The Stumbling Block

 

abstract architecture background brick

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.

 

Finding Hope at the Donut Man

donut man strawberry donutIf you’ve never been there, you gotta go!  The Donut Man in Glendora, CA (thedonutmanca.com) has the most amazing donuts you could ever imagine.  This is just one of their delectable delights, The Original Fresh Strawberry Stuffed Donut.  It was National Donut Day last week and I couldn’t resist making the trek to get one of these beauties.  What I didn’t expect was in addition to the rush of sugar, fat and carbs, I also received a refreshing jolt of hope, joy and encouragement from my fellow sweet-seeking humans.

The Donut Man is a small donut stand on the famous Route 66.  The modest building has two walk up windows and a convenient ATM tucked alongside it.  It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and I have never been there when there wasn’t a line stretching around the corner.  Finding parking is always a challenge.  I usually end up in the dirt lot annex adjacent to the small paved lot behind the store.  The donuts are enormous.  In addition to their stuffed treats they have tiger tail donuts and chocolate bars that are about the size of my forearm.  It’s an amazing place.

As I got in line last Friday there were about 8 people ahead of me, all different ages, races and backgrounds represented.  The young ladies at the window were giddy with excitement, cackling and giggling as they waited for their order.  They were the only ones expressing what I suspect all of us were trying to contain as the sights and smells of the donuts filled our senses.  Just as I rounded the corner to the front of the stand I noticed one of the gentlemen a few people in front of me get out of line.  He explained to those around him he needed to use the ATM.  I heard one of them say, “No problem.  We got you.”  As he left the front of the stand just a few steps away to use the ATM several other hungry patrons got in line.  He completed his transaction and as he turned and noticed the line had grown he quietly stepped to the back of it.

The couple right behind me called out to him, “Hey!  You were ahead of us.  You don’t have to get back in line.”

The man shook his head, “It’s okay.”

The man who had been holding his place chimed in as well, “Dude.  You’re up here.  Come on.”

I jumped in too, “Yeah, come on,” as I waved him over.  Reluctantly he came forward and took his original place in line, thanking everyone along the way as he did.

I don’t know if it was blend of sugary goodness that was in the air, or the anticipation of gorging myself on that strawberry glaze, but my heart soared at the way these total strangers came together.  Frankly, it was kind of shocking.  He was so quiet about going to the end of the line, everyone could have easily ignored him and allowed him to stay there.  Someone who had gotten in line while he used the ATM could have objected to our urging as well, but they didn’t.   On the other hand, he could have been insistent about his place in line as well, elbowing others to get back to the place he had left.  But none of that happened.  Everyone just did what was right.  They did what was nice.  They thought of someone else before themselves.  It was refreshing to see.

If you look at what is in the news, or listen to talk radio, or infuse yourself in social media, you would think that the very fabric of our nation is about split apart.  We are in constant opposition no matter what the topic.  We are bombarded with opinion and disagreement.  We are compelled to take a side, make our opinion known, and attack those who don’t agree.  There is very little truth, only spin, and the topic changes moment by moment.  There are tornadoes of distraction trying to suck us into their vortex and all of them lead to the same conclusion:  Abandon all hope!  Pick a side! Everyone hates each other!

But then there are these Donut Man experiences:  real people interacting with each other face to face, exchanging glances and words, smiles, and “hellos,” saving places for each other in long lines; no arguments, no harsh language, no vigilantism, just people showing kindness to one another.  What a contrast.

I recently read in the book of Colossians, “Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.  For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.  And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.  So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you.  Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires.  Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshipping the things of this world. Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming.  You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world.  But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language.  Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.  Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.”  Colossians 3:2-10 (New Living Translation)

Satan would like nothing more than to distract us with the things of this world.  Get us caught up in the latest controversy or opinion poll.  It really doesn’t matter what side we’re on.  That’s never his point.  His only goal is to divide us – to make us believe our differences are more important than what we have in common; to make us believe our opinion is more valuable than connecting as fellow human beings.  Don’t fall for it!

As believers, heaven is to be in the forefront of our minds.  We don’t belong to the world anymore.  That doesn’t mean we live in a bubble and don’t engage with the world.  In fact, it’s just the opposite!  We are to be the lights, the love of God in the flesh for others to see, feel, and experience.  But we can’t do that when we are caught up in the same things that are distracting and dividing those who don’t know Him.   The world is becoming darker.  God told us it would.  Many are abandoning all hope and believing the hype they are reading.  But we know Hope personally.  His name is Jesus and He lives inside of us.

The Donut Man experience was my reminder of the value of real connection.  It was the reminder that God’s love – His undeserving, gracious love – is available and it’s available through US!  We’re His delivery system.  And when we work together as one in delivering that love, powerful things can happen – far more powerful than the tornadoes of distraction that try to keep us from loving.

Father, I thank you for experiences like the one you gave me at Donut Man that show me that there is a reason you chose people, as flawed as we are, to be the vessels through whom You are made known to the world.  Help us, as your Body, to remember that responsibility and keep us from getting caught up in the mire, distraction, and dissension of this world.  We look forward to when we get to be with You.  In the mean time, use us to spread Your powerful love so that others may be restored to you and their hope, like ours, can be in Jesus.  It’s in His name that we ask these things, amen.  

