Sunday, April 15, 2012

Try It the OTHER Way!

I have always believed myself to be ambidextrous.  I came by it honest.  My right-handed parents gave birth to a left-handed child and so I learned how to do most things backwards.  Well, backwards to me...correctly to most of you.  My parents taught me to fish, bowl, tie my shoes, bat and many other tasks right-handed because that is the only way they knew how.  

Yesterday while playing ball with my boys I learned something amazing!  When it came my turn to bat my husband told me to "try it the other way" know, just for fun.  So I did.  Guess what?!  I am a LEFT-handed batter.  I couldn't believe how much better I did just by swapping hitting sides.  It was unbelievable!  I hit the ball almost every pitch and it went a LOT farther.  I was (am still) astounded!!

Then I got to thinking about how that lesson can be applied to my spiritual walk.  You see, I've had sort of a regeneration of my faith in the past month.  I have discovered that I had not been giving God or Jesus enough credit.  Somehow I thought that Jesus' blood and sacrifice covered my sins BEFORE my conversion and profession of faith, but I was still trying to work my way to "getting better" by my own efforts.  

Thank the good Lord I got that straight!

I had put so much pressure on myself that I was ready to call it quits. I was just done.  I was overwhelmed, frustrated, aggravated, angry and most of all just tired!  I couldn't do it anymore.  That's when the grace of God was redefined for me.  

To think all these years I had been trusting God to save me from my past but still trying to work my way to heaven!  I'll keep this truth short and sweet with a couple of verses:

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new."  2 Corinthians 5:17

" ...being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ...being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."  Philippians 1:6,11

I am a new creation that has been started by God Himself and the fruit that is in me has been placed there by Jesus.  God is going to finish what He started.  There is no work that I can DO to add to what has already been done.  As the hymn says, "Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe.  Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow." 

Does this mean I stop serving the Lord?  Absolutely not!  But now, I do it for Him to get the glory; not because I'm trying to make up for my mistakes.  His grace covers me when I mess up.  He is not surprised by my blunders or screw-ups, He is not looking down on me shaking His head wondering what He's going to do with me.  He knows exactly what He's going to do with me!  I just need to let Him!!

All this time, I had been trying to pave the way to heaven MY way instead of relying on the way that had already been paved for me!  All this time, I had been batting the wrong way!  When I finally got turned around the right way, things went much better.  

It still feels a little weird when I bat left-handed.  But I know, now, that it works MUCH better that way!  It is the same in my spiritual walk.  Sometimes it stills feels strange to accept God's grace when I mess up and keep going.  It feels odd to trust God to do all the work while I simply spend my time being His instrument and getting to know Him better.  But I'm discovering that things just don't work MY way; instead, I need to turn around and try it the OTHER way!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Chained No More: The Freeing Power of Grace!

I wonder why more people don't want to become Christians.  I wonder why our faith is so difficult to talk about.  I wonder why more Christians aren't joyful.  All this makes me wonder:  How good is the good news?  

To be blunt, if Christians walk around looking like we just got finished sucking on a bag of lemons, the world will take notice...and promptly decide that if that is what being a "follower of Jesus" looks like, then they want no part in it.  Can you blame them?  If the news we have to share is so good - why don't we act like it?  

Maybe we don't fully understand the news. 

The most amazing part of the gospel is grace.  Grace literally means, "unmerited favor."  What God has made available to us, through the sacrifice of His Son, is His extravagant, unlimited, unmerited favor! It means that when Jesus came to forgive our sin, He came to forgive ALL our sin!  Past sin, present sin, even the sins we have yet to commit.  When we accept Christ, we acknowledge our guilt and He, in turn, declares us Not Guilty! 

If we are "not guilty," then how is it so many of us are walking around feeling guilty?  Why are so many of us tired of "fighting the good fight"?  Why do we feel so defeated?  Why do Christians often appear frustrated, stressed and less-than-joyful?

For me, the reason was simple.  I was trying to better myself.  I was trying so hard to be good that I was failing and making myself miserable.  I had already given God my "big" stuff.  I gave him my past promiscuity, my alcoholism, my abortion...all the really big bags, so to speak.  I gave Him my past, what I didn't give Him was my present - my temper, my pride, my arrogance, my feelings of inadequacy, my fear and my stubbornness.  (The list is way longer, but I was afraid you'd stop reading if I listed EVERYTHING.)  Somehow, I failed to understand that Jesus forgave these sins too.

