Posted in Christian Living, Faith

Are You A Weed?

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There are two kinds of people in this world: those who bear fruit for God and those who do not. In the parable of the tares, Jesus defines these two types of people as the wheat and the weeds. Even though they are both sown at the same time, God waits until the harvest to separate the two.

What does it mean to be wheat instead of a weed? What does bearing fruit for God look like? Paul tells the Ephesians:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

Good works may best be understood as James defines it: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). The more we do things to honor God and extend the mercy He has shown us to others, the more practically we ensure that we are growing into wheat, the fruit of the harvest, instead of the weeds to be burned when the harvest is done.

Becoming wheat involves a conscious decision every day to do the will of God. Joshua puts it this way:

Now respect the LORD and serve him fully and sincerely. Throw away the gods that your ancestors worshiped on the other side of the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD. But if you don’t want to serve the LORD, you must choose for yourselves today whom you will serve. (Josh 24:14-15a)

These words were spoken as an entreaty to the Israelites who had conquered the promised land with God’s help. They promptly swore to serve the God who had led their ancestors out of Egypt. But, as the story continues, the people very quickly forget this sincere promise, turning to the very gods they had sworn to Joshua to forget.

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How easy it is to become distracted from the promise of heaven by the immediacy of the material things in this life. Just like the Israelites, we too place more importance on things than on our devotion to God. But we don’t have to be that way.

Being wheat instead of a weed can be as simple as having bottles of water to hand to the beggar on the side of the road, spending a few hours each week visiting a nursing home, sending cards to people who are recovering or serving overseas. Being wheat means embracing Jesus’s imperative that we love others as we ourselves wish to be loved.

At first, risking looking stupid by extending a part of ourselves to strangers will be scary. Pray about it. Remember that God promised us that the Holy Spirit will give us words even when we have none. Know that even when we look most stupid in the eyes of the world, we may be shining the brightest in the kingdom of heaven.

James contends that faith without works is a dead faith:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

If you really believe on a loving God who died to save you, James is saying, then how could you not do good things for other people? How could you not put love first when God’s love for you is your only chance for eternal life?

Extend some living water to those who are thirsty around you. Be wheat.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

How One Vowel Can Change Your Life

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Within the last couple of weeks, I had the pleasure/challenge of spending some time at one of the happiest places on earth, otherwise known as Disneyland. Along with all the wonderful sights of the magic land, I also got to witness up close and personal the bare truth of the mass of humanity: crying children, frustrated parents, bickering spouses, selfish line jumpers, immodest dressers. Fortunately, I also got to witness the happy side of being human, the smiles, laughter, fun and acts of kindness a happy atmosphere generates that are all part of the reason so many people are willing to open their wallets, literally, and partake in the wonderful world of Disney.

Once I got home and had time to decompress and reflect on my time in the “land,” I was struck by the awesomeness of the love that God has for us, all of us, even in our frustrated or downright mean moments, a love so strong and all-encompassing that He sent Jesus, His Son, God-made-man, to sacrifice Himself so that we might be saved. How short did I fall standing in the long line waiting to ride Space Mountain from loving the people around me as Jesus loved them, even the bored kids swinging on the aisle chains despite being told by park authorities and their parents not to? As I was soaking in the bright colors of the varied architecture and the sightings of costumed characters from various cartoon movies, did I once take time to think about the opportunities before me to love people I would likely never see again?

The answer is, of course I didn’t. I was too busy trying to get the most out of my $300 tickets, too concentrated on not giving into the exhaustion of going and going for 15 hours straight each day in order to get the most out of this opportunity to experience something I don’t normally get to experience.

Today at church, I learned a new way of looking at opportunities like the ones I missed at Disneyland. The elder speaking to us before the offering plate was passed around encouraged us to begin to think about the power of changing just one vowel in our self-talk, making the word “got” to “get.” In other words, I have “got” to be nice to strangers, even when they are rude, becomes I “get” to be nice to strangers because I understand how much God loves even me, a sinner. When I have been forgiven, how can I not also be forgiving? Why wouldn’t I want to grab hold of the opportunities afforded to every Christian to spread the grace that is the only gift we don’t do anything to deserve?

This shift from “got” to GET is profound. GET is something we want to do. GET is special. GET holds promise. GET is going to Disneyland!

In the last few weeks, I have been concentrating more and more on the spiritual practice and practices that bring us closer to God. We are only saved by the grace of God, not because of anything we do, but that in no way means that what Christians do or do not isn’t important. In fact, we can argue from the Bible that professing Christians are expected to bear fruit, to strive to be in the Spirit and not of the flesh. For those Christians who are not striving to do these things, GET is not likely to be in their vocabulary. But it can be with just the shifting of a single vowel.

