It’s My Wounds vs Your Wounds: Finding the Path to Mercy

How often are the wounds from my past fighting the wounds from someone else’s past? Would that help me to respond to others with more compassion and mercy?

Seeing my interactions from this perspective drives home the importance of my own soul work. If I don’t make the space for healing and grounding my identity in my true self that is united with God’s love, then there isn’t much of a chance that I’ll show mercy to others. I’ll either react out of defending my false self, which has become a safety mechanism for my pain, or I’ll just react out of the anger that I’m feeling in the moment.

Richard Rohr writes often that we can’t dismiss our pain until it teaches us what we need to know about ourselves. My anger has been an unwelcome but important teacher.

What is feeding this anger? What drives it?  For a while I couldn’t even put my finger on it. It was just present, and when something or someone agitated me, I could feel anger rising up to explode.

The agitations and conflicts of daily life have been too much for me some days, and I’m learning that there is a reason for this.

Yes, anger is the perceived denial of a right, but is there a legitimate reason for the anger in my life? Did its formation come from the denial of something that was an honest to goodness right? I think that is often the case.

That begins to move us away from an unhelpful view where anger is always wrong or sinful. Anger can go horribly wrong, but it may well be the symptom of an issue that can be faced with compassion and mercy.

If my anger is repressed, then it continues to boil and simmer in unseen but very real places in my life. And anger has to be faced because it is a teacher.

Once I’ve faced my anger, I’m able to move toward healing and to recognize that the many times my anger boils, it’s often not because of a particular person or event. If I can ever get beyond the sources of my own anger, then perhaps I can find the capacity to hold the anger of another person with compassion and mercy. Perhaps I can imagine that this person has his/her own pain and wounds that are fueling the anger directed at me.

I confess, I’m not there yet, not by a long shot.

This gives me a deeper awareness and appreciation for the ministry of Jesus. He was a man of sorrows who suffered alongside humanity. He bore our sins, weaknesses, and failures as one of us. He had the capacity to bear the weight of the world’s wounds, and he came as a doctor intent on healing all who trusted themselves with him.

Jesus could see beyond the ambition, power, and evil of his executioners, pleading with God the Father, “They know not what they do!” Even as he bore the wounds of their torture and the excruciating pain of his final moments, he remained compassionate on the people set on destroying him.

There are plenty of barriers that could keep me from showing compassion to others, but perhaps the most limiting are my own wounds that keep me burdened with my false self and my anger over the very real failures of my past.

With the stakes so high over my ability to show compassion and mercy toward others, let alone to bear their burdens alongside them, the soul work of facing my anger takes on even greater urgency and importance.

May God’s presence and healing bring us the healing and wholeness we need in order to love and serve others with the compassion they so badly need.

Kim Davis Wouldn’t Issue Marriage Licenses to Abraham or David and Here’s Why That Matters

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As the door to the county clerk’s office swings open, Kim Davis prepares to flee to a back office, fearing reporters and yet another same sex couple seeking a marriage license.

Instead, a tall, elderly gentleman wearing a turban walks in with an elderly woman shoving a young woman toward the counter. The young woman’s eyes are downcast. She shuffles forward and bows toward Davis.

“Peace to you,” the tall elderly man says.

“Look,” cuts in the elderly woman, “We’ll be quick. We just need you to issue a marriage license to my husband and her.” She pointed at the young woman. “Her name is Hagar.”

Hagar continues looking down as Davis tries to make eye contact.

“We’re having… problems conceiving,” the man offers.

The elderly woman shoots him a look of daggers.

“I’m sorry,” Kim cuts in. “You two are already married?”

“Yes,” replies the man.

“Does she even want to be married to you?” Davis asks, glancing over her shoulder for a deputy.

The elderly couple burst into laughter, leaving Davis visibly shaken.

“As if THAT even matters!” the elderly woman cuts in. “Hagar does what I tell her to do. If I want her to bear my husband’s child, that’s none of your business.”

Now the man grows cross. “That’s how our culture assures each family has a male heir. Who are you to tell us how to run our family?”

“Deputy! DEPUTY! I need a deputy up here right now!” Davis calls to the back.

