The Greatest Story Ever Told

Over the course of history, in every generation, there is perpetual discussion about what story might qualify as the greatest story ever told. I have an opinion as well. The greatest story ever told is great because it’s common to every person who has walked the earth. The greatest story ever told is great because it begins before there is a beginning. The greatest story ever told is great because it intimately intersects with our lives and addresses what we all know to be true: Things are not the way they ought to be.

The very foundation of the greatest story ever told is God. Eternal, infinite, and sovereign in all things. God spoke everything we see into being. Yet, He is independent of His creation. God is holy and indelibly righteous. As this great story unfolds, we will see He is frighteningly just, yet full of mercy and grace.

In Genesis 1, the crown of His creation is humankind. “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). He declared His work very good. Not only is man made in the image of God, he is called to image God—to “Be holy, as I am holy” (Lev. 11:45). Yet, mankind finds it impossible to image God’s holiness. This humbling challenge is met with daily reminders of incredible inadequacy. Genesis 3 narrates the devastating story of the very first failure. And, it looks a lot like mine. Adam and Eve rebel against God. Rather than imaging Him, they choose self-sufficiency, and sin makes its debut into the story. Man’s difficult battle against fleshly desires begins. The inherent nature of God’s holiness requires that He be responded to accordingly, so punishment must come. God’s wrath is revealed, and mankind is given over to a common set of sinful desires. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, . . .” (Romans 1:18). Curse and death are ushered into the greatest story ever told.

Even with curse and consequences, sin and rebellion become humankind’s pattern. Flesh, that package of human desires that oppose the rule of God, is implacable. Rather than imaging Holy God, man constantly strives to exalt self. So much so that at the time of Noah in Genesis 6, humankind has become so wicked that He wipes them all out with a flood—saving only Noah, his family, and animals. As the earth fills again, people embark on a strategy of self-sufficiency and human accomplishment in striving to build the Tower of Babel (Gen. 10-11). They put their minds and their skills together in order to demonstrate their ingenuity, cleverness, and superiority upon the earth. They express their independence from the God who created them in His image. He puts down the rebellion and scatters the people throughout the earth.

But the greatest story ever told doesn’t end there. Genesis 12 marks an extraordinary turning point. God does not give up on the idea that mankind might image him to the world. He builds a nation through Abraham. Over and over His people continue to fail. The Hebrew people end up in Egypt as a slave nation. After four hundred years, God miraculously leads them out from under the yoke of Egyptian slavery through His servant Moses. He gives them the Law and says He’s making them into a “Kingdom of Priests” that they may be used to bring other nations to God. Once again, God desires that they image Him to the rest of the world.

Even as God’s treasured nation, Israel is plagued with sin. They battle that desire to make their own name great, just like I do. They strive to build their own kingdoms rather than His. They find themselves caught in a rueful cycle of wanting to please God, yet miserably and with great consequence, failing time after time. Flesh is weak. The devastating impact of sin is its power to distance humankind from imaging holy God.

Yet, in the greatest story ever told, God’s next move is cataclysmal. In spite of Israel’s chronic failure, God’s love is relentless. He does not give up on them, although He’d certainly be just and right in doing so. I imagine the heavenly hosts standing in stunned wonder as this next chapter unfolds.

“Through His sufferings unto death the son of God bore the penalty of our sins, making it righteously possible for a holy God to receive sinners into His saving grace without punishment for their sins.”[1] One would think Jesus, Savior of the world, would be welcomed with open arms. But He is not. He is crucified. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of the greatest story ever told. Its impact is felt in every age, in every nation, in every people group. It ushers in God’s glorious grace—that unmerited, undeserved favor from Holy God that is essential to justify us, and at the same time repulsive to the part of us that longs to remain self-sufficient. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

In the greatest story ever told, each individual person has the opportunity to receive that gift. “Our brokenness and violence are met by the grace of God, who suffered violence for our sake and in turn graces and empowers us to reorder our desire, to recalibrate our ultimate aims, and to take up once again our vocation as humans, to be his image bearers to and for the world.”[2] Our contribution to the story is our faith, and it comes in three parts. We gain the knowledge of what Christ accomplished on our behalf—that He purposely bore the penalty for our sin. We assent/agree that we believe it is true. And we commit by entrusting ourselves to that reality. There are degrees of strength to these three elements of faith, and we grow and mature in them.

