Archive for the ‘Devotional Thoughts’ Category

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – John 3

Friday, May 10th, 2019

As my church is reading through the New Testament together, I’m using this opportunity to stop and point out some passages that look different when you read them from the perspective of a Universalist.

When I first realized that the great author George MacDonald, who loved the Bible and studied the original Greek, claimed the Bible teaches that all will be saved, I wondered how he could think that, since the Bible doesn’t teach it. Or does it? Once I actually looked at Scripture, I began to think differently.

Today’s passage was John 3:16-21. It’s a passage that both Universalists and non-Universalists can use, so I’m not going to try to argue for Universalism with this passage, but I do want to point out how it looks just a little different from this perspective. I found some new richness I didn’t expect. It also touches on several themes found elsewhere in the writings of John.

Beginning with verse 14, here’s how it goes in the New International Version:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Now, as a universalist, I wish the passage stopped there. See that? God loved the world and sent his Son to save the world! If the whole world is not saved, did God fail?

But the passage does continue.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Okay, there’s judgment in this passage.

But you know what? It mentions condemnation, which can be translated as judgment – but it does not say that those who are judged will be tormented in hell forever and ever.

And do notice that it’s not that God is angry with people. God loves the world. But so many hate the light and are afraid to come into the light. It’s not that God can’t look on sin. It’s that sinful people don’t want to be seen.

Two things I’m sure of from this passage:

1) God loves everyone in the world.

2) There will be judgment. My view is that after death we’ll be brought into the light, like it or not.

I’ve said all along that I’m a universalist who believes in hell. But I do not believe that hell lasts forever. And like all of God’s chastisement, it’s for correction, not retribution. This means it has to come to an end.

The word translated “eternal” here is that same word “eonian,” “of the eons,” “of the ages.” It doesn’t indicate a definite time period, and it may indicate an enduring, deep quality.

John himself seems to use it to talk about the type, the quality of life in John 17:3:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Mind you, I’m definitely not saying that Christians won’t live forever! I believe we will. But I’m not sure if that’s John’s focus here.

And what does he mean by “perish”? It certainly doesn’t say anything about everlasting torment.

It’s interesting to look at the Concordant Literal New Testament translation of this passage. The Concordant Literal New Testament is the closest you can get to the original Greek, peppered with symbols to indicate the verb tenses. They use one English word for each Greek word used, the better to be clear about what was actually written in the original language.

Here’s how they translate John 3:16:

For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian.

What’s interesting to me about that is that it’s present tense. The passage isn’t saying, “This will save you from going to hell when you die.” Instead it’s saying, “You’re perishing right now, and believing in the Son will give you life eonian right now.”

In fact, that fits with the illustration of Moses and the snake in the desert. The story goes that the Israelites had been struck with a plague and they were dying. But when they looked up and saw the bronze snake that Moses had put on a pole – they stopped dying.

Even so, Jesus stops the perishing that we’re doing right now.

To me, this fits with what Jesus told Martha at the tomb of her brother Lazarus in John 11:25-26. Here’s the Concordant Literal translation of that verse:

Jesus said to her, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who is believing in Me, even if he should be dying, shall be living. And everyone who is living and believing in Me, should by no means be dying for the eon. Are you believing this?”

Again, it’s all present tense – and seems to be talking about something deeper than physical life and death, especially since Lazarus was physically dead at this time.

Now, the book of John is very clear that judgment is coming after death. We’ll talk about that when we get to John 5. But here there’s something going on in the present. Jesus can save you from the fact that you are perishing right now.

It also has to do, I think, with becoming a child of God. This is a huge theme in both the Gospel of John and the epistles of John. And in this chapter, Jesus just told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

This ties with what’s said in the passage we’ve already looked at. You’re perishing right now, in this life. You need a whole new life. Which means you need to be born again, “of water and the Spirit,” “born from above.”

This fits with the idea of becoming children of God.

John introduced this theme in his very first chapter, in verse 12:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Then we hear more about being born of God here in John 3.

In John 8, we get the negative side of that. The Pharisees say that God is their Father, and Jesus responds harshly:

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.

John repeats this idea in I John 3 –

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

So becoming God’s child changes our very being! We become someone different and someone who acts differently. It changes the quality of our lives. And we are no longer perishing.

I’ve strayed very far afield! But back to John 3:16. Let’s remember that God loves the world. And the reason Jesus came was not to judge the world but to save it. And when we believe in Him, we become God’s child. We are no longer perishing, and we have life eonian, which is to know God. We become His child and His life permeates our being.

And as a universalist, my great hope is that God’s desire will not be thwarted, that even though many will not believe, will love darkness instead of light – God will triumph and by the end of the ages, all humanity will have turned to the light.

But meanwhile, how great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

With Thanksgiving

Saturday, April 27th, 2019

I did a post recently about praying with thanksgiving.

Today I’m thinking about a big prayer request I’ve had for a long time: I’d like to get married again.

