Posted in Christianity, Faith, Love

The Greatest Love Story Almost Never Told

love-story

In a burial scene during the latest X-Men movies, one of the characters picks up the cross at the head of a newly dug grave and turns it before placing the two sticks back into the ground so that an X now stands at the head of the grave.

It’s supposed to be a simple statement about the person buried in the ground,  but I couldn’t help myself from seeing something deeper behind the symbolic gesture. It seemed to me that by taking down the cross in this way, the movie had literally “X-ed” out God.

But, should I really give in to the righteous outrage this degradation of my God stirred in my chest? If I look really hard at the way we Christians try, and mostly fail, to reflect why Christ’s message is good news, how can I really blame the secular world for its obsession in breaking down the things they perceive that I stand for?

I recently listened to one of N.T. Wright’s speeches at a Pepperdine Bible Lecture series. In it, he claimed that the story the world at large has learned from us when it comes to Christ is one in which God’s hatred of us led to the need for the sacrifice of His Son to save mankind instead of the truth of the absolute love story the gospel really is.

For God so loved the world. Growing up listening to too many sermons where I was reminded, like Jonathon Edwards’ congregation of the 18th century, that I might be likened to a spider dangling above the open flame of God’s wrath, I easily supplanted His overwhelming love in my fear of His inevitable judgment.

In a world where you are reminded of your failings, the love you feel from God too easily becomes understood as conditional. You have to earn His love for you, just as you earn the respect of your peers. Considering how often we stumble, I can only imagine how much He rightfully hates me. Looking at life through these conditional lenses, I can’t help but hate myself.

It’s easy enough to fall into this trap of doing to earn God’s love and salvation. We live in a world where we delineate winners and losers. We judge others according to their accomplishments. We study a Bible in which we struggle to match the Old Testament God of Wrath with the New Testament God on a Cross.

We Christians are not immune from failing to fully accept that our belief alone in Christ and His teaching is what saves us, even though nothing else we do adds anything to our actual salvation. Too often, we make these unconscious checklists of the things we should be doing to ensure what is already ours through faith, things like never missing church on Sunday or never passing a person wanting a handout without giving him something. These to-do lists are commendable goals for a grateful heart that wants to live for God, but making them a requirement for salvation proves we have fallen victim to rendering conditional a relationship that is actually unlimited.

If Christians are unclear on the absolutely unconditional love of God for humanity, how much more so will those who do not believe fall victim to our seemingly confused theology? We make it so much easier for a secular world to X out the one good thing it has going for it because the light we shine is shrouded in this confusion over the height and depth and breadth of God’s love.

The good news is that the story of Christ is not a story of sinners in the hands of an angry God, but a true love story, the truest love story, about a God who made us in love, in His own image, and has never stopped loving us unconditionally, even when we turn our backs on Him.

If you need examples of man’s inability to break the bonds of God’s love for us, the Bible is replete with them. How many times did the Jews turn from the ways of a God Who only wanted them to love Him first and foremost? And, every time, He waited patiently for the stiff necks to turn in true worship to Him once more.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is another example of God’s capacity to feel love, only love, even when we deserve His disgust.  When the prodigal wastes his inheritance, returning to his home only after he has led the most ignoble of lifestyles, the father doesn’t tell him that he got exactly what he deserved. The father greets him in love, with mighty hugs, tears of joy, and a grand feast. When one lost lamb returns to the herd, the Shepherd who loves beyond human understanding rejoices.

Perhaps the most powerful example of the love story that is Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation is the assurance that we who believe are no longer condemned. There is now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, Paul assures us in his letter to the Romans (8:1), one of the New Testament’s most powerful treatises on the gift of Grace.

We’re human. We’re still going to stumble and fall. But, no matter how hard we hit the pavement, God refuses to condemn a saved soul. That doesn’t mean He won’t want better from us next time. It doesn’t mean we should go through life without thinking about our actions or trying to be a better person. It just means we can free ourselves from the burden of judgment that has been lifted. The yoke of our Mighty God is truly light. It is a yoke held up by the truest love there is.

You want to argue politics or stand on your moral high ground about hot-topic issues? Maybe there is a time and place for all of those things. But today, in this divided country we live in, I think it is much more important to make the Christian job description conducive to spreading the love story of our Awesome God.

If you want to change the world, start by making sure the world knows just how much God loves it. He put a piece of Himself on that rough wood and gave up all the power of the universe so that His children, which includes all of us, could be in relationship with Him again in a heavenly home where love conquers all.

