Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Real Choice

Somebody blew my mind this weekend. It was simple and quick and without any fanfare. I was sitting on my couch, watching our church service through the internet hooked up to our TV, and suddenly light was shed on something I've been hearing about my entire life and never really got.

I'm not really one of those people who cares about Creation versus Evolution, about whether dead people go directly to Heaven or if they have to wait until Jesus comes, or if the Earth's been around for a few thousand or a few billion years. It truly makes no difference to me whatsoever in the way I live my life in the here and now. But there's this story, and it's right smack at the beginning of the bible. It's been allegorical in history... well, throughout history. It's a garden, and a couple of humans, and two trees. One tree is allowed and one tree is forbidden.

So what do the idiots do? They eat from the forbidden one.

And every time you read it, you think, "WHY!? It's so obvious. Don't do what you're not supposed to do. Do things the right way. Don't be bad. Be good."

Oh, but we all do it, every day. It's easy to sit here in 2014 and mutter, "I'd never have eaten from the wrong tree if it'd been my choice." But we all make the same choice, it's just not in the shape of fruit. We choose the wrong path constantly. Sometimes it's simple to see, sometimes not so much.

But what's really at the heart of the issue? Is it sin? Is it being good versus being bad? I don't think so. If sin is at the heart of the issue, then the issue is doomed from the beginning. Is rule-following what it's all about? Nope, that can't be, or else what Jesus did on the cross would have been pointless.  After the extensive amount of reading and studying and meditating on scripture and writing that I've done over the last few years, I'm in awe at the simplicity of it ever single time the realization hits me again.

It's about Grace.

The Amplified Bible always adds 'God's unmerited favor' after the word grace, just for a little bit of extra explanation. Unmerited means we didn't earn it. And we didn't earn it because to earn it would make some of us better, some of us more deserving, than others. It would mean that Jesus' death and resurrection was pointless because we could've earned this grace without Him. It would tie our salvation to something trivial and temporary instead of something profound and eternal.

Here's the thing that blew my mind (...you like how I'm jumping around like I'm playing Hopscotch on crack?):

The two trees, said the teacher this weekend, are The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Duh, I already knew that.) But what became apparent to me that had never in 37 years made sense until now is that they're tied to Grace versus Legalism. They're tied to doing things God's Way versus doing things Our Way. If we have 'knowledge of good and evil', like the law of Moses which Galatians said was given to us for that very purpose, to illuminate our sin and make us aware of it, and we rely on THAT tree... if we choose to eat from THAT tree... we're putting all of our efforts up in hopes of salvation. We're using works to get us into Heaven, into God's favor. We're saying that what we can accomplish is more important than what Jesus already accomplished. We get up in the morning and make our to-do lists, checking them off as we go: time for bible reading, time for devotions, time for work, time for charity, time for finances, time for tithing, time for rest, time for prayer, time for bed. If we get them all 'right', then God will love us more, right? If we get one of them wrong, we'd better be sorry and beg forgiveness or He won't love us as much, right? Isn't that exhausting?

The Tree of Life is the Tree of Grace. It's fruit is forgiveness, favor, prosperity, and, above all else, UNCONDITIONAL love. Last night, my daughter just happened to ask me what love meant to me. A million things flashed into my mind, and it took awhile to put into words, but the thing I needed to explain to her the most is that love -- real, true love -- has no conditions. You can make a million mistakes, it's still there as strong as ever. It doesn't say, "You do this, then I'll love." It doesn't say, "If you do this, I won't love."

This is why God's love is the only flawless love that is, was, and ever will be. Human love is tied to human works. Marriages, friendships, familial relationships -- so much of it is cause and effect, if-then mentalities. Sure, there are flashes of unconditionality in it, but we're flawed humans and so our love is flawed as well. Knowing this, knowing that we can't ever go through life checking off every box on the to-do list with the perfection of our Deity, isn't it a complete comfort to know that there ARE two trees? It's true, we all have a choice in life, in every area, every single day.

Our choice isn't to be good or to be bad.

Our choice is to ACCEPT GRACE or REJECT GRACE.

It all depends on the tree you're eating from.

Choose wisely.

Stephanie Jean

(For more on this subject, recommended reading is Galatians 3.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Trade Ya!

When I was in elementary school, I didn't take hot lunch. It was too expensive and I was (and still am) quite possibly the world's pickiest eater so, for me, the perfect lunch involved a brown bag with some potato chips or cheese crackers, a chocolate pudding, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread with my mother's homemade black raspberry jelly. To this day, it is the only jelly I will eat. This is the reason my mother must become immortal. It's that good, and no one can replicate it. Not even me.

So delicious was this sandwich that I would devour it with complete abandon, the gusto of my gigantic bites not shying away from the fact that my entire face from nose to chin on the vertical and ear to ear on the horizontal was covered in a dark red goo (or, as I refer to it in my brain these days, the nectar of the gods.)

There were some other kids that would sit nearby giggling at me, calling me "Jelly Face", and I just didn't care one bit. My love for this food overshadowed any derogatory term the other 7-year-olds could muster. My mother was a genius with a brown bag lunch, and they were just jealous. I often was sent to the bathroom to wash up after lunch BEFORE recess, if that tells you what a mess I made of myself (though, in retrospect, the teachers could have been predetermining the mess I would become if the sticky face came in contact with the dusty ground...)