For Such a Time As This

playSeveral years ago while I was a member of a service club I had the opportunity to be in their annual play which we did as a fundraiser for the local theater.  It was a first for me.  I had always wanted to be on stage but never had the courage.  I can’t say I had much more courage as an adult but I managed to show up at try outs and if you showed up you got a part.

It was a small part and I was grateful for that.  I knew the other actors fairly well and it was nice to be a part of a team. After four months of preparation our performance weekend finally came.  We did five shows in 4 days.  It was good.  For the most part we remembered our lines and the audience seemed to laugh in all the right places.  All the preparation had paid off.  It was fun and exhausting.

I share that with you only because the Lord brought it to my mind this past week.  I’ve been given some new responsibilities recently and the list seems to be growing.  Most of it is at work, but there are new responsibilities in other areas of my life as well.  With each new thing I felt the weight of the burden I was carrying increase.  Like the proverbial frog in a slow boiling pot I seemed to get used to the burden, not noticing it much until I found getting out of bed in the morning was becoming a real chore.  I know that sounds a little like depression but having been through that I can honestly say that wasn’t the case.   I just felt paralyzed by my circumstances.  I felt like the burden around me was just too heavy.

Then I remembered the play.  The Lord reminded me, I had one role.  My words had been scripted.  The scenes had been written.  My marks had been placed on the stage for me to hit.  I had rehearsals to be at and performances to give.  I was a part of a team that was telling a story and I had a unique purpose in the story we were telling.

I want to be clear that I believe in free choice.  I don’t believe God hands us a script on the day we’re born, taps us on the behind and says, “Break a leg, kid!” as He plunges us onto the world’s stage.  We have choices to make every day and we are free to make those choices, good or bad.  And yet, there is some kind of beautiful and delicate dance we do with the Lord throughout our lifetime, discovering His will for our lives and seeking ways in which we can walk in that will.  It may not be as cut and dried as a scripted play in our experience, but somehow it is in His.  He knows every choice we make before we make it.  He knows every word out of our mouths before we speak it.  He knows our struggles, our pains; what is difficult for us to do and what comes easy.  He knows every scene, every plot twist, every ad-lib, and the final act.  He knows it all!  And He’s placed us specifically on a “stage” with other “actors” where we can use our gifts to glorify Him and bring His love to others.  He doesn’t hand us script, but He promises us a role in His Greatest Story ever told.

It’s like the book of Esther.  The story is too much to write in a blog post but GO READ IT!  It is an amazing story and it reads just like a play.  But did you know that it is the only book of the Bible where God is not mentioned?  God is not one of the vivid characters IN the story, but He is very clearly behind every scene directing every action.

SPOILER ALERT: Ultimately Queen Esther is the one given the responsibility to save the entire Jewish race from annihilation but she must risk her life in order to do it.  Her wise uncle Mordecai says to her, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)  What Mordecai is saying is, “Esther, here is your role.  If you don’t take it God will provide someone else to save His people.  But, THIS, this may be why you have been given this role – for such a time as this – to save your people.”

With each new responsibility I’ve been given lately I lost sight of the bigger picture.  I have known with each added responsibility that God was behind it.  If I doubted that perhaps I would need to reevaluate my workload but that is not the case.  I know God has orchestrated what He has in my life.  What I forgot, was that He was in charge, directing every scene.  I had just one role to play.

In addition to remembering my experience with the play, the words of Mordecai echoed in my mind this week.  I could chose to walk away from it all and God will raise up someone else to accomplish what He wants to accomplish.  Or, I can believe that for such a time as this I’ve been called to have a few more responsibilities for a purpose I may not know yet, but one that will bring Him glory and show others His love.

This reminder really changed my outlook and I am so grateful.  The responsibilities that felt like a burden too heavy to bear have suddenly turned into a lightweight covering floating over me shielding me from the elements of my circumstances.  I am making a conscious choice to walk under that covering knowing that my role has a purpose in the story He is telling.  I may not know with clarity yet what that is, but someday I will.  For now I am content to accept the one role He has given me.

Lord, thank you for having a plan and a purpose for each of our lives.  Thank you for placing us on the “stage” that you have for such a time as this.  Help us to walk in that role you have designed, looking to you, our Director, for grace, wisdom, and assurance.  May we always bring you glory and show others your great love for them.  In Jesus’ name, amen

“Go Back” or “Follow Me” – Which Do You Choose?

CHILD-BEAUTY_141615245694I don’t watch the show but it happened to come on after another program I do watch.  I’ll be honest, it was sort of like watching a train wreck.  As horrified as I was I just couldn’t seem to make myself turn the channel.  It was the reality show about young children who compete in beauty pageants.  Not usually my kind of TV show, but on this day I sat and watched the whole hour.  Here’s what had me hooked…  In this particular episode (not pictured), they introduced a young woman, I believe she was in her early 20’s.  She was initially introduced as one of the coaches or advisers for one of the young contestants.  They showed her giving instructions to the little girl on how to walk and how to perform.  However it wasn’t long into the episode that they revealed that this coach was also a competitor.  This particular contest was very unusual in that it had no upper age limit.  So, having grown up in the child pageant world, this young woman entered as a contestant as well as a coach.

