when grace meets mercy

Grace. Mercy.

Those two words have become so common in Christian-speak. We talk and sing and teach about the grace of God and the mercy of God, and we use them rather interchangeably. But what do they even really mean?

Simply put, grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve. *

Confused?

We must start off by understanding humanity and God. At the heart of it, humans screw up on a daily basis and God is perfect. We have this incredible knack of sinning, and God is holy. We’re broken people breaking the world even more. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The justice of God is to exact punishment for crimes and sins. After all, that is what we expect our own law systems to do: to catch and punish criminals. If God did not do so,  He would not be a just and fair God. How just would our justice system be if we let violators of the law go free? The wages of sin is death, and that’s what every person rightly deserves, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

The mercy of God is that He does not always mete out the punishment right then and there. You and I, we deserve punishment and death on a nearly daily basis. How many times have you screwed up this year? This week? Today? Do you ever marvel that God hasn’t struck you down by lightning yet? I do. But it is the mercy of God that He has hasn’t struck us down, not giving us what we duly deserve. Mercy is when you’ve been speeding and the cop pulls you over, but doesn’t give you a ticket. It is the mercy of God that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

The grace of God is that He gives us salvation and communion with Him. The grace of God is that He gives us Himself in Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. It is that in spite of who we are and what we do, Christ loves us and died for us to reconcile us to the Father. We don’t deserve to be saved into a relationship with God! We’re getting what we most certainly do not deserve. Grace is when the cop who pulled you over takes you to lunch and offers you an escort to where you’re going so you don’t get pulled over again. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not because of yourself; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Grace and mercy are similar, yes. But also beautifully different. If not for mercy, we would have perished a long time ago. If not for grace, we would be a hopeless lot. Mercy saves us from condemnation. Grace grants us eternal life.

Lucky for us, God is merciful and gracious.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 145:8

And in Jesus, we see where the grace of God meets the mercy of God.

*These definitions aren’t absolute throughout the Scriptures, and sometimes the writers (and biblical translators) used the words for different purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, “mercy” is used to mean compassionately caring for someone’s needs. The definitions I have provided are more to be understood in Paul’s writing, and what we mean when we talk about the terms in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection; they have judicial implications.

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miss america and the great kaleidoscope

I was born in New York, a jewel of a million different glints of color. Growing up, it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t look a lot like my classmates, and English wasn’t the language my parents and grandparents spoke at home. However, many of the kids in my school looked different, from all sorts of different racial and cultural backgrounds, and I learned that although we looked different, we were all somehow in the same boat.

But as I grew older, racism would rear its ugly head here and there. During recess in the third grade, a student told me to “go back to Mexico!” After the September 11th attacks, “Bin” (short for bin-Laden) became my nickname by a certain group of people in my school. While walking through West Campus late one night at the University of Texas at Austin, a car full of white boys driving by slowed down, shouted, “go home, sand nigger!” and sped off. And although these weren’t devastating insults, they reminded me that I looked different. That I was a minority.

Nina DavuluriNina Davuluri from New York was just crowned Miss America 2014, the first winner from Indian descent. Amid the celebration, many took to social media to express their outrage that a “real American” didn’t win. Hateful comments about her skin color, her ethnic heritage, religious background, cultural “voodoo” dance, and Indian stereotypes in general spread through the Twitter-sphere. Other ignorant comments called her Arabic, Muslim, and a part of al-Qaeda. Because, you know, if you’re brown, it’s all the same thing.

But the overwhelming sentiment among these racist tweets  is that she’s not really American. Her skin doesn’t look American. Her name doesn’t sound American. Her dance certainly wasn’t American. This is America, and colored people aren’t supposed to win American contests. In case you missed it, “American” is a race and ethnicity. Never mind the fact that this country was occupied long before the first Europeans ever sailed across the pond and “discovered” it. Look over the fact that my parents (and nearly every other colored immigrant to the United States) were looking for many of the same opportunities that every other immigrant from the last 300 years were looking for.

My initial reaction to seeing all this wasn’t anger, but sadness. When I began perusing through the Twitter profiles of some of the people who expressed their bigoted remarks, I couldn’t help but notice how normal they seemed. They looked like many of the people I went to school with, that I work with, that I’m neighbors with. Some of them even touted Bible verses or “Christian” labels. I don’t think most white Americans are racist, my experience has shown me otherwise, but I was reminded that bigotry and wickedness still remain in the land of the free and home of the brave. I was reminded that racism is common even among minority cultures like my own, where we would freeze and stiffen whenever a black person walked into our South Indian church. It’s a tragedy and distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ when racism exists in the church.

