Casting Stones

“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger.

 They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.”                                                                                                                                                                 John 8:4-7

This is a familiar passage, because it illustrates several points so well. One is the mercy of Jesus toward a person caught in the act of breaking Jewish law. Another point is that it captures the brilliant response Jesus employed to cut through the improper motives of the accusers. Finally, it illustrates the pervasive nature of sin- it is the common human problem which none of us escape.

The woman who was brought to Jesus and accused of adultery had no defense. She was guilty. Yet she was also simply being used as a prop for the crowd. Her partner in the crime for which she was being accused is nowhere to be found. Clearly, justice was not being served here.

Jesus saw through the plan, and he did not just say to them, “You all are sinners too, and this is not right what you are doing!”  They would have reacted defensively and angrily. Jesus carefully and deliberately used a process so that they could see for themselves their own guilt. This is called conviction of the heart.

What he wrote on the ground in the dirt is open to speculation, but whatever he wrote was powerful and convicting. Maybe he named their sins, maybe he wrote their names, or maybe he wrote out another scripture. Whatever he wrote stopped them in their tracks.

Jesus recognized the guilt of the woman. Yet he pardoned her and said essentially, “go and don’t do this sin again”.

The point here is that “casting stones” at others seems like a bad idea- and yes, we all do it figuratively. If we consider our own actions, and the mercy we have received from others, maybe we aren’t so quick to throw stones.

Prayer: Father, thank you for the example you have given us in your son, Jesus. Help us to remember what he taught, Amen. 

Paradox

Def. “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.                                                                                                    Isaiah 55:8-9

I have always been fascinated with the truths that are paradoxical. So many tenets of the Christian faith fit into this category. For example, Paul says in II Corinthians 12:10 “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong”

So many of God’s ways seem to be counterintuitive to our thinking, yet that actually makes sense since he is the omnipotent God, Creator of the universe, and we cannot begin to bring our little human logic to completely understanding such a Being.

Another example is the way that we approach peace with God. It is not by doing good works, making sacrifices, or simply trying to be or appear good. It is by accepting his gift to us of the sacrifice of his own son, Jesus, to make atonement that we could not make for ourselves. The very idea of God sacrificing his own son for people who have turned their back on him is enough of a paradox in itself.

But there it is. So, in trying to understand God, the answer is, accept in faith what appears to be absurd or contradictory. His ways are higher than our ways. We can better accept that if we have such a mindset. Actually, many feel that is too simple to be true.

Yeah, there is that paradox again.

Prayer: Lord, your ways are higher than our ways. Help us to remember that truth, Amen

Getting Lost in the Rules

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”                                                                                                         Mark 2:27

            This passage from the book of Mark is well known, and for the most part, easily understood. Jesus was reacting to the narrow interpretations of the Pharisees who confronted Jesus and his disciples for plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath.

            While it is easy to look back, and criticize the Pharisees for their narrow and short-minded interpretations, I am reminded that to do that also makes me a Pharisee. I expect that at least some of those Pharisees were very sincere in their desire to do the right thing. They had been raised and taught that religion consists largely in keeping the rules. There had not been the emphasis on the rest of the scriptures which reminded them to treat the sojourner with mercy and to feed the poor, etc. For them, the rules were paramount – even to the potential detriment to the people for whom the rules were written. So, keeping rules for the sake of keeping rules is not a good idea, nor the intent of even having them.

            In fact, during the wars of the Maccabees, Jewish rebels who were fleeing from Syrian soldiers, took the Sabbath so seriously that they refused to defend themselves on the Sabbath, for to do so would violate the law. They gave their lives to uphold their strong Sabbath beliefs.  

            Jesus pointed out to them the folly of their limited understanding. I think we too can have limited understanding of God and his plans. The Holy Spirit is the one who enlightens us, and without the Spirit, we also come short and fail to act upon our faith with compassion and light.

            Paul said that spiritual things are spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14-15). We need that enlightenment every day in order to properly discern the truths that God has for us. I am reminded that without that guidance of the Spirit, I too am a judging Pharisee, who lacks understanding and mercy toward others.

Prayer: Father, forgive us for our failure to see the most obvious things at times. Thank you for your Spirit, and the guidance he brings to all who ask for it, Amen.  

Fear Not

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.                                                                                                             Isaiah 41:10

…casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ                                                                                  II Corinthians 10:5

There is a reason why the Bible tells us, I understand, 365 times, to “fear not”. Why does the Bible contain so many reassurances to “not fear”? Because we tend to have fear! We all have natural tendencies to fear things, so we need to frequently hear that we need not fear.

President Franklin Roosevelt was famous for the saying, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”. There was actually much truth in what he said, and even though his likely intent was more political health than mental health, it was a good word for the American people.