In the meantime, what about the sin that continues to plague us? What about our skewed picture of what we think we want life to be? “What we love is a specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like.”[3] So often it leads us directly into sin. In Romans 6, Paul illuminates how our faith in the death and resurrection of Christ impacts our battle with sin. The moment we choose to place our faith in Christ, there is a realized reality of our transfer from slavery to sin. We become dead to sin’s dominance. It’s not a magic button to no longer sinning, but it’s a transfer of masters. The reality of Romans 6 is “Sin is not my master. The ruling authority of my life is now grace.” Three commands are outlined by Paul in Romans 6:1-14 that help us understand how to live it out successfully. First, know there has been a change. “I’ve been united with Christ.” Second, consider or reckon, “I no longer have that old relationship to sin.” Third, present your body and its members as living sacrifices—a fancy way of asking yourself, “What would it look like today to present the members of my body as instruments for doing good rather than evil?” It is only by identification with Christ’s death and resurrection that we can defeat sin. As Dr. Anderson so poignantly said in class, “We undersell our identification with Christ.”[4]

Thankfully, we are not left on our own to battle those fleshly temptations. According to Lewis Sperry Chaffer, “He knows better than we that we could never produce any such quality of life; yet He is not unreasonable in His expectation, since He stands ready to supply all that He demands.”[5] As Jesus left the earth following His resurrection, He sent the Spirit to indwell believers. The metaphor of indwelling indicates the most intimate connection possible. The Spirit manifests fruit in the lives of believers—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control—the very things that are counter to the fleshly desires in all of us (Gal. 5:22-24).

Further, in John 17, Jesus prays that there will be unity among the people who believe. Miraculously, He uses them to build the Church. The Church is the new plan, under a new covenant for all people. The Church picks up the commission originally given to Israel: To be a kingdom of priests. These chosen people who make up the Church will image God and demonstrate Him to the world. Like Israel, the Church can’t get it right either. Those common struggles persist—self-sufficiency, desires to make our own names great, celebrations of ourselves rather than imaging God. But we know the end of the greatest story ever told. In the final episode, God Himself will usher the Lord Jesus onto the stage as The King, creating a new heaven and new earth. He will set up His reign upon the earth and we will reign with him forever. Sin, sorrow, and death will end. The rule of God, the image of God, the kingdom of God will be demonstrated everywhere on the earth. Things will finally be the way they ought to be.

Personal Reflection

The greatest story ever told intersects with my life as His creation, as His daughter, as His flawed follower who is humbly grateful for His mercy, grace and forgiveness.

I’ve been amazed as I’ve truly begun to understand what His plan for me to image Him really means. Everyday living, moving, parenting, serving, writing, and even resting has taken on new depths. As I live victoriously, through the power of the Holy Spirit others are drawn to Him. As I’m patient when a foster child blatantly disobeys; as I love when that “hard to love” person corners me after the nine o’clock church service; as I demonstrate kindness to my family when a writing deadline looms. These are the times my life has the potential to image Him and reflect who He is to the world around me.

One thing I’ve learned about myself as I’ve traveled through time in the story of God, is that the pull I regularly feel in the direction of sin is not something to ignore, and it’s not something I have to muster the strength to overcome. It is a struggle that is perfectly nestled in the middle of that package of human desires that oppose the rule of God. And no matter how I might try to dress it up and call it something else, it’s sin. It’s that same sin that Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel builders, Israel, and the body of Christ in the Church battle—self-sufficiency.

