Posts Tagged 'grace'

“There is neither encouragement or effective exhortation in telling those who are suffering that others have suffered more, in telling those grieving that others have lost more, in telling the hungry that others have actually starved. Such spoutings produce feelings of guilt, shame, and anger—all of which are not only counterproductive but also destructive of the faith that was already only barely clinging to the altar.”—Fred Craddock, in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, ‘Hebrews,’ p 83

I had to apologize to my eldest son this morning after reading this. Sometimes being a parent is especially difficult and even though he is graduating on Saturday, I realize I am still learning and he is still teaching. Learning how to speak to our children properly and being repentant when we speak to them improperly is a humbling lesson to learn. I confess I have had to learn the lesson more than once.

What I think happens is that there are times when my son will come to me for conversation, for dialogue concerning his life. Lately, it has been mostly about his car. It breaks; a lot. And it frustrates him. It collapses entire days for him. So when he starts in about how terrible his life is because his car is broken, again, my usual response has been something like, “Jerry, it’s a car. It’s not the worst thing in the world. You want to go and see people your age who are having a difficult time?” Ugh. Worst. Response. Ever.

Worst parent ever.

So I have to learn: his suffering does matter. Is the end of the world? To me, no; to him, yes! To a teenager, the car is everything. It is their lifeline to freedom and responsibility. So I err when I am dismissive of something that, to me, seems so miniscule or minor and to him seems so major and life altering. What I have suffered is irrelevant as a means of comparison. Comparison is unnecessary in such situations because that is not what people want or need to hear. Comparison is meaningless because it ends up being like a game of one-upmanship.

People need grace. If they are weeping, weep alongside them. If they are laughing, laugh it up fuzz-ball. If they are angry, join them in anger. If they are dejected, come alongside them and sit in the ashes. I’ve always been impressed with the first seven days and nights of Job’s suffering when his friends sat with him on the ground and said nothing to him for seven days and seven nights. When someone suffers, yes there are probably others who are and have suffered more. Undoubtedly this is true. But that is irrelevant because it minimizes the suffering of the individual directly in front of me. It is dismissive and likely damages them even more. Not to mention that it also sort of cheapens the suffering of others too–those who have become mere props in our game of who has suffered more.

My role is to help them strengthen their grip, not weaken them even more.

Frankly, I don’t even think it is very nice or appropriate when preachers say things like, “You are suffering, but you have not suffered as much as Jesus.” Well, maybe; maybe not. But is that the point? Jesus didn’t say, “Father I am suffering, but I have not suffered as much as David or Job so it’s OK.” No, Jesus said, “Father, I am suffering; take this cup from me.” Even Jesus didn’t minimize his suffering by comparing it with that of others. Jesus suffered.

This is about learning to see the person directly in front of me and loving them regardless of whatever else in the world is going on today. My son’s suffering is as valid as any other person’s suffering precisely because it is he who is suffering. His suffering is not minimized because others have suffered more; his suffering is not maximized because others have suffered less. His suffering is his. And that is where we start.

Lord, forgive me for being dismissive of people who have suffered—especially my son. Teach me Lord to patiently listen to those who speak, to sit silently for as long as it takes, and when I finally speak, if asked to, to speak softly the words of your grace and mercy.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”—Colossians 4:6

I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to determine how grace fills our conversations.

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“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).

“Jacques Ellul insists that this resurrection life must be lived in this world, but at the same time he insists that the Christian ‘must not act in exactly the same way as everyone else. He has a part to play in this world which no one else can possibly fulfill.’” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 261)

Graduate school is a lot of fun. I am learning so much about achievement gaps, high-stakes testing, functional behavior assessments, response to intervention, No Child Left Behind, and more. I am learning about Bloom’s Taxonomy, KWL, Evidence Based Practice, content standards, teacher accountability, labor unions, graphic organizers, charter schools, magnet schools, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and…well, there are more ways for a human to be ‘broken’ than I could have ever imagined…and I could go on and on for a while. I have learned more than I thought I needed to know, and less than I probably need to know. Who would have thought that teaching children to read would be such a complicated ordeal?

Education is a serious enterprise in the United States. I am getting my money’s worth out of this experience and I am glad for it because I am spending a lot of money getting this education.

