Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Good News of God's Forgiveness

(Note: this piece was originally written and published as a devotional column in my town's local newspaper)

I recently had a conversation with someone who was vexed with a common question: “Can God forgive what I’ve done?” We’re all familiar with the feelings of guilt, confusion, and regret that often accompany a question like that. Even if we’re not really aware of what it is that God asks of our behavior, we can readily understand what it feels like to fall short of society’s expectations of us, or our family’s expectations, or—perhaps most commonly of all—our own expectations of ourselves. And if we are falling short of our own goals for how we ought to behave, then how must our behavior compare to God’s standards?

The Bible is very clear about these questions: its answers are bluntly honest, but, at the same time, wildly and surprisingly joyful. On the one hand, our sense of guilt tends to be accurate. While there is a sense in which guilt can be an unhealthy emotion, it is sometimes also a very honest emotion. We feel guilty because we have something to feel guilty about. There’s a problem with our behavior. We know it, and God certainly knows it. The Bible declares that “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We fall below the standards that God has set for human behavior; standards that are in place not to limit us or keep us from having fun, but rather to ensure that we can grow in faith, love, goodness, and, ultimately, joy. And the sad fact is that we all fall short of that. I, and all Christians, and everybody else in the world, are all in the same boat in that regard: I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and I desperately need his grace as much as anyone else. But even though we’re all together in that, it still leaves us with the hard truth that we have indeed fallen short, and nothing we can do on our own can set it right.

Thankfully, our failures and shortcomings are not the end of the story. If that were all there was to it, then the message of God would be “bad news” of a particularly cruel sort. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news! (In fact, that’s what the word “gospel” literally means). The Bible teaches that God, out of an infinite abundance of love for us, made a way to do what we could not do on our own. He sent his own Son Jesus Christ to take all of our failings upon himself. By dying on the cross, he accepted the cost of our sins—being cut off from God, the source of all life—so that we could go free. In him we have forgiveness of all of our sins, even the ones that we imagine God might never be able to forgive. The truth is, he can and will forgive all your sins—all, without exception—if you come in faith to Jesus and accept his offer of salvation. There’s nothing you have to do to earn this gift; it is freely given, simply because God loves you more than you can possibly imagine. If you set your trust in God’s gift of grace through Jesus’ death and resurrection, you will be forgiven. And if that’s not enough, it gets even better: not only do you get a clean slate; you also get to experience the love of God as you enter relationship with him, your Creator and Lord; and he will empower you with grace to learn how to live beyond your sins. But the bottom line is this: Can God forgive me for what I’ve done? Oh, yes, he can, and will, and wants to. Simply come to him. As an old hymn-writer once put it in describing the measure of God’s forgiveness:

Your goodness and your truth to me, to every soul, abound: 
A vast, unfathomable sea, where all our sins are drowned. 
Its streams the whole creation reach, so plenteous is the store; 
Enough for all, enough for each, enough forevermore!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Evangeliad (12:40-41)

Section 12:40-41 (corresponding to Matthew 9:35-36)

Christ walked up and down all Galilee’s roads,
And in every city and town he would go,
He taught in their synagogues, and he proclaimed
The Kingdom’s good news, declared in his name.

Not only was he a teacher of truth,
He amazed the crowds by what he would do:
Offering healing, abundant and free,
From every sickness and every disease.

Multitudes followed after the Lord,
Drawn by the power and grace of his words.
When Christ saw these multitudes gathered, he was
Moved with compassion and fullness of love.

Like shepherdless sheep, they wandered alone:
No one to guard them, no way to find home.
But now the Shepherd had stepped on the scene,
And was calling his flock to safety and peace.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Photo of the Week

Lord, even as Thou all-present art,
O may we still with heedful heart
Thy presence know and find!

- from "A Hymn" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Monday, November 11, 2019

Quote of the Week

Why, therefore, should we do ourselves this wrong,
Or others, that we are not always strong,
That we are ever overborne with care,
That we should ever weak or heartless be,
Anxious or troubled, when with us is prayer,
And joy and strength and courage are with Thee!

- Richard Trench, from his poem "Prayer"

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

My Jesus, from all eternity you were pleased to give yourself to us in love. And you planted within us a deep spiritual desire that can only be satisfied by yourself. Indeed, we can only be satisfied by settling our hearts, imperfect as they are, on you. We are made to love you. And my Jesus, how good it is to love you! Let me be like your disciples on Mount Tabor, seeing nothing else but you. I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love you eternally.

