Galatians 4:8-20 – It’s All About Grace

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (New International Version)

Grace is the most wonderful spiritual reality of all. It is forgiveness, freedom, faith, acceptance, and love all rolled up in a package given specially to you and me.

Grace is also terribly hard for a lot of folks to wrap both their heads and their hearts around. It is scandalous, subversive, and stupefying.

It was hard for the Galatian Church. Having embraced the grace of God in Christ for their deliverance from guilt and a shameful past, they then set their lives on the law to work out their sanctification. In other words, the Galatian believers did a sort of half-repentance; they turned from useless ways and were saved by grace, then turned around and decided, like a dog returning to it’s vomit, to go back to the law for the governing rule of their Christian lives.

If grace was good enough for salvation (which it was) it’s also good enough for sanctification, to be the chief operating force of the Christian’s life and ministry (which it is).

“Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

Simone Weil

A life filled with endless rules and regulations is unable to receive the life-flowing life-giving stream of grace. Grace is even so wondrously powerful that it is the force which breaks all other lesser forces and takes over.

This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. Having been the ultimate rule-keeper and law-abider, he was completely overtaken by a tsunami of grace. It stripped him of all the laws which kept him from Christ and the gospel. Grace changed his mind, his heart, and his life. He would never be the same again.

So, with the confidence of grace behind him, Paul could implore the Galatians to be just like him. I wonder if any of us could say the same.

Paul was a committed follower of Jesus – so much so that he ached and longed for others to embrace a life of grace, just as he had. It was actually painful for Paul to see others held by the cold grip of the law and not the warm embrace of grace. Like a mother about to give birth, he was laboring and working hard to give spiritual birth to those that would become like Jesus.

If you have experienced a transformed life in Jesus Christ, as if you have been born again by grace through the Spirit, then you likely feel and resonate with the travail of Paul. Knowing the elixir of grace, you want everyone to drink it in and be inebriated with its effects. You want it so bad that it hurts. You desire it to the point of exclaiming, “I beg you to be like me!”

You may spend many of your days with family, friends, neighbors, or co-worders who are strangers to grace. Either they are stuck in the clutches of the law and are fearful stick-in-the-muds because of it, or they simply do not know what they are missing. 

It is good to regularly ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of? Will this thing matter in the end? Is it worth holding on to?”

Grace will lead us into our fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them up, that is, if we are willing to stay in the void. We must become comfortable with asking questions for which we might never get answers.

People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity and find less and less a need for the certainty of rules and regulations. Grace teaches us to swim in the river of mystery and find our home in faith.

Gracious God, may you weave your way into the lives of those who need you the most, so that mercy will be more than a theological idea. Work in me in such a way that I can stand with Paul and encourage others to be like me, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 14:23-29 – Spiritual Peace

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away, and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. (New International Version)

The Holy Spirit is our Advocate, Companion, Helper, Comforter, Counselor, and Teacher. All of that is wrapped up in the word “Paraclete” (a transliteration of the Greek word, Παράκλητος).

A straightforward literal translation of “Paraclete” needs a phrase rather than a word: “Called alongside for encouragement,” fairly-well translates the word. Our needs as followers of Jesus are many – thus requiring a multi-faceted mentoring ministry by the Spirit.

The Spirit was sent to be with Christians continually, reminding them of all Jesus has said and done as the ultimate witness to Christ’s life and ministry. So, the role of the Holy Spirit is providing aid for Christians, especially in difficult situations; the Spirit helps in a time of need.

The Spirit is also our close Companion. Indeed, it is a special friend who stands up for us, advocates on our behalf, gives us remedial teaching, and brings comfort. In other words, the Holy Spirit is motivated with love for us, just like the Father and the Son.

Whatever we need, the Holy Spirit is something of a divine concierge in the middle of adversity, attentive to our every need. Perhaps a story will better illustrate the Spirit’s nature and work.

When my girls were small and I was a financially struggling seminarian, we were one evening down to our last bit of food. Although they thought it was a privilege to eat Wheaties for supper, my wife and I knew the cupboard was now bare.

So, we prayed. As we got up from our knees and started off for bed, there was a knock at our patio back door. We looked at each other wondering who in the world it could be at such a late hour. When I drew the shades, one of our neighbors, a little Puerto Rican woman, was outside holding what appeared to be more than her own body weight in overflowing grocery bags.

As I ushered her in and before I could say a word, she said this: “I went to bed and had just fallen into a deep sleep. But the Holy Spirit woke me up and told me to take as many groceries as I could carry to you. So, here I am.”

In that moment, I knew in my head and felt in my heart a ministry of the Spirit which transcends language. And the next morning, our girls learned something about God that they would never get from listening to their Dad’s teaching and preaching. I must also add that this is a story which gets retold often because it reminds us of how God meets us in our need and how much God cares.

