Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Grief Deterred

“You have a dear, mighty heart, my son, and I love you.”

Oh Mama Martha. These were her parting words to me the last we met face to face. Mama Martha's suffering ended a year ago today. In some ways, it's been such a short time and the pain of losing her remains very near and the loss is very deep. But in still more ways, it has been too long. It's been too many ages since I've heard her voice rise high above the melody of the congregation singing a descant for the hymn in chapel. It's been far too many seasons since she caught me in some pastoral corner and said "Gotcha!" It's been way too long since I've heard her triumphant "Ha!" in reference to almost anything--a point in class, a joke in conversation, or the completion of some sort of dish in her cast iron skillet.

Too long. With grief still very near. There have been so many times this year as a pastor I wanted to call her and get her advice, or faced tough questions and wished for her encouragement. Or just wanted one of those bear hugs, because you weren't sure you ever felt the love of Jesus before that if you ever had one of those bear hugs.
I've lost people  dear to me before. But this year of grief has been different. I've watched it persist and endure. I've cried, laughed, sat in silence  and celebrated.  But more than that, I've just plain missed her. I felt her absence in the body. And asked the Lord if he really needed her present with him now.

I'm making my peace. Because as she was so fond of saying throughout her battle with cancer, "Death has no dominion over me!" Death did not conquer Mama Martha. And it ought not, by God's grace, conquer her children. Oh no. By the grace and love of God, Martha's "sons" and "daughters" (you know who you are!) should be those who sing, dance, prophesy and celebrate the Living God in a world gripped by death. We should shout from our front porches that the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has been opened up to all in the broken Body and shed Blood of Jesus. Accomplished once, done for all, and a sure promise that it shall never stop.

Mama Martha, see you after while.

Hallelujah. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Not My Jesus" and Radical Grace

Donald Trump has said more awful things than I can count in the past three months alone. Other political figures claiming the name of Jesus have said some things not worthy of repeating either.

In the past week, Jerry Falwell, Jr., in his role as president of a Christian university, said some awful things too.

Additionally, numerous people claiming the name of Jesus have said awful things regarding Muslims, Arabs and others of Asian or African origin. Ethnic mistrust, hatred, and racially-motivated violence and vitriol have become part of the common and public parlance of contemporary evangelical Christianity.

The righteous indignation of Christians of all stations, traditions, political convictions in response to this is well-warranted. Quite frankly, the hatred and racism and ungracious behavior are truly not representative of Jesus. The responses of Jonathan Merritt, Russell Moore, and many others loudly and boldly resound with the conviction that "My Jesus wouldn't say these things!"

And they're right. Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh, Incarnate Word, Savior of the World, wouldn't say those things, or brag about packing heat, or preaching "End those Muslims" in a world that's so desperately hungry for love. I'm 100% behind that message, and more importantly, the Gospel pronounces it and the tradition of the Church proves that such vitriol is out of step.

But a word of caution to those who are pronouncing truth back to hateful preaching: don't fall victim to the same graceless disposition. The scandal of God's radical grace in Christ is that He not only welcomes the refugee, the stranger, and the hated…but he also implores the innkeeper, the power-broker, and the hater to enter in too. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is preaching hatefully. And Jesus wouldn't echo those words. But the grace of Jesus is greater than Falwell's hate, and he will be embraced by the love of God as much as you or I.

What makes grace radical is not that the "conservatives" and "traditionalists" are wrong to demand a particular holiness and perfection from themselves and those around them. Rather, grace is radical because every law and tradition of man is undone in the face of Jesus' pronouncement of absolution. All our standards of righteousness and rightness and condemnation are too small and too weak to break the overwhelming power of God's one-way love. Thank God.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Snappy Grace: Savor the Love

Repentance. Absolution. These concepts are already ridiculously obscene in our culture. After all, if I'm admitting wrongdoing, I'm admitting that I deserve something I don't want. If I receive absolution, I'm expressing that there's something actually wrong with me. How much more oppressive can we get?

