“No perfect people allowed.”

Prayers with no words....

I took a sabbatical from church. I really hadn’t intended to, it just worked out that way. I had a church I loved and then the Pastor retired, after that everything seemed to fall apart. It was like a corporate take-over. One service after we got out I asked Elaine, “Did we just go to church?” It felt like speed church, kind of like speed dating. Fifteen minutes and you’re out the door. The new Pastor was perfect, and so was his wife. I remember she had some fabulously expensive red pumps. Their kids looked perfect too. And the services were scripted and programmed, no room for error. No room for the Holy Spirit either.

There was no prayer, no invitation at the end, I felt like God’s Spirit had checked out.

Then we went to another “Mega-church.”  It was a pretty large congregation but we liked what we heard from the pulpit and the Pastor was a really humble regular guy. We were just on the brink of joining and the same thing happened all over again. The Church lost its lease and the building was sold. The Pastor was given a back-seat, and it was another corporate take-over. Signs were changed out front and the whole church was restructured and made over (there was nothing wrong with it the way it was). The first thing I noticed when I walked in were the flat-screens playing a football game. I was disgusted.

After that, we stayed home on Sundays. Sometimes, we went hiking and had church on the mountain. It was really kind of liberating in a way. After about a year though, we knew we had to start another search. Something wasn’t right. Church has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It set the tone for the week. But I still wasn’t ready to go just for the sake of going.

Each day on the way to work I pass this particular church. The sign out front is the first thing I noticed about it. It said, “No perfect people allowed.” I told Elaine, “I think I could probably go there.” We tried it and we liked what we heard, the message was straight out of the Bible, and it was quite possibly the best sermon on “prejudice” I have ever heard. It was a breath of fresh air. There was also a cool-looking woman in funky dress on stage playing an electric violin which I loved.

When the Pastor and his wife served us communion they spoke words of love over us and looked us in the eye. And at the end of the service there were prayer warriors in front at  for anyone who needed it. There was what I had missed. The spoken Word and the Resurrection power of a changed life, and the hopeful probability that you would walk out differently than when you walked in. That’s church.

That’s home.

And it’s good to be back.

How much forgiveness is enough?

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This is something I have been struggling with ever since I saw those 21 orange clad men marched out on the beach to their deaths. When you’re confronted with a purely evil act you wonder if you could forgive. I have been asking myself over and over again, could I forgive if those men had been my friends, my family? It has been a stumbling block to my writing I have not been able to get over.

Forgiveness is central to the core belief system of Christianity, one of the cornerstones on which our faith is built. And it’s easy to say, easy to believe. It feels right deep down in your soul. That is, until someone does something to one of your own.

I remember when the Amish school girls were killed and how the world watched in amazement when even in the midst of their grief and loss, they didn’t cast blame or point fingers. They didn’t hold a press conferences and surround themselves with lawyers. They simply forgave. Even more astounding is that they reached out in love to the killer’s family and even went to his funeral. There were more Amish there than non-Amish.

They acted in pure grace, the grace that they learned from their open Bibles; the kind Jesus taught and the kind He displayed, even while dying an excruciating death by praying for those who were still mocking even as He gasped His last breath.

What I didn’t remember about the Amish case was that the killer, Charles Roberts, was tormented for nine years by the premature death of his young daughter and never forgave God for her death. It’s easy to love your enemies if you have none. And it’s easy to forgive if there is nothing to forgive. It’s easy to embrace the philosophy of forgiveness but when it comes down to it, could I really forgive the unforgivable? I struggle with even the small stuff.

I had problems with the scooter in front of me this morning on the way to work. There he was buzzing along fully 10 miles under the speed limit. It was the fastest he could go. He was doing the best he could, poor guy. But I was as irate as I sensed everyone else was. Then I thought, maybe that’s his only mode of transportation right now. I was heaping all this silly rage on his poor unsuspecting head. I prayed for forgiveness. Again. I have to do that a lot while I drive.

As I re-read the beatitudes this morning, I realized how far off the mark I really am.

Peter once asked Jesus just how much we are supposed to forgive. I understand that, I really do. In effect what he was asking was, how much is enough? What’s the required amount to fulfill God’s expectations. Peter was still stuck on the Law. Jesus said, “70 times 70,” which is pretty much infinity.

I wonder sometimes how well I really know Jesus. What He says is truly counter-cultural here in America. We are fighters after all. We don’t lay down and die. It’s written all over our history books. We are a nation of upstarts, otherwise the Boston Tea Party never would have happened.

