It’s rigged!

When you hear the words, “it’s rigged”, your mind might go to the 2016 presidential election. Then candidate Trump made the phrase famous, infamous perhaps. Surprisingly, for Believers that extends well beyond the shady world of the political arena. While many of us fight for freedom, few of us have realized that we fight from freedom. Why? Simple. It’s rigged.

Paid in Full

Tetelestai. A Greek word meaning, “paid in full“. So, why would a crucified convict, with his dying breath, talk about accounting? It’s because of what our modern translation of “Tetelestai” would be. In our modern vernacular, we might say, without any degradation of meaning, “it’s rigged”!

“It’s rigged”. If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that phrase in the past five years, I could probably retire by now. Whether it was candidate Trump or late-night comedians make fun of him, this phrase has gone viral. Perhaps it’s because there’s an underlying truth that we all have known for a long time. For example, too often we have watched the guilty walk free and the innocent suffer. Most infuriating is when it happens in politics. A crime that would send an “average Joe” away for life gets stuck in “committee” hearing just long enough for it to be forgotten.

Modern translation

However, as Christians, we should not despair. Of course it’s rigged! We’re the primary benefactors of such a system. Though it may not be in the here-and-now where we would like it you can rest assured. It’s coming. I know, sometimes you just want to scream at the top of your lungs. Other times, breaking a few dishes might be just what the doctor ordered. However, reality calls for a different approach. After all, despair Jesus teaches us is for those who have no hope. As Believers, we need to show the hope that people want to see.

I invite you to listen to a small excerpt from our Good Friday evening service. Our fervent prayer is that you are encouraged by these words. Not just in your everyday life but also in your walk with God. If you are blessed, make it a point to share it with someone.

Who do the people say that I am?

Who do you say you are?

I have a friend whom I’ve known for a long time. After high school, he went into the Army and after that went straight into the Police Academy. He is the epitome of a soldier: happy and cheerful while off-duty but serious and orderly on-duty. He might as well walk around with a sticker on his forehead that says, “I am a cop”.

Whenever we would go out to the movie theaters or bars or diners, we would inevitably strike up conversations with total strangers. We would get to talking and people would ask questions to get to know us better and have a better sense of who we were. One of the questions would always be “what are you?”. Now, in our neck of the woods, that question was always in reference to ethnicity or nationality. His answer, however, would always upset me because I knew where it would inevitably end up. He would say, without missing a beat, “I am a cop!”.

Who do people say you are?

At this point, the conversation would take a sudden downturn. The tone would turn serious. The girls would get scatter and we would end up by ourselves at the counter. Again. For my friend being a cop is not just his profession. It’s who he is. His identity is built around his role, his profession. His reality is shaped by and constructed around his contributions to society. Everyone that knows him thinks of him as, introduces him as, and even stores him in their phone, jokingly and lovingly, as “the Cop”.

The Great I AM

In Scripture, we have countless examples of Jesus describing Himself beginning with the words “I am”; it was this above all, that enraged the religious people of His time more than anything: only God could utter those words and here he was, the son of a carpenter, using the “Lord” form when speaking of Himself. Jesus’s self-identity was clearly stated, in black on white, as inseparable from the Identity of the Father. So why would he ask his disciples, “who do the people say that I am?”. Was He suddenly unsure of His Deity, did He suddenly become sensitive to what the blogosphere of the day wrote about Him, or was He probing for the Truth among his disciples?

Some answered him and said “they say you are Elijah or one of the prophets”, others said “they say you are John the Baptist”. Then Jesus asked and said “but who do you say that I am?”. Simon Peter turned and answered “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Lord answered him saying  “Knowledge did not come from within you but as a revelation from the Father in Heaven”. There it was, the Rock upon which He would build His Church, the Truth of the Gospel in the flesh! 

Who do you say that I am?

But what about us: who do the people say that we are? Can they see who we belong to? Is our life a “Living Epistle, easily read of all men”? Do our friends, co-workers and acquaintances know of us as “My friend John” “Bill the Accountant”, “the real nice guy next door” or do they know us as we should be known: followers of Jesus Christ!

Tell me who I am

For many people “who the people say we are” carries much weight in their lives. From who to marry to where to live to what school to attend and what to major in, to where to work… even where to worship. For some, other people’s opinions not only shape actions but self-image and identity.

As children, our parents’ opinions and statements quietly and progressively shaped our self-image, our self-worth, and our identity. For the fortunate among us, their words informed us that we are special, loved, treasured, pretty, smart, talented, thoughtful, kind, adored, considered, appreciated, valued. For the less fortunate, their words informed us, at best, of not being those things. Regardless of which one was our reality, we listened, more carefully than they thought we did, and we made their words our internal mirror. 

Who does God say you are?

By the Grace of God through Jesus His Son, our old mirrors have been smashed to the floor, the shards crunched, recycled, re-kilned, and remade in the Image of Jesus. Where there was pain, now there’s healing. Fear give way to hope. Just as hate is replaced with Love lack is filled with abundance. Guilt is smothered by redemption the same way sin is drowned in forgiveness. Ignorance is overpowered by Wisdom as shame is robed in honor. And, as always, Life overwhelms Death and the Grave through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Does it show?

So our question to ourselves therefore must be: how much of this can and do people see in us? When looking at us, do they see Him? When they wonder what we are, do their own thoughts immediately answer their inquiry? Does their internal dialogue say to them “He’s a Christian”, “she’s Born-Again” or does it say “He’s Hispanic”, “She’s a Feminist”, “He’s a Teacher”, “they’re Republicans”. 

Great. You found God now!

For many of us, our biggest struggle in our testimony is not with strangers on the train or the lady in front of us in line or the customer service rep. on the phone. No, our struggle is with those who are intimately familiar with our inner workings, family members, friends and co-workers alike. They grew up with us and saw us and knew us for far too long for them to simply believe an “encounter” changed us so drastically.

