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Thoughts swirl in my head: “There’s so much pain in the world.” … “The needs are overwhelming.” … “Loneliness is everywhere.” … “People are craving to be cared for.” … “Disease, addictions, crime, sadness, all around me.” … “I want to reach out. I want to make a difference. But will my tiny efforts do any good at all?” A voice screams between my ears. I sometimes feel driven to the point of madness.
I’ll bet some of you relate. If so, at least we’re in good company, as portions of the life of Jesus bear similarities.
The Son of God was compelled by compassion to heal the sick, spend time with outcasts, forgive sinners and criminals. As a result, he was rarely free from crowds of desperate individuals clamoring for his attention. Family and friends had quite the reaction: “He’s out of his mind,” they said. “He’s beside himself.” (Mark 3) In a sense, they might have been right.
It’s true and it’s been that way for a long time: Loving our neighbor can make us crazy.
The phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” is fairly well known, yet its origin and true meaning are often misstated. I’ve typically heard it spoken when someone gets a terrible disease, has an accident, hits a financial downturn, or similar. In fact, here’s an explanation taken from the internet: “A recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own, if it weren’t for the blessing of the Divine.”
But wait. There’s something much deeper going on. According to historical accounts, the expression dates back to a Church Of England minister named John Bradford, who saw a group of prisoners being led from the Tower Of London up Tower Hill to the guillotine. “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,” he declared. Devout believers applied the concept individually, and it became the statement we know today.
The acknowledgement is not at all that I have escaped misfortune. Instead, it is an admission that only by God’s grace I have escaped being a thief, murderer, rapist, or worse. Many people would say, “I could never do those things.” Don’t be so sure. As the apostle Paul wrote, “let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall.”
Personally, I am grateful for the sole reason I sit here in comfort, rather than facing the equivalent of a somber march near the bank of the Thames River. Because there but for the grace of God go I.
Jesus had been brutally executed days ago. Mary Magdalene, who loved him immensely, was crying so uncontrollably that she couldn’t make out the man standing before her. She thought he was the gardener. Then he uttered one word … her name, “Mary,” and she knew that it was actually Jesus, risen from the dead.
Sometimes when I’m brokenhearted, Jesus comes to comfort me. I don’t always recognize him at first, because he takes the form of ordinary people: a business associate, running buddy, client, co-worker, friend, neighbor, or the like. I finally realize that it’s none other than Jesus himself, revealing his love through each of them.
To all who show the character of Christ to me, thank you. (And most of you don’t even know you’re doing it.) My deepest hope is to reflect his grace and love to others.
It was a ceremony repeated once a month for most of my childhood. “The Lord’s Supper” it was called. Sometimes they labeled it “Communion”, though at the time I didn’t understand why. *
Reverend Hill took his place behind what seemed to young me like a twenty-foot high pulpit and recited bible verses in his booming voice, the voice of a reverend.
Then the church leaders, with stern looks on their faces, passed around shining plates of tiny pillow-shaped wafers and half-ounce cups of grape juice. I was terrified that I’d drop one. We ate and drank somberly, in silence, supposedly reflecting on Jesus, because he had said “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Only decades later did I realize how much I’d been ripped off by those experiences. The actual Lord’s Supper was much different. It was a – ummm – supper. Like dinner time. Silence? Stern looks? Somber attitudes? That’s never happened at any meal I’ve attended.
There aren’t a lot of experiences better than getting together with friends around food. Apparently, Jesus felt the same way, as that’s how he chose to spend the evening right before he was turned over to the authorities to be crucified.
So inviting a few folks for dinner now and then; talking about whatever comes up; remembering the son of God as we attempt to follow his teachings. This might be an improvement on the traditional ritual, and more authentic to the biblical account as well. It could even lead to some real live human communion.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
(* I do know that some see the Lord’s Supper as a Passover Seder, and / or believe that a mystical connection with Christ occurs during it. I have no quarrel with that. Scholars disagree, however, and I’m not a scholar, so I stay away from such discussions. I’ve simply shared my own experiences and thoughts.)