The problem is I--and you--have plenty we're guilty of. Plenty we ought to confess day in and day out. That's scandalous. But not half as scandalous as the fact that the Holy and Immortal God hears that confession and pronounces a radical absolution to me. I'm set free.

But more than that, I'm loved. Seriously, if I can acknowledge my sin and then be pronounced forgiven and somehow miss the memo that something much more serious than laws of nature, or "mechanical operations of divine relationship"or whatever other message you think you can slip in there. It's love. Plain and simple. Scandalous, free, limitless, one-way love. And it's more than okay to just receive it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Snappy Grace: Embrace the Scandal

Six years ago today, I was on my way to do a preaching in for a young adults group in a Sovereign Grace Ministries church, with my best friend in tow. 5 minutes from our destination, my car died. I didn't get to preach. In fact, as I was already moved back to college, I effectively couldn't attend that church anymore. That single incident basically removed my being an SGM pastor from possibility.

I looked for churches in walking distance or that had pickup services. Visited many churches--usually with the same best friend. Neither of us having much luck with these visits, even though we met many wonderful Christians in the process.

Then there was a flyer in the mail: "The Anglicans are Coming!" So almost a month after, we walked into the first preview service of a few that semester (weekly services began in January 2010).

I never looked back. And every time I reflected on that, it's had everything to do with grace.the wider SGM movement was so unhealthily introspective, so shy of absolution and so wary of Christian freedom, that even the very warm and welcoming congregation that I had shared three years with couldn't escape the effect of that teaching.

But when I heard the Comfortable Words in the liturgy for the first time on that September evening in Beaver Falls, I heard pardon, absolution and release after 3 years of confessing sin and being convicted constantly.

Those words?

Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Timothy 1:15

If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

I found so much proclamation of the Law in SGM, but no proclamation of forgiveness and absolution. There was years of "trying" to do what Hebrews 12 said--to lay aside every weight and sin and look to Jesus. But it is impossible to see Jesus when you are turned inward to see your sin. Someone from outside of me had to say "Look upon Him" in the same way that Moses commanded the Israelites to look at the bronze serpent on the pole. My healing and release had been there all along. And there was no amount of trying anything I could do. No amount of soul-despising groaning that could merit that grace. No amount of work that could win my freedom.

All along, I was being punished and condemned for my sins by the church and by myself. Not by Jesus. Because Jesus had different words to say to me. Words of scandal: "Get up. Stand up. Take your mat and walk. I don't care that it's the wrong day of the week. It's finished. You will be with me. Now. Forever. No ifs, ands, or buts."

That's a scandal to embrace.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Snappy Grace: Hug the Cactus

So, a few days ago I posted this on Facebook:

It surprisingly didn't get all that much interest. Which was both a relief to my sense of being too busy and a blow to my sense of self-importance. But I figured I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meditate on each of these mysterious phrases that are loaded with meaning for me. So, "Hug the cactus."

I've been moved again and again by this video. Not because I'm a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. (I am), or because I appreciate the wisdom of what Mel Gibson said to him (I do), or even because of how touching Downey Jr's intercession for Gibson truly is (it is). No, I've gone back to this video again and again because it gets repentance at a deep, visceral and practical way.


Repentance is a lovely Bible word that has been thrown around so much it's treated like a cosmic "I'm sorry" (pretty meaningless) or becomes code for how hard we work ourselves to be holy after sinning. In fact, it's neither of those, nor any of the other "feel-bad/work-hard" alternatives that American churches love to push off on people. No, repentance is responding to the sting of God's Law to face the loving gaze of God which He offers to his beloved ones for whom Christ died. It is abandoning any hope of achievement, success, and self-improvement to surrender to the despair of self, and cast ourselves to trust in the only Source of rescue that remains: Jesus. And that daily repentance is full of discomfort, and even pain, as the very idea of hugging the cactus even sounds. But the fruit of repentance--of abandoning our self-trusting and self-saving ways--throws us into an unending sea of grace.

Anyway, hug the cactus. There's good news in it, because Jesus works in it. Grace is there.