Fleshing Out a Flannelgraph

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

When I was a child going to Sunday school in the basement of my church they used “flannelgraphs” to tell Bible stories. A flannelgraph consisted of a flannel-covered board on an easel and cloth Bible characters. The characters stuck to the board as you placed them. Then you’d peel them off and place more characters while telling the story. There was Joseph and his brothers; Noah, the ark and the animals; and of course, Jesus.

The stories I heard about Jesus in Sunday school always made him sound larger than life. He worked miracles healing people and made a little bit of food go around to feed a multitude. He was a pretty awesome Jesus.

Then I’d go upstairs to ‘big church’ and the pastor’s message about Jesus was that he died on a cross for me. That kept Jesus in the larger than life realm. Not knowing exactly what a crucifixion entailed, I assumed it was pretty bad and that I was lucky Jesus would do such a thing for me. The pastor talked about how angry God was about sin and how much I needed his forgiveness. He was a pretty awesome God too, but for different reasons. I made a decision to ask God to forgive me and said a prayer, asking Jesus to come into my heart.

God and Jesus fell into the larger-than-life category for a long time. And there’s nothing wrong with that; they are larger than life. But something was missing and it kept me from really knowing how much I could benefit from the decision I’d made about Jesus. I didn’t know it then, but what I was missing was Jesus with flesh on.

Skip ahead several years. I had become confused and disillusioned by church, leaving it to try my own way of living. I still believed in God, but he wasn’t part of my worldview. Then something happened to create in me a hunger for him and I returned to the church. Because I was hungry for God, I began to read my Bible. In fact, I devoured it. Guess what I found?

I found a Jesus with flesh on.

I don’t remember the folks in the church where I grew up talking about Jesus as a man. They must have, but I was young and mostly hearing the anger part. I never really got a glimpse of Jesus with flesh on until I read about him for myself. As I traveled through Galilee and the Judean countryside with him and his followers I watched him interact with people like a real person would. I saw him express emotions like anger, joy, and grief.

He got tired and slept. He got hungry and ate. He interacted with friends and with some Pharisees (who weren’t always counted among the friendly). He worshiped on the Sabbath. He engaged in normal human activities found easily if you look in scripture.

Maybe it’s the storyteller in me that looks for what’s hidden. I look at more than just the words, and I read between the lines. For starters, he was a carpenter. Imagine Jesus banging his finger with a hammer and getting one of those black fingernails. We know he had sisters and brothers and, though we aren’t told much about his childhood, it must have been a fairly normal one with playtime, chores, and “school”.

Then his ministry began. Look at the loaves and fishes story. After Jesus multiplied the food for the crowds, he sent his disciples on to Bethsaida “while he dismissed the crowd.” (Mark 6:45) Call me goofy, but I see Jesus talking to people as they leave as if he knows them personally. It’s not a “Hey, all of you, clear out of here now” type of dismissal. It’s the type of thing a host would do, saying goodbye to as many as possible and seeing that their needs are met. Anyway, that’s the Jesus I was getting to know.

I got to know this Jesus who was a single man all his life while many his age would have been betrothed or already married. Jesus lost a relative, John the Baptist, to a cruel death and took time to grieve alone before he was called again to minister to the crowds. Jesus’ closest relatives misunderstood him to the point that they tried to manipulate his actions, thinking they knew better what he should do. At a crucial moment, his best friends deserted him. One of his friends took his own life.

After becoming familiar with this Jesus, I realized that I need the God who’s larger than life and truly awesome. But I also need this Jesus who has been human and can understand what it’s like to be me. Many of us have no mate, have grieved the loss of a close relative, are genuinely misunderstood, and have been deserted by a friend.

Jesus with flesh on makes him able to relate to us in every problem and in every success. God wants to get up close and personal. He wants us to know he’s not just a flat personality we peel and stick to our circumstances when we need him. He’s a fleshed-out God who relates to every situation in which we find ourselves. And his desire is that we’ll get to know him as that pretty awesome Jesus.

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Living the Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness

In some Bible translations, the word ‘meekness’ replaces the word ‘gentleness’. Many of us struggle with a clear definition of the word ‘meekness,’ but we know for sure the demonstration of gentleness when we see it.