Not impressed

Whether you were a “Christians” in name only or from another religion, coming home to share our new-found Faith is no small task. Everyone is more than ready, willing, and able to put your new identity to the test. They still remember where all your buttons are, what gets you going the most. Your Faith is questioned, prodded and tested. Your every word weighed, and measured everyday for an opportunity to say the dreaded “…and you call yourself a Christian?!”

Speak life

It is what we do in these very moments that will echo in eternity. Not only for us but for those to whom we are witnessing. G.K. Chesterton said, “it is not that the Christian ideal has been tried and found wanting; it’s that It has been found difficult and therefore left untried”. If we truly believe that everyone needs Jesus then we must act accordingly: we must live a life that shows that living for Jesus is not only possible but pivotal: it not only influences who you are now but where you end up later; they must see that; that anyone can accept Jesus.

No matter where or who you’ve been; that living for Jesus means living an overcoming life: not free from trouble but free from worry; that living for Jesus doesn’t mean perfect simply a work in progress and that He accepts us and loves us as we are not who we will become; living for Jesus means living as Jesus, no longer we that live, but Christ that lives in us.

Who do the people say that I am? Click To Tweet

The called-out ones

Living for Jesus has to be seen as the only possible alternative to their unfulfilled, empty, search for that lone yearning that cannot be described, cannot be expressed, cannot be named, cannot be identified: a yearning “too deep for words”. They have to look at us and see that there’s something about us that is different, that is special, that is desirable: a Peace surpassing understanding, a sweet reasonableness, a giving Spirit, a confident humility, a noble serenity, an unrelenting patience, a quiet mind, a pervasive diligence, a Truthful tongue anointed with boldness and Love, and a will that brings all thoughts and deeds into submission to the perfect Will of God.

People have to see us and want what we have! The logic is quite simple: what we have is of  greater quality, better priced, longer-lasting, better warranty and more readily available than anything anyone can promise, think, imagine or deserve. Our identity has to be physically, mentally, and psychologically indistinguishable from the Faith and the Savior we profess.

Living Epistles

If we truly profess that living for Jesus is not only possible but desirable then we must believe that people want to see a life well-lived for Jesus; their Creator built them with a yearning for more. Setting “eternity in the hearts of men” God left a “Jesus-shape void” in their hearts and minds. We must show that the source of all of our desirable qualities is not us. He filled our void. We found the missing puzzle piece. The Bible says “by this shall they know that you are My disciples, that you have love for one another!”.

We need to show the Love of God. Show them that what we are and who we are is inseparable from whose we are. We must show them that perfect Love casts out fear, perfect Love is kind, gentle, remembers no wrong, believes all things, hopes all things. Let’s not tell people what we believe, let’s show them what we believe: they’ll be able to argue what you say but they won’t be able to argue what they see you do, how they see you live, “a living Epistle, easily read of all men.” Scripture teaches us that we should let them see your good works so that they will glorify your Father in Heaven. 

Easily read of all men

Far too many people build their lives around others. Not only that but what those people say of them. Some say, “I am so-and-so’s fill-in-the-blank”. Others say, “I am from such-and-such a place”. However, as Christians, we are called to be there for them. Inevitably, when they are disappointed by fallible people, let down by loved ones, left behind by a significant other or when reality doesn’t match their mental construct, we are called to be there, living a life that points to Jesus.

When they fall apart, lose their way, and experience a moment of loss, our lives should be there preaching. Preaching silent sermons of what Jesus can do if you would just invite Him in. We have to be the kind of people that people want to talk to. We are to be approachable. What if that means being funny, good listeners, and sympathetic? Be it! Perhaps it means being empathetic, loving, patient, giving and kind. Make it happen. They shouldn’t confuse us for Christians. They should confuse us with Christ!

Is this who I am?

Who do the people say that we are? Are we quick to anger, slow to listen, men and women of compromise, “anything goes” or are we the kind of people that when someone is telling a dirty joke at work near you they say “sorry” and move away a bit further? Are we Peacemakers or are we rabble-rousers? Do we invite quarreling or reasoning? 

I’ve been worse

Showing people who we are takes lots of practice and courage. I remember my first attempts at witnessing to people usually went one of two ways: either I was overzealous and would overwhelm and scare them with the tome of information I had just learned or I would give them a list of all the things they were doing wrong in their lives, give them the ole Fire & Brimstone routine and send them screaming down the street. Baby steps. 

Praying for better

But in all seriousness, the Bible teaches us that “a Prophet is never accepted in his own house”. For all these people in our lives that knew us as the “old” us. Showing up to work  one morning or coming home from a “Open Tent Revival” as a Born-Again-Christian is quite the relational monkey wrench! We can’t wait to tell them of God’s Grace and what He has done for us. To tell them how our lives are forever changed.

Cursing and foul language are frowned upon. Lewd comments no longer accepted. Furthermore, the sinful lives we once shared can no longer be the basis of our relationship. Family and friends have seen us at our worst. The countless hours together gives them superpowers. They know what we will say before we say it. They’ve always taken us at our word, believed what we said and trusted our opinions. Now “Born-Again-Christian” is something that they cannot reconcile with the person they once knew. 

Royal Priesthood here I come!

I encourage you to let that be your testimony! Let this Wisdom, that seems like foolishness to the world, be our badge of honor! The Apostle Paul teaches us that we are a “Peculiar People”: let this awkwardness be our defining characteristic! Our goal is to be loving. When others are hateful we must be peacemakers: when others are looking for arguments and quarreling, let us be of a “sweet reasonableness”.

When others speak gossip, let us bring restoration. If others bring only insult, let us only compliment. In the same manner, where others judge, let us be mindful that we were all once “the least of these”. Let it be said of us that we “Speak Life”. That we are a weird and peculiar. That we are a counter-current, group of outsiders. Christians! And if you agree, Let us say: Amen!

