Category Archives: Grace

Down in the dirt

“If you want to see God move, then stand up in the church and tell everyone what you’re really like.”   – Mary Webster

Not long ago I heard someone say, “I came from a very religious background: we lied to each other incessantly.” One of my favorite church moments of all time happened several years ago in Hawaii when an older Pentecostal saint – a holy woman in all of our eyes – stood up in testimony time and said,

“I have something to say this morning:  We come to this church week after week and we get out of our cars and greet each other: “How are you, brother?’ ‘Oh Praise the Lord! God is good!’ ‘Amen! Yes He is, all the time!” That’s what we say in the parking lot. But I’m just sick and tired of it! I want all you people to know that I’m not OK. I am one messed up woman in desperate need of grace. I don’t have it all together, and I’m starving for some honesty!  Do you think we could start telling each other the truth around here? That’s the only way we’re ever going to get through this!”

I wanted to stand on the pew that morning and shout! Religion pretends. It masquerades and hides behind makeup, clichés and polite smiles. But the Kingdom simply cannot be built on such illusions and pretense. Jesus demands the raw material of real people, with real struggles, hammering out real community. Kingdom disciples get down in the dirt, confess their failures, stand together, and throw all their trust in the mercy of God, because Grace is the ecosystem of the Kingdom, and Truth is its foundation.

“For the law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
– John 1:17

Returning to grace

Freezing temperatures here in Maryland have nudged me into editing my old journals. With nearly forty year’s worth of writing, I’m hoping the weather breaks before I get through the whole lot of them.

Two streams have clearly marked off my days: law and grace. Or more accurately, there’s a stream, and a catchment pond of do-it-yourself religion, law-keeping, and failed attempts at being a better Christian.  Paul refers to the catchment pond as a “veil over the hearts of the people. “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But the moment anyone returns to the Lord, the veil is gone.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-16)

Forty years distilled into dead religion or life and freedom, and I’m betting I’m not alone in this.  Some of you – or maybe many of you – might even feel today like there’s a veil over your heart.  God seems distant, disengaged or disappointed with you.  I believe this can only mean one thing: we have returned to the law.

The stream of grace is the Spirit himself flooding our hearts with hope, encouragement, and a clear conscience towards God.  It’s unleashed not by religious activity, but by simple faith in the risen Christ.  So come with me, and let’s return to the God of grace, who offers all of Himself to unworthy sons and daughters who have nothing to give in return.  Lets believe again that Jesus has taken every possible obstacle out of the way, (especially sin and the law), and extended His love to us freely and without merit.

“So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Preaching against sin

We Christians have earned quite a reputation for making a front-and-center issue out of sin. (Let me be clear before I go further: Sin IS a serious issue. Not only does it kill and destroy, but it cost Jesus his life to free us from it’s poison).

But isn’t it curious that the Jesus of the Gospels seemed to preach so little against sin? (In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus never mentions the word “sin” even once!*) He never seemed to think it was necessary to lecture Zaccheaus about dishonesty, to confront the sinful woman about her prostitution, nor to have the good Father lecture the prodigal about his selfishness and debauchery. Instead Jesus went about inviting people into relationship, and seemingly forgiving them before they asked. “Come unto me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” “Believe in me, and you will never thirst again.”

Why do we assume that preaching the gospel means hammering on sin? Indeed, is “preaching against sin” even necessary to proclaim the good news? I’m convinced our neighbors already know about their sins. They don’t need us to point out their lies, their affairs, their selfishness and addictions. Most honest people are already painfully aware of their offenses towards God. (The exception seems to be religious people, who were the ones Jesus most often addressed about the subject). What our neighbors DON’T know is the love of a Savior who accepts them right where they are, the delight of being alive and adopted into God’s family, and the hope of a Kingdom that is making all things new.

It may take awhile to rebuild our reputation, but I believe it’s past time we hang up our fixation with sin and begin offering grace to the world.

* Since posting this, one friend pointed out that it depends on the translation. I was using the New American Standard Version at the time of writing.

Les Miserables and the Kingdom

Mugs B&W

After reading the book and enjoying the story in multiple releases and versions, I’ve come to think of Les Miserables as the iconic picture of grace.  But recently I noticed something I never saw before:  Victor Hugo’s classic actually presents three contrasting visions of the Kingdom of God.

First the vision of the law, represented by Inspector Javert.   The Law, of course, is good.  It maintains a semblance of order in a world of passion, crime, and greed.  “Those who falter, and those who fall must pay the price!”  The law is rigid and unbending in its demand for justice.  It bears authority to punish and even to kill those who stray from its path.   But in the end the law is powerless to change either man or society.  It leaves prisoners and jailers alike hardhearted and callous, which is hardly a picture of Paradise.