- from the prayers of Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney, 19th century

Friday, November 08, 2019

Hymn of the Week: We Lift Our Thanks and Praise

My new hymn for this week, as we enter into the Thanksgiving season here in the US, is a song of thanks for all the blessings that are ours in Christ. The tune comes from a 19th-century hymn called "The Great Physician." 

We Lift Our Thanks and Praise

We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For grace that will not cease to save
And for the love that frees us.

     With every breath we breathe this day,
     With every step along the way,
     May each word that we will say
     Render praise to Jesus!

We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
Who teaches us to walk in faith
And heals our diseases.


We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For all the good things God has made
To bless and charm and please us.


We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For in his providential ways
Our Lord supplies and feeds us.


We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For whether on the hill or vale,
Our Shepherd will be near us.


Thursday, November 07, 2019

Stealing Muffins

(Note: this piece was originally written and published as a devotional column in my town's local newspaper)

When one of my sons was in preschool, they had a day in which a local police officer came in to talk with the class about his job and answer any questions the youngsters might have. (I wasn’t in the class with them, but was later told this story by the teacher.) My son already knew from books what policemen were and what kind of work they did. He listened attentively to the officer as he spoke, but didn’t ask any questions until after the other children had dispersed. Then, before the officer headed out the door, my son sidled up to him and made a confession. “Sometimes,” he said, “my brother and I sneak into the kitchen and steal muffins!” I’m not sure what motivated him to confess this, nor what he expected the officer to do about it—in any case, there were no arrests made over the stolen muffins, so the story has a happy ending.

It strikes me that my little son’s freely-offered confession was probably driven by a need that all of us carry inside: the need to be heard and known, even in our flaws and imperfections. Sometimes our failings, mistakes, and sins place an awful burden our hearts. We feel like we can’t show these things to anyone else, because we’ll get a response of disappointment, shock, or even hatred. We worry that no one will like us if they really knew the shadows that linger in our hearts. But there’s something you should know: we were never meant to carry that burden alone. The grief and guilt of sinfulness is simply not something you can hold onto and expect it to keep out of sight; it will end up poisoning the well of your emotional and spiritual life every day of your journey.
In our church, we’re currently going through a study in the biblical book of Acts in our morning services. There’s one story that pops up frequently: the telling and re-telling of the conversion of the Apostle Paul, from a hate-filled terrorist intent on destroying the church to a devoted follower of Christ. In one of the re-tellings, Jesus says something intriguing to Paul: he says, “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” (That’s an old Greek idiom that refers to the difficulty of struggling against divine power.) As I was studying this story, it struck me that Jesus was expressing pity, even sympathy with Paul, even in the midst of his darkest sins. “It’s hard for you.” One can almost imagine him saying next the words he used in the Gospel: “So come to me, you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Sometimes we think that going to church and following God’s ways are hard, burdensome, and difficult. Maybe that’s what keeps many away from church. Already struggling with the grief and pain of sin-wracked living, perhaps they fear a further burden of guilt from going to church. But that’s not what the life of following Jesus is about, not at all! Instead of shaming us for our guilt, Jesus looks at it and says, “It’s hard for you to live the way you’ve been living, isn’t it? Come to me, and I will give you rest.” And of course, Jesus is absolutely right—it is hard to live in sin. It imposes on us tremendous amounts of pain, brokenness, guilt, and—if we have no one to share those spiritual wounds with—loneliness, too. But you don’t have to be lonely anymore. Come and answer the call of Christ, who looks with sympathy on your burdens. He will take your guilt and replace it with the freedom of his forgiveness and the joy of the unhindered pursuit of a good, soul-satisfying life. Whether you’ve been stealing muffins from the kitchen or wrestling with some other kind of misdeed, come and find the grace of Jesus Christ, freely offered in his Word and in his church. There is no sin that’s too big for the infinite grace of God.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The Evangeliad (12:33-39)

Section 12:33-39 (corresponding to Matt. 9:27-33)

As Jesus was going along his way,
Two men, both blind, began calling his name.
“O Son of David, have mercy!” they cried,
“Have mercy on us, O healer, O Christ!”

“Do you believe I can do this?” he asked.
“Lord, we believe!” they earnestly gasped.
Then Jesus reached out and made this reply
While gently he laid his hands on their eyes:

“As you have believed, then so shall it be.”
They opened their eyes, and both men could see.
Christ said, “Tell no one what happened to you.”
But they went and they told, till everyone knew.

