Excogitation

"To think things out carefully and thoroughly"

01-27-16 Atonement

My, how terribly conflicted I can be.

As a Christian, I understand, and believe with all my heart, that Jesus made atonement for my sins by dying on the cross.  He paid the price of my transgressions in full.  I am graced with forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God.

Yet, in a practical sense, I am driven to atone for my sins.  I’m addicted to the practice, this drive to even out the scales or balance the ledger of my life.  You see, I don’t want to be a bad person.  I want to prove myself to be capable, significant, worthy.

When I’m living well, I feel OK about myself.  When I’m not, I don’t.  It takes relatively little to get me into a mindset of self-condemnation.  My self-talk is filled with familiar choruses:  “You’re no good.”  “You’re a failure.”  “You’re incompetent.”  “You can’t do anything right.”  In moments of seeming clarity, I resolve to redouble my efforts to prove that I am not what I am telling myself that I am.

And often, this works.  For a while.  This business of self-atonement turns out to be a tough business to be in.

I came across someone who, apparently, struggled with the same issue.  I only know him by his first name, Micah.  Here’s what he said:

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

Turns out that no matter what you offer to God in atonement for sins, it’s never enough.  This is true even for the “already forgiven”, the practical atoners like me who want the scales of their deeds to tilt toward the good in order to validate their value and significance.  Even if I sacrificed my children, it wouldn’t be enough.  (And I wouldn’t.)

So Micah says we should knock of the self-atonement efforts.  It insults the sacrifice of Jesus, along with being woefully inadequate to purge the conscience and validate self-worth.  A purged conscience and a validated sense of self-worth are both found in the cross of Jesus.  Matter settled.  And what should we do instead?  Micah put it this way,

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

OK.  So every day, I need to get up and focus on three simple things.

Do the right thing.

Shower people with mercy.

Stay in sync with God and His ways.

When I feel the need to make up for my failures (and I will fail), I remember the cross, say “thank you”, and then go out and do the right thing, shower people mercy, and live in sync with God and His ways.  This is how I live out my “thank you” to God.  This is how I live out my love for God.

These three things form the foundation for an emotionally and spiritually healthy life.  They are the “reset mode” I return to after I fail, or when I am confused on what to do.  It’s all God requires.  And when we do what God requires, my soul finds the rest it cannot find in atonement efforts.  It can just enjoy being atoned for.

Posted 97 weeks ago

1-14-16 How Late Is Too Late?

So how late is too late?

When is it too late to take a better path in life?  To reconcile a relationship?  To do what you’ve always dreamed of doing?  Or do what you know you should have been doing all along?

Hold that question.

The Christian Scriptures contain a story about a man named Jonah, who ran from God rather than do what God asked him to do.  He boarded a ship, got caught in a monster storm, was thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish.  He was in the belly of the fish for three days, and then vomited out on dry land.  Lessoned learned, he goes and does what God has asked.

(OK, if you’re a rational theist like myself, this story poses no problem for you, because you accept a transcendent Being that stands apart from and over the laws of nature.  But if you’re not, please, just for the sake of argument, suspend your judgement and see if you might just be blessed by the point of this story.)

In the second chapter, Jonah’s prayer from inside the great fish is recorded.  He said, in part,

“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.  But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you.”

From the fish’s belly Jonah is recounting what had happened, not what was happening.  From within the fish he recalls how he had called on God from the realms of the deep, when sinking to the bottom of the sea, wrapped in seaweed and caught in the ocean’s currents.  God heard his prayer and sent the fish.  The fish wasn’t a part of God’s judgment.  The fish was an act of mercy, prepared beforehand by God to snatch Jonah from an absolutely helpless situation and give him another chance at life.

So, again, my question.  How late is too late?

The story of Jonah would indicate that if you’ve been cast into the sea during a tumultuous storm, been overwhelmed by the crashing waves, gone under, gotten trapped in seaweed and are sinking to the bottom of the sea, your last breathe already expired and no hope for another one, it’s still not too late.

It’s still not too late.

No matter how much time has passed, no matter how far down the road you’ve travelled, no matter how old you are, no matter how complicated your circumstances may be, no matter how many times you’ve messed up or how big the sins you’ve committed may be, it is not too late.  No matter how hopeless your situation may appear to be, it is not too late.  We can cry out to God at our most desperate moments when things appear to be hopelessly over.

