Mercy. A Story of Unrequited Love

This post was first shared at http://www.inspireafire.com, and I wanted to also share with you!

I’m conducting a little Bible study. You’re welcome to come along if you’d like.

Love Never Fails sign

It starts with the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbor. In Luke 10, the expert in the law wanted to know how to define neighbor, but I’m more interested in the other key word in this commandment: love.

Fortunately, in the exchange that follows, we get the answer to this question, too.

After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the expert in the law which of the men in the story was a neighbor. The reply: The one who had mercy on him.

And there we find the answer to not just the who, but also the how. To love others is to show them mercy.

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus told the Pharisees. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13)

If Jesus told them to go learn what this means, then I think I better go learn it too. Here is just a tiny scraping of what I have learned so far.

The Greek word used here for mercy is eleos, and has a meaning of active compassion, of helping another. Mercy is not just something you have or something you feel; mercy is something you give.

Our modern word mercy comes from a Latin word that refers to the price paid for something. In other words, to show mercy to someone is to pay the price for them.

When someone is hungry, you may show them mercy by paying for their meal. When someone needs help, you may pay the price of your time to help them out.

Those are the easy ones.

Then there are the times when someone hurts you. Or when you feel like someone is taking advantage of you. Or when you’re already paying the price for someone else’s actions through no choice or fault of your own.

Then you pay the price of forgiveness.

And this, not of your own doing, lest any man should boast.

There are some things that are impossible to do on our own. Perfectly loving others, and sometimes even imperfectly loving others, is one of those things. Oh, it’s easy when you’re in a loving relationship to jump at every opportunity to demonstrate your love through concrete acts of mercy. It’s easy when there is a basic reciprocity so that everyone’s needs are being met. But here’s the thing. If everyone’s needs are being met through simple acts of human effort, then there is no space, nor even need, for God.

The harder kind of mercy is when no matter how much you give, it feels like it’s dropping into a dark abyss and there is nothing positive coming back out. This kind of mercy can only be given by God. And when you stop drawing on the relationship itself, when you stop drawing on any kind of reciprocal payment, then you cry out for God Himself to supply the mercy. When you have nothing of your own left to give, then you start giving from whatever God provides.

Three strands and cross

And God always provides.

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And if we turn to Hosea 6:6, which is the verse that Jesus was quoting, we see something remarkable. There is an “and” at the end of this quote. There is more to this sentence. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.”

How do we love even when it hurts? By acknowledging God. By drawing first on his mercy and on his perfect love with which he loves us, so that we may only then turn and love others.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

To My Future Former Self

This post was first shared at https://inspireafire.com/to-my-future-former-self/.

sunset road

RE: My Advice

Date: January 2020

I know you cringe when you’re told too flippantly to keep your chin up and everything will be fine.  I know what you’re thinking: “You have no idea how this will actually end for me.”

Oh, we know that all things work together for good for those who love God. And we know that in the end God wins and we get to celebrate with Him in heaven. But that’s not what you mean. You mean, it’s easy once the struggle is over to tell someone else that their problem will work out.

You want to hear from someone in the trenches. Someone with mud and tears still on their face. You want to hear them say it’s going to be okay. You want someone whose heart is currently breaking to look you in the eye and say, I hear you. I understand. This path is hard. I don’t know where it leads either. Nevertheless, you are going to make it through.

Lantern

That’s what you want to hear.

So here I am. I am the future of your former self, so I know what you’ve been through and how you got here. I know the path right now is hard, and I don’t know where it leads. But here is what I have to say.

It’s hard when you’re in the middle to even know the next step. For every voice in your head that shouts at you to dig in and hold on there is an equally compelling voice that says it’s time to let go. You’re not even sure what those things mean. You just know they are tearing you up inside so that sometimes all you can do is fall to your knees and physically scream.

That’s okay for a time. But here’s an image I want you to see:

Hand holding box

Imagine putting it all in a box. All of it. Leave the top open so you can still look inside. You can still watch and see what’s going to happen.

Now hand the box to God. And grip God’s hand.

You’re still holding onto it. You’re still fighting for it with everything you’ve got. But God’s hand is between you, and it.

That’s how you hold on and let go at the same time.

Do you remember when God asked Ezekiel down in that terrible valley, “Can these bones live?” My answer is the same as his: “Lord God, only you know.”

Only God knows your path and the life it leads to, but there are amazing things that you are going to witness. Miracles that bring life to your dry bones.

