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“So I get the bottle open, but something’s hit a nerve. And I’m looking in the mirror at the face that I deserve.”

These lyrics are from Mark Knopfler’s tune, “River Towns,” which appears on his latest album, Tracker. The song centers on an itinerant tugboat and barge worker who finds himself friendless at Christmastime in a small town along the Ohio River. A chance liaison with a young woman provides only momentary physical companionship, a shallow and ultimately meaningless substitute for what is truly missing in his life. He is left alone in a cheap hotel room with a bottle of alcohol and his own sad reflection in the mirror, a weathered, weary, and worn face staring back at him. “The face that I deserve” strikes me as such a tragic phrase, one that is overflowing with disappointment, regret, guilt, loneliness, lostness, grief over shattered dreams and aspirations, and a sense of hopelessness.

It is truly an unfathomable blessing that, through salvation in Jesus Christ, we are able to see ourselves, not as the world might think us to be or even as we once may have viewed ourselves, but as God sees us. What the Father beholds when He looks upon me as a son is not the face that I deserve, but the face of a child whose innocence and purity have been reclaimed and restored. The spiritual stains of transgression and the moral marring of iniquity have all been removed. The imperfections, wounds, and scars that sin so brutally inflicts upon our visage are entirely erased.

Where there was the sight of scarlet, there is now a blinding, snowy white; the reddest crimson now has the appearance of the whitest of wool. This is no mere surface transformation. It’s not just the creative retouching of our spiritual profile picture. It isn’t cosmetic, it’s intrinsic! Our very nature and essence have been changed. Through the grace and mercy of God extended through the sacrifice of Jesus His Son, God looks upon me just as I look upon Coleman; pure, innocent, whole, and guileless through the continual cleansing of the blood of Jesus.

“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:10-12)

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (II Corinthians 3:18)

The transformation is still in progress, and I’m still seeing the image in the mirror rather dimly. But, one day, face to face!

The face I don’t deserve.

Grace and truth never came into conflict or competed with one another in the life of Jesus as He encountered and related to everyone from prostitutes to Pharisees, scribes to sinners, and rabbis to revenue collectors.  His message of truth and His ministry of mercy were so beautifully blended and perfectly balanced that they simultaneously comforted and convicted, reproved and redeemed, according to the most pressing need of the moment.

“For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ,” (John 1:17).

However, the integration of grace and truth remains a rather elusive combination of qualities for many of us who seek to walk in the steps of Jesus.  We are so predictably “either/or” in our orientations and allegiances.  “I’m all about truth.”  “I’m all about grace.”  Pick a side; join a team; cast your lot; choose your weapon; divide and demonize.  Jesus would have none of that as an equal opportunity offender and a “both/and” purveyor of truth and grace.

Jesus extended unmitigated grace to a man at the pool of Bethesda who had been debilitated by illness for 38 years.  Nearly four decades of suffering were brought to an immediate end when Jesus said, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk,” (John 5:8).  When Jesus caught up with the man in the temple later that Sabbath day, He said, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you,” (John 5:14).  Jesus wasn’t suggesting that the man’s suffering had been caused by some sin in his life.  He was just providing a timely and needful reminder that there is something infinitely worse than being physically sick for 38 years.

Jesus courageously defended the life and dignity of a woman caught in adultery, and He lavished divine grace upon her when He said, “Did no one condemn you?  I do not condemn you, either,”  (John 8:10-11).  Then He challenged her to “go, and sin no more.”  He didn’t condone or minimize the seriousness of her sexual sin (or that of her absent partner).  He simply covered her transgression with compassion and grace and called her to greater purity and conformity to God’s will for her life.

Grace and truth.

How would Jesus bring that same truth and grace to moral, ethical, and social issues in our contemporary culture?

My reading of Scripture leads me to hold an extremely high view of the sanctity of human life, including the preciousness and sacredness of life inside the womb.  For this reason, like many other Christians, I oppose elective abortion on demand, despite its legality according to state and federal laws and the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.

As a whole, conservative Christians have been firmly convicted and extremely vocal on the truth side in the abortion debate.  However, as with so many other moral concerns, we very frequently fall short in affirming grace.

There is a widespread need for Christians to communicate a message of grace, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness toward those who have elected to terminate pregnancies by abortion.  We need to seek to understand what was going on in their lives, in their minds, and in their hearts when they made this decision.  For many, it was an absolutely agonizing decision, perhaps driven by fear, confusion, shame, panic, or an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the future.  Very often, abortion is not a solely personal choice, but one that is heavily influenced and swayed by the counsel of friends or parents or pressure from the fathers of unborn children.  The intensity of this influence ranges from mere suggestions, to heavy-handed threats and ultimatums, to outright coercion.

Millions of women need to know that in Jesus Christ, and through the power of His cleansing blood, there is grace, forgiveness, healing, and freedom to be found from the guilt of the past.

