Amazing Grace

Last weekend I had the second of my “graded” sermons–ones in which the Senior Pastor has to take notes and let me know if my theology is sufficiently correct as a United Methodist. This time, the topic was on God’s grace, and our distinctly Wesleyan understanding of it.

I’m really enjoying our livestream option; click here and look for the February 2 11am service. Let me know what you think!

Love Like That

“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it?  And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders.  When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’  In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:4-7)

Our new neighbor spent the better part of six hours today trying to coax her new rescued puppy back into her house after the puppy snuck out…twice.

Mary and I spent awhile this evening trying to help corral the puppy, who had been a rescue from an abusive situation about two weeks ago and was in no mood to trust anyone, never getting within 20 feet of us. We tried leaving out treats, and sitting calmly, and so on, but the dog wasn’t having anything to do with us. (We’re told that the puppy isn’t fond of men, so I felt doubly helpless.)

Her new owner, though, was marvelous at trying to build trust. She scampered around her yard like an eight-year-old, trying to get the puppy to play with her. She lay down for a good half hour in the dew of the evening on her front lawn, trying to get the puppy to come close enough. She got some steak and offered the puppy bits of it to try to draw her near, with only partial success.

It occurs to me that her love is part of what Jesus taught about in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Just as Jesus does, she patiently was calling to the puppy, trying to be open and warm and receptive, not angry, not yelling at the dog. She showed what grace is about: the neverending call to come home, to turn back. And through it all, the rebellious puppy was mistrusting of that grace, skeptical that it could really be safe, and absolutely determined to do whatever it wanted to do.

In the same way, we’re rebellious puppies who refuse to believe it could possibly be any better with Jesus than on our own. We’re all cavorting, running free, oblivious to the fact that it’s getting dark and there are foxes in the woods nearby who would love to have a go at us in the night. And we disdain the steak that’s offered in favor of staying (spiritually) hungry, if it means accepting anything that comes with it.

The good news is, there are no strings attached, no hidden agendas. God’s grace and love are freely given, just as our neighbor’s love was freely given, and despite our (or the puppy’s) obstinacy about taking the offer. It’s a valuable reminder that grace shows up in random moments in our days, and that we’re called to love like that: to offer grace to everyone we see, loving the rebellious puppy in each of us, and patiently extending grace until she comes home.

PS: Eventually the neighbor went inside and left the front door propped open. And after another half hour, something got the better of the puppy (curiosity? hunger? desire for warmth?) and she wandered back inside. And there was great rejoicing.

One Tumultuous July

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)

Can I just share a little of what my July was like? In the space of the previous month, here’s what I’ve faced (in no particular order):

  • My mother’s sudden hospitalization for a kidney infection, with the attendant disruption to our everyday lives of being at the hospital frequently (she’s better now, thanks be);
  • The unexpected death of a coworker, who in the space of a weekend had an accident around the home and lapsed into a coma from which she could not recover;
  • A longstanding friend’s mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, same as my mom; and if that wasn’t enough,
  • Her husband was taken to the ER with a mild heart attack;
  • The utterly unexpected firing of a longtime friend in very, very murky circumstances that leave me worried for what comes next;
  • My boss being taken ill with serious abdominal illness, hospitalized, and only gradually returning to work during a very hectic time at the office that I had to cover (on top of the above list); and
  • Another coworker’s father in law needing emergency surgery for an aortic aneurysm (they caught it in time)

And that’s just within the span of July, all happening to people around me who are part of my love and my life–and who therefore affect me with all of these goings-on. It’s overwhelming! This is a pretty scary list!

hairoutAt times like these, we can hear some pretty horrible theology from people. Well-meaning people, to be sure, but still, what they tell us can ruin our understanding of God if we let it happen. Things like, “It was God’s will.” (God does not will us disease! Disease is an effect of the brokenness we brought into the world from our expulsion from Eden.) Or “God never gives you more than you can handle.” (No! If anything, the Bible tells us, it’s more like there is nothing we can’t handle WHEN WE GIVE IT OVER TO GOD, not when we try to take it all on ourselves!)

And yet through this month of madness, I haven’t crumbled, I haven’t curled up into a ball in the corner. I have endured, and I am absolutely, utterly, completely convinced it’s only my faith in the power of Jesus Christ that has kept me together. I have been strengthened, indeed I have become “more than conquerors” by being able to turn to Christ, by placing myself and each of these situations in his hands, and by trusting in him to help me through. There are certainly days this month when it most certainly did not feel like “overwhelming victory,” yet here I am: assaulted, assailed, buffeted, but not breaking in the force of the storm. For that, I can only give everlasting thanks to Christ.

Come on, August, do your worst. I’ve got backup.

Take Time to Give Thanks

It is an absolutely. Gorgeous. June. Day. And yes, since it’s the weekend, I have a ton of chores to do. It’s also still the busy season at work, and it won’t take much for my mind to wander to all I haven’t done yet there, as well. But you know where I am right now?

20170604_155713Yep: my backyard hammock, enjoying the soft breeze, the high-80s warmth, and a chance to reflect on what’s going right, instead of obsess (as I always do) about what’s not. A partial list:

  • There’s two racks of ribs in the smoker that will be absolutely delicious later this afternoon.
  • It’s Pentecost, and we had a spirit-filled service this morning, welcoming Tim back off the mountain and celebrating his Emmaus walk.
  • My high-school daughter passed her state Chemistry test, despite much angst, and she says her first SAT this weekend felt good too.
  • Both the kids participated in the (school-)year-end lock-in at church last night, reconnecting with people of Christ.
  • Twenty-four years of marriage–to the same wonderful woman, no less.
  • Being done with the lawn earlier than I’d feared it would take.
  • Making plans with my college roommate for a guys’ weekend golfing and etc. together this September, to mark our respective birthdays, and being able to grace him with free airfare (yeah, I had a ridiculous amount of miles).
  • My own connection with the Emmaus community, which I got to celebrate yesterday.
  • A roof, food, and love…what more, really, do I need?

