Ashes

Last night I went to church and had ashes painted on my hand.

It’s tradition in some churches on Ash Wednesday to have ashes placed on the forehead or back of the hand. It’s a sign of repentance hearkening back to the sackcloth and ashes described in the Old Testament. And it’s a symbolic start to the Lenten season of personal reflection.

In the past I have had ashes placed on my forehead. Less humble, perhaps, but – I quickly realized – also less messy. As careful as I tried to be with my marked hand, it was not long before ashes made their way to the sleeve of my shirt, my jacket, my pants, the grocery store aisle, my dog’s head, my own head, my shoes… And even when it came time to wash my hands, the ashes bled and smudged and stained. Still today there is a faint cross-shaped shadow on the back of my hand.

Every time I look at that smudge, I am reminded. I am reminded of the less-physical but equally dark stains in my life. I am reminded how sin spreads so easily and so quickly, like ashes trailing from my hand. Some days it seems everything I touch turns dark. Some days nothing I say is right. Some days everything seems to be falling apart – flaking into smaller and smaller dark smudges.

But I am also reminded of another hand. A hand that is stained not with ashes, but with blood. And how this hand, too, leaves traces. Not of darkness. Not of ashes. But of life-giving blood.

For all the ashes I leave in my wake, there is Someone who comes along and deposits something else. Peace. Hope. Love. The blood of Jesus cleanses in a way that water on my physical ashes never could. The red hand of Jesus covers the black hand of me. And in His wounds, I am healed.

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

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Debt Free

I recently paid off my student loans. With submission of that last payment, I was – for the first time in (too many) years – debt free. You might think this would result in feelings of relief, elation, excitement, happiness…

You’d be wrong.

Instead I was plagued by sporadic moments of irrational panic. The moments were brought on by thoughts like these:

What if it’s not really paid off? What if I made the final check out for the wrong amount? What if, when I consolidated 8 years ago, they missed one of my loans and that loan has been sitting out there accruing interest for all these years? What if there is some other debt I forgot about?

These thoughts were quickly followed by others.

What if I suddenly have a major medical expense that plunges me into debt again? What if something catastrophic happens that forces me into a loan I can never repay? What if, just when I reach this major milestone, something happens and I am never debt free again?

And then it dawned on me.

In this life we have debts we can never repay. They may be financial. They may be physical or emotional. They may be spiritual. I am in debt to friends. I am in debt to strangers. I am debt to the gentleman who stepped out of his way last week to hold the door for me.

But most of all, I am in debt to God.

God has loaned me this life. All of it. The good, the bad, the everything in between. He has rained down blessings. He has walked with me through struggles. He has pushed me to grow. My life is a loan I can never repay. At some point, because I have no choice, this loan will run out. I cannot buy it. I cannot extend it. I cannot even ask to have the terms and conditions adjusted. When the loan is up, I will leave this life behind.

That’s a pretty big debt. But it’s not even the biggest one. Because in addition to this loan, God also has offered me a gift. He has invited me, when I leave this life behind, to go instead and stay with Him. He has offered to pay off the debts of this life. The emotional debts, the physical debts, and most of all, the spiritual debts.

If we compiled all the money in the world, it would not be enough to purchase passage for even one person into God’s house. Or, if we all worked our entire lives, trying to pay off such a debt, it would still not be enough. And yet, God has invited each one of us to join Him, free of charge. It is not a loan. It is a gift.

God sent His Son Jesus to show us our way home. God sent His Son Jesus to remove the great burden of debt under which each one of us would otherwise live. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:23-25).

I thank God for the reminders in this life of what it means to carry a debt. I pray that He guides me toward good stewardship of all that He has given me. And then I thank God that even when I am under the burdens of this world, it is through His gift that I come to understand what it truly means to be living debt free.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).

An Important Theological Rambling

I used to think Christians believed this: God will cast into Hell anyone who does not believe in Jesus.

Wait, you might say.  That is what Christians believe.

Perhaps.  But there is a distinction that I think is critical. It’s not so much God casts someone into Hell simply because he or she doesn’t believe in Jesus.  God is not saying “Believe in my Son, or else.”  I think that’s sometimes the way the Christian message comes across.

