur. This is the state of the person who is ‘in Christ’ and thereby in union with God. And this position of salvation and life is sustained and maintained by the grace of the Father. The bible says that we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly place. (Ephesians 2:6) which I take to mean, ‘out of harms way’ in terms of any kind of judgment and so we are truly freed from having to ‘feel’ like we should be better than we are trying our best to be.

Or let’s consider the analogy of an electrician who is mentoring an apprentice. The mentor states that all that is needed is the apprentices’ trust and best effort. At their first meeting it is agreed that the degree and job are guaranteed. Of course there will be direction and even correction and warnings here and there but the covenant has been established and will not be broken. So too God is not breaking his covenant with us because it is Jesus who has sealed that covenant in his own blood.

All this gives us the freedom to live for Christ because at the heart of it all is the truth that it is not we who are living this life as Paul writes but it is Christ who is living it in us. (Galatians 2:20)

A Tight Squeeze

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy [a that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. –Jesus in Mathew 7

We don’t go willy-nilly into Kingdom Life with Jesus. He inaugurated the Kingdom on earth and explained it in the Sermon on the Mount and invites his hearers to follow him, to listen to his words and do the things he says as a way towards transformation of their hearts and a way to build strong and joyful lives, knowing that no matter their circumstances they can place their confidence in him and experience the Kingdom life.

He calls the entrance into this kind of life a narrow gate, a hard way yet one that leads to life. We cannot enter it unless we are vigorous, trusting and obedient. It’s just the way it is. Life is like that in so many ways. I like the analogy Dallas Willard uses in his book ‘The Divine Conspiracy’. He writes that a math teacher tells his students, ‘Unless you can do decimals and fractions there is no way you will be able to do algebra.’ Some of us have had that experience. You can’t just do life your own way. There are ways and means and disciplines that are strenuous but lead to better life and I the case of the Kingdom, eternal life.

If you want to play the piano there are elementary things you must do first like learning the keys and the scales and then you must practice, practice and practice some more to be good and to enjoy the piano.

If you want to play basketball you must learn that the ball needs to go into the hoop and not in just some vicinity of the basket. You must learn how to dribble, pass and work as a team or you will not make it.

If we are going to follow Jesus then we must know the way that Jesus teaches, the path he sets for us. For example he tells us to forgive. If we say ‘no’, then we will never experience God’s forgiveness. That’s just the law of Kingdom life. Do we want to live that way knowing Jesus is the greatest teacher that ever lived and he is the Son of God as well? He tells us to pray, to love, to rest, and to trust and he tells us to believe that we are the children of God, that God is our Father, our Abba in the intimate Aramaic term.

He tells us there is a door of self-denial through which we must pass. It’s narrow, stress producing and confining but through it leads to open, freeing, joyous life. Not biological life but God’s eternal life that begins now.

Jesus says to stay in his word, read his word. Read it over and over until you have mastered its contents and then mastered its heart, the heart of Jesus. Those words in the Bible have life in them. Paul writes somewhere for us to let them dwell in our hearts.

I live in a gated community and to take my dog, Lucy, for a walk I have to enter through two posts where two different gates come together separating the properties. It is one tight squeeze and here’s the thing, if I gain any more weight I will not be able to get through. Through the gate is life and a long beautiful walk through the woods. Through the narrow gate is life with Jesus, with God’s spirit, with the Father. I don’t have to lose weight to get through but I might just need to lose ‘myself’.

Becoming an Olympian Christian

It must be an amazing journey to become a participant in the Olympics. The process usually starts when a person is very young and someone has his or her sights set on the Olympic prize for a child or young person.  They need sponsors, lots of money and the opportunity to practice at time 24/7. They win at school events and then in the community, state and country.  They work hard for a goal, the medals and a place in history. Whether for a team or as an individual the Olympian is the best of the best.

 In some religions there are systematic ways by which with much striving, working, self-denial and self-discipline one can attain to the goal of being welcomed into the religious community, into the company of the elite.  But here I want to say that with Jesus it is different.

It is sort of like being made an Olympian first and then getting to practice until you reach perfection. Let me explain.

When Jesus began his ministry he told all people that they were welcomed into the Kingdom of God by his invitation. Say yes to the invite and they were ‘in’. Recall the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God.’ (Luke 6:20)  Jesus is not saying that the state of being poor is blessed. It’s not. But to those who were poor, and whose poverty was seen as disfavor by God, Jesus said they were welcome into this Kingdom that had been newly inaugurated on earth through his presence.

