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.

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.

The Law is Gentle

 

No Parking Signs

I first posted this thought at http://www.inspireafire.com/the-law-is-gentle/

Martin Luther famously said that God’s Law serves three purposes. First, it acts as a curb to prevent violent outbursts of sin. Think of a curb along a road, or a curb bit in a horse’s mouth. The law is like that barrier saying “you can come this far… and no farther.”

Danger SignSecond, the law acts as a mirror. When we compare ourselves to the perfection demanded by God’s law – perfection not just in outward action but in thought and desire, too – then we begin to see ourselves in a new and unflattering light. Like a little league star tested against the professionals, we suddenly realize we might not be such hot stuff after all.

Finally, the law acts as a guide. Although we can never attain perfection on our own, we know from the Law what it looks like. We know what to aspire to. We know what to ask God to help us achieve.

And God does help us.

So often when we think of the Law we think of the rules and regulations. We may think of these curbs, mirrors, and guides. We may think of how far we fall short. But today, I’m also thinking of Jesus, weeping over Jerusalem with the words “How often I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37).

All of the law’s harshness can be summarized in one gentle command: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).

Like chicks under a protective wing, we are called to press against Jesus. Do not beat against the curb, distress over the mirror, or try in vain to follow the guide. There is another way.

Bible in MirrorLove God.

That’s it. Love God.

Pursue Him. Run after Him. Seek Him. Love Him.

It sounds so simple, but there’s a catch. We have to want it. We have to want God more than anything else. More than any other relationship, more than any other passion, more than any other pursuit.

It is a gentle command. Which means it can be so easy to ignore. God will pursue us, but He will not force us to obey. We can choose to love so many other things. And I have found through my own wandering ways that when other loves begin to supersede the First Love, life begins to unravel in devastating ways.

The greatest command, Jesus said, is to love God. That one comes first.

Not second. Not somewhere down the line.

First.

Love Never Fails signAre you struggling? With loving others or loving yourself? With sin you can’t shake? With broken relationships, broken dreams, broken hope?

Refocus. On. God.

Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these other things will be given to you. “You shall seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” saith the Lord (Jeremiah 29:13).

It is not a harsh command, but it is the most important one.

Love God.

Memories. And a Net of Thanksgiving.

This post first appeared at http://www.inspireafire.com/casting-a-net-of-thanksgiving/

Memories can turn bittersweet in a second.

I can be happily following the rabbit trail of my thoughts, hopping between afternoon plans and pleasant reminiscing when WHAM!

Thoughts in a rabbit candy dishIt’s like a hole suddenly opened up beneath my feet, or a rock slammed me back twenty yards. Use whatever analogy you want – perhaps you’ve experienced it too? – but a wave of sadness, or anger, or fear (or all three) has me pinned and wriggling beneath its weight. My happy little thought trail just turned deadly.

Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one, or a struggling relationship, or a transition you’re trying to navigate. There will be a time when memories bring you joy and comfort, but not right away. First, they hurt. They hurt like a red hot poker you can’t get near enough to touch. And so you stay away. But eventually those memories start to sneak in. A familiar location, a familiar scent, a familiar sound. Between the red hot poker phase and the happy memory phase there is this in-between time. A memory starts out so innocently that you glance its way. And then it pummels you.

I’m navigating that in-between time right now. Trying to learn when it’s okay to look, and when it’s not. When it’s safe to let my mind wander, and when my mind is about to turn against me. It is a journey by trial and error. But it’s a journey I have to take. If I never touch the thoughts, I never progress. I would simply harden my heart, withdraw, turn cold. But on the other hand, if I move too quickly, I will drown in the floodgates of emotion.

I am learning to walk my thought trails with a weapon at the ready, and the weapon I have found most effective may surprise you. There is a fraction of second, a space barely the size of the gap between two thoughts, when I feel my thoughts turning against me, swinging me over a pit of grief.

TrailAnd in that thought gap, that fraction between thought and emotion, I throw a net.

A net of thanksgiving.

“I am thankful for this memory,” I say. And then I transition immediately to the present. “I am thankful that God is continuing to take care of me and preparing new moments for me to enjoy. I am thankful God is restoring old relationships and bringing new relationships. Thank you…”

The secret to success with this weapon is three-fold. First, I have to throw the net the milli-second I feel myself being swung over that pit. I can’t test the thought to see if it’s really turning on me; I can’t think a little further to see if it’s really all that sad. I lose that battle every time, and once I’m on the way down, it’s much harder to grab a handhold.

