Posts Tagged ‘conversion’

Our human nature tends to put emphasis on the differences. That person is not like me. Another person is intolerable. Another is irredeemable. This is where grace must step in.

Romans 3:22b-24
For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, . . .

It’s a good thing God doesn’t depend on me for this grace business because I’m not very good at it. I try to keep my eye on the heart of the “sacred other” but I’m always thrown off by the words, the actions, the sounds: all those 3D things. I am particularly rough on my own family. Everything seems to be wrapped up in expectations.

People are constantly making mistakes. Some are trying harder than others to avoid or fix their errors, but still, the mistakes come. I am doing the same thing. I am tripping up all the time but my errors may be more covered up. I am a good chameleon. So, why am I so hard on others?

Some of this stems from a life-long struggle with “performance orientation.” I grew up in a household where my performance was constantly judged and compared to my sibling or others around me. Love was attached to performance. I was lovable if I was good or capable or smart. And as much as I know this about myself and my history, the same standards creep in as I deal with myself and others around me.

Stop! I really want to stop that. I want to become an instrument of grace.

I remember, I once worked in a temp job as a secretary for a man who was quite the perfectionist. He even made me re-do postage stamps if they weren’t completely aligned and perpendicular to the corner of the envelope. It was crazy-making. But so is my version of perfectionism and performance-based assessments.

Everyone has the potential and desire to love and be loved. Everyone can enter the glory of God through faith in the Christ, who God provided as a way. This is not about religion. This is about relationship. This is about sacredness within. This is the story of grace.

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What is it about this word, “righteousness,” that makes me recoil? Surely it must be the other word: “self-righteous” that jumps up into my mind instead. But they are actually direct opposites.

Romans 1:17
For in the Gospel a righteousness which God ascribes is revealed, both springing from faith and leading to faith [disclosed through the way of faith that arouses to more faith]. As it is written, The man who through faith is just and upright shall live and shall live by faith.

The thesaurus is most revealing for the word righteousness: devotion, devoutness, godliness, holiness, piety, reverence, sacredness, saintliness, spirituality, worship, zeal. These synonyms make more sense when Paul says that righteousness is revealed and springs forth from faith.

Faith is the roots of the tree and righteousness the growth above ground. As the tree grows up, the roots grow down deeper into the soul. The entire tree grows stronger and healthier. Both the roots and the trunk are needed for a healthy tree. They strengthen each other.

I think the self-righteous are those who have no roots. They are only concerned with the trunk and the branches of their tree. They have the appearance of righteousness, but it’s really only form, a skeleton. With the first storm, this type of tree will fall.

Over and over again, the tree image keeps coming back to me as a word picture for my life. My maiden name, Berzins, means “little birch tree.” In years past, I have planted many trees as a testament and thanksgiving for “place.” I have prayed under certain trees near the Susquehanna and found peace there. I had God-inspired visions and warnings of my life as a tree that had moved away from the living water. I am deeply grieved when trees are cut down nonchalantly or broken by wind and lightning. I am grateful for the trees in the woods behind our home. They are sources of beauty all year round from buds in the spring to full foliage in the summer, autumn rainbows, and skeletons in winter outlined by the sun that sets behind them each day. Trees are symbols for many faiths and beliefs.

Today, the tree is my personal symbol for uniting my faith with my actions. Amen.

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If there’s a kingdom, then there’s a king. And the verso must also be true: if there is a king, there is a kingdom. Even if the king is in exile, there is a place, whether we accept it or not.

Acts 28:23b
…From morning till evening he [Paul] explained and declared to them [the Roman Jews] the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.

I guess this is the thing that captured my thoughts today. It doesn’t matter if people believe or don’t believe. The kingdom still exists. The kingdom endures.

There is an old “zen” question about a tree that falls in the woods; does it make a sound if no one hears it? Yes it does. It’s prideful to think that we are the only ones to hear, to acknowledge what is. We are limited in our understanding of the universe. We are limited in what we hear and see. We are limited in our own ability to engage the kingdom of God.

But, Jesus invited us to hear, see, taste and touch the kingdom. Jesus gave us entree.

There was no pushing or shoving or demanding. Jesus did not cajole. Jesus offered himself as a door and choice.

It’s a mystery.

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Thirty years ago, I finished reading the New Testament all the way through for the first time. I had a decision to make. Was it the truth or a lie? I kneeled beside my bed and confessed to this Jesus that the words felt… they resonated like truth. That decision changed my life forever.

Hebrews 5:14
But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

In some ways, I feel as though I am still on “spiritual milk” and have not matured as I should. After all, it’s been a long time. I have professed followership of Jesus for many, many years. And yet, I still struggle with many of the basics: love, trust, faith, hope…

Perhaps that is the maturity… I recognize I am still struggling. When I was younger in the Lord I can remember attending spiritual retreats where confession was a signature event where we pounded our written sins onto a cross. For many, it was extremely cathartic. But for me, in those early years, I’d struggle with the writing. What should I put on that little piece of paper? What great sin had I committed that still needed to be confessed. Hadn’t I confessed them all by now?

That makes me laugh. These days, I confess my sins daily. They accumulate quickly. I place even the smallest sin at the foot of the cross before that sin can grow, like yeast, to a besetting mountain of emotional pain or denial; before it can darken or harden my heart any more than it already has. And, unfortunately, I confess, some days, it’s the same sin… judging, pride, resentment, self-pity, anger… to name a few familiars.

