We are mysteries. We are theologies. (or, What it looks like when we figure out who we are)

Jesus is invited into the home of a  religious leader for dinner. A woman who evidently has quite a reputation (read “prostitute”) shows up at the house during dinner and standing at Jesus’ feet, she begins to weep. Her tears fall on his feet. Having nothing else to wipe them with, she bends down to wipe the tears away with her hair.

Then, kneeling there on the floor, her head close to his feet, she begins to kiss them. This woman begins to kiss the feet of Jesus. In public. In front of people.

What is she thinking? How does that decision happen — to shift from cleaning to kissing? What line gets crossed, what internal hat gets thrown into that ring? And what of those who are watching? This has to feel awkward. She has brought a vial of oil with her so now — having cried on them and kissed them — she goes one further and begins to massage his feet with oil.

This is now an uncomfortable scene for all of us.

How does Jesus remain true to himself in this moment?

It is a fair question and a relevant one. How does Jesus remain true to himself in the midst of all the strange decisions we make in his presence? How does he remain true to himself in any room, in any circumstance into which we drag him? If all there is to this life is what we can see, feel and touch, then what this woman is doing to Jesus is almost profane. Jesus should be embarrassed by this display and yet …

By the way the story is told (Luke 7), he doesn’t seem to be rattled at all.

Here’s the thing: If life is more than physical and people are more than bodies, then what looks like obscene may actually be holy. If life is more than physical and people are more than bodies, what this woman is doing there on the floor at the feet of Jesus is nothing less than sermon, sacrament, testimony, mystery and theology.

This scene is prevenient grace meeting justifying grace.

Somewhere out there in the streets healing power was poured out and now here in this house thanksgiving is being poured out in return.

Could this also be a marriage proposal? This alabaster box of precious ointment was probably meant to be this woman’s dowry. It is surely the most expensive thing she owns. Let that sink in: this woman is pouring her dowry over this man’s feet. This woman who has for years divorced her body from her soul has walked into this room, pulled out her dowry, knelt down before a man and offered him her life, her future and her heart.

Could it be that this woman is saying her divine “yes” to the God who has been pursuing her since the moment of her conception? Is she pouring out her dowry in a last-ditch attempt to marry the pieces of her broken life back together? Body and soul, reunited at the altar of redemption and thanksgiving?

Kissing the feet of Jesus, this woman has redefined her body and his. She is teaching us that our creation as male and female is not just biological. We are mysteries; we are theologies. We reflect the image of God. Reaching desperately back across the line of Genesis 3 for her  original design, she is giving her body back to God as she kneels before these feet even as God redeems her soul.

This scene is the creation story wrapped up in the new covenant.

Crossing back over Genesis 3, this woman joins a fellowship of biblical women who dared to walk back into the Garden of Eden. She is now in the company of the woman who grabbed the fringe of Jesus prayer shawl and the woman who reached out to touch the resurrected body of Jesus in the garden. She is in community with the woman who sat at his feet soaking in every word while her sister fussed over a meal in the kitchen, and also the woman at the well who dared to have a deep, theological discussion with Jesus before asking if she could drink from his well of living water.

This Fellowship of the Redeemed has discovered that in Jesus they can reconnect body to soul as they answer a deep hunger for their original design.

How does Jesus remain true to himself in all these encounters with broken women?

In these moments, Jesus is most true to himself. His response reminds us that we are more than plumbing and wiring. We are redeemed people with bodies and stories and spiritual gifts, all designed to be in partnership with God to build the Kingdom on earth.

We are mysteries; we are theologies.

Michelle Bauer says, “God created gender. What God did not create is all of the baggage that we have placed on gender over the years.” The shame, the lust, the fear, the ignorance of how connected we are — all this baggage masks our identity and separates body from soul. Perhaps this is humanity’s worst offense; when we separate body from soul we tear at the fabric of our created design.

And what if your hunger and your emptiness and your feelings of shame are actually your spirit reaching for your original design?

And what if the answer to that hunger and emptiness is found at the feet of Jesus?