Later a mute man was brought before Christ,
Prevented from speech by a spirit inside.
But Jesus healed, sent the spirit away,
And the man could speak from that very day.

The multitudes marveled at what had been done,
And news of it spread from village to town:
“Never before have we seen things like this—
God does something new in Israel’s midst!”

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Photo of the Week

Give thanks to God; He reigns above,
Kind are His thoughts, His name is love.
His mercy ages past have known,
And ages long to come shall own.
O let the saints with joy record
The truth and goodness of the Lord!
How great His works! How kind his ways!
Let every tongue declare His praise.

- from Isaac Watts' hymnographic rendering of Psalm 107

Monday, November 04, 2019

Quote of the Week

"The Holy Spirit of God can tune and play our souls like an instrument. The result is an increased harmony of divine praise, thanksgiving, and adoration, which arises from a symphony of instruments and voices. To condemn this variety in God's people, or to be upset with those who play a different instrument, is a clear sign that we are spiritually underdeveloped."

- William Law, 18th-century author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes... (Rom. 8:26)

Lord, what particulars we pray for,
We know not, we dare not,
We humbly tender a blank into the hands of Almighty God;
Write therein, Lord,
What Thou wilt,
Where Thou wilt,
By whom Thou wilt.

- Thomas Fuller

Friday, November 01, 2019

Hymn of the Week: O Lord Our God

This week I've written a piece that focuses on glorifying God by extolling his attributes (holiness, glory, power, etc.). It's set to the tune of the 19th century hymn "Footsteps of Jesus." 

O Lord Our God

Lord, you reign in your holy splendor;
Praise to your name!
You are good in unending measure,
Ever the same.

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are holy and we adore you, O Lord our God!

Lord, you shine in the light of glory,
Lovely and true;
In your Temple we all cry "Holy,"
Worshiping you.

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are glorious and we adore you, O Lord our God!

Lord, your power is vast and endless,
Sovereign and just;
In your love you are swift to save us:
In you we trust.

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are mighty and we adore you, O Lord our God!

Lord, your greatness calls forth our praises:
Worthy are you;
For your grace always will amaze us:
Glory to you!

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are worthy and we adore you, O Lord our God!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: The Road Home, and Onward

 Blest land of Judea! thrice hallowed of song,
Where the holiest of memories pilgrim-like throng;
In the shade of thy palms, by the shores of thy sea,
On the hills of thy beauty, my heart is with thee.

