Wounded Lions, Part 1

 

 

Wounded lions don’t hunt;                             they scout.image

Life is a story.  Every story has an author.  If you, like me, have attempted to write your own story, you may have found yourself frustrated and confused at the lack of direction in the narrative. Here’s the message: you are not the Author.  I am not the Author.
God is.
God writes a very simple story and it consists of three words: I LOVE YOU.
As simple as that story is, how often do we attempt to rewrite it?  God writes in ink.  God uses periods.  The story has already been written.  So why do we insist on changing it?  Let’s start at the beginning.

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As we begin to understand our story, we often misinterpret the setting.  We are not the center of our universe.  We are placed in the center of God’s love.  God’s very simple message comes again and again: I LOVE YOU.
Immediately other characters enter our story: family, friends, culture, education, loved ones.  We open ourselves to this story, but as we continue to gain our legs, we take on wounds as well.  Allow me to use an example from my own life to illustrate.

I have always thought I was okay.  I have allowed others to believe that I am okay.  I am not.  The reason I am not okay is because I have tried to play the role of author.  I have tried to change what God has already written.
God has said to me: I LOVE YOU. I have chosen to disagree.
No One Loves Me: Divorce, like many of life’s crippling wounds, has made me think that this is the story.  If the relationship that promises for better or worse becomes broken, then who really loves you?
I Love Me:  At my best I have had good moments.  At my best I have succeeded. I have accomplished in spite of my wounds.  In these moments, I have taken pride in what I have done.  I have loved me for all that I have done.  It doesn’t last.
Jesus Loves Me:  Telling this story seems innocent.  It seems healthy.  It seems okay.  But why could I tell others that story?  I told that story because I had always heard it.  I heard the Word in the womb.  I attended church more times in my first five years than most people will in a lifetime.  But when head and heart don’t agree, the message is shallow.
I LOVE YOU, God writes in periods. There are no qualifiers.  There is no “but” looming ominously behind those words.  God does not pause to take a breath.  God’s words are complete.  I am the one putting a comma at the end.  I am the one confused by unconditional love.

So what does all this mean?  It means that I started in the center of God’s love. That does not change.  But as others come into the story, they sometimes leave wounds.  Family can leave wounds.  Our work or educational experience can leave wounds.  Our friends can leave wounds.  Even church can leave wounds.  And wounded lions don’t hunt, they scout.
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The big, wide open space of God’s love is suddenly smaller.  I close myself off because it seems safer to keep out those who hurt me.  But now, to mask my wounds, I cover up.  Instead of being the son wearing the coat of many colors, I am the son wearing many coats.  It is heavy.  It is tiring.  It is the wrong story. The message of the story has not changed, but I have to decide when to stop writing my own story.
In Part 2, we will look more at what it means to “scout.”
Which story are you writing?

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My Problem with Grace: Part 3

We often do not discover our problem with something until it is right in front of us.  For example, I had no problem with asparagus until my mother encouraged me to try it and offered that it was “good.” Her words did nothing for the smell, appearance and texture of the food.  I believed that she liked asparagus, but I insisted that I did not.
The same seems to be true of grace.  I have been the one to encourage grace and promote its goodness.  But, unlike my mother, I have not been tasting what I myself am putting on other plates.  Be careful of the chef who does not eat his or her own cooking.  In my first post I shared how I learned to allow my slate to be wiped clean rather than remaining hung up on my imperfection.  In my second post I shared that I had to humble myself and acknowledge my own insufficiency.  This third part may have been the hardest, but also the best.

