Thursday Grace

Standard

Thursday grace is the grace found in sadness and separation and grief.

Thursday grace is recovery grace.

When you watch someone you love die and their death ends their suffering and you say, “Yes, of course I’m sad, but it’s a mercy,” that’s Thursday grace.

Thursday grace is the grace God gives us in suffering, grace that redeems our suffering and allows us to find joy even in the lightless pit, even in our grief.

Thursday grace is not raging-at-God Monday grace. Thursday grace is that God gives meaning to suffering by transforming us through it, even when we have brought that suffering upon ourselves. That’s why Thursday grace is recovery grace.

Thursday grace may be the most miraculous grace of all, at least to our human eyes, because it allows us to be grateful even for our addictions, even for our deepest brokenness. We are grateful not because these are good in themselves, but we come to realize that through them we know Jesus as we never would have without them.

Thursday grace tells us that God never leaves bad things simply to rot in our lives, but always redeems them. Always. Thursday grace reminds us God is our Redeemer.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

This is Thursday grace.

Wednesday Grace

Standard

Wednesday Grace is the grace of new beginnings. Wednesday grace is that even though you have never yet succeeded in making this change, you are trying again. Wednesday grace tells us you can, and you should, because there is hope….

There is still hope.

And there is still hope.

Wednesday grace is God forgiving us again. Wednesday grace is how we are like God when we have already forgiven them four hundred and ninety times and they come to us asking a four hundred ninety-first time…and we forgive.

Wednesday grace tells us God is not tired of us, not sick of forgiving us, not weary with our needing help again.

Wednesday grace is the unbelievable news that “God has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.”

Wednesday grace is that this unbelievable news is true. It’s truer than what you think about your sin. It’s truer than what you think about other people’s sin.

Wednesday grace tells us that God smiles when we show up, every time we show up, even when we’re beating our chests, even when we can’t bear to raise our eyes, and not because God is casual or unconcerned with our sin, but because God knows we have come to the right place with our sin. At last. Matthew 18:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…

Wednesday grace.

Tuesday Grace

Standard

Tuesday grace is the grace of ordinary things.

I recently read, “Sometimes miracles are just good people with kind hearts.” That’s the epitome of Tuesday grace. Good people with kind hearts are shot through with grace, but of the kind we often fail to recognize. “‘Just‘ good people?” Good people with kind hearts are a miracle, a tremendous miracle of grace.

Tuesday grace is coffee in the morning without realizing it’s an extravagance, not a necessity. Tuesday grace is a hot shower, without noticing that running water is a luxury.

Tuesday grace is that your dog loves you more than you deserve every day of your dog’s life, because that’s how dogs are wired.

Tuesday grace is the grace that most of us live by most of the time without noticing.

When we do notice Tuesday grace, we live better. We’ve opened our eyes to appreciate and not take for granted this grace that sustains us.

Mercy is deserving but not receiving punishment. The servant in Matthew 18 who owed the master so much money begged for patience, but his master gave him mercy instead, forgiving the impossible debt.

Grace is deserving something negative but instead being given something positive, deserving the consequence of our sin but instead receiving God’s love.

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The law is you get what you “deserve” and punishment comes when you break the law.  Grace came through Jesus. Grace always comes through Jesus.

Tuesday grace is receiving God’s love in a thousand little ways and not even knowing. Tuesday grace is when someone smiles at you.

Breathe in.

Grace.

Breathe out.

Grace.

Tuesday.

Monday Grace

Standard

(Rembrandt, “Job with His Wife and Friends.”)

This is a strange time in the U.S. and a strange time to be a Christian in the U.S. I can quote Scripture passages whole, with no comments or other references, and be accused of being political by other Christians.

I think it’s time to do another series on grace.

Monday grace is the grittiest grace. Monday grace is “I hate you but I’m choosing grace over my anger.”

Monday grace is enemy grace.

Monday grace is the grace I choose to have for myself when I despise myself.

Monday grace is not butterflies and hummingbirds, rainbows and playful otters grace.

Monday grace is “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” On Monday, we understand that sinners=enemies: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…”

Monday grace is when your child has just told you how stupid you are, again, then comes to you for advice…and you offer it gently.

Monday grace is when your spouse hasn’t noticed any of the nice things you’ve been trying to do and you decide to keep doing them.

Monday grace can look a lot like gritting your teeth and toughing it out because God doesn’t mystically make everything easy. Monday grace means God gives us strength when we refuse to give up and quit, give up and die.

Job’s wife told him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” Job refused, then argued with his “friends,” cursed the day he was born, and demanded God accuse him face-to-face. What gave Job strength, with boils on his skin and dead children in the ashes of his house, to keep praying? Screaming at and accusing God is prayer. Fighting God is remaining in relationship with God. How did Job find the strength to clench his hands onto God’s shirt instead of cursing God and dying?