At one point they interviewed this young woman’s mother.  She said something to the effect of, “I had hoped by this point in her life we would be looking at entering her children into these contests, not her.  But, oh well… this is where we’re at.”  (The young woman was not married and did not have any children.)

The show ends with the suspenseful crowning of the winners in multiple categories. And who is crowned “Best Overall?”  …of course it was this young woman.  She was the only competitor over the age of 12 and yet she proudly stood up on the stage to receive her crown.  Next to her stood all the runners up.  She towered over all of them by more than a foot.  It was so sad, such a pathetic sight.  This woman’s potential was far beyond a children’s beauty pageant but she didn’t see it.  She went back to what she knew, what was comfortable to her.  I can only assume she was afraid to step out into the life and purpose that God had for her to live.  I was embarrassed for her to be so proud to receive that crown.  It was worthless and meaningless compared to what she had to gain by stepping out into her life.

I recently read John 21.  In that chapter we see someone else who went back to what he knew, to the life that was comfortable, not seeing his full potential.  That someone is Peter.  Yes, the same Peter who walked on water.  The same Peter who confessed that Jesus was Lord and Savior before any of his fellow disciples had the courage to do so.  The same Peter that said he would never leave Jesus’ side – he would always defend him.  Enter, Peter’s failure.  It was right after that bold statement of Peter that he was put to the test and he failed.  He denied ever knowing Jesus!  And he was heartbroken.  He had blown it – big time.

It’s in John 21 where we see the impact that Peter’s failure had on him.  He’s back in the fishing boat.  He’s not spreading the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  He’s not telling about all the miracles he witnessed.  He went back to what he knew.  He went back to his old life as a fisherman.  I can only imagine the heartbreak and turmoil swirling in his soul that caused him to go back to that life.  Surely he must have thought there would be no use for him in God’s kingdom.

While he’s in that boat, no doubt drowning in his sea of self-deprecation, failure, and woe Someone calls to him from the shore, “Have you caught any fish?”  Peter has to admit that even at fishing he’s a failure!  “No,” he replies.  Then the One on the shore says, “Put your nets on the other side of the boat.”  As Peter and his fellow fisherman do so, their nets become full of fish.  John then turns to Peter and says, “That’s the Lord!”  Peter wastes no time with the fish.  He jumps in the water and swims to shore to be with his Savior.

Once on the shore, Jesus has an amazing interchange with Peter.  Three times He asks him, “Do you love me?”  Three times… the same amount of times that Peter had denied Him.  He graciously gave Peter the opportunity to be restored.  He knew Peter’s sin, but He also knew Peter’s heart.  And with each answer that Peter gave, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus commissioned him to be the rock upon which His church would be built.  He did not have to go back to fishing.  He had a purpose.  He had a role in the kingdom of God.  All he had to do was follow Jesus.

It’s the end of this chapter that I love the most.  After Jesus’ declaration of Peter’s purpose, Peter turns and sees John walking behind them.  He asks Jesus, “What about him?”  Jesus basically tells Peter, it’s none of your business what I do with John, we’re talking about you right now.  I used to think that this was an indication of Peter’s competitiveness.  That he was wanting to know what Jesus was going to call John to do in comparison with what He had called Peter to do.  But recently I had another take.  John was known as “the disciple Jesus loved most.”  Granted, John gave himself that title throughout his book, but scholars agree he was very close to Jesus.  He was the one reclining with him, leaning up against his chest on the night of the last supper.  They were close.  I now wonder if Peter was asking about John because he know how much the Lord loved John.  In other words, was Peter asking, “Are you sure you want me to do this?  I know how much you love him and he didn’t screw up?”  Either way Jesus’ response to Peter was – “Follow Me.”

I guess I’ll have to ask Peter in heaven what he meant with his question to Jesus.  But in the meantime I identify so much with his failure and with his turmoil.  I understand his desire to want to go back to fishing.  I get what that must have felt like to think, “I’m out.  He’s going to use someone else.”  BUT…once we know that we are called by God for a definite purpose – even if we don’t know exactly what it is yet – we cannot go back.  We cannot stand on a stage amongst children proudly accepting our worthless crown when our Savior is beckoning us to “Follow HIM!”  We can’t go back to our former lives as fisherman barely eking out an existence when the God of the universe is calling us to join with Him in the furtherance of His kingdom.

Lord, forgive me for the times I have gotten caught up in my own failures.  Give me the courage to take the steps I need to take to follow you rather than going back to what is comfortable for me or what may feel safe to me.  You are my comfort.  You are my safety.  I want what you want for me, Lord.  Give me the courage of your Holy Spirit to follow you.  Thank you Jesus, for the example of Peter and for loving us always even when we fail.  I love you, Lord!  In your most precious name, amen.