Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Forgiven Atheist? (part 2)

“Forgiveness starts with recognizing that we hurt someone and taking responsibility for it.”
“Reconciliation requires that both parties agree to go forward with the relationship.”
Forgiveness, posted on 1-28-15

We have all been forgiven.  We have all been reconciled.  That’s the good news.  Literally, that’s God’s Good News: the Gospel.  But what if I don’t believe in God?  Or what if I believe He exists, but I don’t see that I’ve done anything to hurt Him?  What would I be taking responsibility for?  Or what if I believe that He is not a person, but an unseen force?  How would I have a relationship with an unseen force?

I was an atheist for the first 22 years of my life.  I didn’t believe God existed.  Heaven, Hell, billions of dead people somewhere up in the clouds, none of that made any sense to me.  I thought reincarnation made a lot more sense.

And isn’t that the problem?  We grab onto what makes sense to us.   As I said in the last post, “we want to be right, we want to be in control and we want to do what we want to do.”  I believe that, at our core, we are selfish, greedy and prideful and we don’t want anyone telling us what to do.  Just look at a 2 year old.  No one had to teach them how to say, “Mine!” or “I do it myself!”  That’s inborn.

And selfishness doesn’t go away as we grow up.  We learn ways to disguise it so it doesn’t look so bad.  The most talented can even make it look like we’re doing good things, when we’re really just serving ourselves.  Manipulation is such a creative tool.  We don’t think we’re hurting anyone, but our pride, greed and selfishness, by their very nature, hurt other people.  And they hurt God too.  

Now, I am not a pastor.  I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.  I don’t have a Masters of Divinity.  I have 21 years of following Jesus, working through Bible studies, listening to sermons, living life, hurting other people and asking for forgiveness.  I’d like to think that I’ve learned something in those 21 years, but I certainly don’t have it all figured out.

CS Lewis didn’t have it all figured out either, the brilliant man that he was.  But he had an awful lot of wisdom to share, and thank goodness he shared it.  I love what he said in the chapter “The Perfect Penitent” from “Mere Christianity“:

“The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.  Theories as to how it did this are another matter.  A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work…. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works….I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality…. Indeed, if we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be — the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning.”

Lewis goes on to give his theory of why Christ died.  And he encourages us to remember that his explanation is only one picture, one viewpoint.  If it helps, keep it.  If it doesn’t help, drop it.  I will say the same thing here.  I have an explanation to share, a theory, but it is only one picture.  If it helps, keep it.  If it doesn’t help, drop it.

Romans 14:23 says that “whatever is not from faith is sin”.  It’s one or the other – faith or sin.  I believe that in every moment of our lives, we have two choices, two postures.  We are either:
1) turned toward God (faith) or
2) turned away from God (sin)
Using that terminology, here is my basic “theology”:

1) “Sin” is when we “turn away” from God , so a “sinner” is someone who turns away – that’s all of us
2) Jesus took on and paid for our “turning away” on the cross
3) “Repent” means “to change one’s mind” and “to turn around” – to turn back to God

I wrote about this in 2014.  Feel free to read more in these two posts:
Two “churchy” words and
The Face of Grace

Jesus was the only one who never turned away from God.  He was the only one who could do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.  Romans 5:8 says “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

That word, “sinner”, has gotten a bad rap, but it’s simply a description of our posture.  As an atheist, I was a “sinner” – one who lived her life turned away from God.  I still am a “sinner”.  I still turn away from God.  I’m human – it’s part of our nature.

But in 1994, when I came to realize that God existed, that He was real and personal and He wanted a relationship with me, I could step away from trying to make sense of it all.  I could recognize and take responsibility for the hurt I had inflicted by turning away from God for so many years.  I could ask His forgiveness and accept the reconciliation that only Jesus could make possible.

