Grace. Last week I made sure we got to church early. Frances Chan was speaking and I am a fan. We even took his picture, which is something I would not normally do in church. His books are so deep, insightful, convicting. As an author, he is so vulnerable, honest and real. It was the first time I saw him speak in person and wow! What a dynamic speaker! He is everything I could only dream to be as a speaker ~ hilarious, insightful, engaging. He touched the funny bone and the heart. His message had impact and covered trust and struggle, rejoicing and relationship. I walked away filled with worship of God and some good action steps to make me a better disciple of Jesus.
But. Yes, I have a but. It is a small but and an unfair but, since my expectations are unrealistic, more than even a super human like Frances Chan could meet. But, I wondered if his analogy about grace was enough.
He shared the story of how his daughter, normally an “A” student, failed one of her exams. She was so afraid of what he would do, what kind of punishment she would receive, and how much she might have disappointed him.
“You know what we are going to do?” he asked his daughter, when she finally faced him with the exam.
“We are going to go out to dinner to celebrate,” he said.
“What?” She was incredulous!
“Yup! We are going to go celebrate your first “F”. And even though it’s a school night, we are going to the movies ~ whatever you want to see.”
Wow! What a great parallel to God’s grace! I thought. Of course, that was Frances Chan’s intention. He had a powerful opportunity for a teachable moment with his daughter about God’s grace ~ he was also quick to point out that if it happened again he would have a teachable moment regarding God’s wrath!
But something about the analogy wasn’t sitting well with me. Something about it wasn’t right. It just wasn’t enough ~ it was too human nature, too natural and not enough supernatural. Let me explain.
You see, Frances Chan’s daughter was normally an outstanding student. After this mishap with one bad grade, chances are very good she would go back to being an outstanding student. Frances himself said she would because she is Asian (he got a big laugh from that one!) Wouldn’t it be natural for any of us to give her grace under these circumstances? These things happen. If she is anything like my high-achieving daughter, she probably had a hard time even giving herself grace for this minor blunder. So, in my opinion (no offense intended to a super great teacher), I think this kind of grace is not a stretch. It’s not a supernatural grace.
What about the kid who fails not one exam, but fails over and over again? What about the defiant child who doesn’t give a rip what their parents think? What about the one who insists on living life their own way? At what point do we stop taking them out to dinner? After the fourth, fifth or sixth infraction? See, this is a different story. This makes us pause. Continue to lavish grace on a kid like this? A little harder to imagine. So, at what point does our natural, human nature grace run out?
The thing is we, you and I, are the failing kid. We like to think we are the “good” kid with only minor infractions, easy to extend grace to, but think about it for a minute. How many times have you failed to live up to God’s standards? For me, too many to count. How often are your thoughts not in alignment with God? This is a daily battle for me. Do you ever have seasons in life when you just want to live life your own way? Let’s not talk about that, except to say that one of the best things I did was surrender my stubborn spirit to the Lord.
Oh yes, I think we can all agree we have been a defiant child to God…and maybe even more often than we would like to admit. And what is God’s response to us? At what point does He cross His arms and walk away? Never! God’s grace is never ending. From the most heinous act to the most minor offense, His love covers a multitude of sins ~ something our human minds and hearts can barely comprehend. Each time we fail and fall and come to Him with a contrite heart, He forgives, He forgets. He still lavishes unmerited favor and blessings on us. His grace and mercy are unfathomable. This type of grace is not natural ~ it truly is supernatural.
I loved Frances Chan’s story about his daughter and agree that it does give us a glimpse into God’s grace. I could easily understand and see myself giving grace in that situation. And that is precisely why it made me a little uneasy. The kind of natural grace I could extend to another has limits. It has memory. It is justifiable. But that is not God’s grace. How can we adequately explain His grace when His grace supersedes the natural? Really? Words can’t. His grace is incomprehensible.
Hope. I sat at the table next to my son, turned on my laptop and scanned my inbox. An urgent prayer request from Pastor Rick. I opened the email. Each word I read seemed to suck another breath from my lungs. It was tragic news. Our pastor’s son had taken his own life. My chest tightened as I imagined Pastor Rick and Kay, hearts broken to the core, trying to process the loss of their child. It was more than my imagination could take and I closed my eyes tight.
