Category Archives: grace
A few weeks ago I taught on a Sunday morning to our church about Jesus calming the storm. It’s a typcially familiar story in church circles. On this particular day I tried to draw out the relationship that seems to exist in God’s Kingdom regarding rest and power. It strikes me that Jesus rested in the boat and had to be woken up. The storm all around him, he rested in the back of the boat. To be honest, this is not so much the Savior we would expect.
And yet, the rest posture seemed to allow him to enter the moment of power in which he would still the wind and the waves.
Last week I found myself, as often happens, a bit overwhelmed with the circumstances so prevalent on local and national newsmedia. The next county over from us had a gunman enter a school (thankfully everyone was okay). An estimated 400 pastors names showed up on the Ashley Madison hack list. Thousands of migrant refugees continue to die entering Europe. And the main coverage given for newsreports concerns another billionaire politician seemingly bent on his own self-interest and frenzied fame.
It is so easy to get lost in this type of cultural environment. I get lost in a few ways:
Fear. I watched the news from the next school district over and worried for my kids. I worried about the day that the gunman shows up in their school. I worried that my wife is a teacher and whether or not she’d ever have to offer her life for a student. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to protect them.
Anger. I hate that moral failure seems to permeate church world. I hate that the church continually gets a black eye because we celebrate religious leaders who are isolated enough that festering darkness takes root and leads us into situations such as Ashley Madison.
I’m angry that we continue to have national conversations about immigration reform in the halls of power and make it sound so easy (on either side of the aisle) without shedding a tear that 71 individuals were left in a refrigerator truck to die while they were simply seeking a place to call home.
Cynicism. I grow more and more cynical about the political leaders who are pushed to the front of our democratic system. I want to see someone to believe in and yet those who might carry a sense of humility and integrity seem to take a backseat to the power players and best entertainers.
Shutting Down. And then of course, I turn it all off. I disconnect. I go back to my social media feed and live in my own little bubble where I don’t have to engage any of this. It’s like the child plugging their ears and screaming, “I can’t hear you!”
Jesus, calm this storm.
That’s the prayer. That’s the point. In all of this, we choose to rest because we trust he is powerful. We take a backseat and realize that life is not dependent on us (REST) and it is dependent on Him (POWER). We look at our children and once more surrender their futures (even their very lives!) to the God who gave them breath. We watch the news and pray for God to cause advocates (maybe even us!) to rise up and pursue justice. We pray for leaders but recognize our hope is not in any of them. And we refuse to shut down because God is the God of a Kingdom that will one day bring the promise of life and hope and truth and salvation to all the world.
Jesus, calm this storm… but don’t ever remove us from it.
“For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you his own.” – I Sam. 12:22
We live within God’s covenant.
His solemn, I-swear-to-you-like-no-other vow that his love will endure.
We live under remembrance of that.
In Christ, a people who felt forgotten have been invited near.
A people cast aside realize God has always been close.
Nothing you do can take you away from God’s love.
You belong to him.
No thing can remove his embrace.
Knowing this and living into this are two different things.
He loves you because it brings glory to his name.
His forgiveness, grace, mercy, compassion, remembrance, and love for you are the foundation of his very nature.
Lift your chin today and gaze at this promise–
Gaze at the eyes of divine delight and know you are loved like no other.
I’ve been reading “Thoughts in Solitude” by Thomas Merton. It is loaded with great wisdom and insight. Today I read these two statements:
“Poverty is the door to freedom, not because we remain imprisoned in the anxiety and constraint which poverty of itself implies, but because, finding nothing in ourselves that is a source of hope, we know there is nothing special in ourselves worth defending.”
“The value of our weakness and of our poverty is that they are the earth in which God sows the seed of desire.”
This is a deep tension, especially for modern, Western culture Americans.
Poverty, whether spiritual or economic is not something we ever see as a “door to freedom.”
We do not see our own lacking nature (again, spiritual or economic) as a soil for God to plant in.
Poverty, for our eyes and hearts, is a curse.
Our culture is driven forward in momentum by a need for more.
Our response is not, “If I had less God could do more…”
It is instead:
“If God would give me more I could do more.”
“If I didn’t have to worry about money I could give more.”