Through such encounters with the Spirit (and I have mercifully been granted many of them!) I begin to understand and appreciate the wisdom of the saints throughout the ages:

“When the grace of the Holy Spirit enters a soul and is established there, it gushes forth more powerfully than any other spring; it neither ceases, dries up, nor is exhausted. And the Savior, to signify this inexhaustible gift of grace, calls it a spring and a torrent; He also calls it gushing water, to indicate its force and impetus.”

St. John Chrysostom

“Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you.”

Corrie Ten Boom

One of greatest gifts which is given to us because of Christ and the Spirit is peace. Personal peace. Family peace. National peace. World peace. There is such a tremendous need for peace!

And yet, so many of us lack peace to the degree that we must medicate ourselves to sleep, at all. For some folks, avoiding family seems normal, just to keep the peace. National peace almost sounds oxymoronic. World peace is merely wishful thinking for far too many people. Perhaps we are in such a befuddled conundrum because of this reason:

We already possess what we so desperately want.

The search for peace is really the search within. The simplest of observations about Christ’s words is that Jesus has left us his peace. He gave it to us. We have it. Perhaps we have misplaced it? Maybe its lost in that huge stack on the desk?  Most likely, we plain old forgot about it. We need to remember that God’s peace is here with us. Right now. This very minute. We have exactly what we want.

The peace Jesus is talking about is far more than the absence of war, conflict, or infighting. The peace of Christ is the settled and restful calm and confidence of being with God, of an intimate union with the divine.

Jesus has given himself. He himself is our peace. Peace isn’t some happenstance thing, nor did it just magically appear. Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [the Son] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20, NIV)

The gift of peace needs to be unpacked.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3, NIV)

Practices of peace and peacemaking must be acknowledged and engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Romans 14:17-19, NIV

Since Jesus gives in a different way than any other gift, it may have thrown us off. Like the delivery guy who leaves a package in an odd place, we could be searching for the ongoing gift of peace somewhere on our property. It’s there – it just seems so darned elusive.

The authentic peace that is harmony and unity, can neither be found in perfect circumstances nor in idyllic families and faith communities. Divine peace is the security of relationship with God, smack in the middle of life’s crud.

The reason Jesus can exhort his disciples to be untroubled and unafraid is because the life of God is within them. As that life grows within us; as our hearts are healed with that presence; as we receive peace from the gracious hand of God; then, we discover, often by happenstance, that perfect love has driven the fear away.

Fear focuses on the hard situation in front of me, whereas love directs attention on Jesus. As the Father has loved the Son, so the Son loves us – and we have peace – without trying to miraculously conjure it with positive thoughts.

It is the glorious, gracious, and mystical union between Jesus and the believer which is peace. All obstacles have been surmounted and tossed into the trash for the garbage guy to haul away. And no, you did not accidentally throw your peace in the dumpster. There really is no need for any dumpster diving with Jesus around. He has already done that work for you and me through the cross.

Yet, peace still seems a pipe dream for some, even with the understanding of the gift. Like a new product packed so tightly in the plastic, we struggle to open it. Maybe the following thoughts may help to unpack peace for us:

  • Stop and breathe. It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit of God is likened as wind. Pausing to take deep breaths in through our nose, and full exhales through our mouth can become prayers. The ancient Christian practice of breath-prayers can help us here. Some examples: Inhale saying, “More of you,” and exhale saying, “Less of me.” Inhale, “Holy one,” exhale, “heal me.” Inhale, “Abba Father,” exhale, “let me feel your love.”
  • Listen to peaceful music and words of peace. If we are continually in a state of agitation, it could be that we are inhaling a steady stream of radio, TV, or social media that is anything but peace forming – leaving us perpetually upset. So, pay close attention to who and what you listen to.
  • Identify some trigger words or phrases. Have a go-to word or phrase that brings you back to the peace within. For me, its quoting Psalm 23, Romans 6, John 14, or other Scripture passage from memory. So, the trigger phrase is, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need, or “Trust in God, trust also in me.”
  • Smell it. I keep candles around with pleasant odors and light them when feeling stressed. I also have found that, for me, burning sage helps to feel unburdened and, thus, peaceful.
  • Forgive. I have observed that many of the behavioral health patients I work with have little to no peace in their lives due to either resentment toward others or the inability to forgive themselves. Forgiveness brings peace, even if the other party does not want it.

May the Holy Spirit’s work abound in your life. And may the peace of Christ be with you always.

Revelation 7:9-17 – Enduring Love

Look He’s Coming with the Clouds by Anthony Falbo, 2014

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (New International Version)

A simple observation of today’s text: There can only be a great multitude of people if there are a great multitude of mothers. The great multitude in the Apostle John’s vision of the end of time, had just come out of the great tribulation. And God does for them what any good mother would do: Never lets any of their children go hungry or thirsty; gets them out of harm’s way and protects them; and bends down to wipe their tears away and let them know that everything is going to be okay.