After taking a year and a half off from “looking” while I was on the Newbery committee, a couple months ago I paid for six months on an online dating site – and have not found any good matches. Yes, a few were interesting to me, but so far no one has shown interest back.

I know I’ll be hard to match. My faith is important enough in my life that I’m not really interested in anyone who doesn’t even mention their faith on their profile. At the same time, I have an adult transgender daughter who’s planning a gay wedding, and I’m thrilled about that. I hate it that it’s not always true that someone whose faith is important to them is completely accepting of LGBTQ people, but unfortunately, they don’t always go together. I’ve got a few other quirks that might make me hard to match, and so far I haven’t found anyone.

I feel ready to date again. In fact, it’s been almost five years since I dated someone for two months. (Found him online!) And I feel like I’ve experienced a lot of healing since that time. Some of the healing came from that relationship – only the second relationship in my life, the first being my ex-husband. Some of the healing came from breaking up with him myself instead of getting left, as I did with my ex-husband. If I were desperate, I would not have let a perfectly good boyfriend go! So in a sense breaking up with him was affirmation that I am not desperate to be in a relationship.

[I need to add that my ex-boyfriend is a wonderful person and will make a wonderful partner for someone. I just don’t think we’re a great match. I’m happy to still be friends with him five years later, and I’m even more convinced we’re better off as friends. I do think that’s another sign that I’ve come a long way in healing since my divorce.]

The biggest factor in my healing journey was writing Project 52, the story of my life, including the divorce years. I looked at old journals, confronted that my marriage hadn’t been as ideal as I remembered it, and looked at the painful times with the knowledge that things really did work out for good. My life is happy – how can I continue to hold it against my ex-husband that it’s not anything like I expected it to be – when it’s so very good?

Also in the past five years, I have come into my own as a librarian. I was on the Newbery Committee!!! (That still thrills me!) And this year I won the Allie Beth Martin Award given by the Public Library Association. That feels wild. I didn’t officially become a librarian (with a Master’s in Library Science) until I was 43, and still have the feeling that coming to the profession so late makes me somehow less of a “real” librarian. Yes, I knew I’d found my calling – but to be validated like that? Wow!

That’s all good, and that’s all true, but it’s also true that I liked being married. I liked being married to my best friend, or at least the person I thought was my best friend. I also think being married helps me be a better person, getting the perspective of someone other than me. So yes, I’d like to apply all the lessons learned in the healing process to a new relationship. As far as I’m concerned, all this healing means I’m ready now to jump in again.

I’ve been praying about it for a long time, and nothing’s happened. I made a big deal of putting up an online profile again – and nothing’s happened.

But a few things encouraged me about it today.

One was from taking a personal spiritual retreat a couple weeks ago. It was wonderful – and then I got back excited about doing more writing and wanting to write an hour every day as well as post my book reviews and post pictures and have daily quiet times. And I ended up staying up late every day the next week, which wasn’t a good way to do it.

And I realized that if I were married, I’d have even less time for personal projects like that. I was reminded of I Corinthians 7 where it says that a married woman wants to please her husband, but an unmarried woman can be devoted to the Lord in body and spirit.

If I can’t even do all the meaningful things I’d like to do when I’m single, it would be even harder with a man in my life. Maybe this is my opportunity to figure out my priorities and realize that I have no one to blame but myself when I don’t get everything done I’d like to do.

And then it occurred to me: Maybe it’s not that I’m not finding a match because I’m a hard person to match. Maybe it’s not that God is ignoring my request.

Maybe the Lord is saying, “Sondy, I love you so much I’m going to let you linger in this happy place for a while. You went through the wilderness. Now is an interlude in the garden.”

And thinking of it that way (rather than what is wrong with me that I can’t find a match? or what is taking God so long?) makes it much easier to rejoice.

All of this brings me right back to praying with thanksgiving. Because today was a day off, and the weather was utterly glorious. And I got to thinking about all the things that would have at least been different if I were married.

So I’m going to make a list of things that happened today that wouldn’t have necessarily happened that way if I were married. I am thankful for them all.

— I got to sleep late.
— I had a leisurely quiet time, reading chapters from several additional books, taking my sweet time.
— I got to choose from the piles of interesting books on my dining room table.
— I got to listen to Christian music and sang along without embarrassment.
— I memorized Scripture, reciting aloud without bothering anyone.
— I took a wonderful walk by my lake, at my own pace, stopping to take pictures whenever the fancy struck me.
— I sang in the shower without bothering anyone.
— I cleaned my bathroom. It was much less work than if I didn’t live alone and I’ve got a nice monthly cleaning rotation that works really well. This is less frequent than if I didn’t live alone, and there was no negotiating necessary.
— I did my laundry. Also less work.
— I made dinner – with enough leftovers to last me the whole week. Wouldn’t be true if I were cooking for more than one.
— I had time to write.
— I went to some friends’ house and played games. No worries about whether my romantic partner can handle being beaten in a game. No accusations that I am too competitive. (Now those things definitely don’t have to happen. But there was also no anxiety at the possibility they might happen.) Just a lot of fun. And I got to be around people I enjoy.