About 9 months ago or so, I began to realize something strange. It goes something like this. I am in school to learn about more than the multitude of variations of ASD that a child might have. I am learning about more than the thousands of children’s books published every year in the United States. I am learning about more than what is required to be a certified teacher in the state of Ohio (3 different praxis exams including HQT requirements for NCLB, comprehensive exams, 52 hours of graduate school, a semester of student teaching, a portfolio, and more).

You know what is scary? I have been learning about myself. You know what I realize? I’m ugly. I realize that I am pretty much un-fun. You know I have had to learn how to laugh and be the class clown again? I’m boring. I’m sensitive to rebuke. I Hate failure (I recently lost three points on an assignment; not happy). I’m jealous of the success of others. I’m impatient (the trip to Cleveland about kills me). I’m arrogant. There are a few people who are smarter than I am (I didn’t get the highest grade on a recent mid-term). I’m comfortable. I like leading, and not so much following. I like talking, and not so much listening. I like being in charge, and not so much taking orders. And, trust me, there’s more.

I am learning not just what is required of a teacher, but I am also learning the sort of teacher I do not want to be. This has been the most important lesson I have learned and not just from going to class at CSU, but also from working a part time job at a local school. And I realize, most importantly, that the teacher I do not want to be is a teacher who is not the things I just listed, above, that I am. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I’ll say it this way then: not having my own pulpit any longer is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is harder to lose a pulpit than it is to gain one.

What I have learned, though, is that those things I described above are the very things that I had become. I hate mirrors. I keep asking God, ‘Is it safe to land?’ He keeps saying, ‘Wait’ (which I suspect is God’s way of saying, ‘Oh, I have a few more revelations for you.”) As I look back on nearly fifteen years in the pulpit I realize that I had quite forgotten what it was to be a terrified 25 year old fresh out of Bible School and stepping into a pulpit for the first time. I had grown quite comfortable with my skills. Frankly, I had become impatient, arrogant, condescending, comfortable, boring, sensitive, jealous, boring, and un-fun. And more. You know what I forgot most? People. I did a lot of serving, but I think sometimes I did it so I could be up front, in charge, and not (always) because I loved people.

I forgot what it was like to work 60 hours a week and have to get up on Sundays to worship. I forgot what it was like to have visitors in town and want to stay up late Saturday thus necessitating an absence on Sunday. I had quite forgotten that most people do not have Bible College educations and even less have seminary educations. I forgot to be with people and their hurt. I forgot what it was like to serve because I was called to and not because I was paid to. I used to complain that the money I was paid tied me down, bound my hands and prevented service, real service. As I look back I realize it did so, but not in a way I expected: that is, I stopped serving because I could and wanted to and started doing so because I had to.  I forgot what it was like to drown in sin, to struggle with addiction, and to feel hopelessness. I forgot what it was like to think God had moved a million miles in the opposite direction.

I forgot how to suffer. I forgot how to hurt. I forgot how to feel. There is a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from a sermon well-written and better-delivered. And don’t get me wrong: a great sermon goes a long way on paper. But for all that I suffered, I forgot to suffer. I forgot to weep with my people. I forgot to hold them. So protective of myself was I, so angry at not having leadership, so frustrated by the lack of growth, so bitter at betrayal, so jealous of fellas half my age preaching in churches a hundred times the size of mine…I was becoming more and more the person I was warning the congregation not to become. I gave up the safety of insecurity and vulnerability and weakness for the caves of strength and clarity and well-spokenness. I traded. In the end, the only way for Jesus to awaken me was to destroy me.

Now, here I am, alone with the self I hate, the one I created in the image of the world. Here I am, now, alone with my introspection. I am the Bob Eucker of preaching: thought I belonged in the front row only to find out…not so much. Here I am, now, saved by grace only much more aware of it than ever before in my life. I am learning what I had forgotten: how to love and be loved, how to be known by Jesus, how to walk by faith. I am learning to let Jesus be in charge. I am learning to follow and listen. Learning that temptations are all around and there are people who will spoon feed them to you if you ask.

I’m in no way undermining the consequences or the failure or the sin of those who hurt my family. But, and this is a huge but, but, neither I am clinging to them for dear life and breath any longer. Holding on was probably worse than experiencing them to begin with. Genuine love, true joy, is possible when the person counts on Christ for his love and joy and not on the perfection of circumstances or identity. I spent almost ten years forging an identity in this community where I live only to have it taken away in a matter of hours and days. I spent the better part of 20 years becoming a preacher, but along the way I forgot how to be a disciple.

