Jesus Loves Me This I Know…..

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…..” Most of us know this children’s song whether we were raised in the church, went to Vacation Bible School with a friend as a child, or were taught the song by a grandparent. The lyrics are straightforward, no beating around the bush – Jesus loves me because the Bible says He does. And yet, somewhere between childhood and adulthood some of us begin to doubt those words; or we decide they are for everyone else, but don’t apply to us.

Why? For some, the message is too simple; that can’t be all there is to it? After all, as children, many of us have learned that we don’t measure up, that we are not good enough, from parents, teachers, our peers, so that when we reach adulthood the message is firmly embedded in our spirits. In the eyes of children, parents and those in authority over us are god-like; their words accepted as truth. Add to that the rigid standards of acceptance on the playground and some of us don’t have a prayer for attaining “loveable” by anyone, much less the God of all Creation.

What about the people who reach adulthood, decide they want a relationship with God, and find a church to attend? Within a few visits  the Christian dump truck gets backed up to their house and the contents of all sin is spilled on their doorstep. The weight of all the “sins” in their lives becomes the focus; the “Jesus loves me” message is lost. As a new Christian, many moons ago, I felt renewed, rejuvenated, refreshed,forgiven, and then I started attending church. Once I hit the doorway the “good Christians” within the walls of the church made sure that I knew I was a sinner saved by grace. Now, I don’t have an issue with that because it’s the truth, but somehow in church the message was no longer that Jesus loves me, but that I had failed Jesus. Mentor Christians, those a little older in their relationship with Jesus, come alongside to “help” new Christians with their walk. Newbies tend to open up, share their struggles, ask for advice, and it has been my experience that this is when the proverbial shoe drops. The advice and answers given to me were that I didn’t have enough faith, pray enough, tithe enough, or the “devil” was after me to thwart a blessing God had waiting for me should I pass the “test”. Many moons later after failing Jesus too many times and having lost sight of the fact that Jesus loved me, I called hogwash!

A few years back one of my daughter’s and I decided to attend a church that was supposed to be progressive, open to all manner of people, come sinner, come saint. Although I had given my kids a Bible-based upbringing, given all the abuse that had occurred in our family before we were able to get away from the ex, we all found ourselves at a different place spiritually after we left. My daughter decided she wanted to attend the Christianity 101 class to begin again, so to speak. She asked if my fiance and I wanted to join her. We attended one class and one class only.

The leaders of the group were an older, supposedly wiser, couple and the other attendees were a variety of congregants. Some of the comments made were prefaced with, “I couldn’t receive from that fellow because I knew he smoked cigarettes”, or “He seemed to know his Bible, but I know he drinks beer, so of course he can’t really be a Christian”. I was sitting between my daughter and fiance who knew my thoughts on flippant judgment and condemnation because of seeming “sins” that had no solid Biblical base. I adjusted myself in my seat a few times, sat up straight, pursed my lips until my daughter and fiance gently put their hands into my lap to quiet what they knew would be coming out of my mouth at any moment! My daughter leaned over to whisper, “Mom, calm down”, then smiled. I decided the better part of wisdom was to keep my mouth shut, although it was getting more difficult! Then the conversation turned to tattoos. My daughter has a tattoo on her wrist that says Never Broken in reference to words the ex spoke over her often in her growing up years, “you are the only one of my kids I haven’t been able to break”. The tattoo had meaning and represented her survival of dark times in her life. Fortunately, the pastor’s wife was also in the class, and up until that moment had remained silent, but now made the very sensible comment, “there are several beliefs in Christianity that don’t have a Biblical basis, and these subjects are some of those.” The comments ended. Too late! When the class ended, I got up and announced in a very audible voice that we would not be coming back to such a narrow minded, judgmental group. Christlike? Probably not my finest moment.

There ain’t no saint like a reformed sinner, as the saying goes; I guess that is what has happened between Jesus loves me and backing up the dump truck, for those that choose to go the church-route. Christians are to do God’s work on the face of the earth, but that doesn’t include judging those who seek to draw closer to God. We need to understand that we are all on a journey with God, and God meets each of us at our place of need. Perhaps you are a smoker, but God, in His infinite wisdom, would rather that you deal with a bitter heart, unforgiveness that is damaging to relationship with Him and others. If I come alongside and start preaching that smoking is a sin, that you can’t be a Christian and smoke, then I am interrupting the work God is doing in your life; in essence setting myself above God’s wisdom and plan for your life. I need to be more concerned with what God has for me on my journey. This cycle prevents people, those who know they need and want a relationship with God, from coming to church, or deepening their relationship with God.  No, we don’t need to go to church to have a meaningful relationship with God, but some people desire the fellowship with others.

