Mercy, not sacrifice

This evening I listened to a message on the scripture passage which makes up the title of this blog:  “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”   It was a short homily that God whispered into Father Jake’s ear in order to meddle in my life and remind me (again) of what matters most.

When Jesus informs the religious leaders of his day that the Father’s desire is mercy and not the age-old sacrificial system under which they lived and breathed, he was without a doubt dropping an atomic bomb into their world of law and order.    Jesus was making it clear that God’s heart is one that favors mercy over judgment, grace over law.  Law and judgment ought not trump grace and mercy.    What was an A-bomb in Jesus’ day is no less world-shattering for me today.

Because every day I find myself withholding mercy from someone when it suits me.

My wife pointed out to me not too long ago that I seem to have an endless supply of mercy to extend towards addicts and atheists.    She went on to point out, lovingly, that my mercy bucket seems to be very limited towards Christians who voted for Trump.    She is right about that.

Most recently she and I found ourselves in the midst of an argument – a power struggle – where I was unwilling to give.   My desire to be right was outweighing my mandate to love.   I was withholding mercy because I felt that extending it would mean I have to surrender my right to be right.    My perspective on the situation left me feeling like unless she sacrificed something, I had every right to stand in judgment.

Jesus said he desires mercy, not sacrifice.

This is humbling as I realize the countless ways my Pharisaic heart has a bent towards sacrifice.   And it’s not just with others.   I demand it of myself, too.    Have you ever tried to please God by being a better person?  Ever mess up, relapse, do something you know is wrong and then avoid spending time with God because you felt like you had to clean up your act – make sacrifices – before you could be in God’s presence?   Have you ever felt convinced that your flat tire was God’s punishment on you because you weren’t doing enough right things – making the right sacrifices – to please him?   Ever felt like if you could just stop acting out in your addiction than God would love you?   Yeah, me too.

Jesus said he desires mercy, not our sacrifices.

So yes, while it’s humbling to face the reality that I am still a person who needs reminded to be a person of mercy rather than sacrifice, it’s also liberating and, perhaps a bit surprising, that God is already this way in spades towards you and I.    God is surrounding us in bucket loads of mercy amid all our faults and failures.  God loves mercy and he loves making it new for us every morning.   There is no sacrifice you and I need to make to settle up with God because that has already been taken care of in Jesus.

God lives in mercy towards us and invites us to do the same with each other.    This sounds like a far better way to live, don’t you think?

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Resurrection is a recovery promise

Hi!   I have some great news to share!  On Saturday, July 28th, I married my lover and best friend, Stephanie.   That this day came to pass is a miracle deserving of many words to describe but I want to share at least a few thoughts this morning.

On Saturday we stood before each other, surrounded by our children, presided over by my dad, as we read to each other vows we had written ourselves.   Getting to write down promises to my bride was something I couldn’t have imagined being able to do this time last year, but here I was, sober and present and in love with this woman with whom I knew I wanted to share all my life.   And I got to hear her vows to me, describing a man that she somehow, by the grace of God, was able to see beneath all the junk through the last couple years.   She described a man who, with the help of God and my program, I am fully capable of being and, more importantly, I love being.

My wife has been instrumental in showing me unconditional love – the love of Christ – so much so that we both had the word agape tattooed on our wrists to forever remind us of the love God has shown us both, even at our worst, and the love we desire to show to each other with God’s help.

I’ve written before about how there was a time when I believed I deserved a piece of shit car because of the wreckage the choices I made in my addiction caused.  When we are acting out with our drug of choice it is impossible to think we are deserving of anything good.   I shared how Stephanie was with me then and loved me through those days.   Standing before each other Saturday, pledging ourselves to each other, I knew in my heart that I am loved and capable of giving love in return.   What a gift that is!

It was important to us that our kids witness this ceremony as we acknowledge our dependence upon God to continue resurrecting our lives, restoring our hearts, and redeeming past hurts.   I wish I could adequately describe to you the pain that permeated our lives just a few short years ago which, at that time, seemed like it would never end, because if I could you would marvel like I did as I watched my son Maddox hug my new wife and tell her how happy he is that she married his dad.    You’d know the miracle it was to see them gathered together, holding hands, promising to love each other as we formed this new family and marked the occasion by each of us pouring different colored sand into a heart-shaped vase.

