Who do you say that I am?

My Bible study group just finished Becky Harling’s study Who Do You Say That I Am? Harling experienced a crisis of faith that led her to read the gospels with fresh eyes. She had been asking herself, where is Jesus? Why can’t I feel him? The study explores what she learned about who Jesus is based on what He said about himself. “Nothing describes Jesus’ identity as profoundly as His I Am statements.”

Harling noted that Jesus asked profound questions. He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). After the disciples responded, Jesus asked an important follow-up question: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

What is so significant about Jesus’ I AM statements? When Moses asked God, what should I say to the people when they ask your name, God replied, I am.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

Exodus 3:13-14

I remember feeling out of touch with Jesus many years ago and I also read the gospels with fresh eyes. I asked myself, why wasn’t Jesus more present in my thoughts? I wanted a deeper connection with Him.

Most of the I Am statements are recorded in the gospel of John.

I AM the Messiah. John 4:26
I AM the Bread of Life. John 6:35
I AM the Light of the world. John 8:12
I AM the Good Shepherd. John 10:11
I AM the resurrection and the life. John 11:25
I AM the way, the truth, and the life. John 14:6
I AM the true vine. John 15:1
I AM the first and the last. Revelation 1:17

One of my favorite I Am statements is “I am the good shepherd.” The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. Jesus is my good shepherd. I lack nothing. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul! He guides me along the right paths. He is with me; his rod and his staff, they comfort me.

What about you? Who do you say that Jesus is?

Into your hands, I commit my spirit

My church has been studying the gospel of Luke for well over a year and we are finally at the end of a very rewarding journey. The focus of a recent lesson on Luke 23:44-49 was the words Jesus spoke before he died on the cross. Luke recounted Christ’s words as a quote from Psalm 31:5: “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” These words are quite different from the last words of Jesus found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?

Psalm 22:1

Jesus felt both anguish and trust in his last moments. Anguish because he suffered on the cross for the sins of man; trust because he knew that God would deliver him.

My pastor told us that the words of Jesus on the cross were not a prayer of preparation for death but an expression of trust. Jesus trusted the Father with his life. These words – into your hands, I commit my spirit – are not famous last words but famous first words.

Jesus knew the scriptures and committed them to heart.

1 In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

Psalm 31:1-5

What if I were to pray these words daily? Father, into your hands, I commit my (living) spirit. Deliver me, Lord, my faithful God. Deliver me from the challenges I face this day. Deliver me from temptation. Lead me and guide me. I take refuge in you, Father! You are my rock and fortress.

My pastor said, practice makes permanent. When we make reading and praying scripture a daily practice, we will remember it when we need it most. We will all be shaken by difficulties in life. When we are shaken, whatever we are filled with comes out. Fill your mind with the word of God.

Finally, let difficult times draw you near to God, not push you away. Don’t take things into your own hands. Put your life in God’s hands. You can trust him.

****

Photo by Ricardo Moura on Unsplash

Responding to uncertainty

Uncertainty is a fact of life. I’m reminded of the saying: nothing is certain but death and taxes. These days, things that I once saw as certainties – like America’s democracy or ample supplies of goods and services –  are not certain anymore. I never imagined that I would live through a global pandemic or an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from one U.S. president to the next. Yet here we are.

Uncertainty was the topic of a recent sermon at my church. After the last supper, the disciples argued about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24-30). Jesus had just told them that he would suffer and that one of them would betray him. The disciples initially responded to this uncertainty with pride and self-interest.

The message of the sermon was that uncertain times reveal three things about us: our desires, our certainties, and our purpose. I would add that the way we respond to uncertainty reveals a lot about our character.

Some of us have a desire to be first. Some of us have a desire for control. Some of us desire what’s best for others. Some of us want what is best for ourselves. Some of us want God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Some of us don’t want anyone on earth or in heaven to tell us what to do.

What do your desires say about your character? Are you proud or humble, selfish or selfless, judgmental or forgiving? How do you react when your desires aren’t fulfilled? With fear, anger, worry, resignation, hope, resolve?

What are your certainties – besides death and taxes? How about the laws of nature or a friend who would never let you down?