I call that Monday grace.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Standard

I’m taking the gloves off tonight.

For the record, I’m sober and in a pretty good mood.

A college friend responded to my last post, openly sharing about being bipolar and how humiliating that can be when people come to define you by your inconsistency, by your ups and downs. I was very struck by what she wrote:

“It’s to be expected. But it’s embarrassing.”

Tonight, my family went to a concert in which my niece sang, led by a deaf woman who has an incredible voice and who has trained herself to sing again after losing her hearing. This is mind-boggling.

Here we go, connecting the two: people understand what an astounding triumph this woman has achieved. She has overcome the physical challenge of deafness to become a singer again. She inspired all the students with whom she performed and the entire audience who heard her sing.

My friend equally kicks ass. She lives with a debilitating condition that most people cannot comprehend. She raises kids, loves people, follows Jesus, and lives as a light in a dark world while her brain chemistry sabotages her. But few people stand in awe of her achievement.

They can grasp overcoming deafness, even though their hearing works fine. But they can’t see the wonder in what my friend is pulling off.

I’ve said this to people before: you act like I don’t have it together when you should actually be giving me a fucking medal for living with what I have and still doing what I do. Yeah, things got awkward after that. I got a bit of a pitying look. I clearly lost respect in his eyes.

But tonight, I’m going to say this again, because people need to get it: I don’t want your pity, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, I don’t want you to pat me on the head. I want your fucking respect for living with something you can’t quite grasp and still managing to be a force for good in the world.

Blunt: I think about dying about eight times. A week? No, more like a day. On average. I’m not supposed to say that. That’s going to make you feel very awkward about me. I expect to lose several subscribers to my blog for saying this directly (or for using the “F” word, one or the other).

That’s life for me. On the downward cycle, it can spike up to a lot more times than eight. On good days, it doesn’t cross my mind. But that’s just one challenge. I have this swarm of hornets that flies around inside my head and sometimes they just attack. I’m trying not to have negative thoughts. I’m praying not to have negative thoughts. And then all the painful, humiliating, discouraging, and traumatic experiences of my life come raging through my brain.

No, don’t feel sorry for me. Be impressed.

There are people who overcome worse shit than I have and do more with their lives. Absolutely. I’m not claiming the grand championship of living with shit. But I am saying it’s pretty damned amazing. I wouldn’t really wish this on anyone, yet there are moments when I do imagine that certain people would get to walk in these shoes and deal with these thoughts for twenty-four hours.

It’s a little controversial–some would say stupid–that I’ve never tried anti-depressants. I’ve figured out my own ways to maintain my mental and emotional health. This is my path. I only regret that some have felt a stigma about taking medication to help with their mental health because of my choice. That was never my intention. I hope I’ve made it clear that if you struggle with mental illness, you need to find what works for you to be okay and function. Period.

I played these cards closer to my chest earlier in life. First, it takes a while to realize that other people aren’t living with the same challenges. Then, it quickly becomes apparent that you’re a freak and people don’t get it, at all. The next stage is figuring out in whom you can confide, whom you can trust to handle knowing what you’re really going through without their dismissing and completely losing respect for you.

I hit my fourth stage a few years ago. Some folks like me, like us, need to hear that they aren’t alone. They need to know that the voice in their head which says, “No one is as screwed up as you are” is lying to them. But you can’t just tell them, “No, that’s a lie.”

“Yeah, says you, mentally whole person.”

The only way I’ve found to help is to say, “I get it. I’m there, too. God loves us exactly as we are.”

But I think at fifty, stage five begins now.

A ton of us live with stuff like this. Not all the same diagnosis, but exhausting and sometimes paralyzing without any clear external symptoms that “normal” folks can recognize and validate. Some of us hide. Some of us acknowledge it. Some of us try to cope through means that prove self-destructive. And remember, many give up.

Cue back-up singers with lead-in to chorus:

“Just a little bit! Just a little bit! Just a little bit! Just a little bit!”

I believe stage five is this: I’m done apologizing for having to cope with something that isn’t my choice to people who don’t ever experience the same challenges I have simply to make it through a day.

I would appreciate respect for carrying this off as well as I do.

But most importantly, I’m here for the people who feel ashamed, who say “It’s to be expected but it’s embarrassing,” who are humiliated because they can’t function at the same level others can.

You are amazing. You kick ass. Are you reading this? Are you still here? Then yes, you are, and yes, you do. Stop judging yourself because others–who don’t get it–judge you.

You have my respect.

Stop the Politics of Hate: Step 2

Standard

Wow. Today the President of the United States tweeted that congresswomen who orginally came from–let me get this–“countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt, and inept anywhere in the world” can “go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how [the government is to be run].” To be clear, three of these four women were born in the United States.

