THE BEST WE CAN

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:19-21 (MSG)]

Thompson's gazelleAs a teen and young adult, it was easy to be critical of my parents and their parenting. Vowing I’d never say or do some of the things they did, I was sure I’d never make any of their mistakes. Once I became a mother, however, I became far more forgiving and sympathetic. I understood that, all things considered, my parents had done the best they could. Granted, they didn’t always make the right decisions but I believe they thought they were the correct ones at the time. Parents want to keep their children from heartbreak, disappointment and harm; they want more and better for their children than they had. As a result, in spite of their best intentions, they can be over-protective, judgmental, enabling, dictatorial or stubborn. And, yes, I made some of the same mistakes my parents did (and plenty more of my own). Yet, looking at the finished products, I did just fine! Now, as parents, my children have the opportunity to make their own share of mistakes.

The vast majority of people don’t wake each morning intending to be unforgiving, unsympathetic, intractable, or indifferent. We don’t plan on being selfish, temperamental, hypercritical or rude. Rather, most of us probably wake up wanting to be kind and loving people. Unfortunately, we’re not always good at doing that! None of us are perfect; being human, we all make plenty of mistakes. People hurt us and we hurt others, but rarely do we or they do it on purpose. I never started the day planning to yell at my children or lose my temper, yet I often did. I certainly never begin the day intending to be impatient, inconsiderate, or negative, but that happens far too often. My prayer each morning is simply to be a better person that day than the one I was the day before and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that is slowly happening.

When we remember that sometimes our best efforts are not nearly good enough, it becomes much easier to forgive others for their failings. Forgiveness doesn’t mean those actions are right or good; it doesn’t mean we approve of them or accept them. It simply means we forgive them. While we’re forgiving others, we should forgive ourselves for our shortcomings as well. Let’s release our regrets; we all could have done better, but what’s done is done. If God can forgive us, we ought to be able to do so, too.

Father, lift any hidden resentment and regret from our hearts and replace them with love and forgiveness. Help us accept that flaws, both ours and those of others, are part of being human. Show us how to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we can be better people today than we were yesterday, and even better ones tomorrow.

Some days, doing “the best we can” may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect – on any front – and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else. [Fred Rogers]

I was wrong before. I’m smarter now. [Chris Bohjalian]

Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. [1 Peter 4:8 (MSG)]

If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance? As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped. [Psalm 130:3-4 (MSG)] 

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FRESH STARTS

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. [Titus 3:5 (NLT)]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

desert paintbrushSent by God to warn the people of Nineveh of God’s judgment, Jonah went in the opposite direction. After he survived three days in the belly of a fish, God gave Jonah another chance to deliver His message to the people of Nineveh. This time, Jonah delivered the news that God intended to destroy the city in forty days. When Nineveh’s king heard Jonah’s warning, he called for fasting, praying, and repenting their evil ways. People and animals were to cover themselves with sackcloth (a coarse fabric of goat’s hair) as a sign of grief, submission, and contrition.  Seeing their repentance, God was merciful and gave them another chance.

Barnabas and his cousin John Mark accompanied Paul to Cyprus but, for some unknown reason, John Mark deserted the other two in Pamphylia. Paul initially refused to give the man another chance but both God and Barnabas did. The cousins went to Cyprus and Paul and Silas went to Syria and Cilicia. Eventually, however, Paul gave the one-time deserter another chance and, twelve years later, John Mark was with the Apostle during his first imprisonment in Rome. When Paul was approaching the end of his life, he requested John Mark’s presence during his second Roman imprisonment. What became of John Mark? Because he was given another chance, the man who once abandoned Barnabas and Paul became the man we know as the gospel writer Mark!

Peter failed Jesus by denying Him; when given another chance he became “the rock” and leader of the disciples. Saul failed Jesus by persecuting His followers; given another chance, he became Paul and carried the gospel message throughout the Roman Empire to Jews and Gentiles alike. While we don’t know what happened to the woman caught in adultery, we know Jesus gave her another chance with the admonition to, “Go and sin no more.” One look at the history of the Israelites tells us that God is not a God of second chances; He’s the God of many chances!

We are not our poor choices and our failures should never haunt, confine, or define us. Our God is one of both forgiveness and transformation. Because He gives us another chance, who we were yesterday does not have to be who we are today. Unfortunately for Nineveh, their repentance didn’t last for long. Instead of leaving their past behind, they returned to their sinful ways. The second chance God gave them was wasted and the city of “murder and lies” was destroyed 148 years after Jonah’s first warning. Our God specializes in renewal and fresh starts. The people of Nineveh wasted theirs; let’s not make the same mistake!