I like progress and I know how to get things done. These things can cause me to lean even more heavily toward self-sufficiency. It’s easy for me to trust structure and systems and rely on those rather than on the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction.

One of the greatest take-aways, and the outline for how I might move forward and grow, comes from Paul’s directive in Romans 6 and 7. He points out the futility of trying to dig deep into my own strength and effort in order to deal with chronic sin. He offers a prescription for leaning into grace and living victoriously.

For my situation, it looks something like this: When self-sufficiency rears its ugly head, know there has been a change of “masters” because I’ve been united with Christ. Reckon that I no longer have that old relationship to self-sufficiency. And then ask myself, “What would it look like today to present my life, my schedule, my to-do list, and my best practices to God as instruments of righteousness instead?” Victory in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit is available to me today, and every day ahead. In that I find rest for my weary, insufficient self. Oh, how grateful I am for His perfect sufficiency on my behalf, and that He allows me to participate in the greatest story ever told.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual: A Classic Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Spirituality, [rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Pub. House, 1967), 119-120.

[2] James K. A. Smith, Cultural Liturgies, vol. v.1, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 180.

[3] Ibid, 52.

[4] Vic Anderson, “Module 6—New Identity for the Quest” unpublished class notes for PM101OL. (Dallas Theological Seminary, Summer Semester, 2017).

[5] Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual: A Classic Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Spirituality, [rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Pub. House, 1967), 101.

Perfect Winter Soup!

img_9180

So, it’s January and it’s currently 67 degrees outside. But last week the schools were closed because of snow and ice. The crazy South . . . Well, I’m making soup anyway. Take that, Warm Weather! Here’s a great recipe for a hearty soup that’s great for dinner around the family table, or to take to a friend who needs a little cheer. Mine is going to the Grant family tomorrow!

Hungarian Beef Soup (serves 6-8)

  • 1 pound lean ground beef (or bison)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 cups beef broth
  • 24 ounces tomato juice
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups diced potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 cup uncooked pasta, small size
  • 8 ounces sour cream

Brown the beef/bison with onion. Add garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except pasta and sour cream. Cook approximately 30 minutes. Add pasta the last 5-10 minutes. Serve in soup bowls and stir in 1 tablespoon sour cream per serving.

Notes:

  1. Substitute a 15 ounce can of tomato sauce and the remainder water if you don’t have tomato juice on hand.
  2. This can be frozen, just don’t add sour cream until serving.
  3. My friend, Terry, brought soup to me in a tall jar one time, and I thought it was the best idea ever! You’re welcome.
  4. This is such a great recipe for delivering to friends—unless they’re vegetarians. Then, use beans instead of meat.

Comment if you have a fabulous winter soup recipe to share!

 

 

A Place at the Table

screen-shot-2016-12-20-at-5-32-58-pm

For most people, Christmas is a joyous season—filled with family, friends, food, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for the precious gift of His Son. It’s the end of the year, and in the midst of the hustle it’s also a time to slow down and appreciate the past eleven months.

But, for some, Christmas is a season of pain. And for many there is guilt that accompanies the pain because they know they should be focused on the beauty of the season and God’s great Gift. The pain is real and unrelenting though, and it comes from all kinds of places. The loss of a loved one or dear friend can bring a terrible pain at Christmastime. Memories come crashing back of previous Christmas seasons. Christmas traditions lose the joy that always accompanied them before a husband or wife or child or sibling passed away, or left.

For others, Christmas is a reminder of what they don’t have. Everyone else is married. Or, everyone else has children. Or, everyone else has a place to go where they are enveloped in belonging. The feeling of being left behind is overwhelming and particularly difficult as they scroll through Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The burst of family craziness and fun in a Snapchat story might bring a momentary smile, but it’s immediately followed by an overwhelming sense of loss and feeling left out or left behind.