There is a day coming when followers of Jesus will see him face to face. Believers will serve the Lord continually. God’s very presence will be their permanent shelter. It will be a glorious time of unending peace, harmony, and rest.

There shall be no more worrying about how to make ends meet, no more wondering where we are going to get our needs met, and no more anxiety about the future. Injustice will be a thing of the past. Unending love and light will replace it.

First, however, before this permanent Sabbath, there will be trouble, hardship, trial, and even martyrdom. There is presently pain and suffering. Like a woman in labor, this must take place before there is the glory of new life. 

Sometimes the difficult circumstances of life seem to have no end. Yet, they will eventually pass, and we must continually keep this in mind. Christians have the hope of God’s pastoral presence forever guarding and keeping our lives if we endure to the end.

Perseverance, endurance, and pushing through hard situations are necessary to realize new and eternal life. We are not meant to just sit here on earth in some sort of holding pattern, waiting for the end to occur. Just as a pregnant woman changes her lifestyle to carry the child within, so we as Christians need to carry our souls, utilizing all kinds of spiritual practices that will help us do that well, until Jesus returns.

The Apostle John’s vision was given to believers in hardship who needed to persevere when things were tough. Giving them a glimpse of the glorious ending was one way of helping them in the present to live for Jesus Christ, despite the pain.

There’s nothing quite like a mother’s love. With the security of that love, we can live in healthy ways, enduring and persevering through difficulty and adversity. God’s love enables us to live securely in five ways:

  1. Not being afraid to fail.

That’s because, for the believer, we know the ending. We may, at times, feel like colossal failures, yet because the Lord is with us, we have nothing to fear. Being secure in our identity as God’s people enables us to step out and engage the world.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt

When I am afraid,
    I put my trust in you.
I trust God, so I am not afraid of what people can do to me!
    I praise God for his promise to me. (Psalm 56:3-4, ERV)

2. Taking small steps of faith.

We can incrementally improve ourselves daily through our growth in grace. We don’t need to always do big things for God. We can do small acts of kindness with big love. That is likely what your own mother modeled for you. All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. As that decision is repeated, over and over, a habit sprouts and grows stronger.

Continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory, now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, GNT)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. ’The second most important command is this: ‘Love your neighbor the same as you love yourself.’ These two commands are the most important. (Mark 12:30-31, ERV)

3. Being able to identify resistance.

With an awareness of God with us, we are able to name the obstacles, impediments, and challenges to perseverance. Acknowledging what hinders us, gives us the power to choose how to handle it. Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

We should remove from our lives anything that would slow us down and the sin that so often makes us fall. We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. (Hebrews 12:1-2, ERV)

4. Practicing good self-care.

The body, mind, emotions, and spirit are our vehicles to doing the will of God. So, it is imperative we steward these precious gifts of humanity with care. The only way we will make it over the long haul of our lives is through paying attention to how we carry stress in our bodies, learn to listen to it’s message, and following what we hear. Nearly everything works again if we unplug it for a few minutes… including us!

God has made us what we are. In Christ Jesus, God made us new people so that we would spend our lives doing the good things he had already planned for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10, ERV)

Surely you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you! (1 Corinthians 3:16, GNT)

5. Connecting with why you are persevering.

Losing connection with why we do what we do leads to dropping out and giving up. Yet, when we can remain vigilant to what is most important to us, it helps us push through all the sticky points of our lives. We all get stuck. And love is always the answer to getting unstuck. People don’t care what we believe; they care about why we believe it.

So, if you eat, or if you drink, or if you do anything, do it for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31, ERV)

Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17, CEB)

Persevering and enduring throughout our lives can only be done with a great deal of encouragement – which means generous rhythms of giving love and receiving love. It’s what God does. It’s what our mothers taught and modeled for us. It’s enduring love.

Patient God, you tediously work until your plans and purposes are accomplished. As you are slowly bringing your kingdom to the world, strengthen me so that I do not give up. Help me to persevere, living and loving like Jesus, to his glory. Amen.

Luke 12:29-32 – Be Content

And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (New International Version)

If we’re honest with God, we acknowledge that we often worry a lot about tomorrow and how our needs will be met. 

Every day we send God moribund signals that our heads are not in the moment, and that our hearts are not into today. We fret about the future, leaving us profoundly discontent. So, we do busywork, distract ourselves with social media, and numb ourselves with spirits rather than turn to the Holy Spirit – all in the futile attempt to reduce the racing thoughts in our heads.

Far too many of us fail to enjoy the present moment. Our minds are someplace else. 

