Tag Archives: Grace

Grace in the Journey: Given and Received

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.
Romans 15:1-2 (NIV)

Annoying to be around. That was the bottom line. Abrasive, abrupt, and usually off in left field in most matters. I can still remember the silly arguments and petty details that occupied this person’s thoughts and conversation at, seemingly, all times. It was hard not to roll my eyes and want to head for the nearest exit when the mouth opened and the judgmental, legalistic rhetoric began to flow. Nevertheless, this person was a sincere follower of Jesus. Truly, despite all the annoyance. And, this person was a part of my local community of Jesus’ followers.

Sometimes the Message is ill-served by the way early scholars divided it into chapters and verses. One of the best study tools I’ve experienced is to read the different books and letters without all the chapter breaks and verse references. It’s amazing what you see differently. When I’m reading a chapter-a-day, I can easily forget that today’s chapter is connected to yesterday’s chapter as well as being a lead-in to tomorrow’s chapter. When I read it in prescribed, daily chunks it’s easy to lose context.

Today’s chapter is like that. In yesterday’s chapter Paul addressed the conflicts that can arise because of differences in culture, background, heritage, and traditions. People from different tribes have all sorts of differing, non-essential rules about food, clothing, special days, rituals, and the like. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they’re by no means essential to being a follower of Jesus.

The first two verses of today’s chapter are really a summation of yesterday’s chapter. Paul ends this conversation by saying that those believers who have the grace and maturity to see that all of these rules, customs and traditions don’t matter to God, should bear with those who do. We could argue about it, get self-righteous about it, and then watch the emotions escalate as the conversation sinks into anger, name calling, discord, division, and even to hatred. Paul urges the mature believer to graciously channel the fruit of Holy Spirit towards those who are stuck in their traditions and rituals: love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.

In my memory banks this morning are a number of fellow believers, like the one I described at the top of this post, who I’ve shared part of my journey with in this or that community. I’m seeing their faces and laughing to myself at some of the memories.

In the quiet I am also reminded of my own immaturity, particularly in the early years of my spiritual journey. I confess that I have my own annoying quirks and have, through the years, embraced my own share of non-essential, petty thoughts as well as silly moral or religious causes. I have very specific memories of me being the source of rolling eyes and bit tongues. Now, in hindsight, I can appreciate the forbearance my elders and peers showed me in loving, kind, patient, and gentle fashion. Thank you for that, if you’re reading this.

I’m on this journey with every other person who is on their own respective journey. Each of us are having our own conversation with Life. Grace (undeserved and unearned favor) is required. Sometimes it’s required that we receive it. Sometimes it’s required that we give it. It’s the only way we’ll successfully reach our destination together and progress to that which is beyond.

The Doorway of Defeat

…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Romans 11:29 (NIV)

I reached out to shake his hand as I was introduced. The lights in the room were dimmed but the darkness couldn’t hide the look of defeat. Shoulders slumped, eyes down cast, and the smile that was clearly being conjured by sheer will. I could feel the discouragement. I sensed the fear that God just might be done with him. I also instantly felt an affinity for him. Something clicked deep inside, and I knew that somehow Holy Spirit had connected us for a reason.

I have seen the look of defeat on the faces of some of the most amazing people. I’ve seen defeat come in a myriad of ways. Sometimes it’s moral failure, a personal failure, a relational failure, or a combination of all. Sometimes it’s a life tragedy and the inequities of circumstance. At times it might be some kind of physical or chemical issue wreaking havoc on a person’s spirit. Then there are times when the source of the funk is spiritual, and a rational explanation is elusive.

When defeat descends on a person life gets very small. Vision is reduced as focus turns inward. Interaction is avoided which only tends to extend and exacerbate the symptoms. A person wraps him or herself in layers of self-protection that, ironically, not only serves to deflect further injury, but also prevents any kind balm from reaching the spirit wound. When the individual experiencing defeat is a believer, the person also feels a spiritual impotence that can be so pervasive as to prompt an unshakable belief that this is all permanent.

But, it’s not.

Defeat is never a permanent destination. Defeat is a doorway to deeper understanding. It is through the doorway of defeat that I discover humility’s sweet gifts and where I experience grace’s sufficiency. On the other side of defeat comes the understanding that Spirit power is perfected in weakness.

Resurrection must, by definition, be preceded by death. Redemption’s prerequisite is always some kind of damnifying defeat. This was the grand spiritual paradigm that Jesus ultimately exemplified, yet I always want to dismiss the fact that if I choose to follow He said I have to follow in His foot steps down that same path.

