The Prison Of Passivity

Rearview Mirror

First of all, hi!  I know it’s been a while since I last posted and it would feel really weird to jump right back in without acknowledging that it’s been a couple of months.  I’ll post more about why I took the break and how God’s used it later but, for today, I just want to say I’ve missed this chance to connect with our church and am looking forward to posting more regularly.

If nothing else, this blog provides a convenient format for me to Monday morning quarterback my own sermons, which I feel the need to do today.  All last week, I had been so excited to preach yesterday’s message, “The Prison Of Passivity” but as I was driving home, I found myself concerned that I wasn’t as clear as I should have been.

I definitely wanted to shake all of us, myself included, out of the rut of passivity.  I just hope I did that in a way that built on the unshakeable foundation of God’s grace.  It’s grace that saves us, sustains us, provides for us, guides us, and transforms us.  If you take grace out of the equation, you no longer have Christianity.  Everything in our lives flows from the fountain of grace.

But that grace doesn’t exempt us from effort.  It empowers it.  And I think that’s where we tend to get confused, justify our apathy, and spiritualize our innate laziness or passivity.  As I said yesterday, what we see as grace in the rearview mirror of life always looks like effort through the windshield.  I fear that we’ve lost sight of that reality.

Yes, God parts the Red Sea.  But we still have to walk through it.  Yes, no one can come to the Son unless the Father draws them.  But God makes His appeal through our lives and our words.  Yes, it’s love for Christ that motivates us to spend time with him in the early morning hours of the day.  But it takes an alarm clock to make it happen.  Yes, any professional success we have is attributable to God’s grace.  But it’s also going to take a lot of hard work.

I was listening to a sermon from Pastor Levi Lusko on the treadmill this morning and heard him say, “If you see someone on the top of a mountain, you know he didn’t fall there.”  There was a long, hard climb to get there.  Jesus rarely offers a ski lift to the top.  He’s far more likely to empower us for the hike.

Praise God for grace.  We would be no where without it.  But that grace doesn’t exempt us from effort.  We want to be a people who see holiness and hustle as two sides of the same coin, not competing values.

So, whatever you’re up to today, “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:23-24).  Don’t live today locked in the prison of passivity.  Grace has freed you from that!

Matt, Savannah, You, Me & The Hope Of Grace

Today Show

I can’t remember exactly when but at some point during high school, I started watching The Today Show.  That was back before Katie Couric said goodbye to Bryant Gumble and started breaking in this young upstart named Matt Lauer.  And, when I say I watched The Today Show, I mean, I watched it every single day.  “But, first this is Today on NBC” anchored my morning routine as much as anything else for years.  Maybe that’s why I was so shocked to hear that Matt Lauer has joined the long list of cultural figures to fall in the two months since The New York Times’ first reports on Harvey Weinstein.

To be honest, I’m usually skeptical of Christian authors, bloggers and pastors who use the controversy or news of the day as fodder for a quick blog post.  I’m always concerned those who write such posts are silently grateful for a topic that could generate a lot of interest.  The last thing I want to do is be that guy but I do want to respond to a massive question Savannah Guthrie asked as she shared the new about her friend Matt Lauer, “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?”  It’s such a significant question because most of our culture’s attempts to reconcile those two thoughts leave our souls deeply unsatisfied.

All too often, we resolve the tension by cutting the person who has behaved badly out of our lives.  Maybe it’s because we don’t know what to say and saying nothing seems easier and safer.  Maybe it’s because we feel so hurt and betrayed that a friend let us down.  Whatever our motivation, cutting someone out always reveals that we never really loved them, only what they could do for us.  Love doesn’t see friends as assets or liabilities but so much of what we call friendship does.

At other times, we careen off in the other direction and ignore, excuse, minimize or laugh off their behavior.  We don’t love our friends enough to tell them they were wrong, instead we help them rationalize their failings.  We pretend what they did doesn’t matter, we defend what is indefensible, and in so doing we tarnish our integrity and betray our own expectations for ourselves.

We’ve lost the ability to say, “I love you even though you’ve behaved very badly.”  It’s an ability we desperately need if we’re every going to have healthy, enduring relationships.  And it’s an ability we’ll only develop when we realize that’s exactly what God has already said to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  It’s an ability that calls on us to embrace three complementary truths:

Uncompromising Standards

Nobody wins when we lower our moral standards to the basest levels of human depravity.  Sexual harassment is wrong; it violates the dignity of a person who is made in the image and likeness of God.  And to sexual harassment we can add a long list of other things that our culture has become far too permissive of in an attempt to answer Savannah’s question.  But mornings like today reveal that we all really do know better; some things are just wrong.  Sex is a sacred gift from God, not a weapon to be used in exerting power over someone else.