Paul implores the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (6:7-10).

In this season leading to the greatest holiday of all, Easter, the celebration that He lives, that Christ has risen, we GET to reap the benefits of His love. We GET to share that gift of grace with those who may never have heard about it before. We GET to sow the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, faithfulness, goodness, peace, joy, kindness, patience, meekness, self-control. We GET to be Christ to the world.

Change got to GET this week. The life you change may not just be your own.

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Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

Are You Really In It?

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Last week, I discussed how we are not meant to “know” God through any capability on our part, that is through any ability in relation to what we humans refer to as wisdom. Human wisdom is generally limited to what we can see, hear, touch, or “prove” in one of our scientific experiments.

Paul discusses this truth in his first letter to the Corinthians, a church founded in a city with one of the worst reputations of its era. In his first letter to these challenged believers, Paul also has to address the level of growth these Christians were experiencing, or lack thereof.

The admonitions Paul gives the Corinthians are quite understandable. What an easy trap lay before these believers to fall into: if you lived in the most carnal city of your time, wouldn’t it be hard to release yourself from the carnal nature of everyday life that surrounded you, even once you had accepted Jesus into your heart? Wouldn’t it also be just as tempting to think you were doing just fine because when you looked around you, it wouldn’t take much to do better than just about anybody else you chose to compare yourself to?

Paul’s words to the Corinthians apply to any Christian at any point and time in their Christian walk, for we are all meant to grow in Christ, not just rest on the laurels of belief. Growth takes practice, work, prayer, study, fellowship and faith–all of which can be encroached upon by the demands and temptations of the world in which we live. That is one reason why we are so often encouraged to be in the world but not of the world.

Here, then, is how Paul lays out his arguments against giving in to the flesh for his Corinthian audience. First, he gives the foundation of “proof” for the difference between worldly wisdom and the Spiritual knowing that is our gift when we accept Jesus as our Lord.

“For to us God revealed them [the things eye has not seen nor ear heard of verse 2:9] through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God,” Paul writes (2:10). He goes on to explain that, just as only the spirit of a person can truly know the person, so too the Spirit of God is all-knowing of God. Paul concludes, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God (2:12).

To the non-believer, the person who has not received this Spirit, what Christians like Paul talk about seems like “foolishness” (2:14). However, for those who believe, the Spirit’s wisdom is the basis for potentially wonderful growth, helping the believer live more of the Spirit than of the world.

Alas, the Corinthians, in a world filled with corruption and temptation (sound familiar?), were really struggling not to be of that world. Their spiritual growth was so stunted, in fact, that Paul was writing to them to encourage them to get back on the road to growing spiritually. He explains how he had begun them on “spiritual milk,” knowing that they were not ready for the “solid food” gospel (3:2). And despite the time they had had in the Spirit, the Corinthians were still not ready for solid food: “for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?” (3:3).

Because the Corinthians lived in a reality much like our own, the challenges they faced and the ways that Paul addresses those challenges give modern-day Christians many valuable lessons to learn from studying the two letters Paul wrote to this troubled church. Perhaps this first lesson is one of the most important of all. If we fail to mature to solid food, how can we hope to achieve good fruit for the work of Christ, work to which we were called the moment we accepted the gift of grace?

We only know God through the Spirit that enters us when we step out in faith. But once we take that step of faith, we still have an obligation to ourselves and to God to work to be good shepherds of the present of grace Christ so freely gave to us. Being in the world but not of it is a daily struggle, one we may never master. It is also a skill we will only master with the help of the One who sacrificed all and who deserves the submission of our complete will. When we are in the world but not of the world, surely fruitful things will happen for the heavenly kingdom.

Posted in Christian Living, Love

Happy “God Is With Us” Day

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Like many of you, my personality is challenged by several contradictory natures. One of them is that I like to write and read a good, clean romance, but when it comes to real life, my practical nature doesn’t allow me to fully enjoy the art and beauty of things “romantic.”

Because of this contradictory nature, I have a hard time fully appreciating Valentine’s Day, which at its best is a celebration of the romantic kind of love that occurs between a man and woman who have committed before God to “become one flesh” in a covenant that lasts a lifetime. Most of the time, I take the cynic’s view of this holiday, meaning I see it more as a creation by the flower and card industry to drum up business after the let-down of the Christmas buying season.