So, as we’re navigating this season and making plans, let’s all slow down enough to look around and see who might be hurting. Who has experienced significant loss this year? Who is navigating a first Christmas without someone who was dear to them? Is it possible to set a another place at your Christmas dinner table? Or, maybe it’s as simple as pausing before posting. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to treasure a blessing in your heart rather than post it on social media.

Who needs the care and love of your family this Christmas? Is there someone who needs a surprise bouquet of fresh flowers to cheer her heart this week? Is there someone who could use a shopping buddy to help overcome the paralysis of grief that’s keeping him from getting the things done he was hoping to get done before Christmas? Maybe someone wants to attend the Christmas service at your church but doesn’t want to go alone.

Life has some tough seasons, and we’ll all walk through them at some point, if we haven’t already. I think a very large part of God’s grace and mercy in our times of need is found through the people He places around us. He intends for us to be His hands and feet. So whose Christmas can you help make a little merrier and a little brighter this year? You and your family might just be the perfect answer!

Kids and the Comparison Trap

less-room-for-comparison

Are adults the only ones who struggle with the issue of comparison? Nope. Are the stakes lower for kids when they compare themselves to others? Nope again. So, what are parents to do? Good news! We can be prepared to coach our kids, regardless of their ages, through the mine field of constant comparison. They don’t have to find themselves feeling jealous, envious, or “less-than” because others seem to have more. They don’t have to be twenty-something to begin understanding the value and worth that is uniquely theirs.

I recently had the opportunity to co-write an article for Focus on the Family about helping our kiddos avoid the trap of comparison. Check it out here: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/schoolage-children/kids-and-comparison/less-room-for-comparison.

 

Don’t They Know?

Andy and I are in our sixth year of fostering. Newbies still, really. But, recently someone asked, “Considering all you’ve learned in foster care, what advice would you give new foster parents?

Understatement alert! I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve learned stuff about myself. Umm, I’m selfish. I’ve learned how much I love my clean and orderly little lifestyle. Foster care laughs at that. I’ve learned a ton about “the system.” Yeah it’s broken but sometimes it’s not. I’ve learned much about the plight of children who are neglected, abused, and abandoned. I cry a lot when I pray. And, I’ve learned that there are heroes all around me. There are people who put their own personal agendas aside and lean heavily into making the world a better place for some “ones.” I’m crazy inspired by them.

In answer to the question though, I land at this insight. Don’t take foster kids’ rejection and seeming ingratitude personally.

Going into the world of foster care I didn’t realize the depth of personal pain and how that manifests itself in children. There are good days and bad days, but anger, confusion, and lack of trust are pretty common. Usually they don’t know what to do with all that.

From our adult perspective, they’ve been “rescued” from environments and people who are hurting them. They should be grateful, right? But, they rarely see it that way. Their “situation” is all they know. It’s their normal. It’s their familiar. And they are not happy about being removed from their normal and familiar.

Also, from our adult perspective, we’re giving up a lot to step in and help. We’re sacrificing time, convenience, peace, and resources. We’re carting them to doctor appointments, dentist appointments, and getting their eyes checked. We’re tutoring or hiring tutors to catch them up to grade level. We’re giving away evenings out and sacrificing lots of potential free time. Sometimes, we’re sacrificing other relationships. Oh, and there are parent visits, case worker visits, court appointments, and continuing ed. We know what we’re trading, and it’s a lot.

They don’t know though. And, even if they did, they can’t possibly be expected to understand. They’re kids. They’re actually kids carrying a lot of pain. While we’re certainly doing our best to teach them important things, how to express gratitude being one of them, we cannot and must not take it personally.

So how do we not? Like any other truth, we renew our minds. Maybe there is a verse of Scripture we identify that’s helpful. Or, maybe we simply recall to ourselves, “They’ll be 25 one day, with full frontal lobe development, and they might actually be grateful then!” Or, maybe we remind ourselves of the why behind what we’re doing.

Or maybe not, and that’s okay too. Just don’t take it personally. Really, don’t.