And did I mention? The weather was glorious today. The new grass and new leaves are all bright Spring green and were shining under the bright blue sky. A wind was blowing, and it was neither hot nor cold. I didn’t need air conditioning or heat and wore a light jacket when I went on my walk. At one point I looked out the window and saw a great blue heron soar past.

That’s another thing I probably wouldn’t have if I were married: My cozy condo by the lake, decorated exactly as I want it with things meaningful to me and also with stacks and bookcases of books. There’s not really enough room for another person’s stuff, so I will probably move if I ever marry again. But meanwhile, I love Sondy’s Snuggery.

Now, I’ll admit I do have hopes of finding someone who maybe even likes to hear me singing. But you get the idea. For this time in my life I get to be selfish. I get to take only my own needs into account. I would like to have someone else to consider; I would like to be able to give someone else love day after day. But there are perks to living alone.

So yes, Lord, my request is still that I will meet someone who is a good partner for me, who loves You and seeks to follow You, and who will share life together with me, adding love and joy to my days. I ask that we would enhance each other’s lives and help each other follow You. But meanwhile, thank You so much for today, such a wonderful and joyful gift.

Thank You for this season in my life. Thank You for all the healing You’ve done in my life, and may that healing continue so I have all the more to offer a man You bring into my life. And may I continue to delight in the many good and perfect gifts You send my way.

On Prayer

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

This is going to be a hodgepodge of thoughts about prayer, and I want to tell about an amazing answer to prayer as well, because now it’s public information.

An Example

Let me start with the start of the story of an answer to prayer. First, about the praying:

It was December 2018. I was thinking about my New Year’s Goals. Every year for the last few years, besides goals, I’ve made prayer requests that I pray every day. What are the top things I want to ask God for?

For years, one of those requests has been getting out of debt. It was a long-term goal (We’re talking $30,000 in credit card debt) and I didn’t really expect it to happen any time soon. But then in early 2018 after my old car died and I bought a new one – I discovered that I had enough equity in my home to get a home equity loan that would pay off all my credit cards! So my prayer was answered! And my monthly payments were smaller so I hoped to build up some savings.

But alas! In the summer, just when I’d successfully paid off some unexpected large bills including a dental crown – my hot water heater broke and the cost to replace was over $3000. I charged it.

So now it was December 2018 and I was discouraged by that bill. I’d just paid it down to exactly $3000 but it felt like I was back in that grind. I was probably going to add to my debt with Christmas gifts and some more unexpected expenses hitting then. Would I ever get it paid off?

The next day when I went for my walk and prayed through my prayer requests, I actually thought, Why do I even bother praying to get out of debt? It’s not like God can give me a sudden influx of cash now. I’m not applying for a better job. There are no prospects of money on the horizon. Why do I even pray about this?

And it took a minute, but I thought, No, I’m going to ask. Because wasn’t I completely surprised when God did it last year? And now what I owe is so much less.

Lord, I do ask that you would get me out of debt. I don’t see how you’ll do it, and maybe it will take patience on my part, but that’s what I ask. Thank you that you helped me pay off ten times this amount last year when I least expected it. Lord, if this is my opportunity to pay it down little by little over a few years, thank you that it can still happen. Thank you for providing for me. Thank you that I have a job I love. Thank you for credit cards and that I was able to get that water heater fixed when it was leaking down into my neighbor’s hot water closet. Thank you that I can afford the payments on this, and thank you that you faithfully provide for me.

With Thanksgiving

That’s what I want to talk about regarding prayer: With thanksgiving.

Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything. But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Why give thanks when making a request? It reminds us that God will come through. Whether or not we get what we want, God will come through. Doing it in my prayer above completely changed my attitude.

A lot of Christians know about the Philippians verse. But did you know this idea is also in the Psalms?

I’ve already talked about forms of psalms, particularly Laments and Thanksgiving Psalms. Both forms – even the lament where you’re asking for help from a dire situation – end in praise.

I also love the words of assurance – Here’s what God will do.

In a lament, the psalmist fully moans about his plight – and then talks himself into trust. Sometimes he asks God “What’s taking you so long? Don’t you even see what trouble I’m in?” But he goes on to say, “I’m going to be praising you in the great assembly after you get me out of this!”

Look at the end of Psalm 4, after he’s asking for help:

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, Lord,
make me dwell in safety.

Look at the end of Psalm 5, where he’s got enemies after him:

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
you surround them with your favor as with a shield.

Or look at the refrain in the great Thanksgiving Psalm, Psalm 107:

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

But I’ll go on for hours if I try to list all the Psalms that end with thanks. Go through yourself and look at how psalms end – so many end in praise. And yet many also begin with requests for help out of great trouble.