King for a Day

Would you rather

When I was growing up we would play a game called “would you rather”. It went like this: one person would ask you to choose between to seemingly polar opposite. The most frequently asked was this: “would you rather be king for a day or live a lifetime as a slave”? You would answer the question and then the roles would revers or, if there were more people playing, the person that had just answered the question would now pose a “would you rather” question to the next person until everyone got a turn to ask and to answer.

Needless to say that your answer to this question spoke volumes of your outlook on life and, most likely, prepared the way for years of therapy. As you can imagine, not many kids were asking to be sheep for one hundred days: everyone wanted to be king, even if for just one day.

Triumphal Entry

Palm Sunday is the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem as a conquering king as the crowds shouted “Hosanna” and “Glory to God in the Highest” and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD”! But where did we get this idea of Jesus as a conquering king? After all, He told a friend to bring Him a colt that had never-before been ridden. None of that, at least to us, speaks of king! When we think of kings we think of thrones and soldiers and barricades and escorts and stretch limousines and horses and knights! Nothing about Jesus’ entry, apart from the adoration of the crowd said “Make way for the King!”? Or did it?

The religious types of the day. the scribes and the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, Knew all too well the passage in Zechariah 9:9 that specifically foresaw this very scene:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Prophecy fulfilled

Surely, this did not escape them in the least! Great, so now we have proof that the Jews knew He was the coming Messiah. After all, anyone could prance in on a domesticated donkey. A unbroken colt? Let’s just say that the first time on the colt would not have been sooth sailing for anyone…That is, of course, unless you’re God Himself! Besides the fact the the Old Testament if full of precedence where kings rode on donkeys as a sign of peace (rather than on a warhorse as a sign of conqueror).

But what about the gentiles? And the Romans in particular, what would they have thought to themselves of such a scene? The layperson and the foot soldier both had vast knowledge of customs and behaviors. They would not have given the donkey thing much thought. The leaders, however, like Pontius Pilate and others, would not only have been aware of these not so subtle Scriptural reference to Zechariah but would have also brought in their own understanding of Semitic culture of the surrounding area.

Asinine Traditions

On top of that, Romans had a few traditions of their own when it came to donkeys. When Romans conquered a stronghold, they would parade the captured king on a donkey bound and facing backwards. The overthrown king would be made into a spectacle. His former subjects encouraged to take out their frustrations at him for losing the war would throw produce at him as he passed by.

But not so with Jesus! Jesus was neither bound nor put on the donkey against His will. He entered the city, with the whole of Jerusalem watching.  A whole host of foreigners from the Diaspora also found themselves in the Holy City. The people shouted “Hosanna”, which means “save now” or put more explicitly “set up your kingdom now”. These same people that chanted Jesus’ name and called Him Messiah one day would soon find themselves chanting “crucify Him” in less than a week’s time!

Jesus had, in fact, been “King for a day”! The terrible misunderstanding, if it can be called such, is clearly shown by Jesus. Approaching the city, Luke 19 tells us the following:

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

No king, especially Jesus

Unfortunately, the Israelites of the time wanted nothing to do with peace. In fact, they were praying for and expecting a violent overthrow of Roman rule over Judea. So they welcomed Jesus as king. However, not as the sort of King He had been preaching to them throughout His ministry. In fact, in Luke 23 Pilate asked Jesus “are you the king of the Jews”? Jesus replied “you have said so”. Pilate is satisfied. He turns to the chief priests and says “I find no guilt in this man”! Pilate was a shrewd politician and had quickly read the situation.

Maybe he saw Jesus as another misunderstood religious fanatic. Pilate wasn’t in the mood to make any more martyrs. With so many criminals around he wasn’t interested in shedding innocent blood. He quickly tried to remove himself from the equation. But the priests and the people wouldn’t have any of it!

King for a day

They welcomed Him as King and crucified Him as a blasphemer! But the story doesn’t end there. As many of us know and have experienced in our own lives: Jesus is alive! Jesus lives and will return one day soon and this time He won’t settle for a donkey. My most fervent prayer in this time of hardship is that, if you have not yet had a personal encounter with Him, you meet Jesus, the risen Savior. I encourage you to seek Him now before the Grace period expires.

Every day is King Day

Friend, if you’re reading this now and have not yet made a personal decision to make Jesus the Lord of your life I ask you that, if you are willing, repeat these simple words with me. Just say:

Dear Jesus, I repent of my sins, I acknowledge you as Lord of everything and Master over everything. I ask you that you come into my heart and that you take your rightful place as Lord and Savior of my life and of my soul!

Welcome Home

If you repeated this simple prayer with your heart, you are now “Born Again”. Your sins are forgiven. God no longer holds you responsible for them. You’re washed by the blood of Jesus. His blood was shed in your place on the Cross of Calvary two millennia ago. Pray that the Holy Spirit lead you to a Bible-Believing, Spirit-filled church. Then, be faithful  where He plants you. Ask Him to show you how He wants you to serve and do it diligently.

Catch 22? Meet God’s Catch 33!

A mission for the mindless

“We’ve all heard of a “Catch 22”. It’s a situation where no matter which option you choose, you’re always wrong, always in trouble, you’re still stuck. It was made famous by a novel with the same name. As the saying goes, “you’re d—-d if you do and you’re d—-d if you don’t”!

But have you ever considered the implications of the following: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Romans 14:8

The Apostle Paul, here, introduces us to what I like to call a “Catch 33“! Similarly to catch 22, in a catch 33, the system is also rigged. However, it favors Christians. It favors those who have put their Faith, Hope, and Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. You see, life for the Christian is a win-win proposition. In living, we honor God, and in death we honor God. Now, we are in no means a death cult; Christians want to live abundant lives (John 10:10) but we do not fear death.