But, romantic love aside, there is a kind of love that supersedes anything we mere humans can achieve on our own, and it is available to any one of us, as long as we are willing to ask for it. I am referring, of course, to the love of God, manifested in the life and sacrifice of Jesus, that is made available to us through grace. Once we accept that love, nothing we can do or say or think can ever truly separate us from the connection to God His love provides.

Paul describes God’s love for us and the kind of love we should work to provide to each other in 1 Corinthians 13. This love is patient, kind, humble, slow to anger, seeks truth, and keeps no record of wrongs. Paul concludes, this love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (v. 7).

As humans, how can we achieve this kind of love for each other? We can’t. We can only hope to achieve a pale reflection of this kind of love through the power of the Holy Spirit in us. In fact, the more we are truly able to lean on God, the more He will be able to work through us to show this kind of love to others through us, and the more WE will truly feel God’s love in us.

The first Beatitude tells us that those who will have the kingdom of heaven must first be poor in spirit, which most understand to mean we must first feel how truly empty spiritually we are without God in our lives in order to actually let Him in. Once we do, the love that helped Moses lead his people to a promised land, helped David slay a giant, and saw Jesus through a suffering He didn’t deserve but was willing to take on for the sins of everyone else, will be available to we who seek Him.

Paul promised us the lasting power of that love in Romans 8:38-40: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So, as you celebrate the romantic love of your life this Valentine’s week, don’t forget about the love that never fades. God is truly the only ONE who knows everything about us–and loves us anyway!

Posted in Writers, Writing

Fuzzy Wuzzies

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Writing is like a stab in the dark, the results often more like trying to see the world through a poor camera lens on a cloudy, moonlit night than the crystal-clear image snapped by a fine, digital camera on a sunny day.

We writers are observers, and what we craft is our version of reality, a view colored by our individual experiences, our cultures, and the worlds in which we live. Some of us write for the love of language, for the poetic rhythms that only a fellow lover of words can truly appreciate. Others feel compelled by an inner message they wish to share or a story they just have to tell.

For the longest time, writers truly crafted in a sort of tunnel. Maybe, like the expatriates of Hemingway’s day, they found fellow wordsmiths with which to share fledgling works before finally publishing for a general audience. Many, like Dickens, found a sort of immediacy by publishing stories in installments in newspapers of the day. Today, we can gain responses to our writing in face-to-face groups, chat rooms, and blogs. The rapidity and ease with which we can express ourselves and get feedback sometimes tempts us into sharing a piece before its time.

Every writer needs a reader, else we might as well be standing at the edge of the ocean and scream into the wind, our words floating away and into nothing on the salty breeze. As a writer, it means something to get responses to what you have written. For one, you want to know if readers got the meaning out of your writing that you wanted them to get. For another, you want to know if what you are toiling to do well is actually making a difference. No one is an island. People need people.

Yet, no matter how much we share in this modern-day writing world, the craft of writing is most often a lonely business. Words flow best in the quiet, in the immersion of experience that only a set amount of time with just you and your blank computer screen allows as you delve into the depths of your brain for just the right turn of phrase or action to make your idea a reality.

“Find the right word,” Mark Twain advised, “not its second cousin.” That kind of dedication to creating a well-written work is really a rare quality. We can’t all create the great American novel.

But that doesn’t keep us from trying.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

Walk The Line

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The grace of God which comes to us through the love of Christ is so open that we often forget that a Christian life is full of boundaries. Instead of focusing on the discipline of a well-lived life, we want to adopt an attitude of “live and let live.” We want to give grace so much latitude that our actions require little or no reflection. As long as we are happy and no one else is hurt, we convince ourselves, whatever we are doing is OK–as long as we are Christians.

But, we are “dead to the flesh,” as Paul explains it, when we accept a life in Christ. We Christians are also the only Bible many people read, including people who feel they are living a Christian life, even though they do not spend time studying His word, praying, or participating in God-centered time with other believers, all disciplines that help us lead the kind of Spirit-filled life that Paul also emulated.

When we fail to acknowledge the boundaries of a Christian life, we harm not only ourselves, but so much more those who only know Christ through us. When we fail to acknowledge the boundaries of a Christian life, we increase the likelihood that we have created or are creating false idols–made things that mean more to us than God does.

In Isaiah 44, God draws a clear line between Himself and idols made of wood: “No one stops to think,” he says, “no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it [the figure made of wood and worshipped] I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’ Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'” (verses 19-20).

Every moment of every day, we have decisions to make, from how we react to the person cutting us off on the freeway to how we respond to the person begging for money on the sidewalk. Do we turn to things of this world, made things like television shows or comfort foods, to help us cope with the state of being human? Or, do we choose to look toward the One thing that has always been and will always be?