As a Christian, I have to accept that certain American ideals I have grown up believing are not necessarily Biblical. There are times when laying down the sword and turning the other cheek is not a weakness, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do.

This is what I was mulling over in my mind this morning:

Not forgiving someone is giving them power over you. Forgiveness frees the soul and places the balance of power back where it belongs, with God. It’s a matter of trust that He, as the ultimate Judge will ultimately and in His time, right every wrong.

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31

Image from Google

Lent Day #43: “I have seen the Lord”

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I think it’s a strike of genius for director Franco Zeffirelli to have cast “Mrs. Robinson” as Mary of Magdala in 1977’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” For those of you youngsters, Anne Bancroft played the older (married) woman who Dustin Hoffman had an affair with in “The Graduate.” Later he goes on to date (and then marry) her daughter who was played by the lovely Katherine Ross. As I was praying and pondering what the Lord would have me post today. All I got was one phrase:

“I have seen the Lord.”

Immediately, I saw Anne Bancroft’s beatific expression in my mind, she so brilliantly played the part as only she could. I have often thought of why Jesus picked Mary of Magdala as the first person to see Him after he rose from the grave. I imagine her hurrying up the path with the other women, sorrow still so fresh upon her soul.

When they came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, Mary immediately ran and found Peter and John and after they saw the empty tomb, they believed but went home. Mary though, stayed at the tomb and wept. Because she stayed, she was rewarded by an angel visitation and then, Jesus Himself.

I wonder how many times we just go home too soon and miss the miracle?

Last night we had a visit with a neighbor and the topic rolled around (as it does so often) to religion. He felt like many people do, that religions are basically all the same and that the three main religions, Muslim, Judaism, and Christianity all worship the same God so the differences are just technicalities. Those weren’t his own words, I am paraphrasing. After identifying that we were Christian we talked about the Bible and he said what so many people say. All those books were imperfect because they were written by a bunch of men who generated their own opinions and bias into it.

I didn’t want to get in a big long debate so I just said, “To me, what makes Christianity stand out from all the rest is that it’s a relationship with a living God who wanted to come down and relate to His people on a personal level. All the others are man trying to find God. And it’s changed lives, transformations in my own life and other lives I have seen.”

I guess what I was trying to say was that like Mary Magdalene at the tomb, “I have seen (and experienced) the Lord!”

I guess that’s what it all comes down to. I have felt the same joy and wonder and excitement Mary did when she came face to face with Jesus and realized her life would never ever be the same. And I have seen it in others too.

That’s our hope, with it we have everything, without it, no matter how much we have in this life, it will never be enough.

Parable thoughts

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Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Matthew 25:19-22

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15

When I read a certain Bible passage, first I pray for the Holy Spirit’s help in understanding and interpreting the verse. Then I use my study guides to help me consider the context, in other words, where the writer was coming from and what he was talking about in the previous verses.

Even at that, I can still muck things up by over complicating it.

In reading these two passages, I did what I do most of the time. I insert myself in the story and I ask myself some questions:

“Which one am I, really?

“Which one does God see me as?

“How do others see me?

I imagine myself standing before Jesus on that day, hopping up and down on one singed foot…….”Well, here I am Lord! I barely escaped the flames but I’m here, whew!” And then with an almost imperceptible shake of His head and sadness in His eyes, He holds His arms out to me anyway.

And then there are the talents……all those gifts He gave me that I clung to in fear. That I held deep inside. Those things I was afraid to share with others…….that light I didn’t let shine for fear of failure. And those I buried in the backyard trying to them safe instead of giving them out so He could multiply them for me.

When it all comes down to it, we are extremely hard on ourselves. And the reason God put all those things in the Bible is not to make us feel terrible about ourselves, but to spur us on to action. To encourage us.

He wants us to see that while we see only our failure, He sees where we have succeeded in Him.

He sees those times we seem to think nothing of. Those times we prayed for hours, faithfully each morning. Those times we passed the grocery cart to the next person and smiled. The time we were a peace-maker at work. Those times we were obedient by picking up the phone to encourage a fellow believer……

When we stand there before Jesus, feeling very much alone, maybe feeling maybe a little bit like the cowardly lion before Oz?

I believe He will say: “Who are all those behind you?”

Then we will look…….and He will remind us of all those times. And all those people.

Maybe you are not Billy Graham. And maybe, like me, you don’t preach on street corners. But you do love God, and you do share that love with others. And your talents too.

And just maybe, that one kindness you do today will be that last barrier that you remove, that last thing standing in the way of someone else’s salvation.

You just never know.