That’s a love story of the ages, for the ages. And it always has a happily ever after.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Faith

God Gets In The Weeds

forest-sunbeams-trees-sunlight-70365-large

I’m sweating like a sinner in church.

It’s an old wisecrack meant to alleviate tension, but it points to an underlying belief about God and especially His followers, the belief that God only really wants to deal with really good people, that He has no tolerance for those who stray from the straight and narrow path. God, and especially His people, don’t like to get their hands dirty.

But these widely-held beliefs could not be further from the truth of our living, loving God.  The One who loved us enough to die a humiliating death on the cross for us embraces the wounded, the broken, and those who stumble. He knows more than anyone the imperfections of His creations and loves us anyway.

When we deny that salvation is a gift from God, we fall into the trap of thinking salvation has to be earned by our actions. When we work on the earned-salvation model, we are doomed to make mistakes, doomed to judge ourselves and others, and doomed to lose sight of God in the midst of our efforts to ultimately save ourselves.

We must accept that salvation cannot be earned, that the love of God alone saves us, in order to see the world from a more Godly perspective, to support each other rather than judge, to embrace the imperfections in all of us as an indication of our equality before a perfect God.

God’s love is so great, His willingness to get into the depth and breadth of our indignities so limitless, that our finite brains cannot begin to comprehend it. When Jesus had the power to rule the world and dine with kings, He chose to live as an itinerant and dine with tax collectors and prostitutes, some of the most despised social classes of His time. When Paul held Stephen’s cloak while his compatriots stoned the first Christian martyr to death, God didn’t turn His head, but instead saw the potential in Paul to be one of His greatest crusaders. God is not averse to getting His hands dirty if that is what loving us requires.

We know that God is in the weeds as well as on the mountaintops because God is everywhere:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you;  the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

If we live knowing God gets in the weeds, then perhaps we would do better at tolerating the imperfections in ourselves and others. We would do well to remember that Jesus managed to hold people accountable for their actions without making them feel unloved or de-valued. We would know the difference between truth and petty judgments. Church would be a place where love lifts up sinners instead of making them sweat.

Living by putting God’s love first may seem impossible, but all things are possible with a God who is willing to get down in the dirt with us:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

The God who loves the humble fosters an open heart in all of us, as well as a desire to do what is good and right. But when we stumble, He is always ready to take our hands and pull us back to our feet again. Finding yourself in the weeds? He’s right there, waiting patiently, for you to find Him.

Posted in Christianity, Faith, Uncategorized

This Christmas

Nativity-Scene

How amazing is it that the God who created the universe was willing to take on the form of a mortal man, suffer the indignities of being human, and even let Himself be ridiculed and hung like a common criminal–all so we might be forgiven and brought back into relationship with Him?

Think about everything you hate having to do. God took out the trash, washed the dishes, fed the donkeys, and even bathed other people’s feet. He who could call upon a legion of angels to verify His power allowed Himself to be mocked by much lesser beings. He allowed himself to be whipped, spit upon, crucified.

He who could raise the dead allowed Himself to experience the horror of a last, desperate breath. He watched His own earthly mother mourn for Him. He knew the motley crew He called disciples would trudge home after His death in an unknowing sense of defeat.

Do you love someone? Are you willing to make yourself into the lowest common denominator for that someone? Would you be ridiculed for that someone’s sake? Would you stand in front of your longest rivals and let them call you a fake, fraud, loser? Would you really?

We humans like to humanize God. Yet, even though we are made in His image, we cannot even begin to fathom how far down the scale of existence our Lord traveled to become our Savior. Fortunately, we don’t have to understand it.

We just have to believe.

Christmas is about the most amazing birth that will ever happen in our world, when He who has the power to move mountains, took on the shell of a being incapable of lifting a pebble.

But if we fail to recognize His glory, even the rocks will cry out.

Posted in Christian Living

On This Rock

PhotoFunia-river

When I was young, my Sunday school teacher explained that the Bible was such a great book, in part because it was too complicated for the most intelligent person to completely figure out and yet the simplest mind could understand its core messages.

By spending regular time in the Word, you discover that what you read can often be applied to whatever you are currently experiencing. Make Bible reading a part of your regular routine. For example, I read my Bible every day as I walk on my treadmill.

During the last week, my reading gave me several verses to help me cope with stress. They reminded me of God’s power and His intent to take care of me, no matter what bad happens to me in this world of evil.

