Colossians 2 – How the Bible Can Help with Depression

In the Mabbat Facebook group, I’ve been posting a Bible study guide each week, and right now, we’re in Colossians chapter 2.  (Here’s the link if you want to check that out: https://www.facebook.com/groups/773975689656609/?ref=bookmarks  It’s going up in weekly installments in the Facebook group, and then I’ll post it as an e-book after we’ve completed it in the group – more on that to come next month!)  Each week, there are a few notes, and then there’s space on the page for you to do some creative assignments to deepen your study of God’s word.  I’ve discovered as I write the Bible study prompts that there are some things I would love to add but don’t really have the room for if I stay focused.  So I decided to share those here on the blog.

Oftentimes as I’m reading the Bible, I find ideas that correlate with things I’ve learned in therapy.  I don’t know why that surprises me, because I firmly believe that God gave us the Bible as a blueprint for living the best lives we can.

20180716-Colossians 2 on DepressionIn Colossians 2:2, Paul expresses a desire for the church members to be “knit together by strong ties of love” before he expresses his desire for them “to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan.”  As a lifelong church member, this felt backwards to me until I spent time thinking through it.  Aren’t we supposed to have Jesus first and only?  Isn’t he sufficient for all our needs?  Yes, but… Our standard church answers leave a lot unexamined.  Jesus gives us the tools we need, and he will faithfully meet our needs, but we aren’t absolved from investing a little elbow grease in the process.

Paul wanted the church at Colossae to be bound together in love to provide an environment that fosters learning, trust, and care for one another – an environment that will encourage confidence in the knowledge of God.  As I breathed in that verse, I understood that we can’t see Christ’s love unless we are expressing it and receiving it, and that is the primary function of the church – to be a network of Jesus’s love and grace.

How does this fit in with depression coping skills?  I’m glad you asked.  Strong relationships are key in combatting depression.  There are plenty of scientific studies (as well as every therapist I’ve seen) that tell us the more connected we are to other people, the lower our risk of depression and substance abuse.  If you have depression, think about your symptoms.  Do you find that you pull away from people and, however unintentionally, isolate yourself?  Do you drop out of activities with other people that you enjoy?  Do you back out of engagements with family and friends?

Paul knew it was vital for the church to have strong, loving relationships to understand the fullness of God’s love, and it’s vital for our daily lives, too.  Especially if you battle depression.

So how do you do this when you are in the throes of grief and depression?  First, let someone in.  Find at least one friend that you can trust, and open the door.  Share with them, and listen when they need to share.  Then add another friend.  Then join a group – maybe go to a class you enjoy and start meeting the class members, or go to your local church and join a small group or Bible study class.  Slowly expand your circle and invest in those relationships.  In my experience, the more connected I am to my family, to my circle of friends, and to my church, the better I feel and the easier it is to get out of a funk when I fall into one.

20180716-Colossians 2-7Another verse that grabbed me in Colossians 2 is verse 7.  It’s a beautiful image to think about: “Let your roots grow down into him…”  It’s also a solid way to build a foundation for faith.  First, establish roots, then build, then grow, and then overflow.

That’s not just a solid way to develop faith, but it’s also a solid way to build mental health.

You need roots – some basic skills to recognize depression in your life and some basic skills to combat your symptoms (a treatment and/or maintenance plan).  Once you have that, then you can start building up your coping skills and work towards a “new normal” as your symptoms stabilize.  Then you will grow stronger, and then you’ll be able to share and help others.  The thing about this setup is that you can never neglect any of the stages; they’re all continual and build on each other.  As soon as you skip a step (ignore your roots, say), the entire thing (your mental health) comes crashing down.

This may be less dire for episodic depression and acute grief that will pass once the circumstances shift, but if you struggle with depression as an ongoing issue, you know you need to keep your eye on the ball and not ignore the things that keep you healthy.  I have recently been able to stop my antidepressant medication, but I can feel it when I let stress build up and skip the things that make me feel sane, like exercise, eating well, writing, and art.  When I see my cues – a short temper, complete lack of motivation, and a desire to eat all of the chocolate in the world – I know it’s time to evaluate and get back to basics of self-care.  Sometimes, I know it’s time to check in with my therapist.

What does your root structure look like?  Do you have a solid foundation of self-care and coping skills?  What does your life look like when you are “overflow” stage?  If you’re not there, what will it take for you to get on the right track?

