A Most Difficult Grace…

Easter is fast upon us. In two weeks, disciples of Jesus Christ will gather in places across the globe to celebrate the pivotal event in the life of our faith—the resurrection. Yes, we’re headed to Easter and new life—new life is the promise, not the old life redone. We experience this new life through Jesus Christ and the grace he offers us in practicing habits in our lives that bring transformation—habits such as prayer, fasting and bible study. There is one habit that sits at the heart of new life, at the heart of Easter itself. It is the habit that most reflects the life of Jesus, and it is the habit that should most reflect the heart of his disciples. It is the habit of submission.

SUBMISSION

Mention the word submission these days and minds run in a thousand directions both positively and negatively. As Richard Foster says, “Nothing can put people into bondage like religion, and noting in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Foster’s statement demonstrates the power of sin to take the best teaching and turn it upside down. For this reason, it is with trepidation that I take up the task of exploring this spiritual discipline, for this is meant to be life-giving, not life-taking. If it is life-giving, it can be life-changing, and I remind us, we are headed toward Easter.

There are a ton of passages we could refer to this morning, but Ephesians 5: 20 – 21, captures the essence of “how” the habit is formed and lived out. We get stumped by the passages that follow Ephesians 5:21, but the verses that precede it actually set the context. The Apostle Paul tells us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What follows is perhaps the most misappropriated and misapplied passage in the Bible. The passage has been used for centuries to subject women, in many cases, to forced servitude, and to limit the status and role of women in leadership in the church. I believe it’s a terrible reading of Paul’s otherwise radical first-century teaching. That’s all I’m going to say about that matter because what is important to our understanding of submission is found in what precedes the verses we read this morning, and we find Paul’s opening imperative in verse two, where Paul says, “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.” And what was his example? One of a life fully submitted to the Father—submitted even unto death.

The cross is a symbol of death. It is the symbol of Good Friday. It is the symbol of the totality of Jesus’ submission. But, may I suggest it is also the symbol of life because Jesus was as submitted to the Father’s will in life as he was in death. Jesus died as he lived. He rejected power and position, telling his disciples not to let anyone call them Rabbi or teacher (Matt. 23:8-10). He lived his submission as he took women seriously and met with little children. He lived his submission as he took a towel and basin and washed his disciples feet, and then he said, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I’ve done to you” (John 13:15). Jesus’ life and teaching were revolutionary because it turned the cultural values of the day upside-down, and ushered in a new model of leadership—servant leadership.

FREEDOM

Servant leadership undermines power and self-interest because it is rooted in self-denial. Self-denial lies at the heart of submission. Remember when Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34)? But do not confuse self-denial with either self-contempt or self-hatred. It is neither. Self-denial frees us to understand we don’t have to have our own way. It frees us to surrender our need to be right, or our need to win every argument. Self-denial frees us to realize that most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Self-denial frees me to accept that, thank God, I’m not the center of the universe.

And, we need to know that submission is freedom for us because it is a choice. If self-denial is the foundation of submission, then we understand that submission is choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another. Forced submission is slavery. Chosen submission is sacrifice. There’s a big difference.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 5:21, Paul shares an example of how this idea of submission could be lived out. People like illustrations in the sermons I preach. Illustrations make abstract ideas a little more concrete for us. My hearers may not always remember the big idea of my sermon, but they most always remember a story if I tell one. So, to illustrate everything he’d been writing to the church in Ephesus, he uses the household relationships of husband and wife, parent and children and master slave. Read it today and the passage seems strange to us in the 21st century. It sounds oppressive, even. It’s not quite so strange or oppressive when we connect it to the concept of mutual submission—submission as a means of grace. Paul is simply laying out an illustration of how submission works in those relationships, and not just those relationships, but submission is meant to extend to EVERY relationship.

It’s a little easier to understand what submission is—choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another, to give the right of way to another, to put their needs ahead of our needs. It’s a bit more difficult to grasp the “how” of submission. What does submission look like? How do we practice this discipline so that it becomes a habit that opens us to God’s grace? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine what it needs to look like. Other times, it’s extremely hard to define. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. Then again, if we had a book of rules for every circumstance, we’d be Pharisees, and we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit. Let me just say, though, that submission looks a lot like service.