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? Click To Tweet

Catch 22: The fear of the hopeless

The number one fear that all unbelievers have, and have in common, is the fear of death, as you can see from the rampant panic on tv. Newscasters continuously introduce all of us to all sorts of new boogiemen: a new disease that is going to decimate the world’s population or the next threat from Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, a food shortage, climate change, hurricanes, earthquakes, asteroids, the “wrong” politician for the job; in a sense, they’re disseminating fear over the one thing no-one has any control: the future.

Catch 33: The hope of the fearless

Christians, on the other hand, have “cheated” the catch 22 system: Jesus defeated sin on the Cross and Death by his resurrection and we are heirs of those victories. Life doesn’t startle us nor does the fear of death paralyze us. There’s a very beautiful secular Italian song where the lyrics speak directly to this phobia; the lyrics, translates literally, read: whoever is not afraid of death only dies once!

Chi non ha paura di morire, muore una volta sola. Click To Tweet

What a beautiful doctrinal Christian Truth! Jesus himself taught us not to fear the first death. The second death is the truly dreadful one: the death that leads to eternal separation from God! If you fear the first death, chances are you are not a Believer. Otherwise, there is something “off” about your walk with God.

Catch 22? Meet God’s Catch 33! Click To Tweet

What’s the catch?

Fear and anxiety will come calling your name. When they do, strengthen yourself in the Lord. In chapter 1 of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

As Spirit-filled, Bible-believing,  born-again Christians, it is our responsibility to live in the light of this truth: whenever those around us, whether at work, at home, at school, or (more often than not) at church, lose heart over the challenges of everyday life, we must be the people in their lives that they can look to and see someone who hasn’t, who isn’t and who doesn’t lose not only their composure but more importantly their compass, their anchor, their focus, their Hope: Jesus Christ!

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Click To Tweet

A call to Ministry – July 12th, 2020 – Lighthouse Assembly of God

Receiving the call to Ministry

From the moment God saves you, you receive a call to ministry: a ministry of service to Him. “Rocking chair” Christians is not our calling in life. We are swim upstream like salmon. Against the current! We are not here to run out the clock. We are to be a visible sign of the invisible God and of the life-changing Power that He has displayed in our lives!

The goal of the life of every Christian? to be like Jesus! Click To Tweet

Answering the Call to Ministry

Today’s message is drawn from the Epistles to the Colossians, where the Apostle Paul explains what is it, exactly, that we can expect from living, or attempting to live, a life that is pleasing to God. Look at shiny tv preachers. Observing them you would think that a call to ministry is a way to be “served” rather than to serve. They mistake the prosperity of the Gospel with a Gospel of Prosperity. I like the way William Carey, the Father of modern-day missions, put it.

Expect great things from God; attempt...great things for God Click To Tweet

Never the same again

As Spirit-filled, Bible-believing Christians we must, as the Pastor Geer proclaimed, “shine”. Let people see the Light in you. Once they do, they’ll want to talk to us about Jesus. Our prayer is that you are blessed as you take time out of your day to be in God’s presence and grow spiritually from the sharing of His Word.

Shameless Plug

We want to remind everyone that Life More Abundant is an outreach ministry of the Men’s Ministry of Lighthouse Assembly of God in Glendale, Queens, New York. Prayerfully consider coming alongside Lighthouse Assembly of God with a gift of any amount. We encourage you to do so through our Venmo Page. Every penny you donate goes fully and directly to the Church. Please share this link with someone, anyone, and everyone you know. May God continue to richly bless you and His Church. Also, please prayerfully consider becoming a patron of Life More Abundant.

 

Where to begin….the rubble or our sins?

It is the third week of quarantine, I think. I say “I think” because all of the days have blurred into one. Thankfully, no one in our household has the Coronavirus. We wake up, do school work, eat, exercise, eat, repeat. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter ask whether this whole Coronavirus situation is some kind of punishment from God because of our sin (plural). My question is: where to begin? the rubble or our sins?

Where to begin: our sins

I’m reminded of the song Pompeii by Bastille. The lyrics famously read, “where do we begin: the rubble of our sins”? I guess it’s a reasonable question to ask, but I doubt it’s a question for the Believer. As Believers we are not counted among the “judged”, we are counted among the redeemed.

As Christians we are steadfast in the belief that “all things work together for good for those who fear Him and are called according to His Purpose”. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul reassures us that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. So, whether we live through it or at some point succumb to it, we as Christians find ourselves in a Win-Win situation.

Now, I know that it’s trendy, at times, to take advantage of opportunities such as the one we’re in to tell people that this is all because of their sin. Sometimes many brethren are hoping to scare them into the Kingdom: as I’m sure many of us can attest to, it wasn’t fear that led us to Christ but conviction from the Holy Spirit. Fear, as we can attest from recent events, does not produce acolytes; it only produces submission and, over time, rebellion. In fact, I don’t remember Jesus scaring anyone into the Kingdom…not even those who had good reason to fear: Pharisees, Scribes, prostitutes, thieves, Judas Iscariot and so many others.

Where to begin: the rubble

I can still remember the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks: churches, mosques and synagogues were bursting at the seams full of people that were literally running to God after the satanic events of those days. Here is the facts: the life of every human being is underpinned by one constant and one constant only: the search for meaning.  Most people are dead to their innate need for a connection to their Creator. Most of their lives are spent in the mundane and they try their hardest to keep life simple and mundane. We can see this from their wholesale avoidance of spiritual topics, discussion of sin, judging their own or the sin of others, including their refusal of life insurance: life insurance reminds them of one thing and one thing only: death.

When the walls fell

As the months passed, and the months turned to years, church attendance settled to its historic numbers. The committed stayed and the comical returned to their standard operating procedures. Of course, some had true life-changing experiences with the Lord Jesus Christ and remained in the flock but the vast majority were just looking for shelter for their heads like ostriches: their bodies fully in the secular and their heads in the churches just for the time being, waiting for the “all clear” sign to go back to their regularly scheduled programming.