I face at least one of these "old pals" every day.  And every time I failed to win the battle (which was often) I would feel guilty.  Then I would repent.  Then I would add another thing to my "holy to-do list" in an effort to make up for my mistake.  Rinse and repeat.  And what did I get?  A very long to-do list!!  I could not help but feel like a screw-up.  Especially when I would do something like yell at my kids for being too loud while I'm TRYING TO PRAY!  Do I have any sisters out there?  Are you getting where I'm going? 

That whole process left me drained and tired.  There was little joy in my life.  Don't get me wrong, I got good at faking it.  But inside, I still felt like I was just play-acting.  I could talk about the power of redemption and knew it to be true but the joy from my own redemption experience had long since faded.  I was fighting every day to feel good enough.  And you know what?  I never made it.  

But then, something amazing happened!
Someone told me that God isn't mad at me.  Someone told me He is not up there shaking His head wondering what in the world He was going to do with someone like me.  Someone explained to me that when God says "unmerited favor," He means it!  When He says "unmerited" it means we don't deserve it.  He gives us His favor because He loves us. And the best part is this:  We cannot do anything to make Him love us any less...or any MORE.  I truly believed that I had to work to get better.  God says I don't.  God says that when I accepted His Son, His Son had already done the work.  
Philippians 1:6 says, "being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus;"
now go to verse 11:  "filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God." (emphasis mine)

God completes the work, not me; the fruit is through Jesus, not my effort.  Can I just say:  PHEW!!  Thank You, Jesus!!  I do not have to walk around shackled by the guilt of my every day failures.  I am human.  I am not perfect, nor will I ever be in this life.  The sooner I get comfortable with that, the better off I will be.  And do you know something?  Any works that I do in order to try and "get better" will be for naught.

When we start trying to "get better" by our own works and accomplishments, we lose any joy we may have had in the beginning of our walk with Jesus.  We get bogged down in condemnation.  We start living in fear of God instead of marveling at His love.  We wrap ourselves in chains of guilt and shame until we cannot move.

Jesus put it this way:  "Abide in Me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing."  John 15:4-5 (emphasis mine)

The only way to "get better" is by abiding in Jesus.  I can't make myself better, I can't try and do more good things in order to be good enough.  I wasn't good enough to begin with and I won't ever be good enough.  But if I hang out with Jesus; if I talk with Him; if I read His word, soak up His abundant, extravagant grace; then I find I start to bear fruit - I start to get better!  I start to exhibit the fruit of of those fruits is joy!

After Jesus tells His disciples about the vine, He tells them this:  "As my Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in His love.  I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."  John 15:9-11

Jesus wants to give us JOY!  Not only that, He wants to give us HIS joy and our joy to be complete!  This is the joy that the world is seeking and needs to know about.  The only way they will know about it is if they see it all over us.  Christ in us, grace that covers ALL our sin, unmerited favor of God that we cannot lose once we accept it.  THIS is the gospel of good news!  The news that the grace of God is bigger than our sin!!  I hear that grace calling to us!   I hear freedom singing its song!  I hear Jesus telling us to come just as we are and let Him and the Father take care of the rest!  I hear shackles falling to the ground!  I hear the GOOD news!!


Monday, April 9, 2012

Mercy, Grace and the Good News

I hope you all had a wonderful Easter!  Many of you would probably say the highlight of this holiday season was filled with love, laughter, family, friends and a celebration of an empty tomb.  Mine was slightly different.  I had all of the above but the highlight was the lesson I learned from losing my four year old at church.

I had taken both my boys (J.D. is 6 and Jon is 4) into the sanctuary with me at church to practice special music with the praise team.  J.D. asked me if he could go to the bathroom and Jon asked me for a peppermint.  I told J.D. to go ahead, gave Jon the peppermint and turned to greet one of my friends.  When I looked again I didn't see Jon.  This was not a problem because I thought he had gone to find his brother.  But then J.D. came back without Jon so I asked where he was.  He said, "I don't know, I haven't seen him."  I searched high and low with a mixture of emotions flowing through me.  At first, I was just irritated because Jon often disappears like this but he usually isn't very far - he's just distracted by something and not paying attention to the fact his name has been called about 10 times!  Then I found that he was NOT anywhere nearby and I start to get worried.  By the time I saw him walking with Mr. Brett to his Sunday school room across the courtyard, I was in a full panic!  I ran (in heels!) across the elders Sunday school class, burst out the door and bellowed, "JONATHAN!"

I cannot recall being so angry, yet relieved, with one of my children.  True, he was only gone for ten minutes but it was the longest ten minutes of my life!  And now that I had him back safe and sound...he was gonna get it!  I was shaking with emotion as I interrogated him trying to figure out where he had gone (he had gone to show his Sunday school teacher his peppermint).  I told him, "Son, I am too angry to whip you right now, but I am going to whip you when we get home this afternoon!"  