And one thing so interesting about the Psalms is that a lot of that thanks and praise is about what God is going to do. They give thanks for God’s future actions. Yes, psalms go over what God has already done, but that’s usually in the main body of the psalm. As the psalmists work themselves into a better place, they remember what they know about God – and one of those things is that they can count on him to help.

Look at the end of Psalm 7. Note the future tense:

I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness;
I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.

I’ve been looking at Psalm 117 lately, the shortest psalm in the Bible. The first verse says to praise the Lord, and the second verse says why:

For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

God is faithful.

So we know that however he answers our request – Yes or No – He will still be faithful; he will still be good to us.

My challenge is: Thank God for the outcome, whatever it is. And thank him ahead of time.

Manipulation and Faith

When I desperately demand that God answer a certain way, when I believe it will be utter disaster if he does not make happen what I want to happen – then I’m trying to manipulate God, trying to tell him what to do, trying to control circumstances with my “faith.” But is that faith?

When my ex-husband left me, I connected with a well-meaning ministry that taught you must “stand for your marriage,” and for years I tried to pray my husband back. (Now, this ministry had many positive effects in my life, one of them being encouragement to listen to what God wanted to tell me.)

But through various means, it became clear to me that with my prayers and my words and everything I did or didn’t do, everything I said or didn’t say – I was trying with all my might to make my husband come back – or even to make God make my husband come back. Put bluntly, I was trying to manipulate God. Or at least I was trying to manipulate my husband by manipulating God.

But if I stopped praying for my husband to come back, wouldn’t that be lack of faith?

One day, our pastor preached a sermon that spoke to that. He brought in an actual chalkboard and made a big diagram on it. On one end he put “Fate” or “Letting it happen” and on the other end he put “Control” or “Making it happen.” He said where we want to be is the sweet spot in the middle – the Path of Trust.

And it dawned on me that telling God what to do is not trusting God. All this time in my prayers, I’d been telling God what to do – bring my husband back.

But isn’t that what we think of as faithful prayer? Tell God what to do! And the more boldly you insist, the greater your faith, right?

But what if instead I lay my requests before God – and thank him for what he’s going to do. Do I still trust that God is faithful if his answer is No?

I can think of a lot of prayers that didn’t go as I hoped. My husband did not come back. Because I needed to work full-time for the first time in my life, I got my Master’s in Library Science and became a librarian. I love being a librarian, but I wouldn’t have done it if not for the divorce, I would have been content working part-time.

Back in 2013, I was on the ballot to be on the Newbery committee. I missed being elected by 15 votes (out of about 800) – and was heartbroken. Four years later I tried again – and the timing was much, much better, for multiple reasons including that now I had an empty nest and more time for it.

There have been a couple of jobs I applied for and prayed for and didn’t get. There was the time I got cut from the library because of budget cuts. But all of those things worked out to the amazingly wonderful job I have now, with co-workers who are fantastic to work with, a library system that paid for my trips to the ALA conferences for Newbery deliberations and even nominated me for an award. (More about that in a minute.)

All that is to say that God does and has done in my life exceedingly abundantly above all I ask or think. And very often the blessings come after not getting what I asked for.

Why not thank God for the outcome in advance. The thing is – whatever happens, I know that God is faithful.

Answer to Prayer

Back to that December 2018 prayer about getting out of debt, prayed on a day when I had just paid down the debt to be exactly $3000.

The next day I was at work, and my branch manager asked me for my resume. She said she hadn’t wanted to mention it to me, but I was being nominated for an award and they wanted to be sure they listed all of my qualifications. She wasn’t sure exactly what the award committee was looking for, but it was a Public Library Association Award about knowledge of books. The Library Director of our library system and Branch Coordinator (who had once worked with me as my branch manager) had asked her to write up a nomination for me for this award.

Well, I was completely honored! Wow! Nominated for a librarian award! Kind of puts a capstone on God working things out for good from my divorce. Kind of emphasizes that my life is going a good direction. Feels really good to be nominated, too! Wow!

But she hadn’t known exactly what they were looking for, so I started wondering – would I feel like a fraud being nominated for this award? Did I at all fit what they’re looking for? So – I did a search on the PLA Awards. I knew this was about knowledge of books.

I found the Allie Beth Martin Award. The award is for a public librarian who has demonstrated: “(1) extraordinary range and depth of knowledge about books or other library materials; and (2) distinguished ability to share that knowledge.” At the bottom of the page it says to think of people “who have widely and enthusiastically shared their knowledge through book talks, presentations to community or professional groups, written reviews, etc.”

Okay, I don’t feel like a fraud being nominated for this award, seeing as I’ve been writing Sonderbooks since 2001 – on my own time and for the love of it. I’ve always felt like Sonderbooks epitomizes who I am – incorporating my love of reading, love of writing, and fun with a little bit of computer coding. And now I learn there’s an award for being who I am! Not to mention that it feels like being on the Newbery committee gave me an advantage – since I’d been living and breathing books all year.

But the punchline? Much to my surprise (the Newbery doesn’t come with any money), the Allie Beth Martin Award comes with a $3000 honorarium!

