It’s never easy to say goodbye to a dear friend, to a loving sister in Christ, and yet there are times when we must do just that. Like so many of you, I was shocked by the news that our sister and friend Susan Irene Fox passed away earlier this week; what does one say at such a time?
Susan’s writings here on WordPress were a blessing to all of us, both on her blog and on Church Set Free, and when you read those posts of hers it’s almost impossible to miss the love that fills each and every line. I recall when a group of us came together via Skype to discuss the establishment of the site, back in 2015. Susan was part of that group and more than anything else, she wanted it to be a place where anyone could go and experience the love of Christ without judgment or condemnation from any of us who participated. She wanted it to be a place where anyone could ask a question or post a comment without feeling out of place or inadequate; she wanted it to become a place where any Christian as well as any seeker could feel safe and secure.
In the months that followed, a bunch of us got together regularly on Skype to discuss not only the site, but life in general, and while I never met Susan face-to-face, I felt as though I got to know her. I’ll never forget her smile and her sense of humor, and her ability to treat everyone as an equal as a loved brother or sister.
It seems to me that Susan in so many ways personified what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Many who read this may have known her longer than I did; many may have known her better than I. Yet I will be eternally grateful for the time I had for her to touch my life. In the final analysis, I know only one thing: Heaven is a much richer place today because Susan Irene Fox has come to stay for all eternity, and one day we will all be reunited there in the loving arms of Lord.
We all know the story, don’t we? Zacharias (an “official” “ordained-type” priest) goes in his proper time to offer incense within the Temple. The Angel Gabriel appears to him there, announcing the upcoming birth of John the Baptist, along with his role as forerunner and preparer of the way of the Lord.
Zacharias responds, objecting, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” [v. 18] Gabriel then identifies himself by name, and declares that Zacharias will be mute until his words were fulfilled.
Time passes and so things come about. Zacharias regains his voice finally upon naming his son “John” at his circumcision, in response to community objections because this is not family name of their line.
We all know this story, too, don’t we? We see this played out in Christmas pageants almost annually, no? The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, declares her favored, calms her confusion, and announces that she will conceive the Son of the Most High and name Him Jesus.
Mary seems to respond much as did Zacharias, pointing out a physical incongruity as she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [v. 34]
But far from punishing her, as it could seem Gabriel did to Zacharias, the angel answers graciously with not only the answer to her question (that the power of the Most High would overshadow her), but he gives her an additional sign declaring that Elizabeth (her kinswoman) is six months along expecting the birth of John. Their exchange ends with “’nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her” [vv. 37-38]
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So, like, am I the only one who ever wondered, “what’s the difference here?”
Zacharias clearly ticked Gabriel off, while Mary didn’t. It’s one thing to point to the “rank order” difference between them. There’s certainly a difference of “graciousness” between them. Lots of flavorful differences, but I always sensed there was more here than that.
And… why should we care? What difference does, or should, it make to us… to you and me… here and now… why these two encounters went the way they did?
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I think the answer to both questions is the same one… “Faith”.
The difference between the two encounters is “Faith”. And the reason we should care, is also “Faith”.
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It never dawned on me, until very recently, that Zacharias… even faced as he was with the terrifying countenance of an Angel of God Almighty… doubted the truth of his words. Even INSIDE the Temple, standing next to the Altar of Incense as he offered up incense to God!
All of Gabriel’s words spoke to FUTURE events, not present events. Zacharias was going to have to go from that place, be with his wife in the proper time, conceive John, and watch nature take its course for the next nine months.
But that wasn’t good enough for Zacharias. He says, “how will I know this for certain?” (We know italicized words are inserted by editors.) So he wants to know, right here, right now, why he should believe Gabriel. Waiting apparently isn’t good enough. (We know for certain that the issue is doubt, because Gabriel tells us that.) Zacharias is rendered mute until all was fulfilled “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” [v. 20]
Zacharias needed to know these things were true before he was willing to do his part. Clearly, his part in this miracle would be of crucial importance. It was he and Elizabeth who needed to conceive this child. But before he would go to that trouble, before he would dare go communicate this to Elizabeth, before he would risk Elizabeth’s heartbreak, disappointment, or disgrace… he had to have a sign. He had to KNOW this was true, before he could obey.
Gabriel gives him an unmistakable sign of his authority and power, using his words alone to stop all words for Zacharias until the truth was borne out.
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So what is different about Mary? She, too, asks a “how” question.
The difference is that her question is one of “means”, not “verification”. She was perplexed at the appearance of Gabriel, not terrified. Gabriel declares the upcoming conception, birth, and kingship of Jesus, and Mary does not express doubt at the announcement. Rather, she asks how this is to come about, what is she to do? She knows she is virgin. Is that to change for this miracle? How should she obey the will of God?