A great fish is coming.

Posted 99 weeks ago

01-08-16 Come Back

Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen is that we get what we want; that we are allowed to go our own way.  This is always true when the things we want are in opposition to the things God would want for us.

Jesus told a story about a son who wanted his inheritance money early so he could leave his family and go live like he wanted.  He got his way.  Result?  A flash of fun, followed by regret, unhappiness and humiliation.

Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to us is getting what we want.

God does something wonderful for wanderers.  He programs pain into the pathway that leads away from Him.  When we go our own ways, we eventually feel sadness, a lack of fulfillment, remorse, or futility.  These are not signs that God has given up on us or wants to punish us.  These are prods lovingly placed by God to motivate us to return to Him and walk in the way of real life.

If only we have the capacity to recognize them as such, and the humility to turn back to God and His ways.

The prophet Amos, whose messages are recorded in a book in the Bible that bears his name, makes a stunning observation.  Some people, when eating the bitter fruit of their own ways, will still refuse to turn to God and live.

Wow.

In Amos chapter 4, the prophet chronicles various pains that God lovingly allowed some wayward children to feel.  Yet in each circumstance, the prodding was met with the same response: “Yet you have not returned to Me,“  says the LORD.  What’s the deal about returning to God? Here’s how He put it: Now this is what the Lord says:  “Come back to me and live!

God wants us to live.

Maybe you’ve gotten what you’ve wanted in life.  Or you’ve gone down the path you desired.  And now you’re feeling prodded.  Could it be that this painful prodding is an act of love from a God who just wants you to really live?

Go back.  God is waiting.  So is life.

Posted 100 weeks ago

01-04-16 Fruitless

Fruitless.  It’s a word used to describe an utter lack of success; effort that is pointless, unproductive, a waste of time and energy.  Fruitless describes what it’s like to work hard but have nothing real to show for it.

Fruitlessness is the imagery that the ancient prophet Joel used to describe the state of a people whose hearts had wandered far from God.  He described successive plagues of locusts that ravaged the land, wave after wave, until nothing was left.  No plant or tree could produce anything.  Working the fields and orchards was fruitless.  Life was very, very hard.

This is an apt metaphor for life.  When a heart wanders far from God, all effort becomes fruitless.  It’s not that things aren’t accomplished.  It’s that all accomplishments are meaningless.  Fleeting.  Devoid of the kind of fulfillment that we long for.  We feel ourselves drying up on the inside.  We feel compelled to do more, only to be robbed of any lasting satisfaction when we do.

As it turns out, inner wholeness and satisfying success in things that truly matter only happen when we are in tune with God.

The fruitless feeling is intended to be a good thing.  It is intended to be a catalyst for change.  For renewal.  When we feel like we’re withering on the inside, when we lack fulfillment from our labors, when we feel like we’re missing the point of it all, maybe we should heed the timeless words of the ancient prophet Joel:

“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”  Rend your heart and not your garments.  Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.  Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing.  (Joel 2:12-14)

Posted 100 weeks ago

01-01-16. NEW

2016. A new year has begun. Many stayed up past midnight to welcome in the new year. Many make resolutions to do better things or be better people. There’s something about newness that elicits the urge to try harder, improve, grow.

I think God has set up the universe to communicate newness. Every 24 hours a new day. Every 30 days or so a new month. Every 365 days (or 366 like in 2016!) a new year.

God is a God of newness.

There are 2 words used in the New Testament documents of the Bible that are both translated “new”. Each one communicates the kind of newness God brings to people.

God is the God of the freshness. The word “neos” means something new in time, something that has not long existed. God brings new experiences, orchestrates new opportunities, stimulates new insights, presents new challenges, leads into new discoveries. Following Jesus may be hard at times, but its never boring or predictable.

God is the God of change. The word “kainos” means new in kind or essence. When you choose to follow Jesus, He makes you “new”. You are still you, but you become a new kind of you. A better, improved you. A you that can relate to others properly, act appropriately, dare greatly and succeed wonderfully.

God wants your 2016 to be filled with exciting discoveries and opportunities. He wants you to become a better, more powerful person. Give Him some of your time. Give Him access to your heart. And see what new thing happens.

“Behold, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5)

Posted 101 weeks ago