This has been the summer I fully embraced the community of my church family. The one where I attend services and the one that has connected me with some life-long friends and acquaintances. It has been a summer of gathering together socially and spiritually. Mostly, it has been the best time I have had in years and I am beyond grateful.
Change is hard. Change brings unfamiliarity. Change can be external to us while processed internally. Change can bring up feelings we never knew we had. Change can send us into a dark place or it can open the door to new opportunities. Change can make us angry or it can bring a sense of relief. Yes, change can be hard.
It has taken me a long time to have a friendship with God. We were more the ‘casual acquaintance’ type for many years. Oh sure, we had our moments of closeness when I cried out in despair for help, not fully expecting to receive any help. And there were those ‘ah ha’ moments on spiritual retreats when I got all caught up in emotions of the worship and the message.
Real friendship was another thing. I still remember walking to communion one Sunday as the band played a song about Jesus being my friend and I realized that I didn’t feel that way. It broke my heart that others could know him that way but I didn’t. I mean I have been a Christian all my life so how could I not feel Jesus was my friend? Friendship implies a close relationship, a sharing of secrets, a deliberate presence in each other’s lives, and time spent together through all the good and bad times.
Wasn’t that Jesus?
I am struck this morning by Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves and the words of his followers about loving one another, especially fellow believers. I can personally attest to the way in which my life was changed by the love of people in the Christian community. I also know that there were those who would rather I not be around and who did not think I belonged in their group. They were the ones who looked down on me because of my circumstances and thought I was of less value than they because of my situation. It breaks my heart when I see that today.
Refugee. Displaced. Escapee. Fleeing from danger. Running in fear. Lost. Alone. Desperate.
Those words came to me this morning as I read Jesus’ and the disciple’s words about love. As I read about loving those in the body, I wondered about those refugees coming to strange lands with no hope. I wondered about the fear I am reading that many here in America have about what this change means for them. I wondered how it is we as Christians can believe in Jesus and have read the stories of his outreach to strangers, and yet we are not rushing to embrace these people.
The man I follow crossed the road for the despicable, for the untouchable, and for the criminal. His only agenda was to touch them, love them, and give them an opportunity to know that they are worthy of God’s love. They were all valuable in his eyes, even the loathsome sinner. This Jesus went into areas of the world where no Jew was to go to show us that there are no boundaries or borders to God’s love for man. And by his actions they came to know God the father and Jesus the savior and their lives were transformed.
Why then as Christians are we not overjoyed at the arrival a people in need of God’s love? Why are we not rushing to them with arms full of clothes and food and jobs? Why are we not sharing God’s love with them rather than pushing them away as the untouchable? Why are we letting the fear that Jesus told us to let go of run us? Why are we not taking this time to give them an opportunity to become part of the body of Christ?
Where is the love?
I am not a political person. I don’t write a political blog. I am just a believer and follower of Jesus Christ who tries to live out his message in all that I do. Maybe this is radical thinking for some of my readers and I hope it gives you pause to pray about the neighbors who share your streets and will compel you to cross the road to say “hello” and build a new relationship with them. Maybe this will encourage you to adopt a refugee or immigrant in your midst and share the love of Jesus with them. Maybe we who follow a God of love and second chances will be gracious enough to offer the same to a stranger. I pray that today God will present you with the opportunity to do that and I pray that we as the body of Christ will find a way to love the hurt and broken he is sending to us. HE IS SENDING TO US! The broken have come to our shores and there couldn’t be any easier way than that for us to share Christ’s love than in this moment.
He makes the whole body to fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. Ephesians 4
Image by The Refugee Art Project
I believe in a God of second chances because I have seen that in my own life. I know forgiveness through first-hand experience. I know the freedom that comes from confessing my negative and harmful behavior. I know what it is to live a new life every day because of that forgiveness and a second chance to do it better the next time. My spiritual journey and growth are constant factors in my life as I continue to pray about ways to improve my behavior and actions. Some days are better than others, but when I mess up, I know where to go and I know I can start over.
Jesus gave us a prayer to pray (Matthew 6:9-13) and as part of that we pray: “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us (NLT). The Message version translates the prayer to: “Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.” I like this version because it reminds me that just as I am forgiven through Jesus, I must forgive those around me. This commandment isn’t something to take lightly and in some cases it may be very difficult for us to do. But with forgiveness comes freedom to move forward in our lives and a first step toward breaking the ties to the hurt and pain someone may have inflicted on us.