Likewise the revolutionaries championed a vision of opportunity, equality, and brotherhood that lay on the far side of violence.  “Red!  The blood of angry men!” … of men “who would not be slaves again”.   The thing that separated them from their dream was the power of government and wealth.  And the solution, of course, was revolution.   But a world established on revolution is no paradise, but a bloody wasteland of anger and death;  “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me, what your sacrifice was for! Empty chairs at empty tables, where my friends will drink no more…”

Two centuries later we still cling to the bankrupt hopes of building a paradise through law on one side and revolutionary action on the other.  But neither law nor revolution addresses the real problem where it lives, in the human heart.

Bishop Bienvenu and Jean Valjean on the other hand, went about quietly transforming the world by the love of God.  Apart from judgment, sword or law, these two men lived lives of grace that left behind a trail of beauty and change to everything they touched, from beggars and workers to revolutionaries, and even Javert himself.   This is the Kingdom, the grace of Jesus poured out to men and women who in turn pour it out to others.  America, friends, Church…  we have a lesson to learn from this story.

Revival or revelation

I’ve just about decided that today’s church doesn’t need revival nearly so much as we need revelation.  Revival is “an improvement in the condition or strength of something;  a reawakening.”  It’s a time-honored tradition in the church that calls up images of fresh faith, stirred emotions, and awakened zeal.  David, Nehemiah and Habakkuk spoke of revival under the Old Covenant, and down through the years the church has experienced dramatic periods of revival.  But the term is absent altogether in the New Testament.  Luke, Peter, John and Paul speak instead of revelation “a surprising and previously unknown fact, especially one that is made known in a dramatic way.”

What the church lacks today is revelation of the fullness of the Gospel.   A people who only half-embrace grace, disregard adoption, miss the fullness of Christ, and skip past the Kingdom can never be anything more than legalistic, insecure, powerless, and adrift.  Though I cringe at the harshness of that statement, I fear more that we have left the treasures of the Gospel unwrapped and have unwittingly forsaken our heritage.   If we knew who we were and the fullness of who Christ is we would no sooner lose our momentum than a prairie fire in a windstorm.

Perhaps instead of praying for revival we ought to pray with Paul “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of [our] hearts enlightened, that [we] might know what is the hope of his calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of his power towards us who believe…”  (Ephesians 1:16-20)

How to shipwreck everything

In the early days of Christianity two dangerous heresies presented themselves to the church: legalism and gnosticism.  Take your choice, either will shipwreck your faith.

Many Believers with Jewish roots embraced the lie of legalism: Jesus and the law.  Jesus clearly brought them into life through no effort of their own, but labor and laws kept the whole apparatus in motion.  It was a hamster wheel of performance with religion shouting from the sidelines, “IT’S NOT ENOUGH!  YOU MUST DO MORE!  More Bible reading!  More prayer!  More attention to witnessing!  More careful obedience to the law!”  Paul blasted the Galatians: “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”  (Gal. 3:3)  Legalism in today’s church reveals itself in endless cycles of “recommitment”.  We cry tears at the altar, make pledges and promises, beat ourselves up, and decide one more time to “do better”.  But nothing really changes because it’s an empty system of human effort and determination.

But Greek believers chose Gnosticism:  Spiritual growth meant ever deeper experiences and knowledge.  We see it today in the frantic pursuit of supernatural experiences.  “If only I can get to those meetings and fall-out under the power of the Spirit, I’ll reach a new level of spirituality.”  Hogwash!   Gnosticism, too, is a hamster wheel of chasing ever deeper experiences:  “You’ve had Holy laughter?  But have you had gold dust fall on you?”  “Oh really?  Well what about an out-of-body experience?”  And so we run from here to there following signs, wonders and experiences.  (Signs and wonders are rather to follow us, but that’s for another day!)

The key to spiritual growth is neither deeper commitment, nor endless supernatural experiences.   It is in the simple choice of believing God.  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ… for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”  (Romans 1:16-17)  Faith in what?  In the fact that Jesus has accomplished the entire work himself, and the only thing left for me to do is to believe that good news.  Everything begins and ends right there in the wonder of receiving all that God has so freely given.

The hopes and fears of all the years

I’ve just returned from a delightful week with the Crossroads Discipleship Training School in Kona, Hawaii.  It was a diverse group of international students ranging from their late twenties to well past retirement age:  attorneys, pastors, educators, farmers, engineers, sculptors, painters, an internationally acclaimed sports photographer, and a young musician who recently fronted a popular heavy metal band.

The “Plaza” at the University of the Nations in Kona, Hawaii.

The week convinced me all over again that the yearning for grace and the dream of a Kingdom are universal human longings.  Grace assuages our fears of abandonment and assures us that flawed as we are, we’re loved, received and valued by our Creator.

And the Kingdom?  It affirms our hope for a better world and whispers to our heart that we matter;  Though we are small, we are part of an epic story that is unfolding towards the grand redemption of all things.

Not an hour ago I was at the local nursing home singing Christmas carols:  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”.  Both the hope for a new world and the fear of abandonment were met in the manger when the King of grace took on the flesh of a child.