- John Greenleaf Whittier, "Palestine"
~ ~ ~

            Our time in Israel had drawn to a close. After leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we returned to our hotel where a lovely farewell dinner had been arranged for our group. Then it was back to Ben Gurion airport, where we waited bleary-eyed for our midnight flight back to Boston. The travels back home went by in something of a blur; I don’t remember much of it at all—not the flight, nor the bus ride from Boston up into Maine, nor my long drive from the bus station back to my own hometown. But I do remember the joy of coming home, of seeing my wife and kids again, whom I had missed deeply, in a way that I hadn’t quite realized until that very moment. And then, as I recall, I immediately went to bed and slept for fourteen hours. 
            My pilgrimage to the Holy Land had been a wonderful experience: in many ways, it had far exceeded even the highest expectations I had for it, giving me many surprising and magnificent works of grace along the way. For months thereafter, the memory of Israel (and Galilee in particular) exercised a strange gravity on me, rather like the experience of being in love: it kept coming to back to my mind, in all the in-between moments, with peaceful fondness and unabated longing.
            But it wasn’t until after I came back home that I began to realize that something had happened to me in Israel. I had gone there longing for transformation, for a taste of long-sought holiness, and I had hoped that it might come for me as it had for Mary of Egypt in ancient days: as a single, blazing moment of sanctification run wild. Now I was slowly discovering, day by day, that something was different in me, but it wasn’t as if a new, unforeseen work of grace had been sealed and accomplished there across the sea; it was more like the realization that the hidden seed of some mighty thing to come had been planted quietly in my heart, and I was beginning to see the first gentle blade of verdure break the soil with a tenderness that was both simple and astonishing.
            There were several distinct ways in which I came to notice that a new growth had begun. I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest. My days in Israel had come and gone without any kind of clear transformation-experience, so I was expecting the same old battles and the same old stumbles when it came to re-entering my daily life. Nothing led me to believe that my nagging little wrestlings with the simplest of temptations would ever go away. But after a few weeks, I realized with some astonishment that I was suddenly doing a good deal better in most of the areas I had been working on: temptations seemed easier to brush off, virtue seemed to fit more naturally as my customary habit of life.
            For several years I had kept a weekly checklist that was shaped around my personal rule of life, formatted so that I could formulate weekly scores for the progress I was making. In the two years before going to Israel, I labored and scraped just to hit scores approaching 70 in my weekly practice; but in the months after Israel, I was effortlessly producing 90s and 100s. It was an exultant time, a precious taste of exactly what I had longed to experience: the sweetness of a life lived in ever greater conformity to the pattern of Christ’s own radiant holiness. The feeling has faded somewhat since then, and some old battles are still battles, but those months after Israel remain a sweet reminder to me that the pilgrimage continues, and that the homeland that I long to find is a very real destination, out there waiting for me.
            But there was even more growth to come: growth that not only encouraged my desires, but helped me re-orient my perspective entirely. I came under the conviction that my quest for holiness was driven (at least in part) not so much by the deep delight of pursuing holiness’ beauty, but by a sense of discontentedness with myself. And in those wild, heady months of spiritual vigor after my Israel trip, I was reminded once again of the depth of Jesus’ love for me. I was at home, reading a passage from one of my favorite books, Dame Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, when all of the sudden I had an image spring into my mind so powerfully that I might even dare to call it a vision. It was an image of Jesus, sitting on a rock in the shade of a tree, and I knew at once that we were back again in Galilee. And as I looked at him, and he at me, I could feel his wordless invitation pulsating through my soul. I stepped close to him, and reached out, took my head in his hands, as one would to a beloved child, and then held my head to his chest. It was a breathlessly intimate moment of radical acceptance. That was all there was to the image, but it was so powerful in all its silent, infinite understanding, that it drove me to my knees in tears. That single experience, more than any volumes of treatises penned on the love of God, taught me the reality of his love. He could look at me—the same “me” that I saw with disgruntled disaffection, riddled with petty inconsistencies in my lukewarm attempts to live as a dedicated Christian—and he loved that very “me”—yes, as hard as it is to believe, he loved me! I began to learn that I would need to find ways to love myself, including the self that I very much did not love, because that was precisely who Jesus loved.
            Author Christine Pohl notes that we, at times, choose to give our attention to what we think is an ideal, even if it does not really exist, rather than learning to embrace the “real” that is right in front of us. When we do this in our sexuality, we call it pornography. So what should we call it when we obsessively pursue an unreal ideal of our own spiritual self? Spiritual pornography, perhaps. Is that what I was guilty of in my longings for holiness? Perhaps, at least a bit. Some of my desire sprang from a distinct yearning to be closer to God, and some of it was the agony of having to live with the darts of sin striking around me…but there was a large part of it, too, that was simply a sense of discontentment with myself. So perhaps, to my shame, I had set up an idol of a hoped-for, future, saintly self. Now I was being reminded, by a series of hints that were remarkable in their gentleness, that perhaps I needed to rest in Jesus’ love, and to start giving thanks for who I already was, before I could heal unto holiness.
            The medieval writer Bernard of Clairvaux, in his book On the Love of God, writes that there are four levels of love that one can attain. The simplest love, sometimes indistinguishable from selfishness or pride, is to love oneself for one’s own sake. The second level, as experienced by many new converts, is to love God for one’s own sake (i.e., for the consolations of joy, peace, and hope that one feels in relationship with God). The third level, and the one that most people think would probably be the highest, is to love God for God’s own sake—captivated by his glory. But Bernard puts one level higher even than that: the fourth and highest level of love, he says, is to learn to love oneself for God’s sake. And that, my friends, is the pilgrimage I am on.

~ The End ~

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Evangeliad (12:29-32)

Section 12:29-32 (corresponding to Mark 5:41-43; Luke 8:54-56; Mt. 9:25-26)

And then having sent all others outside,
They walked to the bed of the girl who had died.
Christ took her hand, with compassion he said:
“Little girl, get up,”—and she rose from the dead!

She opened her eyes; she sat up in bed;
“Now give her something to eat,” Jesus said.
Restored was their daughter, twelve years of age,
Who died in her bed but now had been raised.

She walked to her parents and they all embraced,
Astonished and filled with wonder and praise.
Then Christ asked them not to spread the news wide,
And yet it still filled the whole countryside.