“For, there is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus.”  I Timothy 2:5 (NLT)

“Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.”  Colossians 1:22 (NLT)

Click here for Part 3

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Forgiveness (part 1)

Life would be so much easier if it weren’t for all of us human beings.  We really make things complicated, don’t we?  We want to be right, we want to be in control and we want to do what we want to do.  And in the process we step on each other and somebody gets hurt.  And the hurts don’t just go away.  They build up.  And if it’s true that “hurt people hurt other people”, the problem multiplies.

If we have any hope of surviving as a human race, we desperately need to forgive one another.  And not just one time, but over and over and over again.  This isn’t just “I’m sorry” and move on.  “I’m sorry” feels a lot more like “I’m sorry I have to say this” or “I’m sorry I got caught” or “I’m sorry you think I hurt you.”  I’m sorry, that’s not forgiveness.

Forgiveness starts with recognizing that we hurt someone and taking responsibility for it.  The scary part about asking for forgiveness is that the ball is in their court.  They can choose to forgive or to withhold forgiveness.  That’s probably why we’d rather say, “I’m sorry”, hoping that they’ll say, “It’s okay” and move on.  But it’s not okay.  The proverbial “toothpaste” is out of the tube and we can’t put it back in.

But it might be a lot worse than just hurtful words.  They might decide that we’re not a “safe” person.  They might forgive us, but they may choose to sever the relationship.  Reconciliation is not the same thing as forgiveness.  Reconciliation requires that both parties agree to go forward with the relationship.

And what if the shoe is on the other foot?  What if we’re the one who’s been hurt and we’ve been withholding forgiveness from someone?  We might think that, by not forgiving them, we’re taking revenge against them, hurting them like they’ve hurt us.  But what if they don’t even know that we’ve been hurt?  What if they’re oblivious to the whole thing?  St Augustine said that “unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”  We’re the one being poisoned by the unforgiveness we’re holding onto.

On the flip side, Lewis B Smedes said in his book Forgive and Forget, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  There may never be reconciliation of the relationship, but forgiving someone who has hurt us will actually set us free.

It’ll clear the bitterness away
It can even set a prisoner free
There is no end to what it’s power can do
So, let it go and be amazed
By what you see through eyes of grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you

-Matthew West, “Forgiveness

Click here for Part 2

Life That Really Matters

Rick Warren’s 2002 #1 best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life” began with this line:

“It’s not about you.”

Really?  I thought it was about me.  I thought I was here to pursue happiness.  But the funny thing about happiness is that the more I focus on it, the less of it I have.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  It doesn’t work.  Here’s something I’ve found that does work.

Every time a problem comes into my life, I have a choice to make.  I can get annoyed by “one more thing” that I now have to deal with.  Or, I can look at it as an opportunity to show God’s grace to another person.  An opportunity to bless someone else.  To be a conduit of God’s love.

Think about it.  Just about every problem we’re faced with finds its solution in another human being:

1) The car insurance is messed up.  We need to call the insurance company and talk to a person.  Maybe they’re having a really bad day.  My cheerful attitude could be exactly what they needed today.

2) We have a medical problem.  We need to see a doctor, or multiple doctors to get to the bottom of it.  We might need testing.  More people to interact with.  We might need a prescription.  More people at the drug store.  We’re referred to a specialist.  More people to bless.  We don’t know what their lives are like, but we can choose to be a bright spot in their day.

3) The window is broken.  We need to call Independent Window Repair.  We get to talk to the woman on the phone, the man who comes to measure, the woman who calls to schedule the installation and the man who comes to install the new glass.  One problem = 4 people to bless.

The Apostle James put it this way:

“2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

James takes it a step further.  Not only do we have an opportunity to bless others, but we’ll be blessed in the process through building perseverance.  I love the thought of being “mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  But I can’t get there by focusing on my own happiness, because Rick Warren was right.  It’s not about me.