Sad. But true.

I should wrap this up for now. In learning what sort of teacher I do not want to be, I have inadvertently, or not, learned the sort of preacher that I had become. I also have learned why I became not so useful in the church. You see, I let My Ministry become that which defined me and my life and my existence. I learned from Tim Keller that this is a bad thing to do. My identity, Paul wrote, is not wrapped up in who I am or what I do. That is why he writes that we are to imitate Christ. Our identity is wrapped up in who He is which is, precisely, why Paul writes that we are to become like Christ.

I do not know yet what part I am to play in this world, but I am learning that if I must continue that I must find myself in Jesus first. So all I’m really trying to say is this: be careful. Maybe you are a young preacher, setting out on your way and looking to forge an identity or be the next big thing on youtube or the next big itunes podcaster. Don’t give in. You were meant for less.

Maybe you are a long time faithful person in Jesus. Don’t despise the wilderness.

I am meant for less. Thankfully. Because where there is less, there I will find Jesus, the one who has been looking for me all along. And now that I am exposed, undone, out in the open…now, I suspect, he can finally see me, and I can finally see Him.

And He is a sight to behold!

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Daily Office

“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  ”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.  They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)

I don’t want to be accused of taking this out of context and making it mean something it does not. So, in order to dispel that myth ahead of time, I add this disclaimer that I have in fact and indeed read the entire chapter of Jeremiah 29 and, at one time in the past, read the entire book. There. Now, on to other things…

As I read this early today before worship I wrote in my Moleskine something to the effect of, “Yes, but what does this mean for us, the church, disciples of Jesus?” I kept on thinking about it until we arrived a little late for bible school. We arrived late enough to interrupt and but early enough to hear a few remaining prayer requests from the young folks in the class.

One woman asked for prayer for herself and her husband. They want a child and, evidently, are having trouble conceiving. Another asked for prayer as they are trying to buy a house. Another asked for prayer concerning financing of a house already being purchased. I used to find this strange—all these prayers for simply mundane things that have nothing to do with the Jesus who told us to ‘take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow [him].’ What sort of self-centered people are we to pray that God provide us houses, children, money, crops or worse? Does God care about these things? “Dear God, please help my marriage,” is a lot different from, “Lord, your kingdom come.” But maybe it is not so much different after all.

I volunteered to pray for the class and as I did these words of the Lord written down by Jeremiah came flooding into my mind. I prayed for the people in bible school and reminded them of what the Lord said to the people through Jeremiah.

The importance of Jeremiah’s letter, his ‘word of the Lord’, is found in what the Lord told his people to do while they lived in exile among strange people: seek the well-being of the community in which you live, prosper, set-up shop, plant crops, have children, get married, do business and seek peace. This reminded me of what I read in Hosea chapter four last week, “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away” (Hosea 4:1-3).

So we walk a fine line. God tells us in nearly the same breath: seek the prosperity of the place you live and deny yourself. Hosea spoke to those who, because of one sin or another, allowed the place where they were to become a wasteland, uninhabitable by anyone or anything. Jeremiah spoke to another group of Hebrews and said: Don’t allow disaster to happen to the land of your exile as your fathers allowed disaster to happen to the Promise Land. Seek their prosperity. Pray for them; seek the Lord.

I find it strange that God commanded them to seek prosperity and yet I don’t. It’s like Jesus on the water in Mark four who calms a furious storm not just saving his disciples but also the ‘other boats with him’ (Mark 4:36). We live and move and have our being in the land of exile and while we do, we do not cease being people who curiously belong to God and who belong to a curious God—a god who cared not only about Ninevah but the ‘many cattle as well’, this strange God who ‘sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.’

I fail to see the connection between prayers such as, “God help me be a rich person so I can bless those around me” and “God help the city where I live to be prosperous and productive so that you will bless me through them.” How does this strange God bless his people through the prosperity of a pagan city where we are being held captive? Strange are the vessels God uses to bless his people and make himself known. Strange that I should want Blockbuster video to do well.