When you listen to a pastor, week after week, for over ten years, you begin to feel like you know him personally; though, the closest I’ve physically gotten to Rick was the one time he strolled through the church, patted my shoulder and warmly greeted me. And Kay I have only seen while she spoke from the stage. But to see them, to hear them speak, to read their books, well, you know these are two souls with tender hearts. Mom and Dad hearts. Human hearts. Crushed hearts.
You could be the pastor of one of the biggest churches in America, have faith that can move a mountain, and trust in the Lord with all your heart, but let’s be real, this has to hurt like hell. Maybe I’m not supposed to say that as a Christian, but the reality is, Christ followers are far from being immune to pain here on earth and hell hurts.
“What do people do who don’t know the Lord?” I asked, as much to myself as to my son sitting next to me. We both just looked at each other, still in shock and sadness. But my question has resonated with me since.
There is tragedy in the world every second of every day. You only have to log onto the world wide web to know that the tears shed from broken hearts creates a perpetual wave of sorrow. So when tragedy strikes, where does our hope come from?
Some people find hope and comfort in other people; but we are a very unpredictable species. Sometimes we can be loving and kind, comforting to those who hurt, and sometimes we can be preoccupied and busy at best, even cruel and callous at worst. Some people find hope and comfort in achievement and experiences, a means of distraction from the pain; but how long can you keep a body in motion? Every body needs some down time, and then what do you do? Some people find hope and comfort in things, in the process of acquiring things; but things get old, they break, they rust, they tarnish. Some people find comfort, though maybe not hope, in alcohol and drugs; but I know first-hand the consequences for this kind of grief therapy is unhealthy and the cost is too high.
It’s a broken world and a broken world can’t offer the kind of hope and comfort a grieving soul needs. Our Creator, God, knows this. And He knows the pain and grief associated with losing a precious son. His heart breaks with every heart that breaks, and He sees each tear that falls. He longs for us to call out to Him so He can wrap His heavenly arms around us.
And He knows how much hell hurts ~ and it is His greatest desire to keep us out of it. In fact, it is His fervent desire to have each one of His precious creation with Him in heaven one day. Heaven ~ paradise, a place free from pain and suffering, free from inhumanity and tragedy and most importantly, a place filled with the glory of God. Filled with His glory because that’s where He is ~ waiting to welcome His children, like Matthew, with loving arms. This, my friends, is where my hope comes from ~ a loving God, a redeemer, a place in heaven. And I know from years of listening to Pastor Rick that this is where he and his family have their hope . I also know their hope would be for you to know Jesus the way they do ~ if you don’t, would you consider getting to know Him now?
Perspective. I love this picture from my recent trip to the central coast of California. It’s sort of an optical illusion, isn’t it? I mean, is the turtle really on a limb, in a grove of trees, perilously hanging who knows how far above the ground below?
There are times in my life when I feel like I am the one perilously hanging on a limb high above the ground without a safety net ~ feet dangling, nails gripping, ready to crash any moment. Recently I received a notice from our friendly taxing authority nicely requesting a tax return. Their request, nice as it was, included a deadline. I did all I could to meet the deadline, but I couldn’t reach our tax preparer to see if she had completed the return. I phoned. I faxed. I used snail mail. I emailed. Silence. The deadline date was quickly approaching and my grip on the limb was getting weak.
In addition to a tax deadline, we had plane tickets to go visit family and so it became even more important to get the return taken care of. I was losing sleep, worried about what would happen if we didn’t get the return filed ~ certainly there would be penalties. Would they also garnish our bank accounts? I spent a lot of time thinking about the problem, wondering if everything was okay with our tax preparer. What would we do if she were unable to prepare the return? Who could we trust to do it for us?
Finally the day had come ~ the next morning we would be flying out of town for over ten days, well past the deadline for our return to be filed and we still hadn’t heard a word from our tax preparer. I felt certain that the chance of getting another extension from the state was slim, but I didn’t have any choice but to try. With a knot in my stomach, I made the call.
Your call will be answered In approximately 17 minutes. If you would like to have a representative call you back, please leave your name and telephone number, the recorded message stated.
No, I thought, I better just wait and talk to a human being, no matter how long it takes.
Within a couple of minutes a pleasant sounding man answered the phone.
“Let’s see what we can do here,” he was so upbeat. I was so nervous. I rambled on about how I hadn’t heard from our preparer, how we were heading out of town to visit my mother-in-law who was celebrating her 86th birthday, how worried I was about getting this straightened out.