Rooted
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – Ephesians 1:4,5

And
While I was uncomfortably waiting inside the bank, I thought I should seek out another option.  Maybe the bank would not be able to help me with the impending shortfall I was facing.  I took my phone and sent out a text for help.  An offer came back, but it would not be available until Monday – the day that I needed it.  Before I could finish the conversation, I was called into the bank office.  A proverbial dash, like the one after Ephesians 1:5, was hanging over my cry for help.
As I walked out of the bank office assured that my payment could still process, I glanced at my phone.  I had one text message with one word: “Done.”  In other words, not only would I have the amount that I needed, I would have it in time.  What a relief.
A few days after that, I received this text from that person:  “I’m very glad you asked me for money.”
That seemed to be an odd statement to make.  So I asked, “Because?”
I received this response:  “I know a lot of people that need it won’t ask, you did a lot for me and I’m glad I’m able to help in some way.”
Isn’t that so true of grace?  How many people need it but won’t ask?  How many people know they need it and won’t ask?  And how many people need it again and again but allow their pride or sense of self-sufficiency to prevent them from making that request?  Put me in that final category.

Reaching
Verse 5 of Ephesians 1 ends with a dash, a “wait-for-it” type of marking.  Here is what comes after that:
to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. – Ephesians 1:6
There’s that word again: grace.  Freely given.  Freely given in the One he loves.  I have tried to repay my debt, not only with my friend but also with God.  I want to “make it right” or “even out” what has been done.  So not only do I get hung up on mistakes and have difficulty admitting my failures, but I also do not receive well.  As soon as I was able to repay what had been given to me by my friend, I made my intentions clear.  The loan was appreciated and I was ready to settle up.  The response I received was not what I had expected (nor hoped) to hear:
“You know I won’t take it.”
What?  I cannot repay? But how am I supposed to settle the score?  Don’t we do that with grace?  How often have you treated grace like a loan to “get you by” in a tough spot instead of receiving it for the gift that it is?
Ah, but grace is not about settling the score, at least not on our end.  Grace is freely given in order to settle the score from God’s perspective.  This morning I asked my sons about the word “reconcile” after we heard it in a song.  “Reconcile” is one of those words tossed around in Christian-ese, but we often miss the application it has to the accounting world.  (Those of us who have reconciled bank statements should understand.)  In that sense the word points toward accuracy and an accounting for of all transactions.  That’s grace.
We’re imperfect.  We’re woefully short.  We receive grace to balance out the account.  But it’s not a loan, so we cannot repay. If the account has already been settled and the cost paid, how would we make things even again?  How do you repay adoption into a relationship so undeserved?  How do you repay love?  (Many of you will try on Valentine’s Day.)  You cannot.
We are not used to gifts without conditions, so we may struggle to only receive.  It’s not that we cannot respond at all, for grace does compel us to action.  But the very simple point is that we cannot repay grace.  We can, however, respond in love.
I like asparagus now; my mother was right.  It makes me wish I had tried it sooner.  And people were right about grace as well.  In fact, I was right about grace.  I knew it was good.  The difference is that I now have a taste for grace, and I hope you do as well.  Don’t wait any longer to try it.

My Problem with Grace: Part 2

The easier thing would be to not write this.  Believe me, I weighed out the risks and here is what I found: by writing this piece others could come to all types of conclusions about my abilities, my wisdom, my self-sufficiency, my independence, my decision-making, and even my faith.  On the other hand, there are risks involved in not writing this: there is no glory given to God, no one can be helped by my struggle, I would continue to wear the mask that I’m sufficient, and all of us could miss out on grace.  When I put it that way, it became very clear that the weight of importance – eternal importance – fell in the second list.  That is why I share.
My problem with grace did not end when I found my slate wiped clean after arriving one minute late on my second day of work.  No, it would not be that simple; I had much more to learn.  I continued on in my work believing that everything was working out perfectly.  Clearly God’s provision and timing was (is) perfect because I could see all sorts of pieces falling together as only God could do.  I held that view until payday, the day my doubts began to pop back up.  God was still very much involved, but it was not in the way I could immediately see.  Those are the types of blindspots I have when paychecks don’t arrive.