Well, today is a perfect day for this post.

Step One was “Stop the Memes

Step two is “Don’t Demonize the Opposition.”

Now if you are a Trump supporter, and I know I don’t have so many of those reading my stuff but still, it’s fair for you to know that we who are not have read these tweets and feel sick to our stomachs. Those words sound racist to us. But I’m not here to argue with you or accuse you. I just want you to understand. I know you have plenty of things to point back.

If you are not a Trump supporter, today is not the day you want to hear “We need to see the opposition in a better light.” If we all thought that maybe there was some racism implied in Trump’s response to Charlottesville that there were “Many fine people on both sides,” today we’re damned sure. Today, we want to grab pitchforks and just storm the damned castle. Because enough of this!

This, of course, is exactly the moment when we need to hear “Love your enemies.”

I’m not going to spend any of this post defending the President or his racist tweets. I promise.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. I can think of easier things he said to do, such as…every other thing he said to do.

We’re in an emergency. No, I’ll say catastrophe. It’s desperate.

One of the worst aspects of our current situation is how much we hate people on the other side. Strangers. People we’ve never met and never will meet. People we only know through their words and opinions and memes and caps.

To demonize someone means to project evil attributes on them for the purpose of causing others to hate and fear them.

I know. It’s tempting to say, “We don’t have to project anything. They’re already doing that.”

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

In World War II, the Allies fought the Axis. The United States fought the Japanese.

Image result for anti-japanese propaganda WWII

That’s what we told our country we were fighting.*

Countries have used propaganda since before they fought with guns and bombs, probably before they made iron swords and spears. It’s how war works. It’s evil, but effective.

Jesus turns all this on its head. That’s why we sometimes call it his “upside-down Kingdom.” We’re not to kill our enemies. We’re not to hate our enemies. We’re not to demonize our enemies. Jesus commands us to love our enemies.

In U.S. politics, both Democrats and Republicans, both conservatives and liberals, have recognized that the most effective and lasting way to solidify their respective bases is to vilify the opposition. It is no longer even a question but a matter of certainty (“It is known”) that the opposing political party is the enemy, the greatest threat to our country.

When we’re convinced that’s true, we have a moral duty to oppose them. Hating them, Democrats or Republicans, is being patriotic. In fact, stopping them becomes the truest act of patriotism.

We talk about “Why won’t they work together?” in regard to our congress. I really believe this is why. Having started down this road, it would now cost a politician too much in constituent support to help someone across the aisle, no matter what good they might be doing. Rarely, rarely, you will see bipartisan support for a bill, and those are only the absolute safest, softball-pitch-down-the-middle, every-US citizen-will-want-this bills.

I’m not much of a hazy, nostalgic, ” Back in the Olde Days” kind of guy (okay, I am about baseball), but I do believe that, up until the 1960s, there was more collegiality, more of a grudging mutual respect among political adversaries and an acknowledgement that governing required some form of cooperation. I’m not saying U.S. politics haven’t always been dirty to a certain degree, and yes, we survived McCarthyism, so we had a full round of demonizing the opposition. But the full commitment to “I hate him because he’s one of them,” “I hate her because I hate all of them,” that we have nailed down tight in these last two generations. It’s gotten many politicians elected. And we are reaping the whirlwind.

I want to be clear here that speaking against hate does not imply calling evil actions “good” or “okay” or even “agree-to-disagree.” I’m not agreeing to disagree about racism. But I know it will destroy my soul if I keep letting myself seethe with anger and then watch that putrefy into hatred. I don’t want to win any political battles and lose my soul.

What do we do?

First, let’s be clear, this will feel like a drop in the bucket. I have no illusions that suddenly choosing to speak respectfully to people who call names and make blanket accusations will result in mass repentance and kum-ba-ya-ing. I mean that on both sides; I’ve seen ample nastiness in both directions with the aggressors feeling fully justified.

But if I’m looking at what Jesus says to do, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5) I know how to respond. Probably not with “Oh, bless your heart, I will praaay for you!” which is kind of its own version of Christian ridicule. When I’m attacked, or my “side” or “cause” (or article) is attacked, I won’t answer in kind. In fact, I most likely won’t answer at all, unless I’m convinced the other person wants to engage in real discussion. If I do respond, I want it to be in respectful terms and to stay focused on the issue.

I know this sounds cliched, but I’m going to try–and therefore say it–anyway: I will pray for that person. I haven’t been good at this, but I’m convicted that I need to make the effort. God knows who might be impacted.