And I found this out the day after I’d asked God for help paying off my $3000 credit card debt! Even though I didn’t think he could! It felt like God saying to me with a big smile, “Oh can’t I?”

The postscript to the story is that I did win the award. I won’t receive the honorarium until June at ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. (Since it’s in DC, some of my colleagues can come to the presentation.) Honestly, I recently had to get another dental crown – and the total I owe is now more than $3000. And they’ll take out taxes, too. But I simply don’t have any doubt at this point that God will meet my needs. And can get me completely out of debt again.

It sure took the worry away.

Now, I’ve got other prayer requests. Some others that I’ve prayed daily for years without getting what I asked for. I’m not saying that praying this way always has such a dramatic result.

But I’m more and more sure that God is faithful.

And like the psalmist says:
I will sing your praises, Lord.
I will be telling everyone I know about the amazing ways you will work these things out.
Thank you, Lord!

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 15 – Until They Are Found

Saturday, March 30th, 2019

I’ve been looking forward to chapter 15 of Luke. Three parables are listed, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Today we read the first two:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I’ve emphasized the until he finds it phrases above, because those are key words for universalists.

These parables don’t leave any room for failure. The Lord is not willing that any should perish, and He will keep searching until He finds His lost sheep. This is yet another reason I say that there is no deadline.

Yes, we saw in earlier passages that there will be judgment after death. But this judgment is spoken of as correction. Perhaps with some it is part of the process of finding that wandering sheep, of bringing it home. This Good Shepherd is not a shepherd who ever gives up.

In fact, every time we sing Cory Asbury’s song “Reckless Love” in church, I think of those I know who haven’t yet come to Jesus. Because God’s love is indeed overwhelming, never-ending, and reckless. He will indeed not be stymied by our resistance. He will keep after us until we are found, even if it takes eons.

Peter Gray wrote a booklet that he titled Until They Are Found, which I reviewed in 2010. It’s short, so I reread it before writing this post. He also asserts that this shows a shepherd who does not give up.

Here in Luke, we are presented with a vision of the Good Shepherd who searches without ceasing. Normal search and rescue operations only last a certain time; eventually they are called off, even if not everyone has been found. But there is nothing normal about the rescue mission of the Good Shepherd, for he does not know how to give up. He knows nothing of cutting his losses, for if He did, He would surely never have searched in the first instance. After all, ninety nine out of one hundred is a pretty good standard, don’t you think? Ninety nine percent might be good in our books, but it is not good enough for God. Nothing short of one hundred percent will satisfy the Good Shepherd.

Look at what Jesus says in verse 4, “Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” Notice that word ‘until.’ It is there deliberately. It is not by accident that Jesus does not say, “in an attempt to find it.” Jesus says that the shepherd will search until it is found, hence the title of this book. This story says nothing about not finding the lost sheep; no hint of failure is given. That there may be a sheep belonging to Him that He will never find, is a conclusion that this story precludes us from believing. Praise God!

It is Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, and the success of the search and rescue operation depends upon His skill. He sees so clearly, and intervenes so effectually, that He will most assuredly bring them in. Jesus Christ will not lose one of His sheep. True, some sheep may wander in the wilderness for a time, but to be forever lost? Never! A thought that He cannot bear. Could the Christ fail to save even one of those for whom He came and for whom He died? Impossible! Such a thought He could not endure. A defeated Christ is a Christ whom I cannot conceive of.

He makes another point from these first two parables: Neither the sheep nor the coin contributes anything to being found.

The coin was not found because the coin followed a law or a commandment. It was not found because it realized its own state of ‘lost-ness’ and began looking for its owner. It was not found because of some ‘good works’ it had managed to achieve. The coin was found only because the woman looked for it. What could a coin contribute to its being found? The answer, of course, is nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And is this not the point of using a coin as the imagery? There is absolutely no possibility of being misinterpreted. A coin cannot contribute to being found in any way. A sheep could possibly have made a sound or even walked toward the shepherd. Even though Jesus does not say any of this happened, it is possible to misinterpret Him and think the sheep did something. The point I am attempting to make is that the religious people in Jesus’ audience, who were so convinced that they contributed to their salvation, could find a way to distort the obvious meaning of the story and conclude that the sheep did do something. And so the lost sheep story is followed by the story of a lost coin, and now there is no way to be misinterpreted. A coin cannot do anything to contribute to its being found. The coin was found because the woman went looking for it — no other reason can possibly be asserted. And what’s more, the woman went looking until she found her coin. Again, Jesus chooses to use this word until. ‘Until it is found’ carries no possibility of failure. It can mean only one thing: that all who are lost shall be found.

The final story in Luke 15 is about the lost son — it shows how much the Father loves the one who is lost. We’ll read that one tomorrow.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – II Corinthians 5

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

Somewhere around 20 years ago, I became a universalist after reading writings of George MacDonald.

