Jason C. Stanley

ponderings of a dad walking humbly & seeking justice

Category: Theology (page 2 of 3)

Path of Grace

Read Psalm 121.

Lent Ponderings - jasoncstanley.comMy family used to have a collie named Penny. She was a rescue. A friend Dad’s found her in a ditch and we adopted her. I loved that dog. She was sweet and kind. She was loving and nurturing. Penny, like so many other dogs, always knew when I needed her.

Behind our hour in rural Hanover County, was a path that lead to the creek and would wind around to my grandparents’ property. Penny would accompany me on my treks though the woods. Penny would walk next me, but most of the time she would run ahead of me. Once a few times ahead of me, she would turn around to make sure I was still following the path, as if she is saying, “It’s okay. The path is clear.” Penny truly was “man’s best friend,” for me.

God is like that. It may seem like a cliche to say that life is a journey, but it is. And God walks with us on that journey. In fact, God will walk ahead of us at times, turn to make sure that we are still on the path. The journey is getting from where we stand on the path to where God is beckoning us to be. As if God is telling us that, “it’s okay. The path is clear.”

The journey that God is beckoning us on could be various things. It could be starting a new job, or starting a new ministry. It could be seeing your child for who he or she really is. It could be meeting God again for the first time. It could be anything. Whatever the journey is, Psalm 121:8 offers us hope on that journey:

The Lord will protect you on your journeys—
whether going or coming—
from now until forever from now.

The image of God, like a lovable dog, running ahead of us on our path and looking back to make sure we are following, is a beautiful image of sanctification. God does not leave us where we are on the path, instead God calls us – beckons us – to a closer relationship with God.

Sanctification is grace for the journey. Let’s face it, while life is a journey, life is messy. We are going to get dirty, and that’s okay. The point of the journey is to restore the image of God within us. And at the center of that restoration – at the center of this journey – is grace.

And what an amazing gift that is!

I pray during this season of Lent that you stay on the path you are walking and know that God is with you.

The Ten: Worship Only God

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6, Common English Bible)

The Ten - jasoncstanley.comThere is a story in Exodus 32 where the people of God have grown impatient. Moses had been up on the mountain with God for too long. There had been no messages, no texts, no pigeons, nothing. In their anxiety, the people circle around Moses’ brother, Aaron. “Come,” they cry out, “make gods for us, who shall go before us.”

The people had already been anxious because they have been wandering in the wilderness. And without the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day, they do not know of God’s presence in their midst. It is still something they are getting adjusted to. The irony is that as the people circle around Aaron, Moses is on his way down the mountain with the tablets.

But, Aaron gave in to the people. He told them to collect all the gold among the people. They melted it and molded it into a golden calf. The Wesley Study Bible says, “The golden calf represented either an image of the Lord or another deity all together.” The golden calf had become the focal point of their worship, not the Lord. The Hebrew people had done that with their liberation. They were still giving Moses credit for their liberation, not the Lord God.

The Israelites must have been tempted as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land to worship other gods. The polytheists had a catalog of gods. You have a problem or an issue, there’s a god for that. If you were having fertility issues, there was the god Baal. If there were issues in your marriage or with a pregnancy, there was the goddess Kathirat. And these ancient gods had images associated with them.

It is possible that because the people of God had been surrounded by images of other gods who had specific attributes, they were looking for something similar in the Lord God. It was still a “new thing” to have a God with multiple attributes. The Lord God can be loving, a parent, a giver of life, a redeemer, and a judge.

The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich defined religion as ultimate concern. Ultimate concern is that which concerns us the most. The ultimate concern, Tillich says, becomes our religion. It may not be a golden calf, but if drugs become our ultimate concern to the point everything we do is to fulfill that concern, it has become our religion.

With God has our ultimate concern, we affirm the relationship that God called us to. We also affirm that God has gone before us, beside us, and behind us. The very god the Israelites went to Aaron looking for to worship, is the very Lord God whom they had neglected.

 

The Ten: I Am Your God

 God spoke all these words:

I am God, your God,
    who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
    out of a life of slavery.

No other gods, only me.

(Exodus 20:1-3, the Message)

The Ten - jasoncstanley.comIn these beginning words of what we call the Ten Commandments, God is reminding the Israelites of a few important things. First that God delivered them from the bondage of slavery. At this point of the Exodus story, the Israelites have been wandering in the desert. God has provided for them all along the way, but that does not stop the people from complaining.

More importantly, God wants to be in relationship with God’s people. Which may be why there is an element of obedience implied here. To obey God is to affirm God’s desire to be in relationship with us.