When I was in college, another member of our Christian fellowship clearly did not like me and demonstrated that with his behavior. Young as I was, I was still taking everything Jesus said seriously and not rationalizing loopholes (note: that was sarcasm), so I started answering his hostility with kindness and praying for him. God changed someone: me. I didn’t feel as angry at him. What had been forced words of kindness out of my mouth came more naturally. I even started to…like him. Then one day, he switched. Completely flipped from being obnoxious to being friendly. What happened? I never found out. Did God move in his heart? Or had I come across as arrogant at first and then my efforts to love my enemy made me more bearable to my enemy? All I know is that we became friends after that.

So God does know who will be impacted but I also know one person who will be. It is so easy to read people’s screeds and dismiss or despise them. Or both. I think, no, I believe God can do something powerful in my heart if I will choose to pray and in that manner respond with love toward my enemy. This isn’t an argument about what they deserve. Jesus made no distinction about “deserving” or “undeserving enemies.” This is solely a question of whether I’m willing to obey Jesus and see what happens.

If I’m praying and responding with civility, I will not demonize. I can’t love my enemy and demonize him or her at the same time.

Second, and lastly, I’m learning to seek individual discussions rather than group ones. Even when I’m succeeding at having a mutually respectful dialogue, quite often someone else will jump in with an attack because troll’s gonna troll–I mean, beloved person created in the image of God’s gonna troll. I’m learning that this applies both to social media and public discussions in the real world. Too many people either feel a need to firebomb or believe that their “wisdom” (still often involving sound bites, name-calling, and sarcasm) will solve a disagreement. I don’t think I persuade many people through argument, if any, but I know I can convey respect and kindness if it’s one-on-one, and shut up when I reach my limit. With five or six guys or gals lobbing in hand grenades, all bets are off.

That’s what I got. We need to stop demonizing the opposition party–both sides, both directions–and stand for the truth while loving our enemies. I know politics is all about the end justifying the means but following Jesus never works that way.

Let me repeat that: In following Jesus, the end never justifies the means.

God loves those enemies of yours.

And here we are.

Help us, Jesus. We really need it.

*I use this because it’s such a blatant example. God, forgive us for making the Japanese out to be monsters.

Stop the Politics of Hate: Step 1

Standard

I made a commitment not to post memes. I’ve slipped on that a few times. Today, I remember why I made it. I just saw one, posted by a FB friend ridiculing and mocking the intelligence of a politician who is almost certainly more intelligent than my friend. No deeper message, no politics with which he was disagreeing, not even a reference to anything the politician actually said or did. Just a completely fictional “this person said X, isn’t that stupid?”

The politics of hate. Making “jokes” that others jump in and laugh at, not because they’re funny but because it gives us a chance to vent our hostility and then hide behind the defense “C’mon, it’s just humor!”

So when the new kid walks into the locker room and someone makes a “funny” comment about his clothes or hair or mom and everyone laughs, they aren’t laughing because of this insightful witticism; they’re laughing as a means of ganging up against the new kid. The ones who don’t hate the new kid (for the crime of being new or of another race or poor or all three) feel pressured to laugh so they don’t stand out and get attacked, as well.


So here’s what I’m asking: don’t post political memes. If it’s so damned funny that you can’t resist, just send it as a message to someone who shares your views. If you have something of substance to say, say it. Absolutely. Share your thoughts, share an article, add your comments. Put it out there for people to agree or disagree. Back it up. Dialogue.


But honestly, when we post political memes that do nothing but mock and disparage, we’re only widening the massive divide. We’re only playing the politics of hate. No matter who gets elected, we all lose.

How I Respond to Children in Cages or Why We Want to Go on Mission Trips to Help Kids But Don’t Want Them Here

Standard

(Members of our Nicaraguan Family)

A friend just asked a question which got me thinking down some heavy pathways. I’m going to try to get this down before it fades. I’ll need to connect some dots, so bear with me.

Living in Nicaragua made me less judgmental. That surprised me. I was extremely judgmental before I moved. I had a set of unrighteous behaviors and choices for which I judged those around me, friends and strangers alike. I knew I had a problem…but so did they have a problem! Look at all that unrighteous behavior!

My heart was ugly. Who knows, maybe I was right about their poor choices, but my anger and superiority were vile. Then I moved to Nicaragua. Then I became a missionary, a Jesus follower willing to leave his comfortable home and life to suffer for the Gospel and live in an impoverished nation without an air conditioner or a dryer. If pride is the root of being judgmental, you might predict I would become unbearable.

Instead, I crashed and burned. I slammed into culture shock, suffered heavy depression, failed in a whole slew of ways, and got way too near the edge for comfort. Instead of becoming more self-righteous, I came face to face with how we are, all of us, a bunch of train wrecks and disasters. No, some of us don’t realize it, but we all are. Grace is greater. Grace is greater than our train-wreckedness. Grace is greater than our unrighteous behaviors. Grace is even greater than our unbearable self-righteousness. Thank God.