 Jesus starts with the goal and once enlisted those who follow him will be taught how to live life in the Kingdom of God. They will be challenged to become perfect even as their heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48) And that’s a good thing because that kind of life is the good life, the God life in us.

 New life has come in Jesus and all we need do is place our trust in him and begin the journey. Will the journey be arduous at times? You bet but here’s the great thing. The coach will stay with us through the whole experience. In fact the coach, mysterious as this might sound, will place his life in ours.

I suspect if you are an Olympian athlete the coach’s voice will become ingrained into your very soul. Well, take the words of Jesus and let them soak into your mind. The Bible puts it like this, “Let the word of Christ dwell richly in you.” (Colossians 3:16) By word and Spirit we can’t go wrong.

 So no matter your condition when Jesus meets up with you please know that you are welcome into the Kingdom of his Father. It’s a brand new exciting life. And for the rest of your life you can have the pleasure of being in the day-to-day Olympics of living here and now in the Kingdom of God. 

‘Judgment free driving’

Ok, let’s get back in our cars and take a test drive today. It’s time for ROAD GRACE, that wonderful experience on the highways of life that teach us about what it means to follow the Master Jesus in the journey of faith.

If you have been following ‘Road Grace’ you have come to realize that driving offers a school of experience in which to practice the graces of the Christian life.  Today’s lesson is about ‘judging’.  You may recall Jesus’ words on this subject from the Sermon on the Mount where he plainly says to the students he has collected, “Don’t judge others, or you will be judged. You will be judged in the same way that you judge others, and the amount you give to others will be given to you.“Why do you notice the little piece of dust in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the big piece of wood in your own eye? (Matthew 7:1-3 New Century Version)

So, how do you feel about people talking on their cellphones, drifting off their lane?If you are like me you think, ‘What a jerk’.  What about the guy who rushes up on the right shoulder so that he can get ahead of the traffic? What a selfish so and so. We form opinions pretty quickly out there on the roadways. Those ‘rich folks’ drive their fancy cars. Over in the other lane are a bunch of no doubt rowdy kids looking for trouble. And how about those trucks that are so high off the ground you need a ladder just to get into the driver’s seat? How stupid. All kinds of thoughts dart in and out of your mind as you watch other drivers, their style, their appearance, their speed and if you are like me you often find yourself quick to judge that ‘other’ person.

It’s not much different in the journey with Jesus.  His instructions make it clear to the disciples, his students, that to judge someone is to find fault with them and thereby set us over and above them. Judging comes from pride. It’s what the Pharisee did to the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, not knowing anything about the heart of that publican.  It’s what we do on the highways and in personal relationships that comes from our own pride. We judge by other’s actions, words, lifestyle without ever knowing what is in their hearts. This might not be such a big deal on the highway but in real life situations and relationships it is most damaging.  We dismiss if not destroy another’s character when we should be more closely looking into our own hearts for those hints of pride and prejudice. Judgment comes from an inflated sense of self. And in judging we do not let God be sovereign. Let God do that work in us that needs to be done to build our character without tearing down another’s.

Out there on the highway we have the opportunity to practice in a sometimes-humorous way the disciplines and graces we need in all relationships with others and with God. So when you see another person looking or doing something that is ‘not quite right’ remember to say to yourself, ‘Move over ego and let the Master drive this automobile. Think of one person in your life about whom you make judgments and for a moment in prayer ask God’s forgiveness and pray that God will bless that other person. You will thus open your soul to a wealth of love and forgiveness from God.

A Fresh Approach to the Beatitudes

It seems that a lot of folks look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 as some sort of spiritual self-examination to determine if they can get into the Kingdom of God.

I see them as wide-open invitations for everyone to place their confidence in Jesus because he IS the Kingdom of God. And he is there for everyone.  It is not a matter of reaching some kind of spiritual achievement before you can realize his presence. It’s a matter of trusting him to give you the Kingdom, entrusting it to you and me.

I want to imagine for a moment Jesus on a hillside with lots of people who have come there because they have heard that he might be the new Messiah for the people of Israel. Most of them have come to the hillside because they are not so welcome in the temple or synagogues. Perhaps the sick, the sinful, a few ‘righteous’ folks and among the crowds those whom Jesus would call to follow him were there too.

Now this is the first large gathering of folks and what Jesus would say would set a tone for his ministry. He wanted to be clear about what was expected in this new age and he wanted the people to be sure they knew their place in the Kingdom of God.  Some say that Matthew used ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ out of sensitivity about using the name of God. Kingdom of heaven and Kingdom of God are the same.