When the psalmist says, “Make me hear sounds of joy and gladness; let the bones you crushed be happy again” (Psalm 51:8), I find someone who feels like I sometimes feel–beat down by the world’s cares but wanting to feel weightless again.

This feeling of reaching for the light is further emphasized in Psalm 51: “Give me back the joy of your salvation. Keep me strong by giving me a willing spirit (12).” I am reminded that I am supposed to have joy in this world because of my salvation through Christ, but that I need to have a can-do attitude that is willing to reach for peace when I feel most tumultuous.  If I choose to find joy in my salvation, God will help me rise above the challenges of day-to-day living.

Hannah Praying for a Baby
Hannah Praying for a Baby

Do you remember the story of Samuel? His mother, Hannah, was barren, ridiculed by her husband’s first wife because Hannah could not have children. In a culture where children were the measuring stick of success, Hannah was an abysmal failure. In the psalmist’s terms, her bones had indeed been crushed.

Hannah could have wallowed in despair. Instead, she poured her sorrow out before the One who could help her. She promised God to dedicate her child to His service if she ever had one. Shortly after Hannah’s heartfelt plea, God indeed blessed her with a son, Samuel, who later became a renowned leader of the Jewish people.

In thankfulness for her blessing, Hannah sings a song of praise, in which she says:

There is no one holy like the LORD. There is no God but you; there is no Rock like our God. (1 Samuel 2:2)

God had indeed served as Hannah’s rock. Her faith in Him helped her survive years of being barren and blessed her finally with children.

As a person with anxiety, I too must strive to make God my Rock, especially on my bad anxiety days.

How does God as your Rock look? To me, He is the boulder held fast in the midst of a raging river. The mist of roiling water might soak me eventually, but I will not drown. No matter how high the water rises, my Rock will always rise above it.

And rising higher still than the rapid water is the clear, blue sky that stands for the joy of my salvation, for the ultimate gift of a loving God that makes this life livable.

If you don’t already, make Bible reading one of your daily habits. Build upon the Rock of your salvation with the Word of God. You will always find something of use in your daily life there.

Posted in Poetry

Mesquite Bend: Revival

30 days poetry

Salvation and Dust

Each summer since 1920, the white tent
rises from the dust, its gleaming poles
polished smooth by sand carried
across a thousand miles.

For five nights, Mesquite Bend swells
with hymns and brimstone, whispered
promises of forgiveness, and Spirit-filled
prayers.  Faith brings most who sit

in the stiff, folding chairs for hours
each night to listen to Reverend Grady
ebb and flow the Gospel for them,
sweat trickling down his bulbous nose

as he points in all directions, his words
full of holiness and damnation.  Others
bring stubbornness with them,
the need to hold on to the self

outdoing the call to step out,
childlike, into the abyss where reason
gives way to belief.  These few mock
the courage of those who freely fall

into the arms of the dry, hot air
that builds to a mighty crescendo
of cicada song and amens.  The time
fifty souls returned to Jesus

even the mockers felt goose bumps
crawling up arms that raised heavenward.
In a landscape of darkness, these nights
shine between fields filled with cotton and coyotes.

Ramona Levacy
April 28, 2015

Posted in Christianity, Faith

Reliable Mercy

Mustard seed faith

I have never been a parent, unless you want to count my cat.  He is a true tomcat who prefers to watch you from a good five-foot distance.  He does not want my bids for affection unless they involve some fish-flavored kibble or tuna flakes.  Despite the claw and tooth scars I have to prove his need for independence, I continue to try to figure out ways to cuddle him and still respect his “space.”  He has trained me to turn the tub faucet on at his command.  I have learned to “punish” him with unwanted hugs even when I might want to knock him across the room instead.

If I, being human, can go through all of this for a furry “child,” how much more must my parents feel for me, how much more any parent must feel for his/her child, no matter how rebellious that child sometimes becomes.  Even when a child goes against what his parents want him to do, I can understand how much the parent must long for the child to return to the roots of his raising again, or themselves struggle with trying to understand the world from their child’s perspective to find a place of restorative peace.

This Sunday, we are geared up to celebrate the most merciful “parent” of all time–our living God!  His mercy is always present, always available, and always ours alone to lose because He has given us the free will to choose the gift of His grace which was His sacrifice on the Cross to bring us back into relationship with Him.

