The Stumbling Block

 

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

I recently heard a talk radio personality talking about his love for the word “earn.”  It is one of his favorite words in the English language.  He didn’t go into great detail about it, but the strength of his conviction was evident by his impassioned tone.  I believe many people in America share his love for that word.  We are a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of nation.  We root for the underdog, wanting them to succeed through hard work and perseverance.  And while we value our children’s self-esteem, we are not really an “everyone gets a trophy” kind of country.  We want rewards and accomplishments to have value, to really mean something because we worked hard for them.

I share a lot of the same opinions and convictions with this radio personality but I don’t share his affinity for the word “earn.”  In fact, when he made that comment I was reminded of how much I dislike the word, “deserve.”  The words are similar.  According to Miriam Webster, the first definition for the word earn is: “to receive as return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.”  And the second definition is nearly identical to the definition for the word deserve: “to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward.”  So, although this radio personality and myself both seem to have visceral reactions to these very similar words our reactions are in opposite directions.  Why is that?

I can only speak for myself but my dislike for the word “deserve” comes from my faith.  At the very core of Christianity is the concept of grace.  It is the exact opposite of earn or deserve.  My faith teaches me that I can do nothing to be saved.  All of my good works add up to, as one prophet puts it, “filthy rags.”  (Isaiah 64:6)  I cannot earn God’s favor.  I do not deserve heaven.  But, I have both because of the grace given to me as a gift by Jesus Christ.  He is the reason God sees me as one of His children.  He is the reason I will spend eternity in heaven.  It was what He did as God’s Son that makes me worthy to receive.  So, even when I hear the word attributed to things like a vacation, retirement, or splurging on an unusual purchase, I cringe.  Nothing I have is “deserved.”  God has and continues to be gracious to me.

This concept of grace does not fit with the flag-waving, red-white-and-blue, American pride I described above.  In fact, the two are quite a contrast.  As far as sin is concerned, we do not have the ability to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and save ourselves.  We are completely unable to cleanse ourselves of our own sin thereby bridging the gap between ourselves and our perfect Creator.  If that were possible there would be no need for a Savior.

In this context, even our love for the proverbial David vs. Goliath underdog is often misplaced.  David only defeated Goliath because the Lord delivered him into his hands.  He said so himself.  “David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head.’ ”  1 Samuel 17:45-46  The “David’s” of the world are not to be the object of our worship and admiration, only God who was the true source of David’s victory.

And, as Christians, we believe that Christ died for all.  His love, His forgiveness, His mercy, His grace, is for all who believe in Him.  That means that everyone IS eligible for that trophy regardless of, and often in spite of, their performance in this world.  Unlike us however, God does not award us this “trophy” of salvation to build up our self esteem.  HE is our esteem.  He is the very reason we came into being.  We reflect Him in our uniqueness.  It is in His image that we are created… not the other way around.  It is not about us.  Our “trophy” is a renewed and repaired relationship with the One who created us and it is absolutely undeserved.

These truths of our faith go against what has been ingrained in us as Americans.  This post is not meant to be a criticism of our great American pride or our nation as a whole.  Not at all!  It is instead a reminder that we as believers cannot trip over this common stumbling block.

Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “What then will we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.  Why not? Because their pursuit was not by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written:  ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and the one who believes in Him will never be put to shame.’ ” (Romans 9:30-33, emphasis mine)  Paul is quoting from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16).

God knew that what He chose to do for us to reconcile man back to Himself, would be a stumbling block for us.  He knew our pride.  He knew it long before America existed.  He knew it long before Christianity existed.  He spoke about it through His prophet Isaiah in the 8th century B.C.  What He asks of us, is to lay aside our desire to earn our way to heaven.  It can’t be done anyway!  He’s asking us to stop working as if it’s even possible.

He is also asking us to recognize and acknowledge that our salvation comes from only one source, His Son, Jesus.  This too is a stumbling block for many.  Not only can we not earn our salvation, we must acknowledge that salvation can only come through Jesus.  Grace does not come through all religions.  All religions do not lead to salvation.  Jesus alone sacrificed His life, paying the price for our sin so that we could have eternal life.  He is the stumbling block in our politically correct world.  But this is not new.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter to them he said:  “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’  Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

As believers it’s important that we stay alert and don’t trip over Jesus as so many in this world do.  Our faith requires us to lay down our pride and acknowledge that only by God’s grace through His Son are we saved.  This is utter foolishness to the world.  It always has been.  But to us who know God personally, it is the power and wisdom (and grace) of God.  We have to be willing to “look foolish” to the world.  We have to be willing to lay aside our desire to “earn” our way.  And we have to acknowledge that nothing we have done “deserves” the salvation we receive by faith in God’s Son, our Savior, Jesus.

Lord, make your church willing to look foolish to the world.  Thank you for the precious gift of your Son to save us from the sin that keeps us from your perfect presence.  Thank you for the fact that we cannot earn it.  Give us the humility to simply receive your grace.  May we be a witness to those who are stumbling over You.  May they see Your light in us.  Use us so that they may know with assurance that they too can have the free gift You are offering.  We love you, Lord.  In your Son’s most precious name, amen.