Someday you will set down all this confusion you’re carrying around. Not because you get answers to your questions, but because you will reach a point where your questions no longer matter. Like those bones clattering one atop the other, your despair will turn to hope and your confusion to purpose. When it happens, it will be God’s doing, but the path to get you there is yours to walk. Not because you must change paths in order for God to work, but because the path is changing you.

Love Never Fails sign

You will be loved deeply. It may be another person who comes alongside you. It may be a revelation of God’s love that becomes more real and palpable to you than anything you’ve ever experienced. Either way, that need for love and belonging that burns so fiercely in your heart – and every human heart – will be filled to overflowing. In turn, you will reach out with the love of God to others in ways that were never possible before.

You will experience what it means to fill yourself with God. It may come directly from His Spirit like Ezekiel in the desert or the disciples in the upper room. It may come from His Word, from scripture-based teachings and books, from His Creation, from unexpected places. Ask Him and ask Him and ask Him, because he promises “I will be found by you.”

Remember, God is holding your box now. When it all becomes too much, stop and remember that. Then keep pushing forward. Make mistakes. Try again. Fall down. Get back up. Hold onto God’s hand with everything you have – not to keep God from slipping away, but to keep your hands off things they shouldn’t be on.

And He will work. And you will make it through.

Faith Like a Squeaky Toy

Dog with stuffed toy.
This post first appeared at inspireafire.com.

Have you ever wondered what’s inside a dog’s squeaky toy?

Of course not. Because if you’ve ever had a dog with a squeaky toy, you’ve already seen the inside.

Dog toy stuffing.

Do you know how you got to see the inside? Because the outside was completely chewed up and destroyed.

Some days I feel like that squeaky toy.

The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is in us (2 Corinthians 13:5). Unlike the inside of my dog’s squeaky toy, I don’t know what that looks like.

Unfortunately, I suspect the way we find out is very similar.

Dog chewing on toy.

In times of trial, I question why God is making me go through this. I feel like I am being ripped apart and chewed up. Or maybe like I’ve been swallowed whole and am navigating a long, dark, winding passage that, quite frankly, stinks.

The reality is even worse than the metaphor.

I argue with myself – whether God is causing the suffering, whether I brought this on myself, whether there is any way to get through this dark night of the soul any faster, whether I am going to make it out at all.

My arguments go nowhere. But this is what the Bible says: That when we are tested by various trials – various fiery trials – the genuineness of our faith is being tested. And not just tested in the sense of does it exist and how strong is it, but tested in the sense of testing gold in the furnace. This means burning off the dross and refining our faith into something even more precious than gold.

Faith, I am coming to see, is not just revealed in the furnace of our trials, but actually made.

“I want a faith like that,” I used to think when I witnessed individuals who seemed to have an unwavering connection to God. I knew it was a dangerous prayer even when I said it, but I didn’t know it was going to hurt so, so bad.

Dog chewing on toy.
It is not always easy to get to see inside.

I do not have an unwavering faith. But I am in the furnace. And I am clinging to this promise: that we are being guarded not by our own feeble strength of faith, but by God’s power. At the last time, the goal of our faith, like a chewed up squeaky toy, is going to be revealed. And that goal is the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:5-9).

Christ dwells within us now. Peter (1:8) urges us that though we have not seen Christ, we can love Him, and though we do not see Him now, we can believe in Him. Some day we will see Him face-to-face, but we don’t have to wait until then to know He is here.

Maybe we just have to listen for the squeak.

Sometimes it’s hard to hear over the roar of the furnace, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Traffic Stop

This post also appears at http://www.inspireafire.com.

I’m sitting in traffic as I write this.

Sunset over highway

I don’t mean the backed-up-at-a-red-light kind of traffic. I wish I could write a blog post that quickly. No, I’m talking about the “highway is closed ahead due to two semis and a truck” kind of traffic. That’s according to a lady in a mini-van who apparently has inside knowledge from highway patrol somewhere to my rear.

She passes me slowly, the lady in the minivan, as I stand outside my car with half a dozen other people, stretching our legs. She rolls by half on the median as she tries to find a place where the median is a little less ditch-like in the hopes of crossing over.

“They said they have no idea how long it could be or what they are doing!” She shouts encouragingly as she rolls by.

Highway traffic

I am glad I recently made a pit stop, considering this part of Interstate 70 consists of nothing but wide-open fields with nary a bit of cover until darkness falls.