A few months back I spoke at a funeral for a friend. The friend’s mother asked me to speak from the heart, to be honest about who my friend was. My friend, you see, was a lesbian and was in a relationship with a lovely young woman, however, the pastor, a family member, chose to present his version of my friend instead of the reality. Fire and brimstone spewed from the pulpit, as well as a version of her and a relationship with God and the church that was, for all intents and purposes, a lie. No doubt he believed my friend’s sexual orientation to be a sin and decided to ignore who she had been in life in favor of who he wanted her to be. Those of us who knew her got the point; she was not acceptable as she was. In the parking lot after the service a woman came up to me and thanked me for speaking the truth about our friend, and added, “what happened in there is exactly why I don’t go to church”. That is truly a sad comment.

Jesus loves you – period. Jesus love me – period. Neither of us has to do anything to make Him love us or want relationship with us; nothing. On the journey through this life with Jesus there will be things we are doing or attitudes we have that He would like for us to change. Work toward changing them, and whether or not we are successful, He still loves us…..

Are You Available…..?

I work with a Chaplain. We have had some good conversations, shared thoughts on theology, you know, the kind of conversations one would expect to have with a Chaplain. I have never seen her in action other than to say the blessing at the beginning of a meeting,  but I don’t doubt that she does a great job with our elderly patients. One day as we were talking she made a comment about pastors who don’t have the appropriate education and credentials.

In our world the almighty degree has become the gold standard for credibility. Why? I understand that there are professions where a degree, a solid base of knowledge is warranted; the medical profession, for one. But I also believe there is room for all manner of people, with all levels of education in most businesses; the pastorate being one of them. In my life I have heard pastors who have never darkened the doorway of a college deliver some spot on God-inspired messages and others who have spent years in seminary who don’t have a clue. Who’s to say because you have the appropriate letters behind your name that you are any more qualified than another who does not? I know full time musicians who have the degrees to prove their talent, and I know self-taught musicians who can play circles around someone who has a framed piece of paper hanging on their wall declaring their talent and aptitude. I am in the medical profession, and through the years have taught new employees, or those wanting to enter the profession and I have always said I can teach any skill, but I cannot teach compassion. There are medical professionals out there who do not possess one ounce of empathy for their patients, and there are those with wisdom born of years in the field and a double dose of compassion. Sometimes degrees don’t matter.

Yeshua (Jesus) was the Messiah when He walked the earth; Simon Peter, the Rock on whom the “church” was established, Moses, the adopted son of a slave woman led the Hebrews out of Egypt, Matthew the tax collector and author of the first book in the New Testament; all people whose names we recognize today, thousands of years after the fact, none of whom had the appropriate degrees.

Ephesians 4:11-13 says, “Furthermore, he gave some people as emissaries, some as prophets, some as proclaimers of the Good News, and some as shepherds and teachers. 12 Their task is to equip God’s people for the work of service that builds the body of the Messiah, 13 until we all arrive at the unity implied by trusting and knowing the Son of God, at full manhood, at the standard of maturity set by the Messiah’s perfection” (The Complete Jewish Bible) In a nutshell, God chooses those He wants to do His work on the earth until we all are on the same page. Nothing is said about what degrees are necessary, the schools one should attend, or the like. If God is doing the “equipping” that should suffice.

In my life I have talked to lots of people in the course of a workday, in my personal life, in churches I have attended, places I have gone, and very often conversations turn toward the spiritual. I don’t know why, but I have come to believe that God has “sent” them, so to speak, that our meeting isn’t accidental, that God has used me to say something to that person he/she needed to hear. Most of the time I am not aware of what that message may be, and sometimes during further conversations the person will say, “I was thinking about what you said the other day”, or “I really needed to hear what you said the last time we talked”. Is there anything special about me? Not as far as I can tell. I bumble through life just like everyone else.