SEVEN AREAS OF SUBMISSION

Richard Foster, in his seminal work Celebration of Discipline, notes seven distinct acts of submission for a follower of Jesus Christ. First is our submission to the Triune God. The beginning of every day should begin with a simple prayer of submission. It can be as simple as the one prayed by E. Stanley Jones: “Lord, take me over and make me over.” A daily submission in body mind and spirit into the hands of God for His purposes can become a habit of submission, and it will be grace.

Second is a submission to Scripture. We submit ourselves to hear the Word, to receive the Word and to obey the Word, trusting the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word to interpret and apply it to our lives.

Third is our submission to our family. Freely and graciously we make allowances for each other. We give ourselves to one another, and that means surrendering our rights to the other. We also acknowledge the home is the primary incubator for developing this habit in our lives. What a transformation could take place in our world if husbands and wives could surrender themselves to this solitary discipline so that it becomes habit. It would be grace, indeed!

Fourth is our submission to our neighbors and those we meet in the course of our day. Random acts of kindness become the norm for us. No task is too small, for with each task, we have an opportunity to live in submission.

Fifth is our submission to the believing community—the body of Christ. There are opportunities to service to the body of Christ and service through the body of Christ. Submission is acknowledging that though I cannot do everything, I can do something.

Sixth is our submission to the broken and despised. In every culture there are people who are helpless and defenseless. We have a responsibility to be among them, to know them, and to do all we can to help them. Here is where we find self-denial most meaningful and transforming.

Seventh is our submission to the world. Our submission is a determination to live as a responsible member of an increasingly irresponsible world.

A story that captures the essence of practicing the habit of submission is told by author Stephen Beck. Beck tells of driving down a country road and coming to a narrow one-lane bridge. In front of the bridge, a sign was posted: “YIELD.” Seeing no oncoming cars, he continued across the bridge to his destination. On the way back, he came to the same bridge from the other direction. To his surprise, he saw another YIELD sign posted. He thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.” When he reached the other side of the bridge he looked back. Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge. Drivers from both directions were asked to give right of way. It was a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision. When we practice submission it is a reasonable and gracious way to let the other have the right of way and to experience the life-changing grace of God in our lives and in the world.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Lost Grace…

CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, in his writings and teachings noted what he called the “means of grace.” By “means of grace,” Wesley meant those practices whereby the disciple of Jesus Christ could experience the grace of God in life-transforming ways. Wesley would say, “Do these practices on a regular basis, and watch the work of the Holy Spirit change you.” That’s the popular Lynn Malone paraphrase but you get the idea. Wesley would distinguish between what he termed the “instituted” means and the “ordinary” means by allowing that the “instituted” means were those given to the body of Christ directly by Jesus himself. Among those “instituted” means of grace were prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures (we’d call that Bible study) and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), but he also lists a fifth that we’ve lost sight of in the 21st century. He called it “Christian conference.”

We hear “Christian conference,” and we think about going to a big gathering of Christians to hear preaching and teaching, worship and the like—think Promise Keeper’s or Women of Faith. Or, if we’re a good Methodist, we think about going to Annual Conference, which is the yearly gathering of Methodists from across the state where we worship and fellowship and conduct the business of the “Annual Conference,” which (for those of you not familiar with the Methodist tradition) is an institution in and of itself. None of those thoughts were on Wesley’s mind as he taught the practice of “Christian conference.” For Wesley, Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.

GRACE LOST

Why don’t we practice this habit more often, or at all? One reason is that we desire comfort and seek to avoid conflict. Confrontation is awkward, messy, and hard, so few do it. Additionally, churches and spiritual communities are intentional about creating a sense of peace, encouragement, happiness, and joy even if it’s a façade. Identifying sin, exposing immorality, admitting the truth, uncovering corruption, and acknowledging failure contradict the image many churches are trying to portray. Following Jesus was never meant to be comfortable or easy. To live a holy life requires accountability.

In a society obsessed with self-gratification, pleasure, and comfort, churches too easily succumb to an attitude of appeasement instead of responsibility and intervention. Unchecked sin causes havoc and devastation. And while accountability can be misused, not using it at all can cause widespread harm. Accountability goes both ways and isn’t exclusively meant for pastors or those in leadership to punish those “beneath” them. Everyone is responsible. Often it’s those in leadership who need accountability the most.