George MacDonald’s writings clearly show that he loved the Lord with all his heart and that he believed the Bible and knew it well, referring to the original Greek often. When I realized that he was teaching that all will (eventually) be saved, I was puzzled.

The Bible doesn’t teach that, does it? And yet George MacDonald clearly thought it did.

So — I read the New Testament through, asking if it could be interpreted this way. Much to my surprise, it can!

Since then, I’ve read many more books about universalism. I discovered that for the first 500 years of the church, universalism was the prevailing teaching! I am now convinced it’s true — and how my heart rejoices in that belief!

[Please note: George MacDonald still believed in hell and judgment, but not that it will last forever and ever to infinity. Some day, at the end of the ages, all will be saved and the last penny will be paid.]

That brings me to my new blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament.

Last October, my church began reading through the New Testament together, using a booklet that assigns readings from the gospels and from the epistles for each day.

While reading through the New Testament, I’m making note of the passages that relate to universalism. I was pointing them out to a friend in emails, but decided I wanted to make them blog posts. And today’s passage — II Corinthians 5:11-21 is a wonderful, epic place to start. (I will catch up on what we read last October through December — probably this coming October through December.)

The most obvious places to start, in fact, are the ALL verses.

Look at II Corinthians 5:14-15 — “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Does all mean ALL there? Or only some? If Jesus died for all, and therefore all died in Him — won’t all receive life?

Please just sit with the idea that all means all.

But there’s more I want to talk about in this passage.

This part is not universalism. But George MacDonald also took great exception with any theology that taught that Jesus had to save us from God. He says many times in his writings, “There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God.”

I’ve read other writers about the cross, and have come to think that evangelicals tend to overemphasize the “payment metaphor.” If we’re teaching that God could not forgive us without Christ dying a horrible death, I think we’ve got it wrong.

If we’re teaching that God can’t look on us because we’re so sinful, I think we’ve got it wrong.

But especially: God is not mad at us! God forgives. And Paul says here, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

Notice: God is doing all the work. He wants to bring us to Himself. He loves us.

One more note: According to the Concordant version of the New Testament (which translates each Greek word of the original into only one word of English) and according to a note in the New International Version, verse 21 might better be translated: “God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The sin offerings of the Old Testament weren’t ever thought of as payment for sins. When you sinned, you brought a sin offering to restore your relationship with God. But you were the one out of sync.

There’s a whole lot more I could say about this beautiful passage. I’ll leave it with these two things:

Does ALL mean ALL?

And notice that it’s people who need to be reconciled.

Let the Redeemed of the Lord Tell Their Story

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

I’ve been reading in Psalm 107 lately. I think NIV has tweaked the translation, and I love the way it reads now, at the beginning:

“Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story…”

Then the psalm is about various people, in different kinds of trouble, who cry out to the Lord — and he comes through, every time.

There’s a format to each story, a refrain.

God has come through for me, multiple times and in multiple ways. I thought I’d take one of those times and put it into a Psalm 107 format:

Some were lonely and broken,
rejected by the one they loved most,

told they were unworthy of love,
told their failings were unforgiveable.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.

He sent forth his word and healed them,
he sent a community to nourish them.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,

for he heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.

How about you? What is your story?

Christ-life Inside Us

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

I’m reading in C. S. Lewis’ Book of Wisdom: Meditations on Faith, Life, Love, and Literature, compiled by Andrea Kirk Assaf & Kelly Anne Leahy, and found this quote on page 56, taken from Mere Christianity:

The Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or — if they think there is not — at least they hope to deserve approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.

To me, this puts the whole idea of guilt and that we can somehow disappoint God into perspective.

He doesn’t love us because we’re good. He makes us good because He loves us.

Was the Father disappointed when the prodigal son took his inheritance early and chose to squander it and go feed the pigs?

Well, it’s not like he was happy with the choice, and it’s not like he wouldn’t feel his son’s pain along with him.

But an all-knowing, all-seeing Father would also know that the son He ended up with has much better character, is a much better person altogether than if he had pouted and sulked and not really lived out his rebellion. In fact, he ended up in a better place than his older brother who did everything “right.” So, knowing the big picture, can the Father really be disappointed?

He sees His son make a bad choice — but knows that it going to make him end up as a good person — and better than he started out.

He loves his son. His bad choices, his treating the father disrespectfully don’t change that. And he knows that in the end, good will come out of his son’s bad choice.

And that, to me, is an answer to when I feel like I have let God down. Who do I think I am? Did I think God loved me because I was doing everything right and now I’ve jeopardized that?

No, God loves me. God loves me!

I do think He watches with joy when I make good choices. And He feels my pain when I make bad choices.

But He knows that the circumstances He lets into my life are shaping me into a better person, in spite of myself. And that’s delightful.

Wow.

Jonah’s Lament

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

I was thinking about Laments a couple days ago. Then today, our pastor began a sermon series in Jonah.

Why did this strike me? Jonah chapter 2, his prayer from the belly of the whale, is a Lament.