The Apostle Matthew put it this way:

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  Matthew 16:25 (NIV)

If we focus on getting our lives just how we want them, we’ll be wasting our time.  We’ll never get there.  But if we do what Jesus said was most important, keeping our focus on loving God and loving others (Mark 12:29-31), we’ll find real life.  Life that really matters and, in the end, fulfills.

As a side note, just because I write about these things, doesn’t mean that I practice them very well.  Actually, I think I write for accountability.  The Lord knows my track record, so if I put all of this in writing, I have to keep going back to Him, or I really will be a hypocrite.  I think this blog is God’s gift to me.  And I hope it’s my gift to you.  I encourage you, and you encourage me.

Ok, ready?  Let’s go be a blessing!

 

Worth It

There was a time when I was really angry with God for creating humans in the first place.  What was He thinking?  If He really is omniscient, knowing everything, then He knew we were going to turn away from Him in the garden and go our own way (Gen. 3).  He knew Satan and his angels would rebel and be hurled to the earth, where they would wage war against us (Rev. 12).

If God knew that we would rebel and that we would spend our lives tormented, battling an invisible army, why in the world did He create us in the first place?  Are we just pawns in some sort of cosmic chess game?  Are we here for His entertainment, like the gladiators of ancient Rome?

Or was I completely mistaken?  Was there something else motivating Him?  He had perfect community within Himself: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  One being, three persons, in perfect and loving communion, submitting to One Another from the beginning of time, extending out into eternity.  Why mess with perfection?

John and I asked each other the same question.  It was just the two of us and the dog.  Why mess with perfection?  Maybe there was something more.  Something that could be gained in adding another person to our family.  Yes, there would be challenges.  Yes, there would be times when we would wonder, “Why in the world did we decide to walk down this path?”  I think most pregnant women, maybe even those who have prayed for a child for untold years, in the midst of morning sickness, sleepless nights, or childbirth itself, ask the question, “Why does anyone want to do this again?”

But we hold that baby in our arms, we gaze into each others’ eyes and we know.   Yes, there are challenges and they are great.  But the triumphs are even greater.  Simple things – the smiles, the coos, the first time they sleep through the night.  First teeth, first steps, the first day of preschool.   It has been said that there is no greater frustration and yet no greater joy in life than parenting.  I think God feels that way too.

In that time that I was so angry with God, I do believe I was completely mistaken.  And, regarding God’s true motivation, I believe I received my answer.  He had perfection in and of Himself, but He wasn’t looking for perfection.  I think that’s why He doesn’t expect perfection from us.  He already has that.  He wanted to be a parent.  He wanted to expand His family, just as a family with one child or two decides they would like to expand their family.  “We have room in our hearts for one more.”  God always has room in His heart for one more.

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That’s Fezzik plopped on top. Aren’t they sweet?

I was talking to my brother the other day about his cats.  He and his wife don’t have human children, but they have an expanding family of cat children.  They’re now up to four.  The latest member, Fezzik, has come complete with one challenge after another.  Rick was sharing with me the ups and downs of the latest challenge, which ended up affecting everyone in the household and their pocketbook.  Definitely not something they planned on.

Rick stopped and said, “You know, even with everything we’ve gone through with Fezzik, he’s totally worth it.  He’s so sweet.  And he just checks in.  He comes in, plops down on me and hangs out for a little while.  He’ll leave for while, but sure enough, he’ll be back again to check in.”  I could hear Rick grinning from ear to ear through the phone as he talked about his beloved and sweet little cat.

I got to thinking.  If a human being feels that way about a cat, imagine how God must feel about us.  Imagine God chatting with Jesus:  “You know, even with everything we’ve gone through with _________, they’re totally worth it.  They’re so sweet.  And they just check in.”  Put your name in that blank.  Can you see God grinning from ear to ear as He talks about His beloved and sweet child?  That’s you.  If you haven’t checked in with Him in a while, maybe right now is a great time.