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Recovery is a resurrection miracle and it’s promises come true if we continue to desire them and work for them.    Today I am so very grateful that my wedding day celebrates the love my wife and I have for each other as well as the beauty and joy of lives restored by God’s relentless love.

If you are reading this and you are someone pursuing recovery, you know this to be true.  If you are someone still running from it, as I have done many times before, my prayer for you is that you find a ray of hope here.   No matter how helpless and hopeless things may seem right now, no matter how undeserving you may feel you are of love or joy, no matter how far down the scale you feel you have fallen, I want you to know you are not alone.   You are loved. You are worth recovery.   God has not forsaken you or forgotten you.    A new story can be written in your life if you will allow it.   The things you are holding onto today which you know deep down are not giving you life can and will be replaced by something – Someone! –  that can and will give you life.    These promises are true for anyone who desires them.     I am praying for you now.

 

 

Help me understand your applause for walls

I am wanting to understand you.

Today I posted a few things on my Facebook page out of a knee jerk response to watching Vice President Mike Pence speak at my alma mater, Lee University.     As I watched a room full of white, professing Christians chant “Build that wall!  Build that wall!” and applaud wildly every time “America First” was said, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.     That led to feelings of anger, which led to posting on Facebook that I find Christians who chant for walls to be built on Saturday but raise their hands in worship to Jesus, the leveler of walls (not to mention a refugee himself), on Sunday, to be sad and baffling and incredibly incongruous.   The Church, which ought to be the conscience of the State, appears to have become its cheerleader.

Several hours have passed and I don’t feel any better.   I don’t feel better because I know there were people at that rally who truly love Jesus and their neighbor.   They would gladly give their shirt off their back to a stranger, whether that stranger be American or not, or worthy of it, or not.   I don’t feel better because I don’t feel like I am any closer to understanding how those persons don’t see what seems so obvious to me.  It’s like they are hearing Yanni while I’m hearing Laurel.     My hope in writing this is to draw closer, not further apart.

Imagine witnessing a room full of professing Christians gleefully cheering about a law passed that made abortions easier to obtain.  Imagine they chanted, while giving thanks to God, “Kill those babies!”   That sickening feeling you (and I, by the way) would have in your gut is the same feeling I had while watching Christians on a Christian campus chant, “Build that wall!”   In both cases you get the sense that the God as revealed in Jesus Christ is very much removed from these very national, human, fleshly desires.

And yet, I’ve never heard anyone who supports Roe V. Wade chant “Kill those babies!”  If you were to ask me how I can support a President or a Supreme Court Justice who believes in upholding Roe V. Wade I’ll tell you that I’d love to see abortion a thing of the past.  I’d love to see it as something that is extremely rare.   I’d show you statistics that show abortion rates decrease in Democratic administrations over Republican ones.   I’d tell you, also, that I don’t feel the government should draw a line in the sand and make this determination for a woman.    I’d tell you that I don’t like abortion as a simple means of birth control and would prefer to see regulation and limitations on its use.  I’d tell you that every abortion is tragic, even those where the mother doesn’t yet think it as such.  I’d tell you that I want to see churches and hometown clinics thrive in an effort to make the option of abortion seem unnecessary.  And lastly, I’d tell you that I long for the day when churches everywhere are open foster and adoption channels, where every pregnant woman knows that their baby will be well taken care of and loved if she is unable to provide for him or her.

In other words, I may support a women’s right to choose, but I’m not proud of it.  I recognize that this “choice” is the result of profound and tragic brokenness in our world and we, the Church, have failed to step up and deliver tangible, reliable alternatives.   As such, I will continue to support Roe V. Wade but I will blush when doing so.