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The Gift of Prevenient Grace (or, Lessons learned from the worst night of my life)

On the most difficult night of my life I stepped out of a house into the street and found myself by a terrible mistake in a car with total strangers. I was a young woman at the time, a student. Living on the wild side, I often found myself risky situations. This one took me over a line I didn’t intend to cross.

The incident turned into a nightmare and four hours later I was dumped out on a road, where I would pick myself up and begin the process of healing from a horrible assault, the memories of which would haunt me for years. It took seven years, in fact, for me to make it back to Christ and then only because someone asked me, even though I was not a practicing Christian at the time, to lead a college Bible study. By studying as the leader of that class, I rediscovered my faith and gave my life back to God. I accepted His forgiveness for a mountain of sin and in the process I found forgiveness for the ones who had hurt me.

At the time of the incident, I was on the front edge of a new dating relationship with a young man who would eventually become my husband. He wasn’t with me when I was assaulted but he was there within moments of my desperate, heart-broken phone call. Seeing me so broken created an anger that would torment him for years. How do you forgive people who so violently hurt someone you love?

Some ten years after that incident on a spring afternoon, Steve admitted to himself in what was an otherwise normal time of prayer that he was not able to forgive those people who had done such a horrible thing to his wife. He didn’t know what to do with this lack of forgiveness, so he decided to do what any busy, practical person does. He stuffed it.

But God wouldn’t let it rest.

In fact, it seems now, as we look back on it, that in that confession God was preparing my good husband to forgive. In October of that same year, he went on a spiritual retreat. During the weekend when he was invited to make a kind of personal inventory, he came face to face with this issue and found himself crying out to God.

Steve told God he was unable to forgive. He said, “Lord, if it is going to happen, you will have to do it. I can’t.” He says it was as if God answered him in that moment, saying, ‘Carolyn has forgiven them. Why can’t you?” Steve said he had to admit to God that he just couldn’t forgive. He didn’t have it in himself. He didn’t yell at God or try to justify anything. He just plainly acknowledged what was. “God, I can’t forgive them.”

Honesty is something God can work with. John 3 teaches us that anything in the dark belongs to the enemy of our soul. What we bring into the light becomes the property of Jesus. God works with honesty. In that moment, the Father answered Steve simply. “I was with her the whole time.”

It wasn’t a justification of what happened. It didn’t answer all the questions. But somehow, that truth was enough to allow Steve to let go of the anger and pain.

God knew, and that was enough.

Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” My husband, Steve, tells me — and scripture confirms it — that on a night when I experienced a little piece of hell, God was with me even then. When I was as far as I’ve ever been from a relationship with him — in the pit of my life, living in the darkest valley — God was still there. He never left me alone.

And this is the strength of his grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so he can be there when we finally turn to him. Prevenient grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days and even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others that we feel. God is there through all of it. God has been there the whole time, watching, grieving the pain of it but in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you.

Not even once.

Not even you.

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“I want to give you an opportunity to expand your soul.”

Sam Pursley is standing today in the unhindered presence of Christ after living faithfully as a follower of Jesus and leader in His Church for 92 years.

Sam was one of those guys who had what my mother (who loved Sam dearly) would have Sam-pursley2called a “bad case of the cain’t-help-its” when it came to influencing others. There was a quality about him that went past his small stature and quiet spirit. He carried authority. He could hold his own in a roomful of executives and care gently and respectfully for those in the margins.

Sam loved a good cause and loved a lost cause even more. He saw the humanity in folks where others might miss it, and didn’t actually think anyone was really lost. He believed people could change, given a chance, and that spirit compelled him to serve faithfully in challenging places. Who knows how many lives he profoundly impacted by his presence at Augusta Rescue Mission, Easter Seals, the Exchange Club, Gracewood, Regional Hospital … and any church of which he was a part?

My path managed to cross Sam’s several times over the years. He was a voice in my life as a teenager and again when I was a young woman just coming back to Christ. He was a partner in my work as a fundraiser at Easter Seals and a dear, dear friend when I chose the path of preaching.

