It’s been nearly two years since I’ve written a blog post. There are several excuses I can make for that being the case. First, Vanessa and I bought a business and, believe it or not, it is time consuming. Second, the title of my webpage is “Not the Perfect Pastor,” and I’m not a pastor anymore, so there’s that. Third, leaving the United Methodist Church was painful. It would have been too easy to process my pain and grief by expressing anger and bitterness about the state of the United Methodist Church. I didn’t want that to happen, so I refrained from posting anything here.
So, you might be wondering (you might not) why are you posting now? Honestly? Because I got an email last week from WordPress that included an invoice for the webpage. I figured if I was going to pay for a website I might as well use it. That, and I need to reestablish writing as a discipline. I’ve developed other disciplines over the past couple of years, but writing is one that I actually enjoy, so I need to do more of it. I’m also not preaching as much so even writing sermon manuscripts has been lacking as a discipline. So, I’m paying for it. Might as well use it. I enjoy writing. Why not write more? Maybe when I do preach again, my sermons will be better because I wrote as a discipline. Anyway…
A New Beginning
Today is a new beginning in writing for me. I don’t know what this post (or this page, for that matter) is likely to become. I mean, really, Not the Perfect Pastor doesn’t really fit anymore. Though I’m still FAR from perfect, wearing the pastor title is no longer appropriate, but this is the webpage I’ve paid for, so I’ll use it anyway. Even though I’m no longer a pastor, I believe I still have a pastor’s heart. I see it everyday in the work I do with the general public and with my staff. And, though I’m no longer a pastor, I’m still called to ministry. The ministry I’m called to now is not vocational in nature. Actually, it’s quite freeing to not be dependent on the church for a living. It frees a person (or at least it’s freed me) to be less subtle in speaking to the body of Christ. The love for the body of Christ still runs as deep, but with God’s provision coming from outside the Church allows one to speak more prophetically, perhaps.
Speaking prophetically. I’m certain that is one of the great needs of the body of Christ in this day and age. I don’t fancy myself a prophet, but if I sense a word from the Lord to the Church, I’m bound to speak it. It might be the only gift I have to offer the Church at this point in life. Perhaps that is how the Lord is still “calling” me to ministry. My prayer is that if the Lord is calling me to a prophetic ministry, that He will give me grace to speak in helpful ways that grow the Kingdom. I know how some (all) of the Old Testament prophets were received. If it still works the same way, I’m not relishing the call.
Oh, I’m open to being a pastor if that’s where the Lord is still calling. I’ve been in conversations with a number of churches that have disaffiliated from the United Methodist Church about serving as their pastor. Vanessa and I haven’t yet sensed the need in answering that call, but we’re open and those kinds of conversations will continue, so I’ve learned to never say never where God is concerned.
I’ve also been blessed to serve my new tribe (the Evangelical Methodist Church) by preparing informational literature for the denomination to share with UM churches that have reached out to the denomination asking questions about their future. It’s a small thing, no doubt, but it has helped to affirm the Lord’s continuing call in my life. I pray it has been helpful to others, as well. I also have the privilege of serving the EMC as a member of the Mission Status Board for a small church in West Virginia. What is that, you ask? It is a board established by the denominational leadership to give guidance to a local congregation in determining its future. Yes, those kinds of things can be done via Zoom. We do live in a changing world.
So, ministry opportunities abound, but writing needs to be part and parcel of all of them. So, I start writing again. Forgive me when I vent. Be patient when I share what I believe to be a prophetic word from the Lord. Be kind in your rebukes and rebuttals. More than anything, be strong in the Lord. He is our Rock and our Salvation. Join me in this new journey, won’t you?
You know my friend, Boudreaux? I think I’ve told you about him before. Well, Boudreaux and his wife, Clotile, go down to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and down there at St. Peter’s, they hold weekly husband’s marriage seminars.
At the session one week, the priest asked Boudreaux, who was approaching his 50th wedding anniversary to Clotile, to take a few minutes and share some insight into how he had managed to stay married to the same woman all these years.
Boudreaux replied to the assembled husbands: “Well, I’ve tried to treat her nice, spend the money on her, but best of all is, I took her to Italy for the 25th anniversary!”
The priest responded: “Boudreaux, you are an amazing inspiration to all the husbands here! Please tell us what you are planning for your wife for your 50th anniversary?”
Boudreaux proudly replied: “I’m gonna’ go pick her up.”
A METAPHOR FOR GRACE
Oh, that life were that easy, right? We all know it’s not. Those of us who have been married any length of time know that marriage is hard work. As we continue resetting our understanding of God’s grace and how we experience our relationship with God, I remind us that our relationship with God can somewhat be compared to a relationship of a husband and wife in marriage. There is the courtship stage of the relationship, where one partner “woos” the other, inviting them into a relationship. That courtship stage, when God is wooing us into a relationship with Himself, we experience God’s prevenient grace.
Then, there is the moment we say “I do” to God, when we are, by grace, able to acknowledge that God desires to have a relationship with us…we hear His voice…and we say “Yes” to Him. That moment, that part of the relationship, we experience the justifying grace of God. We experience the forgiveness of our sins, and we are given new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As a husband and wife stand before the altar and publicly proclaim their love and say “I do” to each other, so we proclaim our love and commitment to Christ.
Something happens after the wedding ceremony, though. Yes, I know we like to think it’s called the honeymoon, and there is that honeymoon phase of marriage that everything seems to be wonderful. Of course, I can say I’ve been on an almost 40-year honeymoon, but that’s for another day. Seriously, though, we know what happens…and it’s called life. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, in the everyday times…when life happens.
A CALL TO HOLINESS
Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy,” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.
Let me pause here and insert that living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a sinless life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. Certainly, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, but he also delivers us from the power of sin.
As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will be angry. We will be frustrated. That’s life! In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser instincts of our fallen nature. Christ gives us new life. Christ gives us new hope. It is Christ who sustains us through the journey.
The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Holiness is about growing up in love. It is growth, and as I anticipate the coming of summer and that first ripe tomato of the season, I’m reminded that growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.
C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give him something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.
