Oh mercy

Matthew 5:7

Matthew 5:7

Mercy is the thing we all want, that none of us deserves, and that few are willing to offer to others. The Oxford dictionary defines mercy as, “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” When we are wronged, our first thoughts are usually in response to our hurt and anger. The godly view, however, is to put others first. Mercy is looking beyond the harm to the person who caused it, considering the life circumstances that lead to wrongdoing. In other words, looking at the person who caused us harm through the lens of God’s love.

This is not to say that mercy ignores the harm. Justice still must prevail. There are always consequences for sin. However, mercy does not take justice into its own hands, but allows the Lord to enact any kind of vengeance or punishment through His will and according to His perfect justice. Being merciful is paired with doing justly and walking humbly (Micah 6:8). If we adhere to these three, we will not lash out in anger, frustration, and hurt when we are wronged – even when it is in our power to do so. Instead, we will see others as God sees them, and by His grace we can offer mercy in His name.

Mutually encouraged

Romans 1:11-12

When I started this blog I planned to use it as a place start thinking out loud about a book I want to write. My concept was a book for church people on the need for grace toward parents of prodigals. Too often I have experienced judgement from my brothers and sisters in Christ because of the decisions my teenage and adult children made. In talking to other parents, I learned my experience was not unique. I used the father of the Prodigal Son as an exemplar and started reading broadly about the concept of grace throughout the New Testament.

As I read, I felt that I needed more comprehensive and deep study, so I turned to one book at a time, initially alternating Old Testament and New Testament. One thing my doctoral work taught me was how to research and how to articulate what I learned. I worked my way through Ecclesiastes, James, Habakkuk, Galatians, Jonah, Nahum, and Ephesians.

Partway through Nahum COVID-19 hit, and 2020 turned into a year of one catastrophe after another. As days of quarantine turned to weeks, I turned to the passages of scripture that offered hope and comfort. In late May, the death of George Floyd sparked protests (mostly peaceful) and riots (always violent.) Outcry over racism dominated the news, even as the COVID pandemic spread. I started Psalm 119, and then used Hope Church Las Vegas’s prayer week as an interlude to consider some of the names of God. I attended a prayer rally on Juneteenth in Atlanta, and was both encouraged and saddened. I turned to Lamentations in response.

Throughout the summer, the dual crises of physical and spiritual warfare divided the American church, often down political party lines. AS I returned to complete Psalm 119, I found my thoughts returning to the book I had planned to write, and I realized, while parents of prodigals do need to be treated with grace instead of judgment, there is a larger issue of grace that the Church and my Christian friends need to reconsider. Social media, particularly Facebook, has become a battleground, not between the saved and the lost, but between brothers and sisters in Christ. How can this be?

So, now, I return to a theme for now instead of a book. Lament over the Church in the US is a place to begin thinking about the need for grace over judgment. Lament over racism, lament over partiality, lament over the tongue as a fire, lament over unholy pursuits– there are so many places to begin. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we will never be able to truly offer grace until we have first suffered through the depths of lament. How else can we bear one another’s burdens unless we come alongside in their struggle and sorrow?

In Romans, Paul wrote that he longed to see the people of the Roman church, not so he could bestow grace on them or drop some wisdom. He wanted to see them so that together they could benefit from mutual encouragement by each other’s faith. Believers have been largely relegated to remote church attendance for five months. We long to be together again, but we cannot hope for “normal.” We should not want to return to the old ways. We should, however, long to be mutually encouraged by our faith. And that requires grace upon grace.

I don’t pretend to know where this blog will go from here. I hope to be listening to the Spirit’s leading as I consider the role of lament and the responsibility of grace. It is the beginning of learning to love the way Jesus did.

KAPH

Psalm 119:81-88

2020 is looking to be a year where we cry out, “How long?” How long? is a theme that returns again and again throughout scripture. This iteration has two components: physical and political. The components operate separately, but together are wreaking havoc on the US (and the world). “One nation, under God, indivisible” has morphed into multiple cultures without God, increasingly divided.

Psalm 119:88

Believers around the US want to be able to attend church together, they way they did before mid-March. They want to know “how long until things get back to normal?” But there is an element missing in that question. Catastrophes are often catalysts of permanent change for everyone involved. Think about ancient history: a catastrophic meteor took out the dinosaurs, the great flood took the earth’s population to eight, massive wars continually changed national borders, and natural disasters altered physical land masses. According to an article in Science, 536 was the worst year in history to be alive when devastating volcanic eruptions blotted out the sun for 19 months.