As the woman prepares to really let Davis have it, the door opens again and a short but muscular man strides in wearing a jeweled crown and resting his right hand on a massive sword at this side.

“Good day Abraham! Sarah!” he says with a bounce in his step. “Is there much of a wait today? I have a few new wives to add to my harem.”

“It’s slow going today, King David” Sarah replies.

A large company of women, children, and guards swarm in through the doors behind David.

“Let’s see…” the king says, counting the women assembled in the waiting room. “This week I’ve got three, four, five, six licenses. OK, just six. It’s been a slow month.”

“I’m afraid times are changing,” Abraham says to the king as deputy clerks scramble from their desks to relieve the retreating clerk.

“It’s not that Kim Davis lady again, is it? Do I need to get Abner on this?”

“No! Don’t! That will only make things worse,” Sarah says. “Look, she sent her deputies out to issue the licenses. I guess she doesn’t support the prophecy that our descendants will be as numerous as the sand. I mean, how else does she expect that promise to be fulfilled?”

“Hey,” David cut in, clearly distracted by Hagar. “Who is this beautiful lady? I’m sure I could match whatever your price is for her. If I’m already getting six licenses, what’s one more?”

“Sorry, David, but Hagar’s my only ticket to future descents,” Abraham replies. Hagar slips behind Sarah to avoid the king’s intent gaze.

“She needs to do as we say,” Sarah added.

“Well, I don’t think you technically NEED to marry her,” David offered, “But… spoilers!”

“Um, excuse me,” cut in a short man with glasses and paisley tie behind the counter, “But we can’t issue a marriage license if she’s not willing to marry you.”

David, Abraham, and Sarah laughed long and hard at this suggestion.

“Yeah, I don’t think you understand how marriage works,” David replies to the deputy clerk. “Don’t worry, she’ll want to marry him if she knows what’s good for her.”

* * * * *

While we can’t precisely imagine how the Bible’s patriarchs would react to our culture today, there’s good reason to believe they would be jarred by our definitions of marriage, family, and morality. Even if the Old Testament Law offered mandates that were far more merciful and just than those in the surrounding cultures, we’d still most likely arrest people who lived according to several of these laws today.

As we try to figure out what it looks like to faithfully follow Jesus today, we can get hung up on perfectly imitating the standards in the Bible, forgetting that the Bible’s standards have been anything but “standardized” from one generation to another. God’s laws have adapted and shifted with each culture.

This isn’t a wishy washy free for all. It’s a call to a higher law and a deeper morality.

The higher law of love and the deeper morality of justice govern how we apply the teachings of scripture. Pervading it all is the grace and mercy of God who is willing to reach out to people in any time and culture.

If God could respond to the patriarchs with grace and mercy despite marriages that fall dramatically short of what we would consider moral or sacred today, is it possible that there could be situations where God operates with love and mercy within our culture today, even in the places that run counter to the standards of the patriarchs and other biblical writers?

Do you see where I’m going here?

Unless we’re willing to treat the likes of Abraham and David as unrepentant sinners over their marriages who would be excommunicated from our churches today, we must admit that God acts with mercy within particular cultures.

I see God extending mercy in the midst of their social constructs.

It’s telling that David is described as a man after God’s own heart rather than as a serial adulterer.

Somehow God looks into our hearts and determines whether we are receptive to his grace and mercy.

This is why it matters to talk about how we would respond to the likes of Abraham and David. God worked with them right where they were. The invitation to them remains the same for us today. The grace for them extends to us as well.

Jesus issued the most basic of all invitations to would-be followers, saying that anyone who is thirsty, heavy-hearted, or weary should come to him. The wording on the invitation is spare and just about as basic as it gets.

Are you thirsty for God?

Do you desire to seek God with your whole heart?

COME!

Whether you are affirming or not, gay or straight, the same invitation applies to you. The messengers don’t get to alter Jesus’ invitation. The messengers don’t have access to the guest list.

We are charged to look for people who are thirsty or weary and to then issue the invitation.

Whether you are gay or straight, affirming or not, we all suffer from the same two fears:

  1. Discovering the invitation doesn’t apply to us.
  2. Getting deleted from the guest list.

Even the stand of county clerk Kim Davis against same sex marriage is rooted in a fear of the fires of hell—in other words, supporting same sex marriage will delete her from the guest list. By the same token, Kim Davis and her supporters believe that the message of Jesus to LGBT folks is “Repent or burn!”