I didn’t do nearly the good I had hoped to do, but I did some. I loved some people, far more feebly than I imagined I would. I didn’t change the world. I didn’t change the culture. But I learned this:

We want, desperately, to see ourselves as good. But doing good costs much more than most of us are willing to pay, and being good? Oh, seriously. So we work out a very narrow, very circumscribed standard for our own goodness. This likely has nothing to do with God’s view of us. We just need to be acceptable in our own sight.

Jumping tracks now, but not really: Short-term missions. Short-term missions are a perfect example of both an opportunity to know Jesus and an opportunity to feel good about our own goodness. We can sacrifice for two weeks. We can get dirty and suffer inconveniences and image ourselves to be laying down our lives for the Gospel. I know, it sounds like I’m mocking short-term missions. I led eight of them. I believed in them. Because I went on them, my family and I moved to Nicaragua for seven years. I think we did certain things very well on our short trips. We loved some people, we built relationships, we did some good. I regret nothing. I saw lives changed and I saw God do miracles.

And…

Here is the difference between visiting Nicaragua to “do” a mission trip and living in Nicaragua: you can’t keep up the image of yourself as good when you live there. It’s hard. It’s hot, nothing works the way you think it “should,” and there are tropical diseases. People drive crazily and risk not just their lives but yours and your children’s. Jesus is there, but not in the way you imagined. Jesus isn’t there leading you to become a hero. Jesus is there teaching you faith through a poor costurera who can’t do simple arithmetic but is more generous with her humble talents than you will ever be with yours.

Why do we want to go on mission trips to Honduras or El Salvador and help those poor children but we don’t want to let those same children fleeing for their lives come into our country?

Here’s my answer: letting them come in, live near us, become citizens, and share in our resources requires more than a narrow, circumscribed version of acting good. We feel great about ourselves when we send out Samaritan’s Purse boxes. We helped feed hungry kids! But what happens when the hungry kids come to us? What happens when they have no way to support themselves but their parents have chosen to flee here so that they don’t starve or get murdered? A box isn’t going to do it.

Tell me this: Why does that choice they’ve made to come offend us? Because we’re all so committed to following every law? Seeking asylum is legal in our country. We have a history of desperate people escaping to our country. My ancestors did. Did yours?

I’m a Jesus follower. I have no argument for someone who believes that we should not share our resources with children who would otherwise be raped or burned alive in their homes, because “Why should our tax dollars have to go to them?” When I say “I have no argument” I mean we have no values in common from which I can argue. I can argue basic humanity and minimum requirements of mercy, but so far those have fallen on deaf ears. If the ten cents or two dollars that would come out of your taxes are more important to you than a starving child’s life, and you truly believe this child deserves to sleep on a cement floor in worse conditions that we keep our convicted felons because “her parents broke the law,” then I have no hope of convincing you. We understand the world and our responsibilities in it differently.

Assuming you suffer when you see children suffer, I’m trying to speak to you as plainly as I know how: living next to children suffering all the time forces you to find a way to cope. You have to. I went home and ate dinner and fed my children dinner and I knew some children close by were going hungry. Yes, I tried to help–I lived there so I could help, I fundraised so I could help, we started a team and started a preschool to help–but they kept on suffering all around me. Do you know why? They’re poor. Poverty means suffering. We don’t have to see that, most of us, most of the time. I’m going crazy hearing these arguments of “Why should I care? How is that my problem? Why don’t they just obey our laws?” while I’m picturing my precious neighbor girls, Ansielli and Daniella (above), shivering and screaming for their mama in those cells. You and I know those arguments are abhorrent. But we also know, deep down, that we’re talking about a lot more now than going on a trip, doing some manual labor, and getting some photo ops with cute children. We’re talking about traumatized children whom our own government has abused–intentionally, knowingly–and no rationalization can make us the good guys. Evil has been committed, in our names, against the very ones of whom Jesus said, “To such as these the Kingdom of God belongs.”

I’m not self-righteous. I saw suffering, day after day, and could not solve it, could relieve it only in minuscule ways, and–ready for the honesty bomb?–often had to focus on other things instead of taking it on directly just to be able to continue living there. Very few other missionaries that we knew in Nicaragua lived in the barrios with those suffering poverty. We did. Missionary friends told me we had achieved the best balance they had seen of being with the people and still staying rooted in the supportive ex-pat community. We did the best we knew how. And we failed and failed and failed.

I understand why people get excited about a short-term trip but shudder at the thought of wading in with illegal immigrants. I promise, if you commit yourself to doing something about this cruelty and abuse, you’ll be forced to face your own limits. I mean both the limits of your power and the limits of your generosity and goodness. What do you want to give up to offer someone else a better life? Is your comfort worth the chance of alleviating someone’s suffering? It may cost you and not work. Up for that?

