Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

Grace

From Young and Brash to Older and More Gracious

This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a while. I was having lunch with one of my best friends from high school this week and shared the idea with her and she remembered a difficult conversation we had had during the period mentioned below. It served as confirmation to me that I should share it. I hope it’s received in the spirit with which it’s intended! ~ Rick

Dear Family and Friends,

There aren’t all that many things I regret in life. For the most part I have tried to live by treating others as I would want to be treated. I have sought to be respectful of others and their opinions. I have tried to be generous and kind. I have wanted to be fair and gracious. While I think I have done reasonably well, there was a period of my life that I know I wasn’t very gracious. I wasn’t very kind. I was zealous and perhaps even rabid in the way I shared and defended my beliefs. I was passionate…but I wasn’t very tactful. At times I was downright mean.

I don’t remember everyone I offended. I don’t remember all the people I lambasted. But I know it is more than I care to remember. And I’m sorry. I am really, truly sorry. I ask your forgiveness. I wish I had known then what I’ve learned over the years and would have communicated the same truths in a loving, gracious way. I wish I would have been more respectful of the ways we differed. I wish I wouldn’t have been so judgmental – whether you were wrong or not, I was wrong in the way I communicated and treated you.

I don’t know how many people I might have turned off to ideas they might have been open to listening to or discussing. I don’t know how many people heard me and tossed me into the category of hypocrite or extreme fundamentalist. I’m not really worried about those labels anyway; I’m more concerned that the deep, important truths I believed then and continue to believe now were marginalized or ignored because I was a poor messenger. And I deeply regret that.

I recognize that even if I had spoken with words full of grace and tact we might have left the conversation with different beliefs. I know that I may not have convinced you of anything. I don’t mind that. But I am concerned that maybe you walked away doubting my love for you or my part in our friendship. I fear that my actions may have led you to reject the things I believe, not on their merit or lack thereof, but because of me.

So, please, please forgive me. Please know that with time comes (at least sometimes) wisdom. If I did offend you, perhaps you’ll tell me and we can sit down over a cup of coffee and I can apologize in person. We don’t even have to revisit our original conversation unless you want to get some things off your chest! It would be great just to spend time together and talk.

Humbly,

Rick

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Who’s Keeping Score?

As a parent, I love each of my three children. If you asked me which of them I loved the most, I wouldn’t be able to pick. In my heart I believe I love each of them the same. But, as most parents will tell you, that doesn’t mean I treat them each in exactly the same way. I have to know my children and I have to love them in a way that will communicate love to them as individuals. Bethany responds to words of affirmation and encouragement. I often tell her how proud of her I am. Joshua responds to hugs and physical contact. I still speak words of encouragement to him – and I think they do show love – but I had to learn to make physical contact (even though this is not my natural way of showing love) because it is something that affirmed him. Jonathan responds to quality time. He likes being with people and when he has spent time with you he opens up and will share his heart. It isn’t so significant what the activity is, it’s the time spent together.

But our children didn’t always think we loved each of them the same. On more than one occasion “You love her more!” or “That’s not fair!” were heard in the hallowed halls of our home. Sometimes our kids were convinced we played favorites. “I didn’t get to do that until I was thirteen!” “You told me I couldn’t go there but she gets to!” “Why can’t I stay up? They do!”

I suppose it’s human nature to keep score in relationships. In our minds we tally the points for different things people have done. We have this idea that relationships are fifty-fifty propositions. I do my part and you do yours and everything is fair and we’re all happy. The problem is, what I think is a loving thing to do may not seem loving to you. I’ve given myself a point, but you’ve taken one away or just not noticed. And it works the other way too. Things you’ve done don’t count by my standards and vice versa.

In relationships, when we keep score everyone loses. Rarely does keeping score in relationships end well. More often we feel hurt, unloved, under appreciated, neglected, resentful, alone. We think we are loving well and more than doing our part but the other person isn’t trying as hard or doing as much and we can’t understand why he/she sees it the other way around.

A better approach is to give one hundred per cent in relationships and assume the best about the other person’s effort. Even if he/she is slacking, we’re still called to love well. Paul wrote that we should consider others more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). This doesn’t mean we become a doormat to let people do whatever they want to us, but it does mean that we seek to love unconditionally and selflessly. We stop worrying about what the other person is or isn’t doing to love us and we focus on how we can love him/her better. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus (quoting Leviticus 19:9 and 19:18) told us to love others as we would want them to love us. I can’t speak for others, but I would prefer someone not be judging my acts of love to determine their value or worth. I would prefer they love me well and accept my love in return.