The message from Jesus was quite different: “Are you thirsty? Then come!”

Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost. So if you’re feeling lost right now, I have good news for you: Jesus is searching for you.

He’s not hunting you down to cast you into the flames. He’s seeking you in order to bring you home. No matter what the other messengers have said about the invitations or the guest list, they aren’t allowed to judge anyone and they don’t know anyone’s heart.

I want you to imagine Jesus speaking directly to you:

“I am a doctor who has come to heal the sick…”

“I rejoice over every repentant wanderer just as a farmer rejoices over finding a lost sheep…”

“I will run out and embrace you if you return to me…”

I don’t get to change the invitation that Jesus issued. I’m not in charge of limiting the scope of his love. The Gospel of John says that God “So loved the world…” If you’re in “the world” right now, then I have good news for you.

You are a precious creation of God.

You are being earnestly sought.

You are beloved.

There aren’t caveats or check boxes for your sexuality.

Who am I to judge another man’s servant?

Who am I to change the invitation Jesus issued?

Who am I to judge with finality on how God relates to people in today’s culture?

I’m not in charge of convicting anyone of sin. I’m not in charge of telling people with different sexuality from my own how to relate to the Bible. I’m a messenger tasked with telling as many people as possible that they are invited to join Jesus at his table. The more lost they are, the thirstier, the more unworthy, the better.

It’s as if we’ve imagined the cross is a barrier from God rather than a beacon showing us the way to redemption.

Can you see Jesus hanging on the cross with his face beaten and bloody as the crown of thorns digs into his brow?

Can you see his determination to bear his pain and agony as he defeats sin and death on our behalf?

Can you see how he bears that isolation and excruciating pain with each passing second?

This was not the act of someone determined to judge, condemn, or set up yet another barrier between humanity and God.

The cross was God’s ultimate expression of love for us and identification with our suffering. The cross was our rescue.

The cross is God’s saving power for all of us, and it is freely to given to all who will receive it.

However you think you fall short, I want to know if you can see the cross right now. If you can see the cross, then you are called to come forward to be healed and reconciled.

You may pile up excuses or remember that someone said you are unworthy because you’re too judgmental, too distracted, too gay, or too greedy.

Bring your flaws to the cross. They’re your ticket.

If you’re weary and unworthy, then you are just the kind of person Jesus wants to come forward. The temple veil has been ripped in two, and now we are all officially out of excuses for avoiding God.

Whatever you believe, whoever you’ve slept with, whatever you’ve been told, the cross is for you and will always stand strong and steady for you. The invitation stands, the words have been etched with the blood of God’s Son. No human being can change that.

God is not meticulously scanning our lives in search of a reason to send us away. God is meticulously scanning our lives for any moment to reach us with a word of love that will sound too good even if we do manage to pause long enough to receive it.

Here is the word he has for you:

“You are loved more deeply than you can ever imagine. The more unworthy you feel, the more I want to heal you. My love will fill any gap you imagine between us. I’m seeking you right now. You’re welcome home any time. Your invitation always stands. Come!”

If I Created God in My Own Image, He’d Let Me Slap You

slap Christians over doctrine

God is merciful, and I am not.

That is one of the most important conclusions I’ve reached after years of theological wrangling and Bible study. In fact, it’s the mercy of Jesus that often caused the greatest amount of friction between himself and the religious leaders of his time.

I don’t think you can deny the mercy of God in the story of scripture, but the challenge often becomes how to apply that mercy today. I mean, God does get around to judging people at the end of time and all, right?

But whatever form that judgment takes, it’s also abundantly clear that Jesus would really quite rather we spend our time showing mercy to others. He framed his ministry as the work of a doctor healing the sick. He even prevented religious authorities from stoning a woman after she committed adultery—an act that they could have easily backed up with chapter and verse.

God patiently sent one prophet after another to tell the wayward Israelites: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In other words, learn to be merciful and you will be obedient. Don’t use your obedience as an excuse to abandon mercy.

