DEEPER GRACE

Deeper Grace reminds us again of the wealth of Heaven available to every student of Jesus.

Paperback or Kindle

Say yes to Students of Jesus in your inbox:

 

SEARCH THIS SITE:

Archive
Navigation

The Secret Beauty of Forgiveness

Nothing quite ruins a fancy dinner like an hysterical woman. Polite conversation continues while we all pretend not to notice. Then someone finally speaks up because her behavior is unacceptable. It happened one night when a man named Simon, a proper and meticulous Pharisee, invited Jesus to dinner.

Before we jump to the story, imagine the circumstances before the dinner party began. Simon, a man who respected the law of God, had made plans to be the host. He probably had a personal agenda as well: you don’t invite a celebrity to your house without thinking through the topics of conversation. You try to anticipate all the details in advance and put your best foot forward. Simon instructed his servants to pay attention to every detail.

But then someone slipped past Security and began to make a scene:

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. (Luke 7:36-38)

Perhaps you know the story. Simon recognizes the woman as a sinner from the streets of the city. He thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” But it doesn’t take a prophet to see someone’s sin and label them as such. The true prophet seated at the table saw something else: the beauty of a changed heart and the seed of loving gratitude taking deep root.

Simon saw a dinner party ruined. Jesus saw a life in repair. He saw the contrast between those who think they have it all under control and those who know for certain they do not. Jesus saw the difference between one person striving to avoid the label “Sinner,” and one who saw that same label as a path to freedom.

The irony of the whole affair is that we would never remember the dinner party if it had gone perfectly. What makes the story worth telling again and again is how everything went wrong in the best possible way. Like that other time when four strangers tore a hole in Peter’s roof, or that time when Jesus ruined a perfectly planned funeral by stepping into the procession and raising the widow’s son. It seems interruptions followed whenever Jesus went—or is it that he himself is the Great Interruption?

That night, at Simon’s place, the interruption was forgiveness. Forgiveness is always an interruption—it interrupts our carefully planned party, our comfortable patterns of thinking. It interrupts the way we have structured our world into good guys and bad guys, into us and them. Forgiveness is Jesus’s preferred scandal. Forgiveness is the uninvited guest who makes a mockery of the fine china of our lives. We can choose between keeping the china in a fancy cabinet, using it only when we pretend everything’s at its best, or smashing the plates and making a mosaic of the shards of our messed-up lives.

Forgiveness cares nothing for etiquette and everything for the gauche. The secret beauty of forgiveness is it’s only available to the sinner.

Jesus speaks forgiveness to the mess and the refuse of all that’s ugly in our lives. His words become the stuff of stories told centuries later, like the time that woman broke in and ruined a dinner party. We should be so lucky to have our plans ruined again today.

The Current of Thanksgiving

Thank You for what You’ve done,

Thank You for what You’re doing,

Thank You for what You will do.

This simple prayer is taking root in me, teaching me the deep wisdom of gratitude, and changing my life.

 

Each morning, after the alarm goes off—but before my feet swing out of bed and stand me up—I take just ten minutes to pray and think through this prayer. Ten minutes well spent: better than the snooze button; better than a to-do list. James Bryan Smith observed that, upon waking, most believers turn their mind immediately to what must be done in the new day. He suggested starting each day with a meditation on the goodness of God. This prayer grew from his sound counsel.

Let me share what I’ve learned after a few months of this discipline:

Daily gratitude isn’t easy: it’s a life-skill we must learn. Anyone can recite the major blessings of their life if they are called upon to do so every once in a while. But the daily practice of thankfulness either becomes dull via repetition or a mere formula we rush through before we move on to the next task. Unless we apply ourselves to the substance of the prayer: can we develop the skill to discover God’s goodness day-by-day? My ten-minute morning prayer exercise has begun to sharpen my awareness of God’s mercies, which after all, are new every morning. As I go about my day I try to gather up in my memory the Father’s small kindnesses—and I’ve discovered there are hundreds each day! But we only find those things we are looking for.