I was reminded that even though some of these xenophobic tweeters may have been exposed, my own heart is capable of overwhelming wickedness and prejudice. Sin is a universal curse.

But wickedness and prejudice and sin do not have to define us. The Bible reminds us that we’re all created in God’s image and that in Christ, we are part of a great, multi-cultural family where the thing that defines  us is the righteous, saving work of Jesus Christ. There is no place for prejudice in the Kingdom of God.

America certainly isn’t the Kingdom of God, but it is the country God has placed me in. I’m saddened at the ignorance and prejudice of a few people, but as an American, I dream of a better tomorrow. We are more than the Melting Pot of the West, we are the Great American Kaleidoscope. We are a mosaic made beautiful by the diversity of color and culture that make us up.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

-Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream”

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

-Revelation 7:9-10

Let’s not lash back in vitriolic hatred, but pray for our brothers and sisters and show grace in the face of hate. The gospel of reconciliation requires no less.

suffering in the hands of a sovereign God

Pain and suffering are not things that are foreign to Christians. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if we have more of it.

Following Christ doesn’t mean life gets easier. Loved ones will still die. Disease will steal health. Life will not be kind. People will talk negatively about you. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may break your spirit.

Following Jesus isn’t a ticket to health and wealth, but a surrendering of your life and taking up your cross, because that’s what Jesus did. We follow the leader who fell to the ground while carrying His instrument of torture. He was bruised and crushed and spit upon and reviled; the King of kings suffered to the very point of death on a cross. He, who could call angels to strike down His persecutors, who did not deserve to hang like a criminal, submitted Himself to suffering because He knew that the Father was still in charge. God still sat on His throne.

Following Jesus means that sometimes, we don’t get to come down from our cross.

This song reminds us that whether it be cancer or criticism, death or disability, our suffering is not just random bad luck or the universe out to get us. It does something in us. Our suffering has purpose in the hands of a sovereign God.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering

Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

For the stories behind the song, click here and here.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21

hope and the death of death

Nothing causes us to pause and consider our own mortality more than the death of someone we know. I wasn’t thinking about the brevity of life, the brevity of my life, a few days ago. And then I heard the news that a friend had passed away. All the concerns, worries, anxieties of life suddenly were suspended in air as the world began moving slower and time slowed down to a crawl with it.

Patrick Maruthmmottil was a friend. I don’t have the honor or privilege of calling him “best” friend or a very “close” friend. But with Patrick, I don’t think I need an adjective added to “friend” mostly because I think most people that crossed paths with him became friends with him. He wore a genuine smile that was warm and had a servant heart that was pure and humble, and reflected the heart of His Savior. He was a talented musician, thoughtful thinker, caring friend and passionate follower of Jesus Christ. I’m honored and privileged just to be able to have known him and call him “friend.”

On June 4, 2013, Patrick was involved in a car accident that ended up taking his life.

Death is a crummy thing.

I could go on and on about the ways death affect us, but at the end of the day, we all know that death is a crummy thing. We can feel it in our mourning and sense of loss, as well as our valiant efforts to ward death off with health and medicine. We know that in a very real sense, death is our enemy. But we also know that a sovereign God sits on His throne and rules over everything. Nothing catches Him off guard or causes Him to go back to the heavenly drawing board. A loving and just God who is sovereign over everything means that He is in charge. This means there are no early deaths. We may scratch our heads and we may push back against the idea, but the fact is that God rules over everything, death included.

But why? we may ask. Why would God take someone so young, someone who was so passionate about pointing people to Jesus? And I don’t know the definite answer to that question. What I do know is that we’re given life and placed on this earth in our specific eras in time and specific geographic locations for a specific purpose. What I do know is that Christians are given a specific message and mission to be salt and light in their contexts, through their lives. When Jesus transforms us, our lives aren’t about us anymore. They’re about Jesus and making Him known. Our jobs, our friends, our families are ultimately about the Kingdom of God, not just about making us happy. I can only assume that when we’re taken, it’s because our work for His Kingdom is done.

