“It’s on me today!”

I stopped by the gas station this morning on my way to church to pick up a 32 ounce drink. It’s the same gas station I’ve stopped at a few times a week for the past eleven years. I’ve seen the same lady behind the counter quite a number of times, smiled and greeted her in the same way I did today, and paid for whatever I was there to purchase. For some reason, today was different. I had my $1.19 in hand as I approached the counter, and was surprised when she simply responded; “It’s on me today!” I asked if she was sure, which she was. I thanked her, and I left. It rattled through my head though, not because the $1.19 was a big deal to me, but because it was an unexpected kindness (and because getting something for free always feels good).

After church, my wife and I took our daughters out to eat at Mazzio’s Pizza. After examining the range of coupons and deals, we selected the least expensive option for still getting a meal our children would truly enjoy. As I turned, the young man behind the counter handed me two bowls. I took them without thinking, and then immediately realized I didn’t know why I had them. “What are these for?” I asked. “Your salads.” “Did we get a salad?” I asked, wondering if maybe I hadn’t realized they’d come with the deal we’d selected. “Yes,” he said. Then he looked at our ticket again. “Wait, no. But you can have them.” It was a good customer service move, since I already had the bowls in my hand and the alternative was to take something he’d just given me back. Still, I asked him the same thing I’d asked the woman at the gas station. “Are you sure?” He was. My wife and I enjoyed a free salad before our meal.

As I told my girls the story of my morning, our youngest daughter said she wished she could get something for free. She smiled as I pointed out that, at nine years old, pretty much her whole life is for free. I was buying her meal today. Her housing, her food, her transportation, her entertainment – all free every day. I thought about it though, and I thanked God as we all prayed together for the fact that He actually provides everything for us. As adults we work hard, taking the opportunities He presents, using our abilities, fulfilling the tasks each day brings, and we “earn” our pay, but those opportunities, those abilities, those are gifts from God.   Our days are full of free gifts.

All of which obviously pales in comparison to the ultimate free gift. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” We often think of the sacrifices of our Christian lives. The time spent in serving others. The money, opportunities, or comforts we may give up. We can come to see our Christianity as something we do, our lives as a set of responsibilities and obligations. We can forget that God basically looked at an entire world of lost people who had no hope of ever affording the price it would take to save their own souls, gave us everything He had and loved, and said; “It’s on me today!”

A wonderfully inconsistent God.

“I love the life and teachings of Jesus, but I just can’t reconcile that message of love and mercy with the harsh and angry God of the Old Testament.” It’s a fairly common concern, and to be honest, one that we gloss over too easily.   The God we read about in the Bible seems so different from one situation to the next. Overly harsh. Overly tolerant. Setting clear limits, and then backing off. Full of wrath, and then full of mercy.

The God who drowned the entire population of the world, minus one family, because they had turned away from him. The God, in fact, whose harsh judgment we see in many ways throughout the Old Testament, and in many ways find incomprehensible.

The same God who also took His people back time and again after they had turned away from Him.

The same God who both Old and New Testament describe as turning His people over to their sin because they turned away from Him, essentially letting their sinful behavior slide for a period of time in hopes that they would eventually find out it was the wrong path and realize they needed to return home.

We look for consistency in behavior, expecting it, assuming that a God who we are told never changes must also be characterized by unchanging behavior. Much because of this, like many Christian men and women, I spent most of my life looking for a God I couldn’t find. I wanted to know God, but the God of the Bible seemed unknowable. I wanted to love God, but the God of the Bible seemed so abstract and distant that He was, well, unlovable. And then, as they say, I had children of my own.

Parenting can be joyous. The indescribable peace of holding your newborn child. Being able to comfort them when they face the inevitable scrapes and bruises of life. The pride of seeing them grow and succeed. But along with these joys also come the paralyzing fears of seeing them flirt with danger they don’t understand. The desperation of knowing they need you but won’t accept your help. Worrying they will put themselves in a situation beyond your protection.

A great deal of talk and what seems like an endless line of books are devoted to the importance of consistent parenting. What is more rarely discussed is the reality that good parenting is often consciously inconsistent. Judgment calls are made and battles are chosen. There is a time for harshness and lines in the sand, when the dangers ahead are apparent to the parent, and particularly when they are not apparent to the child. There is a time for holding on more loosely, when the emotions of the child are high and confrontation is likely to lead to a full rejection of the relationship and consequences even worse than the ones already looming.

I may struggle to relate to the impassionate God I grew up thinking I was supposed to love, and whose love I always knew of intellectually but to which I could never quite connect. But this desperately loving God, this Father who pursues His children all over the planet, now holding on tightly, now loosely, always seeking to give them the best chance possible; I can not only relate to this God – I can find myself in love with His love.

Knowing the thousands of years God had already spent desperately seeing to save His people by keeping them in relationship with Him, followed by His most extravagant act of Mercy in sending His Son to live (and eventually die) for us, consider in a different light the story Jesus told of the ninety and nine sheep. This story isn’t really about the ninety-nine though. It’s always been about the one, and the lengths to which a loving God would go to save the one who was lost. Read with me from Luke 15: 1-10:

“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.

To make the point even clearer, Jesus continues:  “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.”  (Holy Bible, New International Version)

This message of desperately searching love is not new when Jesus presents it. It is a reflection of the consistently loving heart of God, just as much as the father running toward the prodigal son. God does the illogical, the unthinkable, the remarkably inconsistent thing – time and time again He abandons all else to pursue his children who are lost. I still struggle with much of what I read that God has done or allowed to be done. But where God is remarkably consistent is in His pursuit of relationship with His children. And that is a God to whom I can relate. That is a God I can love.

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