*I am not a professional therapist or counselor, so I don’t offer this as a replacement for professional care.  If you are dealing with depression, please talk to your doctor and make a plan to begin healing.  I believe that Jesus can heal us, but I also know that he gave us tools like doctors and psychologists to help us when we need it.  If you are not getting better through prayer and healthy habits, please seek professional help.  I hope if nothing else, I hope my example can help remove the stigma that so often shadows mental health issues in our churches.  If you don’t know where to start, contact me, and I’ll be happy to help you locate resources in your area.

You Can Shout!

“A voice said, “Shout!” I asked, “What should I shout?” “Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the Lord. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!””  Isaiah 40:6-9 NLT

 I don’t know why exactly, but this passage in Isaiah grabbed me when I read it again a few weeks ago.  Isaiah is being told to go and deliver a specific message: we humans inhabit space and time for a moment, but God is forever.  He is eternal and eternally true and faithful.  I don’t know what your track record for faithfulness is, but mine is a little shoddy in some aspects.  I have never been unfaithful to my husband – I guard my marriage and my heart to keep that from ever being an option.  My record with healthy eating and exercise, on the other hand, is awful.  (Maybe I need to apply the same fervor I have for protecting my marriage to protecting my body…)  My discipline at writing is improving but clearly goes through spurts of faithfulness.  Thank God, God isn’t like that at all, in any aspect.  He is thoroughly faithful, so we can trust him.

 Why is that important, you may ask?  I mean, sure, we can trust God.  Every kid who attends a single Sunday school class will hear that a gazillion times in an hour.  It’s easy to accept that we can trust God, but what does it mean in real life outside of church?  It means you can act on what you believe.  You can shout!  If God is faithful, and his word is true, then you have the most solid foundation on which to build your entire belief system.  You have a standard for thought and behavior that applies to your entire life.  And you can shout!

Shout Pic 1Why does the crazy lady keep saying, “You can shout,” you may ask?  Because it’s true.  YOU can shout.  But I’m not a preacher, or a Sunday school teacher, or a worship music leader, or…  Whatever you just threw up as a defense, can we agree to drop it and lower our guards for a moment?  The beauty of trusting God’s word is that you can believe him when he tells us that each one of us is uniquely gifted and equipped to share his love.

You are uniquely gifted and equipped to create, and in so doing, share God’s character and his love.  You.  Can.  Shout.

 Go back and read the very first line of this Bible passage.  “A voice said, ‘Shout!’ I asked, ‘What should I shout?’”  I love this thought.  The voice is God telling Isaiah to go out and yell something to his people.  Go create.  Go paint or write or bake or run or organize…  But what should I create?  The wonderful thing God does for Isaiah here is he gives him the message to share through his creativity.  This probably won’t happen in such an obvious manner at the outset of your creative career; it may not happen so obviously even after you’ve been creating with God for years, but if you ask him to join you and guide you as you create, he’ll give you the message if you’ll listen.

 Isaiah gives us a model of creating with God: first answer his calling on your life, then answer his call to be creative with the gifts he’s given you, and then express the message he’s given you to tell.  Isaiah was a prophet who often relayed God’s messages to the people.  Consistently, he’d been shouting a single message: “God is coming!  Get ready!”  It took on various forms, and up to this point in the narrative, many of those messages had included “Woe to those who…”  You can browse the chapter headings and get a pretty good idea.  Isaiah had practiced the habit of listening for God’s message and repeating it through his creative talents.  Over and over and over – 39 chapter’s worth of practice is documented for us until we get to this point in Isaiah’s story.

 So when God tells Isaiah to shout, he doesn’t hesitate; he just asks what he should shout.  There was no question that Isaiah would practice his art.  The only question was what the exact message should be.

 That’s my goal in creating; I want the only question about my writing and drawing/painting to be, “What is the message supposed to be today?”  And that’s what I want for you, too.  I pray that will know what your gifts are and that you will practice your talent so much that it’s just like breathing.  I pray that God will show himself to you in those times in such a way that you will recognize that this is your God-given gift, and he will meet you in it when you use it faithfully.  And most of all, I pray that God will use you to shout his story of love and grace.