Rooted
Give us this day our daily bread. ~ Matthew 6:11

And
Have you ever wondered why Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread when we already have next week’s bread in the freezer?  Why do we ask God to supply what we have waiting for us?  I suppose it has something to do with an attitude of gratitude, right?  Something like “Thank you, God, for the food I put on the table with the work that I did because of my ability.”  It couldn’t really mean we should actually be in a state of daily dependence – could it?  Be careful with asking questions like that: you just might get answers that you would rather not know.
The money I did have was running low, but that was to be expected.  I had lost a job six months ago and, although eligible for some funds from unemployment, the actual claim would never process correctly.  When I submitted this form, I was told to submit that form.  When I appealed, I heard no answer.  Finally, as I approached full-time employment again, I was told to submit other claims that had already been submitted.  I did.  Still nothing.  I received not a penny of financial benefit in six months.  Mentally I said, “Ok, God, I get it – rely on you, blah, blah, blah.”  I don’t mean to be flip, but I felt like I had the point.  Clearly there was a lesson I had to learn, but how about some provision now that I understood?
Nothing.
When I woke up for my 10th day of work, it was payday.  Finally.  I had cut it close for the things that needed to be taken care of, but it looked like i was going to make it.  And then there was no pay in my bank account.  Maybe there’s a delay, I thought.  After all, it was the first paycheck and I had no specific timeline to measure the process.  So I asked my colleagues at lunch, “Did you get paid?”  Yes, yep, uh-huh.
Huh.  Odd.
Suddenly my questions became more urgent.  Why didn’t I get paid?  Where was my pay?  It was already Friday afternoon and there was a pending transaction at the bank for the coming Monday.  If the money wasn’t there, what would happen?  As I checked into the “why” of my dilemma, I found an unfortunate answer: the error was mine.  When entering my bank information for the deposit, I had accidentally typed in an extra zero.  The information was wrong and I had no one to blame but myself.  (The irony was not lost on me that I discovered this error on the same day I had to pass an assessment for handling emergency situations at 100% accuracy.)
Now what?

Reaching
And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
~ Matthew 6:12

Not only does this prayer use the odd word of  “debtors”, but isn’t it strange that we ask for forgiveness right after we ask for provision?  Isn’t that backwards?  Aren’t we supposed to ask for forgiveness and then ask for provision?
I had no time to deal with the forgiveness petition; I literally needed daily bread.  With no provision in pocket, nor in the bank, I began my lament: “God, I just worked for 80 hours in these past two weeks and have nothing to show for it…I’ve been faithful…I’ve been obedient…I’ve been…” and all of this became about me again.  When I arrived home and realized that the miracle of finding money in my mailbox didn’t happen, I knew I was stuck.  To be more accurate, on my own I was stuck.
There was no student loan check waiting to be cashed.  No tax refund screaming through the internet to reach me.  Just me, my God, and my questions.  I did what I did not want to do: ask for help.  I found myself in a very busy bank on a Saturday morning with only a question of whether or not this would even work.  The bank is not the place I would expect to find grace.  To be transparent, it took a big swallow of pride to find myself in the bank with my question in the first place.  Here I was, a man (edit)…a white man (edit)…a college-educated white man (edit)…a God-believing, college-educated white man in the position of saying I didn’t have enough.  All of my life I have been sold the line that if anyone should have it all, it should be me.
Someone got that wrong.
The teller heard my question and passed it along.  One of the managers said she could talk with me if I could just wait a minute.  So I went to wait as she told me, and I fought the urge to walk out.  Why tell her my problem?  She probably can’t do anything for me anyway.  All that I wanted to know was if they could help me, and I was quite convinced that they could not.  After a short wait she called me to her office and I explained my situation.  She looked at my account and told me something I did not expect:
“Ok, Douglas, I can take care of that for you.  I’ll make sure the payment goes through and I see you haven’t had any fees waived for you before.  So if there are any fees, I’ll take care of that for you.  Here’s my card and feel free to call me next week if you have any questions.”
That’s it?! No more explanation from me?  No forms to sign?  No…nothing?  Just grace?
Just grace.
I’m pretty sure I thanked her, but I was mostly stunned that I could be helped that way.  I drove away with my quarter-tank of gas to pick up my sons to head back home to our cupboards full of just enough.  Grace had rocked me.
All the while I had wanted to find a way to make it on my own (giving thanks to God for what I had done), and God put me in a place where I could not.  That is the place where we all must find ourselves at some point.  We cannot.  God can.  I found myself in a state of dependence.  I asked for help.  When help was given, my daily bread petition AND my forgiveness petition were met all at once.  Jesus did not have his prayer requests mixed up, not at all.
I cannot.
God can.
God gives.
God forgives.
We humbly approach God, finally recognizing our own limitations, weaknesses, and insufficiency, and God responds with: “I’ll take care of that for you. Call on me anytime you wish.”  There have been so many times that i have short-changed God’s provision and God’s forgiveness.  I have also mistakenly thought that daily provision was more important than my own forgiveness.  In spite of my blind eyes and in spite of my continual need for forgiveness, God hears our cry and meets our need.
That’s it? Just grace?
Incredible!
Yes, just incredible grace.