“If I fix this part of my life then I’ll serve.”
“I just need to change these things, then I’ll give my all.”
These are lies. You will never have enough. Never. Your heart is wired to desire more. In the right light, in the purest form, this creates a desire for more of God. In the twisted nature I find myself it beats for more of whatever the sexiest, coolest thing close to me looks like.
Poverty, in the sense Thomas Merton is talking about, is the realization of our own incompleteness (utter resource-less-ness) before God. It is the fragile infant kicking new legs in the air and crying out for its mother to pick it up. Poverty, for Merton, is the awakening of our souls to something beyond our circumstances. It is joy in the face of seeing our own nothingness.
It is the villager I met in Kenya–ravaged by AIDS and poverty–and sharing more joy than I’ve ever seen.
It is the single mother at the end of her rope laughing with her children as they play in the yard.
It is the broken father walking through divorce and trying to hold it all together.
It is the church in the country with nothing to give mustering one last breath to serve the community around them.
The soil of our poverty is the richest in our heart. It is the place where our realized needs meet God’s most satisfying grace.
The day after I took the job here at Colwood Church I began carrying a notebook around with me. I found myself filling it with ideas, thoughts, and more than anything, questions. I wrote down tons and tons of questions. Here are a few of them:
1 – How do I want this student ministry described five years from now?
2 – What should this place “feel like” to students?
3 – What type of leader do I want to be?
4 – What is the mission God gives us in this place called Caro, Michigan?
And then my favorite:
Where will I find my identity?
This past week I began reading the book of Exodus and I found myself coming back to this question. These verses jumped out at me:
“Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’
‘A staff,’ he replied.
The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’
Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.’ So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand.” – Exodus 4:2-4
If you know the story of Exodus you know it is the story of God’s rescue plan for his people carried out through the leadership of Moses. What I had not noticed before is how much Moses tried to get out of this calling. He wanted very little to do with it (I may write more about that this week).
Moses was a shepherd. He carried a staff. It was the badge for a shepherd. You didn’t head out each morning without it. It was the most useful tool a shepherd could have. It could be used to prod sheep along, fight off threatening wildlife, hike through treacherous wilderness, and on and on. Moses needed his staff.
And the first thing God does is tell him to throw it on the ground.
Why does God use this moment to turn a rod into a snake? Why does he use Moses’ most useful tool to create something the shepherd is terrified of? He runs away. Moses literally runs away from the thing he held firmly to just moments before. But then he’s told to pick it back up. And he does.
Go back to my question.
Where will I find my identity?
For Moses, I have to think his identity lay somewhere in his staff. And God asks him as he calls him to his leadership post, to throw it on the ground. But not only that. God uses the very rod of identity as a warning to Moses–a sight that he should always remember. Perhaps the very best gift we have, the greatest talent we possess, the thing that often defines us, is the greatest threat to our leadership–the snake in the grass.
God would use Moses’ staff in many instances in Exodus. He uses it to perform miraculous signs to Pharoah (i.e. the snake reappearing), to provide water for the Israelites in the wilderness. Yet, always dormant within this rod is the potential for the threat–the snake that could devour Moses’ leadership. Remember when Moses is told to speak to the rock and instead he hits it? Guess what he hits it with… his staff. And he is left out of the promised land for that very reason.
Where will I find my identity?
Since coming to the thumb of Michigan I have fallen in love with the people. We love this church and the things God is doing here. We love being a part of this amazing youth ministry and the team God has brought together. I am absolutely adoring the time I have with my family and new friends in this community. I am pouring myself into meeting with leaders and can’t wait to build into them and the students God allows me to spend time with.
But none of these things should hold my identity. None of them.
They are great opportunities and life-giving things. They are tools to help me in the calling God has built for us here. But they are not my identity. And the moment they become that they will become a snake to my leadership.
My identity is in Christ. I am loved. I am called Beloved. I am held by grace and granted a part of the Kingdom. I belong. I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to build the most creative youth program or the greatest leadership development process. I don’t have to DO anything. I am.
So where will I find my identity?
I will find it in the quiet place where the Word becomes flesh and makes its dwelling in my life. I will find my identity in glorifying the Creator of Heaven and Earth and in seeking his glory in every conversation and moment I have here. It is a good place to be… but at times it is hard to just be.