I saw my defeated acquaintance the other day. It’s been a few years since we were introduced. We’re now friends. His shoulders were squared, there was a sparkle in his eye, and the smile on his face was no longer conjured by will. His smile was clearly the effect of an inner joy that radiated off of him. I had the privilege of helping him through the doorway, and watching him discover, over time, what was on the other side.

So good.

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.

The Grace Response

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecutedthe church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them….
1 Corinthians 15:9-10a (NIV)

I was reminded yesterday of a high school teacher who showed me grace. That is, he showed favor to me that I did not merit. As I recall it was the last day of the semester and my grade was teetering between an A and a B. There was one assignment, a book report, that was sitting there blank in the teacher’s grade book. I hated reading when I was that age, a condition that didn’t change until late into my college years. I simply didn’t want to read a book and write a paper on it. I kept putting it off until it was too late. And so it was, I was called up to the teacher’s desk. He explained that the missing book report was the only thing standing in the way of me getting an A in the class.

I didn’t do it,” I told the teacher honestly.

He looked at me curiously. “You ‘didn’t do it’?” he asked. “That’s all you have to say?”

Look,” I answered, “I could stand here and tell you that the dog ate my paper or give you all sorts of excuses about why I didn’t get it done, but they would all be lies. The honest truth is that I simply procrastinated and didn’t get it done. I understand. I’ll have to accept a B for the course.”

Weeks later when my grades came in the mail (In the old days, you had to wait for the Postal Service to deliver your grades to your home), I was shocked to discover that the teacher had given me an A. Perhaps he was rewarding my honesty and candor. Perhaps he was simply doing a good deed. I don’t know why he graciously gave me the grade I didn’t deserve.

I can tell you that I was truly humbled by the gesture. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten away with something. It didn’t motivate me to try blowing off other assignments assuming that the “honesty ruse” would work again. Quite the opposite, the teacher’s grace motivated me to not do it again. Making sure I got my assignments done, even the book reports I didn’t want to do in college, was a way of honoring and showing gratitude for the grace that my teacher showed me. The favor I didn’t deserve.

During the early years of the Jesus Movement, there was a group within the community who argued that Jesus’ forgiveness and grace was a moral “Get Out of Jail Free” card. “If I’m forgiven from my sins,” they reasoned, “I’m going to sin all I want! Jesus will forgive me! In fact, if I increase the rate of my sinning it means I get more of grace!” Paul addressed this foolishness in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome (see Romans 6).

In today’s chapter, Paul points to the unmerited favor he had been shown by Jesus when, as a murderer of Stephen and a persecutor of Jesus’ followers, Jesus forgave him and called him to be an apostle. Paul knew he didn’t deserve to be an apostle. He deserved to by punished for what he’d done. Paul knew he deserved Jesus’ forgiveness and call to apostleship less than any of the other apostles. It motivated him to work harder than all the rest – to show his gratitude for the grace he’d been shown.

Along the journey I’ve come to observe that you can tell a lot about a person’s faith by the way he or she responds to grace.

 

My Lessons from Diverse Experiences

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40

Along my journey I have experienced worship in diverse traditions and settings. I grew up in a mainline Protestant tradition that could be described as “high church.” I grew up wearing a formal choir robe and marching in a long, formal, choral processional into the sanctuary accompanied by a pipe organ. There was a dictated pattern and order to every service even to the point of the minister standing in different positions to deliver different parts of the liturgy and message.

From that launching point I’ve worshipped in rather raucous Pentecostal services, in cold medieval cathedrals, in squirrelly Junior High church camp chapels, in fundamentalist Baptist churches with their own take on legalistic liturgy, in a third world, tin-shack hut you would scarcely call a church, in stadium revivals, and, well, you get my point.

In my early adult years I spent some time in the Quaker tradition, which is 180 degrees from the experience of my youth. The Quakers attempt to recapture the spirit of the early gatherings of the Jesus Movement like what Paul is addressing in his letter to the believers in Corinth. It’s a small, egalitarian setting. Everyone is welcome to participate. They spend time in silence to “center” themselves and wait for Holy Spirit move. People stand and speak as the Spirit prompts them with a word, or a song, or a prayer. It was a fascinating experience from which I learned some valuable lessons.

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing what was a pressing issue within the context of the corporate gatherings of Jesus’ followers when there was no real tradition, very little organization, a loose authority structure, and everything that was happening was new and different than anyone had experienced. With lack of structure, authority, and order things can quickly get out of control. That was happening among the Corinthian believers. Paul is writing to try and to encourage some order.

There are three broad lessons that I’ve learned from the diversity of my worship experiences in different traditions.