God’s grace in our lives is a light in the darkness. WE, I say that with no quiver in my voice, WE are called to be God’s means of dispensing grace in the world. We are not to decrease, but to increase. We too, like Israel, live in exile. Peter calls us strangers, aliens, foreigners. This place is no more our home than our possessions are our own. We live in this place for a little while, but our home is someplace else—we ‘long for a better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). While we are here we are to make the best of it, to seek the Lord for the city, to help it prosper. We are not only to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but also for the peace of Madison, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, and California; the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Africa; the World.

Our prayers, and certainly God’s grace, extend far beyond the walls of the places we call sacred. We pray for the world that God might be known. We pray to God that the world might prosper in crops, people, and commerce. As such we should disregard the lying tongues of those who tell us otherwise. God seems to think such prayers are necessary, matter, and are vital to our own existence. Nor will I pray for the destruction of those who are opposed this godly message because that is not what God said to do. He said to pray for them and seek prosperity for their sake—for when they prosper, so also will I. So I’m not only going to pray for a young couple to have a child, for another couple to have a house, and for another’s crops to grow. I’m also going to pray that they will prosper wherever the Lord plants them—wherever their exile is manifest. And I will pray for the city where they are planted that it, too, will prosper.

Why? “For God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only Son.” For God so loved the world…for God so loved the world…

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Daily Office

After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying good-by to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” After this, we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.

My journey with Jesus began when I was very young. It was in a small whitewashed Methodist church where I wore a white cape and lit the candles on the altar. I still remember the Pastor’s name, Chester Harrison, and I could even tell you about singing songs like ‘Fisher’s of Men,’ and also about putting coins in the plastic birthday cake on birthdays and junior worship. I remember my bible school class met in a small kitchen.

I can tell you about going to Vacation Bible School at the Lakemount Church of Christ where a young Chuck Doughty was the preacher. (Those in the COC tradition probably recognize the name.) I went during the week of my birthday and remember the cake I shared with another boy who shared my birthday. It was a great week.

I can tell you about different deans and teachers I met at the Elkhorn Valley Christian Service Camp. Garth wasn’t so nice because I wasn’t so quiet. Allan was OK but I remember distinctly the time he embarrassed another boy who was sitting cross-legged (as women normally sit) by saying, “Don’t sit with your legs crossed, it makes you look like a fag.” Bob Mack was camp manager at the time, he was a bit intimidating. Later he forgave me for committing a terrible sin at camp. There were others, but those days at camp were special. I first met Jack Cottrell at EVCSC at a mens retreat.

I also met Christian people at the Ohio Teens for Christ. I’ll never forget hearing Mylon Lefevre sing Crank it Up and Whiteheart tell us to Read the Book, Don’t Wait for the Movie, and David Meece sing about Grandma and Beethoven and Piano Lessons or something silly like that. I remember my friend Glenn, a really cool adult with a killer sound system in his truck, who took me to my first concert, Petra, and then later to Stryper at the Syria Mosque ballroom in Pittsburgh. We also water skied at his house. I never did actually stand up on the skis. He had a hot motor boat.

Then there was my home church and the elders there, the men who signed my ordination certificate, three of whom are now with the Lord, who are on my short list of heroes. The preacher at my home church who has managed to last a lot longer at the same church than I lasted in my entire ministerial career. Bible school teachers and youth group leaders are also fond memories for me.

What can I say about those people, those Christians, I met while at Bible College? Paul Kissling, who taught me to value others’ opinions, makes my short list of heroes as does Ron Fisher who loves God’s Word and Terry Ferguson (RIP) whose preaching style greatly influenced my own style and George Brown who taught me that I can still love books that are not ‘christian’. Then at Cincinnati Christian Seminary I met up close and personally Jack Cottrell whose Doctrine of Grace class totally undid me—the effects of that class still resound within me five years later. I met Fred Thompson in a theology class at Emmanuel School of Religion. To this day I have no idea what we talked about in that class.

And elders, deacons, preachers, and everyday joes at churches in Traverse City, St Louis, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Alma and half a dozen other communities in Michigan. Churches in North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where I have preached. People like Chris Lyons and Joe Martino and Brendt Waters and the rest of the gang here who have been so patient and loving with me—allowing me writing privileges when it was clear that I had no business talking about Jesus or his Gospel, let alone writing about it in public. I wish I had time to tell you about my love for Reed Duncan an elder at my home church whose kindness to my family extends more than I could ever fathom. I only briefly met Larry and Carol Necessary at a Church in Indiana, but they are two very special people. There was also the Catholic priest who conducted the wedding of my sister in law who was about as kind as could be when he allowed me to share his pulpit during the wedding and deliver a homily for my in laws. And another Catholic priest who shared his pulpit so I could preach the sermon at the funeral of one my young Cub Scouts who was tragically killed in a car accident.

