Oddities

Bible study is enlightening, but sometimes it’s also hard, or downright weird. Have you ever read something and stopped to wonder just why that detail was included? Have you ever read something and just laughed at how absurd something sounds? I cannot stop laughing when I read in Exodus about Moses confronting Pharaoh with the plague of frogs, “Frogs will jump on you.” This is what it says in almost every translation I have read. “Frogs will jump on you.” Frogs everywhere sounds like a pretty gross problem, and smelling their rotting carcasses sounds even more disgusting, but, “Frogs will jump on you,” just sounds a little hilarious. You’re just walking down the street, minding your own business, and out of nowhere… (Welcome to my brain. It is a terrifying jumble of stuff, but it’s never boring here.)

Another Moses story that always grabs my imagination is when Moses must hold his arms up during an entire battle against the Amalekites: “As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. Moses’ arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset.” Exodus 17:11-12 NLT

This sounds like a terrible battle plan. Why would the outcome rest entirely on the arm strength and physical endurance of one man? Why is this detail important enough for it to be included in the Bible account? Can you see Moses standing at a vantage point overlooking the battle, already tired from traveling and incessant complaints from his people but holding the staff up over his head? This sounds like a simple task, but after a few minutes, it gets hard. Your arms start shaking, your shoulders ache, and you just want to put your arms down to rest for a moment to stop the ache. But if Moses put his staff down, his people died. Can you imagine the despair he must have felt at such an impossible task? Do the physically impossible, and your people win; fail, even for a second, and people you are responsible for will die. I have no idea why God would choose such a strange setup. I imagine it was to teach Moses and the people around him an object lesson.

Not even Moses could do it alone. His entire leadership of the Israelite people depended on the people around him, sometimes because of his fear, but mostly because the job was too big for any one person. When he first went back to Egypt, God gave him Aaron to be his speaker because he was afraid to go to the Israelites alone. When he was judging disputes among the Israelites after they fled Egypt, his father-in-law Jethro told him he was doing too much and suggested appointing judges to handle small disputes so that Moses himself only had to handle difficult cases. In this battle against the Amalekites, the job was again too big – impossible to accomplish without help. He physically needed Aaron and Hur to lift him up. One man alone cannot accomplish God’s work, however simple the task may appear.

We all need Jethros and Aarons and Hurs in our lives. We need a reminder not to try to do everything ourselves. We need people to come alongside us and lift us up, or rather we need to allow people to help us. We must be willing to admit that we cannot do life alone, and we must be willing to be vulnerable enough to accept the help. I am horrible at this. I hate to admit defeat. I hate to admit that I can’t possibly accomplish my to-do list, and I hate to be a burden to someone else. You know what? I am an idiot. I can’t expect to only offer help without also being helped. If you ever find me being obstinate about this fact, please be my Jethro. And if you are my Aaron and Hur, thank you, and I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the rump about letting you do the task God has given you.

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Winging It

My life most always feels like some terribly planned improvisational film experiment; I am enough of a type A personality to want things to be done perfectly but not enough type A to get it all done, much less perfectly. I am a lister – I make lists of things to do, things to pack, crafts to finish, things I want to write about, things I’d like to draw, stuff to donate, stuff to organize… Lists are my way of sorting the chaos in my brain and feeling like I have some level of control. Sometimes they feel like a quantifiable measure of the success or failure of my day – more things marked off, good; not enough things marked off, bad. I usually sit down at the beginning of the week and plan out each day’s list from the Master List of Things I Hope to Complete Before I Die or Jesus Comes Back.

Having a plan makes me feel settled, even if I know I will only ever do about half of what I wanted to accomplish. Most of the time, though, I am just desperately winging it. Somehow over the last few weeks in my Bible reading, verses about God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time (that’s a much more impressive list title than mine…) keep cropping up. Exhibit A: “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because this was his plan from before the beginning of time – to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 1:9 NLT

We humans tend to crave direction and attempt to discover God’s plan for our lives, and maybe especially because of the pain and loss I’ve experienced, my eyes are glued to passages about God’s plan. I want desperately to know that what I’m dealing with has meaning. Exhibit A sums up the plan: to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. This verse makes it abundantly clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus was God’s plan all along, not just a backup plan when Mosaic law failed to perfect us. Maybe I’m alone in this, but a lot of the ways that I was taught about the Old Testament made it feel like merely prologue or cultural and historical context for Jesus, like a failed experiment in making people right with a system of laws and sacrifice until Jesus came. Paul makes it plain to Timothy that Jesus was always the plan – even in the Old Testament. The law serves to show us our imperfections and to point us to the only one who can make us whole and right.