Recovering from disaster, both natural and man-made, requires a whole new setting for normal. Major changes in economies, philosophies, and societies mean that the post-disaster realities are not “normal.” New patterns of living, working, and socializing have to be established following any cataclysm that changes land, borders, and population. No one is immune from having to adjust to a “new” normal.

We who are believers should be the first to recognize that changing how we do things in response to the changing world. We have an unshakeable foundation upon which to rebuild, but we must recognize that church life must adapt to spread the gospel to the lost in this new reality. We don’t know what the new reality looks like yet; we are still in the middle of the crisis. But we must prepare our heart and minds for something different, something that crosses the lines of race and social culture into the singular Body of Christ.

So, should we even be longing for church services as they were five months ago? I am beginning to think we need to be thinking forward to a new kind of gathering as believers. Church as social club or sanctified activity needs to end. It needed to end well before the pandemic, which may be one reason God allowed it. I can’t predict what the “new normal” will be, but this psalm reflects a need for us to know the sure commandments of God and focus on His precepts in order to live out His testimonies through the madness that seems to be enveloping our world.

We have an opportunity to unite with believers across culture and ethnicities; COVID19 and the cry out to end racism are both catastrophe and a chance to return to our first love (Greenway, 2014; Revelation 2:1-7). We need to seek a new relationship with the Lord, one wrapped in His Word and one that trusts His steadfast love.

Church services must change so that we who are the Church can fully participate in living a life fully committed to living out the law of the Lord. When we keep His testimonies, we can know that, no matter how the world changes during catastrophes, we are secure in His love for us.

Maybe the Church needs to become geographically smaller in order to have a global influence for the gospel. Maybe each of us as believers needs to take on the mantle of evangelism and discipleship rather than waiting for church staff to do the work while we just attend services. God is calling for believers in the US to seek His face as we navigate what society may look like on the other side of this pandemic, along with every other crazy event of 2020.

We need to BE the Church, not just GO to church. We know His commandments; we now need to embody them for His glory.

Reflections on a Sunday sermon.

Hope Las Vegas, 6-14-2020

On Sunday, Pastor Vance spoke powerfully about our need for hope. It resonated with me, especially as I had just returned to Atlanta and the continuing tumult there. Between the pandemic, social injustices, political divisions, economic uncertainty, and fear over the future, the prevailing emotion of the world is despondency. But those of us who call Jesus, Lord have a hope for a future that glorifies the Father.

Hope is to expect with confidence. For the believer, that means knowing that whatever we face, it has been filtered through the sovereign character and promises of a holy God. Christianity, Pastor Vance reminded us, is NOT our civic identity! This world is not our home; we yearn for our eternal dwelling with Jesus.

Pastor Vance’s words reminded me of a C.S. Lewis quote I painted a few years ago. We ARE made for another world, ALL of us. Our melanin, our preferences, our diversity- these are part of what makes the Kingdom so beautiful. We long for complete unity and peace, but this world only offers glimpses of what will come. We hope with confident expectation that ultimately we will be united as One Body, the bride of Christ.

My sister-in-Jesus, America Stancil, said, “That’s why we need to represent the world that God prepares for us while we are here on earth. Love one another. Praise God that Heaven awaits us!”

How do we represent the fullness of unity and peace here on earth? We begin by rejecting partiality, marginalization, and oppression of any kind. We begin by loving the way Jesus loves. Our human natures will always get in the way of getting love right all the time, but we have redemption and forgiveness in Jesus that allows us to pursue reconciliation and unity in spite of our many mistakes and sins.

We begin with hope. We reach out in love. We remember we are part of a family: One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Friday’s interlude

El Elohim hayyim, the living Lord

The riots are waning. The protests continue in many places. The demand for change remains strong. After a week of peaceful protest marred by acts of violence and destruction, the question is “now what?” How do we as a society move toward racial reconciliation and away from systemic racism without any form of accountability?