“Well,” he said, “no need to worry. Here, how about we give you a two month extension. That should give you enough time to get it in, don’t you think?” I was speechless! Two months was a gift of time I never expected!
“Now go on your trip and don’t worry.” I just couldn’t believe my ears. Then I decided to try calling our tax preparer one more time. Two rings and she answered the phone! Within an hour she emailed over a copy of our return for us to review on our trip.
Because of my limited view of the world, my perspective on the situation was narrow, negative and not right. I worried and wasted mental time and energy for nothing. It didn’t feel like nothing, it felt like I was barely hanging on a limb that hung high over the ground ready to crash any moment. But in reality, my limb was buoyed on water, gently being held afloat by the One who promises to meet my needs. You see, God’s perspective isn’t mine. When I have done all that I can do in a situation, and my perspective is limited, I need to trust the One who sees it all. Oh, and the turtle? He, too, was resting on a limb that was buoyed by water, but unlike me, he knew he was safe and so he didn’t have a care in the world.
The sun was shining and a light breeze blew back my hair. It felt great! I looked at the train tracks in front of me and felt grateful for the calm I felt inside. It wouldn’t be long before I would be clackety clack riding the train to my destination, something that my anxious thoughts kept me from enjoying the week before. It’s amazing what a week of adequate rest and sufficient quiet time can do for the soul!
As I waited for the train, a young man sat down on the bench next to me. He immediately engaged me in conversation and before long asked me what I had been reading; that’s when the conversation took an interesting turn.
“The Bible,” I said, “well, it’s really the Bible written in story format.”
“That’s probably good because no one can sit and just read through the Bible the way you could a novel,” he said. I could tell by his demeanor that we might have a differing philosophical view of the book. His next comment confirmed my suspicions.
“After all,” he said, “it’s not really…you know…I mean it’s not like…”
“Literal?” I offered.
“Yeah, they are like stories and metaphors and parables.”
“I think it’s literal,” I said. “I mean, sure there are parables and metaphors and stories, but I believe there are literal principles that can be drawn from them. And some parts are just straight literal.”
“But you can’t prove it. It’s just faith.”
“Every world view requires faith, even atheism. But based on the evidence I have seen, my belief in the God of the Bible requires the least amount of faith.”
“I think people should be allowed to believe whatever they want.”
“You know what?” I said. “I do, too. After all, God gives you and me and him and her and that person over there ~ He gives all of us the freedom to choose Him or not. Who am I to argue with God?”
He was an interesting young man, and by interesting I mean he made me a little uncomfortable, and not just because we had differing views on life. I can’t explain it but he just made me uncomfortable; still, I was willing to continue having a conversation while we waited for the train.
As if to catch me off guard, and looking me straight in the eyes, as he had been doing the whole time, he asked, “What do you think love is?”
I paused for a moment, again feeling uncomfortable, when suddenly the epitamy of love came to my mind.
“Jesus,” I said with confidence. His eyebrows raised.
“Jesus is love,” I continued. “He was perfect, never did a thing wrong, and yet he willingly suffered a torturous, humiliating death for people who would reject him and not return his love. That’s real love.”
“Yes, but in the garden he asked God if he really had to do it.”
“But that’s not all he said,” I corrected, “he finished by saying, ‘but not my will be done but YOURS.”
“But he was scared, he didn’t want to do it.”
“No, he didn’t. Don’t forget he was fully human and experienced all our emotions. Wouldn’t you be freaked out? He was so distressed he sweat blood.”
“Well, blood came out of his face,” he now corrected.
“Okay, he had drops of blood on his face. And yet, he still sacrificed himself.”
“You know what I think? I think that there is a universe and it is all around us and it knows everything that happens and what we think and what we do,” he said.
“I do, too, but what you choose to call ‘the universe’ I call God.”
By now the train came and the question shifted to “Is this our train?”
I am not sure if I verbalized my next thought or not before we boarded the train, but I hope I did.
It was, “And one day God will come back to judge us on all those things we did and the thoughts we had.”
I wish I had the chance to ask, “If the universe is keeping tabs on what we all do, then what’s good enough? By whose standards will you judge?” To me, that is a thought provoking question. And the follow up question, then what does the universe do once it has passed judgment?