Then there were the traders. Not traitors, mind you -- that's a completely different thing. These were the kids who also brought brown bag lunches, but the mothers of whom were not as culinarily gifted as mine. A thin sandwich with store-bought jelly or, worse, no jelly at all, on some dark, disgusting-looking bread. VEGETABLES in a baggie. An all-natural juice pack. I pitied them, no doubt, but darned if I was going to fall for their sunken eyes and disappointed frown. They'd try to pawn off their mess-in-a-sack to me in the hopes of gleaning my delectable sandwich, pudding, and chips with two words, sometimes in question form as though just testing the waters but not really believing it to be a possibility:

"Trade ya?"

Not on your life, my friend. Usually my mouth was too full to answer verbally, so I'd just shake my head and keep chewing while they tried the next victim. Sometimes they'd get a pity cheese from someone who had two strings in their bag, but usually they were stuck with their original offerings and, often, the bag ended up in the trash, contents uneaten, while the kid bought a Pudding Pop from the ala carte menu and sauntered out to the playground.

My lunch was too good to give up. It was the. best. thing. ever.

It's funny that, as I grow older, I'm surprised at what can be traded. There was even an entire television show dedicated to trading 'up' to get cooler items. Keep trading and you'll start off with a broken bicycle and end up with a classic car, just by making incremental deals that are to your benefit. I even recently brokered a very nice used bicycle for my son by putting up part cash and then trading a used piece of exercise equipment that I'd been trying to sell in every yard sale I've had for the last five years or so. People trade services for other services, like a housecleaning for a massage. They trade homemade items for other homemade items from people with different skillsets, like home-brewed beer for knitted sweaters and crocheted scarves. But it's a rare occasion indeed where you see someone that has something absolutely, incredibly UNBELIEVABLE who will trade it for something that's completely worthless.

In fact, it's only happened once in the history of humanity.

We live lives that are full of mistakes. We fail constantly, even to our own standards. We try to do right, we try to be good, we try to balance and control everything. But we are unbalanced and out of control most of the time anyhow, if we are being honest with ourselves. We hurt people, we hurt ourselves, and we hurt our Creator.

But 2 Corinthians 5:17 says something pretty powerful:

"Therefore, Jesus took his amazing lunch, looked at your pathetic one, and said, "Trade ya!" --SJS Version, 2014

Okay, those aren't really the words. It's even better than that.

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old is gone! The new is here!" --NIV

All of our mistakes are covered before we even make them. He traded His perfect life for our messy ones. His death and resurrection ensured that we can 'trade up' for the rest of our earthly lives. Does that mean we can skim by in life and do whatever we want? Of course not. It simply means that we are taken care of and forgiven for our failures if we are 'in Christ'.

What does it mean to be 'in Christ', though?

It means, you're on the Journey. You're seeking. You're learning. You're changing, and turning around, and taking steps in the right direction. There's no set rulebook you have to perfectly follow in order to be a follower (nope, not even the Bible... we CAN'T follow it perfectly, that's the whole reason for Jesus in the first place!)

It means you should just make the best lunch you can and Jesus will trade you His better one for yours, no matter what it looks like. His is even better than my mom's.

(...and that's saying a LOT!)

Stephanie Jean

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Triumph in Our Troubles

He's already reaching... just grasp!
Do you ever get that feeling that you're waiting for the other shoe to drop? So many things have gone wrong in your life that whenever it seems they're all going right... something can't be right? We spend a tremendous amount of time expending energy on our worries and anxieties. Trust me, I know. I have an anxiety disorder that haunts me on a daily basis, particular if I let it have free rein. (Or should I say, 'free reign', as though I'm letting it rule me? Either way works. A runaway horse or a tyrannical monarch come to the same end inside my brain.)

I've found it to be true, however, without fail that each time I have to endure some hardship, inevitable good comes of it. Hard times bring out either the best or the worst in us, and sometimes both. But how you handle it is what makes you who you are. Do you fall apart? Do you back into a corner? Do you let a pervasive attitude of woe take over your life? Do you have hope? And optimistic view? Do you go through cycles of all of these depending on the day? Welcome to reality, then. Nobody can spend their entire life in joy regardless of circumstances, can they?

...can they?

"Moreover [let us also be full of joy now!] let us exult and triumph in our troubles and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that pressure and affliction and hardship produce patient and unswerving endurance. And endurance (fortitude) develops maturity of character (approved faith and tried integrity). And character [of this sort] produces [the habit of] joyful and confident hope of eternal salvation. Such hope never disappoints or deludes or shames us, for God's love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit Who has been given to us." Romans 5:3-5 [AMP]

Have you been through a lot? Yeah, join the club. It's not a contest by any means. We all have our past, our trash, our regrets, our fears, our triggers, our shame, and our horrors. But wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to just feel all of that lifted from our shoulders? To stop carrying the burden of who we feel we are, or who we used to be, or who we're afraid we'll become? The mistakes we've made, the life we feel we have to lead each day just to make it to tomorrow, the choices that have led us to this point... nobody can lay all of that down, turn around, and walk away, can they?

...can they?

"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and overburdened, and I will cause you to rest. [I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls.] Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle (meek) and humble (lowly) in heart, and you will find rest (relief and ease and refreshment and recreation and blessed quiet) for your souls. For My yoke is wholesome (useful, good, not harsh, hard, sharp or pressing, but comfortable, gracious, and pleasant), and My burden is light and easy to be borne." Matthew 11:28-30 [AMP]

Learn from your mistakes. Endure through your hardships. Triumph in your troubles. The word 'repent' simply means 'turn around'. When it feels like it's all too much, so much so that when good things are happening you can't even trust them, it's time to turn around. God's got His hand reaching out for you to hold onto it. All you have to do is grasp and He'll do the rest.

-Stephanie Jean