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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LOVE SHALL NEVER DIE

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. … Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. [Luke 6:32-35a,36 (NLT)]

One of the hymns at our Easter Eve service was Christ is Alive and we sang, “In every insult, rift and war, where color, scorn or wealth divide, Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, where even hope has died.”  I thought of how hate must be like another nail in His hands and intolerance another scourging on His skin. The text of the hymn was written by Brian Wren in April of 1968, just two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I could not let Easter go by without speaking of this tragic event which was on all our minds, “ he explained. “The hymn tries to see God’s love winning over tragedy and suffering in the world.”

Little did I know while singing those words that, just a few hours later, there would be tragedy and suffering half-way around the world in Sri Lanka. Coordinated bombings at three churches and four hotels turned Easter Sunday into a blood bath leaving more than 300 people dead and 500 injured. A Sri Lankan Sunday school class at Zion Church met before the service that morning. When their teacher asked, “How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” all of the children raised their hands. As they rededicated themselves to Jesus by lighting candles, little did they know that half of them actually would die for Christ that very morning. As they crossed a courtyard to enter the sanctuary, a stranger exploded the bomb he was carrying in his backpack.

Last week, bullets ripped through a peaceful Passover service at a synagogue outside of San Diego, leaving one dead and three inured. Exactly six months earlier, 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In March, at least 50 were killed and 20 injured in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In January, two suicide bombers detonated their bombs in a Catholic church in the Philippines, leaving 20 dead and more than 100 injured. Last October, a gunman attacked a Sabbath service in a Pittsburgh synagogue, leaving 11 dead. The heart of God must be filled with grief at these horrific acts of terror and hate.

We live in a fallen world—a world where war, pain, injustice, violence, anger, and prejudice abound. As we mourn the loss of innocent lives, we must resist the temptation to return hate with even more hostility. Just as we pray for their victims, we must also pray for the extremists who perpetuate these terrible attacks. The war on terror isn’t just a political battle; it’s a spiritual battle against the Prince of Darkness.

Let us remember that Christ’s message is one of love and love is more powerful than hate. As a nation, we must work to resolve the social and political issues that encourage terrorism but, as Christians, peace must begin with us. We are called to love everyone—not just the people with whom we agree. Rather than living in fear, as Christians, we must live in hope. Let us be people of prayer against the ungodly hatred and violence of our world. We must extend the hand of friendship and love to all people, not just the ones who think, look, speak, and worship like us.

“Christ is alive!” we sang at that Easter service. “The cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. Love, drowned in death, shall never die.” Let us answer the hate of the world with His love!

At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it. [Fyodor Dostoyevsky from “The Brothers Karamazov”]

You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-45 (NLT)]

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FEARING

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. [Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)]

I thought of Mr. Fearing in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress when a friend told me about her mother who was nearing the end of her life. Although a Christian, she believed there was something in her distant past for which she couldn’t be forgiven. Even though her family reassured her that Jesus died for her sins and God is faithful to His promises, she still seemed fearful of taking that final journey home.

In Bunyan’s tale, Mr. Fearing’s story is told by his guide to the Celestial City, Mr. Great Heart. Even though Fearing escaped the Swamp of Despondence, he seemed to carry that despondence in his mind everywhere he went. When Fearing came to the gate where it said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he was afraid to knock. Sure that he was unworthy of entrance, he stood back and allowed others to take his place whenever the door opened. When he eventually had the gumption to timidly knock, Fearing fainted in unbelief when the door was opened for him.

Accompanied by Mr. Great Heart, Mr. Fearing continued on his journey. He effortlessly hiked straight up the Hill of Difficulty, showed no fear when he encountered lions, and easily walked down into the Valley of Humiliation. When the travelers had to pass through Vanity Fair (a place ruled by Beelzebub and filled with evil temptations), Mr. Fearing had no difficulty staying on the Way and, while others fell asleep in the Enchanted Ground (the land of spiritual lethargy), Fearing stayed alert. But, believing himself unworthy of God’s grace, his shame kept him from enjoying the blessings God provided on the journey and caused him to be afraid of death and the journey’s end.

Mr. Fearing wasn’t afraid of difficulties, danger, or challenges to his faith but, because he had doubts about his welcome in the Celestial City, he was terrified of death and Hell. His fear was that of his final acceptance—that God would reject him! Sure that he’d drown and never see the face of the King he’d traveled so far to meet, he was afraid to cross the River of Death: the only way to the Celestial City. Both Fearing and my friend’s mother eventually crossed that river and were welcomed because all of their sins had been forgiven.