May we all be loved as the Beloved. And may we throw all the other things on the ground.
With our new church, the student ministry meets on Monday nights. So… every Tuesday morning I’m going to try to post a quick recap of the things we talked about.
Last night was called “Failing Into Grace”.
As I’ve been here in Michigan for just over a week I’ve been anxious to start teaching. I feel like I’ve had a ton of opportunities to talk about myself and my family and as I told the kids last night, I can do that easily. But it’s not why we came here. We came here to talk about Jesus and see him transform lives. That’s what is on the horizon for us.
So–starting this whole thing off I decided to talk about failure. The one thing I wanted the students to know last night was that EVERYONE FAILS. BUT TRUE DISCIPLES FAIL THEIR WAY INTO GRACE.
It’s true. We have all faced huge failures. Bad grades, broken marriages, damaged friendships, letting someone else down, and on and on. Then there’s the whole issue of sin. Sin is failure. Plain and simple.
We all fail. But what matters is whether our failures come to define us as an identity and a posture, or whether they lead us to grace–to the transforming power of Jesus Christ and his grace.
In John 8:1-11 we see one of my favorite stories. A forgiven adulteress. A woman who was CAUGHT IN THE ACT of failing. She is brought to Jesus as a trap–an identity-less woman with no name and no social connection. No one stands up for her. No one sees her as worthy. She is defined by her failure and the only worth she has is to be used as a trap for this teacher Jesus.
Yet in the face of grace Jesus gives her worth. He doesn’t define her as adulteress, but as “woman”. He restores her, casting aside her accusers with a simple sentence… “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” And as they leave the woman faces the only one worthy of condemning her–Jesus himself.
She has failed her way into grace.
But how? How do we overcome the weight of our shame, our guilt, our failures, and our sin? How do we fail into grace? Here’s what I shared with the students:
1 – Label it. This woman was forgiven, and we love that. But understand–she WAS an adulteress. She had sinned greatly. She had to acknowledge that before she could experience grace.
2 – Unload it. James tells us to confess our sins and we will be healed. This is an unloading, a way of getting it all out there. If we are to fail into grace we have to call our failures what they are and deal with them. Sometimes this is confessing to someone else and asking for their forgiveness. But it is an action step.
3 – Accept forgiveness and favor. Often it is the most difficult to truly believe God forgives us. It is at times even more difficult to forgive ourselves. But simply put, we are forgiven and favored. We are loved by the same heart that created the world. He sees us as his children.
4 – Repent and rise. I love Jesus’ last statement to the woman: “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” In this sentence there is a commissioning. Yes, you have failed, but you are not a failure. Do not let this define you. Rise and change. Let your experience of grace become contagious. Repentance is a turning away–a change in action. And it is exactly what is needed for us to fail into grace.
Failure enslaves us. Grace sets us free.
Failure makes the place of worship a place of condemnation. Grace makes it a place of restoration.
Failure causes us to collapse. Grace causes us to fly.
May we all experience failure as an opportunity for grace to abound.
If you haven’t been inundated with the media frenzy and Christian civil war taking place in the past couple weeks over the release of Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins,” you’ve probably been more productive than most of us. While I was home this weekend I went into Barnes and Noble and picked up the book with the intent of buying it (and actually forming my own opinions). But a minute later I put it down and ended up walking out with Eugene Peterson’s latest release called “The Pastor“.
From the inside flap this is labeled a memoir of Peterson (who helped translate the paraphrase of the Bible The Message) who says, “I can’t imagine now not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor, I just never had a name for it. Once the name arrived, all kinds of things, seemingly random experiences and memories, gradually began to take a form that was congruent with who I was becoming, like finding a glove that fit my hand perfectly–a calling, a fusion of all the pieces of my life, a vocation: Pastor. But it took a while.”
I was immediately drawn to the book. Maybe it’s because after 8 years of full-time work in churches I left for Chick-Fil-A and the dream of a nonprofit. Maybe it’s because now, after just five months I’m leaving that dream and following God’s leading back into full-time vocational ministry as a pastor in Michigan. Mainly I think it’s because of that last line of Peterson’s — “But it took a while.”
Speaking very openly, I’ve never felt entirely at ease with the label of pastor. It has always felt a bit like being the one in the room full of people dressed up who decided to wear a bow tie instead of a necktie. It just didn’t fit right. Of course there’s also the whole issue of calling. Aside from the question of what to think when we don’t feel God’s presence in our lives, this has been the single biggest issue for the students I’ve worked with over the years. The idea of calling, especially now in my life, has always been like trying to orient yourself in a forest of trees when it’s foggy. You do your best to figure it all out, but there always remains some uncertainty.
Anyway, I’m only a few chapters in but Peterson is a master. I’ll be reflecting on the book here as I go and sharing a few of my own thoughts about pastors. For now, here’s a great line from Peterson’s opening chapters as he reflects on his father’s mountain cabin in Montana:
“I grew up in a church environment that tended to be dismissive of ‘this world’ in favor of ‘spiritual things.’ By buying this lakefront property and building this cabin, my father provided me and, as it turned out, many others, with a rooting and grounding, a sense of thisness and hereness, for the faith that was maturing in me. He provided a shrine, a sacred place where ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ could be prayed and practiced. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate all this at the time, but in retrospect I recognize that a strong conviction was forming in me that the life of faith cannot be lived in general or by abstractions. All the great realities that we can’t touch or see take form as ground that we can touch and see.“
Tonight I had one of the most intimidating experiences of my life, in a very fun sort of way.
I was invited by a Shannon, a student who graduated last year and is now attending Grove City College to go sit on a panel discussion for what she has termed “Genuine.” This is a week long event for college age women at Grove City dealing with issues such as body image, identity, etc. Shannon has done a tremendous job putting this together.
Tonight was an event with a panel of three guys, myself and two other college age students (one from Grove City and one from off-campus). We were asked questions by about 50 girls from the school concerning guys’ perspectives on women, body image, and issues like that.
I was blown away by the depth of questions and some of the truly authentic conversations taking place. My favorite question was from a girl who asked, “Okay, so I’m following the whole Christian thing, trying to be modest, and I’m still waiting on the guy. Now what?”
I love the honesty and the opportunity to hit some big issues. I think women have a huge challenge living in a culture dictating beauty as something totally impossible, and I’m proud of Shannon for doing something like this that brings these girls back to their identity in Christ.
I thought I’d post this video that I thought fit well in these topics:
I love my wife. And I think for me, she continues to hold the light. I’m grateful for her, that’s all for tonight.
I don’t know if any of you have ever read or used Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for his Highest” as a devotional, but it’s a great work. I struggle pretty regularly with a devotional life. Part of me struggles because when I was young I lived day to day with guilt if I didn’t read my little Campus Journal devotionals. As I grew a little bit older I became convinced that I truly was saved by grace and it didn’t matter how much time I spent with God… and even further, if I was doing it out of guilt I should just not do it at all because that was better than reading with a wrong heart. And who said reading was the only way? And on and on and on. So… I overthink things. At least that’s what Carrie says.
Anyway, I’m slowly reconnecting with Chambers here and am loving his writings. Yesterday’s was especially good. He talked about Peter’s relationship with Christ and how when Jesus first called him it was almost irresistible:
“The irresistible attraction of Jesus was upon him and he did not need the Holy Spirit to help him do it.”
Chambers then recounts how Peter later denies Jesus and basically rejects him altogether. This leads to a second following:
“And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ’Follow Me’ ” John 21:19.
Chambers believes that this following was completely different, that Peter was no longer acting on his own, but on the power of the Holy Spirit. I love the way he writes it:
“But then he came completely to the end of himself and all of his self-sufficiency. There was no part of himself he would ever rely on again. In his state of destitution, he was finally ready to receive all that the risen Lord had for him. “. . . He breathed on them, and said to them, ’Receive the Holy Spirit’.”
I wonder sometimes if it’s better for us to be lying in a heap of our own messiness than to have it all put together. I wonder if realizing my own unwillingness to have a “quiet time” should lead me to the place where Peter was–a total reliance on God and his presence. I wonder if the wretch that I am is the condition God constantly wants me to understand in order to become the saint he has recreated me to be.