Another reason we don’t develop the habit of accountability is because we live in a culture of unlimited options and choices. The next sentence is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is going to hurt, so prepare yourself. Churches (and pastors) emphasize comfort because discomfort causes people to leave congregations. There, I said it! In a world inundated with options, where endless venues vie to satisfy our every need, churches are no different, and if Christians become uncomfortable, upset or discouraged, they can simply pack up and go someplace else, and many of them do. It’s easier for a church to make everyone feel good, but it often comes at the cost of spiritual maturity.

Jesus faced the same problem, too. John’s Gospel records an incident in chapter six. Jesus had fed five thousand and walked on water. The next day, the crowds clamored to be around him. Jesus figured it was time for a little accountability, so he told them, “You just wanted me for what I could do for you. Don’t worry so much about what I can provide for you, but focus on the eternal matters of life” (John 6: 26 – 27). It turned out to be one of the most difficult conversations Jesus had with those who followed him as he tried to explain that He was the bread of life. The people began arguing among themselves, and when all was said and done, we find a revealing little passage in John 6:66—“At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Difficult conversations cause discomfort, and with so many options, we choose not to be uncomfortable.

There is a danger in developing the habit of accountability, though, and that danger is another reason we don’t practice it much anymore. The danger is legalism. Sadly, many churches, both past and present, have wrongly implemented “accountability” to serve their own agendas. There are numerous accounts of using guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, and terror to manipulate, abuse, control, hurt, and destroy the lives of countless victims. Church history has been stained by varying degrees of legalism, and today’s churches will do anything to avoid such labels, even if it means abandoning the practice of accountability altogether. It is sad that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

REDISCOVERING GRACE

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian church to hold each other accountable, and reminded them of how to do it. Paul said that we should “gently” help a fellow traveler back on the path so that we don’t fall into the same ditch. The loss of accountability can lead to believers who are susceptible to self-righteousness and spiritual immaturity. Ironically, it can also result in Christians who are more judgmental towards those outside the faith. Instead of holding ourselves accountable, it’s much easier to point the finger at the rest of society, and to be the accuser instead of the accused. To avoid our own sins, we often distract ourselves by focusing on the sins of others.

Our challenge is to responsibly develop the habit of accountability without abusing it, to gracefully and lovingly help people grow in their faith without being legalistic or abusive or accusatory, to challenge and inspire people through relational support and encouragement instead of abandoning and isolating them. The grace of accountability is about building up, not tearing down. The grace in accountability is about encouragement, not discouragement. The grace in accountability is for prayer together and prayer for one another—it is, as Paul reminds the Galatians, about bearing one another’s burdens.

John Wesley would agree. In what are called Wesley’s “Large Minutes,” he writes in reference to Christian Conference: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? It is always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” For Wesley, it was always about building up the body—to help each other live holy lives.

Living holy lives is the end game. It’s not about church growth, it’s about spiritual growth. The church is the place we learn to practice the habits that promote spiritual growth that we can then take back to work, to school, home and to our communities so that God’s transformation takes place, not only in us, but in the world around us.

How do I begin to develop this habit, and discover its grace? It’s all about relationship! Transformation takes place in relationship—a relationship with Jesus Christ and a relationship with others who walk the journey. The imagery Paul uses in Galatians 6 of another believer being “overcome” by some sin, the language literally is of one who has slipped—like on an icy sidewalk, or on an uneven path. No one plans to slip on an icy sidewalk. No one plans a misstep on that path, but it happens, even when we’re being careful. Yes, we can many times pick ourselves up, but when someone else is there to help us, it makes it easier. Yes, it’s embarrassing to slip on that icy patch. We look around to see if anyone saw us, and we even try to resist the efforts of others who come along to help us. Paul’s point is we need someone to help us when we stumble over sin in our lives.

Wesley’s genius was his organization of converts into societies, classes and bands. Think congregation, small group, smaller group here. For early Methodists, these accountable relationships happened in the class meetings. Classes were groups of 10-12 persons who met weekly and focused on the details of individual’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness. They asked one simple question: “How is your life in God?” It was, in all its facets, a means of developing the habit of accountability, and for Wesley, it was grace.

Accountability can be grace to us, too, when we find a group, or even a person where we can ask and be asked the question, “How is your life in God?”