A few vehicles brave the small ditch in the median and do make it across, but most of us are sitting. Or standing.

And waiting.

The couple next to me have Kansas plates and a yellow lab they take for a walk. Ahead of me is a flatbed truck and behind me is a semi. I watch the sun set and the moon rise.

And I wait.

Our part of the highways turns to darkness. While headlights still pierce the eastbound lanes, our cars sit silent. No headlights, no flashing hazards. Only the occasional interior light or flash of a mobile device as someone rummages in their trunk. It’s remarkably quiet for sitting in the middle of a highway.

I’m mid-sentence on my keyboard when the world outside suddenly changes. Maybe it’s because I’m preoccupied, but the suddenness of the change catches me off guard. There is light and noise and movement. I toss my laptop on to the passenger seat, bring my car to life, and punch the gas. I had expected a gradual start-up, but in seconds I’m flying down the highway. The very last thing you want to do is stay in the middle of a highway with an entire line of cars behind you that have been sitting for two hour and are now ready to go.

Another mile down the road the congestion comes back. We move in starts and stops, bypass the crash scene, and then finally – finally – begin to move at a steady pace.

Isn’t that so like life?

highway at night

You’re hurtling along only to come to a screeching halt. A sudden change and you jump from 0 to 60 only to hit another road block. You stop and start. You detour. The stretches of smooth sailing sometimes seem few and far between.

We have a leader in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean the path is always clear. Like the Israelites following the pillar of fire in the desert, we don’t always know in advance when it’s time to go, or when it’s time to stay, or even which direction we’ll be headed next.

God grant to us the wisdom to know that when there is no clear path forward it may be time to sit and wait. And when the road suddenly opens up in front of us, let us be ready to punch the gas so we don’t get run over from behind.

Highway sign

Bird or Leaf

Pine Tree

“It’s a game you’d like,” my friends insisted.

As they waited for their daughter to finish her activities, they would ponder whether the sudden flutter on a distance branch was a bird or a leaf.

“It’s harder than you might think,” they said.

“So how do you decide which it is?” I asked.

“Well, once you’ve sat there for more than an hour it’s probably flown away if it’s a bird. And if not, it’s a leaf.”

I was reminded of this conversation the other night when I unwittingly began to play this game. When the breeze ruffled the branches of a nearby pine just right, I glimpsed a flash of red. Was that a cardinal? (Those who are long-time readers of my blog may know that I have a thing about spotting cardinals.)

I waited for another glimpse, but when it came, I was less certain. Was it just dead needles? No, it looked too red! Or – when the wind blew again – maybe the sunlight was hitting some brown needles just right to make it appear red.

Several minutes passed while I pondered this tree. Then, not willing to wait the full hour of the official bird or leaf game, I wandered over to take a closer look. And the thought that came to me, the thought that felt as though God whispered it directly into my heart was this:

I can outwait you.

Pine Branches

I don’t think He was talking about just the bird or leaf game. I think He was reminding me that no matter what I do, no matter how badly I go astray, no matter how long I run, He can outwait me. The causes that seem hopeless, the pain that does not seem to let up, the struggle that seems to never progress – God can outwait it all. It may seem as though it is never going to get better, but God is still waiting. He can outwait the pain, He can outwait the struggle, He can outwait our stubbornness.

When we have given up, when the devil has given up, when the pain of this world has given up – God is still waiting.

There is hope in His waiting.

The vision is for an appointed time… the Bible tells us. Though it tarry, wait patiently for it. It shall surely come and will not be late (Habbakuk 2:3). He who endure to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13).

Once closer to the tree, I could see more clearly. When the wind blew just right, the needles parted to let me glimpse not a cardinal, but a message. About waiting. And about having faith in the One who outwaits us all.

I’m Not Looking for a Dog

This post first appeared at inspireafire.com

Crate Bars

So what am I doing here?

The first time my answer was simple. I carried in a nearly new bag of dog food. Some flea and tick prevention. A bag of dental chews with just two missing.

“Do you take donations?” I asked the girl behind the counter.

“Of course we do,” she replied. “Thanks so much for thinking of us.”

And since I was already there, I signed the waiver holding the animal shelter harmless, and wandered back through the kennels.

Crate

That was the first time.