Second, I have to move away from the memory that threw me over the pit to begin with. Too many times I’ve tried to weave a net of thanksgiving by stringing together everything I’m thankful for in that old memory. The problem is that while my brain is saying thank you, my heart is feeling the loss of every one of those old memories. Before I know it, I’ve used my net to climb down into the very pit I was trying to avoid.

View from hammock.Third, this is a safety net, not a hammock. This strategy disrupts the spiraling thoughts just enough for me to get back to safer ground. Whatever train of thought brought me to the edge, now is not the time to hop on board again. Too many times I’ve swung myself out of the pit just to ride my thoughts right back down into it. If I can’t lead my thoughts elsewhere on my own, I need to turn on music, a podcast, or call a friend. Anything to move to a new location in my mind. I can go visit that train of thought some other day.

Memories are finicky things. They don’t always announce whether they are friend or foe, whether they carry joy or sadness. Often they carry both. Memories allow us to learn, to grow, and to relive moments. But their power should propel us toward our future, not hold us mired in the past. There are times we need to thank them for their service, and walk away.

Break Time

 DawnToDusk

This post originally appeared at: http://www.inspireafire.com/break-time
And yes, that moon photo is one I took recently on a drive through IA. Isn’t it amazing?

I was walking through the Wal-Mart parking lot when three individuals stepped out of their separate cars. They unknowingly fell into step with each other and headed toward the entrance. I watched in amazement as they reached out their left arms with the precision of synchronized swimmers. They moved like extensions of the same organism: first extending, then bending, then bringing their cell phones to their ears.

I don’t think any of them noticed the others. I wouldn’t have noticed them either, except for once I was not on my cell phone. I was not talking with a friend, checking messages, or otherwise engaged. I was simply walking my dog on a shortcut through the parking lot and toward our favorite park. As I went, I realized it had been a long time since I had simply walked and looked – I mean really looked – around me.

computers

All of this convenience, and yet…

There was a time when walking my dog was how I sorted through my day, just me and God and the occasional squirrel who rudely interrupted my ruminating by dashing a fluffy tail under my dog’s nose. There was a time I could say hello to the Wal*Mart greeter without him wondering if I was talking to him or the person on the other end of the line.The convenience of phones not tethered to walls means that I can squeeze in my verbal correspondence almost anyplace. With the advent of smart phones, I can even squeeze in my written correspondence while waiting in line or sitting on a park bench when I should, perhaps, be watching the sunset instead. All of this convenience allows me to connect with those whom I otherwise could never find the time to connect with. And yet…

Somewhere along the line my schedule got a little tighter. I joined this group, then that group, and worked late “just occasionally.” I volunteered for this, signed up for that, and was recruited into oh-but-you’d-be-so-good-at-this!

All of it was important. Most of it was fun. None of it could be dropped. Except of course, it could.

I’m not even sure how it happened, but it was gradual. I didn’t sign up for the next session. I stepped down for a term. I didn’t renew my membership. And suddenly I found myself walking freely across a parking lot, watching the ballet of the synchronized cell phone users and thinking: Sometimes freedom in Christ means giving Him the freedom to act in my life.

sunset road

Freedom means giving God room to act in our lives.

It’s a stunning thought, but I can hinder my own freedom by not giving God the necessary space to act in my life. When I have every minute of every day packed with activities, I am blocking God’s plans. Oh sure, God can and will use the activities I am part of, but I’m talking about that dawn to dusk treadmill that has me running so hard I might not even notice God is there. Heaven forbid He suggest I put my cell phone down and say hello to the cashier. I don’t have time for that!

It’s easier than I realized to become a slave to a schedule of my own creation. And there is more freedom than I ever imagined in letting it go… even for a short time.

It won’t be long before my little cushions of time get filled again. I’ll sign back up for this and return once more to that. But in the meantime, I am pierced by this probing question: How might God have used that time I filled with classes, sports teams, even church activities? While I am free to do as I choose, will I be even freer if I leave a little space for God to do as He chooses?

I’m taking a little break to find out.

MeOnBreak