 Shout Pic 2One more thing I love about this passage, this entire chapter and the ones that follow, is that this marks a shift in tone for Isaiah.  There were a lot of “woes” before Chapter 40, but here the chapter opens with “Comfort…”  Classical music fans may recognize this text from Handel’s “Messiah.”  There is a beautiful piece that almost verbatim quotes the opening of this chapter.  I highly recommend reading it if you want to feel like God is giving you a hug; it’s a wonderful reminder that he wants nothing more than to love us and to see us excel.

 Maybe your gift isn’t public speaking like Isaiah’s was, but you do have a gift, and God wants you to use it.  I will be sharing some posts over the next month to help you discover your talents if you’re not sure what they are (and affirm you if you’re sure you know what they are).  If you want to join the conversation that’s already started in the Mabbat FB group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/773975689656609/?ref=bookmark), jump in there, and you’ll also be able to practice drawing and writing with the prompts in the Bible study posted each week.  We’re currently in Colossians.

Shout Pic 3You can SHOUT!  So what are you going to shout this week?  You can do this; you don’t have to be afraid because God is with you.  He is for you, and I am cheering for you, too.  Get out there and get loud!

No Really, I AM a Green Tomato

As this year’s volunteer sous chef for our company’s annual Memorial Day cookout, I sliced more than a dozen tomatoes, and, while they were all ripe, red tomatoes, a few of them held some surprises.  There was one that clearly didn’t get the Fibonacci memo and went for nearly perfect symmetry and an even number.  There was one that looked like lace inside, and then there was one that tried to tell me it was a green tomato.  It was a perfectly ripe red tomato, but the sticker said “green.”

After some discussion with the red Green Tomato, and then a little reflection, I’ve come to realize we humans do this all the time.  Green Tomato started off as an actual green tomato, as all red tomatoes do.  Green Tomato started its life on the produce aisle in the green tomato bin as a green tomato.  And then Green Tomato began to change; it ripened and grew into a red tomato.  The grocer, in all it’s wisdom and visual acumen, one day discovered a red tomato in the green tomato bin and relocated Green Tomato to the red tomato bin, but Green Tomato clung to its old label.  Green Tomato wanted to keep being the same in spite of its change in life status and location in the produce aisle.

I know God has dragged me kicking and screaming into a new stage of life before (you, dear reader, are far more mature and would never do anything but move gracefully on to the next chapter…).  Not all life changes are difficult, but they all require an adjustment for us to successfully navigate the new terrain – a new label, if you will.  But we can’t just start calling ourselves “red tomatoes” and still try to live like a green tomato.

Merely switching the label won’t do; we have to change our mindsets and our behaviors to adapt to our new label at each stage of life.

Sounds easy, right?  Of course it sounds simple when I type it out, but in practice, we all know it’s more complicated.  I am a writer.  But sometimes I don’t write.  (Not that I’m supposed to be writing 24/7, but I should be writing at least a little bit daily to develop my skill and discipline.)  I am obviously acting like the red Green Tomato when I fail to act according to my new Red Tomato label.  It’s not enough to just call myself Red Tomato, I have to continue to practice acting like a red tomato in order to be the best, reddest tomato I can be.

What about you?  What old labels are you holding on to?  What new habits do you need to start practicing in order to be the best, reddest tomato you can be?  I’d love for you to share here in the comments.  Also, for more personal sharing, join the Mabbat FB group for prompts throughout the week and space to share what you’re working on in a friendly, safe place: https://www.facebook.com/groups/773975689656609/?ref=bookmarks

Also, if this isn’t how you cut onions, you’re definitely not living your best tomato life.

 

Sailing, Sailing

My small group has been challenging me in my reading of scripture to pay more attention to the details when I read – to look deeper into what the text is saying through the little things.  As I’ve answered that challenge, I’ve spent more time scouring the commentary in my study Bible, and the extra attention to detail has really livened up my Bible reading.  God has drawn my eyes to fresh insights.

One night I was trying to decide what to read since I had just finished the book I had been studying in for a while, so I flipped to one of my bookmarks and just decided to read that page.  I opened to the passage in Mark where Jesus walks on water and calms the wind.  It’s a familiar passage, and I must admit that I often skim something I’ve read hundreds of times.  But this time was different.