Huff, and puff, and blow your house down

What am I saying? Well, just like the song, some will chose to begin with the rubble and others will address the sin. But, as Christians, it is not our place to scare them into the Kingdom but to love them into the Kingdom of God. Telling people that #Coronavirus is a judgement from God is a half-truth. These half-truths will not hold up under scrutiny. Ultimately, people remain broken disillusioned by scriptural checks Christians wrote that God never had intention of funding. We know that God’s judgement will come, and may be here sooner than we think, but His judgement will not be a trickling but a total overwhelming of humanity; it will not be because of homosexuality or abortion only, but for both and for much more.

The City that we love

Finally, when God comes to settle accounts, Scripture teaches us, it won’t be with just a 2% mortality rate. The death toll in the billions. This is not because He’s sadistic. Rather, it is because He is Just. I write to Christians that know this to be true. Calamities is not God telling us to preach fire and brimstone (John 3:17). We need to preach forgiveness and Sonship through our Lord Jesus Christ. Why else do we tell new believers to start reading the Bible with the Gospel of John and not Lamentations? We want to show them the Love of God through Jesus not what awaits the unbelievers in a lost eternity! Where to begin? Let us begin with our sins.

Again, God is not a God of calamity (2 Peter 3:9). He does not want death not does He delight in suffering. However, the devil is a big fan and a proponent of both. Brothers, sisters, we preach Christ and Christ crucified; we preach the Hope of Glory not the despair of the second death; we preach Life and life more abundant! In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Scandal of Grace

Long ago and far away

Growing up, I was what many people would consider very fortunate. Now this is not because we were rich or famous or both. In fact, our lives were very normal: a nuclear family, the youngest of five siblings, surrounded by dozens of cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents; all encompassed in a small warm little town in southern Italy. Even as a little boy I could feel that there was something in the air, it was as though time had stood still. No matter where I went, whether alone or with friends, everyone knew who we were. They knew our names, who our parents were and could literally quote the degrees of separation between themselves and someone in our family. Life was simple, predictable, enjoyable. Scandal was unheard of and Grace was secretly abundant. 

No respecter of persons

My family wasn’t very religious: we knew God existed, that Jesus was also God, that He was born on Christmas Day, died on Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Sunday. We showed reverence where and when it was due but for the most part, life moved on without much consideration for the things of God. Now this didn’t mean that we were blasphemers or that we took the name of God in vain, on the contrary: we were always taught of the Goodness of God and how He loved us but it was never to the point of a personal relationship with Him.

Grace of God as background

Even though God wasn’t the central figure of life, much of life played out within the realm of a healthy fear for God and his Commandments. As a young boy, I didn’t know what domestic violence was. I had never heard the word “divorce”. Even police presence at our house was limited to the captain coming to say hello to my parents. The would come for friendly advice of a personal nature or simply to chat a bit about soccer or politics. This was not just my reality but the reality of everyone I knew. We had what I later learned would be described as a “charmed life”. No one I knew struggled with drugs or alcoholism or sloth or the stain of a bad reputation of any kind. 

Grace masquerading as a charmed life

Thinking back, all of my memories of interactions with adults, whether blood relation or not, was a positive one. I don’t have any recollections of adults calling me disparaging names, being belittled, or ever being hit out of anger; never went to school without clean clothes on, without being well-groomed and all my homework done and checked by at least one adult. In fact, some of my most vivid childhood memories include my uncle bringing me to the town square to show off to his friends how quickly I could do mental math. They would all cheer and clap and smile and I would inevitably end up with ice cream paid by whichever gentlemen had posed the math problem.

From this young age, I learned to trust and respect others and had come to expect a solar disposition from people, even strangers. Unbeknownst to me, God’s scandal Grace permeated every angle of my life, so much so that I thought that everyone’s home life was the same as mine. I couldn’t imagine anything else. On top of that, I wasn’t even aware that all of this was because of Grace; I thought everyone lived this way. Concepts such as racism, divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, or premarital pregnancies weren’t even words that I knew as a child. Life was good.

Heaven as it is on Earth

It’s because of this that I can recall that even at a young age I didn’t fear death: I thought that I would simply die and go to Heaven and everything would be exactly how I had left it back on Earth. Peaceful, loving, caring and gracious. Warm long summer days and crisp, clear summer nights. The days were filled with play, cold drinks and moms chasing us down forcing us to eat. The nights were filled with the sounds of neighbors sitting outside talking and laughing until the early hours of the morning while young men driving by on the motorcycles hoping to catch a glimpse of their sweetheart casually serving cold drinks to the gatherings in the streets. I never questioned any of it, I couldn’t imagine anyone living a reality different than mine: I knew life was good, I just thought everyone’s life was good!

How the other half lives

It wasn’t until much later, in high school that I caught my first glimpse of an alternate reality: I learned that people had complicated, often painful and stress-filled lives haunted with want and lack and struggles of every kind. It was then that I started to realize that the life I took for granted and assumed as the status quo for everyone was anything but ordinary, it was in fact very rare and very special. Friends and acquaintances I had made over the years had a myriad of differing life experiences. Some lived with one parent, some lived with grandparents. Still others some lived alone. Some were abused, still others were neglected and rejected. From broken homes to foster homes and every variation in between, I saw just how special a normal life truly was. 

Uncommon Grace?

I questioned this reality that, apparently, was very special: a gift. I wondered if it was because we were special: was it something about us that made us special. Slowly I realized that people are, for the most part, all the same and the only “moving parts” are things that they cannot control: their birth and their initial circumstances. The old adage came to mind “you can pick your friends but not your family”. But if I can’t pick my family, Someone must have! The only reason why I wasn’t born into lack and want and abuse was by sheer Grace! Again and again Grace proved itself to be scandalous. I could’ve just as easily been born in another time and place where my reality could have been a hell on Earth scenario rather than the one I had which I could only refer to as “Heaven’s Waiting Room”. 