As I try to sort out what God’s kind of mercy looks like today, I’ve often heard those who self-identify as more “biblical” or “gospel-centered” accuse me of reinventing God in my own image. By seeking to be merciful, I’m going soft on people because it’s what I want rather than what God and scripture teaches. If God had his way with me, I’d go around shoving the faces of sinners into the chapter and verse for everything.

This accusation is both annoying and frustratingly inaccurate. How dare they mistake me for a merciful person!

I’m just about the most stodgy, rule-following, judgmental person there is. I would love to point the finger at other people than deal with my own issues. Really. It’s super easy to find other people to criticize and judge. It makes me feel amazing because all of these other jokers set the bar so low that I can’t help but look like a religious super hero.

And if I could get God to see things my way, he’d also let me slap more people. Nothing harmful or abusive. Just a little, “HEY! GET IT TOGETHER!” They do this thing on television and the movies all of the time, and I think I would be really good at it in real life. If God let me slap more people like that, I think I would exercise restraint and there’d be a ton more people who would “get it together” faster.

At the very least, all of my slapping would ensure that people wouldn’t go around making ridiculous assertions that people who speak of mercy are remaking God in their own image. I assure you, the vast majority of us are not. I’d love to be more judgmental, to set up stronger boundaries, and to ensure I exist in an echo chamber of ideas that never leave me challenged or uncomfortable—what some may call a “remnant.”

I could be wrong. Maybe the slapping approach isn’t the best way forward. I’m willing to admit that.

While I can admit my slapping plan may have flaws, I wonder if those who accuse the merciful of reinventing God in their own image could ask themselves the same question: “Are we also inventing God in our own image?” That’s not a comfortable place to be.  Maybe getting slapped doesn’t sound so bad now, amirite?

As I read the story of scripture, I don’t see people who struggled to judge others. If anything, God’s people struggled time and time again to be merciful. The people who received mercy direct from Jesus failed time and time again, calling down fire from heaven, writing off the blind as sinners, and trying to protect their turf when casting out demons. Mercy was anything but natural for them.

What if those most prone to judgment are just as likely, if not more likely at times, to be inventing God in their own image?

 

 

Does God Pursue Us When We Wander Away?

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That stupid sheep got what was coming to him. That’s how I’d rewrite the parable of the lost sheep. I mean, gosh, the shepherd had 99 other sheep. Just sheer a few of them and buy another sheep with the profit if he likes big round, even numbers.

Ironically, our family recently lost a sheep. It wasn’t a real sheep. It was a bath toy that our son started obsessing over. He wanted to take the sheep everywhere.

I usually try to keep his most prized toys in the house unless we’re taking a road trip, but I relented when he wanted to take the sheep to the farmers market on Saturday. We loaded into the stroller, and he clutched his sheep… for about a minute. Then he dropped it out the side.

I was afraid this would happen.

“All done,” I said. “No more sheep. You dropped him.” I stuck the sheep in the stroller.

“Sheep! Sheep!” he said.

“All done,” I said with finality.

“All done… sheep,” he parroted back to me with resignation.

While I’d intended to tuck the sheep away for the walk and bring him out when we arrived at home, I somehow lost the sheep during our walk. It took a few days for our son to accept this development. I explained that’s why we don’t take our favorite toys on walks.

A few months later, my wife and I read him a children’s version of Jesus’ parables, and that included the parable of the lost sheep. Our son was really into it. It’s like the Bible’s version of Blue’s Clues, right?

Where’s the sheep?

Is he behind the rock?

Is he behind the tree?

Is he in the stream?

SHEEP! SHEEP! WAAAAA! WAAAAA!

So yes, the sheep is stuck in the mud in the shallow part of the stream. The shepherd, who has endured the hot sun, thorn bushes, and many weary hours of searching joyfully carries the sheep home. In this version of the story all of the other sheep cheer and smile when they see the shepherd return home with their friend.

The story ends with a full on party with balloons, party hats, cake, and, most importantly for our son, juice. It’s a golden colored liquid, so I suppose it could be juice or beer. I’m sure the sheep wouldn’t mind either way.

After walking downstairs I remarked to my wife that Jesus always looks for the sheep, but if our son loses his sheep, daddy says, “Too bad!”