Isaiah has the answer: “This is what the Lord says—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes, let them foretell what will come. Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one” (44:6-8).

Boundaries keep us in our known places, but they also keep out that which would destroy in the name of goodness, even when it is not good. Like the serpent in the Garden tempting Eve to taste the forbidden fruit, the evil one is actively pushing against our defense line, trying to break through the boundaries set by God for our protection. Free will necessitates that our boundaries are only as strong as our faith, our worship and our discipline will allow. With God all things are possible.

But there is only one God, only one “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” As He has been since the beginning, so shall He be. No where does He more forcefully proclaim His uniqueness than in the prophecies of Isaiah. Read them the next time you feel tempted to let someone else’s version of the One and Only rule your thinking. The God of the Hebrews declared Himself to be the only God. He made promises and fulfilled them. He was no block of wood or stone. He will continue for always. He is the only boundary we will ever need.

Posted in Living, Self-Help

Where Is Your Victory Garden?

A Live Sculpture of Sprouts some 50 ft. off the ground in Baltimore, Maryland

No matter which side of the current political race you choose to support, I think we can all agree that this country is in a state of crisis. A growing number of people are out of work. The haves are dwindling in numbers at the same time that what they have is outdistancing the have-nots by leaps and bounds. We live in a global community that, if recent events are any indication, want our heads on a very pointy stick. Somebody should do something about it.

Riding in my car today, listening to old-time radio on my Sirius XM, I got to hear the perspective of a time when our country was in equally high crisis. It was a “Dagwood and Blondie” show from the early 40s. At the end of the program, the actors playing the leading roles made the usual war-time appeal to buy bonds. But, they also did something I had a hard time imagining our current stars of today even thinking to do, much less having the courage. The radio voices urged their audience to make the sacrifices now that would ensure that the government could pull itself out of its war-time financial hole once the action was finally over. “Don’t let us suffer as we did after the last war,” the voice said. The actors also told the audience not to buy items for prices other than what the government had set for them, not to buy items they didn’t really need, not to indulge when that indulgence would mean somebody else would suffer.

I couldn’t help but contrast this blunt, everybody-does-his-part approach to a weird commercial I saw recently involving actors of our day. In this modern commercial, we are shown back after back of famous people. Finally, they show their faces to say, “don’t turn your back on our military.” We’ve been involved in severe action for more than 10 years in dangerous conditions abroad. We are fighting an economic and social crisis at home, and these actors are just now coming out to say “don’t turn your back?” What’s more, their commercial gives no positive steps to do right now, no action points. The organization or cause the commercial is supposed to be promoting is even unclear.

I wonder what would happen if George Clooney had the courage to put himself in front of a camera and tell us to quit relying on the government to take care of us, to look to our neighbor to extend a helping hand and receive one, to remember that an honest day’s work, no matter what kind of work it is, is more valuable than a lifetime of handouts to one’s esteem and for the community at large?

During World War II, people planted victory gardens, canned everything they could, ate all leftovers. Housewives even saved used grease to donate for the purpose of making rubber. Ford assembly lines shot out tanks and war machinery at an even faster pace than they produced non-war-time cars. Even the children were not exempt from doing without so that the country as a whole might benefit.

Where is your victory garden today? You can’t fix the problems swirling around this country, but you can control you. All it takes is each one of us taking care of business, refusing to do what isn’t right, even if every one else around us is doing it, and being a helping hand whenever possible to start making a difference. With God, all things are possible. Let’s bring Him back into the fore again in this country, one Victory Garden at a time.

Posted in Christian Living, Faith, Living

You Want To Know These Three Important Questions For Your Life

We can ALL be this relaxed. Read how.

I have been doing a much better job lately of living day-to-day.  This approach to life, realizing that what I really have is only this moment, taking to heart Jesus’ admonition to take care of this day because each day has enough trouble of its own, is really a great leap forward for a compulsive worrier such as myself.  It is a very freeing way to approach life when you don’t bog yourself down with the “what ifs” that plague the anxiety-ridden.

As God so often works, I happened to read a really great passage in C.S. Lewis’ Scewtape Letters this week that will help me live each moment in an even more Godly way.  After all, it’s easy to live-in-the-moment and fall into the trap of living for the moment, plunging yourself solely into the pleasures and challenges of this life instead of contemplating the next one.