Now, when a modern reader reads Jonah, the prayer seems, frankly, a little odd. If I were swallowed by a great fish, I’d pray something like, “Lord, I need out of this fish!” Or: “In the name of Jesus, fish, I command you to vomit me up!”

But Jonah’s prayer as given in the account is exactly the appropriate prayer from the perspective of his time and his culture.

According to the professor of my Psalms class at Biola, the Lament form wasn’t unique to the psalms. Other Ancient Near East poetry used the same form. And this form is one of the most common forms you’ll find in the Psalms. To those of that time, this is a good way to pray when you’re in trouble.

The belly of a whale is proverbial trouble.

Now, the form doesn’t have every component every time. And when I look more carefully, it seems closer to the very-closely-related Thanksgiving Psalm form. Let’s look at the verses with that in mind:

I. Introduction

In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

[Note: II. Call to Praise is missing, which is often true in the Psalms, too.]

III. Account
A. Crisis in Retrospect
[This is very closely related to the Lament part two, the Complaint. The main difference is that in a Thanksgiving Psalm, it’s usually past tense – as it is here in Jonah.]

You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.

B. Deliverance (slight order change here)
2. You heard and you intervened.

But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.

1. I called.

When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.

IV. Praise
[Here this more closely fits the Lament finale – Vow to Praise.]

Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’

So why would Jonah, in the belly of the whale, pray a Thanksgiving Psalm?

Well, his words answer that. We are used to thinking of being in the belly of the whale as the worst thing that can happen to you. But remember, first he was thrown into a raging storm:

The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.

I’m thinking that the great fish didn’t swallow Jonah the moment he hit the water. I’m thinking when his “life was ebbing away,” when he was minutes from drowning – that’s when he desperately called on the Lord.

For Jonah, the great fish was a rescue, a place to reflect.

We forget that drowning was the danger – the great fish was the deliverance. And Jonah was given a gift of three days to reflect. Now he had time to compose a psalm.

Thanksgiving was completely appropriate.

I also think that after miraculously escaping from drowning – I seriously doubt that Jonah was terribly concerned that God was going to leave him inside the belly of the great fish. He’d just experienced a miracle, after all.

But that also explains why he’s still using the “Vow to Praise” at the end, rather than the straightforward praise of a regular Thanksgiving Psalm. In a Lament, the psalmist generally finishes off with, “When I get out of this, I’m going to tell the world how wonderful you are!” In the belly of the great fish, Jonah wasn’t yet in a position to testify to God’s faithfulness to anyone else. But he has enough confidence in God’s deliverance – already saved from drowning – to vow that he will do it.

So there you have it. The next time you find yourself metaphorically in the belly of a whale, or metaphorically saved from drowning – think about following Jonah’s example with a Lament or Psalm of Thanksgiving. I like the way these psalms remind us that God hears and answers.

Psalms for Prayer

Friday, July 13th, 2018

I was thinking about Laments today.

I talked about forms of psalms – Laments and Thanksgiving Psalms in posts from three years ago.

The idea is that we can use the forms used in the book of Psalms to pray our own prayers. But to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed by the psalms of my own I wrote and posted as examples. (But part of the point is that it doesn’t have to be good writing!)

Here’s the form of a Lament:
1) Address to God
2) Lament or complaint
3) Review of God’s Help (Confession of Trust)
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

I was thinking about Laments because I currently have multiple friends, relatives, and acquaintances dealing with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. On top of that, I’m discouraged by what’s happening to our country.

With a Lament, you’re allowed to question. You’re allowed to complain. You’re allowed to feel pain.

You do come back around. You remember how God’s helped in the past. You ask for help. You express belief that God will come through. You make promises that you are going to praise God when this is over!

To be honest, I don’t feel adequate to write a Lament for my friends, or for our country. At least not that I’m willing to post.

But where I am in my own life is a spacious place. After a long, dark time. After some wilderness wanderings. So I’m going to try a psalm of Thanksgiving. Here’s the form for that:

Thanksgiving Psalm
I) Introduction
II) Call to Praise
III) The Story
A) Crisis in Retrospect
B) Deliverance
1) I called.
2) You heard and you intervened.
IV) Praise

Okay, I’m going to try it. I’m going to be rather vague, in the name of symbolism. (And because I’ve been rescued from obsessive thoughts!) Remember: They don’t have to be great literature. I will probably borrow heavily from the Psalms. And I’m going to try to include parallelism. Also remember that you don’t have to slavishly follow the form.

Fluttering

Lord, I’m here to praise you.
May my heart always sing to you.
You gave me new life.
You brought me out of the cocoon.

Let everyone rescued by the Lord remember.
Let us sing
for the joy of being alive today,
for the light of hope again in our eyes.

For his voice when all was dark,
for his healing when the world spun,
for his solution when my resources were spent,
for his presence when I felt all alone,
for his confirmation when I was without confidence,
for his notice when I felt utterly insignificant,
for his good gifts when I felt worthless,
for his calling when I felt useless.