Now let me tell you what we didn’t fail at: giving our hearts and loving people. We didn’t raise our neighbors and Nicaraguan family out of poverty–we’re still fighting that battle–but we loved them. We made one another family. My recent visit there reminded me. I would not trade any of it, including my depression and insomnia, nor the brutally eye-opening encounter with my own selfish, undersized heart; I would not trade the seven years we gave ourselves in Nicaragua for anything. In many ways, I wish we still lived there.

I’m trying to figure out my part in this immigrant crisis. Of course, there are many crises all over the planet every day and more suffering than we can possibly learn about, much less change. People use that as an excuse to do nothing. Again, I think that’s defining our “goodness” in such tiny ways that we succeed in our own eyes, while turning a blind eye to the pain around us. It’s so much harder to try and fail than it is to decide it’s not your problem and succeed in your own eyes.

I think following Jesus means letting him lead us past our safe and narrow belief in our own goodness. I think we learn our need for grace when we try to love beyond our capacity. I am not saying we sacrifice ourselves. I am saying we look at children in cages and ask God, “What do I do?”

Rhonda, the Middle Sister Manuscript

Standard

[Manuscript for the sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, Managua, Sunday, June 9, 2019.]

Good morning. It’s so good to be back with you again. This feels like home to me. Thanks to everyone who expressed excitement to have me back up here. My dad loved to say, “There’s no accounting for taste,” meaning people like what they like and you can’t really explain or make sense of it. I’m gonna say that goes both ways here. We probably deserve each other.

There are too many things I want to say this morning, having only one shot at it, seniors getting ready to head out into the wide world, many of you heading off in different directions very soon. It was harder than usual to set aside my own thoughts to try to hear what God has for you. Alwaysfor me the very first step in the process is to come before God, ask him to help me set aside my own agenda and ego, and to help me wantto say only what God wants me to say. When I try to fix my ego on my own, it’s a lot like getting super glue on your hands and then trying to get it off…with your hands. You just get more stuck and make more of a mess. Similar, I can get to “help me to say what you want” and end up like when the child is required to apologize. I’m sure we’ve all seen that. “I’m sorry.” Yeah, technically those words did come out of your mouth, but that’s not actually how being sorry works. Every time for me it’s a process of setting aside my own agenda for what you need to hear and praying that I will desire to say only what God wants me to say. It’s not a one-and-done thing, but when I start in that direction, it’s much easier to keep going. 

Rhonda is the middle sister. You never hear about her. She’s adopted. She had a horrible, really a horrific life before she was adopted. She was abused. She had been passed around and sold. People did horrible things to her and she believed that made her horrible, dirty, flawed. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how God sees it. When some hard-hearted men dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus—which they did not to effect justice for her but to trap Jesus, meaning they used her shame to try to hurt him, and by the way, doesn’t adultery require two people?—Jesus made it clear to her andto everyone present that he was not condemning her. She was caught sinning and Jesus, the only one who had a right to condemn her, did not condemn her. Did she apologize? Ask forgiveness? Not that we read. Check this out—Jesus told her he did not condemn her without her begging for forgiveness. What? That’s crazy. That would be like Jesus telling a condemned criminal that he would enter paradise just for asking, “Jesus, remember me? ” Oh, wait. That happens, too. 

So if Jesus doesn’t condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery and forgives a man clearly condemned for his crimes, why would God see a girl as dirty or shameful for what someone else did to her? So it is with Rhonda. She knows she is loved.She knows, beyond certainty, that she was rescued from vile darkness and brought home. Why? Because her father loves her. When her father looks at her, he doesn’t see a girl who had bad things done to her. He sees his daughter, beloved and clean and whole. Living the real life intended for her. 

Rhonda’s brothers have issues. One of them rejected the family entirely and ran away. The other is this self-righteous so-and-so who always talks about how hard he works and how little he’s appreciated. He likes to compare himself with his little brother. But for all his boastful “godliness,” he’s unkind. He talks disrespectfully to their dad and pays no attention to Rhonda. But her father took her aside and explained that we all have hard places in our hearts, and that her brother’s attitude toward her is a reflection of his heart, not a reflection of Rhonda. 

Rhonda can’t understand how her brothers can respond this way. Maybe it’s because they’ve always had a home and therefore can take it for granted. She’s spent the last years first trying to forget and block out what happened to her and then starting to let herself remember and grieve it. She’s spent more hours than she can count crying and screaming and getting angry. She has nightmares. But she’s safe now, she knows that, and the pain is less than it used to be. She doesn’t want to kill herself anymore. She doesn’t wish every day that she was someone else. Her father has said, “I love you, Daughter,” so many times that she’s not only believing it but starting to say to herself, “I love you, Rhonda.” If he can love her, knowing everything that happened, maybe she can love herself, too. That seemed impossible at one point, but this house is the kind of a place where impossible things happen. 

