Older Brother Syndrome

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In the famous story of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel’s, there is another story going on that we many times overlook.

The father has welcomed the prodigal home and celebrated his arrival with a party for the whole household. However, there is one who is not so happy about the return: the prodigal’s older brother.

In the midst of partying and rejoicing over the lost son’s return, the father realizes his other child is not at the gathering. Making his way outside, away from the joyful music and delicious food, he finds his oldest son sulking.

“I am here always. I do all I can for you. Never once have you thrown a party on my behalf! Where’s my reward for being the good one?” He says to his dad.

At first glance, it seems like the older brother is a whining, spoiled brat, jealous over his father’s love for his younger son. But if we listen to his words, we find there is something deeper going on his heart. There is an accusation in his words that are deeper than the want for a party. It is the accusation that the father does not love him.

Many times when we see the story of the Prodigal Son, we identify with the lost son. We know we’re sinners and have messed up royally and really don’t deserve grace and mercy. Yet, because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we find ourselves in the Heavenly Father’s embrace. We count our blessings and thank God for them.

But can we also identify with the big brother? How often have we sulked outside the parties of life, because we haven’t received what we think we deserve for being the good one? Why don’t we get the blessings, when we have tried our best to walk the straight and narrow and another person who has messed up their lives just walks in and takes the blessings we think we deserve?

Could it be that we have isolated ourselves? Could it be that we have misjudged the Father’s intention and love for us? I believe that many times we have wrongly accused God of not caring and ignoring us, because we have believed a lie.

We understand that God has saved us by his grace. He had mercy on our souls, Jesus died in our place, so that we could be free to have relationship with God. And we are grateful. But the lie we have believed is that though salvation is free, the rest of our lives is to be about being deserving of that sacrifice. We may not have to earn grace, but we have believed that we have to prove ourselves to keep it.

But what did the father say to the big brother in the story?

“My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate, because your brother was dead and now alive, lost but now found.”

Essentially, dad was telling his son, you already have everything. You already have this powerful relationship with me that you could have accessed at any moment you needed me. You have access not just to my hand, but to my heart as well.

God the Father wants us to experience not just grace that provides entrance into relationship with Him, but also grace that keeps us in relationship with Him. You don’t have to work so hard to prove your love for God, He already has showered you with his love. He already approves of you.

He wants you for his own. He wants you to live with him as a son lives with his father, ask whatever you will and it will be done for you. A son should never fear his father’s voice. Neither should a son ever fear asking his father anything. Even if the answer is no, there is always a reason for it. Father does know best.

Too many times, we are the big brother living in the house, feeling like a servant, rather than the son that grace has made us become. The young brother, on his return, simply wanted to live as a servant in his father’s house, because he knew he had failed so miserably. But the father put a ring on his finger and robe on his back and made him a full member of the family again.

The older brother was a full member of the family, but was so concerned about proving his worth to his father, that he missed the point altogether. He was already a son!

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He Chooses Us

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My apologies on the length of time between posts. I am going to “get back on the horse,” so to speak.

Jesus comes out of the water, as John baptizes him, and there is a great voice that speaks from heaven: “This is my beloved son, in whom I’m well pleased.” I have always loved this story and in recent months and years I’ve come back to it over and over again. And today I want to look at it one more time.

Jesus had not done anything of note to this point.

Nothing. No miracles, no feeding the thousands, no walking on water. Nothing. Yet its in this moment at the beginning of his public ministry, God does the introductions himself.

Yet he declares Jesus his son. He owns up to Jesus. He isn’t ashamed of his son. He is proudly declaring his son’s arrival on the scene.

This isn’t because of his goodness or his mission. It isn’t because of what he’s volunteered to do for the human race. It’s because God is validating him, owning Jesus as his son.

And this is what God does for us as well. Jesus is the firstborn of many brethren, according to Paul. Jesus sets the course for those who believe in him. And so as we place our trust and faith in Jesus, we also become the sons and daughters of God.

Before we do anything. We’ve obviously not been good enough. Before we find a mission to go on or accomplish great deeds in his name. We could never live up to what Jesus did.

No, God chooses us. He owns up to us. Because he loves us. He even likes us. And we are his sons and daughters. That’s enough.

Can we rest in that today? Simply come to the realization that we are God’s child. And nothing else? Can we just meditate on that fact and not allow the enemy or religion or other voices to sneak in and pull us off his lap? Can we simply own the fact that God calls us his own?