God’s sanctifying grace works on those problematic places…those sinful places in our lives. Conviction is part of His sanctifying work. Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of Scripture is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination… closer to holiness
THE HARD WORK OF HOLINESS
Any relationship takes work. Whether it’s the relationship between a husband and wife, or between parents and children, friends or co-workers. If we don’t do the work to sustain relationships, they will break down and there will be distance between the persons in the relationship. In our relationship with God, it is God’s desire to make us holy. I think I’ve written before that God is not nearly as concerned about our happiness as he is about our holiness.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12: 1-2 (NIV)
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Roman Church, says “be transformed” (Romans 12: 2). That’s passive, my friends. Transformation is something that happens to us and in us. We can’t say, “I’m going to transform myself, I’m going to change.” We may give it the old college try, but we’ll most probably fail because it is God and His grace that does the work.
I hear you asking, “How?” What makes us holy? I remind us of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability.
Accountability? Let’s not blow by that one. Yes, accountability is a spiritual discipline. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must hold each other accountable to living the “holy” life-the Christian life. We are meant to do life together. We can’t simply watch a brother or sister in Christ who struggles with sin and not offer encouragement, correction and hope. Jesus didn’t mind challenging his disciples when their faith waned, and he certainly never backed down from challenging the Pharisees. That’s accountability at work, and it is a means of experiencing God’s sanctifying grace.
We know about bible study, too. There is another one without which no transformation will occur. It is the spiritual discipline of submission.
Submission is the spiritual discipline that frees us from the burden of always needing to get our own way. In submission we learn to hold things loosely. We also learn to diligently watch over the spirit in which we hold others— honoring them, preferring them, loving them.
Submission is not age or gender specific. We learn to follow the wise counsel of the apostle Paul to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). In Ephesians 5, Paul is introducing the “household code” for the Christian, and he uses the analogy of husband and wife in speaking of the idea of mutual submission, but this submission is not limited to that relationship alone. Each of us is to engage in mutual submission out of reverence for Christ.
The touchstone for the Christian understanding of submission is Jesus’s statement, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).” This call of Jesus to “self-denial” is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way. It has nothing to do with self-contempt or self-hatred. It does not mean the loss of our identity or our individuality. It means quite simply the freedom to give way to others. It means to hold the interests of others above our own. It means freedom from self-pity and self-absorption.
Indeed, to save our life is to lose it; to lose our life for Christ’s sake is to save it (see Mark 8:35). The cross is the ultimate symbol of submission. Again, the Apostle Paul writes, “And being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7 – 8).
Jesus didn’t just die a “cross death.” He lived a “cross life” of daily submission to God the Father. We, too are called to this constant, everyday “cross life” of submission. It is as we submit to the Holy Spirit that He does His transforming work in us and we grow in holiness by His sanctifying grace.
A man and woman had been married for more than 60 years. They had shared everything. They had talked about everything. They had kept no secrets from each other, except that the little old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or ask her about.
For all of these years, he had never thought about the box, but one day, the little old woman got very sick, and the doctor said she would not recover.
In trying to sort out their affairs, the little old man took down the shoe box and took it to his wife’s bedside.
She agreed that it was time that he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two crocheted dolls and a stack of money totaling $95,000.
He asked her about the contents. “When we were to be married,” she said, “my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was to never argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll.”
The little old man was so moved; he had to fight back tears. Only two precious dolls were in the box. She had only been angry with him two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness.
“Honey,” he said, “that explains the dolls, but what about all of this money? Where did it come from?”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s the money I made from selling the dolls.”
Day after day, year after year, life happens and we make the daily choice to submit to the other, and we wake up forty, fifty years later and the love has grown deeper and more meaningful, and we discover our life in the other. Ultimately, the other for the disciple of Jesus, is Jesus Himself. We love Him and we love like Him. That is holiness. That is God’s sanctifying grace at work.
There is a phenomenon happening in the West that has been given the name “spiritual seeking.” The focus of spiritual seeking is on personal experience, the sacred and the soul. There is little doubt in my mind as I reflect on the religious landscape of our nation that spiritual seeking, with its emphasis on individualism, choice, and quest for meaning is exerting profound changes on traditional religion. The Gallup Organization says that 80% of all Americans believe that an individual should arrive at his or her own beliefs independent of any church. That’s spiritual seeking with an emphasis on individualism.
I mention spiritual seeking because we think it’s something we came up with. Long before we were spiritually seeking, God was seeking us. We who follow the tradition of John Wesley know that (or, at least we should). When we, as Wesleyans, talk about God’s grace, we see His grace made real in our lives in different ways at different stages. But, all grace is rooted in a relationship–the relationship that God desires to have with us through Jesus Christ. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God in His grace came seeking for us, and we know it as God’s prevenient grace.
Just as a reminder, grace is God’s saving acts toward us–His precious, unmerited favor. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it, yet God, in love, extends His mercy toward us to reconcile us to Himself–to have a relationship with Him.
That’s as it should be, right? Right! Because relationships are important to us. Vanessa and I are coming up on 40 years of marriage this year (it seems like only yesterday!). You may find this hard to believe, but Vanessa and I didn’t hit it off when we first met. We met in high school. I was the home-grown boy, and she was the new girl. Came from somewhere up north is all we knew, and she talked funny, too. She thought I was a jerk, and I probably was. After all, I was fifteen years old, and most—no, all—fifteen-year-old boys are prone to being jerks. It’s called testosterone, and it’s part of the male condition.
Ours was a relationship that started off from a distance, hard to understand with little effort put into it. But it was a relationship, nonetheless. Everyone from Oprah to Dr. Phil spend time dishing out advice on how to handle our relationships because we spend so much time trying to figure out relationships. First with our parents, then with that special someone we grow to love, then our children (especially if they are teen-agers!). Then there are neighbors, co-workers, friends and extended family.