I’m glad God doesn’t keep score in our relationship. If He did, I would be in big trouble! God’s love is one hundred percent and it is unconditional. The love I offer God is a fraction of what He has shown me. There is no way I could even approach a fifty-fifty split with Him. But in his grace and mercy He still loves me well. Love doesn’t always mean He does what I want or when I want or how I want. He wants the best for me and so sometimes his love is discipline or no or wait. But I know his character is perfect and his heart is for me and I never doubt, even in the most challenging circumstances, that He loves me. Jesus in teaching about God’s character and about prayer wrote that if earthly fathers know how to give their children good gifts how much more does our heavenly Father know how to give not just good gifts, but the very best gifts (Luke 11:11-13, see also my previous post discussing this passage)

When we stop keeping score or worrying about keeping score and focus on loving with all our hearts, we are set free to truly love well. It is an opportunity for us to imitate God and his love for others. It is not always easy. Human beings can be fickle and don’t always respond the way we want or expect. But when we love others well, we not only honor God by obeying his call to love, we scratch a deep itch everyone has – to be loved for who they are, warts and all. As Bill Mallonee says, “to be loved well is the best of all” (from the song “This Time Isn’t One of Them”).


How to Love People You Don’t Like

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a group of 5th-8th graders. In mulling over what to share I was drawn to one of the hardest truths Jesus taught: Love your neighbor. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a hard truth. I mean, it’s easy to love my neighbor, isn’t it? My neighbors are people just like me, right? They’re my family and the people I like and spend time with. Right? I believe Jesus goes and sets the bar higher than that. When asked by “an expert in the law” who was his neighbor, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan and basically blows his listeners’ minds. You can read the passage here.

There are so many cultural and religious dynamics going in the passage, but I will save most of them for another day! What I want to pay attention to is that this teacher of the law wants to justify himself. He wants to break down his duty before God into a neat box. How does he inherit eternal life? Love God and love his neighbor. In his mind loving his neighbor is loving the people like him. It’s loving the people near him. It’s loving his family and his close friends.

Jesus tells a story that shatters that illusion. The priest and the Levite walk by this man who lies in a heap bloodied and beaten. Most people of that day would have felt they were justified. They don’t know who it is. They might make themselves unclean and unable to worship in the temple or to conduct their duties before God. And if the person is already dead? It would have made sense in a way that seems foreign to modern day, western readers, that these people walked on by.

But it shouldn’t and that’s why Jesus tells the story. The Samaritan is clearly not this man’s neighbor in their minds. He was considered a half breed – part Jewish and part Gentile. His religion was heretical holding to only the Torah and not the other books of the Old Testament. Their place of worship was not Jerusalem at the temple. The Samaritans were hated by Jews. If you needed to walk to Galilee, you almost always went around Samaria to avoid its people.

And yet, it is the Samaritan who stops; who binds the wounds; who takes the man to an inn; who shows mercy and serves this stranger. When Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the injured man, the teacher of the law can’t even say “the Samaritan”. He answers, “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus tells him to go and do the same.

Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer is unexpected. Essentially he says our neighbor is anyone who has need and that everyone, even the people we don’t know or we don’t like or we consider half-breed heretics, fall into that category. Love your neighbor and, by the way, everyone is your neighbor.

We love our neighbor when we don’t treat them as they deserve. We love them by showing them mercy. This is the first way we can love people we don’t like: We serve them.

I think there is a second way we can begin to love people we don’t like. We get to know them. This idea comes more from my experience of serving people in church and in outreach over the years. We often don’t like people because we don’t know them. We see the way they dress or we think based on their religion or nationality or the place they come from what they are like. We make judgments and assumptions and imagine we know what they are like.

When we take time to listen to other’s stories; when we honor them by listening and asking questions; we often discover that 1) they aren’t so different from us and 2) they are actually very likable. Now I realize this is not always the case. There are people who the more we get to know them the less we like them. We are called to love them anyway (They are still our neighbors after all and even if we hate them, we still have to love them…see Matthew 5:43-48 if you don’t believe me). But more often than not in my own experience, when I hear people’s stories I find respect and understanding for them that I lacked when I was stuck in my prejudgments and assumptions.