My Problem with Grace

8:01.
That time is insignificant on most days.  It holds more significant meaning on the second day of a new job. Not just the second day of a new job, but the second day of a new job that starts at 8:00.  Not only does it start at 8:00, but the better part of the first afternoon was devoted to stressing the importance of being on time.  Always.  And I took that information, hit snooze, got caught behind a slow-moving semi, and walked in to the classroom to see everyone else seated and ready to go.  Some of my new colleagues had driven more than an hour to be there.  I had a 15 minute drive on a bad day.
8:01.

Rooted
This righteousness is given through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, ~Romans 3:22,23

And
No one wants to be the one with the bad mark, but that’s exactly what had happened.  With no excuses and no chance to change what had happened, I tried to focus on the content of our training.   I could not, at least not well.  That minute kept popping back into my mind.  I had heard about the process of discipline, and I had stepped right into it.
Then our truth moment, or at least mine, came up: we were shown how to record our working time in the system.  There was a quiet argument about whether or not I should record “8:00” since I was so close.  It’s only one minute, right?  But I was not there at 8:00; I was there one minute later.
I entered 8:01.
Our instructor came around to make sure that we had followed the process correctly.  She saw mine and quietly said, “Oh good, you have that in there.  I was going to mention it this morning but then we started right away.  It’s a very literal time stamp here.”
Very literal.  Much like when we fall short of the standard God has set.  There is no wiggle room.  There is no “so close” category.  There is no way I can earn what God offers to me in the gift of salvation.  Unfortunately, I often pretend as if I can.  I look at what I’ve done as well as what I haven’t, and I quietly argue that it’s close enough.

Reaching
The end result of my argument is that I arrive at cheap grace.  The blood of Jesus means little if I came “pretty close.”  The journey Christ took to leave heaven and live on earth is invaluable if we’re grading on a curve.  And the suffering that our Lord endured for my sake hurts me a little less if I almost didn’t need him to do that.
But I absolutely do need it.  I’m not close.  I’m not a minute late, I don’t even show up on the radar when it comes to meeting the holiness and righteousness of God.  How dare I discount the cost of what was done for me?

and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  ~ Romans 3:24

Indeed.  I was the one hung up on my minute, not my instructor.  She proceeded to teach me with excellence in spite of my shortcoming.  I do the same thing with grace.  I’m overly aware of a few shortcomings, and woefully unaware of the rest. But, rather than looking at the goodness around me, I can stay stuck on that minute late.  Our shortcoming is not a problem for God.  He solved that already.  Now if we would only move past the truth of verse 23 and into the truth of verse 24.
The second week of my job started with all of us receiving evaluations from our instructor.  I gave it a glance and noticed a section for absences and tardies.  On my evaluation, the instructor noted that I had zero absences and zero tardies.
Grace.
God loves you.  You do not need to prove your love by your perfection.  You will have shortcomings until the last breath.  But grace is available now – and always – for every moment your heart beats.  Be absolutely certain that God has no problem with grace.  Live with the knowledge and gratitude that lets others know you have been set free from your problem with grace.