 

What’s In a Name?

IMG_1276I became mildly obsessed this past summer with the movie, “Ricki and the Flash.” Mildly might be an understatement… truth be told I saw it four times – actually paid admission four times to see it!   Star Wars – Shmar Wars… I was hooked on Ricki!  So what was it about this box office bomb that captured my attention?

For those of you who didn’t see it, and I’m guessing that’s most of you, the story is about Ricki Rendazzo, an aging, struggling rocker who had left her husband and three children to pursue her music career.  She suddenly finds herself having to return to that family to deal with a crisis – her adult daughter’s divorce and subsequent depression and suicide attempt.  What she finds when she gets there are the consequences of all her actions – four very broken and bitter relationships that have festered over time, and the reality that her children’s step mother has filled the role that she vacated years earlier.

I know I’m not painting a very happy picture and the question remains, why would someone go to see this four times!  Somehow amidst the terrible reality of this woman’s actions, love wins.  In all her frailties and all the pain she has caused, the family comes around to accept and love her where she is at.  Now, perhaps you would say, that is just ridiculous writing to turn a script around like that and come out with a happy ending.  That may be very true.  I won’t  speak on the movie’s accuracy or trueness to life.  All I can tell you was there was something about Ricki’s character that I identified with and I will try my best to translate it to you.

Ricki Rendazzo is the main character’s stage name.  There are two scenes in particular where her name plays a pivotal role.  First, as her cab pulls up to the luxurious private housing tract of her ex-husband she is asked to give her name to the security guard.  She says confidently, “Ricki Rendazzo.”  The security guard peruses her clipboard and after a long glance at her list she asks Ricki for her ID.  When she hands it to her the security guard says, “This says your name is Linda.  Oh yeah, here you are, Linda Brummell.” Ricki tries in vain to explain, “Yeah but he knows I prefer the name…”  The gate quickly opens and the cab drives through.  In another scene Ricki is in a heated argument with one of her sons.  Her son blurts out, “I was born gay, mom!”  To which she replies, “Well, I was born Ricki!”  It is Ricki’s name and her identity associated with that name that I resonated with the most.

I don’t wish to make this woman a hero.  She had abandoned her family,  for a mediocre music career and life in a fleabag hotel.  Her actions impacted her children’s lives immensely.  They became bitter and angry and distant towards her.   She hurt many.  But I guess what I saw in this very fractured life fraught with poor choices and hurtful actions was someone who knew her calling.  It pains me to even write that sentence because I am not for a moment saying that she was justified in what she did.  No!  Not at all!  What I am suggesting is that perhaps she never was Linda Brummell.  She tried to be.  She thought marriage and children were what she was supposed to do.  But all along she was Ricki… Ricki was who she was created to be and eventually she could no longer play the role she was pretending to play.

Now before this turns into an endorsement for the worldly mantra that has become so prevalent today… “We all must just be true to ourselves!” let me clarify.  That is NOT what I’m advocating.  Frankly, our world has used that mantra as a license to pursue self-indulgence, revelry, addiction and anything and everything that makes us feel good.  That is not the life that God has for us.  He has given us clear boundaries and a set of guidelines to follow that are for OUR good… not His.  It is only when we follow Him that we will truly have the freedom we are seeking through indulgence.

The message that I took from this movie is that we have each been given a calling.  It has been planted in our very core.  It is who we are and we have been given the gifts, skills and talents to carry out that core calling.  As a result often we are asked to be different, to not fit in with the mainstream, but to stand out and stand up for who we have been created by God to be.  This is not about us!   This is not about pursuing our OWN lusts and wants and desires which is what the world wants you to believe.  This is about pursuing what He has put us on this planet to do and we cannot be afraid to be different when we are being obedient to God.

Ricki, in my mind, was ultimately obedient in pursuing her gift and calling.  In the final scene of the movie this financially strapped, aging rock star gives her son and daughter in law the only gift she has to give – her music.  She is given dirty looks, seated in the back of the room, and looked down upon by everyone in the room.  But she stands up with her long braided hair, heavy metal make up and tattoos and walks on stage.  With a room full of people showing her outright distain she performs.  She gives everything she has to give and the people who matter most embrace it.

There is no denying that this character had created a wake of tragic consequences by pretending to be someone she wasn’t for so long.  But, ultimately her family met her where she was at with a lot of grace, forgiveness and love.  We have a gracious God who will do the same for us, but we need to turn to Him and pursue what He has for us wholeheartedly.  And the sooner the better… the less damage we cause in our wake of disobedience.

Lastly, names are important to the Lord.  We see several times in the Bible where He changes the names of His people based on the changes He made in their lives.   He changed Abram to Abraham (from”exalted father” to “father of a multitude”); Sarai to Sarah (from “quarrelsome” to “princess”); Jacob to Israel (from “supplanter” to  “triumphant with God”)… and the list goes on.  Our names say something about who we are.