What I am is available, and God is looking for available. Some of those God called down through the centuries didn’t realize they were available; Saul, whose name was changed to Paul, was knocked off a donkey when Yeshua appeared to him and “equipped” Paul for ministry. Now whether the story is allegory or not is beside the point, I am of the opinion that this part of the story is likely another word picture for us to better grasp the meaning of Paul’s conversion. As a side note, within the degreed ministry there is a lot of controversy as to whether Paul was knocked off a donkey or a horse, if he was riding any animal at all, and if Yeshua (Jesus) actually spoke to him in an audible voice, etc. Is it really necessary to focus on donkey vs horse, audible vs spiritual voice? It’s a good way to miss the point, however! The point of the story was that Saul was doing his best to persecute those who called themselves “Christians” and God decided He had better use for Saul as Paul. Knocking Saul off his donkey was necessary to get his attention to strongly encourage him to be a bit more available! Paul, though an educated man, was sent to teach Gentile and Jew alike about Yeshua, of which, in the beginning he knew little about!

Ministry, the gifts we are endowed with, is about using those gifts in whatever capacity they are needed, whether it be a kind word someone going through a tough time needs to hear, an arm around the shoulders of someone who is grieving, a meal or visit to a shut-in, or a worldwide ministry teaching thousands. Ministry is also this silver-haired, beaten-up-but-not-knocked-out-by-life nurse/ordained minister who wants people to know that Yeshua will meet them wherever they are, in whatever condition they are, on any given day, and journey with them, loving, and accepting them always.

So often we only think of ministry in terms of those who stand in a pulpit, those we see on television preaching before the masses, but ministry happens wherever God’s work is being done. I have told people many times in my life, we never know in what way we have touched another person; someone we know very well, or a stranger in the checkout line at Wal-Mart that needed a kind word or a smile. Do I always get it right? Nope! But, little by little I am trying everyday to do a better job of being available, and just being aware that people need God in small and big ways. We are all called to minister; He calls some to be pastors, and teachers, some to mentor, and others to prophesy. What is your gift? Better question; are you available to use that gift…..?

Neither do I Condemn You……

“I’m not a very good Christian”. Define that for me, please. “Good Christian” is a subjective term if ever I heard one. There is no such creature! Truth is, I used to think that about myself, too. Then I looked around and I saw every manner of “Christian” represented in every flavor of Christianity; bump that up against scripture and a “Christian” rainbow appears.

Yeshua (Jesus) hung with a rather eclectic crowd; relatively few of the religious leaders had much to do with him, and if they did, it was usually a covert operation on their part. All manner of “sinner” came to Yeshua, listened to Him, followed after Him, but the religious leaders rejected Him, ridiculed Him, and spent a great deal of time trying to trap Him into violating the “Law”. In my mind the biggest “sinners” were the self-righteous judgmental religious leaders of the day. And, in many cases, still remains the same to this day.

Over the years I have struggled with the word “sinner” especially as it is contrasted with “good Christian”. Sometimes it seems like we are either classified as one or the other; Biblically speaking, however, we all fit into the category of “sinner”. In the end I’m not quite certain why we have to be classified at all; we are all just people struggling to get through this thing called life, right?

Putting the philosophical mumbo-jumbo aside, let’s turn our attention to the people Yeshua hung with when He wore the clothes of humanity. It would appear those who hung out with Yeshua, following Him around the Judean countryside, were categorized as “sinners” by the religious elite. The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the lepers, the man at the pool of Bethesda, Zaccheus, all knew they were not pure, never pretended to be, yet Yeshua met each of them at their point of need and offered them redemption, some without having even asked for it. Yeshua didn’t judge, He accepted people as they were.

The woman caught in adultery is probably one of the best known stories from the Bible. In John 8 the scene opens with Yeshua (Jesus) teaching those who had gathered in the Temple courtyard. The religious leaders of the day interrupted the teaching time by bringing a woman who had been caught in “the very act” of adultery into the center of the gathering of listeners. My question is, did they just burst into her home, his home, or the local motel and drag her from the bed, and where was the guy? It takes two to tango, as the saying goes. In any case there she stands, very likely not overly dressed, before the crowd and Yeshua, with the religious leaders challenging Yeshua on the “Law”; the Law states she is to be stoned. Yeshua bent to the ground and began writing in the dirt – what He wrote is the subject of speculation, however, that isn’t the point. After a moment Yeshua rises and says, “The one of you who is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 The Complete Jewish Bible). One by one the religious dropped their stones and walked away leaving the woman standing in front of Yeshua. He says to her, “Where are they, has no one condemned you?” She answered, “No one sir”; Yeshua responded, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.”