As Good Heart related the story of Mr. Fearing to Christiana and her fellow pilgrims, they shared their fears about their own salvation—fears that many of us may share. Bunyan experienced this same fear; in his autobiography, he said that early in his conversion Satan tempted him to unbelief by declaring his sins unpardonable. Bunyan’s reply to the enemy simply was, “Well, I will pray.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to believe in God’s extravagant grace: that, as soiled and unworthy as we are, we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Let us remember—the burden of our sins fell off at the foot of the cross! God didn’t sacrifice His son for us because we deserved it; He did out of love for us! Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not saints! When we fear our welcome in God’s heavenly realm, let us do as did John Bunyan: let us pray!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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THE BURDEN

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. [Psalm 38:4 (NLT)]

First published in 1678, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is the second best-selling book of all time (the first being the Bible). In this religious allegory, the reader follows the adventures and trials of Christian (Part I) and his wife Christiana and their children (Part II) as they journey from the City of Destruction toward the Celestial City.

The iconic picture of the pilgrim Christian is that of a man bent over with a heavy pack strapped to his back. From that illustration, many assume that means Christians must carry a heavy burden, which is anything but the truth. Although Bunyan’s allegory opens with the man saddled with that pack on his back, he is free of its enormous weight for most of the story.

At the book’s start, the burdened man is crying while reading the Bible. Realizing that death is followed by judgment, he fears that his heavy load of sin will condemn him to Hell. The troubled man asks, “What must I do to be saved?” When the Evangelist tells him to follow the light to the Narrow Gate, Christian leaves on his pilgrim’s journey. He still carries that pack laden with the weight and shame of his sins; it is a burden that he can’t remove by himself.

Even after Christian enters the Gate, that heavy load remains. Goodwill tells him to be content carrying it until he comes to the Place of Deliverance.  Upon getting there, Christian sees a cross at the top of the hill and a tomb at the bottom. As he approaches the Cross, the straps on his pack loosen from his shoulders. The burden drops to the ground, tumbles down the hill, and disappears into the mouth of the sepulcher. Christian’s burden has been transferred to Jesus who, while on that cross, atoned for all of his sins. When the empty tomb receives his sins, they are gone forever.

It’s no surprise that Charles Spurgeon’s favorite book (after the Bible) was The Pilgrim’s Progress, that this man known as the “Prince of Preachers” read it at least one hundred times, or that Bunyan’s allegory has been used by Christian missionaries for centuries. As with the parables of Jesus, the book’s powerful visual images skillfully illuminate gospel truths. Christian’s burden falling at the cross is what Good Friday was all about. We are rid of the weight of sin and the burden of trying to earn our way into God’s good graces. Released from guilt and condemnation, we are free of sin’s penalty because Jesus paid that price for us. That Christian will eventually reach the Celestial City is what Easter was about!

We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. [Romans 6:6-8 (NLT)]

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. [Matthew 11:28 (NLT)]

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THE SA MEETING

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:15-16 (RSV)]

Canada geeseReading Paul’s words acknowledging his sinfulness makes me picture a meeting of the Pearly Gates chapter of a 12-step support program called Sinners Anonymous (SA for short). The meeting would be well attended simply because sinfulness is an undisputed characteristic of all mankind and we are all guilty before God.

Paul would get the meeting started by introducing himself and claiming to be the worst sinner of them all: “I’m the sinner once known as Saul. I persecuted Christians and stood by while people stoned Stephen.” The hymn writer might disagree. “I’m the wretched sinner John Newton. Blind and lost, an ‘infidel and libertine,’ I was a slave trader.” Then the disciple would rise and introduce himself: “Hello, my name is Thomas and I’m a sinner. I abandoned the Lord when he was arrested and then doubted his resurrection.” A nameless man from the back of the room might speak: “I was there at His crucifixion but I, too, am a sinner. My life was spent in crime.” Perhaps the gospel writer would speak next: “I’m the sinner Matthew; as a greedy tax-collector, I was both traitor and thief.” The priest would introduce himself: “I’m Augustine: a sinner who once abandoned the faith for paganism, used and abandoned women, and lived a life of debauchery.”  A matronly woman would announce, “I’m Martha and a sinner who often became so busy with life’s mundane details that I failed to put our Lord first.” Peter would jump up and say, “I’m worse! I’m such a sinner that I denied our Lord, not once, but three times!”

If there were a heavenly SA group, however, it wouldn’t be called Sinners Anonymous; it would be Saints Anonymous! The same people would be there and the same sins would have been committed but the introductions would be quite different from the ones I presented. While all those at that SA gathering were sinners, their sins were forgiven and their faith in Jesus would have made them saints. Instead of identifying themselves as sinners and listing their sordid transgressions, the attendees would introduce themselves as the redeemed children of God whose sins had been forgiven and forgotten. As members of the body of Christ, they’d introduce themselves as saints, not sinners!

Like Paul, we’re all sinners but, like Paul, through our faith in Jesus Christ, we’ve been reborn. We may be sinners but we’re also saints. Thank you, God!

There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future. [Augustine of Hippo]

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Colossians 1:11-14 (RSV)]

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