We have so many relationships to keep straight that we almost overlook one relationship that is the most important one of all, our relationship with God. Our relationship with God often goes unnoticed until the day we come to faith in Jesus Christ, and then we go to work reading our Bible, attending church, praying and serving God. We think our relationship with God began the day we came to faith. And you might be right. Our relationship with God did begin the day we came to faith, but God’s relationship with us, now that is another matter altogether. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said long ago as he communicates his understanding of the depth of God’s knowledge of who Isaiah was:
“Listen to me, all of you in far-off lands! The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” (Isaiah 49:1)
And the prophet Jeremiah, announcing his ministry to the nation of Israel could proclaim:
“The Lord gave me a message. He said,  "I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)
Both of these Old Testament prophets understood that God had a relationship with them long before they were aware of it, and that fact, in its bare essence, communicates the idea of prevenient grace. Let me illustrate.
The Bible is God’s story. The earliest chapters of the Bible reveal a God who is seeking a relationship with humanity. In chapter three of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, God appeared toward evening and called out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” Yes, the story begins with a seeking God. God seeking humanity to reconcile us to Himself.
God’s story finds Him offering this relationship with Noah (Gen. 9: 8-13), with a nomadic livestock trader named Abram (Gen. 12: 1-3). God renewed his covenant search for the redemption of humanity with Moses after God delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery (Exodus 19:3-6). God sought a man after His own heart in King David, and it was David who said, “It is my family God has chosen! Yes He has made an everlasting covenant with me. His agreement is eternal, final, sealed” (2 Sam. 23:5).
Humanity broke God’s covenant, but He continued to search. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied:
“The day will come,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the old one I made with their ancestors...They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant I will make with them...I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people...And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
God’s new covenant was made real for us in Jesus Christ. On the night Jesus was arrested he was gathered with his disciples. There he took the bread, blessed it, and told his disciples to eat it for it was his body. Then he took the cup of wine, and blessed it, and with the cup said to his disciples, “Drink this cup, for this is my blood, which seals the covenant between God and His people. It is poured out to forgive the sins of many” (Matt. 26:28).
That’s right, God took the initiative in the relationship with His creation, and He, through His Son, Jesus Christ, takes the initiative in His relationship with us. When we were powerless, God moved in His Son Jesus Christ so we could experience what the Apostle Paul calls “friendship with God.” It is through a wonderful thing called grace that we experience God’s friendship. And we thought it all started when we “got saved.”
The idea of prevenient grace can be summed up by saying, “God has been busy searching for us in order to have a relationship with us.” One of my seminary professors defined “prevenient grace” as “grace that goes before.” In other words, prevenient grace is God reaching out to us even before we know it. It is a grace that prevents us from moving so far from God that we cannot respond to God’s offer of love.
Prevenient grace is seen in the most quoted verse of the Bible–John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever would believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus himself said, “I come to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). Our response to God’s seeking is our response of faith. Prevenient grace is God working in our lives from the moment we are conceived until that special moment when we, by faith, receive God’s free gift of salvation.
The experience of God’s prevenient grace may be different for all of us. The experience of prevenient grace can come through friends, family members, parents or grandparents, even events may serve as vessels of God’s grace. Prevenient grace is also made real through the church as the church faithfully administers the Word and the Sacraments. Every sermon preached, every song sung, every time the elements of communion are received, every time a person is baptized, it is a testimony to the fact that God is seeking a relationship with us. The Holy Spirit is active in and through all these elements to make God real in our lives.
There is a profound reason we Methodists baptize infants. The sacrament of baptism is our acknowledgement, our assent of faith that we believe in prevenient grace. We proclaim that God is at work in this child’s life even before he/she is aware. It is not an acknowledgement of salvation. No, we must respond in faith to God’s call, but we affirm the presence of God’s grace.
The Holy Spirit also speaks directly to our own hearts and minds as we face life every day. Even our conscience becomes a tool of the Holy Spirit in making us aware of God’s presence and calling. The Holy Spirit courts us, woos us, encourages us, calls us, but never forces us, to repent, turn to God and receive eternal life.
Max Lucado, in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, tells the story of Maria and her daughter Christina. Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Christina wanted to see the world. Discontent living at home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city.
One morning she ran away, breaking her mother’s heart. Her mother knew what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, so Maria quickly packed to go find her daughter. On her way to the bus stop, she went to a drugstore to get one last thing—pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all the money she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she got on the next bus to Rio de Janeiro.
Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. At each place she left her picture–taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a corner phone booth. On the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before Maria’s money and pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The tired mother cried as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.
A few weeks later, Christina was coming down the stairs in a seedy hotel. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times she had longed to trade all those countless beds for her secure pallet. And yet the little village seemed too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back Maria had written this: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.”
And Christina went home.
God is the same way. He wants us to come home. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’ve become. We can always come home to Him. It is like Maria, reaching out for her daughter even when her daughter didn’t realize it.
It is like God reaching out to us while we are living a life of sin and we are lost and yet, Christ is there, reaching, longing, desiring to bring us home.
It is prevenient grace. Like Vanessa and I began a courtship over 40 years ago, so God began a courtship with us long before we were aware. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, even from our mother’s womb, He called us. Are you “spiritually seeking”? Good, there is a God who loves you who is spiritually seeking you, too!
It’s Tuesday! That means I have to write something. No, there’s no law that says I do, and it’s only been a few weeks since I didn’t write on a Tuesday (I wrote on Wednesday that week), but writing has become a discipline for me, so it is a way for me to hold myself accountable. Of course, if you’re going to write, it helps to have something to write about. Paraphrasing an old preacher: “It’s better to have something to write than to have to write something.” Yet, I write for the sake of writing. I suppose this is your invitation to join me in my scattered thoughts.
There is one word on my mind today that I really should write about. That word? Trust. Actually, what’s on my mind in the trust that is lacking in our world today. It bothers me. Hardly anyone trusts anyone else these days. Democrats don’t trust Republicans. That’s fine. Republicans return the favor. Average everyday citizens don’t trust the government. That’s fine, too. The government pretty much returns the favor.
I could expand the thought to include the lack of trust that exists in the religious world, too. Let’s face it, the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the split in the Anglican communion and the soon-coming split in the United Methodist Church has created an environment where trust has been greatly diminished in the venerable institution that is called “The Church.” I could write more on the lack of trust in the church, but it wouldn’t be helpful in restoring trust (it might actually hurt), and as disciples of Jesus Christ, we’ve been committed the ministry of reconciliation, so I’ll just move on from the topic.