So maybe in literary terms this makes the Old Testament a prologue to grace, but that’s a pretty shallow interpretation. Throughout the books of the Old Testament, there are stories of God’s grace and redemption (Hello, Abraham, Jacob, Samson, and David to name a very few!). Hebrews tells us that everyone who followed God in faith even before Jesus was revealed was redeemed as part of the plan. God’s grace has always been the plan.

How does this translate to my need for a daily plan and my desire to know that all of the crap in my life means something? The short answer is it means that my lists and my purpose boil down to two things: to know God and to make him known. Yes, I have work to do that doesn’t feel like it matters in the grand scheme of God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time, but my obedience and my work signal my obedience to God and (when I get it right) show a God of order and (when I get it wrong) show a God of grace and new chances. In my daily life, it also means that my plans are temporal, so when God puts something eternal before me, it trumps my to-do list every time. By eternal things, I mean conversations that encourage family or friends, opportunities to help someone in need, moments to just sit down and be with my husband and daughter, time spent praying and studying God’s word.

In the long-term view, my purpose on earth is always just to know God and to make him known. That’s the only answer that matters. Of course, I want to know that I had ten miscarriages for some more noble reason – that my story of struggle comforted hundreds of thousands of women and inspired them to bravely move forward. That is my human pride wanting to feel important and justified here on earth. The truth is, it’s malarkey. I know that I have occasionally written some words that have helped someone else, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog had I not needed an outlet. I have been in a position to comfort others and to offer some advice for those trying to comfort a loved one. Those things matter, but only in the context of the big picture. I have seen God’s grace in my struggle, and I have done my best to share that. Knowing the metrics of how that has specifically impacted the world is pretty much just keeping score; it demeans God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time by putting it in my human grasp.

Here’s the thing about knowing that God has a Plan from before the Beginning of Time and that I have my miniscule role to play within it: sometimes this just pisses me off. There’s no gentler way to say that. If I think about me as the center of that plan, I get angry that there was no better way in my life to know God or to make him known other than to experience ten miscarriages. Really? One or two wouldn’t suffice? The only answer to that rage and frustration is to know that my only reason for anything is to find Christ in the midst of it and to cling to his grace. Something we often gloss over in Christianity is that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. It’s easy to imagine God being perfect and being a perfect sacrifice; it’s really hard to imagine a fully human brain willing to die a horribly painful death. We all have internal dialogue – what must the conversation in Jesus’s head have sounded like when he thought about God’s Plan from before the Beginning of Time? Really? This is the only way to accomplish your plan? But fully human Jesus stuck to the plan anyway and radically changed the perspective from which we all should view our plans.

Know these two things wherever you are today: Jesus has been where you are, and God never wings it.

On Tax Collectors and Notorious Sinners

“Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.” Luke 15:1 NLT

My pastor has often pointed out that tax collectors were so hated by society that they needed their own label because even the “notorious sinners” didn’t want to be associated with tax collectors. Of course this draws a laugh because every culture has its pariahs, and we all love to hate someone. This verse in Luke usually sets my mind to thinking about who was in the crowd whenever Jesus taught. We know that religious leaders came because their questions are often part of the story – sometimes because they were outraged, sometimes because they were genuinely confused, and sometimes to set a trap to catch Jesus in blasphemy.