Gabriel responds to the “how” of the question… that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” [v. 34-35] (By the way, that word “overshadow” only appears 5 times in the New Testament. Once here; then three times referring to the Cloud around Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the time of the Transfiguration that came upon (and terrified) Peter, James and John, from which came the Voice saying “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”[Luke 9:34-35]; and third when Peter’s shadow heals the sick [Acts 5:15].)
Unsolicited, Gabriel offers Mary the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary yields unconditionally to God’s will and embraces Gabriel’s words, the hurries off to aid Elizabeth in her first pregnancy. Isn’t it interesting that Elizabeth had only “come out”, publicly acknowledging her pregnancy in the month before Mary’s arrival? No way was Elizabeth going to endure the risk of disappointment had she miscarried, or been merely deluded into thinking she was pregnant. She would not face either the jibes or the condescending looks of other village women as her face began to round and her figure became more full. She was an elder of her town, disgraced by the curse of barrenness perhaps, but nonetheless righteous and dignified of demeanor. She would not be mocked.
But by the time Mary arrives, Elizabeth KNOWS. She knows for sure that she carries life within her. The baby has quickened, and for the first time she has the glorious sensation of life moving inside her as he responds to her motions or sounds around them. No words describe the joy of hugging new life with your very self, as a woman can in this time.
Mary comes, calls out in greeting, and the Holy Spirit already filling John [v. 15] now fills Elizabeth as well, and her joyful encounter with Mary as they attend to one another’s needs for the next three months (Elizabeth’s third trimester, Mary’s first), offers blessing to them both. Even as I type those words, I can only pause and wonder in awe at what those months must have been like. What would evenings have been like in such a home? Zacharias silent (no choice there), Elizabeth growing ever more excited even as getting around gets more difficult and stilted, and Mary finding her appetite less predictable, perhaps napping now and again, and sensing the changes in her body as the Christ waxes in form…
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What does all this mean to us, Gentle Reader?
Well, God does the impossible all the time. For those who are ready and seek Him, miracles are all around.
When they come, sometimes they are hard to believe in. That’s just the truth. But! When one is willing to yield to them, God grants. When one is willing if and only if there is a sign attesting to the truth… well, God accommodates and a sign will be given. We see this over and over again throughout the Scriptures (Gideon, etc.) However, as we see from this text, while faith that may be, it is a flawed sort of faith. (I, for one, have engaged in such flawed faith countless times, so no judgment here!)
But there’s another kind of faith. There’s a faith that takes a truth on the authority of the speaker, and simply says “Yes!” before it asks “How?”
There, I think is both the difference between the two Gabriel missions, and the significance to us today.
Zacharias wanted proof before he would act. Mary was willing to act before any proof was offered.
Both were engaged in astonishing blessing and miracle. Zacharias just had to go about it with a bit more inconvenience. That and, frankly, their lingering doubts certainly would have robbed him and Elizabeth of months of joy and consolation.
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The Holy Spirit, the overshadowing Power of the Lord Most High, certainly wins out in every miracle. Let us simply say “Yes!” first, ask “How?” afterwards, and watch events unfold!
The Lord was drinking some water out of a glass. There was nothing wrong with the glass, but the water tasted terrible. This was in a white building on a vast wasteland. The engineers within wore white uniforms and bootees on their shoes and gloves on their hands. The water had traveled many hundreds of miles through wide pipes to be there.
What have you done to my water? The Lord asked. My living water…
Love can conquer fear and hate if we allow ourselves to love.
At the same time, love will cost us something.
Agápē love is the highest form of love. It is the kind of unconditional love which comes from God –a love that transcends behavior or circumstance.
It is the love the apostle Paul described in his first letter to the Corinthians. He urged them to use their Spiritual gifts from this place of agápē love, and explained to them if they did not, their gifts would be useless and bankrupt.
Love is patient; love is kind. There is no arrogance in love. It’s never rude or crude; its not self-absorbed, easily upset or keep score of wrongs. Love doesn’t celebrate injustice, but truth is love’s delight. Love never gives up, never looks back and never loses faith. Love is always hopeful endures all things through every circumstance. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
As my focus becomes more about following Christ and pointing to him as a loving, compassionate and inclusive God, some of my own brothers and sisters in Christ have denounced me for this focus and said, “You are not my sister.” Some have even defended Christ, saying, “Jesus wasn’t a weakling!”