But he could have been so much more effective if he was still alive! we may say. So many more people would have come to know Jesus and trust Him if our friend was still alive because of his life! Maybe that’s true, but we don’t know that, do we? All we have is the time that is given to us right now.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

When our work for the Kingdom is done, God calls us home, and we can celebrate Patrick’s life that is a continuing testimony to the grace, mercy and love of Jesus. The wonderful irony is that even in his death, my friend proclaims even more boldly than ever the power of the gospel. And so even in death, the Kingdom of God is growing.

Nonetheless, we still mourn with grief, and it is not a shameful response. In fact, in the gospel of John, Jesus wept before the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus, even though He knew that in a few minutes He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Grief is not weakness or sinful, but our response to the fact that death isn’t natural. God didn’t create us to be beings that died — but through sin and the fall of humanity, it is our unfortunate inheritance. We mourn and lament, yes. But we don’t mourn as those who don’t have hope! We don’t mourn in wretched hopelessness that death is the end of everything. Rather, we mourn as those who know that death does not have the final word. We grieve and lament with the knowledge that Jesus has overcome death in His resurrection, and that means that one day we too will be resurrected to life in a new heaven and a new earth where everything will be restored. We mourn with the hope that one day, we will see our loved ones and friends again.

And we mourn, knowing that one day, there will be no more death. We will all be raised, God will sit on His throne, and death will be defeated.

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. — 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

“For thy mortal self shall die, but from the grave we will arise… And death will be described as a paper ghost.” — Courrier, “Paper Ghost”

So until we see Patrick, and all our loved ones, again, we celebrate their lives and live our lives on mission and in determination as Patrick did: for the sake and advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

trickers and treats

I never went trick-or-treating as a kid. My parents were convinced that it was the Devil’s own day and the sure-fire sign that Jesus was coming back soon. When I was young, my mom would tell me there were demons running around the neighborhood, going door to door. I would nervously peek out the blinds because I wanted to see these demons who were terrorizing my neighborhood. I saw Elmo from Sesame Street.

My folks would turn off the front light when the kids came out in their costumes so that hopefully they wouldn’t ring our doorbell. And even if they did, we wouldn’t open, even though the trick-or-treaters (and their parents) could probably hear our TV and smell the scents of curry as my mom cooked. We may or may not have been egged once. Or several times.

This year, I decided I would buy the candy myself and hand it out to all the costumed kids that came by. I bought 6 jumbo bags of chocolate candy, turned our porch light on, and sat by with a book, waiting to happily dish the candy out. After 45 minutes, I had my first trick-or-treater!

It was a 17 year old in a hoodie.

I complimented her… costume, and let her have 2 pieces of candy. The next visitor came 20 minutes later. Two hours and 1 trick-or-treater later, I realized I had a lot of candy to get rid of. By the fourth child, a 3-year old in an astronaut costume, I was eagerly urging him to take all he wanted, coaxing him to take more and more. His mother stepped forward, grabbed his hand, curtly said “Thank you,” and walked off. I heard her hiss to him, “Don’t you touch any of that candy!” I guess something about an overly-eager, frantic-eyed, bearded brown man urging her toddler to take more of his candy unsettled her.

I literally had 6 people come by the entire night. And I still have enough candy to give Venezuela a cavity.

Halloween has always struck me as a bit peculiar. We teach kids their entire childhood to be themselves and no one else, witches are bad, and don’t ever take candy from strangers. And in one night, all those rules go out the window.

For one night, we can be someone else. We spend our lives creating the character we want people to perceive when they see us — we create an identity — and then we play the role, mask and all. We project an image and strive to ensure that the image is maintained because it wouldn’t do for people to know who we truly are. I’ve often pondered that life sometimes feels like a show you’re putting on, and every day you choose the mask you want to wear. But on Halloween, we have the opportunity to ditch the everyday mask and be someone totally different and unconventional. We can break societal expectations and appear sinister, holy, provocative, silly, ambitious, sensual, sacrilegious and everything else we can’t be the other 364 days of the year. The sorority president on the Dean’s List can be a scantily-clad Playboy bunny, the nerdy Electrical Engineer can be a very un-Twilight-esque vampire, and the  worship leader who is a Biology/Religious Studies major  can be a compelling Jack Sparrow pirate. We take off our everyday costume and slip on the thrilling costume of the temporary escape.