Of course, there is a growing distrust of our educational institutions, as well. Let’s see? What are people distrustful of? “Progressive” curriculum. Parents who chose to home-school. Teacher’s unions. The student loan debacle. School closings during the pandemic. I don’t know, these seem to only be scratching the surface of where people are displaying their mistrust of the educational institution.
I could probably go on, but I hope you get my point. Trust, or the lack thereof, is on my mind this morning, but I refuse to let distrust dominate my thoughts today. Rather, I’m going to chose another word–grace. Why? Because as I ponder the trust deficit among us, I am concerned about the part I’ve played in increasing that deficit, and I am reminded of how much I need grace.
I am going to chose this morning to allow my mind to be drawn to what has been called the Magna Carta of grace:
8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
Ephesians 2: 8 – 10 (New Living Translation
Grace, God’s grace is the only thing that will save us, and I need it in abundance, not only today, but everyday, so I’ll focus on His grace today, rather than my distrust. God’s grace can take a heinous murderer and turn him into the world’s greatest evangelist. That’s powerful stuff right there!
Need I remind you of the Apostle Paul? When the church was in its infancy, Paul was a Pharisee threatened by the insurgency being created by these rabble rousers who followed an itinerant rabbi put to death by the Roman authorities. Paul was so zealous to squash this “movement” that he went and offered himself as a bounty hunter to the religious authorities so he could hunt down these people who followed “The Way.”
He was successful, too. The Book of Acts tells us a young man named Saul was consenting at the death of Stephen. But, we also know Paul as the person who would pen 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. We also know Paul as the person most responsible for modern Christian theology, and we know Paul as the person most responsible for the spread of Christianity into Europe. This Paul, would place God’s grace at the center of his theology, and thus it became the center of ours, too.
It would be really easy to define grace again, but rather than do that, I invite you to click here. Suffice it to say that for reasons I don’t fully understand, yet rooted in the nature of God, God gives Himself to us, attaches Himself to us, and acts to rescue us. Because of His mercy and love, God saves us, and that saving is a result of God’s grace. If we were to read Ephesians 2: 1 – 7, we would see that Paul is clear—wrath should have come, but grace comes instead. The gospel of grace says God gives Himself to us without any preconditions or complaints, and if so, then we are given significance, and we find our value in God’s relationship to us. The attention is not on us, though, but upon the One who loves us so deeply.
THE CHALLENGE OF GRACE
The gospel of grace challenges us. It challenges us by the very fact that a murderer’s life can be changed. We applaud the Apostle Paul for the transformation that God did in his life. Our trust in the gospel of grace wanes though when we think about Jeffery Dahmer (caution–graphic material). Dahmer was a child molesting, cannibalistic, serial killer responsible for raping, murdering, dismembering and consuming 17 men and boys. After his arrest and conviction Dahmer had, by all accounts, an authentic conversion to Christianity. He experienced the gospel of grace, and that makes us incredibly uncomfortable.
Why are we surprised that God could do that for Jeffery Dahmer? He does it for us, doesn’t he? J. D. Walt, who was Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Seminary for a while, expresses this sentiment in a recent devotional:
“Grace is incomprehensibly comforting yet incomparably devastating. Grace kills the human made economy of performance and merit. Grace breaks down every good thought (and every bad thought) I have about myself and replaces them with God’s good thought about me alone. He does the same for Jeffrey Dahmer and Saul of Tarsus. In and of myself, I bring before Almighty God the same merit that they do– which is none. If I can enter on these terms, I will receive the very same gift they do– which is everything. If I can’t exchange my nothing for God’s everything, just like everybody else, Jesus may as well be speaking to me when he says, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you’.”
There is so much more I want to write about grace, but my time is short this morning. I’m simply going to put distrust out of my mind and focus on the wonderful gift God has given me (and you, too!)–the gift of grace. I need to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God this morning. By grace, I’ll see it. I have to trust Him. I have no other choice. May I invite you to do the same?
The holidays are upon us yet again, and for that I am grateful. Not only is it the best time of the year, but this year, it indicates that 2020 is almost over! If there’s ever been a time when I couldn’t wait for a year to be over it’s this year. Of course, there is no way I’m going to say 2021 has to be a better year. That will jinx it for sure, so I’ll just stick with “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over!”
The holidays usually have their own unique stressors, but 2020 (as with everything else) will be unique in that the usual stress will be compounded by the added stress of Covid-19. Rather than the stress of parties and plans, it will be the stress (depression?) of canceled plans. If we follow the “guidelines,” we’ll all have a Zoom Christmas this year. I must confess that I’m grateful to not have the stress of making decisions about Christmas Eve services. I pray for my colleagues who are!
So, I’m taking a little time this morning to remind myself of advice I’ve offered believers almost every year for the past twenty years. I find the advice in Paul’s love letter to the Church at Philippi. The encouragement he offers the Church there is encouragement to me as we head into the holiday season, and it actually works pretty well the rest of the year, too.
THINK TO THANK
Paul begins his letter to Philippi with gratitude: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Phil. 1:3). Gratitude seems like an appropriate place to begin the holiday season. If you’ve been in the local stores, you would think that Thanksgiving has been skipped this year. Hey? We’re doing it at home, too. People put up their Christmas trees and lights in October in an effort to hasten the year’s end. Trust me! It didn’t get here any quicker.
Let’s not forget to be thankful…even for the year 2020. Gratitude can set the tone (change the tone?) for all that is happening in our lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic there is much for which to be grateful. What can we be grateful fo? I’m glad you asked. We can look to Paul for an answer.
First, we can be grateful that we are not alone (even though “officials” are encouraging limited gatherings). Paul called the Philippians “partners in spreading the Good News” (v. 5). We need to acknowledge and express our gratitude for those who share the life of Christian faith with us. We, indeed, are not alone.
One of the buzz phrases of the pandemic (although we don’t hear it as much lately) has been “We’re all in this together” (though an argument could be made that we’re not “together” [see here]). We all do share the same stress of the pandemic, that much is true, so in that regard we are not alone. But, as believers in Jesus Christ, our faith journey is shared with other believers, and there is hope in that for us, and we should be grateful.