I am certain of Christ’s immeasurable love for me. I am certain that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. I am certain that he is with me. I am certain that he will work things out for my good. I am certain of eternal life.

My pastor said that in uncertain times, our purpose is revealed when we model Jesus. Jesus served others. He didn’t put himself first even though he had the power to do so. He didn’t avoid pain and suffering but took it on for our sake. He was merciful and compassionate.

My pastor said that the battle ahead is not a physical fight; it is internal. We all feel the angst. We need to be on guard. We need to prepare our hearts and minds for the challenges ahead.

I believe that the forces of evil in this world are using their most effective tool – deception – to wreak havoc and sow division. Look at all the people today who fall for conspiracy theories!

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:12

I can attest that uncertainty causes internal struggles. The recent decision by the U.S Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade is a perfect example. My desire is that there be fewer abortions because I believe that life is a precious gift from God. At the same time, I have compassion for people who don’t have a relationship with God. I want them to see Christ in me. To model Jesus, my response has to be compassion and mercy not condemnation and judgment.

My pastor left us with a few questions. Do your desires align with God’s? Of what can you be certain? What purpose might God yet reveal?

How the light got in

I used to think I could write a book about my scandalous childhood but not while my mother was living. I hated to see her cry and I knew my criticism would hurt her. One of my favorite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, has written a memoir, Where the Light Fell, about his difficult childhood. He did so knowing it would hurt his 96-year old mother but also knowing he had a powerful story to tell about how he came to understand suffering and grace. Although he has written numerous books on these topics, he believes “this is the one book I was put on earth to write.”

I found it hard to put the book down. It made me think about how a difficult childhood shaped me. Like the author, I grew up poor in a household headed by a single mother. Like the Yanceys, we moved frequently because we were poor. Like Philip, I had issues with how my mother raised us. I also grew up going to church regularly.

Philip was brought up in fundamentalist churches in Atlanta, Georgia. As he put it, church defined his life. He and his mother and older brother Marshall went to church a few times a week – twice on Sunday and midweek for a prayer service. His mother made money teaching Bible classes. As a child and as a Bible college student, he experienced the things that make a church toxic – 1) fear, 2) exclusion, and 3) rigidity. The God of Philip’s childhood was not a loving, forgiving God. The God he knew was “eager to condemn and punish.”

Philip’s father, a minister, died when he was only a year old so he has no memory of him. After his death, Philip’s mother vowed to dedicate her sons to God so they could fulfill her own dream of being a missionary in Africa. As Philip described it, their mother essentially took on the role of God in deciding what her boys should do with their lives. The weight of that vow and their inability to meet her expectations hung over them. Philip went through the motions of a religious life, answering the altar call, getting baptized, witnessing to others, sharing his testimony, etc. But he and Marshall were plagued with doubts about whether any of their religious experiences were real. Philip did his best to fake it.

Philip’s mother claimed to be living the Victorious Christian Life. To Philip, she had a split personality. There was the gentle mother who took care of him when he was sick and the angry mother who showed up without warning. To the church and to her Bible students, she was the devout Christian woman. At home, she was often angry, moody, and vengeful. Neither son ever had their mother’s approval but she was especially tough on Marshall. Marshall defied his mother’s will by transferring to Wheaton College (it was too liberal). She was furious and said something to him that was incredibly cruel, that she would pray for something bad to happen to him.

What beings as love may, in fact, corrode into something akin to its opposite.

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell

My mom grew up attending a Nazarene church in a small town in Indiana. Her father was very strict, especially with his only daughter. Perhaps that is why Mom stopped going to church? Dad took us kids to the Nazarene church every week. The congregation was small, less than twenty or thirty people. Our large family was welcomed with open arms. Pastor Don Reeves and his wife Pat were poor and lived in the church basement until they could afford to buy an old fixer-upper house. The church was an old wood-framed building that needed a lot of work and Don worked on fixing it up.

If I remember right, Pastor Don was a recovered alcoholic. He was quiet and humble. He knew the meaning of grace. Sunday school classes were in the church basement and it was there that my Sunday school teacher told me about Jesus. I never had any doubt that God loved me for who I am.