God also reminds the Israelites that they should not worship other gods. Have you ever noticed some of the caution warnings on products? Some are pretty bizarre. For example, on a washing machine, the label reads, “DO NOT put any person in this washer.” Or on Apple’s website, “Do not eat iPod shuffle.” Or on a chainsaw, “Do not hold the wrong end of the chainsaw.” We are pretty certain that someone did that  bizarre thing that warranted the warning label.

The same is true here. The first commandment to only worship God is because the Israelites at the time were prone to worship other gods. While the Abrahamic faiths are monotheist, the Israelites lived in a time and culture of polytheism. The worshiping of multiple gods was the norm. And, you might imagine a number of them being tempted to worship multiple gods as they wandered through the wilderness.

The polytheist gods were like a catalogue of gods. You could browse the list and find what you were in need of. For example, if you needed help in areas of fertility, you would worship to god Baal. Or if there were issues of pregnancy in your marriage, you may worship the goddess Kathirat.

God is asking for loyalty in the midst of the relationship which God has entered in with God’s people. Martin Luther in his Catechism says that to have no other gods before Yahweh is to fear, love, and trust God in all things and in all ways. What might that look like? The other nine commandments offer a glimpse.

God is . . .

Wooden ChairI can still remember sitting in a wooden chair as a child in Sunday school putting together a paper craft with the words, “God is Love” pasted across the bottom. In the midst of the broken crayons and chunks of dried glue, that simple phrase settled in my heart and mind. As I got older, attended confirmation and youth group, I began to learn how much more complex the reality of one living and true God is.

“I believe,” the opening statement of the Apostles’ Creed says, “in God, the Father, the almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” This statement gives us a glimpse at understanding God. God is Parent and Almighty who is the Creator. The Genesis storyteller gives us two accounts of God creating the world in its first two chapters. Ezra, in Nehemiah 9, leads the people of God in a prayerful confession of faith that begins confessing God as Creator. We sing our confession that God is Creator when we sing, “When I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . How great thou art!”

God is Creator.

God the Creator is Almighty. God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnipresent (present everywhere). The Almighty is Spirit (John 4:24) and Eternal. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).

God is Almighty.

God is the ultimate Parent. As Parent, God is just, pure, holy, caring, wise, truth, and forgiving. For John Wesley, “God was essentially a relational reality” (Randy Maddox). Jesus reveals this relational reality by expressing the intimacy and familiarity with God that God desires us all to have. Jesus, “deeply grieved,” cries out to God as Abba in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:39). We also see a glimpse of this intimacy when God refers to Israel as son in Exodus 4:22-23.

God is Parent.

The Exodus is evidence of God saving God’s people. God tells Moses that the cries of God’s people have reached the Holy Ears. As such God sets forth a salvation plan. As humanity continued to be enslaved by sin, God sent his only begotten son (John 3:16) to save humanity. In the form of Jesus Christ, God presented Godself as the ultimate sacrifice to redeem humanity through all time.

God is Redeemer.

“God is love,” the writer of 1 John tells us (4:16). We understand God as love because God is Creator, Almighty, Parent, and Redeemer. Wesley’s focus on love of God has always been connected to his understanding of God’s grace. Love and grace are siblings of the Parent. Grace is the source of our creation, maintenance, and salvation. According to Wesley, this grace is evidence of God’s love.

God is Love.

I Think You Can

The other night I was reading through an old journal I kept from 2009 and 2010. I found a lot of random quotes from devotionals, sermons, and books that said something to me at the time.  In the midst there was this quote from Albert Outler I had found in a sermon by Zan Holmes.

We must stop telling ourselves and others that we must love one another. Instead, we must tell ourselves and others that we can love ourselves and others because we are loved by Jesus!

It got me thinking about some of the language we use in the church. We use a lot of “musts” and especially a lot of “should.” But we don’t always use “can.” Okay, let’s get some definitions:

Should: used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions

Can: be able to

So, there is a difference between what we should do and what we can do. Too often in church we tend to say, and I’m guilty of it myself, we should – fill in the blank. We should love God. We should love others. We should fight for justice. We should welcome all.

Remember the children’s book, The Little Engine that Could? The little engine didn’t try to overcome the difficulties of the journey by telling herself, “I think I should. I think I should. I think I should.” No, she told herself, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

TheLittleEngine

Outler has it right, and is right to draw our attention to it. These are not things we should do, these are things we can do. I know I should love God. I know I should love others. I know I should love myself. But when that changes to I can love God; I can love others; I can love myself, it becomes less of a downer, and more empowering.

Now it doesn’t mean that it won’t be hard. Just like the little engine, there will be curves and hills to overcome. Our lives are filled with all kinds of craziness. But rest assured, you can do it! You can love God with all your whole self. You can love others for who they are. And you can love yourself.

And you know why you can? Because the One who conquered death loves you. The One who gives the gift of grace loves you. The One who became like you and me loves you. Because of this love, I think you can!

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