His goodness is not random; it’s the current of his presence. This simple prayer urges me to connect yesterday with today, and to anticipate God’s works tomorrow, before they have even happened. Have you ever played this game: “What did I have for lunch yesterday?” In many cases it’s hard to recall. So it is with the thousand kindnesses we are shown each day. But our memories can be trained to reach backward 24 hours and savor the fragrance of small graces we consumed yesterday. The yesterday portion of this prayer exercise primes the pump of gratitude for the new day: we know our schedule, and we know our tasks; what we somehow fail to know is that God’s goodness is infused in these daily activities. When we thank him for what he is doing today we are reminded not only that he is good, but also that he is with us. We begin to realize with the Psalmist, “as for me, the nearness of God is my good.” (73:28)

Finally, we can experience breakthrough for what is yet to come. Too often we imprison gratitude in the past. The long-term effect of this choice is the subtle idea that his goodness is behind us and the only thing ahead is worry. Anxiety is nearly always pointed toward the future—why not replace it with thankfulness for what God is going to do? In my personal experience I have found this to be a remarkable antidote to fear. When I’ve remembered his goodness in the past, and seen his goodness today, it’s but a small step to realize that his faithfulness extends forward, forever.

But this prayer is an exercise. At first it seems forced or clumsy, or perhaps even lame. Intellectual agreement (for instance, by merely reading a blog post) is not enough: we enter into a lifestyle of gratitude through intentionality and practice. You will, no doubt, adapt the three prayer steps to your own situation. But after a few weeks of trial and error, you will discover a new spring of life—and I am thankful for what he will do in you!

Grace to you all, and peace!

God's Now

Jesus said some pretty outrageous things; sometimes you just have to wonder if he was serious. Maybe when we see him face-to-face he might say, “Oh, the Sermon the Mount? I was just yanking your chain.” Or not. Perhaps he meant what he said.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

These words are a crazy combination of challenge and promise. The promise is perhaps a negative: each day comes with just enough trouble. It’s not the sort of promise you’ll find in a book of Bible promises or some promise-a-day software. The challenge is that Jesus suggests tomorrow isn’t worth the worry. Really? How, then, can I prepare?

These words from Jesus are an invitation to exercise the discipline of the present moment.

Each of us lives one day at a time. Rich or poor, young or old, we all experience time in a sequence of days. We cannot jump ahead by a day or a year. We cannot recreate the past, as in the movie “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray, a self-centered fool, is given the opportunity to live the same day over (and over and over) until he gets it right. No: the days march by in line, one after another.

Who came up with such an arrangement? Well, God did. Although he lives outside of time, he set the cosmos in motion, and in so doing, set us into a world of time. “So what?” we are tempted to think--until we consider that God looked upon all of his creation and said, "It’s good. It’s very good.” The goodness of creation reveals that the daily march of our lives, the day-upon-day progression of life, was set up by a wise and loving Father. He created time for our good. He created the daily, but we have added the grind.

Still, many of us feel trapped in the present moment. Our past has hemmed us in: we think our foolish choices have brought us this far and the present moment feels like prison. Others look forward from this present day and conclude the path of our lives is already set. Forces are in motion, we think. The future has been determined by past events.  We begin to think our own lives are beyond control.

We’re not alone in these thoughts. Some of the greatest men of faith had remarkably bad days. Days in which they felt captured by the past or faced an uncertain future. Moses must have been having a really bad day when he began to pray the prayer in Psalm 90. Moses observed that God lives forever, and we are lucky to hit eighty years. Everything dies. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Moses must’ve been a real buzz kill at parties.

Then the Spirit of God hinted at what Jesus would teach years later: “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” (Psalm 90:14) Moses began to get the message. The final verses of this Psalm/prayer begin to look up. God’s mercies are not yesterday’s mercies, nor are they a pipe dream for tomorrow. They're here now. In the present moment. There are new mercies for each new morning.

I like to imagine Jesus reciting Psalm 90 while he walked in the Galilean countryside. I can see him watching plants putting forth flowers, birds finding food, feeling the breeze on his cheek. Jesus smiled: perhaps he wondered what Moses was getting so worked up about. Jesus launched a message about today. Today, he said, the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking in. Maybe it didn’t yesterday, who knows what will happen tomorrow, but the Spirit is bringing the righteousness, joy and peace of the Kingdom right now to those who hear and rejoice.

His words are a call to practice the discipline of the present moment. Jesus is not against the past: he encourages us to remember the past, but only so we can have confidence that God is with us today. What he did for others in the past he will do for us. He’s not against the future. Dave Ramsey can relax: I’m sure Jesus had a 401K-retirement account. But he wasn’t invested in the future; his investment was all in the now. It’s common sense to learn from the past; it’s dangerous to live there. It’s prudent to plan for the future; it will drive you crazy to try to control it.

So we’re left with the wisest, most radical, sanest advice ever given:

“Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Living The Secret

Some secrets are safe—even when you tell them to others—because some secrets must be lived, rather than known.