The story is in Mark 6:45-53.  The short version is that after Jesus had fed the crowd of people with five loaves of bread and two fishes (and had enough left over for each of the twelve disciples to have a doggy basket), Jesus sent his disciples by boat across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida.  Once the disciples were in the boat, he sent the crowds home, and he went up on the mountain to pray.  In the middle of the night, he could see that the disciples were straining against the wind.  He walked out on the water and got into the boat, and the wind immediately calmed.  When they crossed over the sea, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there.

20180530-Pic1The study Bible commentary points out that there are no less than three miracles in this short passage.  First, Jesus sees the disciples in the middle of the sea from a long distance away while he’s on the mountain praying.  Then he walks on the water, and then he controls the weather.  As many times as I’ve read this story, it never occurred to me that being able to see miles away was a miracle; I’ve always focused on the walking on water and the calming of the sea.

The disciples thought Jesus was a ghost when they saw him, which, added to fear and stress of straining against the wind, terrified the disciples.  Seeing ghosts was considered a bad omen (when is it ever a good omen??), so they began to think the worst.  Can you hear Thomas?  “I knew this was a bad idea.  Now look, we’re seeing the ghost of Jesus, so he must be dead, and now we’re all going to die in this boat.”  Maybe James and John, the experienced fishermen, were arguing about how to handle the boat in such bad conditions.  You know at least one of the disciples had assumed a crash position, and Peter was probably yelling at the wind to knock it off.

Jesus got in the boat, and the wind stopped.

20180530-Pic2Can you see the scene on the boat?  They have experienced complete pandemonium fighting against the wind and probably each other, they get scared out of their minds when they see a ghost, and then suddenly it just stops.  Everything goes quiet.  How long do you think it was silent on the boat while they all processed what they’d just witnessed?  Who would believe them?  Of course they’d seen Jesus heal people, and they’d just participated in feeding over 5,000 people with one person’s lunch, but controlling the weather was a new kind of power for them to see from Jesus.  How many of his teachings were they reconsidering in light of this new development?  How were they still failing to see exactly who Jesus was and why he had come?

But then again, how many times do we see God work in our own lives and then still question who he is when we’re in the midst of a storm in our own lives?

How often do we just assume the crash position or curse the wind or try to manage something far beyond our control?  If we let Jesus into our boat – into whatever storm we are fighting – he will come aboard and silence the wind and the waves.  We can come to him and calm our hearts in his perfect peace, even if the storm continues or blows us off course.  In his presence there is perfect quiet.  There is space and time to focus.  We can trust him to guide us safely back to shore and to be the voice of calm and reason that shows us what to do next once we anchor in him.

Here’s the biggest thing I’ve never noticed about this story: they landed off course.  They set out for Bethsaida, but they ended up anchored in Gennesaret, which is several cities to the west of their intended destination.

Jesus let them be blown off course.  He was with them in the boat, and he could have easily put them back on course when he calmed the wind.  But he didn’t.  Even though he was the one who told them to get in in the boat and go to Bethsaida.  He gave them a specific destination, they encountered an obstacle that Jesus overcame, their course was changed by the obstacle, and even though Jesus was physically with them they still ended up in a different place than what they planned on.

And Jesus was obviously just fine with that because he continued to heal people in Gennesaret; his ministry was unchanged in spite of the change in destination.

To be honest, this is both freeing and frustrating.  I have been blown off course in my life by so many obstacles I’ve lost count.  It’s hard to accept that a good and worthy goal, perhaps even a God-given goal, could change completely.  If Jesus is in my boat, calming the storm, why is he letting anything get in the way?  Why isn’t he just making it happen instead of letting us get blown off course?

20180530-Pic3I forget that the objective of any obstacle is to draw my attention back to Jesus, to make me cry out to him for salvation and direction.  The storm was just another way Jesus could reveal himself to his disciples, and maybe that was the point of sending them out to cross the sea.  From the verses that follow their landfall, it’s obvious that getting to Bethsaida wasn’t an immediate priority.  That’s the frustrating part.

The freeing part is that the destination change didn’t alter the work of Jesus one bit.  They just kept right on teaching and healing folks.

Maybe that was also the point – to show the disciples that the destination had no bearing on the good news they were spreading.  It was for everyone, everywhere, so it’s impossible to ever really be off course unless you quit relying on Jesus.

I can’t tell you how many times my course has changed – the target has moved – but I’ve found myself exactly where I need to be to serve God.  That’s freedom that only faith can provide.  I can let go (Jesus take the wheel!) of even the worthiest of goals and chase a new one as long as I’m following Jesus.