Deep Humility

In our assessment of others, we would do well to consider the words of 19th century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “The seed of every sin known to man is in my heart.”  As much as I want to fight that conclusion for myself, I know it’s true.  Apart from God’s grace, I’m capable of doing whatever Lauer did and even worse.  It’s dangerously prideful to live without that kind of self awareness and it reflects a willful ignorance of our own failures.  What if your biggest regret, greatest sin and deepest source of shame was being thrown all over the internet today?  How would you be feeling if that moment was the topic of conversation all over the country today?  That thought alone should be enough to lead us into deep levels of humility.

Radical Grace

It’s only humble souls that can deal in the economy of grace.  Grace is the unique contribution of Christianity to the human experience – the ability to say that my love for you isn’t based on what you do but on who you are.  It’s the ability to stand with both the sinner and the sinned against.  It’s the ability to separate love from performance.

It’s what God has done for us in Jesus.  On the cross, we see the fury of God’s hatred for sin but we also see God’s deep love for sinners.  The fury of God’s wrath fell on His Son so that it could pass over us.  God made a way for sinners to become sons and for rebels to find peace.  God doesn’t love us because we deserve it.  He loves us because it’s who He is.

And that’s how he calls us to love one another.  Not sweeping sin or sinners under the carpet but showing a grace that melts the hardest of hearts and gives life in the most hopeless situations.

Oh, how I long to love people the way Jesus has loved me.  Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could all take a step closer to that this Christmas?  A baby Boy was born to show us that grace and truth flow together and change everything they touch.

The Path Of Grace

Path Of Grace

Earlier this month, I was headed out to run some errands on a Saturday morning when I realized things were getting a little chaotic at home and the best thing I could do for Laura was to bring the boys with me.  As soon as I suggested that, the look on her face confirmed that I had read the situation correctly!  So, the boys and I headed to the underground parking garage in our building to jump in the minivan and knock out a few errands.

Unfortunately, in my zeal to move quickly, I managed to sideswipe a very inflexible concrete pillar as I was backing out of our space.  Just like that, I had a caved in door, a dangling side view mirror and two freaked out little boys who kept asking, “Daddy, why did you do that?!?”  As soon as I was able to convince them that it was an accident and not a sign that Daddy was having a break down, they calmed down.  And, by calmed down I mean they spent the rest of the day telling everyone they could that Daddy had broken the car.  To this day, I still can’t back in or out of a space without one of them condescendingly (yes, toddlers can do condescending…I promise!) reminding me to be really careful not to hit anything.  And every time they do, I’m reminded of the beauty and power of grace.

As soon as I hit the pillar, I knew it wasn’t going to be good.  But, for a fleeting second, I held onto the hope that somehow that loud noise hadn’t resulted in any damage to the van.  As soon as I got out to check, I realized that wasn’t going to be the case.  There was damage.  And it was my fault.  There was no excuse to make, no one else to blame, no way out of it.  I messed up.

In that moment, I really didn’t need someone to berate me.  I didn’t need someone to point out that we had better things to spend our money on than the insurance deductible.  I didn’t need someone to spell out how this was going to disrupt our plans for the day and our schedules for the week.  I didn’t need a lecture on safe driving, not rushing and paying attention.  All of that would have only made me angry.

What I needed was grace.  Someone to say they were sorry that had happened.  Someone to reassure me that it wasn’t going to bankrupt our family.  Someone to point out this is why we have insurance.  Someone to treat me in a way that showed they weren’t mad and that I wasn’t going to be punished.

Praise God, that’s the kind of woman I married.  The grace Laura showed me in that moment was exactly what I needed.  No condemnation, no guilt, no exasperation, no lecture.  Just a willingness to jump in, coordinate a rental car and get the van to the body shop.  It was exactly what I needed!

I think her grace to me was so compelling because I so often struggle to show that same grace to her and others.  I can be so quick to judge, condemn, point out faults and failures.  It can be so important to me to make sure people understand just how bad their mistake really was.  I often want people to feel enough pain as a result of their sin that they won’t do it again.  I buy the lie that if I can make someone feel bad enough, they’ll change.

But it never works.  I’ve yet to guilt or condemn someone into genuine repentance and I’ve yet to see long term improvement in someone because of how strongly I denounced their inadequacy.  It just doesn’t work.  You can spend your life hammering away on people but don’t kid yourself, you aren’t helping them.  You’re only making them more angry.