I was given a very specific name when I was born by my dad.  It was “Christin.”  Even though it was not the conventional way of spelling that name, he insisted that Christ be in my name.  For many years, in fact most of my life, I have not used that name with the exception of legal documents (mortgage papers, bank accounts, etc.).  Well, recently I’ve been convicted about that.  I chose Chris as a nickname when I was 11 years old because “Christin” reminded me too much of my early school years and I really disliked those years.  But the truth is, my name is Christin.  It has a meaning… “follower of Christ.”  Quite literally it is “Christ IN me.”  It is also my calling.  It is who I am and the core of my being and I want to reflect that identity to the rest of the world.

So, I guess you can say I am practicing what I’m preaching.  My business cards, voicemail message, and signature line on my emails have changed.  My Facebook account has also changed and my bosses and colleagues at work have caught on.  I’ll still answer to Chris but, “I was born, Christin!”

Lord, help us to know and be true to the life and purpose you have called us to.  Meet us with your grace, forgiveness and love wherever we may be and help us to turn and accept our calling wholeheartedly for you.  Keep us from pursuing our own wants and desires and help us to trust in your great goodness as our reward.  We love you.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Feed My… Ducks

duck8 copyI was on a lunch break from a training class when I pulled into the large community park.  I found a shady spot on a park bench that was near the edge of the pond.  I dipped into my bag of Carl’s Jr., and noticed the rustling of the paper aroused the attention of the ducks swimming nearby.  I silently vowed to save them some fries as I took in my peaceful surroundings and indulged my cravings for a sloppy burger.  It wasn’t long before I had an audience.  Several of my feathered friends found their way to my bench eager to collect on the promise I thought I had made in my head.  Still craving the fried potatoes, grease, and salt for myself, I finally caved and began to tear tiny morsels for my new best friends.  Word spread and ducks from a hundred yards away or more came racing across the pond.  With all their effort to get to me I thought I should at least meet them at the water’s edge.  The ducks that had gathered at my feet followed me and eagerly jumped back into the water not taking their eyes of my bag with the smiling face.  Within minutes there were more ducks than I could count and not nearly enough fries to go around.  I made the pieces smaller.  I threw them out farther to those not strong enough or brave enough to come in close to shore.  Eventually the fries ran out.  I tried to show them the empty bag but they still quacked for more. 

It wasn’t long before someone else came along on the other side of the pond and the feeding frenzy began all over again.  Ducks on my side of the pond made their way over hopeful there would be something for them when they got there.  As I watched this pattern happen a few more times before my lunch break was over I have to say I got a little choked up.

Now, I like animals as much as the next person but it wasn’t the ducks that brought tears to my eyes.  It was something that I sensed the Lord trying to tell me.  The pond was the world and the ducks are those who don’t know Him.  They are hungry for Him and for His love and we as believers are the only ones with the food that can feed them.  But where are we?  Are we going to the water’s edge?  Or are we indulging on His love for ourselves as we watch them desperately search for what we’ve got?  We have an endless supply of His love.  His love is in us and He is for us, but they… they are so desperate they’ll go ANYWHERE there is hope for the tiniest morsel.  Unfortunately they more often go to places that provide them no nutrition, false hope, and a counterfeit love because we’re not there for them. 

Jesus told Peter when He commissioned him, “Feed my sheep.”  He also told all believers in Matthew 24:45-51 that “it will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.”  Doing what you may ask?  …feeding his fellow servants.  Feeding others His love is the reason we are here.  It is what we should be doing when our Master returns.

In that same passage in Matthew, Jesus compares the faithful servant to one who says, “Well, my master has been gone for a long time.  Who knows when he’s coming back!”  Instead of feeding his fellow servants he beats them and then what does he do?  He indulges himself with all the food and drink he wants.  Jesus says that this servant’s fate is the same fate for all hypocrites… hell. 

This passage would appear at face value to say that it is the feeding others the love of God that is our ticket to heaven.  But that’s not what Jesus is saying here.  Not at all!  Believing in Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection is the only way we get to heaven.  It is by His grace alone that we receive that gift.  Feeding others His love is merely the outward sign of that gift that we have received. 

The faithful servant understands the gift they have been given.  They know the source of that gift is everlasting… they will never run out.  They know that they are the means by which others can have the same gift, so they share it!  On the other hand, the wicked servant dethroned his master and put himself in authority.  He was no longer a servant at all.  He appointed himself as master of his own life not only rejecting the gift but rejecting the One who gave him that gift.  He hoarded what he thought was his and mistreated anyone who wanted or needed even the tiniest piece of it.

It is not our works that save us… and thank God for that.  None of our works would ever be good enough.  But we do have the chance to be “fellow workers” with the God, to be used by God in this world to touch them with His love!  What an awesome privilege for those who have been saved by this amazing love, to share it with others. Go to the water’s edge!  Be in the pond but not of it.  B DA GLV…FEED THE DUCKS!

Lord, help us to always be faithful servants, never hoarding the gifts you have given us for ourselves.  May we realize the immensity of your love and realize that there will always be enough love for us and for all those You have for us to share it with.  Thank you for your love and for the grace that saves us.  In Jesus’ most precious name, amen.