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son…” 1 John 4:10

“You did not choose me, but I chose you…” John 15:16a

Redeeming Disgrace

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Returning to this thought about shame and grace, let’s look at one of my favorite stories from Jesus’ life. (I’m sure my church gets tired of me bringing this story up so many times, but I believe it is so current for today’s world!)

“The religion scholars and Pharisees led in a woman who had been caught in an act of adultery. They stood her in plain sight of everyone and said, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. Moses, in the Law, gives orders to stone such persons. What do you say?’ They were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating so they could bring charges against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, ‘The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.’ Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt. Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. ‘Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?’ ‘No one, Master.’ ‘Neither do I,’ said Jesus. ‘Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.’ ” (John 8:1-11, The Message)

Did Jesus condone this woman’s sin? No. Did Jesus give permission for the rest of us to do what she did? No.

But did Jesus condemn her and shame her? NO. There is not one hint of shame in his voice. Moments earlier, this woman had been ripped from a bed of adultery, probably barely dressed and thrown in the center of a group of angry men. Shame was most likely her only clothing.

The very word shame means “a painful feeling of guilt, unworthiness and disgrace.” To be disgraced actually means “to remove dignity.” Sin strips us of our dignity. It “dis-graces” us, taking away the grace we enjoyed from others and the grace we received from God. Shame keeps us in that place of “dis-grace.”

This woman had been totally disgraced. Was she guilty? Yes, she knew that. She wasn’t stupid. Everyone knew the punishment for her sin was death. But the shame of that moment, before those “religious” men, had to be worse to her than death!

Jesus does not lend his voice to their disgracing, shame-filled rhetoric. But instead, He releases her and restores to her the dignity she’d lost. Was Jesus soft on sin? No! But neither did He deal with her through shame! “Go and sin no more!”

I love something that Mike Yaconelli said in his book, Messy Spirituality. He said we must not condone sinful behavior, but it is the Church’s job to redeem sinful behavior. What a great description of what Jesus did for this woman.

There are so many Christians (and non-Christians alike) who battle with shame everyday of their lives. This shame and guilt stands between us and a successful walk with God. Guilt and shame is not of God. He lovingly convicts, speaks truth in love, but never will take our dignity and disgrace us. That is the work of the enemy, trying to keep us from God!

Shame keeps those sins that we have placed under the blood returning to our lives. It does this by reminding us of the past and the failures we’ve had. It convinces us that we cannot live this life as God desires, so we give back into that former sin and it creates a cycle of sin and shame again and again.

All of this affects how we walk with God. St. Iraenus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God gets His greatest glory when man is fully living who he was created to be! Shame seeks to keep us from being “fully alive.”

Remember what Mephibosheth’s real name was? It was Meribaal, meaning “defeater of Baal.” Each and every one of us has been given a name, in the God-created spirit man inside us which is in direct proportion to the call and purpose of our lives. Even though Mephibosheth left his true name or identity behind, God had not forgotten who he truly was.

Shame may have come to “dis-grace” you and take you out of your destiny, but God has not and will not let that be the final word on your life. You may be someone who sinned knowingly and willingly, but I tell you, shame is not your portion! Grace is still available. Pardon is still available. As the old song sings, “there’s still room at the cross” for you.

(Taken from Chapter 4 of The Embrace of Grace: Moving from Rejection to Adoption.  Image: Woman Caught in Adultery, John Martin Borg, 2002)

Dropping the Fig Leaf

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As followers of Christ, even though we know in our minds we have been forgiven and can be forgiven of every sin, sometimes we still battle with this enemy called shame.  Many times, shame will bring up things from the past—long forgiven.  Other times, it merely keeps us from forgiving ourselves in the sins we deal with as Christians.

I remember once praying for a Christian friend who was really struggling with an addiction to alcohol.  As I prayed for him, I saw him sitting in an old-time, western-like jail cell.  He was by himself with a bottle of liquor.  As I watched, I moved further back to see that the cell doors had been unlocked and opened wide, yet my friend still sat inside, bound to the bottle.  Shame had tied him to that addiction though the Lord had already made the way for him to be free.

Shame replays the mental videos of our secret sins or thoughts or failures that make us feel unworthy and unforgivable.  Our hearts begin to shrink, as we wonder what others would say, “if they only knew.”  So on comes the fig leaf, our false self, that image we present to others: that way we want them to see us.

Guilt and shame hides the image of God that our spirits are recreated in at the point of salvation, so we cannot see our true glory.  Its first goal is to keep us from God’s presence, and then from anyone who could truly “know” us and thereby heal us through true communion and spiritual intimacy.  We are once again driven away from others.