The randomness of Grace

In my  mind I accepted this Truth, thankfully so, and moved on with life. I accepted, in my own teenage way, that, by God’s Sovereign Will, my life was good and it could’ve just as easily not been so. This understanding did give me more empathy for my fellow man, but nothing that moved me to tears or to action, it simply gave me a sense of pity for them: I understood that their decisions were the result of complicated factors and that they didn’t know any better. This gave me a false and unwarranted sense of superiority: I pitied them like you would a child throwing a tantrum in a mall or someone arguing and cursing in full view of their young children. I knew it was random “luck”, God’s Sovereignty, and nothing that I did on my own, and yet, I did not learn the right lesson and it had catastrophic effects on my self-image.

Humanism interpreting Grace

I reasoned that all of this was partially possible because of factors that were unique to us: how our heritage and geography met with history: Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines all called our little corner of the world “home”. Pythagoras derived his formulas literally a few miles from our town; Crassus defeated Spartacus in the fluvial flood plains in the valley below my town: this sense of pride and history, I realized, permeated every single aspect of our lives. Everything was very structured. Hierarchical, and clan-like. Our sense of who we are came, also, from a knowledge of who we had been. In fact, everyone there could be described as an “old soul”. Children were wise beyond their years. Our elders had millenary memories of old feuds and sad stories of dead kings. It made us very wise but, in a way, very arrogant. 

This is a scandal but it is not Grace

I was not immune to any of this by any stretch of the imagination: I suddenly “knew” who I was: we were civilization. Where I come from we have a saying: “La Storia siamo Noi!” which translates loosely to: “we are history!”. With very little evidence to the contrary, from what I could see, this sense of pride rose in me and became arrogance. But, through it all, His eyes were still on me. It was then, that He started sending His servants my way: humble men and women with a true reverence and love for God to point me in the right direction. I paid them little mind: I was sure of myself, self-assured that they were wrong and that I had no need for their philosophy. 

Here comes the boom

But during a winter night after yet another move across the Atlantic to the United State that it happened. I found myself alone, separated from what made me feel safe, again forced to make new friends and rebuild an identity and find a way to fit in, that it finally happened to me. After struggling for weeks and months telling myself that it’ll be alright, that I finally broke, and asked for help.

I was sleeping on yet another foldable cot pushed up against a couch so as to make it a bit bigger. In yet another small and cramped apartment. That’s when it finally happened. Having lost connections to what I thought was important, to what gave me purpose and meaning and direction, it finally happened. Looking for sleep that wouldn’t come and wrestling with thoughts that wouldn’t leave. I cried out in my mind to this far away God. I had learned of Him as a boy,  heard about from these zealots and discounted as an unnecessary complication.

Who are You, Lord?

I pleaded to this God that I didn’t even know was real to prove Himself to me. I dared and begged and pleaded with Him to give me rest in mind and body. Struggling with myself, I asked Him to keep me in my bed and to keep my mind from doing what it wanted to do to my body. I cried out from my soul without making a sound. It was as if someone that had taken my next breath after a bullet impact to the chest. I pleaded with God. “Jesus, give me rest!”. If He would only take me out of this misery, keep me from committing the unthinkable, and restore me to my former self, I promised that I would serve Him for the rest of my life! Enter the scandal of His Grace.

I am Jesus.

In an instant, a deep and restful sleep washed over me. Like a warm wave over dry feet on a Mediterranean beach. It was the most restful sleep I had ever experienced. And since. The next morning I woke up refreshed. With a smile on my face I went about life as if nothing had ever happened. I could recall the thoughts and the pain but none of it bothered me; I was suddenly floating above it all. My mind was restored. My demeanor returned to the self I recognized and all the pain was gone.

The Author of scandalous Grace

The God I had only heard of in passing and had learned stories, almost like fairy tales, had suddenly become not just real but very personal. This same God that had provided for me and sheltered me from evils. He had bestowed on me abundant levels of unmerited favor. Not just my material needs. He had now done the unimaginable: He saved my life and, in doing so, saved my soul!

That no one should boast

Despite all the benefits of a stable home-life and caring friends. In spite loving neighbors and teachers. Despite being sheltered and kept from every evil. I realized that day that I would still have ended up in Hell. Had it not been for my encounter with Jesus. It fell on me like a blanket from Above. Hell is not a place filled with depraved and unrepentant sinners like we see in the movies. It’s a place where “good people” end up every day. This life I was living was a scandal. The Grace I had been granted was scandalous.

It was that day that I started my long and winding walk with the Lord. Along the way, through peaks and valleys and everything in between. I understood that what Jesus has done for me, personally, is truly scandalous! 

This moment. This episode, this stumbling block in my life, was nothing less than His scandal of Grace in my life. He looked for me continuously until I noticed Him waiting for me. This season did not happen to me but for me. Preordained since time immemorial. It was meant to cause me to stumble to the point where, like in the darkest night, the deepest foxhole, all that is left is your soul and God. In yet another show of His love for me, my life and my soul, Jesus reached out from Heaven and entered my life, my story, my history: He made me part of His story. 

Reckless love

The Bible teaches “what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”. I am thankful beyond words. In my bankrupt condition, God saw it fit to send His Son to die on the cross in my place. He provided the only currency capable of paying for the release of my soul. While on my way to Hell I was offered Heaven. That is the Scandal of Grace is that. Just as the songwriter says: “He didn’t have to do it, but He did”. When I didn’t want to know Him, He came looking for me; when I didn’t think I needed Him, He was patient with me; and when in my foolish hubris I would say “there is no God” He was gracious with me.

Scandal of Grace

I write to you now as the heir to fields I did not plant. Of homes I did not build, and storehouses I did not fill. My Heavenly Father owns it all. My Redeemer ransomed it all, and now, by the Scandal of Grace, I will enjoy it all. Thank you, Jesus. Amen!