He was among the first with whom I met when I came home to start Mosaic. He was there for our first worship service, sitting on the front row beaming proudly. And he was with us just a couple of years ago when we celebrated our tenth anniversary as a church.

When Sam was in the room, I felt like a celebrity was with us. There are few other men I’ve respected as much and none I’ve respected more.

In our days of fundraising together for Easter Seals, Sam used to say to potential donors, “I want to give you an opportunity to expand your soul.” And he meant it. He knew the power of giving and the connection between a generous spirit and what matters most in life. Sam’s own story of learning to tithe is what inspired Steve and I to begin that journey. It was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever poured into our marriage.

When we first started going back to church, we did what most people do. We dropped a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were renters and had credit card debt and owed on two cars, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then one day, Sam stood up in church and talked about that line from Jesus: “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” Sam talked about how his grandfather would sell grain that way and how the farmers would tell him, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.” Then Sam talked about the Sunday School teacher who taught him as a young man. She told him, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.”

Sam asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving ten percent of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.” Sam says he then asked her the question we all want to ask. “Is that ten percent of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.”

From that day on, Sam tithed. He would say that as he gave it was given to him, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give ten percent.” I didn’t see how that could reasonably happen but Steve was convinced by Sam’s story so in one week, we went from giving about two percent to giving ten percent. We’ve done so ever since and live a joyful, debt-free life thanks to the wisdom and example of a godly man.

“The rent we pay for the little space we occupy on earth is the service we render to others,” is something else Sam used to say. I give God such thanks and praise for the lives of the saints who live and serve among us, who pour into us and make us better people by their presence. Today, I celebrate the best of the best among servant-hearted men, whose expansive soul made room for countless acts of love and kindness while he “paid rent” among us.

Well done, Sam. Well done.

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Why holiness shouldn’t scare us

Today’s post, originally entitled “Ordinary Radicals,” is borrowed from the blog files of James Petticrew. His message beautifully expresses a heart for holiness so I am compelled to share his post here:

The New Testament has an extraordinary calling for ordinary people to live a radical lifestyle, a lifestyle that reflects the character of our God in cultures that have rejected God. Scripture uses one word to sum up this radical lifestyle: holiness. Peter in just a couple of verses gives us perhaps the best concise summary of what holiness is all about.

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’ — 1 Peter 1:13-16 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

So what does Peter tell us about holiness that we need to know?


“So be holy in all you do.”

Holiness is not just a status. When we become disciples we are not simply made holy in God’s sight because of what Jesus has done for us but remain unchanged as people. Neither is holiness just about how well or often we do “Christian” things like going to church, praying, etc. Peter says we are called to be holy in all we do. So holiness is expressed in our behaviour in every part of our everyday lives, holiness is about a entire lifestyle – not an occasional hobby.


“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”

God is holy, when we come into a relationship with him his great plan for our lives is to enable us to become like him; and as holy is a one-word summary of God’s essence it’s also a summary of what we are called to become. Our Holy God gives us the Holy Spirit so that our lives and congregations can increasingly be holy as he is holy. God wants to enable us to increasingly reflect his character through our lives.


“He who called you is holy.”

I have checked, there are no exemption or get-out clauses: everyone in a relationship with our Holy God is called to be holy. An “unholy Christian” should be as much an oxymoron to our ears as “dry water.” To resist and be uncommitted to allowing God to make us holy and to live as holy people is to defy and disobey God, not to mention grieve him deeply.


“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.”

Holiness, because it’s a lifestyle shaped not by the culture we are surrounded by but by a Holy God, is a radically different lifestyle. When we are empowered and guided by the Holy Spirt to live lives that reflect God’s holiness our lives will often be in marked contrast to the way we used to live and how most people in our culture live. This radical contrast is not just about what we don’t do, but more fundamentally about what we do.

Holiness at times in church history has been preached in a way that it makes it sound like God is teasing us. The message has been God calls us to be holy but actually, this side of heaven, we can’t really be holy in any meaningful or significant way.