I found just such a secret buried deep in a stack of letters from a man stuck in prison, the kind of prison where you had to provide your own food and clothing, which was a problem because you were in prison. If you were out of friends you were outta luck. The kind of prison where you sat before you went to trial, wondering if you were going to trial. The man in prison had been beaten, healed, scarred, and beaten again. Shipwrecked three times, and far from home. Still, he had a secret, and he shared it with his friends:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:11-12)


This man, Paul, a follower of Jesus, was falsely accused and in prison awaiting trial for more than a year. He had discovered the secret of contentment. Can you imagine yourself, in the midst of all those circumstances Paul faced, content?

Contentment is perhaps even more of a secret today because the Western world is locked up in its own striving and appetites, wholly unaware of its blessings. Can we hear Paul’s whisper through the clamor of consumerism today? Consider just a few insights into his secret:

§ Contentment does not depend on circumstances:
Paul could be content in the midst of plenty or little. In the Western world plenty is not enough: we are a people who cannot be at rest even when we are surrounded by every comfort.

§ Contentment does not mean giving up: Paul still had places to go and things to do. He was not a fatalist who accepted every event in his life as the final word. Yet even when he faced obstacles and frustration he found contentment within.

§ Contentment is not the result of positive thinking:
There’s an old story about the child given a pile of horse manure for his birthday: he joyfully grabbed a shovel and said, “there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere!” Not so. Sometimes there is no pony: life simply covers us with dung. The danger of positive thinking is that it comes from our own strength, and eventually that resource runs dry.

The secret of contentment runs deeper. It’s born out of relationship to an unchanging person and his unshakable kingdom. Let’s tune our ears and listen to the man in prison. His words are like a treasure map: hearing the secret is not enough; it must be discovered. It must be lived. At the end of the search we will discover ourselves to be the kind of people so in tune with the Kingdom of God that we can navigate difficult times, supplied not only with strength, but also peace.

My Shameful Bible Secret

From the very first day I started following Jesus, well-meaning Christians gave me this advice: Read your Bible. I tried to act on this advice right away. I read my Bible. I prayed. And within a week I had a shameful secret: I was confused and lost. The Bible was nearly incomprehensible to me. How could such good advice go wrong so quickly? And why was I afraid to tell anyone my dark secret?

Worse still: pastors realize most people in their congregation—Christians new and old—are in the same state. Christians who attend church faithfully know they should read their Bibles, but so few of us do it, and fewer still find life between its pages. Some of us may manage to fill our brains with Bible knowledge, but this much is sure: knowing what to do is not enough. In fact, knowing what to do might be part of the problem. This common bit of advice can be true and deadly at the same time. Deadly, you say? I do, because knowledge without love leads to pride, and pride always leads to death.

Beyond knowing lie greater things: only desire and love can sustain our life with Jesus. Knowing him begins with loving him. Our faith is not a body of knowledge; it’s love that leads us to learn the Belovéd. Learning driven by love conforms us to his image. Jesus understood the human bias toward the knowledge of things, and tried to point the religious experts toward the source of knowing, and the wellspring of life. “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life,” he said. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Let me never mistake the book for the reality. And yet: what a gift is the Bible when it leads us to Jesus! “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies,” said Martin Luther. “As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus.”

God himself breathed out this inspired book of scripture, and since his every breath is precious, I will attend. His words are the house of revelation, of beauty, and of wisdom.

If I love God properly I will love his book correctly. If I do not love him his book becomes a weapon in my fleshly hands. The Bible can cut me in the most healing way, but apart from the love of God I can use it to wound others through condemnation or pride. The Bible can speak healing to my soul, but apart from the love of God I can demand that others come to me for the medicine. The Bible can whisper grace and peace, but apart from the love of God I will end up shouting judgment and strife.

And it is the whole of the Bible that shapes our soul. The Old Testament is the Bible Jesus read: it shaped Jesus’ spiritual formation, his understanding of Heaven and earth. The Bible lifts up people over principle: in its pages we meet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David; Mary and Martha, John and James, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and everyone. The Bible exalts beauty and song: creation, psalms, parables, and celebration. It can confound and frighten; it can mystify and induce awe; its mystery is better than our deepest reasoning. But all these wonders will fall upon the deaf ears when we search only for knowledge.

Let’s not tell babes in Christ, “Read your Bible” as a command. Let’s invite them into the mystery that has both fed our souls and yet still stirs our hunger, year after year. Let’s tell them their Loving Father has prepared a feast, a banquet filled with tastes we have never before experienced, wine we never imagined, and bread come down fresh from Heaven. His love he bids us come and eat, and that is how I want to read his book.