Oddities

Bible study is enlightening, but sometimes it’s also hard, or downright weird. Have you ever read something and stopped to wonder just why that detail was included? Have you ever read something and just laughed at how absurd something sounds? I cannot stop laughing when I read in Exodus about Moses confronting Pharaoh with the plague of frogs, “Frogs will jump on you.” This is what it says in almost every translation I have read. “Frogs will jump on you.” Frogs everywhere sounds like a pretty gross problem, and smelling their rotting carcasses sounds even more disgusting, but, “Frogs will jump on you,” just sounds a little hilarious. You’re just walking down the street, minding your own business, and out of nowhere… (Welcome to my brain. It is a terrifying jumble of stuff, but it’s never boring here.)

Another Moses story that always grabs my imagination is when Moses must hold his arms up during an entire battle against the Amalekites: “As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. Moses’ arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset.” Exodus 17:11-12 NLT

This sounds like a terrible battle plan. Why would the outcome rest entirely on the arm strength and physical endurance of one man? Why is this detail important enough for it to be included in the Bible account? Can you see Moses standing at a vantage point overlooking the battle, already tired from traveling and incessant complaints from his people but holding the staff up over his head? This sounds like a simple task, but after a few minutes, it gets hard. Your arms start shaking, your shoulders ache, and you just want to put your arms down to rest for a moment to stop the ache. But if Moses put his staff down, his people died. Can you imagine the despair he must have felt at such an impossible task? Do the physically impossible, and your people win; fail, even for a second, and people you are responsible for will die. I have no idea why God would choose such a strange setup. I imagine it was to teach Moses and the people around him an object lesson.

Not even Moses could do it alone. His entire leadership of the Israelite people depended on the people around him, sometimes because of his fear, but mostly because the job was too big for any one person. When he first went back to Egypt, God gave him Aaron to be his speaker because he was afraid to go to the Israelites alone. When he was judging disputes among the Israelites after they fled Egypt, his father-in-law Jethro told him he was doing too much and suggested appointing judges to handle small disputes so that Moses himself only had to handle difficult cases. In this battle against the Amalekites, the job was again too big – impossible to accomplish without help. He physically needed Aaron and Hur to lift him up. One man alone cannot accomplish God’s work, however simple the task may appear.

We all need Jethros and Aarons and Hurs in our lives. We need a reminder not to try to do everything ourselves. We need people to come alongside us and lift us up, or rather we need to allow people to help us. We must be willing to admit that we cannot do life alone, and we must be willing to be vulnerable enough to accept the help. I am horrible at this. I hate to admit defeat. I hate to admit that I can’t possibly accomplish my to-do list, and I hate to be a burden to someone else. You know what? I am an idiot. I can’t expect to only offer help without also being helped. If you ever find me being obstinate about this fact, please be my Jethro. And if you are my Aaron and Hur, thank you, and I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the rump about letting you do the task God has given you.

Thankful

Today I am thankful for so much.  I have an incredible family; I serve an unimaginably huge and loving God; I live in a country that allows me the freedom to express my faith; I have been blessed beyond all measure; and today I can share this feast with a blessing I thought would never be possible and still takes my breath away.

Winging It

My life most always feels like some terribly planned improvisational film experiment; I am enough of a type A personality to want things to be done perfectly but not enough type A to get it all done, much less perfectly. I am a lister – I make lists of things to do, things to pack, crafts to finish, things I want to write about, things I’d like to draw, stuff to donate, stuff to organize… Lists are my way of sorting the chaos in my brain and feeling like I have some level of control. Sometimes they feel like a quantifiable measure of the success or failure of my day – more things marked off, good; not enough things marked off, bad. I usually sit down at the beginning of the week and plan out each day’s list from the Master List of Things I Hope to Complete Before I Die or Jesus Comes Back.