The short answer: I don’t know. As I see it, there is no reconciliation without the Eternal, Immutable, Holy, Righteous, and Living God. I don’t think society in general can agree on a path forward, especially in this age of division, ad hominem attacks, and refusal to hear all sides of any issue. Certainly government cannot fix the system it created. Corruption is rampant at all levels of elected “public servants.” No, human nature on its own is drawn to disorder – humanity’s reflection of the second law of thermodynamics. The only hope is in the mercy of the God who never changes. The Church must step up and lead.

Is there corruption in the church? If it is made up of people, yes. But there is a Savior whose Spirit brings accountability. In Jesus, believers who walk out their convictions can lead the way to reconciliation. Love, respect, honor, dialogue, and hospitality are where to begin in how we treat each other. We cannot save ourselves, but the Lord will work in and through us, upholding those who trust Him with His hand.

We do not need to be dismayed at the state of society; God will give us strength. We can, and we must, rely on the power of the living Lord to be the forces for change in culture. Oceans may rise and empires may fall, but God, El Elohim, is immutable, never changing,

 His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. By these he has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

2 Peter 1:3-7 (CSB)

Interlude for Thursday

Proverbs 21

The US in in the third month of COVID19 limitations and fear. It is also in the 7th day of protests that began with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and expanded to race relations and systemic injustices in general. In the last few years, and increasingly faster, we are witnessing the consequences of people doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). At the moment, there seems to be little hope for deliverance from both natural and man-made catastrophes.

The truth is that there is no hope without the Lord Almighty to save us. Proverbs 21:2 says, ” Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Verse 7 adds, “The violence of the wicked will sweep them away, because they refuse to do what is just.” We see this in the world around us; the US is only a small part of global injustice, where humans harm others for power, control, and wealth.

We who call ourselves believers know that the only true power belongs to Almighty God. He knows the hearts and motives of each of us. His desire is for us to be people of righteousness and His justice. We look to Him, because “no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30). As we seek and pursue peace, we know that the ultimate victory belongs to the Lord (Proverbs 21:31).

Our prayer today may be “Lord God Almighty, Jehovah Adonai, go before us and behind us so that we walk with confidence that You alone are wholly just and You alone are mighty to save. Let me be a source of your wisdom today so that Your mighty hand can work through me.”

Wednesday interlude

Jehovah Rohi. The Lord as Shepherd.

I checked the news today. It appears that curfews are working to distinguish between protestors (99% of the people involved) and rioters in most places. When protesters go home, police are able to focus on the people who want to incite violence. The rioters are attacking police, 99% of whom just want to protect and serve their communities. I suspect there may be an uptick on June 9 for Mr. Floyd’s funeral, but I think much of the violence is subsiding.

The question becomes, what next? As a people, where do we begin to experience God’s healing? More than ever, we need a shepherd.

Shepherding is a hard and humble occupation. Sheep are notoriously dumb, so the good shepherds are always on the alert for danger: predators, poisonous plants, uneven footing, etc. If one runs off, others follow. A good shepherd knows where the sheep are and whether any have gone missing. They are outside in all kinds of weather and often the only humans in the middle of a flock of sheep or goats. It is smelly, dirty, and usually boring. If the animals are happily grazing, there’s not much to do.

However, without a shepherd the sheep are prone to wander in circles, missing the good food, the solid ground, and vulnerable to predators.

What we need after the last weeks more than anything is a shepherd who will direct, protect, and lead us toward reconciliation and love. The Good Shepherd is Jesus. As believers we need to look to Him for how best to love each other and rebuild our communities together. Jesus is never tired of shepherding us – a good thing since we keep trying to make our own ways, away from the flock. We must be reliant on His Word and His will in order for Him to accomplish His work in and through us.

Let our prayer be, “Father, help me to acquiesce to Your shepherding. Rescue me when I wander toward worldly solutions to the issues the swirl around me. Keep me on the solid ground, keep me nourished on Your Word, and keep my ears attuned to your voice. Amen.”

an interlude for prayer

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

The Lord is with his own in this time. When humanity is at its worst, God’s compassion offers comfort to the afflicted. We who call ourselves believers must embody the Comforter, standing for what is right and embracing those who have been wronged.