In light of the “Law” she was to be stoned until dead, gruesome at best. Yeshua, in spite of the Law, chose to forgive her. Wow. “Neither do I condemn you.” One would think that the “Messiah” would certainly pronounce judgment and condemnation, but He did not. Why? Because the Law already existed, because that was the standard of the day, but God had clothed His Son in the flesh of humanity to fulfill the Law thus fulfilling the condemnation, judgment and punishment for all “sin” under the Law. As humans I don’t think we fully understand how that all works and ours is not to understand it, at least on this side of eternity, however, we are asked to accept the fulfillment of the Law through Yeshua’s atoning blood sacrifice.

Yeshua also said, “Now go and sin no more.” The “no more” part has always bothered me because that part is used to condemn people who cannot stop sinning; we are human and God knows better than we do that we cannot live one moment without “sinning” whether it be in thought, word or deed. We are not “perfect”. Yeshua, Himself, said that to the religious elite; whoever is without sin gets to throw the first stone, and no one could. Since man has had his hand in transcribing the words that have become the Bible, often man has added his two-cents worth and I think this is one such example. We cannot go and sin “no more”, but we can go and turn away from a particular “sin”; something that is brought to our attention as not pleasing to God during our journey with the Creator.

You see, I don’t think we all have the same journey, although we may all be on “a” journey. God meets us where we are in life, on our journey, and together we sift through the issues that He would like for us to sift through. Granted there are things that are common to many of us that we should curtail, at best, but I don’t think they are deal breakers with God if we cannot conquer those things; things like smoking, cussing, drinking (I’m not talking alcoholism here, and even then it’s not a deal breaker with God), or tattoos. It has been my experience that very often these are the very things that other “good Christians” focus on to condemn those of whom they do not approve. Some “good Christians” disapprove or downright condemn those of us who have been divorced, people who have had affairs, or are of a different sexual orientation, while at the same time participating in “sins” that may not be as evident like gossiping, lying, stealing, judging. We like to do that, don’t we? Compare ourselves to others, and by virtue of how we may rank behavior or a lifestyle, set ourselves above others? After much soul-searching I have come to believe what Yeshua meant by go and sin “no more” was to turn from that particular sin. That sin had been brought to light, now turn from it and don’t do it anymore; that is the greater message in my mind. Yeshua was the standard, yet was realistic about the shortcomings of humanity. I know for a fact I cannot “go and sin no more” , but I can and have turned from behaviors and thought patterns that were brought to light on my journey.

Not one of us is innocent in our journey through life; His eyes of love are ever focused on each of us who are fully aware of our shortcomings and faults, piercing the darkest corners of our souls and speaking the same words, “Neither do I condemn you…….turn from that sin and go forward”…….

“Though He slay me……”

Life happens, right? Good stuff, great stuff, not so good stuff and bad stuff. I have had a lot of people ask me the reason we suffer if God loves us so much. I have written about this before, but let’s take a look at an example out of the Bible; Job, the suffering saint.

Job was a righteous man, a man after God’s own heart. He had 10 children, wealth, friends, position, and he prayed every day. God was first in his life.The backdrop of the story is a conversation between God and Satan about Job’s righteousness; God offering up his faithful servant as an example, and Satan stating that if everything was taken away from Job that Job would turn away from God. Challenge taken and God gives Satan permission to take possessions, children, and health away from Job. At first Job accepts the hardship, after all we can’t expect that life be idyllic, right? As hardship is heaped upon hardship, however, Job’s attitude begins to change. I certainly don’t fault him for that; I wouldn’t have done as well as he did even short term given the intensity of the hardships he suffered.

Job’s children taken from him, his wealth and now his health, we find Job sitting in an ash heap scraping his wounds. Enter his wife advising her husband to curse God and die, obviously their blessed life had come to an end. Have you known people like Job’s wife in your life? The people when faced with hardship want to cash it all in, so to speak? What this couple had suffered to date was intense to say the least, and certainly more than most of us suffer in a lifetime, yet Job reminded his wife that they could not expect only good from the hand of God; that they must accept hardship as well. Job remained upright and steadfast in his faith, but it was getting more difficult.