Having a plan makes me feel settled, even if I know I will only ever do about half of what I wanted to accomplish. Most of the time, though, I am just desperately winging it. Somehow over the last few weeks in my Bible reading, verses about God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time (that’s a much more impressive list title than mine…) keep cropping up. Exhibit A: “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because this was his plan from before the beginning of time – to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 1:9 NLT

We humans tend to crave direction and attempt to discover God’s plan for our lives, and maybe especially because of the pain and loss I’ve experienced, my eyes are glued to passages about God’s plan. I want desperately to know that what I’m dealing with has meaning. Exhibit A sums up the plan: to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. This verse makes it abundantly clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus was God’s plan all along, not just a backup plan when Mosaic law failed to perfect us. Maybe I’m alone in this, but a lot of the ways that I was taught about the Old Testament made it feel like merely prologue or cultural and historical context for Jesus, like a failed experiment in making people right with a system of laws and sacrifice until Jesus came. Paul makes it plain to Timothy that Jesus was always the plan – even in the Old Testament. The law serves to show us our imperfections and to point us to the only one who can make us whole and right.

So maybe in literary terms this makes the Old Testament a prologue to grace, but that’s a pretty shallow interpretation. Throughout the books of the Old Testament, there are stories of God’s grace and redemption (Hello, Abraham, Jacob, Samson, and David to name a very few!). Hebrews tells us that everyone who followed God in faith even before Jesus was revealed was redeemed as part of the plan. God’s grace has always been the plan.

How does this translate to my need for a daily plan and my desire to know that all of the crap in my life means something? The short answer is it means that my lists and my purpose boil down to two things: to know God and to make him known. Yes, I have work to do that doesn’t feel like it matters in the grand scheme of God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time, but my obedience and my work signal my obedience to God and (when I get it right) show a God of order and (when I get it wrong) show a God of grace and new chances. In my daily life, it also means that my plans are temporal, so when God puts something eternal before me, it trumps my to-do list every time. By eternal things, I mean conversations that encourage family or friends, opportunities to help someone in need, moments to just sit down and be with my husband and daughter, time spent praying and studying God’s word.

In the long-term view, my purpose on earth is always just to know God and to make him known. That’s the only answer that matters. Of course, I want to know that I had ten miscarriages for some more noble reason – that my story of struggle comforted hundreds of thousands of women and inspired them to bravely move forward. That is my human pride wanting to feel important and justified here on earth. The truth is, it’s malarkey. I know that I have occasionally written some words that have helped someone else, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog had I not needed an outlet. I have been in a position to comfort others and to offer some advice for those trying to comfort a loved one. Those things matter, but only in the context of the big picture. I have seen God’s grace in my struggle, and I have done my best to share that. Knowing the metrics of how that has specifically impacted the world is pretty much just keeping score; it demeans God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time by putting it in my human grasp.

Here’s the thing about knowing that God has a Plan from before the Beginning of Time and that I have my miniscule role to play within it: sometimes this just pisses me off. There’s no gentler way to say that. If I think about me as the center of that plan, I get angry that there was no better way in my life to know God or to make him known other than to experience ten miscarriages. Really? One or two wouldn’t suffice? The only answer to that rage and frustration is to know that my only reason for anything is to find Christ in the midst of it and to cling to his grace. Something we often gloss over in Christianity is that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. It’s easy to imagine God being perfect and being a perfect sacrifice; it’s really hard to imagine a fully human brain willing to die a horribly painful death. We all have internal dialogue – what must the conversation in Jesus’s head have sounded like when he thought about God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time? Really? This is the only way to accomplish your plan? But fully human Jesus stuck to the plan anyway and radically changed the perspective from which we all should view our plans.

Know these two things wherever you are today: Jesus has been where you are, and God never wings it.

On Tax Collectors and Notorious Sinners

“Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.” Luke 15:1 NLT

My pastor has often pointed out that tax collectors were so hated by society that they needed their own label because even the “notorious sinners” didn’t want to be associated with tax collectors. Of course this draws a laugh because every culture has its pariahs, and we all love to hate someone. This verse in Luke usually sets my mind to thinking about who was in the crowd whenever Jesus taught. We know that religious leaders came because their questions are often part of the story – sometimes because they were outraged, sometimes because they were genuinely confused, and sometimes to set a trap to catch Jesus in blasphemy.