So, if we can take our immediate fearful thoughts captive, and really speak truth to them- that is to determine how valid that fear really is, we can better evaluate it as either something to pay attention to, or to dismiss as anxiety.

Once again, I suggest that we find our trusted “team member” to run things by for validation and calibration. Often, we will find that the “fear not” is much more likely the case than the “you ought to be afraid” scenario.

Prayer: Lord, you have told us not to fear because you are in charge. Help us to hold that close, Amen

Entitlement

Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
    Everything under heaven belongs to me

Job 41:11

I often smile at this passage from the book of Job. It is part of God’s response to Job near the end of the book after Job and his friends have been discussing and arguing over theology, and the cause of suffering. Job’s friends typically came around to the conclusion that Job had done something to merit God’s punishment, otherwise, their sense of God’s fairness and judgment would be challenged. Surely God was responding, they believed, to something that Job had done, or not done, to deserve such terrible circumstances. God doesn’t cause our pain, but he can help us to redeem it for the benefit of us and others.

Job, on the other hand, was trying to work through his own actions and thoughts, and came to the conclusion that he had not really done anything wrong particularly, and he was questioning God about his situation. He wondered what he must to reverse God’s curse on him. Finally he just wondered if God cared at all for him.

We, at least I, do the same kind of stuff. Somewhere in our theology, we impose our sense of fairness and justice on God, and ultimately justify ourselves. We then believe that God should respond to us in a certain way. If He does not, we question His goodness or even His power. In other words, we feel entitled to answers from God. He owes us an explanation for unanswered prayers!

I keep saying “we” here. Maybe it is just me who often falls into this sense of entitlement (but I really don’t think so J). It is subtle, and I have to really question myself at times, but yes, sometimes I get this ridiculous sense of entitlement from the Creator and sovereign God of the universe. Then I reflect on God’s words to Job.

 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
    Everything under heaven belongs to me

Who am I to question God? It is really pretty laughable when I really think about it. Sometimes I also sit back and try to think of God’s take on it.

 “Poor John” He may be saying, “he really thinks I owe him something. I have told him that I love him, and I will never leave him, but it is never enough for that one. I will carry him through whatever he faces, he just doesn’t see that now. Some day he will”

Prayer: Forgive my sense of entitlement. Thank you for loving us right where we are. Your promises hold true no matter what, Amen

Slow Things Down…

Hot tempers start fights; a calm, cool spirit keeps the peace

Proverbs 15:18 (The Message)

We can learn a lot from sports. One of the things that great athletes can do- indeed must learn to do- is to slow things down. When a rookie comes into a professional sport, he or she must learn to control the excitement of their emotions in order to perform at the top of their game. The rush of adrenaline they feel when they walk onto the field, court or arena, must be channeled and kept under control. Some athletes say that they need to “let the game come to them” or a similar phrase that means, “I need to be in control of my emotions and concentrate everything I have into my performance”.

In a similar way, I tell my clients to try to slow things down in the heat of the moment. Taking control of breathing, for example, allows us to focus on the facts and truth rather than the emotional thoughts that might lead us astray.

Recently, I talked with a client about how he gets defensive with his wife during disagreements. He can hear her words at the moment and immediately fill in a blank that she might not have intended. However, because of his past experiences, he tends to interpret her words as indictments of his ability. He knows the truth, but in the heat of the moment, he makes a leap in logic to old untruths.

Just like slow-motion replay in sports helps us to slow down the action and see the truth of the on-field decision, we may need to find our own ways of slowing down the action in our mind to see the truth that we need.

Prayer: Lord, help us to slow down to better see truth, Amen

The Fruit of the Spirit

 “The entire law is summed up in a single command; “Love your neighbor as yourself”                    Galatians 5:14

“Simple but not easy”. This is one of the sayings used by people in recovery, and I like it. The concept we are talking about is profoundly simple, and it sums up thousands of pages of law that Hebrews tried to keep. Simply love your neighbor as yourself and you’ve got it. The profound truth of the universe explained. While this is a simple concept, it is excruciatingly hard to follow. Do you and I love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves?

Truth is, we cannot do this in our own power. That is why we see in Galatians 5: 22, Paul says that the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit is love. In fact, some commentaries suggest that the fruit of the Spirit is love, period. All those other descriptors, like joy, peace, patience, etc. are simply aspects of love.

So, we can completely fulfill the requirements of God’s law by yielding ourselves to the power and leading of the Holy Spirit. If we do that, we will love others with the love of God. This leads to peace with God and others. Knowing who we are and where we stand with the everlasting God as a result of doing what He has commanded gives us peace. Loving others as we love ourselves can only be attained through yielding to the Spirit. Doing this daily allows us to grow in the experience of the peace of God. The promise fulfilled- And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

Prayer: Father your commands set us free. Help us to yield daily to love you, by loving others better, Amen

I Don’t Know…

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.                                                                                                   Isaiah 55:8-9

How easily that sentence can roll off my tongue these days- “I don’t know”. You see, the truth is the secret to wisdom is to recognize that there is so very much that we do not know. We go through life accumulating a fund of knowledge- facts, experiences, even wisdom- yet there is an amazing amount we do not know.