There was this fella, at the church in Chester, West Virginia, where I served as preacher for a couple of years or so. His name was Earl and his wife’s name was Birdie. They died while I was in Chester. I preached both funerals. I love them and miss them—but not for what you might think. I remember when my Jacob was born, we had no insurance. The day of Jacob’s birth Earl came walking up the sidewalk as I was running out the door to go to the hospital. Earl said he had been walking around the property and had found an envelope. He also said that there was a rule that anything found on the church property automatically belonged to the preacher. I was all of 28 or so and thought he was serious. I didn’t realize how serious until later when I opened the envelope and found $2500 inside. But I miss them not because of that, but because of the way they died. I have never seen a couple, a husband and wife, love each other so much, and die so beautifully. They fought not, but gently went with Jesus.

There was Joe for whom I drove cab for a while and his wife Carolyn whom I loved dearly. I buried them both. Joe was a business man who was always trying something new. I think the church I served while driving cab for Joe drew the line when Joe had me delivering beer to people’s houses and picking up dancers at the local strip club and picking people up at bars or dropping them off at the local race track. Man do I miss Joe! There was Audrey Kilian and her son Scott, both of whom are now with the Lord. God how I miss Audrey and Scott. And there’s my friend David Rawls who has been my constant friend since we first met in 1991 at Great Lakes Christian College. Dave and his wife Gina taught us how to play cards and Dave has taught me how to love. And Kelly Irish, my best Anglican friend in the world who has taught me not to be afraid of the Holy Spirit of God.

There was a couple whose name escapes me that we met in North Carolina in 1994. We were on the highway at high noon when the timing gear on the car, well, broke. The car stopped. We were stuck. I remember an unnamed African-American girl who saw us stranded at a phone booth and took us in her car, three out of place white folks, to a hotel. I have no doubt she was an angel of God. No doubts at all. The next day some folks from a church there in Winston-Salem, he was an airline pilot, took us in for several hours while our car was being repaired. They fed us and gave us some space to rest with our one year old son who had spent the previous 5 days learning to walk at my brother’s house. We were to start an internship later that week so I cannot even describe for you how blessed we were.

I think about all the disciples I have known in the last 30 some years and I am overwhelmed. Everywhere Paul and his friends went they marked the place by the people, the disciples, they knew there. Mnason. Philip. Agabus. Disciples. Some named, some unnamed. I recall how each step of their journey was marked by some relationship or other. Maybe it was weeping. Maybe it was prophecy. Maybe it was prayer. Maybe it was hospitality. Maybe it was a dry bed. Maybe it was just a simple greeting of love and affection. I know why Luke thought it necessary to tell us Paul went to Kos and Patara and Ptolemais and Rhodes and Tyre—places no one in today’s world really cares about—it was because in these places there were disciples who loved and were loved. There were disciples there who remembered Paul and his companions. It was in those places that Paul his friends had people with whom they shared something in common: Jesus.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. I could tell you about the people I have ‘met’ through their books—Christians along for the journey. I think about all the Christians I have met, in all the places I have met them, and how in one way or another they ministered to me or my family and I think to myself: My God I am surrounded on all sides by the people of God. How many people I have met throughout my journey who belonged to Christ and have loved us and cared for us I cannot truly count. This is why, I believe, chapter 21 exists, and why Romans 16 exists, and Matthew 1: look at all the people who have this Jesus in common and who minister to strangers and friends alike. Look how big is the body of Christ! Look how grand is this thing that God has made that I can travel from the UP in Michigan to Galveston Bay in Texas to Winston-Salem, North Carolina and find the people of God. For that, I give thanks to God.