But what if God means what he says? What if God not only calls us to be holy but will enable us to be holy? That would mean that people like us could become ordinary radicals, ordinary people who live radically different lifestyles that are shaped by and reflect our God’s character in powerful and attractive ways.

Rev. James Petticrew blogs at abrahamsfootsteps.wordpress.com. He was a Beeson Pastor at Asbury Theological Seminary and currently serves the worshiping community of Mosaic Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Five painless resolutions to improve your Sunday mornings

You’d be amazed at how a few easy changes will not only improve your Sunday morning experience but enhance the spiritual atmosphere of your worshiping community (not to mention the fact that you will impress and please your pastor). Try these:

1. Take your Bible to church. Because unless you go to a lame church, this is what your pastor is preaching from (and if s/he isn’t, why are you still going there?). Wouldn’t it be great to follow along and make notes in the margins? Bringing your Bible will improve your own Bible competency, enhance retention of the message (which has been designed with your spiritual growth in mind) and bless your pastor, who so much appreciates seeing people actively engaged and not just passively receiving (seriously, you have no idea how sweet the sound of rustling pages is to a preacher).

2. Make a habit of stopping by the coffee station either before or after church. This is a no-brainer! To fulfill this resolution, all you have to do is take advantage of the free coffee they serve at church. While you’re there, speak to someone. Help create a sense of community in this place you call your spiritual home by mingling a while and starting a conversation or two. You will meet people you wouldn’t get to meet otherwise and you’ll contribute to the warm and hospitable feeling that those who make coffee every week are trying to cultivate. If you want a church that feels like a family, you need to participate in making that happen. Coming late and leaving early won’t cut it (just being real here …).

3. Sit in a different place in church this year. If you tend to sit in the same spot every week, pick a new place to sit for 2016. Or hey! Make a game of it and pick a new place to sit at the beginning of each month (how crazy-fun would that be?). If you sit on the edges, sit toward the middle. If you sit up front, sit toward the back (and, in like manner, if you sit toward the back you owe it to yourself to try the front. We’re good people up there). Get a different perspective and meet some new people. Contribute by your flexibility toward the kind of church where people don’t always sit in the same place and become unofficial “owners” of their chair (because face it, that’s the kind of church we tend to make merciless fun of).

4. Offer to greet or do parking lot duty at least once this year. This one might not be exactly “painless” — especially if you’re an introvert — but don’t pass on it yet.  Once. Just try it. Why should everyone else have all the fun? And why should you get a free pass week after week while others take your turn? If you come regularly and appreciate the kindness being shown by others, you ought to participate in creating that same atmosphere at least occasionally. Be kind toward those who carry the load most of the time and pitch in where you can (oh, and for the record, introverts make excellent greeters, because you guys don’t create a “conversation glut” in the doorway).

5. Learn to clap. If raising your hands in worship isn’t your thing, you can at least learn how to clap. If you attend a service with a band, the expectation is that you will express yourself with more than a “I’m holding up the back of this chair in front of me with both hands while I grimace in a can’t-we-cut-this-short” posture. Contemporary worship is meant to be expressive. If you attend that kind of church (by your own free will, I might add), then why not cut loose and express yourself? This is a safe place! Tap your toe. Clap. At the very least, smile. Heck, you might even go all out and raise a hand (if it feels unnatural, you can always say you were just wanting to ask a question). Participating physically in worship is not only good for your soul but for the souls of those around you and even for the worship team. Show us you’re involved and not just enduring. In some way that is both authentic and a little bit of a stretch, find a way to express yourself so you’re participating in building the worshipful and joyful mood that your worship team is working hard to cultivate.

Five easy things. Do them and your whole attitude toward worship might just improve. Even if you already love it, you’ll get so much more out of worship if you come as a full participant and spiritual investor and not just as a casual, passive or even reluctant observer.

Do this for yourself, for those who work faithfully to lead in worship each week, and especially for God, who deserves (and passionately wants) your whole heart.