Finding God in Monday: Grace Poured Out

Sometimes it takes very little for me to question God’s plan to use me. Like a Monday morning, for example. That’s a good enough reason to question why God would place me in ministry roles. I woke up exhausted and uncomfortable. The humidity of last night helped me not at all. I grumble as I think about the work that needs to be done today. I still haven’t established a regular Sabbath – I just find them when I can – and today is not it. I set up a meeting for this morning and there is Bible study tonight.
So I stumble out of my room when I hear that the dog and the pup have broken out of the kitchen (not my fault). I think about the fact that I need to return my car so that the repair shop can find out why it is doing the exact same thing as before the last repair two weeks ago (not my fault). That will mean a walk home. It’s cloudy. It’s humid. You do the math. As I start to get ready, the bathroom door nearly falls apart. It’s long overdue for replacement. Maybe I should do something about that. Make that a zillion and one on the list. The bathroom sink is a mess (not my fault). Then I see that the pup left some unappreciated presents in the dining room. Grumble…grumble. Did I mention it’s Monday? I’m almost ready to leave to drop off the car when the nachos I had last night (during my attempt to personally retreat where all I did was clean up my email) kick in. Really? Right now? And who is calling me before 8am? Why? It cannot be that important, can it?
We are all called to be ministers, but sometimes I ask God why that has to be all the time. Why can’t part-time ministry mean part-time? Because there are no part-time people. I studied Criminal Justice because people fascinate me. Now I’m surrounded by them. But God did not choose me because of my adequacy, he chose me because he had prepared me, blessed me, and I had the audacity to be obedient at one point in time. Well, two, actually. So here I am: an inadequate, grumbling, minister of grace on a Monday morning. Awesome.
As I drove the car to the shop, I took a way that allowed me to see that my friend and neighbor who hosts tonight’s Bible study is missing his dog. I saw the sign on a post and it reminded me that other people have things to face as well. Dogs missing. No work. Health struggles. Family problems. The list of possibilities is endless – and so is God’s grace. I sensed God telling me this: “As soon as I stop being good, you feel free to start complaining.” God IS good. If I remember that, I will understand that circumstances are only that – circumstances – tools used in God’s hands for good.
I drop off the car and am greeted with a smile. It’s a different experience for me – here in the city – to know by name and greet the people who provide a service to me. They provide a service to me. That just struck me. In my need, they are willing and able to help. That is a blessing. I began my walk home. On my walks, I have recently begun to pray for specific people and ask God to bless them. Very short, stream-of-conciousness type prayers. Today I felt compelled to pray for my enemies. I don’t know why. I began to call them to mind, names of past wounds that still have scars. Then came the moment of truth where I could not quite bring myself to ask God to bless them. As I wrestled with it, I finally gave a “Sure, go ahead” to their blessings. Pretty pathetic, right?
Then God asked me why I wanted to have him release blessings on them.
I hadn’t thought about that. I was praying with a very selfish motive. If they were blessed, they would (in my mind) be transformed for good, would never hurt anyone, and maybe they would find me and beg for mercy. That was my picture of how it should go. It began to rain. I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t hear it, but I felt it. The lightest rain possible began to fall and I thought about the verse which tells us that God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Then it hit me a little clearer: in order to truly love someone, I must first understand just how undeserving I am. I did not deserve love. I do not deserve grace. But God pours it out at his discretion. Who am I to withhold? That thought didn’t change the fact that it is Monday, nor did it clear my calendar, but it did give me perspective.
Half-way home and it began to rain a little harder. Now I could see it, and hear it. I crossed the street to take advantage of the trees on the other side. Then I was reminded of the lines of the song in church yesterday – “tower of refuge and strength.” The bottom line is, today as any day, I am undeserving. I am inadequate in my own strength. Yet God chooses to use me and pours out grace so that I’m a fitting vessel at times. I have grandiose visions of how God might use me sometimes, but how can he use me in grand ways if I can’t manage a Monday morning? Two blocks away from home and the clouds let loose for about 30 seconds. Pieces start to fall into place. Grace doesn’t come in packages we can control; it comes in a form that washes over us and that we are powerless to stop. I waved to my neighbor. He gets it. He was sitting on his porch, drinking morning coffee, and just taking it all in. That’s all God has ever asked of us when he pours out grace: take it all in.

P.S. It’s a little difficult to show in pictures that it rained on a bald man, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

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