And yet, how often do we actually stop to thank God for all that’s going right in our world, instead of just bringing to him our concerns? As Garrison Keillor wrote: “Thank you, dear Lord, for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”

Jesus, you are amazing, awesome in power and love, and I start by celebrating you. But I also celebrate all that’s going right in my life, and I thank you for your hand behind me every day. Forgive me for the times I overlook your grace and your bounty. Free my heart to rest in those times that your love surrounds me, those times that things are going well, and leave me reminders often of how to turn back to you. In you precious name…Amen.

Expanding the Kingdom Through Emmaus

I’ve written previously about my amazing Emmaus experience, which was only about a year ago now…how time has flown….

Last weekend, I had the chance to introduce another brother to this experience, when I sponsored my friend Tim from church on his own Emmaus walk. It did my heart such good to see another heart opened to Christ in a whole new way; in so many ways, even just as a sponsor, I felt like I was walking again with Tim at his closing worship.

It’s led me to reflect on the growth I’ve enjoyed over the past year. Before my walk, I knew Christ was after my heart, not just my mind; since then, I’ve seen it over and over, how absolutely central the heart is to Christ’s kingdom. I’ve started teaching a Sunday school class for adults seeking their first steps in a deeper connection with Jesus, and I know I’d never have done that if I hadn’t had this experience of his love last spring.

The point of an Emmaus weekend is not only to grow in one’s own appreciation of God’s love, and to experience him in perhaps an entirely new and fresh way, but also to create disciples: people willing, or even on fire, who will go back to their home churches and help make a difference. In that regard, I’m already seeing changes in me, and I pray I will in Tim as well. At the monthly Emmaus gathering that occurred while Tim was “on the mountain,” I put in my first teaming application, with an eye towards perhaps guiding other men through their weekend this fall: something else I’d never have thought of before.

Who knows what the next set of Fourth Days will bring? Jesus does, and I look forward to seeing what he has in mind for me!

If you’re interested in taking your own walk with our local chapter of Emmaus, let me know!

Surprises Since My Book Came Out

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by two things since my book came out:

First, that people have actually bought copies! I honestly didn’t know what to expect, and to have had sales (OK, not New York Times bestseller status, but still, sales!) is a wonderful surprise and I am humbled and honored that anyone should put down their money on it. Related: people have actually asked me to sign their copy. Wow, is *that* ever an odd feeling!

book cover

Second: God’s prevenient grace is already at work. Among the sales are two to close people in my life–people who have never, or very very rarely, darkened the door to any church. Yes, yes, I know, they’re buying it just because it’s me. But still: I am hopeful that they are able to enjoy it, and find themselves wondering if there’s really more to this Christianity thing than they’d given it credit for. If at the end of the day even one person buys this, reads it, and it helps them on their journey to come to Christ, then the whole thing will be worthwhile.

So as Jay Sherman says, “Buy my book!”

 

“Can You Really Be Christian and Support This Regime?”

“Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

You might not have noticed it, but the recent change in Administration in the United States has occasioned a little bit of comment on social media. I know, shocking, right?

Recently, a non-Christian friend of mine posted this question on social media. He quoted Leviticus 19:33-34 and asked (in part), “Christian friends – what do you think about this? Can you really be Christian and support this regime?” I was struck by the genuineness of his question. He genuinely seemed to be coming from a place of trying to understand Scripture and what Jesus would have taught, instead of merely trying to make a political point. In hopes of meeting him at his place of honest searching, I tried to respond: what would be a Christian response to that? Here’s a slightly expanded version of what I told him.

I start from a place of affirming that Christ came to call humanity back to a full relationship with God, and that through grace and his death on the cross, the path back to God is open again for you, me, and anyone else to choose it.

Nowhere in what I just said–indeed nowhere in the Gospels–do we see Christ coming for the Republican party, or for anything having to do with temporal political power. In fact, he taught in Mark 12:13-17 that we’re to render appropriately to the powers that be, but that’s not the same thing as his core message of repentance and the kingdom of God–not at all. And so I as a Christian should obey the laws of my country, but my focus needs to be on God. I do that in part by seeing the essential humanity in everyone, the trace of “let us therefore make humanity in our image,” that started so long ago.

Changing my focus to God means seeing, honoring, respecting all of humanity, without regard to immigration status. But it’s essential to remember that at its heart, Christianity isn’t a call into politics, in either direction. Instead it’s a call back into holiness, back into one-ness with God the Father, who created all that we are. Part of what confused the Hebrew people of the time of Jesus was that they were expecting a political messiah, one who would demolish the Roman state and institute a new world order in political terms. Jesus came to open the door to a new world, but it wasn’t the one we were expecting: it wasn’t a political door, but a spiritual one. There’s a distinction that needs to be made between the two.

And so, Christ came for everyone. He came for me, he came for you, and he came for the immigrant, with or without papers. He came because we are of absolutely incalculable worth to the Father, and that same God who bemoans our human weaknesses still loves us enough to send his son to die for us. That’s the Christian message, of hope and love for all humanity. That’s what Christ still speaks into the current morass: not preferring one party over another, but honoring the institutions that exist while working to save lives, one at a time, for the Kingdom.