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Curing pride (or, what makes us real)

Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real. — Thomas Merton

Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. — Ephesians 2:8-10 (The Message)

Humility is the antidote to pride. It is the primary character trait of Jesus’ own personality.

Humility manifests as self acceptance, which is the opposite of self centeredness. At its highest and best, self acceptance is a kind of personal forgetfulness that is more focused on others than self. It is not the same as humiliation and doesn’t look like self-deprecation, both of which are still focused negatively on self.

A person practicing humility has no need for self-protection because the preservation of self is not the dire need. When I am at peace with who I am — when I accept myself as I am — I no longer fear losing my identity (I won’t, in fact, because my identity is safe in Christ), nor am I obsessed with constructing my own identity. I accept that it is what it is and I am not ashamed of it nor protective of it.

Self-acceptance creates a posture that points toward God. Because I am not my focus, I have the time, luxury and room to focus on God. What a glorious release! What a sweet posture!

Do you remember what we said early on in the post about pride? We said that we tend to feel threatened when our sense of self is weak. No wonder Jesus calls us to find our identity in him! Knowing who and whose we are and being confident in that fact becomes a critical piece linking us to humility.

Jesus’ antidote for pride or self hatred comes as a three-part formula:

Deny your SELF. The key word here is not denial so much as self. This is about focus. One of our team members says that in her studies, she has learned that “to deny myself means to deny my own lordship.  My focus moves from me to Jesus. It doesn’t mean to deny my feelings, happiness, or sense of worth.  And to be honest, if I don’t find happiness, worth, and joy in following Jesus, then I’m doing it wrong.”

To deny self is to deny its survival the power to control my responses to life. But don’t I want my “self” to survive? Of course, but I’m not the one who can make that happen. Ultimately, that is God’s job. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work.” My worst responses will be at the point of my believing that I am the one responsible for my own salvation and identity.

Take up your cross. This means taking responsibility for this life as it is. This invitation to take up my cross and die to self is actually a lavish and attractive invitation. It is an invitation to learn how to “adult,” which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. Our culture encourages us to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal.  We are encouraged to spend far more time accommodating (protecting, hiding) the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

This is an invitation not to meaningless suffering but to take on the challenge of growing into everything we are created to be. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

Taking up a cross is a call to the good life.

“Follow me.” Not focusing on self is only half the equation. In his sentence (“follow me”), both words matter but the first is dependent on the second. I can’t follow Jesus if I’m not focused on Jesus. However, when I focus on Jesus, he gives me my sense of identity. It is rooted in him and he is goodness and light and truth and life. When his identity becomes mine, I will naturally accept myself. This isn’t self-glorification; this is Christ-glorification. Christ in me is my hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)! Hallelujah!

Where do I begin if I want to move forward in my sense of self identity and acceptance?

Allow these questions to jump-start a conversation with the Holy Spirit about where the gaps are in your spiritual maturity and where you might begin if you are ready to move forward:

  1. Listen for how often you talk about yourself and the language you use. Do you tend to be defensive or self-promoting?
  2. Listen for how you defend yourself, and how often. What are your triggers?
  3. Listen to the internal conversations you have. Around whom are they centered?
  4. Observe how you listen to others. How much of the time is spent waiting for them to stop talking so you can begin? How focused are you on the other person, and how focused are you on yourself?
  5. Listen for that interior voice of judgment. How much of your thought life is spent exercising the habit of externalization of blame?
  6. Listen to your prayer life. How much time is spent complaining? How truthful are you with God? How much time is spent listening?
  7. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God?
  8. How much of your prayer life is spent listening for God’s voice? How much time is spent journaling what you hear? Are you honestly interested in learning and growing in grace?
  9. When is the last time you allowed others to honestly share with you what they see in you, for the sake of your own spiritual, emotional and vocational improvement? How do you approach evaluation — as a threat, or as a tool for renewal?
  10. How much time to you spend gazing on the face of Christ?

Remember: there is no shame in Christ. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

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