Even though shame can use any sin or event in our lives, the biggest factor it thrives on is in the area of intimacy in relationships. It’s goal is to isolate and make us feel alone in a crowded world!

Understand that intimacy in relationships is not limited to sexual intimacy. It is the richness of expression and understanding of each person. It requires us to be vulnerable in our emotions and in the sharing of our failings and weaknesses. So, fear of being exposed in areas we don’t want to share can come from shame and close us off from others and keep intimacy from happening in our relationships.

Until we face the fig leaf, we will find ourselves hiding, never really experiencing true freedom in our friendships or relationships with each other. Jesus said the greatest laws were to love God and love others as ourselves. But so many of us are bound by the fig leaf of shame, we have no real respect for our own lives and our own place in this world, so we cannot really love others.

But God does not leave us in our shame.  In fact, Jesus comes to break the cycle of shame in our lives, being shamed himself, taking our shame upon him on the cross.  Beaten, stripped and naked on the cross, Jesus bore our shame.  He is not willing to leave us in this state alone, but enters it with us and bears it.  He is not ashamed of us and bears the weight of it and carries it away.

Now we are called into His presence, like Mephibosheth of old, and invited to be received by the King.  So many of us think in terms of “receiving Jesus,” but how often do we think of being “received by Jesus”?  He is waiting for us to present ourselves to him, naked emotionally and spiritually vulnerable, without our fig leaves to hide behind.  He is not ashamed of us, but receives us with grace.  Then, we will be clothed with his righteousness – something we could never do on our own.

Grace is Not Ashamed of You

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Mephibosheth didn’t start out with such a horrible name to pronounce.  In fact, his father had given him a completely different name:  Meribaal.  While that doesn’t seem much better to us modern people with names like John and Sarah, in the ancient world these two names were worlds apart.

Meribaal meant “defeater of Baal,” who was a false god, an idol, worshipped by pagan nations.  His father, Jonathan had believed that his son had a great future before him.  Maybe he would one day sit on Israel’s throne as king, being the royal son of a prince of Israel.  Maybe Jonathan saw him defeating the armies of pagan nations and bringing down the false worship of a false god.  So he named his son with great potential and purpose.

But then Jonathan died in battle, and Meribaal was dropped by his nanny, ankles crushed, never to walk, let alone lead a nation.  Rushed into hiding, he is raised in obscurity by friends far from his home and his original purpose.  A new name is given to him, or maybe taken on by himself, we don’t know:  Mephibosheth.

This name brings a new meaning and with it a new definition of this man:  “breathing shame.”  How sad it is that the defeater of Baal should become one who is now simply breathing shame.

Shame in what we have done or what has been done to us can become a defining factor in our lives.  It can so consume us, if we listen to its lies, to the point we become named by it.  It becomes who we are.

I have met some of those people who will not look you in the eye for fear that you might see their shame.  It’s almost as if they introduce themselves as “Hello, I’m shame.”  And this is what Mephibosheth actually did every time he said or heard his name said.  Shame for what was, but could never be again.  Shame for failure, yet not his but still owned anyway.  Shame that his purpose and destiny now would never be what it was supposed to be.

Shame is a trap of the highest order.  It wraps it’s tendrils around our feet and says you can never be a good person, after what you have done.  It denies us access to the good things of life and God, for fear of other finding out our shameful secrets.  It tells us the God himself is ashamed of us, and keeps us from drawing near to the One who loves us in spite of what has been done to us or what we have done ourselves.

So we give up and allow ourselves to fall into other sin, deeper sin, because if we are already ashamed and separated from love why should we care what other sin we indulge in.  And then more shame arrives and the cycle begins again.

This is why what David did for Mephibosheth was so powerful.  He called him to the throne room, unashamed to have this crippled prince in his presence.  God calls you and I also to his presence.  Dirty, ashamed, worried, fearful, crippled…we are accepted into the King’s presence.

God is not ashamed of you.

Just as the prodigal’s father ran to him, putting his arms around him and kissing his face, probably dirty with the waste of the pigs still on it, God desires you and I to know that no shame can keep him away.  He knows what he has named us and that name cannot be destroyed no matter what mud we fling on it.

Grace is not ashamed of you, He gives you power to change, to heal, to restore, to rediscover who you really are.  But we have to accept his offer to come to him, to come to the throne room and receive his love.  Will you do that today?  Will you take all your shame and your fear and walk into the throne room with it and present yourself to the King?