What Christians actually believe goes something more like this.  We are already destined for Hell.  From the moment Adam and Eve went against the command of God, we have been separated from God.  There is nothing we can do to earn favor with God, to save ourselves, to make it into heaven.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  Even the tiniest sin separates us from God.  “I say to you,” Jesus said, “that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (James 2:10).  Is it any wonder that at one point Jesus’ disciples cried, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26)

Christians believe that because God is holy, He cannot be in the presence of sin.  Because we are sinful, we can never be in the presence of God.  There will come a time of judgment and every one of us – on our own – will be found sinful and be cast away from God’s presence.

But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  God did for us what we could never do for ourselves.  He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life and then sacrifice Himself for us.  God’s judgment and wrath were poured out on His Son when Jesus took our sins to the cross with Him.  On the day of judgment, Christians will say “God, I have sinned, but my sins have already been punished.  I gave my life to Jesus, and Jesus already paid for my sins.”  God will look and see that, indeed, Jesus already paid their price.  Their sins are forgiven.  Their debt has been paid.

But those who don’t accept Jesus as their savior will stand before God alone.  They will say, “God, here are my unpaid sins.”  And God will have no choice but to cast them away.

Belief in Jesus, then, is less like the ultimatum “believe or else” and more like a lifeguard casting a lifesaver to a drowning person.  The lifeguard is not saying “Take this lifesaver or I will drown you.”  No.  The person is already drowning, and the lifeguard is reaching out to save him.  Likewise, we are already drowning.  God is reaching out to us.

There is one problem with this analogy.  The best way for us to help a drowning person is to toss him a lifeline.  But God is omnipotent.  He doesn’t need to toss out a lifeline to save someone.  He could just snap His fingers and save them.  Why, then, doesn’t He just snap His fingers and save us all?  Why does He choose to send Jesus into the world instead?

The answer, I suspect, has much to do with free will and the presence of original sin.  But those are thoughts to pursue another day.  For now, the point remains, regardless of reason, that God did send Jesus into the world as our lifeline.  Jesus Himself declared, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).

Yes, Christians do believe that those who do not believe in Jesus will be eternally separated from God.  But it is our sins – not our lack of belief – that originally separated us from God.  Sin is the punishable trait.  The lack of belief, or the failure to accept God’s Lifeline, does not initially separate us from God; it keeps us separated from God.

God has cast us a lifeline.  Grab hold.

God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

Leave It

One of the first commands I ever taught my puppy was “Leave it!”  Like a toddler’s newfound use of the word “no,” “Leave it!” quickly became an echoing refrain.  Leave the garbage, leave my shoes, leave the cord to my cell phone…  It wasn’t long before she knew what it meant.  Acting accordingly, however, was a different matter. 

She’s well through the puppy stage these days, and I stack my shoes by the door without worrying that they will be shredded.  The garbage, on the other hand, is still kept securely in the cupboard under the sink.  And there are plenty of times when we are out hiking that she comes across some unmentionable delicacy along the trail.  Sometimes she eats it before I even realize she has found something.  Sometimes she pauses and gives me “the look.”  Have you ever seen that look cross the face of a toddler when they know they are going to get in trouble for doing something but are about to do it anyway?  Have you ever felt that look cross your own face?

“Leave it!” was also the first command that God gave to the human race.  The Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

In other words, leave it!

The echoing refrain of this command is seen throughout the Bible.  The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are filled with the order to “leave it.”  Turn away from that idol.  Stop using profanity.  Do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie.  Do not be envious or desire anything that belongs to someone else.  Leave it! 

Jesus took these commands one step further.  Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:22, 28).  We are called not just to leave sin in the physical sense – I didn’t actually do anything wrong – but to leave sin in the intentional sense as well.  We are to leave it completely, with both our bodies and our minds.  

This isn’t just to make our lives difficult.  God knows, as anyone who has ever watched a toddler knows, if we sit and think about breaking a rule, it won’t be long before we glare defiantly over our shoulder and cross the line.  Paul addressed this same principle when he wrote to the church at Corinth, I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).

Sin begins in the mind.  We are presented first with a small desire, and it is at that point that we are faced with the uphill climb of resistance or the slippery slope to sin.  It is at that point that Jesus is warning us that letting our emotions go unchecked or letting ourselves consider something sinful is the same as actually committing the sin.  Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14).

Temptation is all around us in this world.  It is not a question of if we will be tempted, but when. And, more importantly, how we will respond when we are enticed by the desires we find along life’s trail.  We have the choice to defy God’s word and allow our desire to conceive sin, or we have the choice to obey God’s command to leave it.

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12).