It took me a while to forgive my father for his behavior toward my mother. I had to come to understand that in his time there was no one to teach him that it was wrong. I had to forgive him for ignoring me and putting me in a position to seek out another male figure that would later abuse me. I had to find a way to let God deal with the person who hurt me and to stop letting them influence my behavior many years later. I have forgiven my mother for not being who I wish she was and accepting the wonderful things she passed on to me—including how, as a Christian, to forgive those closest to us. I have had to learn how to forgive those who have hurt my daughter and allow her to forgive them and show me how to forgive as well. That one is probably the hardest but I am thankful to see her model a forgiving behavior passed on from her grandmother.
With forgiveness comes a requirement for change. If we are inspired by the words of Jesus to seek forgiveness and to forgive others, then we must also be willing to make changes in our lives that will keep us from making the same mistakes. The Message version says: “keep us safe from ourselves and from the Devil” (Matthew 6:9-13). It may mean that we remove ourselves from people who are not good for us or who might influence negative behavior in ourselves. It may mean holding others accountable for the way they treat us and setting appropriate boundaries. It may mean that we who forgive also mentor and pray for those who hurt us when they seek our forgiveness. And when we see change in another, then we must be willing to give them a second chance at living a new life. We must release them from the bond of shame and allow them to become the new person Christ has made. If we only remember the fault and don’t see the transformation, we end up carrying a burden that no longer exists and we hold back those forgiven and transformed.
Forgiveness and second chances are probably two of the hardest things for us Christians to live out in our lives. We want forgiveness for ourselves and we see it in our lives, but we refuse it to those closest to us. When we refuse to see that God has created something new in the forgiven, we miss the blessing of Jesus lived out on earth. Who are you holding a grudge against that you have not forgiven? Who do you say you have forgiven but have not reconciled with? Who do you know needs your forgiveness and your help in building a new life forward? How can you model what Jesus told us to do for another? Who needs you to give them a second chance?
The closer I get to Christmas the greater the pressure I place on myself to spend on friends and family. The craziness is beginning to steal the joyful anticipation I should be feeling right now. With each thought of gifts I have yet to purchase, I slip a little further away from celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and toward celebrating Santa Maggie. I move away from the giver of new life to the giver of temporary gain. This year I am trying to maintain a new budget and yet celebrate Christmas with my friends.
Christmas is a balancing act for most of us. We want to show our love for our children by the number and expense of gifts under the tree. We go to extremes to impress colleagues and friends with presents that show our respect and affection. Some will feel the tug on their hearts and be compelled to rescue that pet that they have avoided getting all year. And others of us may go totally in the other giving direction and spend everything we have on toys for faceless needy children
None of these are bad things if done for the right reason and if they model Jesus’ example of giving and the greater gift of forgiveness and love eternal that he gave us. Some of us, however, don’t have the cash flow to meet all our personal expenses let alone simple gifts for those closest to us. So how do we balance “the reason for the season” with the holiday season? One way is to stop and ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing and if spending that money on that gift is the best way to show we care. What other ways are there to show our love for others this time of year? Do we have to do something before December 25th? Can we adopt a new way of giving that will stay with us in the year ahead? Can we start the New Year with a smile rather than a grimace about our new debt?
In our family we have adopted a 12 Days of Christmas strategy, especially with our friends. We start with some gifts under the tree December 25th for family and then find ways to celebrate Christmas with friends through Epiphany on January 6. It keeps the spirit of Christmas alive for more than a couple of hours on one day. This year we went to the grocery store and picked out $10 worth of food products for each of the food banks we support. We went to Arlington National Cemetery and laid wreaths in honor of our service men and women. I have met with other friends for a meal or a coffee and we invested in each other by listening to what is going on in our lives. These are rich moments of giving of ourselves and sharing our faith. This year we will be making cookies and spending time with other families instead of a gift exchange. On Christmas day, after our family time, we will get with friends to drive around and look at Christmas lights. I did that the other night with a dear friend and we laughed until we cried. I will carry these memories far longer than the gifts I gave that I can no longer remember who I got what for. And we have created a new pattern of giving and sharing time that we can continue long after Epiphany.