Love’s not a feeling
Love’s not convenient
But I know love will change your life
Love takes sacrifice
Love cuts like a knife
Sometimes love will make you cry
Love’s not easy
But it’s worth it

-“Worth It” by Francesca Battistelli

Why?

A friend had written to me last year about a young mother who had died suddenly leaving behind a husband and two beautiful, very young children.  This morning another friend posted on Facebook about another young mother leaving behind a husband and three very young children, asking for prayers for the family.  Yes, we will absolutely pray for the family, but why do things like this happen in the first place?  Below is my friend’s email from last year along with my reply.  I hope it brings some comfort.

~~~~~~~~~~

Hi Beth,

A friend of mine is struggling deeply trying to understand how a young mother of two children, one two-year-old and one newborn, died suddenly leaving the husband and the two children alone.

This mother was unlike any other.  Strong in faith, excellent compassion for everyone around her, completely devoted to her children and her husband.  The light of each of the family members’ lives.  This young woman had a blog.  The blog shows just a piece of everything she was and is so compelling.

My friend is struggling in her faith now because of this.  She’s been struggling for weeks. What can I do or say to her to help her see God’s light in this?  I feel like things happen like this often.  And I never know how to make sense of it.  It literally eats me away from the inside out. The children are just gorgeous.  And they’ve been stripped of what they needed most.

Is there anyway you could help me in this?

~~~~~~~~~~

Hi hon,

I’m so sorry about this.  We truly do live in a war zone, a battlefield, a broken world.  This dear young mother was a casualty of war.  War is a horrible thing, but it’s all around us in a realm we don’t see.

The best message I’ve ever heard on this was given by a young mom who lost her little boy to a horrible disease (click on one of the video options under “sermon downloads” on the right side):  Triumph By Testimony  It absolutely astounds me that this mother can stand up and give such an eloquent message of hope.

The best book I’ve ever read on it is “The Shack“.  Actually, I didn’t read it.  I got it on CD from the library and had it all of last summer (2013).  It’s 6 or 7 hours long and I listened to it about 4 or 5 times over the course of the summer until the library made me give it back.  😦  What a beautiful picture of God.

Know that God loves all of His children, but He loves us too much for Him to MAKE us love Him back.  That would make us robots.  He wants true love and true love only comes with choice.  We can choose NOT to love Him and we can also choose to do horrible things.  Even when we think we’re choosing God, we can still choose against Him every day, as we judge each other, gossip, back-bite and argue.  Take that just a few steps further and the results are disastrous.  There is at least a piece of evil in each of us.  God can’t destroy all of the evil in the world, or He would have to destroy every one of us.

I think that’s what Jesus means about the wheat and weeds (Matt. 13).  He has to let the weeds grow with wheat or, when the weeds are pulled up, they will pull up the wheat too.  I think that’s our own hearts.  There is good and evil inside of each of us (wheat and weeds).  I think that’s what the sheep and the goats are about too (Matt. 25).  I’m not positive, but that’s what I’m beginning to think.  We have some sheep and some goat in each of us.  And when He destroys the goats, He’ll be burning up that part of us that choses to turn away from Him.  Purifying us.

I hope that helps.
Much love to you and to your friend!
-Beth

PS God will provide what those babies need most.  They have lost their mother, but God has not lost His ability to provide for them.  Grab onto Romans 8:28 and hold on for dear life:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

By the way, Romans 8:28 is for you and not necessarily for your friend.  Most hurting people really hate it when people throw scripture at them.  God did not kill that young mom and He didn’t “allow” it to happen because some greater good was going to come from it.  That would be the work of the devil, whose job description is to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10), not the work of God.

But God is definitely in the business of taking the bad and turning it into the best possible good.  He knows that the bad is out there and is going to happen. Jesus promised us in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  I personally think that He’s holding back so much bad that never happens that we never know about.  But I can’t prove it.  I just have a sense about it.