So Jesus is looking over the crowds. He knows who they are and why they have come. And he is about to make an invitation to join him in this Kingdom that he has brought. Remember that his first words were, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’. (Matthew 4)

So now I want to use some different language for the beatitudes, words that have more impact on the folks for whom religion has become irrelevant or outdated. Nevertheless they express this good news that Jesus is announcing.

So let’s begin.

You have a special place in God’s heart and providence, you who think so little of yourselves, who have so little.  Even though you are not knowledgeable about spiritual things God places high value on your life and wants to give you his kingdom.

And you, the ones who hurt, ache, and grieve over life’s casualties, God has taken special regard for you in his kingdom. He wants to soothe you, comfort you, and hold you in his arms in his Kingdom and say, ‘It’s ok. You’re safe now’

And then he looks around and notices the people who always seem to take the last place or perhaps have been shoved there. There seems to be no room for you but THIS, my life surrounding and embracing you, is the new Promised Land You are with me and God will make sure that you share in everything that I have and will have. God is colonizing the earth with people like you. You rule!

And then Jesus takes note within his spirit of the Jews in the crowd who have longed for justice, righteousness, fairness that only the Kingdom of God could bring, only the Messiah could enact. Jesus is that justice, righteousness they long for. He is the Son of God, the King incarnate and tells them in so many words that their search is favored by God, approved by God if you will. They will be as satisfied as the sheep that graze on good ground.  God has heard their cry and sent his son to set things aright in the Kingdom of God.

And then there are those in the crowd who are so kind to others. In the midst of their hard lives they take time for others for it’s the only way perhaps right now that justice can be done. One on one. Face to face. God has a place for them in his heart. It’s for them his Kingdom has come. They may not have religious training. They may not be good Jews but they care. Love matters to God and so Jesus promises that in his administration they are going to receive, know, and experience the mercy, the kindness of God.   MORE TO COME…..

 

ANGER ON THE HIGHWAY (second in a series on Road Grace)

Recall that Jesus told his disciples that not only were they NOT to commit murder they were further instructed to NOT be angry with those who were close to them nor were they to insult their neighbor. See Matthew 5:21,22.

So come with me as we get into our 3600-pound car and learn something about anger on the highways of life. Because out there on the streets you will have plenty of opportunity to observe anger even, your own which is what we are here most concerned about.

Let’s do some defining of this word anger. It means to be indignant or enraged. It is the ego’s reaction when anything outside threatens to trespass on the property of the self. It is a kind of contempt for another person’s words or actions. Oh, you can be frustrated because you can’t do a job and be said to get angry but the anger we are discussing here is a reaction to another’s actions or words. See it’s YOUR car, YOUR right to drive, YOUR space that needs to be respected and YOUR power that no one should attempt to thwart.

You are riding down the road doing the speed limit but some big ole SUV comes up behind you to infer that you need to ‘move it buddy’. Oh, yeah, that can provoke some contempt and words like ‘jerk’, ‘idiot’ and worse might come to your mind.  And because of your pride, if you have a friend riding with you, you might say, ‘watch how I deal with these kind of people’, at which point you brake suddenly for the imaginary moose that just ran out in front of you. There, that will show him or her not to fool with me.

Then there are the times when a person might cut in front of you provoking your thoughts to be, ‘people like that really make my blood boil.’ That’s anger, and revenge might just seem justifiable. And the list of similar experiences goes on.

Now, you might be thinking, what does all this have to do with following Jesus’ words, his commands about anger? Good question. The answer is that rage on the highway translates into rage in relationships. If we are the kind of people who get angry with someone on the road we might well have our tempers flare up at other provocations. Think of what causes you to get angry with your spouse, child, co-worker, and neighbor.

What I am suggesting is that out there on the highway, down the streets of life is the opportunity to address this anger, be more conformed to the life of Christ that is already in you.  Remember Paul wrote that is it no longer we who live this life but Christ who lives in us. See Galatians 2:20.

So the first thing we will have to do is recognize our egos, our prideful selves, our power and the temptation to easily be angered.  Identify that inclination even before you get on the highway. Review in your mind’s eye the times you have been angry on the roads of life and never mind justifying those incidents. Instead say to that ‘self’, that ego: “You are not helping me”. “You feel good but you are no good.” ‘Now get outta here, go away.’ See you can talk to your ‘self’. You really can. As a child of God, a follower of Christ and a spiritual person you have the power to stand back and address the self that inside of you, a self that needs power and prestige. A self that does not like humility does not see humility as an answer to anything. Watch some of the FAST AND FURIOUS movies and see how good revenge and power feels. These movies are meant to feed the ego. They sell better that way.