What ways can you balance the reason we as Christians celebrate Christmas with the commercial pressure to buy, buy, and buy more? What ways can you honor the birth of the one who came to die that we would be forgiven? How can you show others that gift of eternal love instead of the temporary monetary love? I would love to hear your ideas. It isn’t too early to start planning for Christmas 2015!! Share your ideas and I will consolidate them and remind people of them next year
This walk of faith is not always an easy one. I am inspired every day to make changes in my attitude and in the way I live my life. Years ago there was a bracelet that many people wore: “WWJD,” a reminder to ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” in any given circumstance. For me, a bracelet is not enough. I have to feed my heart and soul regularly to know what God would have me do, especially when no one is watching.
What are you doing and saying when no one from church is watching you? What activities are you involved in that you hope no one finds outs about? What words are you using that you would never use in front of your pastor? How are you feeding your spirit when you aren’t sitting in the pew on Sunday morning? What behavior is living inside you that takes you away from being that person of faith you wish you were?
In his letters to the church in Rome (Romans 7:14 – 25), Paul asks himself these very same questions about his behavior and his heart. He knows what the right thing to do is; but still he finds himself drawn away from that. He struggles, like most of us; to do what his heart tells him is the right thing to do. He thinks he is forever trapped by his sinful nature. But he does have an answer for us.
How are you speaking today? Are you speaking with patience to the person waiting on you in the store that might be working their second job for the day and is doing the best they can? Are you smiling and letting them take their time and thanking them for being there for you? Are you holding your tongue when you feel words like “idiot,” “stupid,” or “reject” enter your mind and replacing them with “child of God,” “and “fellow human?” Can you not cuss out the driver that cut you off, especially since he can’t hear you anyway? Can you instead ask God to make you a better driver and an example—even if no one is paying attention? Can you let someone in when they need to merge and pass on that behavior not what you just experienced?
What are you watching on TV? What images are you filling your mind with? Are you watching porn when no one sees you? Did you sneak a movie in while you were on travel because no one will know? Are you watching shows that make fun of other people? Are you filling your brain with negative responses and examples or are you looking for positive reinforcement for good behavior? Can you change the channel and find something else to do? Can you ask for help—go to Celebrate Recovery—to break the bonds that porn or other negative images have on your thinking?
How are you spending your money today? Did you go buy something new instead of paying a bill? Did you hear about a friend in need and think “wow, they are really messed up,” or did you think: “how can I help?” Did you borrow money from someone and really need to start paying them back because you are doing better now? Can you help someone else out without judging them? Are you not giving at church or to charity because you are afraid you won’t have money to buy that thing you don’t really need anyway? Can you find a way to start giving a little today and commit to giving regularly? Can you volunteer somewhere to make meals or reach the homeless?
Are you standing so firm on being right that you have lost compassion for those in need? Have you buried your healing from brokenness so deep that your redeemed life is hidden from others? Is there someone suffering from their bad choices that you feel better than and can’t be bothered with? Are you feeling self-satisfied because you don’t have “that” sin in your life and forget you have others? Are you willing to step down from your pedestal and reach a hand out to help the wounded and hurting that they too might know God’s grace? Did you ask someone if you could pray for them? Did you invite them to your home—to your church?
These things I struggle with. There are things I wish I did differently today and I am taking Paul’s example and I am asking Jesus to free me from these negative behaviors. I am praying to act better today. I am asking that he change my nature. I am asking what to do when no one is watching and that what I do is positive and honors his example. I will fall short. I will fail. And I will keep moving forward, closer to who he wants me to be and how he wants me to behave—when no one is watching.
If this is helpful to you, please feel free to share my posting and blog with others. Together we can grow stronger and live better examples of Jesus in our lives.
Shortly after I graduated from high school I moved to Los Angeles and began to live a life far different from the belief system I had growing up. Like most young people, I wanted to get as far away from my parents as possible. I also wanted to make decisions for myself, because at 17, I was oh so wise!
My week-long visit to California turned into years and my journey to “find myself” led me to change my religious commitment. I became enthralled with Scientology and grew to be a new recruit and staff member. I began a journey into what I would later learn was an occult-like cult. I had already opened the door with my Ouija board experience in high school. Scientology simply pulled me further away from the faith I had known all my life. I won’t go into detail now, but suffice it to say, Scientology took control of my life in a way my church never did. I was happy for quite a while living in this community; getting to know celebrities, and throwing my new life in the face of my parents.
Scientology told me I could still be a Christian and believe in God. They even bastardized the crucifix for their symbol to convince believers like myself. And then they told me all the problems I was having in the present were the result of the past. If only I would reach back into the past I could be set free. Of course their past was many past lives, which they manipulated me to believe I had lived. They promised I would be happy beyond belief and have some special supernatural abilities. At that point in my life, I needed to be something more than just the lost invisible child with no future. Anything was better than where I was.