Ironically, the holidays are the loneliest time of the year for many people. Whether the death of a loved one, a divorce or the empty nest syndrome, a first holiday season with changed circumstances can create its own type of loneliness (and it will be made worse by the pandemic). We are the body of Christ, and we have the body of Christ (even in a pandemic) to share life with. We are not alone!
Of course, that means we shouldn’t let others be alone either. We should look for ways to reach out to those who may be experiencing loneliness this holiday season. Perhaps it’s the neighbor who lost a spouse this year. Perhaps it’s a friend who has gone through a divorce, or a parent who lost a child. Whoever it may be, discover ways (yes, even in a pandemic) to reach out to share hope and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Another thing for which I can be grateful is that God is still working on me. Paul writes to the Philippians, “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again” (v. 6). That’s Good News! I can’t read this verse and not consider a Wesleyan understanding of “sanctifying” grace. It simply means “God is still working on me!” (Some would say He’s got a lot of work to do, but that’s another blog!)
Here’s something I consider, too. If God is not done with me yet, then there’s a better than even chance that He’s not done with whomever I encounter this holiday season. When I’m impatient with a cashier, I need remember that they are in need of grace, too. Why shouldn’t it be me who will extend them that grace, and in the process the Lord may teach us both something?
Yes, I need to think to thank…
LIVE TO LOVE
Paul’s love for the Philippian Church was evident in his letter. He writes: God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding (v. 8-9).
I am reminded of the Christmas hymn Love Came Down at Christmas. It was love that came down so that Jesus could give his disciples a new commandment–love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12). The point is made vividly in a prayer I came across some time ago:
Heavenly Father, Help us remember that the jerk who cut us off in trafficlast night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushinghome to cook dinner, help with homework, do the laundry and spend a fewprecious moments with her children.
Help us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young manwho can’t make change correctly is a worried 19-year-old college student,balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not gettinghis student loans for next semester.
Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging for money in the same spot every day (who really ought to get a job!) is a slave to addiction that we can only imagine in our worst nightmares.
Help us to remember that the old couple walking annoyingly slow through the store aisles and blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last year that they go shopping together.
Heavenly Father, remind us each day that, of all the gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts not to just those who are close to us, but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judge and quick to forgive, show patience, empathy and love.
May I live to love this holiday season.
COMMIT TO CHRIST-LIKENESS
For the believer in Jesus Christ, character matters. Paul reminds the Philippians (and us) “what really matters, so that we may live pure and blameless lives” (v. 10). Lord knows, we are not perfect, but that should not preclude our continuing pursuit of perfection as we grow in Christ-likeness. I remind us that Paul was writing to a young church that had few examples. We have over 2,000 years of church history and faithful saints. We are without excuse in pursuing holiness–not always attaining, yet always pursuing.
Paul says we should “filled with the fruit” (v. 10) of our salvation. We know that fruit, right? Love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). We should bear the characteristics of a Christ-like life. Otherwise, the world will never know the grace of salvation that comes in Jesus Christ.
Our commitment to live the Christ-like life comes before we enter the fray. Commitment comes before engagement. We begin every day with the end of the day in sight. Jesus came, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Long before that first Christmas, the commitment to the cross had been made. Long before the cross, God the Father made the commitment to forgive the sins of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ.
If we are not committed to Christ-likeness before the holidays begin, it is not likely we will live in Christ-likeness through the holidays. If we were not committed to the Christ-like life before the pandemic, it is not likely that we’ve exhibited much Christ-like behavior during the pandemic. I must commit to live like Christ this morning if I expect to model Christ this afternoon.
One way I can do that is to focus on the person who is behind any behavior I encounter throughout each and every day. Focus on people over behavior–not that behavior doesn’t matter, but it is the person Christ died to save, and by grace behaviors can change. I must know what’s important and I must value love, mercy and grace over impatience and inconvenience.
We are called to gratitude, love and grace. I need that reminder heading into the holiday season. Perhaps you do, too.
Y’all! I’ve got to tell you a story. Prayer works. It really does!
Anyone who knows me knows how little I care for going to the Walmart and it’s only gotten worse since Covid (actually, I’ve not cared for going into any retail establishment since Covid, but that’s another blog). But, I had to go to the Walmart the other day, so…
Hurricanes have a way of changing a person’s plans. Mind you, I’m not comparing the damage done by Hurricane Delta to our home to the destruction she caused many in southwest Louisiana, but they can sure be challenging to all of us.
In the days following the storm, my honey decides that she wants to change up the room we recently renovated (let’s call it a re-renovation–forced, but still…). She decides to take out a wall and make a large den in that part of the house, which basically means we no longer need the new television, so having never even opened the box, we decide to return it.
So, I take off a couple of days last week just to catch my breath after a big project at work. It seems to be an opportune time to return the television that, yes, we should have returned much sooner, but you know how those things go, right? I load the television (in its original, unopened box), get the receipt from my honey and head to Walmart.
I pull into the parking lot and my anxiety level increases just from that simple exercise. I utter this prayer: “Lord, by Your Spirit, give me peace and patience so that I don’t say or do something that both you and I will regret.” Now, I’ve discovered that when I pray for patience, He never grants me patience, but gives me opportunity to practice patience. Well, the Lord answers prayer!
I walk into Walmart holding this bulky 52″ television and the lady at the door looks at my receipt and directs me toward the customer service counter. “No problem,” I say to myself, “that’s what I expected.” Of course, making my way to the customer service counter I discover six people in line ahead of me and one customer service rep (ever try social distancing with a 52″ TV in your arms across the front aisle in Walmart?). So, here comes the frustration.
One by one, the customers make their way up to the counter. Every time one completes a transaction, I pick up the TV and move six feet forward. Twenty minutes later and a change in customer service reps (must have been break time) I make it to the counter. I tell the lady that I’d like to return the TV, to which she looks at me and says, “You’ll have to return this in electronics. We can’t take it here.”