For one night, we can be someone else. And for one night, we can get away with it.

“which mask will you wear today
how about the one with the pretty smile
to you it’s just another day
in a life you haven’t lived in quite awhile”   – Lifehouse, “Just Another Name”

Few people see us as we really are: broken, messy, and maybe slightly crazy.We call it vulnerability, taking off the surface mask and letting your truer, weaker self be known. It’s not something that our culture or society applaud because we’re taught to not show weaknesses or flaws. Survival of the strongest, right? We can hide behind the mask and no one has to see how ugly, scarred or scared we are.

But maybe we were made to be known. Maybe that’s where true community happens and friendships are forged. Maybe being vulnerable and honest about our brokenness, our struggles, and our fears can lead to healing, strength, and victory. Maybe we don’t have to be perfect. Maybe we don’t have to be alone.

It’s something I’ve learned over the years. I’ve been blessed to have friends who have seen me at my best and very worst, who have encouraged me, rebuked me, laughed with me, laughed at me, and prayed with me. People who point me back to Christ. People who remind me that in my weakness, Jesus Christ is shown to be strong.

In Scripture, we are reminded of the reality of a new identity in Christ. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. (Gal. 2:20) Indeed, Paul tells us that if we are in Christ, we have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27) so that we who are broken, sinful and shameful now wear the righteousness of Christ that has been imputed to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sure we were broken, but now the Holy Spirit of God lives in us! We who are new creations don’t have to live behind the masks we create, but can live as children of the Most High God, citizens of an eternal Kingdom, co-heirs with Christ. Now that’s a provocative identity!

We’ve ditched this year’s Halloween costumes. Now Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years are on the horizon, and family get-togethers, friendship reunions, and holiday meals claim spots in our calendars. Maybe it’s time to ditch the costumes we wear the other days of the year. Maybe we can be honest about who we really are to those we care about. Maybe we can live in our identity in Christ.

sheepish faith

Social media has become a place to forge your identity and have your own soapbox to shout from. Opinions on sports, culture, religion, society, Beyonce, dogs, technology, music, and belly button lint, they all litter my Facebook and Twitter timelines. I’ve learned to develop a filter for most of the content I see. But being a person deeply interested in religion, and especially Christianity, my eyes readily focus on those statuses and tweets pertaining to religious thoughts. For many of my friends (myself included), posting Christian quotes, thoughts, and Bible verses is part of the daily social media output. Twitter makes everyone a theologian in 140 characters or less.

And then there are the ones that aren’t so friendly or supportive of religion (or faith, if you prefer that term). Some people like to quote statistics or history or philosophy, and make the claim that belief in the supernatural is just plain silly and archaic.

Recently, I was perusing through the profiles of some old college friends (stalking is such a harsh word) and stumbled upon a guy I hadn’t talked to since my freshman year at UT. Every one of his statuses bashed Christianity and the implausibility of God. And then I saw his “Religious Views” section on his profile: “People are sheep.”

At first read, I was offended and judging him in all sorts of ways (in a Christ-like manner, of course). I mean, the guy was calling those who hold onto faith as mindless, dumb animals! Blindly following the crowd, mindlessly believing anything. As someone deeply rooted in faith and Jesus, this didn’t rub me the right way.

But the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me the truth of this statement; we are sheep! Even the Bible testifies to this fact in that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one– to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6)

So my old friend is right, we are sheep! But it isn’t just those of us who are “religious” because even the irreligious and the atheists have been proven to be such. We’re self-absorbed and silly and prone to wander. We blindly set off on our own, breaking from the fold, and search for our own patches of green grass, our own streams of cool water, and whatever paths suit our fancy. We are willing to follow and be led astray by any wind of thought and any person of influence. I’m not an expert on sheep or daily pasture life, but it seems that when sheep wander too far, they usually encounter some kind of trouble, be it wolf, pit, or thief.

The tremendous irony of it all is that in the search of freedom and independence and greener pastures, the sheep is met with loneliness and death.

But all is not bleak, because we’re told there is a Shepherd to guide the sheep: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3) How fitting that David the shepherd would write this psalm, understanding his own sheep-ways and need for guidance and leading and comfort. But not only does this Shepherd keep watch over His sheep, He also loves His sheep so much as to go after them when they stray away or are lost (Matthew 18:12-14). In the dry wilderness and in the lush pastures, the Shepherd protects and saves His sheep.