Suffering, as we all know, takes it’s toll eventually, and Job’s story is a story of human suffering in the midst of God’s silence. Job’s friends, hearing of their friend’s multiple misfortunes, come together to sit with Job, to comfort and console as best they could. When they laid eyes upon poor Job, body full of festering wounds, sitting on his ash heap, they tore their robes and wept. Seven days and nights they sat silently with their friend.

Now Job’s friends see fit to offer wisdom from their vantage point. Essentially, Job’s friends blame Job for his plight. To paraphrase, Job is asked what he did to upset God, told that he has offered advice to others in similar situations and now that it is his turn, he cannot seem to take the heat, and the reason for his suffering is due to discipline from the hand of God. Really?? I’m not sensing a great deal of empathy for their friend. And we do that sometimes, don’t we? In our zeal to ease the suffering of others we try to find reason amid the calamity, and sometimes there is none, at least from our puny perspective, so we blame the victim. Another friend offers his two-cents; perhaps Job should repent! Of what? God said Job was upright before Him. The third friend believes that Job could have it so much worse; in other words, what are you complaining about, Job?

As time passed and God’s silence continued, the friends’ desire to comfort Job turned to judgment, condemnation and rebuke. Surely Job must have done or said something that brought God’s wrath! There was no other possible explanation, in their minds. In so doing they crushed beneath their heels what was left of their friend, smug in their own righteousness before a just God.

Job has had enough and speaks for himself. He hasn’t done anything as far as he can tell, who is completely innocent among men in the first place?And for a moment, Job has a pity-party-for-one and asks God to put him out of his misery. Who wouldn’t?  Job rallies, however, and gathers what strength he has left to rebuke his “friends” for their lack of empathy, their need to condemn him for the tragedies of his recent days. In defense of his friends, I will say that we sometimes offer hollow explanations for hardship and tragedy we don’t understand and Job’s friends were no different. Their desire was to comfort their friend, but somehow their comfort sounded like blame and eventually turned to condemnation. Job is done with his so-called friends, opting to be alone in his misery.

Job’s suffering is too great, he has suffered too much. Job cries out for God to answer him, to justify the seeming punishment of a life lived in righteousness before he gives up his spirit and dies in misery. Job pours out his heart to God, pleading his case before Him, demanding an explanation; Job speaks frankly to his God. And God answers Job. At first blush it sounds as if God is angry with Job, but I don’t think that was the case. Job had demanded that God defend Himself, had blamed God for his circumstances, singled His righteous servant out to unjustly punish, so God answered honestly and matter of factly. God wants to know where Job was when He had laid the foundations of the earth, when He scattered the stars throughout the heavens; God asks Job if he knows when the mountain goats give birth, and finally, challenges Job to take His place as the Almighty, given that He has the mysteries of the earth all figured out. Harsh, maybe. We do that with God, though, we decide in the depths of our misery that God is punishing us, is angry with us, has turned His back on us; none of which is the reality.

Job repents. He admits before God that he did not have all the facts before he accused the Creator of the Universe of pettiness; deciding to arbitrarily punish a righteous man. The wager between God and the Adversary in the beginning of the story sounds like a whimsical test of a human pawn, but the reality is that God had confidence in this righteous man. He knew that even in the midst of intense tragedy Job would not curse God, would not turn his back and “sin” against his God; and Job lived up to the expectations of God. In Job 13:15 Job utters easily one of the most well-known and oft quoted scriptures of Christendom,  “Though he slay me, I will hope in him, yet I will argue my ways to his face”. Most often only the first part of that scripture is quoted, I have rarely heard the second half, but in my mind the second half shows us the grit of a man immersed in misery, and the confidence he has in his God. True, Job was wearing down, but he had resolved to go to his grave without cursing God; resolve many do not have, even the most devout among us.

At the end of the story God restores everything to Job that had been taken, and rebukes Job’s friends for their foolish counsel. Job is our example of relationship with God, what God wants from those who reach out to Him. God wants His children to trust Him even in the midst of unexplainable tragedy, understanding that God stands in the fire with His beloved, and He welcomes our honest questions, hearts that cry out for explanation. Will we always get our answers like Job did? Maybe, maybe not, but we can utter like Job, “though He slay me, I will hope in Him…..”