What? Before I know it, these words slip out of my mouth–“Why couldn’t someone have told me that twenty minutes ago? And, why didn’t the lady a the front door tell me to head to electronics?” And, no, the expression on my face was not my usual angelic self.
The patient lady simply said, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go to electronics.” Not her fault, I know, but now I’m frustrated. All the way back to the electronics counter I feel the frustration rising and my mind is constructing ten different scenarios that have me waiting another twenty minutes to return the TV. Finally, I stop and remember the prayer I prayed before I walked into the store. My heart is at peace once again.
I make my way to the electronics counter and I see two customers. “Not too bad,” I think. One customer finishes her transaction as I arrive, and the other customer (with a basketful of groceries) pulls up to the counter, and I think, “Oh, no! Here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of.” But, the lady only wanted to ask a question, so she was soon on her way.
I approach the counter, tell the cashier I’d like to return the TV, and she asks for the receipt. I give her the receipt. She looks at it and says, “We can’t take this back. We have a 30 day return policy on electronics.” (I suppose I should check the fine print on those long receipts, but really…I missed it by 10 days!)
Yes, my jaw dropped and the redness in my face grew. I remembered the prayer I just prayed a few minutes ago, and with all the sincerity I could muster, said, “But, ma’am, I haven’t even opened the box!”
“Why do you need to return it?” she asked.
“Because the wall we were going to hang it on was crushed by a tree, and we don’t need it anymore,” came my response.
She inspected the box all over to confirm that we hadn’t opened it. She looks at me and says, “A manager will have to make this decision.” Ah! So, here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of. She calls the manager. A mere five minutes later a manager shows up, looks at the TV and says, “Take it back.”
Whew! I breath a sigh of relief. During those five minutes I envisioned having to sell a brand new, still-in-the-box 52″ TV on Facebook Marketplace for half-price just to get rid of it. And, I’m thinking of all the snide comments I’m going to make when the manager says he/she can’t take it back. As usual, I was worried for nothing.
The lady begins the transaction and asks if I have the debit card that was used to purchase the TV (otherwise, you get store credit). I did. I handed her my card, she looked at my name and said, “You’re Lynn Malone?”
“Uh, yes,” I replied.
“Are you from Chatham?” she asked?
“Uh, yes,” I replied.
“You know my mother and grandmother,” she said.
She proceeded to tell me their names, and yes, I had known her grandmother all my life, and I attended school with her mother. It’s a small world, really, and for five minutes we had old home week. I left the electronics department at Walmart feeling much less frustration, but more than that, I was grateful the Lord had answered my prayer that I would not say or do anything that would both he and I would regret. Trust me! Had I let frustration get the best of me, that story would have made it back to Chatham quicker than I could, and it would have diminished my witness, but more importantly, it would have stained the name of Jesus Christ.
Like most preachers, I have a knack for making short stories long, but that notwithstanding, I’ve pondered a few lessons since that trip to the Walmart.
One lesson is not to play “What if…” in my mind. What if there are ten customers in line and I have to wait thirty minutes? What if they don’t take the TV back? We created scenarios in our mind to cause worry over things that may never happen. Certainly, the scenarios that could have played out at Walmart are nothing compared to what many people face every day, but the human proclivity is to “What if” in the most dire circumstances. We cannot “What if” our way through life and expect to find the peace of God that passes all understanding in Jesus Christ.
Another lesson I learned in the Walmart is that this really is a small world, and that anywhere we go, there is someone who is likely to know us, or know someone who knows us. It’s that whole “six degrees of separation” thing, I suppose, but it is a reason to be kind and gentle in every situation. Of course, those are both fruit of the spirit, too, so there’s that…
A lesson I had confirmed is that the Lord does answer our prayers, and I’m grateful He answered mine that day. The problem is that we don’t often take the time to offer prayers. We get too busy to pray. One thing is for certain: the Lord can’t answer the prayer that isn’t prayed.
I also reminded myself of a lesson I’ve tried to teach the congregations I’ve pastored through the years: Pray before we enter the fray. Someone once said that the problem with life is that it happens so daily. We prepare ourselves for the challenges of life through prayer as we begin the day, or as we head into stressful situations. Yup! We pray in the middle of challenging times, but if we haven’t prepared for the challenging times through prayer, it may often feel like our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. Pray…at all times…pray, but let each morning begin with that heavenly conversation. It will set the tone for the rest of the day.
Sorry I took such a long time to make a few weak points, but I never expected a trip to the Walmart to yield positive fruit in my life. Perhaps the catharsis of my sharing will help make us all more attentive to the grace all around us. We can experience God’s grace in every place…if we’ll just pay attention…even, in the Walmart.
I wrote last week about the draining nature of 2020 for me, and the reality is that 2020 has been draining for many people, so much so that they have been driven to drink! Nielson reported a 54% increase in alcohol sales the first week of the “stay-at-home” orders in the U. S., and three weeks later the World Health Organization warned that alcohol use would exacerbate the health-related concerns of the pandemic. Go figure (see here and here for more concerns)!
I ended, though, with the expression of my desire to be filled…to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul had something to say about that idea, too! Those who follow Christ, Paul says, have “put on” a new way of being. This new way of being comes as a result of being filled…filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
A CASE FOR WINE?
We don’t simply come to Jesus Christ for salvation and that’s the end of it. The Christian life is like my fire pit. Vanessa and I love sitting around our fire pit, but to continue to enjoy its warmth and glow, we have to keep stoking the fire. It’s a process that keeps the fire burning. So is the Christian life.
The Apostle Paul liked to use analogies, too. As he wrote describing the life of followers of Jesus Christ, he variously used a wrestler, a runner and a soldier. Those are all active people. We must do something as we participate in this walk of faith where we are becoming people of Christ.
Paul having previously cautioned the Ephesians about their behavior, says in 5:15– “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.”
Some folks read verse 18 and think Paul is making a case against Christians drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). We know wine was a common beverage in the first century, and that Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (John 2: 1-12). This passage is not a case against drinking wine. It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.
There was in the city of Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”
Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we came to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The problem is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul tells the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the word helps us understand that, too.