You will read a lot of Scripture from the New Testament this week if you are studying about Easter, but I want you to consider a passage from the Old Testament instead: the story of Jonah.  When the reluctant prophet decides to do the job he didn’t want to take from God, the LORD doesn’t immediately destroy the people who don’t want to listen to Jonah’s message from God.

So, Jonah does what any of us humans would do at times like this.  He pouts.  He goes and sits at a distance from the town of Nineveh and waits for God to drop down the punishment God made Jonah go talk about.  Instead of destroying the city, however, God has a plant grow over Jonah, offering the pouting prophet shade from the unrelenting sun.  However, almost as quickly as it grew, the plant gets infected by a worm, withers and dies, leaving Jonah exposed to the elements again and ready to himself die:

 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:9-11)

You might be tempted to read the Old Testament and think that God is a judgmental, even brutal, Creator.  But, the Old Testament is as full of His merciful attitude as the New.  Think about all the times that the people God talks to often argue with Him.  There is more than one instance when a prophet will repetitively ask God, will you save the city if you can find 50 good people? 40 people? 20 people? 10?  God patiently agrees each time.  He tolerates a created thing that deigns to argue with its Creator!  He wants to save not only the people of Nineveh, but the animals as well.

Don’t be surprised, then, when you discover that the God whose shoulders are big enough to take every complaint you have to hurl in His direction still loves you enough to die for you.  He wants a relationship with YOU.  And He is patient about waiting for you.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

I can’t rely on my cat for anything except his desire to be fed on a regular basis.  Even my husband of twenty years sometimes gets angry with me.  But God is the only ONE in my life who is reliably merciful.  Read His word from beginning to end, forwards and backwards, and what you will discover is a God just waiting to show His love for you.

As you celebrate the risen Christ this Easter, don’t forget to celebrate His reliable mercy as well.  He is waiting and much more ready to show you love than the anger we all deserve.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

Posted in Faith

This Walk By Faith

Footsteps_in_the_south_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1655352

Watching a video on early church history with my life group, I was struck by one of the biographies of early church leaders.  I believe it was John Wesley who was so zealous for God that he had even been to America to mission there.  On the return trip home, Wesley was caught in a great storm at sea and found himself falling way short in the faith department as he faced possible death.

I wondered why someone who had enough belief to go out and share God’s word would be so quick to fall from faith (or at least blame himself for falling).  Then, the documentary continued to explain the most important next step of Wesley’s faith story.  The man who would go on to lay the foundations for the Methodist movement learned the difference between a salvation that is earned and one that is freely given.  Wesley learned to embrace grace. 

As Paul teaches in many of his letters, our salvation is not earned.  We are saved from the damnation we deserve only because Jesus chose to die on the cross for our sins, make us right with God once and for all, and send the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and pull us toward the kind of living that reflects the kind of loving life Jesus lived.

When we have asked Jesus to be our Saviour and admitted our need for His offer of salvation, we are saved.  Even in the face of our most immediate, physical dangers, we can take comfort in knowing that our souls are safe.  We will join Jesus in heaven.  We will see God.  We will know that eternal place where there is no fear, no pain, no doubt.

When you release the need to earn salvation, you are free to embrace the humanness we all share.  You are free to love the way that God intended us to love.  You know that you cannot be proud since none of us are good enough because of anything we’ve done.  We are only good enough because God made us all equally “good enough” by dying on the cross for us.

What a different experience John Wesley would have had on that scary boat ride if he already understood that his faith was enough to ensure his salvation through grace!  He would not have feared his future thinking he had not yet sown enough fruit for God to be saved.  Instead, he might have felt that “peace which surpasses understanding,” knowing that whatever happened, it would be God’s will.

None of us know for sure how we will react to life-and-death moments until we have actually experienced them.  But all of us can practice living out our faith by doing what Jesus commanded:  “‘AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ “The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”… (Mark 12:30-31).

When we truly have faith, we act out our faith through our deeds.  We actively seek to shine the Light of God.  We study His word.  We seek relationship with Him in prayer.  We seek fellowship with other believers.  We do things for even strangers that we would appreciate being done to us.

I’m gonna walk by faith, an’ not by sight
‘Cause I can’t see straight in the broad daylight
I’m gonna walk by faith, an’ not by fear
‘Cause I believe in the one who brought me here

“Walk by Faith,” by Out of the Grey–Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/out-of-the-grey/walk-by-faith-lyrics/#kPBrrx4vIIO2CioE.99