Grace Ch. 2

Grace, it is God’s work in our lives.  We don’t do it or undo it – it is what God does.  So it is far past time that we stop trying so hard to impress, please or prove to God that we are worthy of his love.  Easier said than done, I realize, but when we get it – when we get grace, we can stop whatever it is that we are working so hard at to get God to see in us whatever it is we want him to see.  So rest.  You are loved, accepted, and welcomed into the family of God because of God and his grace.  

This is a big hurdle for us to get over, but get over it we must.  Now for Chapter 2.

Grace is not a free ticket to avoid hell.  I know the verse, “For it is by grace through faith that you have been saved,” but grace doesn’t begin and end at conversion, grace is the activity of God in your life (see unfinished glossary).  God’s activity in your life, everyday of your life, is the grace of God in your life.  We constantly rely on God for daily living.  

The great temptation for each of us in life is trying to make “it” happen.  We Christians believe we are saved (going to heaven) by the grace of God, and grace has played its part in our life.  But grace is never finished.  Whatever “it” is you are trying to make happen in your life will happen in and through your life because of God’s activity, God’s grace.  We have a part to play, but that is for chapter 3, for now, we must understand that grace is fundamental to our daily existence.

And listen, the more we get grace, the more we realize that it truly is amazing.  

Unfinished glossary:

By unfinished, I mean ideas that need further exploration, I have listed a few.  How we think of these shapes so much, including our view on grace.  Pastor John Ortberg uses the phrase, “hopelessly distorted gospel”, in reference (at least how I understand it) to describe how we have grossly distorted some of the following ideas – but contemporary Christianity and all of its (ours) foibles are not beyond hope, by God’s grace.

  1. Hell
  2. Heaven
  3. Gospel
  4. Saved
  5. Conversion

Grace chapter 1

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for those who profess belief in Jesus is getting grace.  We can memorize versus just fine, “for it is by grace through faith…”  We can come up with clever acronyms, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.  We can boldly sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” 

But do we get it?

Some things of God operate so radically different from the rest of our daily experiences making them exceptionally difficult to live into.  One of the simplest understandings of grace I have heard is, “getting something you don’t deserve.”  Grace is not performance based.  Earned.  Or deserved.

Yet.

From the moment you were born, your experiences have taught you otherwise.  You have earned:

  • Oohs and aahs from adults at your first smile
  • Kudos for your first potty in the toilet
  • Money for your first lost tooth
  • Candy for dressing up and knocking on doors
  • Something from the toy box for no cavities
  • Scholarships, employment, promotions and on and on

We live in a world where we earn or deserve the things that we receive.  Our performance often determines our lot in life.  Then the pastor stands up on Sunday and declares that the most important thing in life, your salvation, is free.  You don’t earn it.  You don’t deserve it.  

And we nod in agreement.  But do we get it?

Grace is so fundamental to all of life, I am frequently talking about it with my kids.  I want them to get it.  To live in the freedom of it.  To experience all that God desires for them.  A few days ago Maggie demonstrated her understanding of Grace.  She had deliberately disobeyed and she was fully aware of the consequences.  As we were talking it out, she looked up at me and said, “grace daddy?”    

She knew she didn’t earn it or deserve it – but she knew grace had something else in mind.  

Each of us know we haven’t earned or deserve all that God offers – and we need to learn that grace has something else in mind.  So you can stop trying to earn the approval of God through doing good Christian things.  Don’t stop doing them, just don’t do them as a means of approval.  The love of God for you is not dependent on whether you read your Bible today, prayed, went to church, served, tithed, shared your faith, gone on missions.  You will not impress God.  God does not love you or hate because of you, what you have done, or what you have not done.  

It is because of grace.  And there is nothing you can do about, except get it.

Crooked legs and too many clothes

My wife is working on a large scale clothes swap.  Hundreds of articles of clothing have been donated and are now filling the void in our home that we have created by trying to live simply.  As my wife sorts through the clothes, she can’t help but try some on.  As she tries on clothes, she can’t help but notice her body.  As she notices her body, she can’t help but point out imperfections.

“God attached my legs on crooked”

I think she then attempted to lift her spirits by pointing out my lack of fashion sense, and that hairy white men are nasty.  And that got me thinking.  Well not my fashion sense or being a nasty, hairy white man.  The other thing about God attaching my legs on wrong.  

You don’t really need that
I have been shocked at the amount of clothes that women have been donating.  Nice clothes.  New clothes (with tags).  Expensive clothes.  There was a moment where each article of clothing was looked at and someone thought, “I need that.”  So we make money to buy clothes.  We exercise to fit into clothes.  We feel better about ourselves in our new clothes.  And in a short amount of time, the item we couldn’t live without, and worked so hard to get, is easily handed over as an unwanted donation.  Why?  

To live content
I spend much of my leadership time in the church.  We hold dearly to the teachings of the Bible.  The apostle Paul is one of the significant New Testament authors.  He offers these words: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” and “If we have food and clothing we will be content with that.”  

Simple, but not easy.

We don’t like our crooked legs.  We want new clothes.  The very ones, church leaders, who should be leading others in the way of contentment that Paul is speaking of may be the worst offenders.  It’s subtle, and easy to spiritualize – but its there.  Our longing for more, for bigger, for better reveals our distance from being content.  Could our Godliness without contentment be great loss?  Is godliness without contentment even godliness?

Your legs look good.  Your clothes are fine.  The size of your church, the quality and style of your preaching and every other thing that pastors get wrapped up in are things you don’t need and will fight against you living a life of contentment.  

In need of a third point
So here it is.  There are more important things.  Things more important than crooked legs, new clothes and better ministry (whatever that is).  That thing is you.  The real you, what we call the soul.  The essence of your existence.  The you beyond any role, job, success, failure or relationship that defines you.  And the warning: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul.”  What good are straight legs, nice clothes and a thriving ministry if you sacrificed the real you to get there?

Ruth Haley Barton (an author I wish I would have paid attention to years ago) wrote this,  “When a leader loses their soul, so do the organizations they lead…when a church loses its soul it begins to slip into mediocrity and is unable to give life.” 

Most people I meet live with a bit of restlessness.  They are looking for something more.  Maybe not a “gain the whole world” more, but something beyond what they have.  A different body, nicer things, better performance…we are not content.  I agree whole heartedly again with Ruth Haley Barton, “I am convinced that the More that we are looking for is the transformation of our souls in the presence of God.”  

We may not phrase it that way.  You may not fully understand what that phrase means or how one goes about experiencing it.  You may chose to disagree.  But I believe this (transformation of the soul, spiritual formation, discipleship) is the antidote to the crooked legs and unwanted clothing in our lives.

May we be full of life and become life givers to one another.  May we replace, “How does my butt look in these jeans?” and “how was church today?” with, “how is your soul?”  And may this clothing swap come soon so I can get my floor back.

Here there is no…or is there?

I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual male – being marginalized by judgement, racism, or exclusion are simply not part of my daily experience.  They are never part of my experience, at least not on the receiving end. 

I have marginalized people, something I’m not proud of.  I have witnessed acts of judgement and exclusion, things that upset me.  Last night I watched it happen to my son, that hurt.

It wasn’t a big thing, he didn’t even notice.  But it happened.

I took my son to a church event last night in a very homogenous community.  We parked the car, he got out and began walking toward the building.  I had not yet gotten out.  We had parked on the wrong side, meaning there were no other people around…except one.  

A girl, probably the same age as my son, was also walking toward the entrance.  She glanced over, saw my son, and quickly hurried back to her car where she would be safe beside her mom.  When I caught up, the girl took notice (phew, a white man) and confidently walked inside with us.  The entire incident was 30 seconds.  It most likely happens to people every day.  And it hurts.

Where does this come from?  We are not born this way, we are formed this way.  An 11 year old white girl should not have fear of an 11 year old black boy outside the walls of a church.  What message has she received?  What has she been taught?  What has she been exposed to, or not been exposed to that would cause her to quickly react the way she did?  

And not just her.  You.  Me.  Each of us have been formed.  We react negatively.  Inappropriately.  Unnecessarily.  How many 30 second incidents happen each day?  People may or may not notice.  But damage has been done, and it hurts.  

We need to do better.   

Not that I needed the affirmation.  But as we were leaving, the leader that had my son in his small group came up to me and said, “Your son is one of the smartest and best behaved boys I have ever had in class.  You should be very proud.”

Of course, I am.  

LENT REVEALED

40 days ago I began Lent (for you counters, it was actually more than 40 days because the count does not include Sundays).  I decided to willingly give up a few things, not simply to sacrifice something, but so I could give more to things.

So, being deeply spiritual, I decided to give up Starbucks, any restaurant with a drive-thru and TV.

I gave up Starbucks because of the “need.”  I did not want to need coffee when I got up in the morning.  I gave up drive-thru’s because of “pace.”  I did not want my life to be at a pace where I was not able to sit at the table with my family to eat.  I gave up TV because of “influence.”  I did not want pop culture to be the significant influence in my life.

How was Lent?  I’m glad you asked.  Here’s a little of what I learned.  Starbucks is not the only establishment that sells coffee.  There are many fast food restaurants with no drive-thrus and several of them have TV’s (thank you Lolitas).

And.

I didn’t make a sacrifice at all.  I have learned in order to consider something of loss a sacrifice, it must have value.  Starbucks, drive-thrus and TV really have no value to me.  I do not miss any of them at all.  I have also saved money, lost weight, spent quality time with the family and read several books.

After the first couple of weeks, I also noticed a change was happening in me (the point, right).  Refusing to “need” coffee, helped me in becoming a someone who doesn’t need to do many things – responding to criticism, defending myself, reacting and speaking up, to mention a few.  Refusing to go to a drive-thru is still forming something in me, I think it may be about laziness, and it just being easier to go out than to cook and clean.  Refusing to watch TV has, I believe, been the most significant thing, particularly as it relates to being a follower of Jesus.  I have regained wasted hours of my week.  I have regained my mind, and what I choose to think about.  I have regained sleep (I think TV at night was keeping awake throughout the night).  I have read several incredible books about the God I say I believe in and what it means to live my life in a way that Jesus would live it if he were me, I’ve memorized large amounts of the Bible, read the Bible and prayed (for real) to mention, again, just a few.

That’s Lent.  It’s a discipline.  It’s arranging my life around practices to enable me to do what I am not able to do by willpower alone.  And that is how Lent was for me (and will continue to be as being formed is never finished).

And if you’re wondering, I had a coffee while writing this, I owe my kids a McDonald’s ice-cream cone, and the TV is staying unplugged.

Would You Rather?

My kids like to play the game, “would you rather.”  They usually come up with two options, neither of which are good (most often dealing with foul smells or bodily harm) and then force me to choose what I would rather do.  I choose, they laugh, I defend my choice and they laugh more…it’s fun.  That’s it.  The choices are hypothetical.  There are no consequences.  It’s a game.

Much of life plays out like this game.  But the choices aren’t hypothetical.  There are real life consequences.  At times neither option seems good and we plead for a third choice.  At other times both options seem really good and a decision is difficult to make.  We live in a world where this game is played each day, resulting in beautiful things like division, labeling and side choosing.  It’s no game.

This day, Good Friday, a day that followers of Jesus somberly reflect on the significance of his death, I once again find myself caught up in a “would you rather” moment.  

Would you rather know with certainty that because of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus you will spend eternity in heaven with Jesus when you die – or – would you rather embrace the Kingdom invitation of Jesus, experiencing the presence and activity of God in your life everyday?  Two options, both are good.  And we don’t have to choose between them, Jesus invites us into both.  Though the gospel has been narrowed to mean, and will be preached as such in abundance this Easter weekend, that we will spend eternity in heaven when we die, that is not the whole story.     

As I spend Good Friday considering the impact of the cross in my life and throughout history, it is my prayer for me and for you, that the gospel of Jesus has a profound influence on the whole of our lives.  I pray for the games that we play (that aren’t really games).  I pray for our churches, with all of the marketing to attract people, that Jesus is still centered in our sermons.  I pray for the many divisive issues of our day, specifically this week around the conversation of marriage equality, that we make seeking the kingdom our first priority, and that his reign is over any legislation.  I pray, regardless of how many people attend a church service, or which way a vote falls, that the truth of Jesus leaves an indelible mark on our lives and that we strive to become the kind of people that live with one another in a way that resembles the Jesus that we remember this weekend.

May it be a Good Friday.  Would you rather have it any other way?

It’s Got Me Thinking

Here are a few of the things filling my mind these days:

ONE:  I wrote a brief blog a few days ago, suggesting we stop asking if the church is sustainable.  My cousin, Di, wrote some great words of response about “people.”  While there is certainly more to say (is a blog even supposed to be comprehensive), it is important to get this – the foundation of my entire post is about people.

TWO:  Last week, a politician changed his position on same-sex marriage (please, the remainder of my comments here are not about marriage equality, but simple thoughts about how or why we believe something).  His comments are of great interest to me.  He said:

I have opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way.  At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition.  Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective.  As a dad, I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister.

So many things to consider here.  A belief was at one time held, from where it came or why he believed it (or if he really ever believed it or just said he did) is not discussed, but it matters.  Then an experience.  He learned something new.  That experience made him “think more deeply.”  Experience changed his conviction.  He talks about his faith tradition (probably where the belief was first formed) and his Christian faith.  Perhaps we need to allow our Christian faith to be what informs us rather than tradition.  Finally (though always more) he mentions the need to reconcile his faith with the reality of his experience – desires for his children.  Belief – An adaptable mix of faith, tradition, experience?

THREE:  I stayed up much of the night Saturday, reflecting on these two statements by Pastor John Ortberg (I googled John today and was surprised to learn there were so many haters) at a recent conference I attended: “We have a hopelessly distorted gospel,”  in reference to the idea that the message of Jesus was entirely about getting to heaven when we die, and “I’m all in,” in reference to him giving the rest of his life to changing that.  I think I stirred most of the night, because this is where my heart is too, and I’m just not sure what next to do about it.

FOUR:  While waiting at a red light today on my bike, I was hit by the cane of a blind man.  Not hard enough to hurt, but it sure startled me.  His wife, I believe, was so embarrassed.  It felt good to help someone find their way, even if just their next step.

FIVE:  When does my wife get home.  This single dad thing is harder than I expected.