We know that regular folks came to hear Jesus, too, and some of them brought their whole family. Several accounts of Jesus feeding a large crowd make mention that 5,000 men were fed, not counting women and children. We know that Jesus blessed children and chastised his disciples for keeping children away from him. It sounds like the crowds that came to hear Jesus teach were a mix of every socioeconomic group and every type of profession (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you may know that Jesus had a soft spot for cheesemakers, though…), so I love that Luke felt he needed to point out that “tax collectors and notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”

There are a lot of reasons I love this notation. I love that this bunch of people who were obviously not part of “respectable society” came to hear Jesus, and came often. Can you see the bunched up look on the prim and proper church lady’s face when “those people” showed up and sat down to listen? We all know someone who might fall into the “notorious sinner” category – today they would probably be unwed mothers, addicts, or divorcees; I imagine the categories were much the same in Jesus’s day. I love that these people didn’t give two hoots what polite society thought about their presence – they came to hear Jesus, maybe several times. They knew they needed hope of redemption from their situation – a source of rescue outside themselves. I love imagining what people thought of the notorious sinners and tax collectors coming to hear Jesus – “It’s about time that one got some religion…” or “How dare they show up to hear a man of God speak?” I wonder how many members of polite society were genuinely pleased and nonjudgmental about the notorious sinners’ presence.

I wonder how many of us are happy to welcome into our churches with equal joy the notorious sinners of our day. Can we really claim that the tax collectors and notorious sinners of our time come often to our churches? Or is it horribly uncomfortable for someone different to come in and then to come back? Do we share the love and healing of Jesus in a way tangible enough that notorious sinners are drawn to hear more, just like they were drawn to listen often to Jesus teaching? I love that one single sentence both comforts and challenges me because Jesus still offers hope and healing to everyone, and I need to be sure that I am not hindering anyone, notorious sinner or not, that is drawn to Jesus. I must admit that it is too easy to judge someone’s appearance or situation and assume that they will never change. And in the next breath I must admit that I must not really believe that God is all-powerful or the source of grace if I can so readily judge another human. I’m really no different from a notorious sinner because I am still a sinner. And maybe that’s what I love the most about this sentence in Luke: the irony that anyone who judged the tax collectors and notorious sinners who showed up to learn from Jesus is even more in need of that teaching and grace. Here’s to notorious sinners and tax collectors; may we be ever gracious to each other.

Eyes on the Prize

I may have written this blog before, so stop reading if you’ve heard this before. We are all works in progress, and some days we make more progress than others. But our failures don’t define us any more than our successes do. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn is that I am not the sum of what I do. It’s really easy to tell myself who I am based on what I do. For men, that tends to be based on your job. For women, that tends to be the roles we inhabit: wife, mother, friend, bookkeeper, housekeeper… I judge my progress on how much I check off my to-do list or how well I think I have done my assorted jobs instead of on how well I followed Christ with my whole life.

Sometimes I butt heads with Paul, but I love the imagery of Philippians 3 where he tells his readers to keep running, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:12-14) We are all running a race; we aren’t all running the same race, but we are all looking forward to what lies ahead, and our habits today will determine what finish line we’re seeking.

If you follow Christ, then the ultimate finish line is the heavenly prize Jesus claimed for you when he redeemed you, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have earthly goals, too. Your earthly goals should honor Christ, but they may not be specifically spiritual in nature. I have set some fitness goals (which now need adjusting, as Engelberta decided she and I must compete on “American Ninja Warrior” when she gets “big” next week…), and they may seem silly to someone in good shape, but I am determined to do at least one pull-up before I die. The other goals are far more achievable, as I have done them all at least once in my life, but the pull-up has eluded me since the days of Presidential Fitness Testing in elementary school. But I am pressing on toward my goal. Some days I feel like I am never going to make it, and other days, like today, I realize that I am slowly getting stronger. My form is getting better, I can accomplish more challenging workouts, and one day soon that pull-up is going to happen – not immediately, and not if I don’t keep working towards it, but soon enough that I want it even more with each day of pressing on and looking towards the prize.

So now my challenge is to chase after each of my goals, especially the ultimate goal of seeing my faith perfected through Jesus, as hard as I chase after my pull-up. It’s harder to measure spiritual growth, but those moments of reflection when you realize that you are stronger than you were before, you react differently than you used to, or you more often than not see people as who God created them to be make me want that prize all the more.