 

What C.S. Lewis proposes is that each person has three questions to ask of herself before doing anything:

  1. Is it righteous?
  2. Is it prudent?
  3. Is it practical?

We need to be sure that we define these questions according to the Bible.  The first word, righteous, means “acting in accord with divine or moral law; free from guilt or sin” according to Webster’s Dictionary.  If we want the Bible’s definition, we need only turn to the Sermon on the Mount, starting in Matthew 5, to learn about this word from every angle.  Jesus simplified righteousness the most when He summed up the law with two edicts: loving God first and most and loving and treating everyone else as we ourselves want to be loved and treated.  So, when I ask myself, is this righteous, I know I have to begin my thinking in the realm of love that IS God.

Something that is prudent is “marked by wisdom or judiciousness” (Webster’s).  We know from the Proverbs that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.  We also know that we can only gain wisdom of God through daily study of His word, daily time with Him in prayer, and concsious knowledge on our part that we really don’t know anything at all when compared with God’s wisdom.  So, is our action wise according to the dictates laid out by God, according to His goals for a Christian’s life?

Practical things are “manifested in action, not theoretical or ideal.”  They are “capable of being put to use or account/ useful” (Webster’s).  It can be so easy to get caught up in our own thoughts all the time, wondering or complaining about how things should be instead of taking care of how things are.  But, practical actions are more likely to point outward, to think of others instead of just the self.  It’s all very easy to say to ourselves that we love other people.  It is another thing altogether to serve food in a soup kitchen or volunteer for a community group or bake dinner for the older neighbor who lives next door.  Again, Jesus helped define what was practical during His ministry, often to the shock of the “more religious” Pharisees, who could not see the holiness of some of His actions because they could not see past their own rigidly-defined religion.  For example, they did not understand how unclean things like utensils used to eat on the outside do not make a person unclean on the inside.

It’s often been said to count to ten before speaking when you are angry.  I like this idea of taking time to ask myself three questions before I take an action or say something I may otherwise regret.  I especially love the way that God works for the good the things that happen in our lives.  Just as I am learning to live without worry, God gives me something positive to think about to make my “moment-living” even more productive from a Christian perspective.  Thank you, Jesus!

Posted in Christianity, Love

Living the Fruit of the Spirit

As I sat in Bible class on Sunday morning, listening as others were picking out what they had found of note in the previous week’s reading of Galatians, a couple of pretty powerful conclusions came to me.
The first began as I looked at the footnote in my NASB for the phrase “the righteous man will live by faith,” which said that what was meant here was actually closer to the word “faithfulness.”
Now, faith and faithfulness, I believe, are two entirely different animals. In our venacular, we tend to equate the word faith with belief, which implies just believing that Christ is risen is sufficient for salvation. But faithfulness means something beyond mere belief. Faithfulness
is more like believing by doing. Aha. Now, we have a problem. If I must believe by doing in order to be redeemed, then do my actions and not grace save me? Perhaps a better definition of faithfulness might be belief through being.
Let me explain.
The second grand conclusion I discovered Sunday was the fact that the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 are actually the “fruit” of the Spirit. Singular, not plural, implying a crop or harvest of something. Once redeemed, the one who lives in faithfulness is seeking to be one who embodies all of the characteristics of Galatians 5:22-23. This is a state of being, fostered by the indwelling Spirit, redeemed upon inevitable failure by the grace of Christ.
Which brings us to the question of legalism. When Christ said his yoke was light, I believe he meant in comparison to the yoke of fulfillment which constituted Jewish religion at that time. The Talmud (as opposed to the Torah, upon which our modern OT cannon is based), which elaborated on the items of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, had grown to include so many items, that I am sure living up to its mandates would be something like living in the mind of a person with OCD. Wash hands so many times before touching this, step on a crack, break your mother’s back. That sort of thing.
When Christ proposed to lift the yoke of this kind of living, He could not have meant that living
would suddenly be easier. How is it a lighter yoke to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, meek and in control of the self–all the time? It is lighter, perhaps, in that instead of following a distinct set of rules, the freedom of salvation means the freedom to be, not do. The actions that happen as a result of being are much lighter than actions required from a list of doing.
I think the Western mind may have a problem with this concept that believing still requires doing because we do not wrap our minds around the concept of dualities. There’s a little bit of the feminine in the masculine and vice versa. We all have good and evil. Being is more than just believing, even though our actions, ultimately, are not what save us. When Christ, and subsequently Paul, smashed the legalistic requirements of salvation, they opened the door to a way of life that embodied more than any written law. Living the law of Christ is very different from living the Talmud. It is much more challenging, but it is also freeing because, as the Nicole Nordemann song reminds us–“His mercies are new every morning.” No matter how often we fall, as long as we sincerely repent, Christ helps us rise to begin again.