Bewildered by Grace

Where sin abounds

My best man is not what you would call a “Christian”. We’ve been friends for years and, although he grew up Russian Orthodox, there’s very little semblance of religion in his life. He does as he pleases, goes where he wants with whomever he wants and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. He is an intelligent, classically educated, well-traveled, eloquent, multi-lingual and a very successful cosmopolitan. Although he himself is not religious, he “understands the role it can play in people’s lives”. Our prayer for him has always been that he be bewildered by grace.

All in all, he’s the poster child for a jaded, calculating, cynical yet pragmatic post-cold-war soviet youth. One might even wonder “what does this man have in common with you”? Surprisingly enough, I have to say that he is the only secular friend from my youth God has allowed to remain in my life. And I’m sure He has His reasons. I believe so that he can be bewildered by Grace.

Opportunity presents itself

On one of his many excursions to Europe for a skiing trip with his newlywed wife, they decided to cross the Alps and make some stops in Northern Italy; he wanted to take advantage of the proximity to Milan to take in the sights with his wife. As “luck” would have it, his rental car broke down. He’s not the type to panic so he very calmly called the rental company and arranged to bring his car in for repairs. He arrives at the mechanics’ shop to discover that no one there speaks English. Again, he calmly reaches out to me back in New York, explains the situation, and asks that I speak to the mechanic. He wanted me to communicate to him very clearly what he needed done to the car.

Grace abounds even more

He puts the mechanic on the phone, I introduce myself, explain that the gentleman is my best man, in Italy on vacation and that his car broke down on the road. I extend my availability to translate at a moment’s notice, I thank the gentleman for his time and add “che Dio vi benedica”.

Now, please understand that, although translated into English it means “God bless you”, unlike the ease with which we use it in America, from sneezes on the train to prayers at the altar, in Italian and in Italy, those words are hard to come by. It is not part of our daily lexicon to go around blessing people. For example, for sneezes, we say “salute” which is basically “good health”. Although we are the seat of the Catholic Church, it would surprise anyone to see just how secular Italy has become over the years. Religion and God are making a slow but steady exit out of public life.

Bewildered by Grace

So, just like any other normal phone call, the mechanic and I said our goodbyes. I told my friend it was taken care of. We both moved on with my day. However, what came next was more than just unexpected, it was extraordinary.  The next day, after he had gotten his car fixed and left the mechanics’ shop, he called me again and said: “I just have one question: was the mechanic, like, your cousin or something”? Bewildered might be an understatement.

It’s not every day that my best friend is caught off guard by anything, let alone bewildered.   He reads people and situations extremely well and has an uncanny ability at hedging himself against any unforeseen circumstance. So when he started our conversation with such a question I knew something very unexpected had taken place. I asked him to explain what he meant by such a left-field question. He went on to tell me how, right after we got off the phone, he noticed something different about the mechanic. I was happy to see that the mechanic was bewildered by Grace as well.

He described him as typical northern Italian: straight to the point and not very warm; courteous but not warm. He continued to tell me that after we spoke he went to work in earnest. The mechanic started bossing people around. He was telling his workers to get working on the car. He took a piece of paper and wrote down the following day’s date and a time (assuming it was the pickup time). Before leaving the shop, they shook hands and the mechanic gave him one of those half tap/half hugs sort of goodbye. But then, he said the mind-blower came the next day.

Where mercy found me

When my friend showed up to pick up the car the mechanic greeted him with open arms, welcomed him in, and personally escorted him to the vehicle: he wouldn’t even accept a tip! He said the mechanic smiled and laughed the whole time and waved him off as he left the shop! “Again, I ask you: are you related”? I assured him that I had never met him nor had ever spoken to him. So he asked me: “then what could you possibly have said to this man that changed his mood so drastically”? I thought about it for a moment and then I remembered, I had said: “God bless you”.

It made sense. The last thing I said to him was, “God bless you, God repay for your diligence and your time”. My friend said that it was as though someone had lit a fire under him. I went on to explain that, perhaps, that man had very rarely come across such a salutation and he really took it to heart and it made a tangible difference in his day. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever witnessed”. he said. I smiled, said “yeah, ‘God bless you’ goes a long way!’ and moved on.

Living Epistles

Too often we want to preach and push and pull our loved ones into the Kingdom. My friend definitely got his share of it from a few of us when we were younger. After a while, we just loved him for who he is. We decided that prayer might work better. So it’s these rare moments when God shows up and shines out in ways that he understands that make up for years of preaching. He was able to witness first hand how God took care of his needs. Even in such little things above and beyond his expectations. So much so that he thought he had fortuitously landed among relatives of friends.

God doesn’t need us to hit people over the head with the Message: we are called to be “Living epistles, easily read of all men“. For my jaded, calculating eastern European cynical friend, what happened that day made him stop and take notice. Perhaps a few more such close encounters and, who knows, the Lord will lead him to Himself soon. We, as Christians, can only pray. As we pray, let us ask for opportunities for people to truly be bewildered by His Grace.

Come, let Us Pray Together!

What a day that we be, when my Jesus i will see, As He takes me by the hand and takes me to the Promised Land. What a day, Glorious day that will be!

Has your need to “know” and “understand” driven you to madness yet? How many times so far: once, twice, more? I agree that the heart of the apologist is to know and to understand but we should never loose sight of what our subject matter is: God! It is, by definition, impossible to know him fully, at least in this current life. The Bible teaches us that:

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known”. 1 Corinthians 13:12

Even the greatest apologist of all times, the Apostle Paul, knew that what really saved people was not “head knowledge” but the move of the Spirit in their lives. In fact, when speaking to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

1 And I, brethren, when I came to you declaring unto you the testimony of God, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom.For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.And my speech and my preaching were not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not stand on the wisdom of man, but on the power of God.– 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (bold and underline are mine).