Forgiveness – Part 4 – Be Forgiven

I touched on this in the Forgiveness – Part 1 post, and this “study” of forgiveness would be incomplete without this final part. Forgiveness in our lives is all modeled on the forgiveness of Jesus in the form of his death as a sacrifice for all of our sins (our less-than-perfect moments). Even in the Torah and books of the prophets in what Christians call the Old Testament, a blood sacrifice was required to cover sins and make people righteous in God’s eyes. The very first sin of Adam and Eve required a blood sacrifice that God himself prepared for Adam and Eve by killing animals and using their skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness when they left the Garden of Eden. Other religions view less-than-perfection differently, but almost all see good and evil like a balance scale where enough good to outweigh the bad makes things right.

This is a noble way to see good and evil, but it leaves a lot of gaps for me intellectually and spiritually. How much good is enough to make up for the bad in my life? Is there a ratio of good:bad that will ensure that I will be a good person or go to heaven? Is 2:1 enough, or should it be more like 10:1? What is the standard for my good acts – are small acts of kindness like compliments enough to make up for losing my temper? What if I do something worse, like kill someone – what can possibly make up for that on the scale? If enough people put good mojo out into the world, will it ever be enough to keep horrible things from happening? If everyone on the planet could pay it forward for a day or a week, could we keep earthquakes at bay or stop mass shootings? How much good karma would it take to prevent bad karma from happening at all? If I can repeat my life through multiple reincarnations, could I ever be good enough to make it heaven, or will I be stuck in an endless loop of repeating my less-than-perfection?

The problem with all of these beliefs for me is that the focus is always on self – what can you do to earn a place in heaven? Any system based solely on your actions is a meritocracy, and you must work your way into heaven. The worst part of this for me is that there are no clear guidelines for just how good you have to be, and there are no real explanations for why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people. As badly as Christians often explain it, God does provide a foundation for all of these questions I have about a meritocratic heaven.

Heaven isn’t a meritocracy; there’s nothing you can do to earn it because grace is a gift of God given with no strings attached except to follow Jesus. There is a clear standard for perfection and sin, and there is a clear consequence for sin. Sin is anything less than perfection in our thoughts and actions, and the consequence of sin is death (separation from God forever). The only way to regain our connection to the Creator of our souls is to accept the sacrifice of Jesus and allow him to lead us through life on earth. In exchange, our relationship with God is restored, and we will live forever with our Creator in heaven when our bodies pass away. No earning our way to perfection; no earning a place in heaven because it is a gift of God. Our good works are the result of following Jesus.

Because sin entered our world, our world is broken as well; things will never be perfect here like they were in the Garden of Eden until God makes the whole world new. Until that happens, bad things will happen no matter how good we are or how well we imitate Jesus. Evil is loose in our world, and we can’t do enough good deeds to wipe it out. Only Jesus can eradicate evil. I touched on this in the Forgiveness – Part 3 post. God’s grace saves us from condemnation, but it doesn’t exempt us from experiencing evil here on earth.

Here are some passages of the Bible that I think tie up the old system of animal sacrifice for sin with the new promise made through Jesus’s sacrifice of his life for ours.

“In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals. For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again, like the high priest here on earth who enters th3e Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice.” Hebrews 9:22-26 NLT

“When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died – from the time of Adam to the time of Moses – even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins.” Romans 5:12-16

This sounds like a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo, and I guess maybe it is. The bottom line for me is that I don’t want to be my own standard bearer; if I am a standard for goodness, I am a miserable example, and there is no hope for humanity. I have looked long and hard into my own soul, and I know what darkness lives there. I think I’m a pretty good person, so if I can see such darkness in me, I have no hope of doing enough good deeds to earn a place in heaven. Jesus for me means freedom from myself and my darkness. He told us, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Jesus offers release from the relentless burden of myself and my less-than-perfections. He offers me rest for my soul, and I desperately want and need that respite.

If you have seen Christians behaving badly or judging the world, I’m sorry; we all mess up, and we all need forgiveness. None of us speaks for Christ – God doesn’t need us to explain him or to judge the world, because he explains himself, and he is the judge. If you have read this and think I am judging you for believing something different – see that last sentence. I have great respect for any person who has explored their faith and determined their own beliefs, especially if you act on those beliefs. This is merely an explanation of my basis for forgiveness. It is not my job to judge you, it is only my job to follow Jesus, and I have felt from the beginning of this topic that I should write this. If you believe something different than me and would like to discuss anything I have written here further, please contact me. If I have written anything that sounds like something you want to learn more about, please contact me. You can send me a message on FB if we’re FB friends, or you can e-mail me at mabbatblog@gmail.com.