“But, elective abortion is murder!”  I know it is.  However, murder is precisely what King David did to Uriah after his sexual sin with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.  Yet, David found grace, forgiveness, and restoration in his relationship with God.  3,000 years later, we are still reading and meditating upon the lyrics of David’s poetic songs of praise, lament, penitence, and thanksgiving.

Murder is what Saul of Tarsus, whom we know as our beloved apostle Paul, did to countless first century Christian men and women.  But, he was washed, he was justified, he was sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6:11).

“Well, I don’t know anyone who has had an abortion.”  Yes, you do!  You just don’t know who they are.  It’s a friend of yours, a classmate, a co-worker at your office, a neighbor, a family member, or someone in your church family.  It is someone who desperately needs to know that healing and wholeness can be found in Jesus Christ.

In 2008, I went through three weeks of intensive, day-patient counseling to address some serious issues of depression, emotional dysfunction, and emotional and spiritual exhaustion.  One of the therapeutic practices in the program involved being asked to write on subjects in which the counselors perceived that there was unresolved emotional baggage.  We were then asked to read those completed assignments in a group counseling setting.  A major emotional breakthrough came for me two weeks into the program when I was asked to write about my son Coleman’s birth, diagnosis, condition, and prognosis.  I had processed these things cognitively 15 years earlier, but had never allowed myself to face them emotionally.

One of the most gut-wrenching things I have ever experienced was listening to another member of my counseling group read letters that she had written to each of the five children she had aborted earlier in her life.  Her letters were raw, honest, and incredibly powerful.  In the letters, she explained to her children (and to us) what was going on in her life and in her mind at the time, why she did what she did, how she regretted her decisions, and how she longed to see them, meet them, and embrace them when she got to heaven.  The rest of us cried along with her as she tearfully worked through this cathartic process of acknowledging past guilt and embracing present grace and forgiveness.

Even when “right” on the principle of an issue, Christians can be, and very often are, extremely judgmental, cold and calloused, self-righteous, and hypocritical in our fixation on and demonization of a single moral issue.  Worse still, if we allow the abortion debate to be reduced to a plank in the platform of a political party, no room at all remains for grace or mercy.  If I view someone first and foremost as a political enemy on the wrong side of an “issue,” it becomes nearly impossible for me to effectively influence them as a Christian friend.

We don’t have to surrender an inch of moral ground or compromise a single conviction regarding abortion, but we can do much better, we must do much better, in communicating that truth with grace.

Occasionally, phrases just leap out of songs, resonate with my heart, and find a permanent place in my consciousness.

One that has been rattling around in my brain for a few years now is the line, “I’m way too old to hate you,” from Brandi Carlile’s tune, “My Song,” which appeared on her 2007 album, The Story.  As I have commented on this blog before, I have a great affinity for Carlile’s music.  Her lyrics are honest and poetically powerful, and she delivers them with amazing energy and palpable emotion.  She doesn’t shy away from lyrically expressing feelings of failure, regret, and loneliness.

“I’m way too old to hate you.”

Shouldn’t there be an age cap or some sort of statute of limitations on hatred?  Shouldn’t our journey of spiritual growth, maturity, and conformity to the image of Christ eventually lead us to a threshold where we are required to leave our excess emotional baggage behind?

I can think of few things sadder than someone approaching death, yet still harboring bitterness and animosity in their hearts over some incident that took place years or decades earlier.

It is so emotionally and spiritually self-destructive to live under the tyranny of a painful event from the past.  In shutting the gates of compassion and mercy toward others and refusing to release them from their offenses, we may fool ourselves into thinking that we are holding them as emotional hostages, when in reality it is ourselves who have been consigned to captivity.  Very often, the other person has moved on, having found forgiveness and redemption from an infinitely higher Source.  They live in grace and freedom, blissfully unaware of our self-imposed confinement in the mire of our own misery.

How old do I have to be before I can learn to let things go?  I think 51 is old enough!

While the following passages may be somewhat familiar, perhaps fresh phrasing from The Living Bible will provide some additional insight.

“If you are angry, don’t sin by nursing your grudge. Don’t let the sun go down with you still angry— get over it quickly; for when you are angry, you give a mighty foothold to the devil,” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

“Stop being mean, bad-tempered, and angry.  Quarreling, harsh words, and dislike of others should have no place in your lives,” (Ephesians 4:31).

“So get rid of your feelings of hatred. Don’t just pretend to be good! Be done with dishonesty and jealousy and talking about others behind their backs,” (I Peter 2:1).

“Try to stay out of all quarrels, and seek to live a clean and holy life, for one who is not holy will not see the Lord.  Look after each other so that not one of you will fail to find God’s best blessings. Watch out that no bitterness takes root among you, for as it springs up it causes deep trouble, hurting many in their spiritual lives,” (Hebrews 12:14-15).

Whatever the offense, let it go.

Whatever the disappointment, the pain, or the sense of betrayal, release it.

And pray that others will be just as gracious and merciful to you.