When we get to the Gospels, Jesus identifies Himself as this Shepherd when He says,  “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:14-15, 27-28) The Shepherd knows His sheep, and they (we) know Him as well because He is their (our) Shepherd. Our guide, the One we run to, who protects us, who lays His life down for us. And because we are His, despite our wanderings or our sheep-ish ways, we who are His will always be in His hand, in the protection of His rod, under His love. And if we are His sheep, He is the one we follow, giving up our need for independence and trusting in His goodness and provision.

But even more striking, this same Shepherd is also identified as a Lamb throughout Scripture. An innocent, perfect, spotless lamb that was sacrificed in the stead of guilty, spotted, imperfect sheep. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Lamb that was slain, but is risen and reigns!

I am indeed a sheep. But I’m a sheep who follows his Shepherd. A Shepherd that is Himself the Lamb of God.

Who are you following?

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” –  Jesus (John 10:27-28)

“For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.”  (Psalm 95:7-8)

sorrow saturday

They shifted around listlessly. Through the walls they could hear the soft sobbing and occasional wail of the women in the next room, and the men would look at each other briefly before ashamedly diverting their eyes.

How could they be so wrong? Everything had seemed so right.

Peter dabbed at the corner of his eye, but even he did not have any words for the moment. He sat and ruefully ruminated on the events of the the last day. In the same amount of time, he had witnessed his hope, his confidence, and his future literally die.

Thomas’ voice cut the silence. “What do we do now?”

Peter broke out of his trance and stood up. “I’m going fishing,” he said as he gathered his cloak. “You guys can sit here, but I’m going crazy staring at these walls.”

“You can’t leave!” exclaimed John, “Everyone knows we were with Him. You’ll be ridiculed by everyone who sees you! The High Priest may even be looking for us!”

“John is right,” James chimed in,  “We should lay low and stay here until the dust settles. Let everyone forget about last night, about us. Some new scandal or news is bound to crop up soon enough. In the meantime, we can think about what to do next.”

“Next?” retorted a bewildered Peter. “What do you mean next? The man we followed and devoted our lives to the last three years is lying in a grave. Jesus is dead. We move on, that’s what we do next! Maybe there’s a Messiah yet out there.”

I’m not altogether sure this is what happened the day after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but this is the scene that plays in my mind. A band of disheartened, broken disciples sitting around, asking themselves, what happened? How did things go wrong so fast?

Just earlier in the week, Jesus had ridden into the city heralded as a King and now He lay wrapped in strips of cloth and returning to dust. Just 2 days earlier, they were confident they were following the Christ, the One who was to rescue Israel and establish His throne over the earth. Now He was just another teacher, a prophet maybe, and a failed Messiah. Messiah’s don’t die before they accomplish their purpose.

We who live in the future know the outcome of the story, what happens soon enough: the glorious resurrection of Jesus and His ascension! The fulfillment of numerous prophecies, the theological implications of the death of the Son of God, and the realization of where His Kingdom was. We have 2000 years of theology and study and speculation. The original disciples did not.

The feeling of defeat is something that is familiar. We know what it means to be broken, to be disappointed, and have our dreams and hopes crushed. We set our expectations high, and down and down they tumble from their lofty place. Things don’t always turn out as we thought they would.

A lost job. Failed relationship. Disease. The death of a loved one. Natural disaster.

And hopelessly, we cry out, Why? What do I do now?

What do you do when hope has hidden herself from you and despair blankets your heart? When depression and disappointment become your late night bed buddies? Sorrow certainly may come with the night, but sometimes joy doesn’t show up with the morning. Or the morning after.

For the disciples, “Friday night” must have been a night of shock and tears and bewilderment. But “Saturday” would have been when the reality of the death of Jesus and the heaviness of defeat sunk in. “Saturday” was when they had to face each other and figure out how to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Amidst the darkest of our nights, we must press on, knowing that though we don’t know what the morning brings, God on high does. When we’re bitter and lonely, heartbroken and upset, we trust in the sovereignty and goodness of a faithful Father.

It’s a lesson in patience and trust. And patience and trust are hard.

We may not know what the future brings…. but the story does not end with Saturday.