I grew up impressed by the people I knew
in the buckle of the bible belt
hopped in the van with the band
now I’ve been just about everywhere else
Met a soldier from Seattle and a lawyer from the East
a Texas oil baron and a Roman Catholic priest
Every day I choose
to walk in their shoes
’cause pretty are the feet of those
who bring the good news
Good people
good, good people
everywhere, everywhere it’s God’s people
Been on the road been far from home
but I found me a friend or two
time has taught me well and I can tell you
the good things people do
they really care and I’ve been there
seen it with my eyes
you can tell that they’re God’s people
by the goodness in their lives. (Good People, Audio Adrenaline)

Yeah, that’s how I feel. It is easy to get frustrated with God’s people and to imagine they are the worst folks on earth. Lord knows I have shared my share of anger and vented my share of bile at the way some church folks behave. I haven’t even scratched the surface of how good God’s people are, and this is only how they have blessed me. I do think it is important to remember those who have blessed us. I think that’s what Luke was doing: remembering the good people who, because of God’s grace, shared a day or two or three with others who were taking a journey. I don’t think it matters if we are on our way to Jerusalem or Borneo or Grand Rapids or Houston. What is important is to remember the people who have blessed you along your way.

I believe Luke’s point was this: these were disciples of Jesus, see how they blessed other disciples of Jesus. I wonder who might journey through my neighborhood tomorrow? I wonder how the Lord will ask me to bless them and help them on their journey—wherever that journey may be taking them? I wonder if I’ll spend a day or two or three with them? I only pray that when the Lord does, I am ready. There are good people in the church.

I want to be like them.

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Daily Office

“Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.”– Matthew 9:1-8

Let me ask you a question: Do you think this man’s paralysis had something to do with the sin that Jesus forgave?

Whatever else we might say about this passage of Scripture, this much is true: the man who was brought to Jesus on a stretcher got more that day than he bargained for. I don’t think Jesus forgave this man’s sins simply to irritate the scribes who happened to be hanging around that day. Nevertheless, they accuse him of blasphemy and Jesus rejects that charge out of hand: No! This is not blasphemy at all and I will prove it so.

And he does. Then he sends the man home, and there, in that simple phrase is what blows my mind about this story. It’s good that Jesus healed the man. It’s good that Jesus forgave his sins. It’s good that Jesus disproved the charge of blasphemy. The whole story is good, but that part where Jesus sends him ‘home’ is great. It is fantastic.

I am aware there is a lot going on in this ‘panel’ of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is healing. He is demonstrating his power. He is demonstrating his divinity (whatever that might entail). All of this, coming after the Sermon on the Mount—actions empowering his words—is a mighty testimony to the faithfulness of Jesus to his calling as the Son of God. As you may have guessed, however, something troubles me about the way preachers typically (and, not incidentally, traditionally) have preached this passage—as if it were disconnected from the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) and the great teaching that follows (10-13).

Typically this is a passage preached simply to demonstrate that Jesus was divine, God, that he was able and empowered and authorized to forgive sins. Yes. Yes. Yes. All of this is true, but that’s not the complete picture. Let’s not forget that something else happened that day too: “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” “Go home!” he says. “Go home.” It could be that he was like that fellow who laid by the pool all day (John 5) or that lame fellow in Acts 3 whom Peter healed and hardly ever went home or perhaps he had been rejected by his family. My point is: maybe he hadn’t been home for a while. As a paralyzed man, a sinner obviously cursed because of his sin, maybe he was unwelcome at home. I cannot think of a more liberating thing to happen to that man than for Jesus to look at him and say, “Go home!”

Thus the crowds respond the way they did, in a way, I might add, quite unlike the response of those who lived near the tombs in the region of the Gadarenes. It’s one thing to command the demon-possessed and quite another to heal a man from paralysis, right? But put yourself in the man’s place and hear Jesus say: “Your sins are forgiven; rise up; go home!” I suppose he could have said a lot of things; he chose to tell him to go home. Maybe that was Jesus’ way of saying that he was completely healed: he gave him back his home, his family, his dignity. Carried in on a mat, by ‘men’; carried out by the grace of God, on his own two feet.

In the April 2000 issue of Interpretation, L Gregory Jones, then dean of Duke University Divinity School (he may still be, I have no idea), captures well what I am getting at in his essay Crafting Communities of Forgiveness:

“At heart, Christian forgiveness is the means by which God’s love moves toward reconciliation in the wake of the sin and evil that mar God’s creation. Forgiveness aims to restore us to communion with God, with one another, and with the whole creation. We are not created to be isolated or self-enclosed individuals, and God’s forgiveness aims at reshaping us for faithful fellowship” (123).

