An Ash Wednesday Reflection

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
—Exodus 34:6–7

We can often rationalize sin away with the thought, “Well, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else…” We tend to think private, secret sins that don’t involve another are our business alone and nobody else’s.

I have mixed feelings about the passage above. It is God describing Himself to Moses, and it is beautiful and noble and awe-inspiring. But it kind of hits a sour note at the end. I am just fine with the guilty being punished, but to carry it on three and four generations down the line? Doesn’t seem too fair…

There are a number of viewpoints and commentaries on what this might mean and how it might work, but that’s not where my focus is.

What strikes me deeply is this: there is no such thing as a private sin. The people around us are hurt by our wrong choices whether they know about them or not. Our sin affects others. Period.

Ash Wednesday is a day of self-examination, confession, and repentance to kick off the Lent season. Although I did not grow up in a tradition that observed Ash Wednesday, I am now part of a fellowship that does.

In our Ash Wednesday service each person confesses his or her sin to others with the words, “I am sorry for the way my sin has impacted you.” It is a strangely liberating experience to have another look me in the eye and say, “You’re forgiven.”

So whether or not you observe Ash Wednesday, take some time this week to think about the secret sins in your life. Bring them into the light before our God Who is “merciful and gracious…forgiving transgression and sin”. Even better, find someone you trust and speak the words out loud. Let them offer words of forgiveness.

Because even our private sins leave a lasting impact if left unconfessed.

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Justice, Mercy, and Humility

Seek Justice. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly.

I have seen these sentiments thrown around a lot recently. Loudly. Boldly. Publicly. Usually to support one cause or another.

But the longer I sit with these ideals, the more inclined I am to fall on my knees than to parade my opinions in a public forum.

These concepts come from Micah 6:8.* They are commonly understood to be a formula of sorts for pleasing to God. A + B + C = a godly life. But could there be an error in our calculations?

Justice and mercy, if you really think about it, are opposite ends of the same spectrum. To mete out full justice one cannot give way to mercy. In order to offer mercy, justice must be tempered or set aside. It would appear, then, that total justice and pure mercy are impossible to pursue simultaneously. At best we will come up with some sort of compromise, in which neither is completely attained.

Could it be that the calling to pursue both justice and mercy is an impossible task, humanly speaking, meant show us how small, flawed, and insufficient we are, and bring us to our knees? In other words, to make us humble?

Only God can truly execute justice and mercy simultaneously—and yet even His perfect solutions could be criticized depending on one’s perspective. Take a look at the cross.

One might say that the cross was an instrument of absolute mercy, making it possible for those who deserved death to be pardoned of their guilt and given a clean record. And he would be correct.

Another could see in the cross an absence of mercy, pointing out that Jesus paid the ultimate price for the debt of others, dying a cruel, agonizing death even though He begged to be delivered from such a fate. And she would be stating fact.

Some might argue that absolute justice was carried out on the cross. God’s righteous requirements were perfectly satisfied as every last sin was condemned and punished. And that is true.

Others could say the cross was a great miscarriage of justice, as an innocent man, undeserving of any condemnation, was tried and tortured for things He had not done—and they would also be right.

None of us could have conceived of or carried out the cross. In fact, most of us with a sense of justice and heart for mercy would probably have done all we could have to keep the cross from happening. And yet it was God’s perfect plan.

God’s ways are not ours. We are fallen and we are fallible and we can only ever see our small part of the big picture. Anyone who is honest with him- or herself must bow in absolute humility under the impossibility of truly upholding both justice and mercy.

So what is the solution? Seek Jesus. Love Jesus. Make walking with Him intimately the top priority as well as the ultimate purpose of our lives. Listen. Ask. Be still with Him.

And only then move in this broken world as He leads and convicts—with deep humility—always remembering that another, who also passionately loves Jesus and is equally committed to pursuing justice and mercy, might see things in a totally opposite way. And they could still be right.

– – – – –

*The Hebrew word translated “mercy” or “kindness” is hesed and carries far more breadth and depth of meaning than our translations convey. While this verse itself deserves further study, I am dealing in this essay with the concepts as popularly used and understood today.

Breath

A lot of devotionals today give advice on how to fit God into our busy lives. With such hectic schedules it truly is a challenge to “make time” for spiritual things. We try to systematize discipleship and devotion into something efficient and streamlined so as to get the maximum return for our time.

But the more I think about it, I am growing convinced that we have it backwards. God’s processes are not instant or quick. In fact, sometimes they seem quite inefficient. Instead, His molding and shaping is a life-long process, and His hand works in slow, steady ways that would be easy to overlook if we are moving too quickly.

The fact is that while the human pace of life has increased drastically in the past 100 years or so, God remains unchanged.

And I wonder if we’ve missed the boat by trying to cram God into our busy lives, instead of adjusting our lives to accommodate the ways of God.

