I so often make mistakes with my parenting. As hard as I try, I'm too impatient, too quick to criticize, too harsh and too preoccupied. It's only by the grace of God that my children will survive my parenthood. Have you used that phrase before: "It's only by the grace of God..."? It implies our complete reliance on God to make us fit amid a life of blunder. As cliché as it may be, those words do exhibit true humility. But grace is one of those words that we use so often that its meaning has become obscured. When I first embraced Christianity in my late twenties, a non-Christian friend once asked me, "So now that you're a Christian, tell me what grace means." At the time I thought my answer was pathetic.
Have you ever been in a deep, prolonged sadness? How did you feel when someone said, "Don't worry, you'll feel better soon"? Were those words comforting or did they feel callous and insensitive? Though we know in our mind there probably will be a light at the end of the tunnel, recognizing the distant light in the middle of a crisis can take every ounce of mental strength—and may not even be possible. It's easy for Paul to say to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" But how can we be joyful in the midst of despair?
Tonight we were reading the daily scripture together from Matthew 5 and my seven-year-old son commented, "But, Dad, we can't be perfect. That doesn't make any sense." In the passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Can we really be perfect? This is one of the great mysteries of Christianity. How can we be perfect, yet still be a sinner?
As I search for the meaning of holiness this Lenten season, I can't hide from the fact that all I really am is the dust of the earth gathered together in this body. What makes me, me is truly a mystery with which even a young child grapples when he realize how he came to be and asks himself, "What if Mommy and Daddy didn't get married, would I still be me?" Long ago, we find this same question posed by Job, in what some scholars consider to be the oldest book in the Bible.
In childhood we learn about our mortality through the death of a loved one or even a pet. If we live on a farm or in a war zone, we discover death much sooner than others. Death is a reality that has shaped philosophies and religions since the beginning of humanity. Even our theories in science are driven by the observations of death. In our sciences, death and decay have lead to theories of about entropy and chaos that we have applied to the universe itself. As a result, some profess that all the universe's systems will one day halt or at least slow down to a grind of minimal energy. But what if it won't? What if death is only what we 'think' is beyond the horizon because our scope is so limited?
How did you become a passionate disciple of Jesus? Was it the family you were born into? Did God reveal himself to you in "signs and wonders" that transformed your life? Did God circumcise your stoney heart and reveal that soft flesh that allows Jesus in? What turns a halfhearted Christian into a person driven for God? Initially, the apostle Peter was one such lukewarm disciple. It wasn't until he looked deep inside that he caved into to himself and opened up to the light of Christ.
How many of us spend our days trying to live up to another person's expectation for us? We act like all kinds of other people rather than ourselves. We argue, "But I was taught by my Dad to make sure people respect me or I'll be trampled on. And my mom taught me that I must present myself like this. You know I won't be accepted in the workplace if I don't..." The fact is that as Christians we will never be accepted by the world if we follow Christ. We will always be rejected just like he was. The only expectation we need to live up to is Jesus' and he already knows who we are. He knows we are sinners.
Now, be honest, how often do you feel like you're talking to a blank wall when you pray? One reason we feel that way is because we aren't listening. We're just babbling. Another reason is because of our lack of faith. Jesus becomes exasperated with his disciples for their lack of faith. He sighs, "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?" Why did he utter these words before healing a demon-possessed boy? Did he not have compassion for crazy situation?
The miracle of the man born blind is a deep mystery to me. Why did Jesus use a mud poultice formed by his saliva to heal the man born blind? Secondly, there seems to be an implication that the man was made blind from birth by God in order display the glory of God. Did God really blind the man from birth in order for Jesus to show his glory? Let's first look to see if this man's blindness was a 'set-up' by God. This issue has by far the most profound theological implications. The answer to this question will change what we know about the character of God.
Autism is such a strange disease. In the work I do I have the great fortune and joy to work with a number of autistic children a few times a month. In the severely autistic children I meet, there's a clear inward thrust to their personalities. Because of that, I call it the Turtle Disease. Part of me wonders if autism has become more prevalent because our society has become so inward focused. We have become the Me Generation. I just wonder if autism is a societal response to the inward-focused, self-oriented effects of our highly industrialized society. Do our technologies, media and consumer-based society make children with a particular type of mind draw inward rather than outward. Are they all just trying to hide as they peer out into our hyper-stimulated landscape?
In my search for the meaning of holiness, I find the Apostle Peter's words in his first letter encouraging. He speaks of our Christian existence as a "living hope." These words remind me of a time when I was a youth just out of college starting off on a mountain expedition. My carefree confidence in my body's strength and endurance seemed to have no limit and could take me anywhere. Setting off alone to climb Mount Rainier with no mountain experience, I started down the trail bursting with excitement to climb my first glacial peak. I carried my sleeping bag and gear in a jury-rigged backpack. I had a couple of days worth of food, an ice axe and clunky old crampons. I was blind to failure. As a dreamy youth all I could see was ice, snow, rocks, sky, sun and freedom at the top of the mountain.
Throughout the night, the rain soaked us here on the Peninsula in Washington. My second grader Peter and I shot out to the bus stop this morning equipped with our big umbrella and hunkered down. Usually Peter is a bit reluctant to stand near me. He's already getting tool 'cool' for his dad, but today he stood close as the rain pattered overhead. Sometimes other kids try to squish under our umbrella to keep dry as we wait for the yellow school bus with the flying wipers. Sometimes, I forget the umbrella on rainy days. On those days, it doesn't do me, Peter or anyone else any good. With what kind of umbrella has God equipped you to deal the difficulties the day?
Most of our minds are password-unprotected. The content that we allow ourselves to dwell on is staggering: the articles and books we read, the music we listen to, the images we look at, the ideas we are convinced by, and even the people with whom we identify. Our hearts are much like a home. Charlatans come knocking at the door. If we succumb, they take what they want and sometimes leave behind a secret entryway into our heart. Then they can come and go at their pleasure. And amazingly, much of the time, we just sit back and let it happen.
The miracle of the temple tax in the fish's mouth competes for the oddest miracle award in the New Testament. Understandably, Jesus, our savior, would miraculously feed the hungry, heal the sick, cast out demons, and calm the storms. But paying our taxes or church tithes? Now, that's a savior many of us would actually want to meet. But don't get too excited, this miracle has very little to do with taxes and has everything to do with sacrifice.
How often do you mumble angry thoughts, toss a verbal jab at friends, or even explode at family members? Ironically, it's most often the family member who gets the heat. But what we don't realize is what we say can and will be used against us. Jesus explains in Mark 7 (and Matthew 15) that we are defiled by what comes out of our mouth. We open up pathways to our hearts. Those roads are then exploited more and more by the seedy travelers, whether they be anger, lust or something else worse. As we burn in those paths, they may become well-traveled super highways.
The men and women who approached Jesus for healing met the living manifestation of their hope. He fulfilled their most deepest desire, whether it be for their own health or for the life of a friend or a family member. They knew Jesus was their last and only hope. We need the same hope in Christ today as much as they needed him back then. Hope is the vision that the Almighty Father has prepared for us. When Jesus said that "he can do only what he sees his Father doing," he was seeing hope through a crystal-clear lens. Jesus saw hope in its final, true form. We must rely on Christ's perfect eye, for our sin-blinded eyes sees the Father and his kingdom only through the opaque lens of Christian hope.