Philip Yancey didn’t know what it was like to have a father. I was twelve when my parents divorced so I knew what I was missing when Dad was gone. Besides missing Dad’s presence, I missed his stabilizing influence on Mom.

Mom was kind and generous and had a wicked sense of humor. She accepted other people for who they are and could find something to like about anyone. She was generous with compliments. We loved to hear her sing and tell us stories about her childhood. Mom found something to appreciate in each of us. We always knew we were loved unconditionally.

But being single changed Mom. She stopped being a devoted mother. Her love life came first. The summer I turned sixteen, Mom uprooted us and moved us to another small town to be closer to her new boyfriend. When Mom found out he was married, she moved us again to Topeka, claiming it was because the furnace wouldn’t keep our old house warm enough. At the end of the school year, we moved back. Mom got a job at the local plant and began a relationship with a coworker who was separated from his wife. At the end of the workday, she went home with him and left my five younger siblings with me.

Like Philip, I saw my mother as two-faced. She sometimes talked about her faith but never went to church. Whenever someone heard that she was the mother of eight, they would express their admiration. Where they saw a saint, I saw an adulteress. In my mind, Mom may as well have worn the red letter A. With every affair, with every revelation about her sexual history, I mentally threw a stone at her. I was the judgmental, self-righteous one.

Philip grew up feeling ashamed because he grew up in a strict environment and did a couple of things he knew were bad. He could be ornery and devious. I was ashamed of being on welfare after the divorce because I knew people disapproved. I worried too much about what people thought of our family. When Mom had my youngest brother out of wedlock, I was so afraid people would find out that I lied about how long my parents were divorced. (I have not gotten over this shame.)

Where the Light Fell made me appreciate the humble, Jesus-centered church I attended. It made me appreciate the flawed mother who loved me unconditionally.

I saw Philip Yancey several years ago when he came to speak at my church in a suburb of Denver. When he ended his talk, he asked us make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. His book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? helped me see the world through grace-filled eyes. I let go of my resentment. I forgave my mother. I realized that she did the best she could. Like me, she was broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.

Hebrews 12:15 (CEB)

Humbling learning from others

I recently saw Russell Moore on TV. I recognized his name but knew nothing about him so I searched on Facebook and learned that he is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. On a post promoting his book on courage, a woman commented that you don’t need another book; read and study God’s word and you will learn everything you need to know about courage, wisdom, love, etc. She went on to criticize Dr. Moore and others for writing books instead of obeying God by visiting widows and orphans and making disciples.

I still don’t know much about Russell Moore. I know that the Facebook critic opposes him because he is a Calvinist. She opposes him because he is a friend (not a relative) of Beth Moore, the popular evangelist, and she believes that Beth is a false teacher.

I agree with Russell Moore’s critic that we can learn many things directly from the bible. The bible is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But as someone else told Moore’s critic, books by religious authors can lead people to God who would not read the bible. They can encourage and teach those of us who do.

Sometimes reading comments on social media is like a trip down the rabbit hole. I wanted to learn more about a specific theologian and instead got a close look at a damaging aspect of human nature: arrogance.

Arrogance prevents a person from learning from others. I am not a theologian. I don’t always understand what I read in the bible. I learn and am inspired reading religious books and blog posts. Other people know much more than I do about the historical context of the bible. How can you learn if you think you know everything already?

Arrogance prevents a person from seeing oneself honestly. The woman who used her knowledge of the bible to rebuke and warn others about what she sees as false teaching lacked the humility to accept criticism herself. Our biases can cause us to selectively read scripture. How is it that in her daily bible reading, the woman who decided that Russell Moore is disobeying God by writing, missed the scripture about spiritual gifts? How does she know what God has called and gifted others to do?

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

Believers are all members of one body. We are called to unity, to humility and patience.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:2-3

Lord, as I am drawn to both read and to write, I pray for wisdom and discernment. I pray for the humility to be teachable so that I can live a life worthy of my calling. Help me to bear with others in love and to seek your truth even if it reveals uncomfortable truths about myself. Amen

****

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash