The holiday season tends to evoke many kinds of memories in our lives. Those memories are usually connected with events that have occurred in the presence of family members. We all tend to define family in our own ways. But where does this concept of family come from and how does it affect the way that we live today? For some the idea of family brings back joyful times shared together and feelings of being loved. For others the mention of family triggers deep pain and a strong desire to close the doors which may be opened to our relatives by virtue of relationship. I do not believe that family is a benign word that carry’s no internal meaning. Rather it usually is a trigger for some kind of intense emotions. So how did that come about in our lives and what is the relationship between family and the society in which we live? It is impossible to discuss the issue of family unless we know how we have arrived at our beliefs about those with whom we share family connections.
Family can be identified as those who gave birth to you or those that raised you through childhood. Families come in all sizes and shapes and they may include brothers and sister or even extended relatives like grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To my way of thinking a family is never just one member living alone and isolated. That is just a person. A single individual. Our birth is evidence that at one time there were two persons involved in the act of creation. What their personal lives were like at that time does not negate the fact that two individuals participated in the unique act of conception. And thus we started our journeys as human beings. This definition does not provide any insight into the spiritual realities of life itself. It is a bare bones (fleshly) approach which considers the whole process of the beginnings of life. So is life just a biological accident? Or is there a divine purpose which is served in the creation of each new life?
In an era where life is routinely terminated through disease, violence and the deliberate actions of others it may seem impossible for a loving God to really be in ultimate control of life’s events. But the fact remains that we have been created to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in all we do. That clearly means that the events of our lives have been orchestrated to ultimately bring Him glory and to honor His name. If we are willing to truly surrender our lives to His care then we can be assured that we are members of His family and we will have a place in His care throughout eternity. Life is filled with contradictions and obstacles which seek to undermine our belief in His word. That is the evidence of the continuing battle which rages between good and evil. It is all around us and given our current life circumstances we may entertain serious doubts about God’s love for us. God’s integrity is beyond question and is always above reproach. He always keeps His word. Satan on the other hand is a liar and a thief. He is committed to our destruction. He looks for every opportunity to create havoc in the lives of believers. We betrays everyone, especially those who follow him. Yet he has been defeated at the key battle which was won on a hill called Calvary.
On that cross Jesus Christ died for all of our sins. That means that every sin you and I have committed or will commit has been covered by His shed blood. He paid the ultimate price for all of our sins. Satan would have us doubt God’s word like Eve did in the Garden of Eden. In turn, she led Adam into sin by breaking the law of God. Between the time of that disobedient act and Jesus loving act of sacrifice for us on that cross the people of the world were at a complete loss to help themselves. On Calvary we were restored to our proper relationship with God through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. You and I are now members of God’s family, if we are willing to accept the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Sure life is important, but not as important as what lays ahead. Eternity is what awaits us after this life has passed. God is not such a remote individual that He cannot relate to our life situations.
Underlying all of our life’s events is the fact that God had a plan all along for our individual salvation. His plan meant that His Son would be born of a virgin in a remote village and raised in a society who was desperately seeking the Messiah. Here in their midst, a baby was born and named Jesus, a Savior to His people. He was raised in a family, just like you and me. He learned a trade from his step-father Joseph who was a carpenter. He lived a sinless life and started His public ministry at age thirty. He told the truth to those who would listen and they hated Him for telling them the truth. Because they were sure that they knew better. After all they were god’s chosen people, RIGHT? Ultimately he was crucified on a cruel cross to pay the price for our sins. Why would He do that for us? He did that because WE are members of His family. All we need do is claim the victory that He has already won for us. A perfect act of love for a seriously flawed family. See when you look at what Jesus has done for us on His great love, was to give each of us an opportunity to be members of God’s family for eternity. Welcomed at His table, a place with our names listed on the chairs at His welcome home feast. So the story of family life which we have been born into is just a shadow of being a member of God’s family.
For now we are trying to navigate the barriers which we run into living this life. At times we have peak experiences which allow us to catch a beautiful view of life and yet there are times when we are in the valleys and unable to catch a sure view of the sun shining above us. At those times we stumble through near darkness and feel alone and isolated. In those dark days we may come to a point where we feel that we are hopeless and helpless. That is a perfect example of Satan’s ability to distort God’s love for us and the truthfulness of His word. Our primary concern in this life is to accurately understand the word of God. He tells us that He has a plan for each of our lives, plans for good and no plans to harm us. So who are you going to believe? You know already what your own best thinking has brought you. He stands by us, pleading with us that we turn and trust Him in all areas of life. Even in a darkened death row cell He listens for that quiet outcry for help, from the soul that is experiencing the anguished hell of despair and defeat.
It is never too late to call out for help. He will never abandon any who call out for His mercy and forgiveness. How could a Father turn away from the cry of His child? How could He ignore the painful emotions that rage through our lives and consumes our peace and joy? The Bible tells us that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Knowing that we are made in a similar fashion should create an experience of hope that He knows our complete nature. He knows our sufferings and He knows all of our most private sins. Even knowing all of that about us, He tells us that He loves us and wants us to be part of His family forever. In this life we may not have had much of a family life, but no matter what those early days were like, we are called to be members of His family forever.
God chose a pathway to reach us. His Son Jesus Christ was born into a family and rejected by those he came to serve. He knows all of the same feelings that we have encountered individually. He knows what it is like to be personally rejected by those He loves. But most importantly, He fulfilled the plans of His Father by living out a life of service to others so that we can be members of His family. I cannot just get up and change my life after a lifetime of selfishness and crime. But I can call out to Him and ask Him to forgive my sins, accept His plans for my life and for the Holy Spirit to come into my life and change me. It is the work of the Holy Spirit which will start to transform YOUR life and mine. That is His promise to us. We will never be alone, He will always be with us. See it is not possible for me to make those kinds of changes, but the Word of God promises to transform our lives IF we are willing to call out and ask for His forgiveness. He will do ALL of the work of redeeming our lives and giving our lives new meaning. That means He will give meaning to your life even if you are sitting on death row or dying of some dreadful disease. That is His promise to each of us.
By myself I can do nothing, but call out to God for His mercy and forgiveness. But His promises are everlasting. He is always faithful to His word. If you need to know more about His word then it is time to open the Bible and start to read the love story that He has written to us. It is a letter of encouragement and hope. It is a letter that will help you come to understand the plans that He has for each of us are faithful and true. If we have never had anyone in our lives treat us faithfully and truthfully, He will start the process of trust building inside of our lives. He will take us at whatever point that we are willing to come to Him. That is the nature of His great love for us. He builds a bridge out to us in our daily interactions with Him. He is the master bridge builder in our lives. We can trust the plans that He has for each of us.
So having said all of these things, I want to bring each of you the joy of a special Christmas gift. The gift of a new life. A life that will continue for eternity. That gift is based upon the promises of God. It is impossible for God to lie. His word is faithful and true. Would you let Him start to build a bridge in your life? That bridge will pierce concrete walls, steel bars and razor wire connecting your life to the Author of eternal life. You would not appear before a judge and a jury without someone to represent you. Do not take the risk of appearing before the Judge of heaven and earth without being under the shed blood of Jesus Christ. At that judgment session you will suddenly find yourself being represented by Jesus Christ Himself, as He gives an answer for your life before His Father. In the coming year, Dismas Project will continue to reach out to those on death row because we see ourselves as sinners who have offended a gracious God and only deserve eternal damnation, if not for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died in our place so that we would not have to experience eternal condemnation. Instead He has invited each of us to become members of His family. We each have a place awaiting us if we are willing to accept His great gift of salvation and redemption for our sins.