And I fully intended to!  However, God used the time in between to show me a teachable moment.  When we got home, I took Jon into the bedroom and we talked about what he had done wrong and why I was so upset with him.  When we finished I asked him what was about to happen.  The poor kid began and to cry and moaned, "You're gonna whip me!"  Very quietly I replied, "No, I'm not going to whip you.  Do you know why?  Because it is Easter.  And God showed us great mercy today."  I continued to explain that the Bible tells us that because we all do things that are wrong that we deserve to be punished.  But God sent Jesus to die on the cross and forgive us so we wouldn't have to be punished.  And that is mercy.  

Ordinarily, I would have let my emotions rule, yelled and spanked my son then felt horrible later on.  However, my Heavenly Father got a hold of my heart before I could lay hands on my son.  I want my children to understand the extraordinary gift of salvation...but how are they to do that if they do not first understand mercy and grace?  How are they going to know what mercy is if they do not see it in me?  How are they going to extend grace to others if it is not extended to them at home?  

Better yet, how are we to show a lost and dying world their need for a Savior if we don't show them what Jesus' love looks like?  Maybe it is time we showed them mercy.  Maybe it is time we extended them grace.  Mercy to come just as they are - with no judgement for where they are or where they have been; grace in giving them love and friendship they have not earned.  Isn't that is what attracted so many to Jesus?  He attracted the broken, the sinful, the lost, the sick, the outcast...He attracted me!

This Easter season, I am so grateful God did not give me what I deserve!  To most unbelievers, God is an angry God who is just waiting to punish those who step out of line; the Bible is an encyclopedia of thou-shalt-nots; and Christians are a bunch of stiffs running around trying to please an impossible Deity.  And can I tell you something?  Some Christians believe this too!  Some of us have forgotten that the blood of Jesus covers ALL of our sin.  That means the sins we committed before we came to Christ, the sins we may be entertaining right this second and our future sins!  Because of God's mercy we did not get what we deserve (death) and because of His grace we now have an inheritance we in no way deserve (eternal life)!  This truth should be a cause for celebration each and every day, it should cause us to have joy no matter our circumstances.  Now, let's get happy and spread the GOOD NEWS!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mountain High; Valley Low

Life is a journey.  Our walk with the Lord is a journey.  If you think about a traveling anywhere, you don't spend much time standing still.  If I am taking a trip someplace, I have a goal in mind and am pressing on towards reaching that destination.  There are stops along the way, beautiful scenic views that seem to demand my attention.  But the stops are not the end of the journey, they are just places where I rest and catch my breath.  

Often when we talk about our journey with God we speak in terms of either mountain tops or valleys.  We reference our awesome mountain top experiences or we talk about our rock bottom valley-of-the-shadow-of-deaths.  But how much time do those moments take?  If you think about it, most of the time we are traveling.  We are either climbing the mountain or heading into the valley.

Now think about this.  When we climb a mountain (or, in my case, a steep hill) the going is slow and not always easy.  There are loose rocks to watch out for, breath to catch, sometimes the path isn't easy to see and we are not even sure we are going in the right direction.  But we finally reach the top and get to behold the majestic view.  And's time to get moving again.

When I find myself in a valley, it usually happens fairly quick.  It's like I slid down on my backside without realizing it.  I look up and am looking up from the bottom and can't quite remember how I got there.  Regardless of how I got there - I am there, and the only thing left to do is start climbing out.  

Either way, in either place, the pause at the top or the screeching halt at the bottom is momentary.  Most of the time on this journey, we are moving in one direction or the other.  We are either headed in the right direction to the next mountaintop experience or slipping down into the valley.  My question for us to ponder today is...which way are you headed? 

I find I spend more time with God during my difficult times.  When I am  not sure of the path; loosing my footing or am looking up the sides of the valley.  What I really need to be doing is spending constant time in communion with the Maker of the path!  If I do, the path is a little clearer and I can hear His direction.  Without His direction I am hopelessly lost.  If I talk to Him often, I recognize His voice easily and can follow where He directs me.  His path is not always easy, but He is always supporting me.  With Him, I will not fail, I will not falter, I will finish the journey with His hand in mine! 

The thing to remember is the neither the mountain high or the valley low define us.  God can use all of our experiences if we let Him!  In fact, He wants to use EVERYTHING to shape us into the person He wants us to be.  We cannot get so lost along the way He cannot find us; we cannot slide into a valley so low He cannot save us.  We just have to make sure we journey with Him and not strike out on our own!  So whose path are you following today?  His or your own?