Watching the Pence rally where Christians cheered wildly for a wall to be built I did not see any blushing.   So I’m asking you to help me understand.    My fiancée suggested that perhaps many of those who want a wall believe that we need to secure our own families and homes first so that we can be better equipped to help those in need on the other side of the wall.    I so desperately want to believe this!  But I’ve yet to hear a single person, after shouting “Build that wall!” attach with equal fervor the addendum, “So we can better serve Mexico!”

Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but it would make sense to me if supporters of the wall would say something like this:   Yes, as a Christian I know we should be tearing down walls, not building them.   It makes me sick and sad to think we have come to this.  The need for a wall, I feel, is a sign of how broken we are.   My hope is that this wall will help keep those who are just seeking to harm us out while allowing us to show more compassion and care for those truly seeking refuge and peace.    And even as I say this I realize that I should be trusting God more to protect us, rather than a wall, and I should have enough faith that we could bless every refugee and asylum-seeker and immigrant seeking a better life.   I’m praying to this end.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that I’m not hearing much compassion for our neighbors from the side of the aisle that I used to be on, the one that used to be known as the “Moral Majority” and the “Religious Right” or “Compassionate Conservatives.”   But I believe you are out there.   I know you to be good people, with big hearts, generous spirits.  I know you love Jesus.    Please help me, and others who are watching from the sidelines, understand how putting America First and building higher walls fits with the rest of your life which I get the pleasure of seeing more (thankfully) than this stuff.    I want to hear what’s behind the chant.  I want to be convinced that your desire for a wall isn’t rooted in some nationalistic, xenophobic agenda where everyone who isn’t white is suspect.  I want to hear your heart on the matter.

If you are reading this and willing to share that, I’d be grateful. Help me understand where you are coming from.    Thank you for reading.  Thank you for being my friend.

In Christ, in whom we all live and move and have our being.

 

 

 

God *likes* you

In my movie review of The Shack I share how it spoke to me as a recovering addict, particularly how it addressed two things I have trouble believing about God, one of which is accepting that God loves me, just as I am, not some future, “better” version of myself.

Most of the feedback I got was positive.   A few wanted to argue the theology of the book or movie.  And one comment broke my heart and revealed what I really mean to say when I say I struggle with accepting God’s love.   He wrote,

“God loves me completely just as I am” does not mean that God likes you.

I responded by thanking him for his encouraging words and added, “God loves you, but doesn’t like you” would make a great bumper sticker.

My sarcasm was meant to shield me from being vulnerable.  It was meant to protect me from saying the truth which would sound like this:

You know, much of my life I have believed that God doesn’t like me.  It’s hard to imagine why He would.

See, it’s easier for me to accept that God loves me because it has been ingrained in me that this is God’s job.  It’s what God does.   I often imagine God loving me with the same enthusiasm with which I wake up on Mondays.   God can be expected to show up on time and put in a good day’s work because, well, He’s God.   God is supposed to love everyone.

But no one ever told me that God likes me.

Think about it with me.  How many times have you heard it said, either directly or implied, that as Christians we are called to love everyone but it doesn’t mean we have to like them?  I have heard countless messages about how I’m called to love my neighbor but it doesn’t mean I have to have them over for dinner, or go to a movie with them, or for that matter even acknowledge their existence.   Just love them in my heart (what does that even mean?).

So should it come as any surprise that I assume this is how God views me?   God loves me, but that doesn’t mean he wants to have dinner with me.  God loves me, but that doesn’t mean he wants to hang out at Starbucks and listen to my fears about the day.  God loves me, but he never laughs at my jokes.

The stranger who told me that God doesn’t like me in response to my movie review unwittingly revealed to me what is at the root of my biggest hangup.   In my heart of hearts I don’t believe that God likes me.

Why do I have a hard time accepting that God likes me?  My addiction makes it hard to believe anyone could like me.   Especially after a relapse or a slip.  In those dark moments I don’t even like myself.  In fact, I hate myself.   It’s hard to imagine that when I am at my lowest that God would want to laugh at my jokes or share a coffee with me.

But God not liking me is a lie, straight from the mouth of the enemy who loves to accuse me and keep me entombed in shame.  