We know that regular folks came to hear Jesus, too, and some of them brought their whole family. Several accounts of Jesus feeding a large crowd make mention that 5,000 men were fed, not counting women and children. We know that Jesus blessed children and chastised his disciples for keeping children away from him. It sounds like the crowds that came to hear Jesus teach were a mix of every socioeconomic group and every type of profession (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you may know that Jesus had a soft spot for cheesemakers, though…), so I love that Luke felt he needed to point out that “tax collectors and notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”

There are a lot of reasons I love this notation. I love that this bunch of people who were obviously not part of “respectable society” came to hear Jesus, and came often. Can you see the bunched up look on the prim and proper church lady’s face when “those people” showed up and sat down to listen? We all know someone who might fall into the “notorious sinner” category – today they would probably be unwed mothers, addicts, or divorcees; I imagine the categories were much the same in Jesus’s day. I love that these people didn’t give two hoots what polite society thought about their presence – they came to hear Jesus, maybe several times. They knew they needed hope of redemption from their situation – a source of rescue outside themselves. I love imagining what people thought of the notorious sinners and tax collectors coming to hear Jesus – “It’s about time that one got some religion…” or “How dare they show up to hear a man of God speak?” I wonder how many members of polite society were genuinely pleased and nonjudgmental about the notorious sinners’ presence.

I wonder how many of us are happy to welcome into our churches with equal joy the notorious sinners of our day. Can we really claim that the tax collectors and notorious sinners of our time come often to our churches? Or is it horribly uncomfortable for someone different to come in and then to come back? Do we share the love and healing of Jesus in a way tangible enough that notorious sinners are drawn to hear more, just like they were drawn to listen often to Jesus teaching? I love that one single sentence both comforts and challenges me because Jesus still offers hope and healing to everyone, and I need to be sure that I am not hindering anyone, notorious sinner or not, that is drawn to Jesus. I must admit that it is too easy to judge someone’s appearance or situation and assume that they will never change. And in the next breath I must admit that I must not really believe that God is all-powerful or the source of grace if I can so readily judge another human. I’m really no different from a notorious sinner because I am still a sinner. And maybe that’s what I love the most about this sentence in Luke: the irony that anyone who judged the tax collectors and notorious sinners who showed up to learn from Jesus is even more in need of that teaching and grace. Here’s to notorious sinners and tax collectors; may we be ever gracious to each other.

Eyes on the Prize

I may have written this blog before, so stop reading if you’ve heard this before. We are all works in progress, and some days we make more progress than others. But our failures don’t define us any more than our successes do. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn is that I am not the sum of what I do. It’s really easy to tell myself who I am based on what I do. For men, that tends to be based on your job. For women, that tends to be the roles we inhabit: wife, mother, friend, bookkeeper, housekeeper… I judge my progress on how much I check off my to-do list or how well I think I have done my assorted jobs instead of on how well I followed Christ with my whole life.

Sometimes I butt heads with Paul, but I love the imagery of Philippians 3 where he tells his readers to keep running, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:12-14) We are all running a race; we aren’t all running the same race, but we are all looking forward to what lies ahead, and our habits today will determine what finish line we’re seeking.

If you follow Christ, then the ultimate finish line is the heavenly prize Jesus claimed for you when he redeemed you, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have earthly goals, too. Your earthly goals should honor Christ, but they may not be specifically spiritual in nature. I have set some fitness goals (which now need adjusting, as Engelberta decided she and I must compete on “American Ninja Warrior” when she gets “big” next week…), and they may seem silly to someone in good shape, but I am determined to do at least one pull-up before I die. The other goals are far more achievable, as I have done them all at least once in my life, but the pull-up has eluded me since the days of Presidential Fitness Testing in elementary school. But I am pressing on toward my goal. Some days I feel like I am never going to make it, and other days, like today, I realize that I am slowly getting stronger. My form is getting better, I can accomplish more challenging workouts, and one day soon that pull-up is going to happen – not immediately, and not if I don’t keep working towards it, but soon enough that I want it even more with each day of pressing on and looking towards the prize.

So now my challenge is to chase after each of my goals, especially the ultimate goal of seeing my faith perfected through Jesus, as hard as I chase after my pull-up. It’s harder to measure spiritual growth, but those moments of reflection when you realize that you are stronger than you were before, you react differently than you used to, or you more often than not see people as who God created them to be make me want that prize all the more.