A day of judgment is coming and the standard for judging isn’t arbitrary, as it is in so many other world views. The standard is perfect holiness. I can hear my young train traveler now, “No one can meet that standard!” He would be right, no one can.
And so we will be judged and we will be found guilty – let’s face it, even if we lowered the standard, how many of us can say we were even as good as we COULD or SHOULD have been? Everyone I know could be better; not even perfect, just better, and we can’t even meet that standard.
There we stand, found guilty, condemned for not meeting the standard. Yet, that is not the end of the story. Because of his great love for us, God made a way, he had a plan for our redemption, a perfect sacrifice who would pay the penalty for our guilt and do the time for us so we could go free. Jesus. Perfect. Perfect love. The Way. The only way. The way to reunite a broken, imperfect human being with a perfect and holy creator.
Oh, yes, friend, I also believe people should have the right to believe what they want – they should have the right to choose. They can choose to pay the penalty for their own imperfection or they can choose to accept the sacrifice Jesus made on their behalf. It’s a choice.
There is a train coming, a train bound for glory – the old African American spiritual called it The Gospel Train. Just like the train I am on now, it also has a destination – heaven. And just like today, for me and for my fellow travelers, a payment will be required to board; but only one form of payment will suffice on that train ~ Jesus. If you don’t have him, you ain’t gettin’ on. And yes, I’m being literal and metaphorical, my train traveling friend.
Sacrifice. I sat in church this morning listening to the pastor talk about being a servant to others, and I began to think about my focus word for this past week ~ sacrifice. Had I ever really been sacrificial? I thought. And if so, at what times in my life? Two thoughts immediately jumped to mind ~ children and marriage. And just as quickly, the word joy also filled my thoughts.If any of you have ever been fully committed to another human being, maybe as a spouse, a parent or a caregiver, then you know full well that fulfilling that commitment will involve sacrifice, and probably lots of it. Over the years I have sacrificed time, emotions, physical comfort, money, pride, vanity, pleasure, preference and many other things out of love for my children and husband. Oh yes, I have sacrificed. To love well requires sacrifice! Now before you start thinking either (1) what a prideful woman I am or (2) you should submit my application for sainthood, know that I have also lived very selfishly alongside my children and spouse, choosing my own wants and needs over theirs many times. I said I have been sacrificial, not a perfect saint!
But with those sacrifices of self I also experienced an indescribable joy ~a sense that this is what I was supposed to be doing. In those times when I have poured myself out into them and their lives, I have felt that I was being refilled with joy. Not always, but often.
When I helped carry the burden of a broken heart, or worked to pay for school tuition, or set aside my time to be there for them, I could feel the joy that comes from sacrifice stretch the lining of my little heart, making it grow just a little more. The thing is, I know that on my own, this isn’t possible. It is only through God’s power and example that I am able to sacrifice AND feel joy.
I love what Mother Teresa said about sacrifice, “A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves. Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in his love than in your weakness.” Amen, Mother Teresa! But be prepared for unexpected joy!
Today I listened to a friend give a talk about Jesus ~ our sacrificial lamb, the Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, the Word, Emmanuel. Her talk rekindled in me an awe at the depths of God’s love for us, that yet while we were still sinners, still thinking jealous thoughts, still turning a cold shoulder to someone in need, still lashing out with unkind words ~ that even though we are so imperfect, never good enough to be with a perfect and Holy creator ~ even in the midst, He sacrificed Jesus out of love for us. And what God tells us about that is even more amazing (note, emphasis is mine)…
For the JOY set before him he (Jesus) endured the cross (sacrificed), scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him (Jesus) who endured such opposition from sinners (YOU AND ME!), so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Keep sacrificing!) Hebrews 12:2-3
Days. It’s that time of year. I reached the end of my calendar and it was time to get my new Zig Ziglar performance planner ready for the new year. I spent an hour writing the number of the day in the little boxes for the weekly and monthly views. I went through and marked out the major holidays. It felt weird to write in the year as “2013” and then I got to the end of the planner and found it included a thirteenth month to get you started on the next year ~ and so I wrote “2014”. 2014? I can barely grasp that 2012 is nothing more than a memory; it’s hard to imagine that one day I will be writing 2014 on checks ~ assuming we still use checks in 2014!