So Jesus sends him home. He reconciles him to God (“Your sins are forgiven”) and he reconciles him to humanity (“Take your bed, go home”) and to the whole creation since the man is now whole, he can take his rightful place among the living and contribute to the everyday comings and goings of humanity. Jesus is about making us whole, perfect, complete and we are not entirely complete until we are reconciled to God and man. His forgiveness of the man not only restored his hope with God, but also enabled the man to do something, I suspect, he hadn’t been able to do for a while: go home.

Like the men in the Gadarenes, Jesus brought this man back to life. He raised him up, brought him back to life. Now he lives to God, to his family, and to the community. The reconciliation, healing and resurrection that Jesus gives to us is about so much more than our mere selves. The healing and resurrection of one person changes everything and everyone.

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Daily Office

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21)

Something that has bothered me for a long time is the manner in which sinners are typically reckoned as members of the church. We ask them to ‘repeat the confession’: I believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God AND my personal Lord and Savior. So, we make sure we get in all those great Christological terms: Christ, Son, Lord, Savior, Jesus, God. And then, to much applause and fanfare, the right hand of fellowship is extended and the person is welcomed into the church. (Or they are baptized or catechized or turned into twice the sons of hell than they were before the confession.)

The problem is that nowhere in the Scripture are we told that this is even remotely close to the way in which sinners are reckoned as saints, orphans are reckoned as family, or wanderers are reckoned as disciples. In fact Jesus seems to be saying here that the confession of him as ‘Lord, Lord’ is one of the least reliable ways of determining anything. Jesus says that ‘not everyone’ who says this will ‘enter the kingdom’ (which I do not take to mean that it will be sufficient for some). There are wolves among the sheep. A lot of people are simply full of words, empty words as it turns out in the long run.

Bonhoeffer noted well,

“Even if we make the confession of faith, it gives us no title or special claim upon Jesus. We can never appeal to our confession or be saved simply on the ground that we have made it. Neither is the fact that we are members of a Church which has a right confession a claim to God’s favour…God will not ask us that day whether we were good Protestants, but whether we have done his will” (The Cost of Discipleship, 193; Bonhoeffer’s arguments here are a bit confusing but the short and long of it, he argues, is that this is not an ‘ordinary contrast of word and deed, but two different relations between man and God.’ One has to do with works, the other with grace.)

The gracious call of God, in other words, transforms us. There is a sense in which, in agreement with Bonhoeffer, our confessions are self-righteous and calls for people to notice us while our ‘doing’ is a drawing of attention to God, however quietly it may happen. Here N.T. Wright is also in agreement,

“This revolutionary vision of virtue thus enables us to shift attention quite drastically away from the idea that Christian behavior in the world is basically about ‘good works’ in the sense of good moral living, keeping the rules, and so on, and toward the idea that Christian behavior is basically about ‘good works’ in the sense of doing things which bring God’s wisdom and glory to birth in the world” (After You Believe, 71; his emphasis).

So Jesus is saying that, while a confession is not entirely out of place, if you truly want to demonstrate the grace of God in your life, or answer his gracious call, then respond to Him…make a confession not with words, but with actions. “The grace of Jesus is a demand upon the doer, and so his doing becomes the true humility, the right faith, and the right confession of the grace of the God who calls” He calls, we answer. “They know that confession does not justify, and so they have gone and made the name of Jesus great among the people by their deeds” (The Cost of Discipleship, 194).

Confession with words draws attention to the self: Lord, Lord, Look at me!

Actions, doing the will of God, calls attention to the God who calls: Behold, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So go, make his Name great today. Jesus seems to be more impressed with doing than with saying. And this, I suspect, will be the true test of whether or not a person has been received into fellowship in the church.

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“The legalists can never live up to the expectations they project on God.”

–Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 40

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“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn or deserve it.”

–Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 25

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Back in the day, when I was eager and thought it mattered, I used to subscribe to a number of theological journals. Among them was Interpretation a theological publication of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. I enjoyed reading through the thoughtful essays and the ‘between text and sermon’ section near the back of each month’s journal. Each month covered a different topic ranging from exploring a different book of the Bible to serious theological propositions.