When I read the gospels I am met by a God who seemed to not only love sinners but actually liked being with them!  Jesus appears to prefer hanging out with messes like me, those of us who are poor in spirit, more so than those who have no trouble believing – whether it be because of their good fortune, their perfect church attendance, their superior morality – that God likes them.   Jesus actively sought out those who believed they had good reasons to doubt God loved them, let alone liked them, and befriended them.

Matthew’s gospel tells us the Son of Man came eating and drinking and those who prided themselves as God’s favorite teammates derided him, saying “He’s a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19).   Apparently Jesus liked hanging out with sinners so much that it offended the church folk of his day who, like us today,  loved the sinners but hated the sin.

Perhaps it was in the actual liking of sinners that set Jesus apart from all the others who merely “loved them in their hearts.”   And even knowing it would get him killed, he kept liking them anyways, to the very end.

I think Jesus would pick the addicts first- sober or not – to be on his dodge ball team. I think Jesus would choose to have coffee with a codependent and hang on his or her every word.  I think Jesus would give a prostitute a rose and tell her how beautiful she is before embracing her in a hug.   I think Jesus would love taking a walk with anyone depressed and start skipping rocks over the pond.   I think Jesus would have us all over for dinner and laugh at our jokes and tell some of his own.  I bet he’d be the last to fall asleep.

It’s important for me to get to a place where I can believe that God doesn’t just love me, but likes me.  God is, has always been, and will always be, my closest, truest friend.  It’s important because when I stumble and fall, I won’t run to the person who I believe loves me because it’s their job to do so.  I’ll run to the one I believe likes me and whom I believe missed me while I was absent.

I’ll close with a question from Brennan Manning, from his wonderful book Abba’s Child, which is teaching me a lot about how much my Daddy in heaven likes me.  He writes,

How would you respond if I asked you this question: “Do you really believe God likes you, not just loves you because theologically God has to love you?” If you could answer with gut-level honesty, “Oh, yes, my Abba is very fond of me,” you would experience a serene compassion for yourself that approximates the meaning of tenderness.

I want to get to a place where I can answer that way.   By God’s grace, I believe I’m on the right path.  What about you?

(This post is adapted from an older post here at Desire Mercy)

How is your time with God?

There was a long stretch of time where I felt guilty that I was not spending enough time with God.   I felt guilty that my “quiet time” was not very disciplined or that my “prayer closet” was full of cob webs.   When going through a rough patch I could count on some well-meaning Christian to begin their diagnostic testing of my spiritual state by asking, “How is your devotional life?”

Ryan May reminded me of this in his message this past weekend (I highly recommend watching it!   See video below).    As he brought home the point that God is everywhere and that we can interact with God and be infused with God’s wisdom in both obvious and not-so-obvious places, I found myself grateful for the wisdom found in this program of recovery called the 12 Steps.

Why? First, because through the process of working the steps I realize that I am utterly and completely dependent upon my Higher Power to restore me to sanity and sustain my serenity.  I learn that this is something that requires not only some “alone time with God” in the morning and evening (the obvious places) but also a conscious connection with God throughout the day.   The second reason is related to the first.   The steps disabuse me of the notion that God is only found in obvious spots.   Rather, they give me permission and even encourage me to seek God in the margins, the not-so-obvious places.    The steps liberate me from believing in a God who is waiting for me to sit in my recliner with my Bible on my lap in order to trigger some divine-to-human connection and instead introduce me to a God who is always connected to me if I will but ask for eyes to see and ears to hear.

Step 11 reads,

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Being in recovery is about deepening that connection not only in those quiet prayer-closet moments but also during rush hour traffic or on the homestretch of a work deadline or in the middle of a tough conversation or when the kids disobey or when the sun sets so brilliantly or when the food tastes sumptuous or the tire goes flat.

God is everywhere and willing and able to connect with us where we are, when we are, how we are, for who we are.

I’m not about to forsake my morning prayer and coffee time with God in my comfortable recliner each day.  Those times are sacred and holy and sweet.   But the other 1,410 minutes of the day are equally sacred and holy and sweet.   My problem, and perhaps yours, is that I don’t allow myself to see and hear God in those moments enough.    And yet I’m convinced that it is in those areas – the not-so-obvious ones – that a vibrant, fulfilling, life-altering relationship with my Higher Power can gain steam.     Today I’m grateful that Step 11 promises that this is an area I can “improve” upon.