What a powerful revelation from the Apostle Paul: “that our faith should stand…on the Power of God”! Sometimes we might feel that we have an obligation to dump all of our knowledge on someone to win the argument and prove to them the rationality of our beliefs, almost as though it were up to us to defend the Word of God. That, fortunately could not be farther from the truth. In fact, it’s the other way around: it is the Word of God that defends us as we “put on the full armor of God…for we wrestle not with flesh” and since we do not wrestle with flesh, our battle cannot be and cannot be won in the body but through prayer and the reading of the Word. An unbeliever is not merely the person standing in front of you but the spirit of unbelief that is inside of them and that spirit is just as knowledgeable as you are which means that the only thing that can save that person is God through a miraculous work in their life.

The next time you find yourself at your wit’s end with trying to wrap your head around the whole Scripture or find that your apologetic is not working the way you thought it would, remember that apologetic is not a part of it not the only part and the battle is certainly not yours!.

The God of my sister: Part 1

When your own Walk gets overrun with weeds, it’s good to know there’s someone’s footsteps you can follow.

Everyone’s journey to God is unique and special; mine brought me through a series of shady valleys, deep wooded forest and dry deserted places. Beside the unfailing Grace of God, what was always there to point me back home was the opportunity to observe my sister in her own journey of faith. The following meditation is a retelling of some highlights in my walk in Christ and to Christ and how, by His unmerited favor, He provided faithful stewards of His Love to bring me back on the Path. As always, I pray that you will be blessed and share it with at least one other person. May God richly bless you. I call this:

The God of my sister

To be honest, I would have to say that I met Jesus several times. The first time I met Him, He changed my heart: I was arrogant and loud and self-confident; I was of no earthly good without any heavenly value. I was a Evolutionist, a Darwinist and, for the lack of a more accurate word, an agnostic. I believed the same way any secular person believed: tangentially and only on special occasions. Believing was a matter of tradition not a lifestyle. We paid lip service to a God that had no real place or space in our lives. However, one day, in the middle of what I would call the best time of my young life He showed up to Sunday dinner in the guise of my brother-in-law’s uncle and his family.

We were living in Italy at the time; it was the first in our series back and forth moves to and from the United States. My sister, her husband and my young nephew had gone to visit family in Milan and they, in turn, had invited them back to our house in Tuscany. My sister had spent a several days with them in Milan and had accepted an invitation to their church. Suffice to say that she came back a different person from her trip. She started talking about Jesus as if He was actually a person you could relate to on a daily basis. She told me stories people had shared with her during her trip along with a few of her own experiences during her ten-day stay. She told me of miraculous healings and of divine interventions into people’s personal circumstances and of inexplicable coincidences that could only be explained by intentional design. This went on for weeks. The person that returned home from this brief vacation was not the same person that had left from our home just a few weeks prior.

For as long as I could remember I always looked up to my sister. Ever since we moved to the States, she was always the one who took care of everything: bills, documents, school. She was the only one that spoke any English; she had taught herself basic conversational English in the few months before we left for New York using a neighbor’s college textbook. Smart as a whip, astute as snake, she always knew what the right answer was. It was exactly this part of what I knew about her that troubled me the most: the answer she had didn’t sound like the right one any longer: this could only be a grievous  misunderstanding on her part, a single flaw in what could otherwise only be described as a flawless record on her part. So, the day my brother-in-law’s relatives came to visit us, I was ready. Textbooks and quotations at hand from scholars and scientists from all walks of life, I would prove to this man and his family how terribly misguided they were and I would, in my own special, magnanimous and selfless way, walk them back to the truth of science and reason.

When they arrived we all introduced each other and we had lots of wonderful conversations about personal history and origin and as much small talk as we could muster until eventually, we slowly but surely made our way to the most important topic on their hearts. They were very pleasant, cordial and reasonable. The husband shared his testimony and spoke of Jesus, I countered with evolution; he spoke of his testimony, I countered with the Big Bang. The conversation went on for hours and I have to say that not once did he show any sign of frustration on his part; he was at least twenty years my elder and still spoke to me with eloquence and gallantry. My mom came into the living room, signaled to my sister, and we all went into the dining room to eat dinner.

That’s when it happened. Of all the years I had spent at my father’s table we had never once said Grace, ever! This man, Dino, turns to my father and asks if he could pray for the meal. My father, from his part, had no objection: we had never prayed but we were still “catholic” so we wouldn’t dare say no. He starts praying. He makes this long list of things he’s thankful for, talking to God as if He could actually hear him. He thanks God for the food and the warm reception and the engaging conversation and for the safe trip and prays for our family and our salvation. At this point, something came over me; it was like guilt and release at the same time. I started to weep and wail uncontrollably. I cried like I had never cried before. I can still remember saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. As his prayer came to a close and everyone saw me balling my eyes out in my seat, him and his wife came and hugged me and told me “it’s okay, you’ll be okay. Jesus loves you”.

That was the day I met Jesus for the first time. That was the first day in my whole entire life that I wasn’t alone. There was now this “presence” in my mind that I couldn’t explain; my thoughts were no longer on their own in my brain, there was something else, someone else there: I didn’t know what it was but I knew I was safe. I was just a boy and that was a long time ago. But that day something else happened: I realized my sister’s record was still intact. Whatever she had experienced, whatever she had seen and heard actually did happen. She was right about this Jesus, someone that now that I had encountered Him for the very first time I knew she had found the path, the True Path, and our lives and the lives of our families would never be the same.

Of course, we all know that whenever the Lord sends someone to seed and water and nurture, the enemy of our souls sends someone or something to steal, kill or destroy; and believe me, things did come and in a hurry. As believers, however, we are reminded that “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose”.

Please stay with us over the next few days as we continue to testify of the Goodness of God the Father through His Son Jesus and how, on a lonely, dark night he kept a young man from the pit of despair.

God bless you.