First, if my spirit is open I can learn from every experience. The metaphor and pageantry of high church liturgy is beautiful and layered with meaning once you begin to see it. The Quaker tradition taught me the power of quiet, and that Holy Spirit can and does speak through the most unlikely of vessels in extraordinary ways. It’s so easy to fall into “either-or” thinking when it comes to different worship traditions. I have benefitted from the “both and” approach, entering every worship experience with an open and seeking heart and mind.

Second, there are opportunities and threats in every established tradition. I found the liturgical provides me the opportunity of structure, order, and a comfort that comes with repetition and discipline. The threat is that it can easily become rote words and religious actions void of the Spirit or any personal connection. Likewise, the contrasting organic style of the Quaker tradition gave me the opportunity to experience learning from diverse individuals and recognizing how God can move and speak through everyone. The threat I found is that discerning between flesh and Spirit is always a bit messy, and individuals sometimes speak their own personal desires and opinions cloaked in “God told me” language.

Third, no matter the corporate worship setting or experience, ultimately I am responsible for my own spiritual journey and my own divine dance in every corporate worship experience. I am responsible for my attitudes going into corporate worship. I am responsible to be humble, loving, and gracious in the midst of it. I am responsible to observe, to learn, to ask, seek, and knock. I am am responsible to be grateful for the opportunity, forgiving of that which may possibly offend me, and humble enough to admit there may be things which I don’t fully understand.

The Boulevard and the Gate

So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:7 (NIV)

In the early stages of my spiritual journey I wandered down the path of legalism. I was never particularly comfortable with it’s straight-and-narrow streets and the authoritarian, self-appointed traffic cops on every block wearing their spit-polished Junior Holy Spirit badges. Nevertheless, I came to an understanding of why so many people find their way to that huge boulevard.

There’s a certain ease to the path of legalism. It requires little in the way of thought, meditation, grace, wisdom, or knowledge. Everything is prescribed for you in black-and-white terms and simple rules of obedience. There’s strict accountability to keep you on the straight-and-narrow. Your fellow wayfarers will, of course, watch you like a hawk, but then there are the self-appointed traffic cops to watch your every move, remind you of the rules, and threaten you with any number of heinous punishments (i.e. alienation, condemnation, damnation) should you stray from their prescribed path.

Along that stretch of the journey I met a number of individuals who had been walking the path of legalism for many years. They had given themselves over. So comfortable had they become with their enslavement to the rules that the simplest notion of grace or freedom became a fright. They reminded me of the Hebrews in the wilderness begging to return to slavery in Egypt. “At least we knew the rules. Life was so much easier to understand. It wasn’t so hard or so complicated.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia, he finds them in a similar spot. Having received the Message of Jesus by faith when Paul was with them, they are now being told by some self-appointed traffic cops from the path of Legalism to get themselves back on the straight-and-narrow. These Officers of Legalism are demanding obedience to their list of religious rules.

In his letter Paul calls on a powerful word picture. He argues that Jesus came to make us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are, therefore, no longer slaves to be herded down the path of legalism constantly threatened with alienation, condemnation and damnation should we fail to march lock-step in accordance with the self-appointed traffic cops.

Paul argues that we are free to walk down a very different path as heirs of grace freely given, of forgiveness poured out in excess, of extravagant acceptance, and of unalterable love. Why, Paul asks, would you ever want to go back to Legalism Boulevard?

Along my journey I’ve observed that some people find the path of legalism to be easier than the path of love. Having walked that Legalism Boulevard for a block or two, a piece of me gets why people spend their entire lives on its pristine concrete between its high curbs. I found obedience to a set of well defined rules less painful than dying to myself. I found that condemning rule breakers was easier (and even felt self-righteously satisfying) than forgiving them as I have been forgiven. And, I found that following the straight-and-narrow of Legalism Boulevard was guaranteed not to twist, turn, or lead me to uncomfortable neighborhoods where people look different than me, act different than me, think differently than me, or speak differently than me. There’s a comfort in that.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus said that the path of Life lies behind a narrow gate that’s not particularly well-marked. It’s narrow and not necessarily easy to make out because, like Frost’s poem, it’s less traveled than Legalism Boulevard. But those who ask directions will find their way there. Those who seek it out will find their way there. Those who knock on the narrow gate will find it open to them.

I’ve found it a messy and slippery path with some steep inclines and deep valleys. There have been lonely stretches where faith was required. There were some stretches I shared with companions that required humility, trust, forgiveness, teamwork, and grace to get through some of the terrain. I’ve also found myself in some foreign places that forced me to get past my fears. It hasn’t always been easy, but the further I travel on the path the more Life I’ve experienced.

I’ve never regretted leaving Legalism Boulevard. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who’s walking lock-step down that street to make their way down the alley. Ask about a narrow gate. Seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Just don’t let the Traffic Cops see you 😉