Surely getting to know them is harder. It takes time and it can be uncomfortable. But Jesus rarely took things at face value. He was always asking good questions which helped to reveal people’s hearts and motives. As we get to know the people Jesus calls us to love, we may actually find we like them.

One other way we love people we don’t like is we tell them the truth (in love). Speaking the truth in love is a non-negotiable for followers of Jesus (see Ephesians 4:15). The most loving thing we can do for anyone is point them toward the truth. We point them toward their heavenly Father who loves them more than we ever could!

I think speaking the truth in love points people toward Jesus, but I think we need to go beyond that. Most of us like for people to think we have it all together and have things figured out. The reality is that we have struggles and challenges. We have needs and frustrations and issues. Being willing to share our needs and our hurts and struggles can invite others to be a neighbor to us. It can move our relationship from being me offering from my abundance and expertise to a true give-and-take as we journey together. It can actually create better opportunities for us to tell our stories and to let others see how our faith is lived out.

Loving people you don’t like is not easy. But I believe these three ways make it practical and livable. I invite you to take time this week to ask God who might be a person you know you need to love but have been struggling with because you don’t like them much. Ask him to show you specific things you could do to begin loving that person better. How could you serve him/her? How could you get to know him/her better? How could you share the truth in love?


Ruth: An Example of Grace Gone Viral

ImageWhen I attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I was blessed to have Dr. Dennis Magary for several of my Old Testament classes. His passion for the Old Testament was infectious.  Following his class covering this diminutive book, I fell in love with it…so much so that when I became pastor of Amman International Church it was one of the first books I preached from was the book of Ruth. Recently I had the opportunity to do the part of the narrator for a “readers theater” through Ruth at our church. Reading and reflecting on the book reminded me why I love it…

1. The book of Ruth is about taking risks

Ruth is a Moabite woman. She’s a gentile. She has no standing in Israel at all. But she leaves her people and her family who could provide for her and she goes with Naomi back to Bethlehem. She loves her mother-in-law and she loves the God of her mother-in-law. She knows that Naomi has no one and she will need someone to care for her. She is determined to be that person.

That sounds normal to us, but Ruth has no guarantee that she will be accepted by the Israelites in Bethlehem; no guarantee that a woman in a male-dominated society will be able to provide what they need to live on; no guarantee that anyone will let her glean in their field; no guarantee that she won’t face abuse, prejudice; violence; name-calling…who knows…But none of that stops Ruth from doing what’s right and seeking Naomi’s best.

Naomi takes a risk when she sends Ruth to the threshing floor. If Naomi marries, who will take care of her? There’s no guarantee that if Ruth marries Boaz they will continue to provide for her. But that doesn’t stop Naomi from doing what’s right and seeking Ruth’s best.

Boaz takes a risk when he agrees to both marry Ruth and redeem the land. To redeem the land, Boaz will have to pay a hefty sum. If he and Ruth have a son and he is considered Elimilech’s heir, he will have to pay the redemption price a second time. This is why the first kinsman-redeemer refuses to redeem. It really could bankrupt him and put his own estate at risk. Boaz has no guarantee it won’t be financially difficult for himself. But that doesn’t stop him from doing what’s right and seeking both Ruth and Naomi’s best.

2. The book of Ruth is about how infectious love and grace are

Ruth shows loving-kindness to Naomi by returning with her to Bethlehem and going out to glean and provide food for them both. She brings all she gleans and even what she has left over from her own lunches back to Naomi.

Ruth really wasn’t required to do this. And Naomi’s bitter spirit certainly didn’t make her very lovable. But Ruth shows grace and love to her grieving mother-in-law.

While gleaning, Boaz notices Ruth. When he’s told who she is he blesses her verbally but also makes sure that she will be able to glean and gather more than what she needs. He has heard of her kindness – it’s the talk of the town – and now he has seen it. Ruth’s loving, gracious behavior moves him to show loving-kindness to her.