I hope you enjoy Ryan’s message from Sunday as much as I did.  I think it’ll open your eyes to ways God wants to meet you in unexpected places.

Psalm 9

“My addiction saved my life.”

Ever hear someone say that?  Maybe this is true for you.   A lot of people tend to assume that addictions either fall out of the sky on unsuspecting persons or, worse yet, they are the result of immorality.    Or to put that another way, addicts are “bad people” who are irresponsible and make bad choices.

As a recovering addict I won’t deny that I am immoral, have the capacity to be not just bad but down right evil, incredibly irresponsible and my choices are often insane.    All this has been true of me and will be true of me if I do not continue on the path of recovery.

But addictions do not just happen overnight nor do they come about because a person is particularly malevolent.    I did not choose to be an addict.   I did not consciously choose to destroy my life and the lives of those I loved.

So when some people say that an addiction saved their life what they most often mean is that their drug of choice provided a suitable coping mechanism during a time of need.  Maybe it was abuse or neglect that led them to seek an escape.   Depression, loneliness, pain, emptiness – all reasons why people grasp for something that will, if only temporarily, help them forget about reality and drift off into fantasy.

For a season, our drug of choice acts as our savior.   A soothing balm protecting us from an other-wise hostile and uncertain world.

But eventually this savior turns into an even harsher task-master than even the starkest reality.   The balm becomes the ball and chain, degenerating us into slaves.   This is what I imagine when I read the words of David the Psalmist when he pens:

The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug;
    their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.
16 The Lord is known by his acts of justice;
    the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.

What we thought would save us from the encroaching and dangerous world ends up becoming the net that ensnares us.   What was saving our life is now draining our life.  We realize that all substitute saviors are but slave-makers.

But there is hope!  The Psalmist continues:

But God will never forget the needy;
    the hope of the afflicted will never perish.

I’m grateful that God does not forget we who are afflicted and needy, who have struggled to save ourselves only to wind up at the bottom of the pit we have dug.    When what used to work is no longer working but driving us deeper into misery, it’s time to look up from the ashes and admit we cannot save ourselves.

 

Love as Appreciation

I have been meditating on two passages I’ve read this past week.  Both of them commend the art of appreciation.    The first quote comes from Gerald May’s wonderful book, The Awakened Heart (you may know him from his more popular work, Addiction and Grace).

A certain asceticism of mind, a gentle intellectual restraint, is needed to appreciate the important things in life. To be open to the truth of love, we must relinquish our frozen comprehensions and begin instead to appreciate.  To comprehend is to grasp; to appreciate is to value.  Appreciation is gentle seeing, soft acknowledgment, reverent perception.  Appreciation can be a pleasant valuing: being awed by a night sky, touched by a symphony, or moved by a caress without needing to understand why.  It can also be painful: feeling someone’s suffering, being shocked by loss or disaster without comprehending the reason.  Appreciation itself is a kind of love; it is our direct human responsiveness, valuing what we cannot grasp.  Love, the love of our heart, is not what we think.  It is always ready to surprise us, to take us beyond our understandings into a reality that is both insecure and wonderful.

The second comes from Mister Rogers:

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I think I spend a lot of time trying to comprehend things.  I read books about love, for instance, hoping to understand it or, as Gerald May puts it, grasp it.    Perhaps I feel that by comprehending love I can better control it.

But these quotes cause me to pause.   It rings true to me that love is not something to be understood but appreciated.  Valued.   To hold something as holy, sacred.  To be in awe, with or without understanding the reasons why.

Maybe this is something like what Jesus meant by being born again, or becoming like a child, or having eyes to see.   Maybe to love oneself and one’s neighbor and one’s God is about being humble and giddy and vulnerable enough to allow yourself to be in awe.   To appreciate someone or something without grasping them or it.  This, I think, is love at it’s best and purest.

Who or what might you show appreciation towards today?

Learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' ~ Jesus