Last week I was perusing through some of my back issues and one in particular caught my eye. It was the April 2000 issue titled “Forgiveness and Reconciliation.” This was perfect given that my wife and I are currently praying and exploring how we can be forgiving people in some areas of our lives we believe need healing and reconciliation. Forgiveness used to come easily, but for some reason during the last year or so of my life, I have found it easier and easier to bear grudges and withhold forgiveness–especially towards brothers and sisters in Christ. I confess my weakness and failure in this regard.

This movement has been a terrible burden. It has made it difficult to worship. It has made it difficult to pray. It has made it difficult to think. It has made it difficult to study the Scripture. It has made being a man, husband, and father difficult. It has made relationships in general very, very difficult because in that place, that place of unrest and unforgiveness and bitterness, I found myself building protective walls–cutting off others so as to avoid all possibility of being hurt. I’m not offering excuses. I am saying that at the root of all that I have struggled with for the past year is, most likely, a terrible spirit of grudgery and unforgiveness.

If you have carried any such burden in your life, ever, at all, then you know full well the weight of the burden. Then that preacher at the church yesterday took out this gorgeous Katana, reached back, and drove it straight into my heart, without showing the slightest remorse: “When people love Jesus, they will love each other.” Why do preachers do that?

I have been living in that place; it is a cold, cold place. And I did all I could to douse the warm fires of the Spirit of Jesus with my own bitterness. Now the reservoir is empty. There’s no water left to quench the Spirit. Once again, I am undone, out of options. Jesus has cornered me and given me no other option. And it is that preacher’s fault. I think he is wise to allow us to use up all our water. It helps us realize that we have no other option but to forgive. It is also his way of loving us back into his arms. It is his way of saying, I’m not letting you go that easily. It’s his way of forcing us to name our sin and deal with it through prayer.

In the first essay in the journal from that month, Crafting Communities of Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones who, at the time at least, was dean of Duke University Divinity School, wrote:

Could it be that in the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines? Could it be that forgiveness is less a matter of the will and more a miracle that we discover by being found, and struggling to participate, in the practices of grace-filled Christian communities? (131)

In other words, the very thing that I needed in order to cultivate forgiveness and grace as a habit of my life, the very place where it was going to happen, was the very community I had cut off (or cut myself off from) in the first place. Forgiveness was ‘easy’ when I was firmly ensconced in the life of the church and rubbing shoulders with other people who were also practicing, but when I moved out of that place and began living among the Philistines–a people among whom grace and forgiveness is neither practiced nor prized–those things became more and more difficult and far more complex in practice. What I learned is that I am utterly incapable of being as forgiving as I had once imagined myself to be. That’s humiliating and humbling.

So, I have learned that I need the church (that is, the people of Jesus) far more than the people of Jesus need me. Jones concludes:

The questions raised earlier may now be stated in declarative form: the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends, in part, on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines. If we want to be faithful in our witness to God, then we ought to focus more attention on cultivating and crafting communities whose practices are marked by the crucified and risen Christ and bear witness to the eschatological work of the Holy Spirit. For, in so doing, we will discover with even greater power the active receptivity that makes it possible for us to learn the painful yet redemptive process of embodying forgiveness in faithful communion with God, with one another, and with all creation. (134)

Forgiveness is hard work best done within the community of God’s people–even when the forgiveness involves ‘all creation’ (that is, those who are not a part of the community). I believe we should be able to practice forgiveness in the church, but I wonder why it is so hard to do so? Why do I find it so painful to go to the people, the community of the crucified, and speak of forgiveness and grace and love?

Forgiveness is different and difficult for the people of God because it requires humility. We may end up having to ask for forgiveness before we ever dare assume the right of being forgiving.

Let me end with a question or two.

First, why do you think it is easier for us as Christians to forgive those who are not Christians than it is for us to forgive other Christians?

Second, how do we promote such a practice in our communities? Jones, in his essay (which explores this idea by explicating the letter of James) suggests that through the practices of singing, truthful speech, praying, anointing, confessing, and engaging in mutual admonition within the community, we learn to promote this practice. “…part of the gift of Christian life is that we do not learn to do any of them alone.” His idea is that in the practice of such things we learn to be a community of grace and forgiveness. What do you think?

Third, does such a community exist? Can the church be such a place?

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Here’s a super thought:

“We love men not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some kind of divine spark. We love every man because God loves him. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed that he does.”

–Martin Luther King, jr. (The first two sentences are quoted by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor. The last sentence is from Strength to Love. The entire quote is from Strength to Love.)

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