Fortunately, I had praying parents who knew that was all they could do to convince me to come home. During a trip back to Virginia I caught up with some old friends and began to see outside the fog of Scientology. My friends helped convince me not to return to LA and little by little the grip Scientology had on my life was released. As much as Scientology tried to pull me back, I found a supernatural peace sitting in the pews of my church. Although I was back in church most Sunday’s, I worried that others would find out I had strayed and judge me for the disobedience to my faith. I kept a barrier between me and God, just in case this didn’t work out for me either.
Finally, many years later I would be led by our pastor to acknowledge the occult hold Scientology and the Ouija board had on my life. I prayed with others and asked Jesus to be lord of my life instead. I invited the Holy Spirit to be my guide and set me on a new path. I prayed for a purpose that I never had. I discovered that even though I had walked away and broken my relationship with God, he remained faithful and forgiving. On my knees that morning, I discovered the freedom of a loving God and started on the long road of redemption to where I am today.
If something is keeping you from walking back into church, let it go. God already knows all about it and he is waiting for you to come home. No matter how far you have wondered, the door is always open. Sneak in the back if you have to. Sit quietly and wait for that still quiet voice to tell you “welcome home.” Believe that once you cross the threshold into his house, you will feel like you never left. Ask a friend to go with you if it is too hard. Just take a baby step toward God and he will do the rest.
“The Lord leads with unfailing love and faithfulness all those who keep his covenant and obey his degree.” Psalm 25:10
“No one who trusts in you will ever be disgraced, but disgrace comes to those who try to deceive others.”
Psalm 25: 3 New Living Translations
I grew up believing in Jesus—I went to church and I prayed. We lived in a time when being a Christian was a proud thing, until you did something awful and then that was pretty much that! And if someone else brought evil into your life, they were out of there too. As a young woman I lived somewhere between these worlds. I was disgraced by the behavior of the men in my life and I was disgraced by my behavior as a result of these actions. And I tried to hide all of it.
Following the sexual abuse I was taunted by the boys in the neighborhood. I was an innocent child thrown into a world of sexuality, before I knew what that meant. One day I was the princess being carried around on a makeshift throne. It seems the next day the boys were trying to take advantage of me at every chance. I was now free game and the attention I was getting set a thinking pattern for me that said, “Sex brings attention—sex must be the way to go.” Those I once trusted now became my foes. My belief system faltered because I no longer had the same compass leading me. Some translations of this verse say: “Do not let anyone that hopes in you be ashamed. Let the people that say false things without a reason be ashamed.” I was ashamed to be a Christian who felt tarnished and who also was now drinking, drugging, and sleeping around while trying to convince others that I was still this “good girl.” I simply lost my way.
Through my teen years and those as a young woman, I made a lot of bad choices for myself. I had ‘relationship’ after ‘relationship.’ And yet I kept a foot in the church door. I went to church on Sunday. As a good Catholic, I went to confession, only I never confessed my sexual acting out. I taught Sunday school and brought a number of my hurting girlfriends to church and laid a foundation for their belief in Christ today. I went through the motions and in my heart I clung to the belief that somehow God understood. Somehow, one day God would make this all right for me. What I didn’t realize was that it was up to me to make it right by first accepting it was wrong. I needed to look at myself and quit making excuses and blaming others and literally lie in front of the cross and ask the man who died there for me to help me. I needed to be forgiven and changed. I needed to stop living ashamed and disgraced. With each step toward him, he pulled me closer. As I was willing to let go of the blame and the shame, he brought me new dignity. It has taken a very long time to get here, and I’m still working on it, but I no longer have shame in this story of my life. I have peace that today I am wiped clean and can share this with you so that you too can know this peace and joy.
Are you living with the shame and disgrace of past behaviors? Are you afraid someone will find out? Do you want to stop being that person? I suggest then that you do what I did and recognize that God already knows so you can’t really hide it from him anyway! Tell him your pain. Tell him your disgrace. Give him your tears and let him wipe them away. Visualize Jesus holding you and telling you he loves you, NO MATTER WHAT you did. Read Psalm 25 or find one that speaks to your hearts and pray it every day until you feel whole again. Share your healing journey with someone you trust. Ask them to pray with you. And then share your grace with someone else that needs to hear.
Be healed. Be restored!