Let this be our prayer: Lord, make me a person who is active in providing comfort to my brothers and sisters in Christ. Let those who are afflicted feel safe in my presence. Thank you, Father, for being Jehovah Shammah. Amen.

an interlude

This is not a black square. I listened to one of my Black sisters who said it made her uncomfortable. I know, too, that it is a symbol, so I do not have an argument with anyone who chooses to #blackouttuesday. For me, however, I choose to stand with my Black brothers and sisters as together we appeal to Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals, for His mercy, His grace, and His will.

The words in this image are a song from my childhood about Jehovah Rapha as the One who turns the bitter water sweet and heals both body and soul. I have interspersed the repeated lyrics with the promises of Psalm 147: He heals the brokenhearted; He binds up their wounds; He gathers the outcasts; He lifts up the humble; He makes peace in your borders; He declares His Word.

More than anything, racial reconciliation requires repentance that allows the Almighty to heal us. Let our prayer today be this: Lord, make me a person who brings your healing to a broken person today. Let my words be your balm and let my actions demonstrate Your love as I listen and learn. Thank you, Jesus, for being Jehovah Rapha.
Amen.

Lamentations

I have been broken by the events of 2020, and I feel like I need to take a short break from Psalm 119 to examine the most profound lament of the Old Testament in light of the current Church and culture in the US.

Illuminated Scripture Journal cover. Crossway, 2001

I did some background reading on Bible.org, BibleScripture.net and in the Tony Evans Bible Commentary. Context is always king when it comes to any kind of literary analysis, and especially so for Bible study. As I am writing this, many cities in the US are reacting to an alarming number of murders of black people by racist white men. The most recent, and the one that set cities ablaze was the videotaped murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, and only stopped when the man was unresponsive. It was cruel and violent and vile behavior. What made it even worse is that the officer was looking for someone else, someone who was accused of forgery.

This kind of behavior by anyone is evil, but law enforcement officers are supposed to be held to a higher standard. Most officers are good men and women, committed to protecting communities and the individuals who live there. Sadly, only a few power-hungry individuals (both legal and judicial) can ruin the relationship between police officers and the people they serve. Several recent officer involved deaths have not be prosecuted or investigated properly, and in Georgia, Ahmaud Arbury was stalked and murdered by a white father-son duo who claimed Arbury looked like someone who had been burglarizing their neighborhood (he was not a suspect, nor is there any evidence he had anything to do with any misbehavior). The last time I checked, laying in wait and ambushing a jogger is intent. Vigilantism is illegal, along with being immoral, yet until a video surfaced of the murder, neither men had been charged.

These events, and others like them, are leading the US toward destruction, and we are witnesses to it. The undercurrent of sin as acceptable behavior will not be long tolerated by a holy God. When believers justify the actions of murderers or rationalize the injustices that are continually revealed, they participate in the sin that will result in the chaos and rage that cities like Minneapolis are living in this week.

Lamentations is the heart cry of a witness to the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar. The burning of the city was devastating, and the destruction was complete. The historical account is recorded in 2 Chronicles 36, and Jeremiah’s protection from it in Jeremiah 39. Chuck Swindoll preached a series on Lamentations in 1980, and his background work is stellar. I recommend starting with his words here. It is interesting to listen to Swindoll’s application points in 1980 and to think about where we are now. It’s more evidence that the Word of God is timeless.

The Heart of the Matter
Most of us have never been involved in a mop-up scene after a battle or following a calamity. But those who have can testify that it is one of the most painful and pathetic experiences a human can endure. The ravages of war and the consequences of disaster are usually beyond belief or description. Few are those who can capture the tragic scene in words. Jeremiah was one of the few. His brief, biting journal of what he saw and felt following the fall of his beloved nation is contained in this short book. It is one of the most vivid reminders in all the Bible of that verse in Galatians: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (6:7).
And so will a city. And so will a nation.

Swindoll, C. (1980) God’s Masterwork, Volume Three Poets, Prophets, and Promises—A survey of Job–Daniel Lamentations: A Prophet’s Broken Heart A Survey of Lamentations. Charles R. Swindoll, Inc.

As believers, we must join the lament for the sins of our country and our churches. We must lead the way for repentance. As Tony Evans (2019) wrote, “When God is your biggest problem, He is also your only hope” (p. 721). We, as the Church, must lead the way to racial reconciliation by demonstrating the love of Jesus in all its facets: care, compassion, speaking truth, serving one another, and standing with all our brothers and sisters against injustice and evil.