We picture a mother holding her baby’s finger for the first time. A dad scrubbing with his hand the dirt from his child’s skinned knee. The way we would take a fish off a hook. Removing a splinter. Holding an elderly person’s hand.

The perfect example of gentleness, of course, is the manner in which Jesus handles us. Sure, He can be stern when He needs to be. (That’s how He handled demons.) For the most part, however, Jesus treats us as only a loving God can. Gentleness is one of His attributes and He can’t deny His own character.

The Golden Rule–which takes mercy into account–instructs us in gentleness.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31

Please listen today to the voice of the Holy Spirit in communicating with others.

What is Jesus Doing?

Sometimes we wonder what God must be up to. Life is getting weird and we seem to be floundering.  Ever feel that way?

If I keep my eyes open to what’s happening and keep trusting that God is doing what I cannot do for myself, the answer is usually simple.

What is Jesus doing? He’s helping me to grow in grace.

Be a blessing to someone today.

“I Think I Am Happier Than I Think I Am”- A Book Review

By Reverend James O’Leary, copyright 2002, Battle Creek Area Catholic Schools, 180 pages

Here is a book with a title that, if you cannot relate to it, you only need read a few of the short essays and you soon will. These “pastor’s thoughts” wake you up to just how good life is even if a few bad moments come in an otherwise pretty good day.

When Father Jim O’Leary first released the book, I was so happy to see it. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand his words of wisdom, humor and kindness. Reading the book again after many years, I hear his voice and see that twinkle in his eye.

Father Jim shares insights into Catholic traditions, travels in Europe associated with his calling, missions trips, parenting, growing up in Michigan, and eventually serving there. He tells stories about simple living and what he learns from everyone he meets. While he may have rubbed elbows with some pretty important people, it’s obvious he’s energized by conversations with folks like you and me.

Each essay is a reflection of Jim’s heart. Like this:

“Our world is so full of people who are planning to change the world. They are simply waiting for the right time. I do believe that I must include myself in this group. We wait and wait and the right moment never comes, and we never make our contribution to the improvement of our world. Opportunities to serve people surround us. The right time is now. Always, the time is now.”

I haven’t met many people as humble as Jim O’Leary. Of course, he’d get a sour look on his face, glance at his feet, and shake his head if he heard me say that. And that’s because, as I knew him, he really was a self-effacing man.

One day, during one of our brief meetings, I wanted to get a rise out of him. “Jim,” I said, “since I’m not Catholic, instead of calling you ‘Father,’ can I just call you ‘Dad?’”

He did laugh. “Just don’t call me what my parishioners call me,” he said.

“What’s that?”

In a matter-of-fact style and with a straight face, he said…No, I better not. It wasn’t a nice name. But I’m sure he was joking with me as well. That twinkle in his eye, you see.

“I Think I Am Happier Than I Think I Am” is filled with stuff like this. No, not bad words. But his way of seeing things. His constant love for God and for people. His explanations about Jesus and His earthly ministry. Metaphors for life derived from everyday observations. Father Jim doesn’t try in his book to convert anyone, but it’s plain he hopes you’ll believe in the One who was born, preached the Good News, and died to save us from ourselves. Jim always admitted that he needed saving from himself and his stories reveal his gratitude for God’s mercy.

The essays are gleaned from his columns originally published in the weekly St. Joseph Parish bulletin. Jim was a priest in the Battle Creek parish where I live. He was not my priest; as I mentioned, I’m not Catholic. But he was a good friend. The last time I saw him, we were both at a local American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Both cancer survivors, we met on the track and shared our news, chatting like old friends do.

I’m so glad I read the book again. It feels like we’re having another of those chats. Gosh, I miss him.

Living the Fruit of the Spirit: Goodness

A definition from Easton’s Bible Dictionary states that

Goodnessin man is not a mere passive quality, but the deliberate preference of right to wrong, the firm and persistent resistance of all moral evil, and the choosing and following of all moral good.”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone” (Luke 18:19)

When I read what Jesus had to say to a rich young man, the idea of calling myself  ‘good’ seems prideful. Can I call myself “good?” Or is it up to others to call me “good?”