Don’t have a group? Ask your pastor. Or, ask me. I’ll be glad to help.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

Keep it Simple…(Stupid?)

The Malones are HGTV junkies. From Island Life to Fixer Upper, from Property Brothers to House Hunters, you can find us many nights as the evening winds down sitting in front of the television decompressing in front of one of HGTV’s offerings. One of the lessons we’ve learned from HGTV is that when you’re trying to sell your home you have to de-clutter. De-cluttering is getting all the non-essential stuff out of the house so it presents better to potential buyers.

Developing the habit of simplicity is about de-cluttering. It is about practicing the art of letting go of the “things” that too possess us rather than us possessing them. When I say “things,” I’m not only talking about material possessions. I’m also talking about some spiritual issues that impact our lives in negative ways. We live cluttered lives not only materially, but emotionally and spiritually. Our homes are cluttered, our calendars are cluttered and our hearts are cluttered. We live in a cluttered age, and simplicity is a means of grace God gives us to free ourselves of all that hinders us from the holy lives He calls us to.

SIMPLY NOT!

I want us to understand, first, what simplicity is not. Simplicity is not getting rid of all our stuff, quitting everything we’re involved in and living the ascetic’s life. Ascetics are those who have renounced material possessions as evil. That’s not simplicity, at all! God desires that all His children should have adequate provision. A simple lack of provision in many places in this world creates great misery, and forced poverty (where it exists) should be denounced as evil. The bible is consistent that creation is good, and that we are to enjoy it. Developing the habit of simplicity does not denounce possessions. It sets them in proper perspective.

Richard Foster, to whom I’m greatly indebted for the foundation of this blog, says that simplicity is the only thing that reorients our lives so that we can graciously enjoy possessions so they don’t destroy us. It is the habit of simplicity that keeps us from “buying into” the culture’s values of owning, but it also keeps us from a form of legalism that says you shouldn’t buy “that” car, or own “that” house.

A “RICH FOOL”

Jesus addressed some of the underlying issues that keep us from living in simplicity. One of those occasions was an encounter in Luke 12. A man comes to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, please tell my brother to divide my father’s estate with me.” Seems like a fair request to us. We know how family squabbles can be after the death of a parent, don’t we? Jesus, as he often does, doesn’t answer the question directly. Rather he tells a story about a rich fool. “Rich fool” sounds like an oxymoron to us, sort of like “jumbo shrimp,” or “clearly confused.” Those words just don’t work together, but the story indicates that Jesus is saying the rich man was a fool for focusing his life on the wrong things. The point, too, would have been clear to the man who made the request.

Jesus was not addressing the issue of wealth with this story. Wealth is amoral. The person possessing the wealth defines its morality. The Bible is full of godly people who possessed wealth—Abraham, David, Job, et.al. Jesus was addressing the condition of the man’s heart. Simplicity is first and foremost a matter of the heart, and simplicity starts in a right relationship with God.

The spiritual discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style. The inward reality will always impact how we live. Sure, we can go sell all our stuff, pare down to the bare essentials, but unless the reason to do it comes from the heart, it will simply lead to legalism, and rather than becoming holy, we’ll become “holier-than-thou.” We first have to de-clutter our hearts. There are two places we need to start. There are probably more, but I note only two.

DE-CLUTTERING OUR HEARTS

First, we need de-clutter greed. That was the real issue behind the man’s initial request. The ancient law said the eldest son received 2/3 of a father’s estate, and 1/3 was divided among the rest. We don’t know how many siblings were involved in this estate. It doesn’t matter. The man making the request felt that whatever amount, it was unfair. He wanted more, even if the more was his just due.

Second, we need to de-clutter fear. Perhaps we should see that fear is what leads to covetousness. The rich fool in Jesus’ story was afraid…afraid he’d lose his abundance. He was afraid his barns weren’t big enough. His affluence made him anxious. Tell me something: What’s the difference in worrying about our possessions if we have an abundance and worrying because we don’t? Fear is fear, regardless.

Contemporary culture would leave us trapped in a maze of competing attachments. We fill our homes with “stuff” because we have the resources to do so. Advertisers tell us we need the latest, the best, the brightest, the newest. Culture tells us we need the latest fashions. Last year’s fashions simply won’t do. Oh, I’ve got 50,000 miles on my car. I need a new one.