But I wanted you to have the scripture for your own peace of mind.  Know that God is working.

~~~~~~~~~~

With a heavy heart, I ask you to pray with me for these young families.  Know that your prayers are powerful and effective (James 5:16).  Please keep praying.  Thank you!

 

Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired (HALT)

Ever been one of those adjectives and tried to make a good decision?  Or tried to respond appropriately to a given situation?  Doesn’t work very well.  More likely, we’ll react on impulse and it won’t be pretty.

Let’s try this instead.  First, let’s stop (HALT*) and ask if we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.  Once we’ve identified the problem, let’s respond:

1) Hungry:  This sounds really simple, right?  Eat!  Well, it could be that we’re thirsty and we really just need some water.  Or maybe we ate not long ago, but it was the wrong food.  Or it was pop when we really needed water.  Sugar crash?  Try some protein or some fresh veggies.  The worst part about hunger is that the easiest food to grab is usually the worst option.  If our options are limited, let’s skip the candy bar and bag of chips and reach for the nuts instead.

2) Angry:  Identify the source.  Is there anything we can do about it?  I should rephrase that.  Is there anything positive we can do about it?  Not sure?  Check this out:  In your anger.  If nothing good will come out of it, our best option is to give it to God.  Yep, that sounds cliche’, but it really is the best option.  For more on that, click here:  Moment by Moment

3) Lonely:  Phone a friend?  Maybe it’s the friend who upset us and now we’re angry with them and lonely because we can’t call them to talk about it.  Sometimes just knowing that we’re upset because we’re lonely, identifying the source of the “ick”, is enough to help us get past it.  Let’s take a look at our schedule.  What’s next?  What is the next best thing to do right now?  Fold the laundry or put away the dishes?  Sometimes moving on to the next thing is enough to breathe some fresh air into our day.  And, all the while, don’t forget that God is always there.  I know that it’s good to have someone “with skin on” to help work through the loneliness, but know that God is always longing to talk to us.  Having trouble hearing Him?  Read this: Hearing Aids

4) Tired:  This one sounds simple too.  Take a nap!  Well, that’s not always practical.  If I can grab a five minute cat-nap, sometimes that’s all it takes.  Set an alarm and close my eyes.  Even if I don’t fall asleep, a little time with my eyes closed can help clear my mind and gain new perspective.  But if a nap is out of the question, what’s something else that can help us wake up?  Music?  Playing my favorite song, singing along, dancing along, even if I’m driving (as long as my eyes are on the road and my hands are on the wheel), can be just the medicine I need to get me where I need to go.

The thing I like best about HALT is the awareness of what’s really going on.  All is not lost, the world is not coming to an end, it’s not time to fall into a pit of despair.  It’s just hunger, or lack of sleep, or the fact that the person I called to help solve my problem couldn’t help me, leaving me angry for wasting my time calling in the first place and lonely because I really needed someone who could help.  But it’s okay.  We don’t have to sit “in the grip” of those feelings.  We can do something about it.

Seth Godin put it this way in his blog post called Retribution:  “When we react to a medicine, that’s a bad thing.  When we respond, it’s working.”  We can choose to respond to the situation we’re in instead of reacting on impulse.  Beth Moore once said that “kindness wears down when we do.”  When we’re worn out, we react, and it’s usually not kind.  And then we have guilt and regret to deal with.  There must be a better way.

Life is hard.  It takes endurance.  Things are going to go wrong.  There are going to be problems.  But there is hope and I wrote about that here:  Decide to Keep Deciding.  I hope you’ll read it, especially at the beginning of a New Year.  What will our year be like?  When we look back a year from now, what do we want our year to have been about?  A series of problems and irritations, pits and valleys?  Or do we want to grow up a little more this year?  End the year a little wiser?  Is there a way to prepare for the problems that will come?

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”  – Author unknown

Which wolf will we choose to feed this year?

*Special thank you to Jack Wilson for sharing this information with me and John so many years ago.  Jack, you are a blessing to so many people.