Secondly you, and I, are going to want to pray that as we use our one ton, two ton vehicle or more if you are an over the road truck driver, pray that you will have a calm spirit. You might want to write Psalm 46:10 over your visor, BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD. The ‘I’ there is not referring to you or me. How about Psalm 37:8 ‘refrain from anger’.

See getting rid of anger takes discipline, spiritual disciplines.  Even taking a defensive driver course can be a spiritual discipline of saying, ‘Lord, I am doing this to be more like Christ out there on the highway and thus more like Christ in every daily living situation.

You might need a mentor, someone with whom you drive that lovingly holds you accountable. “George, you need to calm down. Let’s pull over here and take a break. George, you really don’t need to keep blowing your horn. Uh, uh, the one finger wave is not the way to go. George, keep your eyes on the road while I pray for you. George you really are a great guy. You don’t need to prove anything out here on the highway.’

And finally, relax. Jesus isn’t giving us new laws so that we can declare how righteous we are by how little we get angry on the highway. Work with him, drive with him. If you fail then forget it and get on with the next situation that will present itself for your improvement.  Eventually you and I will be less angry out there and in other circumstances and relationships as well.

So start your engines.

GRACE ON MAIN STREET

For a long time I have wanted to write a book or a study guide called ROAD GRACE. It’s a counter title to what is otherwise known as Road Rage. I am thinking that my life on the roads and highways of life can actually be a training ground for my life with Jesus. Stay with me now. I believe that most of what Jesus told us to do in living the life of a disciple can be practiced out there on the streets of my town, the interstates, and just about anywhere my car can travel. So I have decided on this blog to begin my writing in hopes that maybe some of you will respond, offer suggestions from your own experience, or make a critique of the content.

Let me give you one example of what I am thinking. There is a little road in my village called Love Lane, aptly named for this experiment. Remember that Jesus told us not to make a show of our good deeds and not to let our right hand know what our left hand was doing. These are his instructions for having a humble attitude about our works and our giving. You can find this in the Sermon on the Mount. So I am riding down Love Lane and this person starts to cross the street in front of me. Mind you, there is no crosswalk where he is but I stop and gesture to him to go ahead and cross. I want to be kind. I then wait for some type of response, some acknowledgment or thanks for my kindness. And then it hits me. Was I doing my good deed to be kind or to be noticed? Why do I need to feel rewarded? Jesus said to do things in secret and my heavenly Father would reward me in secret. It is sort of between God and me.

That day on Love Lane I learned a valuable lesson about my ego, my pride, my need for attention. I confessed my sin and made a vow that from now on when I come to a similar situation I will simply do what I think is a kindness and not wait for any response. I am not owed that. See? In relationships of caring for another I want to do my best to love without thinking the person owes me anything for my action or words. I do what I do because I love God and want to love my neighbor, the one who is crossing the street or the one I live with. I want to empty the dishwasher in my house without needing a pat on my back for my kindness. God loves me. Jesus walks with me and I am doing just fine. Ok, there are times when I look to see if someone acknowledges that I let him or her cross the little street. Hey, I fall. But I get up and try again by the grace of God. And I will get it right eventually. So there you go. Road Grace. Every day there is some opportunity to practice the Christ life on the highways of life. More to come. Thanks for reading.

A New Sheriff in Town

Matthew 5:6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied fully.’

Back in 1968 the Rev. Martin Luther King spoke these words about the Kingdom of God and justice: It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do. (from the Mountain Top speech)

Righteousness and Justice is not only for getting saved and getting into heaven. It is for now and for here. Of course Christ is our righteousness but he is also our Lord for our day-to-day life. People in Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah to bring justice to their land. Jesus says that it happens in the Kingdom of God. Jesus made it very clear to his followers that they were to love each other in deeds done out of mercy. They were to be concerned for their neighbor, which basically meant anyone in need. They were to care for the sick, the hungry, the homeless and the imprisoned and well, really, anyone. So those who want to see things get right will indeed meet a friend in Jesus and Kingdom life will include right living, right believing, and right doing.

I often like to say that with Jesus’ entry into the world, ‘a new sheriff has come to town.’