We fill our calendars with activities, too. We run from event to event, afraid we might miss being seen in the right circles, with the right people. We’re afraid we might miss the one life-changing experience that’s waiting in the next conference, or the next job, or the next relationship. Or, we crowd our children’s schedules with activities because we’re afraid they won’t have every experience necessary to help them succeed in such a competitive world. Richard Foster says, “It’s time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.”

ONE LOVE

How do we break the cycle? How do we begin to live into this inward grace of simplicity? Jesus gives us the clue. Immediately after he told the story of the rich fool, he turns to his disciples and unpacks the dangers of fear and worry. He talks about ravens and flowers and God’s care for them. He talks about worry and its effect on life, and then he gives a summary statement in 12: 31—Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.

Simplicity starts when the heart focuses on one thing alone—the Kingdom of God. everything hinges on maintaining the first priority of life. Nothing can come before the Kingdom of God. Not spouse, not children, not job, not recreation…not even the desire to live a simple life. Even that can become an idol. We’ve got to be like Cane’s Chicken—we must have “one love,” and that one love is God and God’s Kingdom. The rich fool never once mentioned God. Ten times he made a personal reference to himself, but never once thought of God.

THE RIGHT ATTITUDE

The inward reality of simplicity is reflected in three inner attitudes. First, to see everything we possess as a gift from God. Yes, we work, but God provides. We live by grace when it comes to air, water and sun. When we are tempted to think that what we own is the result of our personal efforts, the first drought or little accident shows us how utterly dependent we are for everything.

The second attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to know that it is God’s business to care for what He’s entrusted to us. God is able to protect what we possess. Yes, we put locks on the doors, but even then we are able to acknowledge that locks are for honest people. Precautions are necessary, but if we believe the precaution itself will protect us or our belongings, we will live in fear.

The third attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to have our possessions available to others. This is generosity. If we’re unwilling to make our resources available to the community when it is right and good, then Foster says we’re dealing in stolen goods. The rich fool was worried about tomorrow, so he thought he could build bigger barns. He never, ever considered giving the excess away.

Jesus lived and told this story in a fairly simple agrarian culture. If Jesus warned of the duplicity of the heart in such a simple time, how much more do we need to hear and heed his message in our complex culture?

MAKE IT REAL

I want to offer some practical ways we can begin to practice outwardly what God is doing inwardly. Remember, though, every attempt to give specific application to simplicity runs the risk of taking us from holy to “holier-than-thou.” It is a risk we must take, otherwise it all stays theoretical, and theory is great, but we need practical. Let me offer us five ways.

First, buy things for the usefulness, not their status. The question to ask is not, “Why am I buying a new car?” The question should be “Why am I buying THAT new car? Friends, we don’t need more clothes. Never buy new clothes without first getting rid of some older ones, or consider that last year’s styles are okay. John Wesley wrote, “As for apparel, I buy the most lasting and , in general, the plainest I can. I buy no furniture but what is necessary and cheap.” Buy for usefulness, not status.

Second, develop a habit of giving things away. Hey, if there’s something we’ve become desperately attached to, we need to seriously consider giving it away to someone who needs it. Have a yard sale, but not to take the proceeds and go buy more stuff. Take the proceeds and send them to a missionary, or give them to a project at the church. Generosity is at the heart of simplicity.

Third, resist the latest and greatest gadgets. Do we really need to run out and buy the iPhone 8 when our iPhone 7 still functions adequately?

Fourth, avoid as much credit as possible. Credit deepens our bondage. We know most people can’t save enough to buy a house, but we can save enough for a good down payment. Follow the Dave Ramsey philosophy of paying off debt as quickly as possible, and then building wealth so you can live generously. In the Dave Ramsey world, the paid-off home mortgage is the status symbol of choice.

Finally, shun anything that distracts us from the seeking first the Kingdom of God. The pursuit of good things can distract us from pursuit of great things, and pursuit of better things can distract us from the pursuit of the best thing. Jobs, position, status, family, security—these things, while all good, can too quickly become the center of our attention.

May God give us the courage, wisdom and strength to seek first His Kingdom—to keep the main thing the main thing. That is the essence of the habit of simplicity, and it is grace. By developing this habit of grace, may we grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ, and in so doing, become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Amen!

Until next time, keep looking up…