Can you imagine the scene and the ensuing conversation when the apostle Paul ran into Stephen for the first time in Paradise, not having seen him since he participated in Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning in Jerusalem?

Before we listen in on their conversation, I want to share a little bit about Stephen, as I did last night at the Broken Arrow church in our Cloud of Witnesses study.

There is so much more to Stephen than merely being the answer to a couple of Bible Trivia questions.  The Holy Spirit and Luke only wrote a brief scene for him in the unfolding drama of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts, but what a scene it was!  His name does not appear before Acts 6, and he is only mentioned in passing after Acts 7.  Yet, Stephen’s life and violent death prove to be a critical turning point in the spread of the Christian faith from Jerusalem to the remotest parts of the earth.  There a few people in Scripture about whom so much is revealed regarding their character and heart.  There is a highly disproportionate amount of “character development” provided for Stephen given the relative brevity of the scene in which he appears.

Stephen met the “faith and character qualifications” of being “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) in the search for leaders to oversee the equitable distribution of daily food to the many widows in the Jerusalem church.  He was well-known among the people and greatly respected.  He is further described as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5), “full of grace and power” (6:8), and was a skilled apologist and evangelist who spoke with convicting words of “wisdom and the Spirit” (6:10).  He was also a miracle worker, performing mighty signs and wonders by the power of the Spirit (6:8).

Additionally, due to the nature of the ministry and challenge that he and the six other “proto-deacons” were tasked with overseeing, Stephen undoubtedly possessed a wide range of other valuable “people skills”:  peacemaking and bridge-building abilities, administrative skills, and the humility necessary to be a team player, working alongside Philip and the others in compassionately caring for the needs of these widows.

When opposition to Stephen’s ministry reached a fever pitch and he was hauled before the Sanhedrin for interrogation, Luke records that the members of the Council “saw his face like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).  I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it probably wasn’t a comparison to the impish smirk of a chubby cherub or the hard-set face of a destroying angel.  It likely refers to a countenance of calm, a look of peace, serenity, and confidence that shone like a light in this context of hostility and aggression.

How did Luke know what Stephen’s face looked like in the perception of the members of the Council?  While it is certainly a detail that could have been provided by the Holy Spirit, it is highly probable that this insight was shared with Luke by the apostle Paul, who was undoubtedly present during Stephen’s trial and still known at the time by his Hebrew name, Saul.  Among those in the Synagogue of the Freedmen who brought charges against Stephen (6:9-14) were men from Cilicia, the region of Saul’s hometown of Tarsus. At the end of the scene, the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen outside of Jerusalem are placed at Saul’s feet.  Paul may have related the story to Luke numerous times in their later travels together.

Years after the fact, Paul recalled, “And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him,” (Acts 22:20).

Paul himself would ultimately be martyred for his faith in Christ, the same faith that led to Stephen’s death.  That’s where we pick up the conversation in Paradise.

Paul:  “Stephen?  It’s me, Saul!  Actually, you can call me Paul; most of my Christian friends do.  Hey, I am so sorry about what happened in Jerusalem.  I just stood there and let it happen.  But, at the time, I sincerely believed that you should die for your faith in Jesus.  Rather ironic, isn’t it?  Here I am, put to death for the very same reason.”

Stephen:  “Paul, seriously, don’t worry about it!  To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t planned on dying that day.  But, I’ve got to tell you, this place is incredible, totally unbelievable.  So, I really can’t complain about getting here a little earlier than I expected.”

Paul: “I know exactly what you mean.  I got a brief glimpse of this place several years ago in a vision, or maybe it wasn’t a vision, I could never tell for sure.  Anyway, it totally changed my perspective on things.  I even received a thorn in the flesh over it, just to keep me humble.  After that, I wrote to the brothers in Rome that our earthly afflictions can’t even be compared to the glory of this place.  I assured the church family in Philippi that to live was Christ, to die was gain, and to depart and be with the Lord was far better.  If they only knew!”

“But, seriously, Stephen, despite the beauty and glory and comfort of being here in the presence of Jesus, I just really need to know that you forgive me for my part in stoning you to death.  I know that you experienced incredible suffering and agony, and I’m sorry for that.  Please, forgive me.”

Stephen:  “Paul, I already did, brother!  Don’t you remember?  I let that go before I died.  And as far as God is concerned, that was part of all of the sin and baggage in your life that was washed away by the blood of Christ when Ananias baptized you.  I hope that you didn’t lose any sleep over this.”

While I’m not at all keen to suffer the kind of violent death that Stephen experienced, I can truly say that I want to die like Stephen.

Jesus had not only taught Stephen how to live, He also taught him how to die.

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” (Acts 7:59).  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” (Acts 7:60).  Both of Stephen’s statements echo words spoken by Jesus during His suffering on the cross (Luke 23:34, 46).

I want to be able to face death with that kind of faith and confidence.  I want to have that same spirit of grace to release and forgive anyone who has wronged me for any reason.  I don’t need that kind of baggage on my final journey.

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December 2022