Three days later, my answer is much more complicated. I’m still not looking for a dog, but I cannot stay away from this place. With its noise and smell and sense of desperation, it is an unlikely place to find what I am looking for. And yet I know, instinctively, that here I am looking for the same thing each of these dogs is looking for.

Hope.

It is a terrible place to look. Amidst fear. Amidst rejection and abandonment. And yet isn’t that the very place to look?

Who hopes for what he already has? Paul asked. Hope that is seen is no hope at all. But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24)

Hope is found in the most unexpected places. Because it is pain that begets hope.

I know this, as I look at the bars separating me from the inside. The spilled dog food, the soiled toys, the little touches that cannot hide the dismal nature of these holding pens.

Hope is not found in the sunshine; it is not needed there. Hope is found in the shadows.

The staff here know that I am just looking. Looking at cages. Looking at the lives inside of them. And looking at freedom.

Cartoon Dog & Hearts

Tags appear even as I wait: “On hold for someone special – adoption pending.” One staff member tells me he started just over a month ago, and already most of the dogs that were here when he started have been adopted.

This is both unbelievable and wonderful to me.

This place – this frightening and confusing and horrible place – can be the start of a beautiful new beginning.

If that is true for these cast-off canines, could it not also be true for me? And for you?

We have a Heavenly Father who is not only our supreme caretaker, but who can break off chains and knock down prison walls. When Israel was at one of the lowest points in their history and held captive in Babylon, God sent a word to them through the prophet Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

While this particular proclamation was to Israel, the premise is true for us today. Our Heavenly Father has told us that he has good plans for us, and they are still unfolding. Because of His great love for us we are not consumed. He will teach us in the darkness how to hope. He will prod us in the present toward our future.

Hope can be found even in a cage. Do not forget this.

A Tribute to Fasting and Grief

Kitchen Timer

A post I wrote this week for Inspire a Fire http://www.inspireafire.com/a-tribute-to-fasting-and-grief

The details of my experience aren’t significant, but the lessons are. A few months ago I did my first-ever fast. Let me tell you what l learned.

First, once I knew the fast was approaching, I became hyper-aware of everything I ate. I expected a new-found appreciation for dinner time, I was surprised when that appreciation started even before the fast.

spoonfulSecond, I was tired and cold. And no matter how much water I drank, I still felt dehydrated. This made me appreciate food as energy in a whole new way.

Third, and most importantly, once the fast had started, there was nothing I could do to speed it up.

Fasting is not something you do. Fasting is something you endure.

Most things in life you can work harder and do better. You can work faster and finish quicker. You can put more in and get more out.

Fasting does not work that way. Because even though the fast may be planned, fasting is not an action you take. It’s an action you don’t take.

Several times over the course of just one day I would catch myself feeling the unpleasantness and wanting to do something. I was willing to go through this. I just wanted to go through it a little faster. And I would have to remind myself there was nothing to be done but to continue on with my day while the fast slowly ran its course.

I had no idea then that God was preparing me for what was going to happen next.

Exactly two weeks after my fasting experience, my father passed away unexpectedly. Exactly six weeks later, my dog of 15 years similarly passed away.

And here I am.

Paw print stoneGrief, like fasting, leaves me tired and cold. I sleep and do not get rested. I eat and do not get energized. I can tell I am not quite functioning like I should, but I am powerless to change it.

I find myself thinking back to that lesson from fasting.

Grief, too, is not something you do. It’s something that happens to you. It is something you endure.

Grief, like fasting, is not an action to take. It is the absence of a million small actions you no longer take.

There is nothing that can be done to speed the grief process. There may be grief-coping skills. There may be people who come alongside you. There is the Great Comforter himself who shows up in surprising ways. But all of that does not speed the process; it merely helps you endure.

Strangely, I find a modicum of comfort in recognizing this.

My job is to endure. That’s it.

Three strands and crossIt’s okay if I feel cold and tired and am not functioning like I should. My job is to endure.

It’s okay if I feel sad or angry or lonely. My job is to endure.

It’s okay if I try something new and fail. I will try again. Because my job is to endure.

I learned this lesson before, and I am re-learning it every day: there is nothing to be done but to continue on with my day while the grieving slowly runs its course.

“Let them grieve as one having hope,” my pastor often prays.

And hope, according to Romans 15:4, comes from two places: The Bible. And endurance.

Whether you are currently grieving or will someday face a new grief, hold onto this, my friends. Let us endure, moment by moment, to the end. We cannot speed the journey, but we can choose to live each moment while we wait.