I love this time of year. I love thinking about a new year, a fresh start, new goals, revising my bucket list. There’s nothing like a fresh, clean calendar just waiting to be filled with things to do, goals, and plans. But as I pulled out my new calendar and numbered my days, I had a sobering thought. My days ARE numbered. There is no guarantee I will live to see the date so neatly written in the little box. Even as I reread the first paragraph of this post, I realize how presumptuous I am to say that one day I will be writing 2014 on checks; in fact, what I should have said was, one day I may do this or that. Recent events, both nationally and personally, have made this realization very clear to me. It’s a realization I hope I think about often in 2013, not to bring me down, but to remind me that every day is a gift and an opportunity.
God knows the number of my days here and I am very thankful I don’t. The Mayans sure didn’t. But I do know that my calendar does have an end date ~ every person born has an end date. In Southern California, where I live, there was a radio talk show host I used to listen to in the afternoons. When you listen to someone on the radio on a regular basis you begin to feel like you know them ~ you’re familiar with their quirky words, their laugh, their opinions. That’s how I felt about Frank Pastore. And then one day, a little over a month ago, I tuned in to hear an unfamiliar voice in Frank’s place. Frank had been in a serious motorcycle accident and lay in a coma in the hospital. I could hardly believe it. Sure, everyone who listened to Frank knew that he rode a motorcycle; but he was so vibrant, still so young, doing God’s work and influencing people in his world. How could this happen?
We prayed for him, my family and all his many listeners, family and friends. We prayed that God would heal him so that he could continue to be a part of our world and continue to spread the good news about God’s plan for His creation. But it wasn’t meant to be and December 17th was Frank’s last day here. God knew the exact number of Frank’s days.
Amazingly, Frank spoke of the dangers of riding his motorcycle on the air the very day he would suffer his deadly accident. You can read his testimony here and listen to his prophetic words here (scroll down to see the link). If you listen to this clip from his show, you will know that Frank’s concern wasn’t about his physical death, because he got it. He understood that his days here were numbered. And he didn’t seem at all concerned about spiritual death either, because he knew with all assurance that he was going to be with his Lord and Savior when his time here was done. His concern was for the souls of others, those who didn’t have a Savior to bridge the gap between an imperfect human being and a perfect, holy Creator.
Last time I checked, no one I know had an expiration date stamped on them. But don’t be mistaken, though we don’t know the time, we all have an end date. There’s a country song that says “I wish that you would live like you are dying…” Well, guess what? You are dying! I am dying! Will this realization cause you to live differently in 2013? Will it cause you to think about your priorities? And most importantly, will it give you reason to think about the relationship of your own soul with its Creator? I pray it does and, if you are interested, I would love to introduce you to my Savior. Frank knew Him. Zig Ziglar knew Him. In fact, you may have heard about Him ~ we celebrated His birthday on December 25th!
A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed. Job 14:4-6
“Show me, LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” Psalm 39:3-5
Gratitude. I’m really feeling it these days. Not that everything is going perfectly in my life ~ I am not expecting that it ever will be completely perfect! But when I take a moment and consider all that I have to be grateful for, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed.
A few years ago, during a particularly tough season for our family, the kids and I were making the long drive home from Los Angeles to South Orange County. Sadness hung in the air of the car like L.A. smog on the foothills. My chest felt so tight because I just didn’t know what to say to lift their spirits. I finally had to break the silence.
“Hey, why don’t we each say something we are grateful for, just one thing. I will start. I am grateful for toilet paper.” I got a little chuckle out of them anyway. But, seriously, who isn’t grateful for toilet paper? It’s just not something we talk about!
The kids each said something they were grateful for and then I started the process over again. We continued like this the whole way home. Along the way we found that we were grateful for blind people because they don’t judge others by how they look, we were grateful for butterflies, cars, food, each other and God and so many other things that have long been forgotten.
What wasn’t forgotten was how much we had to be grateful for on that day, in spite of unmet expectations. We never did turn on the radio, talk about our problems or pain, nor did we complain or blame; we just simply spoke words of gratitude for over an hour. By the time we pulled in our driveway we were each feeling a whole lot better. It was the best driving game we have ever played ~ better than “I Spy” and counting VWs.
Gratitude is a wonderful balm for the wounds that we will inevitably experience in our lives, from the annoying little scratches to the ones that cut to the bone. Are you experiencing some pain or unmet expectations in your life right now? Why not start a game of gratitude and begin the healing process!