Friday, June 30, 2017

Lay Aside the Weight

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Israelites said to the Lord, "We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day!" - Judges 10:15

Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. - Hebrews 12:1

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 80:1-7; Isaiah 11:10-13:22; Galatians 6:6-18

During my seminary training, I was part of a cohort of students from different seminaries and different traditions who went through a summer unit called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). It was partly training, partly real-life experience working as hospital chaplains, partly an intense period of "messing with our stuff" as we shared with each other and with supervisors what we went through, what we learned, and how it all affected us personally. It was probably the longest, most difficult summer of my life! But I would still say that it was also the single most important and helpful thing I did that made me feel like I could do this pastoring thing.

During that summer, as we students were talking about what this all meant for us, one of us came up with this image: It was like learning to walk and function in life with a new awareness of the "baggage" we have accumulated. Some of us have had things relatively easy, and have a few metaphorical pockets full of billiard balls and lumpy backpacks over our shoulders. Others have much heavier burdens, or scars or injuries that can easily throw us off balance. To some degree, we will always have these burdens with us! But when we learn to identify them for what they are, and account for them, and learn how to walk ahead without having them derail or defeat us, we can keep moving and be effective, and even joyful, along the way.

Today's Bible verses remind me of a similar burden, the burden of guilt we carry when we're all too aware that our lives don't match up with God's standards, our standards, our parents' standards, or whatever measurement we value. It's easy to tell that some of our decisions and actions in life have brought pain and misery to ourselves and to others. There are plenty of messages that tell us how little we're worth, or how inadequate we are.

A big part of the value of Christianity, and maybe any faith, is how our beliefs affect this situation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is the Law, which reveals the way God means for the world to work and makes us aware of how much, or how little, our lives line up with God's intent. The Law can be a curb or fence, marking off where we're not supposed to go. It can be a hammer, bringing down the judgment our actions have earned. It can be a mirror, revealing the truth about us and our lives. It can be a roadmap, showing us the best way forward.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is also Grace, or Gospel (good news), which conveys God's mercy and forgiveness and love. God does not judge only, or judge forever. But God reaches down, picks us up, dusts us off, sets us right, and leads us forward. The people in Judges 10 appeal to this side of God. The writer of Hebrews 12, having talked at length about how Jesus Christ has made God's grace and mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation available to us, and urged us to continue with faith in this promise, now lifts up this beautiful image of "laying aside the weight" of our wrong choices, and instead being free to run forward.

Given the strong witness of God's Grace in Jesus, Christians should know better than to labor under our burdens any longer than we need to. And yet, there is plenty of Law going around - spoken to us by our own inner voices, lifted up repeatedly by the world around us as something we should keep carrying, even preached in Christian sermons and actions all the time. But if our faith always burdens, and never frees us, then our faith is in something other than the love of God made known in Christ!

The Bible's word for "forgive" is the same as the word for "divorce." When God forgives us, the tie is cut, the burden is removed, the guilt is gone. I like the image of a helium balloon when the string is cut. It is cut off and separated from us. It's gone. We'll never get it back. This is the free gift of God's Grace!

As children of grace and forgiveness, we do have choices. The writers of the New Testament letters remind us, over and over again: Don't take up old, harmful ways of life. Don't turn your back on the freedom of Grace and trade it in for the burden of the Law. Don't trust in your own strength or inner compass, but in the faithfulness of God. Be loved. Be free.

May my life, and yours, be blessed by this Good News of Grace. And may we share with others the love of God in Christ that allows us to "lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely." May we all be free, and "run with perseverance the race that is set before us."

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