I understand now, more than ever before, what it means to pray the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

My sins are legion, which reminds me of the demoniac [Luke 18:30] who was possessed of many demons. In the same way that many demons can be “swept away,” they can also come back to look for purchase in a newly cleaned “soul.” Sins also reappear [Matthew 12:43-45] to plague the spirit.

This is my message to any believer, young or old: confess often, accept grace and forgiveness daily, and give to others what Christ gives to you.

This is not just the beginning of the church year, it is also the beginning of my own new year in Christ. Continue to teach me, guide me, and renew me. Amen.

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Acts 15:11
“No! We [Peter speaking of Jewish disciples] believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they [the gentiles] are.”

Grace, grace and more grace. It is grace that does all the work. Grace = Jesus.

No human being can operate faithfully and fully within the laws of God alone. It is simply impossible. We are fallible, imperfect, careless, and prone to err. Perhaps we intend the best, but we bring far less to the table of life. We are handicapped in one way or the other. We hurt each other. We fail each other.

My daughter has told me how I am the only one she can trust, that I have been steadfast, that I am her hero. And I tell her… get ready, because I will fail you eventually, whether perceived error or truly just blowing it. I keep trying to bend her trust toward the only One who is totally reliable. It’s not me, I know.

God has poured so much grace upon me already. I am thankful for family, shelter, work, food on the table, transportation, freedom, and health.

Who are the gentiles of today? Isn’t it possible that God will pour out his grace on those unlike us… whose lives are different than our own? Who are we to decide what someone else’s faith walk will be like?

There was much damage done by many well-intentioned missionaries who entered cultures unlike their own and did everything they could to recreate those cultures. Look what the well meaning “whites” did to the Native Americans here in the United States… not just condemning their faith, but stripping Native Americans of their dress, their music, their land, and their history. Or, what of the Africans who were brought to this country? They too were forced into a new life, often under the trappings of “saving their souls” because they were categorized as barbarian or primitive.

Grace is more powerful than anyone’s culture. Grace knows how to integrate into any culture and reach the heart. It is the power of grace that transforms the human spirit. Lives are not changed at my insistence that they worship the way I do or read the text the way I do or pray the way I do.

The Jews who had accepted Christ had to a make a huge shift in thinking in order to embrace the gentiles. Can we do any less to those of other cultures, sexual orientation, or race? Let us trust Grace.

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Acts 15:5
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

Circumcision was one of the most important signs or acts that a Jewish man did. It went way back and it was sacrosanct. And yet, here was Jesus turning something else inside out. I mean, at this point in all the conversions, there were even Pharisees who had become believers. The Pharisees were taught to obey the law to its “nth” degree. And yet, here was Paul, who had also been a Pharisee, saying that gentile believers did not need to be circumcised just because Jewish believers were circumcised. That’s huge!

The question that comes to my mind is how many customs and traditions have Christians developed over the years that are just like circumcision? For some it’s baptism of a certain type, for others it’s speaking in tongues (or other manifestations), for others it’s going to church, for others it’s communion specifics, for others it’s designations of priest or pastor to sanctify various things, for others it’s certain social issues, for others it’s sexual orientation, for others it’s certain types of prayers… you get my point.

If God pours out the Holy Spirit on someone who does not match our rules and customs, what then? Is it any different from giving up circumcision?

Jesus turned the Jewish world upside down… but I think Jesus is still turning worlds upside down.

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Acts 13:21b-22a
Then they [Paul and Barnabas] returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.

There were no Bibles for the new Christ-followers in Asia Minor, particularly the gentile converts. There were no “new believers’ kit” and there were no pamphlets. There were no “4 Spiritual Laws” and there were no welcome packets or prayer cards. There were no mentors nearby and no “big sisters or big brothers.” There were no pastors or Jesus-believing rabbi’s.

They had each other.

They had what they could remember from the introductory teachings of Paul and Barnabas. And, if they were lucky, they might have access to a free-spirited Jew who might share with them what he (or she… maybe) knew of the Law or perhaps there was someone who had memorized portions of the psalms and would sing/speak them. Only later, did they have the letters. And still much later, they had a few visits from other believers who trusted Paul and Barnabas and were willing to teach the message of Christ to the gentile converts.

They had prayer, their first and most vital connection to their faith. They had the Holy Spirit.

Their ability to “remain true to the faith” was under girded by the Holy Spirit. And I believe the message was a simple one. They were not dissecting the written word. They had the witness of Paul, Barnabas, and the resonance of truth within.

When I first asked Christ to guide my life, I was alone. I had had the witness of one fallible man, Tom, who had tricked me into reading the New Testament. And on the night I finished reading that Gideon edition of the New Testament, I could not call the essential message a lie. And if it was not a lie, then I had to reckon with the truths.

It is the essential messages that reach the heart: God loves human beings so much that God sent his son-self as a human to teach and show people the nature of the kingdom of God. Jesus proved himself and the kingdom over and over again. He loved and he served and he died (by choice). That sacrificial act made it possible for people to commune directly with God. Jesus then arose from the dead by the power of the Spirit. And that same Spirit manifests the kingdom of God within those who believe to this day. This is how faith operates. This is why we can commune (pray) with God.

But people want to codify the faith. They write, they translate, they extrapolate, they simplify, they complicate, they erase, they add, they emphasize, they minimize, they err, they correct, they change, they rearrange, they chisel, they smooth, they broadcast, they whisper, they blog, they twitter, the IM, they sing, they proclaim, they conceal.

Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Luke 10:27]

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