Speaking of that, the impossible happened. Her younger brother, whom she hadn’t seen for years, just came home. He was wrecked, absolutely wrecked. He looked so skinny she was afraid he was dying of cancer. But he just hadn’t eaten. He was in another city, starving to death. She cried and cried when she saw him, and she hugged him so hard she was afraid she would break him, frail and weak as he was. Then she cried some more. 

And it was sostrange for her. Her heart was broken for him, but he was okay now, safe, back home. Was she crying for sadness or joy? Both. Even stranger, she was crying her hardest, but for once not for her own pain, not for her herself. And that felt strangely good, like her heart had grown big enough to bear others’ pain, not merely survive her own. 

She and her younger brother could talk now, in a way that they never could before.She was fond of him before, but she knew he didn’t really care much about anything other than himself and whatever entertained him at the moment. But being gone, and all he went through, had changed him. He talked so quietly now. He used to be so loud and rude. Now he almost whispered. But when she first heard his loud laugh come back, that was the day she knew he would be okay. He doesn’t talk much about what happened to him. He simply refers to it as “when I was lost.” Once he even said, “When I was dead.”

She said, “I know exactly what you mean.” 

But the absolute strangest part was how her big brother reacted. She never really understood until the day her little brother came home. Her father threw the biggest party she’d ever seen, this crazy huge celebration, even bigger than the one he threw on the day her adoption became official. Her father had taken her aside and told her, “It’s because you knewyou were home. He doesn’t know yet. Not really. But he will.” Her father offered a toast and said, “We have to celebrate. This is resurrection. This may be the best day of our lives.” 

Rhonda thought about how her older brother would have reacted to hearing that, but of course he didn’t hear it, because he wasn’t there. He’d refused to come to the party at all. 

That’s when she finally got it. She’d had so much trouble her first years in the family feeling at home in their house, believing that she belonged there, that she could deserve such a life, the she could ever deserve to be loved. How many times had her father said, “I love you and this is all yours. You don’t have to earn it. You can’t, Silly. I’ve given it to you.” Now here was her older brother, activelytryingto make her younger brother feel he didn’t deserve to be home.Of course, she thought, hedidn’t know how hard it is to believe you’re loved after you’ve been lost. He couldn’t recognize that he was doing something spiteful and evil…because…because…oh, my gosh, he was lost, too. That went beyond strange. That was crazy. Did it really work that way? He grew up in this house. His father told him, “I love you” every single day. His father showedhim love every single day. But somehow love hadn’t gotten through, it hadn’t entered his heart. That made no sense 

But when she looked in his eyes, she could see it was true. Rhonda could see only anger there. Maybe even hatred. And, to her surprise, that helped her not to feel angry at her older brother anymore, because in that instant she realized, “I could be you, angry at what happened to me, full of hate and rage. I always thought we were so different but now I see we’re just the same. Or we could have been, if I’d let that hatred have me. You didn’t get abused, but you have convinced yourself that you did. You talk about working here, for our father, like that’s an abuse, like you were neglected. Or exploited. But it’s your herds, your crops,your home. But you aren’t at home here. You see yourself as a slave.” 


That was fiction, of course. Jesus’ story in Luke 15 was fiction, too, but it’s, y’know, Jesus, so we understand that Jesus is telling truth through his fiction. With all my heart I believe that the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is theliving God Almighty, whom Jesus knew as Abba, to whom we can cry, by whom we are loved, and with whom we are home, wherever we happen to live in this world. 

Before I go on, just to be clear, Jesus never mentioned Rhonda the middle daughter because she wasn’t causing problems. All parents know—and certainly all middle children know–that children who raise a ruckus are the ones who get the most attention. And the default is to notice the middle child less. Right? 

Seriously, Rhonda came to me last Sunday while listening to Phillip’s sermon, and when I tried to set her aside and write a different sermon, I ran into a dead end. I’ve preached long enough to know that when I tell God, “No, I need different inspiration,” it always goes just like that. Thus, I mentioned the preparation process at the beginning. I don’t often get the full idea for a sermon in a flash, and as many who have worked with me will attest, almost never a whole weekahead of time. But I didn’t want to offend people by adding to the Prodigal Son story, so I kind of balked. However, I know for sure someone here needed to hear this and it was important enough to God that I was not allowed an out, other than outright disobedience. So to be clear, I know this is not part of Scripture and I’m using creative interpretation here, both about God’s love for the orphan and the abused and about God’s love for his two sons, which maybe we can see even a little clearer from a different angle. I always pray that God alone will offend us and we will let that begin to change our hearts. If I’ve still offended you, don’t worry, I won’t do it next week. 