On the contrary, our God is powerful; Jesus is powerful and does not need defending. Agápē love is powerful. Agápē love is courageous. Agápē love is dangerous.
You cannot be a weakling or timid or a coward to love like that. It takes being filled with strength, fearlessness and sacredness to bestow agápē love.
Conversely, if you are unwilling or unable to love like God, you have not let go of powerless, fear and disapproval. You have not yet allowed the fullness of agápē love to replace those other things that choke out the love of God.
God is love is not a metaphor.
Love God is not a metaphor.
Love your neighbor is not a metaphor.
Love each other is not a metaphor.
They will know you are My disciples by your love is not a metaphor.
Love your enemy is not a metaphor.
Perfect love casts out fear is not a metaphor.
I am thankful today for my Father’s love, for the love of Jesus Christ. I will be thankful tomorrow for the fullness of His unconditional love, grace and forgiveness. I am thankful He has taught me how to give agápē love.
I pray this day that tomorrow you pray a humble and sincere prayer of thanksgiving and choose agápē love.
Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. (Proverbs 18:21, The Msg)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
It is finally the day after, and we all woke up this morning as Americans. Yet we are Christians first.
Some voted (or did not vote) as an expression of anger or protest. Many more of us used our vote as an instrument of principle. Whatever the outcome, our call in Christ is for reconciliation.
Many factions have sought to divide us, have sought to have us focus on flaws and sin instead of mercy and grace. The enemy has infiltrated our hearts, our thoughts, and our words.
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:11)
We have several choices today and over the next four years.
We can let our shock and disappointment grow fear in our hearts. We can continue to brood, letting our anger simmer until it boils over into a rage that we can no longer contain. We can continue to cast blame, point fingers, and feed our resentment. Either of these choices will keep the door open for the enemy to squeeze Christ’s living water, grace and love out of our hearts.
On the other hand, we can choose to accept the results with grace. We can pray for our new President, for all the members of our new Senate and House of Representatives. We can pray there will be (or already has been) a gracious concession speech without bitterness or rancor. We can pray for a peaceful transition of power. We can pray for progress over politics. We can work wholeheartedly to unite our country.
In January, the hand of the winner of this hard-fought election will be placed on a Bible. The new President will take the Oath of Office. We can choose to put behind us the animosity we have lived with the last 20 months and instead, take up our cross and the mission of reconciliation. We can choose to be the light and the mouth of Christ.
You see, the controlling force in our lives is the love of Christ; Christ’s love guides us. He died for us so that we will all live, not for ourselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Because of all that God has done, we now have a new perspective; we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation. The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence. All of this is a gift from our Creator, who pursued us and brought us into a restored and healthy relationship with Him through Christ.
And He has given us the same mission – the ministry of reconciliation – to bring others back to Him. He reconciled the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.And He gave us this wonderful mission of reconciliation. We are Christ’s ambassadors; God makes His appeal through us. (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)
I wrote this post the other day for CSF. When I was finished writing it, I answered the phone, completed the call, and then posted it to the Life Project, and didn’t give it another thought until a few minutes ago… oops!
How would you approach such a quandary as a Christian? Would you approach it as a legalist and say that a person is sacred if they have behaved themselves and done certain other things that make them “cool” in the church? Perhaps one might say that a person who is a Christian is sacred, but that the lost are not, or maybe that people who are really good are sacred, while the rest are not. Some might suggest that a person is sacred if they are a member in good standing in their particular denomination, or even that no one is sacred until they die and go to heaven.
Yet, I wonder how God looks at this; would He see it the way we do?
Maybe God would say that a person whose sins are forgiven is sacred, and those who remain in their sins are unclean…
I wouldn’t presume to tell you that I am privy to all of God’s thoughts, but I can suggest that Scripture might give us some insight on this topic that can lead us to draw some conclusions.
As we have seen in a previous series of posts, all humans are created by God in His image, and yes, even after sin entered the world in Genesis 3, we still bear His image. With that being the case, and the image of God being in itself sacred, we all have an element of sacredness inherent in our beings; His image. Each of us was conceived in the mind of God and created in every detail with His intentional purpose in mind with talents and gifts, not to mention intelligence as God saw fit to give, and I doubt that God is in the habit of creating that which is unclean or inherently bad.
Yet in spite of this, we make choices as we walk through life, and sooner or later each one of us makes choices that are at odds with the ways of God; some really go out on a dark extreme and really make a mess of things. Yet even in such a dark place, distant and far from God’s presence and will, He still loved us:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Because of God’s amazing love, He sent His Son to die for each one of us, while humanity was still in its sinful rebellion. I don’t know about you, but offhand, I can’t think of any cases in Scripture when God was said to have loved that which was evil, bad or unclean. In fact, the second greatest commandment was that we love our neighbor as ourselves; He made no mention of our neighbor needing to be perfect first, did He?