And then something happens…Naomi utters a prayer of blessing for Boaz. She begins to recognize that she hasn’t come back to Bethlehem as empty as she thought. God hasn’t been so hard on her after all. And then she sends Ruth off in the middle of the night to seek Boaz as a husband. She stops thinking only about herself and thinks of Ruth! She didn’t have to do that! But Ruth’s loving-kindness and Boaz’s generosity have infected her and she acts lovingly and gracefully too!

3. The book of Ruth is about how small choices can make a big difference…

Throughout the book, as we’ve already seen above, people make small choices that end up providing big blessing for others. But another way we see this truth is when we consider that Ruth is one of four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy. Ruth, a gentile woman, becomes one of the great-grandmothers of the Messiah. King David was her great-grandson. She is, without a doubt, a woman worthy of such an honor! It is a reminder too that it isn’t where we’re from or what language we speak or what we look like that is most important, it’s our heart and our character and our love of God and others.

Even in this blog I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of the book of Ruth’s riches. It is a small but powerful book that speaks practically to how we live our lives daily. May we be the kind of people who live lives filled with grace and loving-kindness for God and his glory!


Fighting the Tendency to Drift

Disclaimer: Our family has been in the midst of transition for the past several months. Really our transitions began even before we left Jordan. As a result, I have not posted for some time. I hope to get back into that rhythm.

This summer our family spent some time at the beach.  We enjoyed swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, dodging the jelly fish.  One of the things that always surprises me – though after all these years it probably shouldn’t – is how the tide can cause me to drift.  I mean, I start out directly in front of our chairs and towels and before I know it I’ve drifted quite a ways away from that spot.  I didn’t even realize it had happened.  If I don’t intentionally stop and look to see where I am and adjust my position, I can get pretty far from where I want to be.

I find the same is true in my spiritual life.

A friend of mine, knowing I had Dr. D.A. Carson as a professor in seminary, wrote and shared with me a quote he had read in a devotional by Dr. Carson:

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated (D. A. Carson, For the Love of God, Volume 2: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word).

When I think of holiness, I think of a transformed life. I think of a life that is changed more into the image of Jesus. I cannot transform myself. I cannot make myself more like Jesus. But that is not an excuse to do nothing. Paul called on us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:13). But that work does not transform us. Paul said in the very next verse that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” He is the one who works change in us. He is the one who transforms us.

But we do have a part to play. It is “grace-driven effort”. We have to intentionally put ourselves in a place where we open our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s our job. And by God’s grace as we do practices that open our lives up to God, He works in us. He changes us.

I am convicted by Dr. Carson’s statement because he’s right. I know that my heart tends to drift – but not “toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord” – rather in the opposite direction! And I am all too often guilty of the kind of rationalizing he states as well. Perhaps not in all the ways he states, but more of them than I care to admit.

So how do I counter this tendency to drift? How do I keep myself from slipping away from the places that will help me become what I want to be? I start with healthy self-examination. Henri Nouwen stated, “A life that is not reflected upon isn’t worth living” (Can You Drink This Cup?). I would add that a life not reflected upon tends to drift.

When I examine my life, I see the things I’m doing well and I see the places I need to change. I discover my “blindspots” and my strengths. Undoubtedly, I need to repent. I need to ask God’s forgiveness for allowing myself to drift; for not living intentionally the way I should. I need to ask forgiveness and for grace to get moving in God’s direction again.

Reflection/examination and repentance must be followed by action. The reality is that the kinds of activities that will put me in a place where my life is open to God’s work are not, usually, “fun” activities. They are not, generally, the kinds of things I do naturally – at least not initially. And yet, once they are established as a habit, my soul often craves them and I when I start to drift, I can tell something is not right.

At that point, if I don’t take time to reflect on why things aren’t right, I drift more and become less sensitized to what’s wrong. Regular reflection/examination helps to keep me on the right path. If I will take the time to examine my life and reflect on how things are going, God is so gracious to show me what’s out of whack and help me get moving in the right direction.

Ultimately none of this happens if I’m not willing to intentionally open my life to God. None of it happens unless I create space in my life for God to work. If I really long to be like Jesus, to be made holy, then I have to order my life so that can happen. Times of reflection, of solitude, of meditation, of prayer, and of any number of other practices move me in the direction of holiness. When I take steps to do live that way, I find God is gracious and faithful and he works in me in ways I do not even realize, but ways his word promises “according to his good pleasure”.  They are ways that allow me to be transformed more into the image of Jesus.