I want to wish you a blessed Christmas season. During this time of reflection you might consider God’s great love for us that He sent His Son to live among us as a human being. He already knew that His Son would be grieved and murdered for our sins and transgressions. Yet He chose to send us the best that He had to pay the price for our sinfulness. Why would He do that for us when we did not even care about His gift? The only answer….the only piece of the puzzle that will ever fit into place, is the clear fact that He loved us and wanted to provide an opportunity for every individual to truly be a member of His family. This is a family that we can choose to be a part of if we accept the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is a standing invitation made by a loving God who is merciful and forgiving. And so Christmas provides us with an incredible opportunity to look at this gift that await us. But please remember that a gift does not become a gift until it has finally been accepted and received. Jesus can stand at our side offering this precious gift all the days of our lives while we suffer in shame and pain, but it will not truly become a life transforming gift until we fully accept it and receive its promises into our lives. BRIDGE BUILDERS
In the current climate of American society, once an individual has transgressed against the law they become identified as offenders. Perhaps at some point in the future they may be able to move into another category known as ex-offenders or ex-cons. The problem with this type of thinking is that the label is confining and fails to acknowledge that redemption is a viable possibility for those whose hearts and spirits lead them into a pathway of reconciliation and restoring what has been wrongfully taken to those who have been offended.
Until a bridge can be built between those who have transgressed and those who have been offended, society is unable to move forward in any meaningful attempt to heal wounded communities. As a nation we are confronted with a huge gap in trust which corrodes the foundations of family like, the essential building block of society. The wounds which have been sustained by those victimized are painful reminders that trust is easily lost when it has been abused. But does this mean that we are unable to heal the wounds of our nation using Biblical principles? I think not! We are called to bind up each other’s wounds and help each other move toward a meaningful life by practicing forgiveness in all we do.
This does not mean that we are to be reckless or irresponsible in the ways that we interact with those who have breached the rule of law. But there must be a balance if we are truly committed to living out the law of love in our lives. Where does this process start and how do we begin? It would seem that there is a huge gap in understanding how we are to move forward. One small step forward is to re-define the future role of the offender and provide him or her with an opportunity to become a bridge builder. A bridge builder is an individual who seeks to restore meaningful ties to family and community by addressing the gap they have created and reestablishing a secure bond within the context of manageable interactions.
A bridge builder defines the potential to build new relationships and then proceeds to start to build a secure structure across the gap with or without any parallel commitment from the community. It is an entirely voluntary outreach which does not depend upon the reciprocity of others. It is a selfless commitment to restore what has been lost to the best of our individual abilities and does not rely upon the goodwill gestures of others to achieve our goals. It entails taking actions to correct past wrongs and building positive links which enhance community life. It is an act of service to others without the expectation of receiving anything in kind. Thus, one relationship at a time we attempt to repair the harm that has been done and to make amends in all of our interactions with others.
The process of bridge building starts with the offender and proceeds toward completion of a foundation which spans the gaps that we have created by our past actions. We lay no blame at the door of those who have been so deeply wounded that they are unable to trust in the integrity of a newly awakened life of service. We work with the opportunities that have been provided and turn our results over to the care of God who loves us and directs all of our pathways and endeavors. In the simple act of initiating this bridge building activity we commit ourselves to actively loving God and serving our neighbors in all we do.
So to address the questions raised at the beginning of this essay, what are we to call those who have offended and now seek to be restored to meaningful relationship with others? Those who are willing to bear the burdens of their poor decisions are also motivated to create a new life by reaching and restoring what has been previously lost. In partnership with those who are embracing this new calling, Dismas Project will provide the materials and support in a unique relationship with those who are willing to create new bridges of meaning and purpose. Those men and women have been touched by a spirit of renewal and no longer bear the burden of being called offenders. They have come to a point of realizing that they have a new task before them, a task that calls them to be bridge builders. Henceforth they will be known as “bridgers” a people set apart with a new calling upon their lives.
A PRAYER FOR SPIRITUAL VISION
Lord I have lived my life as an individual who has been blind to the truth of Your word. I am asking that I might see Your truth clearly in all the events of my life. Please help me Lord by forgiving my sins and having mercy on me as I now come to You in complete surrender. Up until now I have lived my life for myself, but now Lord I come to You and ask You to create a new life within me so that I am serve You faithfully for the remaining days of my life. Be blessed and stay strong during this Christmas season. If Dismas Project can be a resource to you or your family members, we encourage you to contact us at www.dismasproject.com. Kevin and Quinta.