Forgiveness – Part 3 – Forgive God

This will sound sacrilegious to some, but I will venture ahead anyway. I experienced loss for which no one was to blame. I had ten miscarriages, and no cause was discovered for most of them – no disease, no external cause – nothing. I had no place to direct blame; there was no discernable cause for my loss – not cancer, not addiction, not car wrecks, not old age… Only God – who could have stopped it, who could have stopped every single miscarriage from happening. I watched other women experience scares in their pregnancies, but each one of them ended in a miraculous save by God. Where was my miracle? Why wasn’t I loved enough by God for him to at least answer my prayer to leave me barren if I was destined to lose every baby that attached itself to my uterus? How could a God who let me lose ten babies be good and loving? He was anything but kind to me. Maybe he didn’t directly cause my miscarriages, but he could have stopped them, and that’s almost the same thing as causing them if God is omnipotent, right?

I thought all of those things. I thought my faith must not be strong enough because my prayers were going unanswered while I saw miracles happen around me. I hated God. I was so angry I couldn’t talk to him, I couldn’t read the Bible, and I couldn’t sing in church if I even went at all. We church people say a lot of stupid things when we try to comfort people who have suffered traumatic loss: “It’s all part of God’s plan,” “It was just God’s timing,” and my favorite, “It will all work out when he wants it to.” So, he didn’t want ten of my pregnancies to work out?!? God PLANNED for me to suffer like this?!? No, thanks. I’m going to rethink everything I know about God while you spout churchy words at me because that does NOT sound like a merciful God to me.

I had no idea what to do with the anger I felt for God, so I turned to a Bible study book about dealing with pregnancy and infant loss. I only got more frustrated when the author said in one chapter that it’s okay to be mad at God and then said that being angry at God is a sin in the next chapter. I may have burned that book… The thing is, the author wasn’t all wrong. Being angry at God isn’t a sin, but what you do with that anger might be. I love reading the Psalms because they are written by people who poured out their whole hearts to God. There’s plenty of anger and plenty of blaming God, but there’s also the realization that God is unshakeable, unchanging, and undeniable. It is okay to be angry at God and to tell him you are angry; it is not okay to live in that anger and act on it.

The Bible has pretty simple guidelines for anger: “And ‘don’t sin by letting anger control you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.” Ephesians 4:26-27 NLT We do stupid stuff when we’re angry – well, I do; you are probably more mature than I am and can hold your temper. When anger controls you, you will act more rashly and more harshly than you should, and you will do something you’ll regret once you calm down. Those angry actions and words are what’s sinful – not the anger itself. So be angry at God if you need to, but then you have to dump it all out and tell him everything and forgive him – let it go. Because the truth is we do not deserve anything but judgment from God’s hand. I am a sinner (I am not perfect like God is perfect), and the consequence of my sin is God’s judgment and death. We live in a world full of sin where horrible things happen because of our sin, and while God intervenes sometimes, we are not owed any miracles. While we live on this earth, we will suffer because the world is broken and in desperate need of a savior to make it whole and perfect again. But God is still God; he is always good and just and merciful. He is still in control, and he still loves you.

Living in anger “gives a foothold to the devil” by allowing you to think that God owes you something or that your suffering has earned you the right to demand things from God. Don’t let anger narrow your focus to the one thing you didn’t get from God. Look around you at what he has provided and be grateful you haven’t gotten the punishment you truly deserve. Once I stopped being angry and forgave God, I regained the relationship with him I’d been missing. I realized that I didn’t have the babies I so desperately wanted, but he had provided for all of my physical needs; he gave me a kind and wonderful husband; he gave me nurturing family and friends; and he gave me purpose. Forgiving God wasn’t about God at all, but it was all about my relationship with him and how I viewed myself in light of his forgiveness of my sins.

If you’re feeling angry at God, you’re not going to hell for feeling angry. You’re actually in good company since David, who wrote a lot of the Psalms, was called a man after God’s own heart. But stay in that company and follow David’s example: lay it all out before God, and then realize that he is God, and he’s got this. He’s got you. Don’t miss out on a relationship with your creator because you’re mad.