The word is given as an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastor’s and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, we are to live under the Spirit’s influence.
The word is also in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing (sort of like my fire pit I mentioned earlier). This filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience.
A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured (Matthew 17: 1 – 11). They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.
There’s one more interesting point about the word used: the word is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?
First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us. Fill me as I go to work today, Lord. That’s what I do! Every morning, I’m continually asking God to fill me with His Spirit, to speak his word through me. You can pray these prayers, too:
“Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”
“Fill me as I face my boss today.”
“Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”
“Fill me for _______________.”
If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5: 19). Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.
Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians, and does so once again as he says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.
Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible. When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Just reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.
I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the words opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing God’s work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it.
God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.
So, let’s all have a drink! Drink in the fulness of Jesus Christ through His Holy Spirit!
Draining. That’s the only word I can think of to describe the year 2020. Between the election, the Coronavirus, the racial discord and hurricanes (oh, and let’s not forget forest fires, floods and rioting and looting), I find myself drained and wanting desperately for this year to be over.
We might say that today (November 3, 2020) is the day many have been waiting for (not me, I’m waiting for January 1, 2021). Many feel that as soon as the election is over things will be different. I’m not one of those persons. Oh, I think there will be different reactions to the outcome today brings. I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here, but I feel compelled to share what’s on my mind.
No matter what the outcome of today’s election, half the people in the nation will be overjoyed and the other half will believe the world is coming to an end (it is, by the way, probably just not tomorrow). Preparations are being made for any eventuality (see here).
My prediction? If Donald Trump loses the election, I suspect everyone will get up Wednesday morning and go to work and carry on with their lives anticipating a new administration (for better or worse). If Joe Biden loses the election, I suspect there will be many cities in our nation that will burn and many businesses will be looted and destroyed.
I’m not saying Biden supporters will be the ones doing the rioting. I am saying “antifa” or other nefarious anarchist groups may seize the opportunity to sow further division in the nation. I also know that half reading this will disagree, and half will agree. That fact is another evidence of the divided nature of our nation.
I’ve also been drained as I’ve watched the same divisions play themselves out in the church of Jesus Christ. As I wrote in a previous blog, we seem to forget that Jesus has torn down the “dividing wall” that separates us. We are no longer divided, but united through the blood of Jesus Christ. We sure haven’t been treating one another that way. No doubt, 2020 has been a stain on the witness of the Church in the world, and it’s just been draining.
I was challenged by John Piper’s assessment of the situation in our nation as he anticipates the election. The question on the lips of many believers is “How could a Christian vote for Trump?” The question on the lips of equally as many Christians is “How could a Christian vote for Biden?” To vote for the one is to vote for arrogance and boastfulness and pride and hatred. To vote for the other is to vote against life and truth.
Don’t ask an evangelical Christian from Louisiana how he/she could vote for Donald Trump. There was a time when Louisianians had to vote for a man who famously (or infamously) said, “The only way I could lose this election is if I get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.” Of course, that was back in the day when you could actually say such a thing and not get canceled.
That man was Edwin Edwards, a popular womanizer, gambler and extortionist who served a sentence in federal prison for his often unhidden corruption. But, evangelical Christians were basically left with no choice because his competitor in the race for governor was David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK, who cleaned up nicely and said things many folks wanted to hear. He garnered just enough support to slip into a runoff with the former governor, leaving Christians with a terrible dilemma.
Most in Louisiana did with Edwin Edwards what they will do with Donald Trump—hold their nose and cast their ballot, not because Donald Trump is a man of pristine character, but because the Democrat Party has chosen a candidate and established a platform that opposes so much of what evangelical Christians value most.
They will hold their nose and cast their ballots in Louisiana because they’ve been down this road before. They will vote, not on personality, but on what they believe to be the best policy to lead this nation forward. I would caution against questioning their virtue as evangelical Christians (though many will). When the choice is between two evils, one needs be picked. It is the nature of the two-party beast.
I suppose one could choose not to vote, or vote for a third-party candidate. I think we’re all struggling to do our best, and the reality is we don’t always do our best when we’re drained. I also know that God has enough grace to go around for all of us.
I also know that whatever happens today (and in the days ahead as results unfold), Jesus is still on the throne and He calls me to a higher obedience than does this or any nation. If freedom continues to ring throughout the land, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ. If tyranny for the believer comes, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ, and I will pray that my faith will sustain me (and that the Church’s faith will sustain her) through any fiery trials that come, and that she (and I) will be a better witness of the grace of God than perhaps we have been in the past. Either way, we (the Church) are safe in the shadow of the Cross.
So, as drained as I am, I will seek desperately to be filled–to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only as we are filled that we will find strength to live through every time and age and circumstance that life brings. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s prayer to the Ephesian church:
15 Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, 16 I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, 17 asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. 18 I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.
19 I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20 that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21 Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. 22 God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.23 And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.(Ephesians 1: 15 – 23 NLT)
I’ll desire to be filled by Him. May you be, as well.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Can you imagine what that must have looked like?
As I began praying about a new church plant, I sensed the Holy Spirit calling me toward planting a “house” church. Initially, I interpreted the vision to be open to growing into a more traditional expression of the church—building, pews, administration, etc. As I’ve lived with and prayed over the vision the past two months, I’ve gained greater clarity as to where the Lord may be leading us as a new church plant. I am grateful to a group of 21 people who have consistently prayed for clarity in this unfolding work of the Holy Spirit.
It is not unusual for a new church to begin by meeting in a home. A small group of only ten or twenty people does not need a larger meeting place, and the costs involved in procuring any sort of space is often prohibitive. In this regard, a “house church” is understandable to many. But if they learn that it was the intention to continue meeting in homes no matter how large it grows, eyebrows will begin to rise.
The idea of the house church does not easily fit into the tradition of American discipleship. For generations, the idea of the church has been almost universally associated with a central meeting place—a church building. Even though the biblically informed disciple knows that the church is people, it remains almost impossible for some to escape the association between a particular local church and the building in which that church gathers.