O Lord, you gave all these things.

My mind was spinning and obsessing.
My hopes and plans were shattered.

You changed my tears to laughter,
my disappointment to joy.

The cocoon was dark and dismal;
now flowers line my path.
I may not be soaring,
but my wings have dried,
and I’m beginning to flutter.

Lord, I didn’t understand the darkness,
but your love has made me new.

Praise the Lord
for his unfailing love
and his mercies that never fail.

Praise the Lord.

***
That’s my example. The real reason to post is in hope that you’ll try it yourself. But also that you’ll join me in praising the Lord.

Envision Today

Friday, June 29th, 2018

A year and a half ago, a friend suggested an exercise to me: You envision a day in your life ten years in the future. What do you want it to look like? Describe it in great detail.

The promise is made that you will be surprised about how much that you envision will come true.

I was thinking about that exercise today. I was going for a walk by my lake. It was warm, yes, but cool breezes were blowing. I’d gotten a close up look at my friendly neighborhood great blue heron. Lovely flowers were blooming. It was simply beautiful. My heart was overflowing.

I started thinking, if ten years ago I had envisioned today, could I have imagined much better than this?

Now, if I were imagining a perfect day, I would have gotten up a whole lot earlier than I did today. But there are a whole bunch of elements of today that will be dreams come true:

— I’m going to spend hours reading out on my balcony.
— I got to go for a walk in a beautiful place.
— I *can* take a nap, take it easy, sing along with Christian music….
— I will post thoughts and they will be “published” on my blogs.
— I’m on the Newbery committee, for crying out loud!

Okay, it’s not as impressive when I write it out. But I’ve been thinking lately about Psalm 103:5 — “who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.” When my desires are satisfied with good things, I want to *notice* it. I’m a bit stressed because I need to spend every spare minute reading – but that’s a dream come true!

The truth is, when I envisioned my life ten years in the future – Future Sondy had a wonderful husband who was sharing in all the activities of that day I envisioned, and making them better.

But I’m noticing lately that dreams can come true even if that particular dream hasn’t come true yet.

Lately I’ve met some single men near my age – and I haven’t been attracted to them, and they have shown no signs of being attracted to me. And I just hate the part of me that is disappointed by that! It’s an attitude of scarcity – that single men near my age are rare, and I’d better hope if I meet one that we’re a good match, because otherwise none of my dreams will ever come true!

I’m speaking against that. I like what Michelle Obama said at ALA – that she’s found you can have it all, but usually not all at the same time.

The truth is, right now I’ve got a dream come true of being on the Newbery committee and getting legitimately to spend hours and hours of my time reading. Often out on my balcony with birds chirping around me and gentle breezes blowing.

And you know what? It really is easier to do that while I’m living alone.

At the same time, I’ve noticed how richly blessed I am with friends – and a wide variety of friends, women and men, young and old, from so many different backgrounds. Last night I got to read at Silent Book Club with a friend who’s older than me and a delightful storyteller and another new friend who likes to read horror stories and is a young college student and drives out an hour from West Virginia to meet with us.

But I like this idea: Envision Today.

Sure, I’ve frittered away a lot of this day, but that’s a luxury in itself! I’m going to get to sit out on my balcony and read. I’ve gotten to post on a blog some of my thoughts about life. I’ll get to connect with some friends on Facebook.

And look at that. A box of books just arrived at my door from a publisher!

Yes, I can imagine a day where NO dreams come true. But I don’t want to generate that kind of vision, so let me instead look at some really bad days I’ve had:

There was the day I went to court and my divorce became final. That day, my lifelong friend, who was my maid of honor at my wedding and a witness in my divorce, along with another much newer friend, took me out to eat. Showing that even on my worst day, I have loyal friends.

Or how about when I was in the hospital after my stroke? Again, friends came and helped. I went in the hospital the day before my son’s birthday – but my ex-husband rose to the occasion and drove to pick up my son a day earlier than we had planned. I was cared for even when I couldn’t care for myself. Even my work colleagues contributed some of their own sick leave for me.

Tomorrow I have to work. Working in a library has many situations that are definitely *not* dreams come true. But it also has many situations that are. Tomorrow, I’m hosting Family Math Games, and I can easily imagine that I’m going to get to see parents interacting and having fun with their children, who are learning, also having fun, and feeling loved. I can easily imagine that I will get to help a child find a book they’re going to love. And after work? Why, some more reading, of course!

I’m not trying to say that every day is a dream come true. But when dreams do come true, I really want to notice it!

And, honestly, until January 28, 2019, I’m on the Newbery committee – so the truth is that every day *does* have at least one dream come true.

But what about January 29?

I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to make a new habit. Envisioning a day ten years in the future is a great exercise. I added some good things into my life after I did that.

But I would also like to make a habit of Envisioning Today.

I’d like to do meaningful things, and I’d like to notice that I’m doing them.

And when my dreams come true, I’d like to notice it.