What do Rhonda and her brothers show us about God? 

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.Nothing. If we’ve been abused, God doesn’t see us as unclean. If we’ve made horrible choices and put ourselves outside of God’s family, we’re still never outside of God’s reach. Ever. It’s impossible. If we have hardened our hearts against the God who relentlessly loves us, if we’ve decided we got a crappy, sorry, skubuladeal and if God’s grace for others offends us, God comes out to us, humbles himself and actually pleadswith us to come home, to feel the compassion he gives us for those lost sheep, those bedraggled and starving little brothers, those asylum-seekers who pray for a home. 

Rhonda’s family reminds us that our failures and faults and sins don’t disqualify us. Ever. Because we didn’t “qualify” in the first place. We werelovedin the first place and that has always, only given us a part in God’s Kingdom. If this has been a crummy year and you’re no longer sure you’re qualified to be a missionary, or even a Christian, guess what? You never did qualify.We don’t “qualify.” We are loved. We are adopted. We aregivena place.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoptionas children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The older brother is wrong; he couldn’t be more wrong. “All these years I’ve been working like a slave for you…” No, Son. You are home. The younger brother is wrong. “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” The younger brother wasn’t worthy because he behaved well. He’s worthy because the father’s love made him worthy and he can’tlose that because the father refuses to take it back. Do you hear this? Yes, the younger son sinned against the father—yes, you may have sinned and screwed up and even full-on failed, but that isn’t the argument. The father won’t even let his child finish his apology or explanation or whatever. The father shows the son, by his actions, that he is stillworthy, that he is stillloved. 

But the father—listen to this– BUT the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

One more thing that the Rhonda story teaches us, and this is where adding Rhonda really does bring something to light: this is the family of God. These are the people we are called to love and work with and beGod’s Kingdom with. So if you listen to this story and think, “Nope, I’m not any of them,” I can guarantee that you have these people in your life. God has sent you to welcome them home. 

Rhonda looks around and sees, “Wow, I’m pretty messed up, but so are these brothers of mine.” She knows that she was given a place in the family and a home through grace, and therefore she has grace to offer them. “Those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who have been forgiven little, love little.” As we know we are loved, we become able tolove. It’s a process, rarely a straight line, and it involves God getting at the hard parts of our heart where we still hold out that we are unlovable. 

When we experience Jesus loving us not because we qualify, not because we are worthy, but in spite of our feelings that we never will qualify or be worthy, we carry that grace with us for others. 

You remember to whom Jesus was telling this story, right? The Pharisees. He told this story to them, about them, because they did not want to love “sinners” and they did not want himto love “sinners,” either. They believed, trulybelieved, that God was glorified by their rejection of the unclean and sinful. The elder brother believed he was in the right making his younger brother feel unwelcome in hishome. But the way Jesus tells the story, by rejecting hisyounger brother, who was dead and is alive again, the elder brother also insulted and rejected his father. Can you see how that makes this not optional? If we reject the people Jesus welcomes, we’ve rejected him at the same time.He’s begging us to come in, but Rhonda is right—if we refuse to welcome our younger brother home, we’ve told the father “Now you listen to me!” In other words, “You shut up, because I know and you don’t.” 

I met with a young man last week, I’m going to call him Matteo. Matteo lives not with his parents but with his extended family, and they have told him he is an idiot all his life. They use that word, in Spanish, over and over. He is not Christian enough for them, he does not meet their standards of how a person should behave and follow Jesus, and their way of correcting him is to grill him, browbeat him, and call him “idiot.” You might guess I have issues with this. Matteo and I have met for years, but of course this is the first time I’d seen him in a long time. Here’s the beautiful thing: Matteo is doing great!

Matteo is actually highly intelligent, I mean downright brilliant. Smarter than I am by a lot. He’s in university now. He’s working at a job making a lotof money, which is pretty incredible in itself for a young man in Nicaragua. Ever since we first started meeting and I learned of Matteo’s home situation, I have been telling him, “You are loved. You are smart. God is crazy about you.” And not to oversimplify, but in a nutshell the entire work of mentoring this young Nicaraguan was simply to help him understand and truly believe that what God says about him is different than what his family says about him. That God loves him somuch, as he is right now, and that the mistakes he makes are not disqualifiers for being a child in God’s home, but a normal part of growing and learning and walking with Jesus. 

Do you know who Matteo is in my story? He’s Rhonda. 

Because all three of these roles in the story, younger and elder brother and middle sister, can be any of us. Sometimes we are one of them for a period of time and then a different one for another time.

Matteo needed to know that he is welcome in his Father’s house, that he isworthy to be called a son because God makes him worthy and Matteo is loved with an eternal and infinite love. 

Just. Like. You.