In fact, which of the patriarchs was so perfect? How about the great Israelite kings David and Solomon; were they perfect? No, I didn’t think so.
I would maintain that every single human being is sacred in God’s sight, not because of the way we behave, but because we were created by God in His image with a purpose that transcends this world. Of course, there are many sacred ones out there who aren’t all that attractive, and some behave in really nasty ways, in rebellion against everything God is and stands for. Yet I really don’t believe for an instant that this sad state of affairs means that they aren’t sacred in God’s sight; can you guess why that is?
Two reasons: First, they are precisely the ones Jesus gave His life to save, and second, because God has gone to all of the trouble to put you and me in this world to take the good news to such people, that they might be brought into His light. Imagine for a moment how different this world might be if more of us saw such people through God’s eyes and took our commission more seriously.
Come to think of it, I have another question to ponder: Who grieves God’s heart more, the lost person who dwells in darkness and acts accordingly, or the Christian who dwells in the light with all of the riches of Christ at his or her disposal, but who is afraid to get their hands dirty taking the light to those dark places where so many need it so desperately?
Following Jesus is all or nothing. He tells us to follow his commands – all of them, not just the few we feel comfortable following.
“My experience of many Christians is that we have it backwards. We want the power to point out sin; we want the credit and glory for having saved them when it is not up to us.”
In every case I read in the Gospels, Jesus loved first (as he did for us), offered grace first, then gave outcasts and sinners (like us all) the space to recognize and acknowledge their own sins, come to him and allow him to transform their lives. We don’t give people that space; we don’t give them a chance to own their own fallenness. And changing behavior isn’t transformation; it’s a band-aid. Transformation changes hearts and minds.
As I listen in church, as I talk in person to fellow believers, as I read blogs across the Western World, my experience of many Christians is that we have it backwards. We want the power to point out sin to not only to individuals but entire groups of people. We want the credit and glory for having saved them when it is not up to us.
So, how do we follow the tasks to reconcile people to God (2 Corinthians 5:17-19), and how do we make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20)?
Our job, through God’s love, is to open the door for people to reach out to Jesus and for him to hand them the opportunity for His Love and Grace. That is when Transformation occurs. That is when the “Aha” moments happen. That is when the thirst for discipleship transpires.
When we attempt to argue or accuse people into Christ, all we do is cause them to be offended, to turn their backs on God. That isn’t what we want and it certainly isn’t what God wants. If our mission is to reconcile everyone to God and what we’ve been doing isn’t working, we must change our methods.
“The elder son…cannot see the difference between restorative justice and punitive justice. And restorative justice is the Good News.”
In the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus begins with, “A man had two sons.” Even though many of our Bibles call it the Parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son, it is really The Parable of the Lost Sons. This parable is not simply about the younger son who was lost to sin.
It is also about the elder son who stood to inherit twice what his younger brother took as his inheritance. The elder brother was lost to legalism, the son who is so focused on the sin of his brother his anger will not allow him to offer grace or accept the double treasure of his Father’s grace and love which has always been there for him. He cannot see the difference between restorative justice and punitive justice. And restorative justice is the Good News.
As we love unconditionally, it doesn’t mean we condone sin, just as forgiveness doesn’t mean we accept bad behavior. But trying to teach someone about acceptable behavior before you accept and love who they are regardless of their behavior will fall upon deaf ears. It will erect a wall that will never allow them to feel safe enough to let down their guard.
Loving unconditionally means we communicate without disgracing or treating people without dignity. It means we create a safe space for them to discover the love, mercy and grace of God. It means we allow them to choose, through that saving grace, to repent in their own time because God’s love and His Spirit moves them to do so. It means we don’t stand in their way or erect barriers of any kind, otherwise we become stumbling blocks.
The bottom line is this: we can either continue pushing ahead, attempting to teach through condemnation and accusation, or we can build authentic trust and relationships through the wisdom and patience of the Holy Spirit, through the compassion of Jesus, and through the love and grace of our Father.
The Tree of Life, a nearly 10-foot tall sculpture, was created by four Mozambican artists: Cristovao Canhavato (Kester), Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Maté. The sculpture was made entirely from weapons that were the remains of the 17-year civil war that killed one million people and only ended when the Soviet Union collapsed and funding ended. This piece was part of the Transforming Arms Into Tools project which employs former child soldiers to dismantle weapons, which has dismantled more than 600,000 weapons in nine years.