Forgiveness – Part 4 – Be Forgiven

I touched on this in the Forgiveness – Part 1 post, and this “study” of forgiveness would be incomplete without this final part. Forgiveness in our lives is all modeled on the forgiveness of Jesus in the form of his death as a sacrifice for all of our sins (our less-than-perfect moments). Even in the Torah and books of the prophets in what Christians call the Old Testament, a blood sacrifice was required to cover sins and make people righteous in God’s eyes. The very first sin of Adam and Eve required a blood sacrifice that God himself prepared for Adam and Eve by killing animals and using their skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness when they left the Garden of Eden. Other religions view less-than-perfection differently, but almost all see good and evil like a balance scale where enough good to outweigh the bad makes things right.

This is a noble way to see good and evil, but it leaves a lot of gaps for me intellectually and spiritually. How much good is enough to make up for the bad in my life? Is there a ratio of good:bad that will ensure that I will be a good person or go to heaven? Is 2:1 enough, or should it be more like 10:1? What is the standard for my good acts – are small acts of kindness like compliments enough to make up for losing my temper? What if I do something worse, like kill someone – what can possibly make up for that on the scale? If enough people put good mojo out into the world, will it ever be enough to keep horrible things from happening? If everyone on the planet could pay it forward for a day or a week, could we keep earthquakes at bay or stop mass shootings? How much good karma would it take to prevent bad karma from happening at all? If I can repeat my life through multiple reincarnations, could I ever be good enough to make it heaven, or will I be stuck in an endless loop of repeating my less-than-perfection?

The problem with all of these beliefs for me is that the focus is always on self – what can you do to earn a place in heaven? Any system based solely on your actions is a meritocracy, and you must work your way into heaven. The worst part of this for me is that there are no clear guidelines for just how good you have to be, and there are no real explanations for why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people. As badly as Christians often explain it, God does provide a foundation for all of these questions I have about a meritocratic heaven.

Heaven isn’t a meritocracy; there’s nothing you can do to earn it because grace is a gift of God given with no strings attached except to follow Jesus. There is a clear standard for perfection and sin, and there is a clear consequence for sin. Sin is anything less than perfection in our thoughts and actions, and the consequence of sin is death (separation from God forever). The only way to regain our connection to the Creator of our souls is to accept the sacrifice of Jesus and allow him to lead us through life on earth. In exchange, our relationship with God is restored, and we will live forever with our Creator in heaven when our bodies pass away. No earning our way to perfection; no earning a place in heaven because it is a gift of God. Our good works are the result of following Jesus.

Because sin entered our world, our world is broken as well; things will never be perfect here like they were in the Garden of Eden until God makes the whole world new. Until that happens, bad things will happen no matter how good we are or how well we imitate Jesus. Evil is loose in our world, and we can’t do enough good deeds to wipe it out. Only Jesus can eradicate evil. I touched on this in the Forgiveness – Part 3 post. God’s grace saves us from condemnation, but it doesn’t exempt us from experiencing evil here on earth.

Here are some passages of the Bible that I think tie up the old system of animal sacrifice for sin with the new promise made through Jesus’s sacrifice of his life for ours.

“In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals. For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again, like the high priest here on earth who enters th3e Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice.” Hebrews 9:22-26 NLT

“When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died – from the time of Adam to the time of Moses – even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins.” Romans 5:12-16

This sounds like a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo, and I guess maybe it is. The bottom line for me is that I don’t want to be my own standard bearer; if I am a standard for goodness, I am a miserable example, and there is no hope for humanity. I have looked long and hard into my own soul, and I know what darkness lives there. I think I’m a pretty good person, so if I can see such darkness in me, I have no hope of doing enough good deeds to earn a place in heaven. Jesus for me means freedom from myself and my darkness. He told us, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Jesus offers release from the relentless burden of myself and my less-than-perfections. He offers me rest for my soul, and I desperately want and need that respite.

If you have seen Christians behaving badly or judging the world, I’m sorry; we all mess up, and we all need forgiveness. None of us speaks for Christ – God doesn’t need us to explain him or to judge the world, because he explains himself, and he is the judge. If you have read this and think I am judging you for believing something different – see that last sentence. I have great respect for any person who has explored their faith and determined their own beliefs, especially if you act on those beliefs. This is merely an explanation of my basis for forgiveness. It is not my job to judge you, it is only my job to follow Jesus, and I have felt from the beginning of this topic that I should write this. If you believe something different than me and would like to discuss anything I have written here further, please contact me. If I have written anything that sounds like something you want to learn more about, please contact me. You can send me a message on FB if we’re FB friends, or you can e-mail me at mabbatblog@gmail.com.