Trust is the victim of rejection.

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When we are rejected, dropped by those who we thought believed in us or loved us, trust is what is fragmented. Sometimes the one who has fallen and dropped us will seek to repair the damage, asking forgiveness, which is a very good thing. But depending upon the severity of the break, trust will take time to heal. Other times, those who have dropped us don’t care or don’t even know they have caused damage. And this speaks to us: you are not worth it; I reject you.

It’s been said that rejection is the doorway through which much of our spiritual and emotional struggles will come in life. No one is immune to the sting of rejection. It lurks in the shadows and speaks it’s lies that we are not worthy, there is something wrong with us or that we are not good enough. This is the luggage we can carry around with us into every new friendship, relationship, job or neighborhood.

Before we can ever learn to trust again, before we can heal our broken feet, we must deal with this devil of rejection. And it is this that King David dealt with first with Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9) by calling him to his presence. He did not reject Mephibosheth. Even his servant, Ziba, was quick to let the king know that there was something wrong with this young man, that he was defective, not worth the time of the king of Israel. Yet, David decides that he wants to give favor to this broken one: favor not rejection.

Some of us have perfected the state of being rejected into an art. We have received it and accepted its lie to the place where we even will reject others before they can reject us. We downplay our good qualities in deference to all our flaws and refuse to receive the slightest compliment. We cannot believe that anyone would really be our friend, or truly believe in us, because rejection has made its home in our psyche.

Yet it is into this Grace walks. Grace says “come to My throne room and be the center of my attention.” Grace says “let Me enfold you in My arms and thwart the lies from your ears.” Grace says “you are loved and you are worthy just because you are.”

God begins the healing of our trust by calling us to him, just as we are, flaws and fears and all. Jesus says to us: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:16a) He has chosen us. We are not alone.

Today’s Grace

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This week, the reality and need for grace seems so evident to me. Here a couple of new thoughts:

Grace is offensive. To look at a sinner (us) and say “I love you just the way you are” is offensive. Even the offender, though they hope for love, truly expects and almost wants to be rejected, so that their sin seems properly judged and punished. But when we hear those words, “I love you anyway,” it offends us to the core. How is it possible that love could be offered when such grievances have taken place? Yet, this is exactly how God handles us. Day after day, even on our good days, we stumble and fall. We think the wrong things, we say too much, we say too little, or even worse, what we do or say is completely hypocritical or sinful. Yet God’s heart is for us.

Grace is fireproof. We can throw our two-year old tantrums and hold our breath and stomp our feet, completely being brats who want their own way, and yet God still loves. This does not mean he approves of our behavior. (Any parent can tell you this truth.) But this is where so many of us get it wrong. The act of loving someone does not invite our permission for them to treat us however they want. Grace from God does not mean he tears down all boundaries for our lives and says “have at it.” But grace instead suffers the violence of our behavior and our attitude and our sin. It is the lighthouse on the breakers in the midst of the storm, refusing to turn off it’s beacon to safety in the most dire of dangers. It provides a path back to safety, to freedom, if we will listen and obey.

Grace is deliverance. It is only in the realization that there is a love for me that’s willing to put up with all my *stuff* and stand in the midst of the fire for me that I find healing. The three Hebrew young men who faced the furnace of fire found that they were not alone in their distress. The very fire that was meant for their destruction was the instrument of their deliverance. Grace is like this for us. Complete and honest love in the face of all my sin enters my life like the fourth man in the furnace. If I can trust that this is true, if I can relinquish myself to this love and truly believe I am loved, my chains are melted away and I am freed. Grace makes it possible for me to live above sin, no longer bound by its control over me. Why? Sin is simply my trying to fill the holes of my life, searching for that true love and acceptance that I am missing. But when grace arrives, when I let grace take HIS place in my life, I find I no longer need these other things to fill the holes, for grace makes up the difference.

Grace is oxygen. I need oxygen to live, and so I also need grace to live. I need to know I have his favor, but I must remember that the essence of grace is found in the fact that it’s unearned. Nothing I’ve done has gained this love for me. So I have nothing to boast in myself. I have done nothing to produce this connection I have with God, outside of receiving it and cultivating it like every other relationship in my life. But I could do nothing to create it. I am dependent. I am impoverished without it. Paul said it best when he said, “it’s not by works…lest any man should boast.” No work of my hands could give me this favor in my life, so all I can do is return it to God in praise and live to please him and him alone.