Contented people do not find their happiness in far-off places, in someday being able to acquire the things they desire, or in having a laser-like orientation to achieving a future goal. Instead, they find contentment in their present circumstances. 

Those living without fear and eschewing worry have discovered that happiness is not found in a new job, a new car, a new spouse, or a new anything.

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

Focusing on the present does not mean ignoring the past or neglecting the future; it just means we are to put our primary attention on living in the here and now rather than on a romanticized future free of doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty. 

If we are not present to the here and now, we either get stuck in the past or continually worry about the future.  Everything then becomes either about recapturing some bygone era or of dreaming about some idyllic future state – buying into the wrongheaded notion that whenever I get out of school, or get married, or have kids, or get the job I want, or the kids leave home, or I retire, then all will be good, and I shall finally have contentment. 

Planning for the future is wise, good, and necessary; worrying about it and neglecting the present is bad.

Whenever we rush through the present to get to the future, we lose what God wants to do for us now.  It takes flow, mindfulness, and savor to fully engage the present.

“Flow” is a psychological term that means “being in the zone,” that is, to be actively involved in the present situation with focused attention. 

“Mindfulness” means to be aware of your present surroundings, and to especially be aware of your present state of mind and emotions; it is to pay attention to all that is within you and around you. 

To “savor” something is to enjoy it so much that you want it to last forever. It is to be slow, deliberate, and enjoyable. It’s about the journey, not just the destination.

Flow, mindfulness, and savor are what Jesus asked us to do. Christ wants us to stop and smell the roses. He wants us to give focused attention to what is currently in front of us; to be mindful of all the wonder of creation that presently surrounds us; and, to take the time to simply savor and enjoy it all. 

Once I was in a bible study with a group of people and the family’s dog kept licking a particular person to the point of distraction. Finally, I said to the group: “What do you think God is trying to tell us through the dog?”  We ended up having a very enlightening conversation on our own relationships with God and one another.

We are to be present to today. 

This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118:24, NRSV

When we realize life is short, we will not waste it on worrying about the future. Although we don’t know about tomorrow, we do know about today. And today we are to enjoy God’s good gifts to us in the here and now.

So, teach us to consider our mortality,
so that we might live wisely. (Psalm 90:12, NET)

The wise way to live is one day at a time. That was God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiled Israelites. The ancient Jews kept spending their time reminiscing about the past and wishing for a better future.  So, God told them what to do in their exile:

“Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NLT)

Being content means to enjoy today, to savor the present moment God has you in, even if you don’t like where you are right now.

So go eat your food and enjoy it;
    drink your wine and be happy,
because that is what God wants you to do.
Put on nice clothes
    and make yourself look good.

Enjoy life with the wife you love. Enjoy all the useless days of this useless life God has given you here on earth, because it is all you have. So, enjoy the work you do here on earth. Whatever work you do, do your best, because you are going to the grave, where there is no working, no planning, no knowledge, and no wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, NCV)

Appreciate God’s simple gifts

Sometimes we look so hard for a future miracle, and want out from the circumstance we are in, that we fail to experience contentment in the present time. We are to enjoy the simple pleasures of life which God gives to us, even within our adversity.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:12, NIV)

No matter what is going on in our lives, whether good or not, we can still appreciate a beautiful sunset, a good book, a walk on the beach, time with friends, good food, and a host of other simple gifts which God provides for us on a daily basis. Yet, we must stop long enough to experience and enjoy them.

Remember to celebrate

We are meant to celebrate life. The genuineness of Christianity is seen whenever Christians throw the best parties and have the most fun.

Someday we are all going to die. Rather than this being a downer, it is an opportunity to ponder an important question: Will you celebrate the time you have here on this earth and enjoy it? 

It’s not hedonistic (living for pleasure) to enjoy life and have a party. It’s actually a biblical thing to do. A spirit of celebration is a Christian spirit.

Work with enthusiasm

Dive in and enjoy your work. We end up worrying whenever our focus is on the destination. However, the real point of life is to enjoy the journey and the process. Be present to your work now and enjoy a job well done for the day, instead of looking forward to a fatter paycheck and a better job in the future.

My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:19, NIV

Engage in work with joyful abandon, and not with compulsive perfectionism (which is joyless and life-draining). Find ways of enjoyment within the kind of work that may be draining and not very exciting. Every job has mundane repetitive work to it. Yet, how we go about that work is significant.

If the here-and-now is not the best time of your life, then you and I need to be mindful to the words of Jesus because our focus is somehow misplaced. Contented people focus on the present, what is happening now, today, and they do not worry about tomorrow because that future state is the responsibility of God. 

Ever-present God, enlarge my heart to receive more of your grace and contentment. Rescue me from my small thoughts of your love and goodness. Free me from any unbelief and uncover my many fears. May I rest secure in the knowledge that you are good and everything you do is right, just, and fair. Amen.