I am reminded of the story of Elijah up on Mount Horeb, waiting for the Lord to appear. (1 Kings 19:11–13) First a tornado came by, then an earthquake, then a fire. But God was not in any of those things. Instead, a “gentle whisper” (NIV) or a “gentle blowing” (NASB) indicated the arrival of the Lord of the Universe. The Hebrew word actually denotes silence or stillness.

Similarly, the Hebrew word for Spirit also indicates breath or wind. This makes Jesus’ comparison of the Spirit to the wind in John 3 a delightful play on words and food for deeper thought.

Although God sometimes moves in dramatic, earth-shattering ways, His Spirit is more likely to come to us as a whisper, a breath, a gentle wind. If we are constantly running, making our own “wind” as it were, we are likely to miss the gentle moving of our God in our lives and in this world.

Throughout the centuries people have followed Christ at great personal cost, as discipleship demanded that they often lived out of step with the rest of society. Could it be that in this generation, the sacrifice we are being asked to make is to slow down and still ourselves? Are we willing to radically alter our lives in order to become more aware of the gentle, quiet Breath of God?

Of Nothing

(With many apologies after a long break, I’m back and hope to be more regular in my posting this year!)

I first came face-to-face with my nothingness in Cambodia. I went there full of hope and good intentions, sure that we were going to improve lives and change the world. What followed were years of disappointment, failure, and hard knocks. Unfortunately those tough times did relatively little to shake my confidence in myself as Something. I still had a lot to offer. The problem was everybody else—including God. They just weren’t cooperating with all my good efforts!

What finally did me in was a cat. One very small kitten. Too small, in fact. The vet gave me formula, warning she’d need to be fed every two hours, adding with a shake of the head not to get my hopes up. But my spirit shook an invisible fist at him, and at any other nay-sayer; but most of all I shook my fist at God. “YOU have let me down,” I railed. “I’ll take it from here. I’ll show You.”

After three days of ’round the clock feedings, the tiny thing finally died. Exhausted and crushed, I sobbed to my husband, “I couldn’t even make the world better for one little cat!”

His answer was simple, and revolutionary. “It isn’t your world.”

This was the first step in my journey toward realizing that I am not God. Somehow I had gotten the idea that if I just tried hard, thought hard, behaved right, prayed right, I could control outcomes and guarantee results.

That was about five years ago. I have been slow to learn. But over time God has been chipping away at my in-born impulse to take His place.

Will my worry make a relative’s surgery go any better or worse? No. Will lying awake at night playing out endless scenarios unravel a knotty situation? No. Will rehearsing imaginary conversations in my head make someone change or fix a relationship? No.

Why? Because I am nothing. I am powerless. I am not in control. That person, relationship, problem, situation, is not mine to carry.

The good news is that in counter-point to my nothing there is an Everything. There is God. He is in control. All these things belong to Him. He carries each burden. He holds all things together. He sustains all things by His powerful word. Him. Not me.

I don’t know that handing these things over to God changes the outcomes. It isn’t a magic bullet or a guarantee that all will be as I wish. But I do know that it changes me. I admit my nothingness. I kneel in submission to His sovereignty. I wait for His guidance. I learn what it means to trust.

I begin to live out Jesus’ invitation “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Whatever weighs you down as you enter this new year, I hope you join me in laying it down. It isn’t yours, or mine, to carry. This requires some crushing, some dying. But in the end, I truly have nothing (myself) to lose, and Everything to gain.

“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matt. 11:28–30, MSG

Mercy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, just a week or so after my previous post, I find myself needing to revisit my thoughts on mercy. Revisit and revise.

The realization struck me last Sunday in church. The week before had been Easter, and it had been a wonderful celebration. I had left feeling full and fortunate and grateful.

But the very next Sunday, as I gazed around at the remnants of the Easter service—lilies, an empty cross, candles—I became aware that in the space of just one week I had lost my focus on the life-changing, earth-shattering, universe-altering fact of God’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. As I pondered, I wondered how long it had actually taken for me to become re-immersed in my own small world with its tiny worries. One day, maybe? Just a few hours? As I reviewed my week I realized that I had lived mostly as if Easter hadn’t happened.

And it was then that the force of God’s mercy finally struck me.

You see, those beautiful things in my last post—sunrise, color, taste, etc.—those are actually gracious gifts from God. Grace is receiving above and beyond what I truly deserve. And the many comforts and joys of this life are just that.

Mercy, on the other hand, is not receiving the wrath that is due me. And standing there one week after Easter, having carelessly tossed aside the sacrifice of the only Son of God—no, not in the big “I reject salvation” way, but in my many small, moment-by-moment choices and attitudes—I finally caught a fleeting taste of the immense mercy of God.

When I am fickle, He is steady. When I am petty He is forgiving. When I am untrue to Him, He remains faithful.

It’s a wonder He puts up with me day after day, and doesn’t simply obliterate me where I stand, in all my self-centered foolishness and pride. I would certainly deserve it.

And that is the mercy that is new every morning: the fact that I am around to see another dawn. That I am given breath and life to search, grope, screw up, stumble, and draw nearer to Him one more day.