Two people are conversing on cell phones while driving down the highway. One says, “The terrain here is mountainous, there is snow all around. There’s a thick, natural forest in sight, but no leaves on the trees.” The other replies, “I disagree. The ground is totally flat. Green grass everywhere. The palm trees lining the road are perfectly spaced, so I know they were planted by landscapers.”
Which one is right? Who’s wrong? What if the first person is in northern California, while the second is in Miami?
We are all on a journey of faith. Where I am currently, the view may be quite distinct from that of others at alternate places on the very same road. I might get to where they are one day and see things differently, or vice versa. And maybe both of us are observing truth.
Let’s accept one another as we’re all along for the ride.
A confusing spiritual question was posed to Jesus in a conversation that took place with a woman at the side of a well. His answer, at first glance, was equally perplexing: “The time is coming and is now here.”
It made more sense after I thought about it for a while.
I occasionally wonder if I’ll ever overcome my shortcomings. Then I look back on progress made, slowly, over many years. Could the positive trajectory continue? “The time is coming and is now here.”
Loved ones struggle with losses of all types. Relief this side of eternity seems impossible. At the perfect moment, someone shares a kind word, a smile, a random act. “The time is coming and is now here.”
A glorious day is spent with another human. Deep bonding occurs. I want this experience to last forever. “The time is coming and is now here.”
In what seems like a statement of paradox, therefore, is a message of hope and a message of celebration. It’s a promise for tomorrow, of which we get a glimpse today.
A true case of then and now.
It’s the Christmas season once again, complete with manger scenes including baby Jesus. Yet every time I read a new statistic, the news is that Christianity is losing ground, at least in America. I understand and am not even surprised.
Those of us who have abandoned organized religion bear perhaps the greatest responsibility to mankind. Since we don’t have a church or clergy to whom we can delegate the spreading of good news, we have to do it ourselves. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult. (And if we band together, even in just twos or threes … even better.)
Jesus’ message was simple. Love – God, your neighbor, and yourself. Of course unpacking that took quite a bit of explanation, both explicitly and in story form, but those are the basics. And because we can’t do it locked in the human condition, He sent a helper: His own spirit within us.
I have no quarrel with the masses who’ve done away with tradition, nor the crowd who still finds inspiration there. But all of us should be careful to live in accordance with the three greatest ideals taught by the son of God. To do otherwise would be to throw out the baby with the bath water.
The Bible says that humans were made in the image of God. That’s cool in a lot of ways, but there’s a downside. Fortunately there’s also a resolution.
No matter how much I accomplish or how well I do something, the gnawing feeling is that I could have done better. There’s even some truth to that.
I’m fashioned after a flawless being, so at my very core is a longing for and resonation with perfection. Of course I want it! How can I settle for anything less? This presents a problem, as I live in a fallen world as a mere mortal.
Yes, a gap exists between our reality and where we inherently know we should be. The good news is that we have the mechanism to bridge it. Grace. A divine handout there for the taking. (Perhaps whether we consciously choose to take it or not, but that’s a topic for another day.)
That makes the dilemma a lot easier to bear
And while we’re on the subject of grace, perhaps we should extend some to ourselves and to one another. After all, we’re made in the image of God.
The allure of shiny objects seems to be part of the human condition. We like stuff that’s hip, trendy, and new. That even applies to points on the calendar. At a certain season in time, we give each other best wishes for the months ahead. And though I personally find it counter-productive, some people even take pleasure in bashing what they left behind, with a “Good riddance.”
In contrast, King Solomon, writer of Proverbs and the wisest person who ever lived, said this: “The end of a thing is better than its beginning.” Why would that be?
Beginnings, while often difficult, are exciting. There’s anticipation, suspense, and the hope of great things to come. As the days roll on, however, a sort of grind settles in. It’s tempting to give up.
Those who stay the course are eventually awarded with something rare and gratifying: an accomplishment.
As one major date gives way to the next, I’m glad to convey hopes for wonderful futures all around. I also applaud every achievement of the past fifty-two weeks, including the miracle of you and me simply making it to wherever we are right now.
Happy Old Year.