I started out joking, but as I considered what I’d said, I realized that I’d just uncovered a really big problem. Sometimes it takes explaining something to a child to uncover that your theology and spirituality are actually bankrupt.

* * *

Try harder to obey God.

Seek God more fervently.

Commit to God more passionately.

Work for God more devotedly.

Study about God harder.

These have been mantras for my faith. I can’t say when or where I picked them up. I just know that I’ve had a, “Don’t blow it!” approach to faith as my default more times than not.

There have been glimpses of God’s grace and mercy. I’ve had breakthroughs when I realized that God’s mercy means he does the saving. However, I still struggle with guilt, fear, and isolation when I screw up. Over the past two years I’ve especially faced my issues with control, anger, and an overall detachment from people in need. In my head, I imagine myself repeatedly screwing up and God tossing his hands in the air with resignation.

I imagine the trinity having a conversation.

The Father: Maybe he’s not so great after all. He keeps being such a selfish jerk to people.

The Son: Look, I did my part. I died and rose again. Don’t ask me to do anything else for this guy!

The Spirit: Hey, look, I’m dwelling in him, but he keeps turning away. Let’s find someone else who “gets it.”

I’ve spent a lot of time with a kind of frantic guilt ridden spirituality. Even if I have plenty of evidence for God’s love and presence in my life, I keep worrying that I’m never doing enough. I’m never reaching out to God enough. If I make one false move and stop working hard enough, I’ll lose my grip on God.

This isn’t without some proof texts in the Bible. In the Gospels, Jesus often gives people a choice to follow him or their own plans. The story of the rich young ruler has given me chills for years. At one moment Jesus looked at him with love and then Jesus watched him walk away.

There’s also a strong theme of reaping what you sow. The Psalms open with a striking image of meditating on God’s law being like a tree planted by streams of water. That choice to draw near to God results in ongoing life, so we can imagine what the opposite result will be if we neglect this practice. In addition, Jesus warns that the measures we use on others will be used back on us.

However, this cause and effect theology shouldn’t override the message of mercy and grace that comes up over and over again in the Bible. It’s not just that God is inviting people to come back. God often sent prophets to reach out. Putting this in terms of the lost sheep story: The prophets acted as the “shepherds” with the task of bringing people back to God.

If the people came back, their welcome was never in doubt. The tragedy was that the people, who had wandered off like lost sheep, refused to even return with the shepherd in the first place.

I wonder if we forget that God is actively seeking us. We believe that we will reap what we sow, but we overlook our chance to accept God’s mercy that actively seeks us out. Perhaps we don’t believe that God would welcome us back.

There have been times when I’ve been ruled by guilt and judgment. I see the ways I’ve wandered off, and I start to believe that I don’t deserve mercy. I don’t deserve a shepherd. I don’t deserve a warm welcome.

Perhaps I have rewritten the story of the lost sheep in my mind. The shepherd in my version stands at the gate sighing in disappointment, waiting for me to get my act together, to work harder, to try to be a better sheep, and to stop wandering off.

And if I ever do manage to come back, the rest of the sheep will point their hooves at me. No balloons, no cake, and certainly no juice. Perhaps they’d even whisper behind my back:

He doesn’t deserve a good, merciful shepherd.

He didn’t deserve to be found or welcomed back.

He was dumb, discontent, and untrustworthy.

What shepherd in his right mind would search for him?

That sheep should have come crawling back. It’s a good thing he’s trying to do better now because that shepherd surely isn’t coming for him next time.

When Paul prays that his readers would “grow in grace,” I wonder if he had parables like this in mind. It’s so hard to believe that God is pursuing us when we screw up and that God expects us to show the same mercy to others who fail.

Perhaps it’s so hard for me to love others and to welcome those who have screwed up because I don’t believe God is doing the same for me. I don’t believe I’m worth it. I can believe in the cross as a divine transaction into my eternal bank account, but it’s much harder to believe in a shepherd who takes extraordinary risks and suffers unimaginably just to bring me home.

What if the only way to grow in grace is to receive it? What if we need to place ourselves into the story of the lost sheep every single morning so that we can believe we’re being pursued by a God who wants nothing more than to carry us home, throw a party, and serve us juice.