If agathosune is “uprightness of heart and life,” perhaps I’m better off letting others make the judgement call. After all, Jesus, in his deity, gave all goodness to God alone. He could have claimed it, but in his humility, he glorified his Father.

As I continue to learn about how the Holy Spirit works in me to produce fruit, definitions from several sources help me to understand. I’m glad that Easton’s dictionary uses verbs like choosing and following because it implies that I must be aware of what’s going on around me.

I also appreciate that, to be considered “good,” I must be deliberate, firm, and persistent. Indeed, Mr. Easton, being “good” is not a mere passive quality. The Spirit leads; I listen; I obey.

Ultimately, the fruit of the Spirit called “goodness,” like each other fruit, is defined by the Holy Spirit himself as he works in us to make us “good.” With the Spirit working in us, we’re able to live a fruitful life. We Love, we exhibit Joy and Peace, we act with Kindness, and we can be Good.

So far, so good.

Be a blessing to someone today.

 

Living the Fruit of the Spirit: Kindness

When someone says the word ‘kindness,’ what we think of can be a mixture of other words as we consider how to define it. We think about how people are nice; that they act in a loving way; or that people who are kind must be generous.

All of these simple descriptions are a part of what it means to be kind. I suppose we can also consider how another person perceives what we think is a kindness on our part. However, it’s a pretty sure thing that when we act out of love and humility and when we are kind in an obviously selfless way, people are more open to us and will name ‘kindness’ for what it is. Sometimes kindness can be shown by just using good manners.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12

In relationships, we can show kindness by treating friends graciously even during challenging times. We are kind to someone whom we call ‘friend’ when we accept them for who they are, not expecting them to fulfill our definition of what they should be. Having a friend means being honest, firm and gentle when we’re challenged by discord.

“Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.” Job 6:14

Often, we fail to be kind because we just don’t think of it. Our lives are so full of busyness, we don’t make acts of kindness a habit. We’re rushing right past people who need kindness. We can find comfort in knowing that it’s only through God’s Spirit that kindness can be a consistent part of a believer’s experience. Quite simply, we surrender to the Holy Spirit and listen for the prompts to act kindly.

Most people are familiar with the term Random Acts of Kindness. And people are familiar with a variety of popular ways to show kindness in an ordinary day. Like holding a door open for someone or buying their purchase while we go through a drive-through. Here are some other ideas: offering someone your pen and letting them keep it; giving your umbrella to a stranger; writing someone an encouraging note; taping a microwave popcorn packet to a movie rental kiosk (leave a short note telling them you hope they enjoy the movie); picking up litter on the beach; donating your cut hair to a charity that makes wigs from it and distributes them for free; sending care packages to military personnel overseas.

On the website Positive Outlooks, stories about how folks are being kind are the norm. In fact, these bloggers go looking for them. Truly, kindness is a way of showing people by how you treat them that they have value.

Regardless of how you define ‘kindness,’ God rewards you when you choose to selflessly help others. Make it a point to perform random acts of kindness today and to top it off, don’t let anyone else find out.

Be a blessing to someone today.

 

Living the Fruit of the Spirit: Patience

The word is Patience, but in some Bibles, it’s translated Longsuffering.

That’s interesting. I’m not sure if I can say I suffer long. While I’m certainly more patient than before I surrendered to Christ, I still experience time when I want relief immediately. Anyone with me on that?

But God says that Patience is a Fruit of the Spirit. And when the Spirit fills us, we will develop Patience. No, we don’t have Patience dropped from Heaven in one fell swoop. It’s up to us to behave in a Patient manner; then the action will soon become as natural as breathing. We bloom, then reap a harvest of Fruit. We needn’t “pray for patience.” The Holy Spirit begins to grow us in virtue and character when we decide to fully devote ourselves to Jesus.

A friend of mine shared her experience with praying for patience. “I prayed for patience,” she said. “But God didn’t send me patience all wrapped up in a nice gift box. I got pregnant.”

We learn to love by exercising Love. We have Joy and Peace when we exercise Faith. God says, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). Listening to the Holy Spirit who speaks Love, Joy, Peace and Patience into our lives means hearing the logic in exercising those things. Surely God has emotions and He gives us emotions to help us in our times of need. But He also wants us to Think. Things just go better for everyone when we are Patient, not wanting our way or being unable to accept whatever is going on in the moment.

“Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way” (Psalm 37:7).

The wisdom from Heaven is mature, for it is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Doesn’t that sound like someone who is Patient? I confess that sometimes it doesn’t sound like me at all.

Patience is associated with maturity. We put away the things of a child. Simply put, our lives can be so much better when we see how Patience smooths the way.

How has God spoken to you about Patience? How has he given you opportunities to exercise Patience?

Be a blessing to someone today.

 

Fruit of the Spirit 3: Peace

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

 

“And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

“Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble.” Psalm 119:165

In the list of fruit which will be evident in our lives as we submit to the Holy Spirit, “peace” is mentioned third in line. But that doesn’t mean a person must tackle and be mature in “love” and “joy” before he can obtain peace. The Spirit begins working every single fruit in us as soon as we give our lives to Christ and decide to follow Him.

And if you’ve read my thoughts on Love and Joy, you understand that we don’t “tackle” them as if we need to strive to exhibit the fruit. Jesus says these are for the taking when we are surrendered to His will.

Think about this: If Jesus told us that it’s His peace He gives, and not the kind of peace the world gives, wouldn’t you want that? The peace the world offers is fleeting and, more often than not, based on emotions. At its most basic, that peace is a lie from Satan.

With the peace of God, our condition can be calm, not anxious, regardless of what’s happening around us. Do you know someone who seems to always be at peace? How do you respond when your circumstances challenge your inner life?

Jesus, we offer ourselves to you and trust you. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to grow us and mature us in the grace you give; a never ending grace. Your peace is what we want and we ask you to protect our hearts from the peace the world offers. We come to you for rest and worship you as our Prince of Peace. Amen

Living the Fruit of the Spirit 2: Joy

 

Joy is a gift. Like the other fruit of the Spirit, it’s not something we conjure up. It’s present in our lives because it’s the joy of our Lord. What a gift to receive. Why would anyone not want the joy of our God?

Joy is a permanent possession while happiness is fleeting. Our happiness quite often is expressed as something we have or we don’t . “I’m not very happy today.” or “Oh, I’m so happy right now!”

Joy can be described as exhilaration, delight, sheer gladness, and can result from a great success or a very beautiful or wonderful experience like a wedding or graduation but the definition of joy that the world holds is not nearly as amazing as biblical joy.

The joy we experience as we follow Jesus can be overwhelming and it’s often associated with gratitude, lack of worry, a simple life, a full life. Not to mention being in constant contact with God and availing ourselves of His love. When we know our identity in Christ, joy must naturally follow. That’s a joy we want everyone to experience, so we take the story of Jesus to everyone as often as possible.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

“At that time, Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” Luke 10:21

“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” John 17:`3 (Jesus’ high priestly prayer)

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.”Nehemiah 8:10

Dear Father in Heaven, remember your promise as Jesus said that His joy would be in us and that our joy would be complete. We praise you in our joy for your faithfulness to complete the work you’ve begun. Help us to walk in the Spirit and show the evidence of you which your Holy Spirit provides. Amen

 

Living the Fruit of the Spirit 1: “Love”

We don’t need to work at creating the fruit of the Holy Spirit. God has given His Spirit so that we’ll be filled with the fruit and exhibit the fruit by grace. As we follow Jesus and are obedient to Him, we naturally bear fruit just as a tree blossoms, then produces fruit. The tree doesn’t strive. It does what it was created to do. When we become the new creation, the Spirit works in us. So then, we don’t have to work.

“His divine grace has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3 (NIV)

If by God’s grace we are given these things, it’s a comfort to know that He is growing us up in Love. The “fruit of the Spirit” means just that. Living the fruit produced in us is contrary to living the “fruit of man.” Yes, that should actually be a comfort to us.

But be alert. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your heart tuned to the Spirit. Then Love will come more naturally than if you were to go it alone.

“For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself.” Galatians 5:14

“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13:34-35

“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. John 15: 11-15

“Now that you’ve cleaned up your lives by following the truth, love one another as if your lives depended on it” 1 Peter 1:22

Be a blessing to someone today.

(Unless otherwise noted, scripture references are from The Message)