When a society has grown up with an idea—a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation—a departure from that tradition can seem strange or even wrong. I will not fault anyone who questions the practice shared in this vision, or any who are not convinced of its benefits, nor is this unfolding vision a condemnation of the longstanding tradition of churches meeting in large central buildings. Too many examples of excellence within that tradition, both historically and currently, can be mentioned in its defense. My intent is simply to offer another reason why The House Church Movement will continue meeting in homes, and to demonstrate that not only is the practice biblically sound, but it is a great model for meeting peoples needs.
A NATURAL SETTING FOR FELLOWSHIP
During a House Church Movement meeting, we will enjoy facing one another in a warm, familiar environment, rather than sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head while most of the activity takes place on a stage. We may also enjoy eating a meal together every week, sampling friends’ cooking, or sometimes bringing in pizza. We might enjoy drinking coffee or tea after a Movement Meeting while sitting comfortably around the living room, sharing in each other’s lives. We could stay late, discussing personal or church matters and doctrinal issues. Sometimes, advice or counsel may sought by one, and given in return by another, or even several. Sometimes, two or three may find a quiet place to pray together. It could be like a family reunion every week.
While this type of fellowship can take place in a sanctuary setting, in the home it is natural. And, even as The House Church Movement grows large in numbers, it never has to lose the familiarity and intimacy that can be experienced in a home’s setting. Instead, new congregations can be formed—teaching others how to experience this same rich Christian fellowship. There is little doubt in a hurting world that people are longing for fellowship and intimacy that a house church setting could provide.
A DESIGN FOR BIBLICAL INSTRUCTION
When the New Testament authors gave written instructions to the church, they were writing in light of what they knew the church to be—small assemblies meeting in homes. Consider: If the church were later transformed into something that had never been seen or anticipated by the authors of the New Testament, the instructions they gave to the early church might not be as readily applicable to the new form. As an example, consider this principle in light of all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament—the commands to know, love, guard, and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ (i. e. John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Galatians 6:1,10; Colossians 3:12-16; 1 John 3:16-17).
Certainly these are kept faithfully in many larger congregations, but one can hardly overlook the fact that increased size means increased difficulty in keeping them consistently. There exists the increased potential that some will fall through the cracks. It is evident that in order to keep the commands to love and care for one another, larger bodies need added structures and programs which, in turn, necessitate additional burdens of administration. I could multiply examples, but suffice it to say that in at least this one case, the instructions are much easier to follow consistently in a smaller gathering. I might even suggest that these instructions were designed for small gatherings.
Because no one falls through the cracks, needs are more readily known and easily met. I’m not sure there is a greater “why” for the house church, but there are still two more we’ll explore in coming weeks:
House churches take place where harvest happens, and
House churches raise up disciples to embrace the ministry to which they’ve been called.
I am not a hiker, but I have been hiking. So, I know very little about hiking except what I’ve read. I mention hiking, though, because hiking comes to mind when I think about God’s sanctifying grace (yeah, I know, you can’t figure out how my mind works–sometimes I can’t either).
I am thinking about God’s sanctifying grace because I’ve been studying again the core beliefs of the Evangelical Methodist Church. Here’s what the Church says about sanctification and living a holy life: “We believe in entire sanctification following regeneration, whereby the believer is cleansed from the pollution of sin, saved from its power, and enabled through grace, to love God with all his/her heart,” and “We believe that every Christian is expected to live a holy life, one that is truly Christian.”
Regeneration. Sanctification. Those are three dollar theological words that mean “a new life” and “a holy life” respectively. New life (regeneration) comes when we accept Jesus Christ, and a holy life (sanctification) is what grows out of following Christ. Now, you’re probably wondering, “What does any of that have to do with hiking?” I’m glad you asked.
Do you know what G.O.R.P is? G.O.R.P. is an acronym that stands for granola, oats, raisins and peanuts, or as others have said, “Good old raisins and peanuts.” For a hiker on a journey, gorp is a snack designed to keep the hiker from crashing on an extended trip. It’s hard to pack a lot of food on an extended hike, and g.o.r.p. is sufficient in calories to keep the hiker from experiencing what is known in the hiking world as the “bonk.” A bonk is when a hiker doesn’t take in enough calories and energy and capacity deteriorates, thus preventing one completing the journey. Good old raisins and peanuts is meant to sustain the traveler through the journey, to help the person stay fueled to finish the hike.
That, in a nutshell (no pun intended), is the essence of God’s sanctifying grace. Life is a journey, and all along the way God’s grace is available to us, in different ways at different stages of the journey. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, when energy and capacity wane…when life happens.
Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.
Understand, living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a perfect life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. But, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, he also delivers us from the power of sin. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job in Romans 6 explaining this idea.
(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John’s brother, Charles Wesley, also does a masterful job capturing John’s teaching with this verse from Charles’ great hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:
He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free; His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me.
As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will deal with anger. We will deal with frustration. That is the life. In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser insticnts of our fallen nature. Christ has given us new life. Christ gives us hope. It is Christ who sustains us through life.
The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The spiritual journey of life is about growing up in love. It is growth, and growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.
C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.
Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination…closer to the trailhead…closer to holiness.
What is our G. O. R. P.? What sustains us so that we make it to the end? What makes us holy? I remind us again of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability. We know about bible study, too. Another is submission. All of these are the disciple’s G. O. R. P. They strengthen us and grow us in holiness.
There is another one, too. It is the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is strength here. There is grace here. At the Lord’s table, we are reminded of love, and we’re reminded to love. And, we’re reminded that love is sacrifice. It is sacrifice that the Apostle Paul calls us to in Romans 12: 1 – 2—the surrender of ourselves to Christ:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
We recall Christ’s sacrifice for us, and we see in it his sacrifice, and we acknowledge he calls us to the same sacrificial life. At the Lord’s table, we find strength for the journey. Here we are enabled to keep moving forward.
The Australian coat of arms pictures two animals—the emu, a flightless bird, and the kangaroo. The animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the Australian citizens. Both the emu and kangaroo can move only forward, not back. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving in reverse by its large tail. In the following of Jesus, G. O. R. P. helps us be like the emu and kangaroo, moving only forward, never back…becoming more like Jesus everyday–that is holiness…that is sanctification.