Sometimes religion would offer to people the idea that we can have knowledge of God and understanding of his plans. I think that such an idea is hubris at its worst. There is so much about God that we do not know, and can never know, and it is the height of pride to pretend that we can.

Job and his friends tried to understand why Job was suffering, and they used all the knowledge that they had to figure out the puzzle of human suffering.  In the end God told them that essentially, He is the author and creator of life, and that their job was not to understand his ways, but to trust his ways.

Isn’t that the truth that we try to tell our young children? They do not understand why we give them certain directions and guidance, but we do it for their good. They were too young to understand the reasons for our decisions, they just needed to trust us as loving parents.

I think that is how it is with God too. We cannot see the full picture of his master plans. We try to understand because we are curious and are made to seek understanding and knowledge. But God’s plans are bigger than our minds can understand fully. Our job is to trust him, knowing that he has our best interest at stake.

“I don’t know” is a perfectly fine phrase to say. It is especially good if we can follow it by saying, “but I trust Him”.

Prayer: Lord, we do not always understand your ways, but help us to trust them more and more, Amen.

Information and Communication

The right word at the right time
    is like a custom-made piece of jewelry                                                                                              Proverbs 25:11 (The Message)

I had the opportunity the other day to talk with one of my “couples clients” about the difference between communication and information. Sometimes we interchange these two concepts, and understandably so. Yet, there is a difference between the two activities.

Sometimes in a relationship, partners who have been together for a long time (even some not so long) can fall into just exchanging information, but not really communicating. The example I gave to my clients was this…

“I am going to the dentist tomorrow, so make sure to pick up the kids from school”. That is good information, and probably necessary and important. However, communication might be …

“I have a dentist appointment tomorrow and I’m not looking forward to it. They may need to do a crown, and that is so uncomfortable sometimes. Besides, that might be a chunk of money…”

This is a pretty mundane example, but it expresses the difference. In the first instance, information was shared, but not much more. The second instance conveyed some deeper concerns about the dentist visit, and it opens up an opportunity for more engagement.

Sometimes, simple little things make all the difference in communication. For the couple that I explained this to, the wife was nodding her head in agreement. She truly wants this type of communication exchange, mundane as it may be, and not simply information. The husband was a bit confused by how this made much difference. For him, simple information was enough. This gave us a chance to explore a bit further about perceptions of how each communicates.

Again, simple stuff, but it deserves our attention, and it can make a difference.

Prayer: Lord, help us to be sensitive to the gift of communication, and the difference it makes in relationships, Amen

You Can Do It

This blog is a reprint from June 6, 2020. I just have a need to bear witness with every anniversary of D-Day because of the enormity of the sacrifices made, and the impact our brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen gave that day…

“For I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power.”        Philippians 4:13

Today is June 6th. On this day, in 1944, the invasion of Normandy took place, an event which ultimately signaled the defeat of Nazi Germany. The bravery of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen that participated in that invasion should never be forgotten, so today I begin the reflection with that remembrance. Just pause and offer a prayer of thanks to honor the participants, as well as the fallen of that day…

The opportunities for making heroic, strong decisions, such as ones in the hands of commanders of D-Day are rare. Most of us are not in the position to make dramatic decisions that affect the lives of thousands, even millions of people. But we are always in the practice of making small decisions which affect us as well as those around us.    

So often, I see in my clients some hindering mindsets that have been ingrained early in life. Some have not had confidence instilled in them, or some were even abused physically or emotionally, and never gained the identity of seeing themselves as successful.

There is the story about chaining elephants that is instructive. One could never chain a full grown elephant to a stake in the ground. The huge, powerful animal would easily break the chain and go free. However, if an elephant, as a baby, is chained, even with a relatively small chain, he will learn that he cannot break free. The chafing of the chain will also reinforce the futility of the struggle, and the baby elephant will accept his fate, and just quit trying to escape.

As the elephant grows into maturity and strength, he could easily break free of his bonds- but he doesn’t try. He has learned that he is shackled, and accepts his fate and the limited territory to which he has been held since infancy.

Now, chaining elephants is a terrible thing and it should never be practiced, but the point is illustrative. Sometimes we learn as children that we are unable to succeed at something, so we simply stop trying. Even when we are older, and have gained skills, knowledge, wisdom, we feel restrained by past ingrained notions of inability to move forward, and we stop trying new, challenging things.

In counseling, we use the phrase, “Change one thing, change everything”. If we can muster the strength and courage to change one thing, we can change everything.   

Prayer: Father thank you for the gift of free will, and the ability to decide. Give us wisdom and courage in doing so, Amen.