This all should be ingrained in our hearts as Jesus followers because of how God treats us.  He answers the horror of our sin with the grace of the cross.  He answers our rebellion with His peace.  He covers our sin and shame and cancels our debt of sin.  He shows kindness and mercy.  And we change as a result.  We grow to be more like the One who loves us when we are least lovable.

Imagine how much better our families, friendships and workplaces would be if we were so captured by the grace God has shown us that we show that same grace to others.  What if we walked the path of grace?

It’s what I’m praying for me, for you and for all of us this week.

The Most Wonderfully Stressful Time Of The Year

chrsitmas-grace

In 1963 Andy Williams released “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” on his first ever Christmas album.  Since then, it’s become one of the best known Christmas songs in America, consistently appearing on Billboard Top Ten lists.  It’s a great song and one I find myself singing a lot this time of year.  In fact, I bet you can hear it in your head as you read this blog – “It’s the most wonderful time of the year, with kids jingle belling….”

But there’s something about the song that doesn’t sit right with me.  Or, maybe more accurately, something about the song that captures the tension of this season.  It’s a list of things to do.  Host some parties, have family over, go caroling, find some mistletoe, call friends.  And do it all with a smile.  I’m not blaming Andy; although I would like to know why he thinks kids and jingle bells are a good combination!  We’re all really good at making Christmas To-Do lists.  Get a tree, decorate the tree, decorate the house, bake cookies, put up lights, buy gifts, wrap gifts, send cards, plan meals, mandatory office party fun, go to church, do something charitable.  And do it all with effortless Pinterest perfection.  No wonder we’re all about to snap.  We’re so busy making this the most wonderful time of the year that we end up hating the whole thing.

Stick with me here – I’m not going off on an angry Christmas rant.  I love the traditions of this time of year.  But if they aren’t the overflow of something deeper, they’re going to burn us out, leave us dry and collapsed in a pile of debt on December 26th.  There’s no such thing as a perfect Christless Christmas.  But when He’s in the center, everything else finds it’s place.

The Prince of all Peace was born in a feeding trough outside of Bethlehem so that you and I would know that we don’t have to have it all together to be touched by Majesty.  The Infinite One is comfortable in the mess of our lives, our living rooms and our hearts.  He didn’t come to call us to the impossible.  He came to do the unthinkable – to die for His people.

It’s a story of grace.  Of rescue.  Of One greater than us who comes to do what we could never do for ourselves.  He’s for you.  Even if you don’t send out cards.  He loves you.  Even if you skip the party.  He died for you.  Even when you fail to live for Him.

So, breathe.  Two weeks from now the presents will be opened and the dinner will be over.  And, I pray, your heart will be full.  Full not because you finally create the perfect holiday.  But full because you’re resting in the love of the Perfect One.

He came to show the world grace.  Maybe it’s time to show ourselves some as well.

Grace Under Fire

planes crashing

I’m chronically disappointed by the hardships of life.  Which is a pretty brutal one-two punch.  Things already aren’t going well and then I get crushed by my own unfounded disappointment.  It just makes the spiral worse.  And I fall for it all the time.

A big part of the problem is my expectations.  There’s a part of my heart that wants and expects God to make everything in my life easy, comfortable and safe.  I want Him to go to work on noisy neighbors, long commutes and insurmountable to-do lists.  I want Him to make it all better.  I want Him to do it my way and on my time table.  And I get so bothered when He doesn’t.

To make it worse, I hold onto those expectations even when the Bible is clearly trying to adjust them.  Consider just one example, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)  In some ways, it’s comforting to know the early church had the same misaligned expectations I do.  On the other hand, I realize I would be better served by internalizing these words rather than feeling vindicated that others need them as much as I do.

The problem with my misaligned expectations is that when something goes wrong, I feel like God is letting me down.  When that happens, all hope of me responding in a Christ-like manner is out the window.  To be honest, it’s usually a struggle to respond to people in a Christlike manner even when everything is going really well.  When things are hard, forget about it.

Yet, we’re never more like Jesus than when we’re loving well even though everything is going wrong.  Again, 1 Peter helps us with this, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.  For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” (1 Peter 2:19-20)  The gospel lays out the pattern for suffering service.  Life is conspiring against me but I’m working for your good.  Things aren’t going my way but I want to bless you in the mess.  I’m under fire but you’re going to get grace from me.  If we actually lived this way, the world would see how beautifully jarring grace really is.

So, I don’t love the difficulties of life and I doubt I ever will.  But I’m trying to do a better job of expecting them.  And I’m praying for the grace to see them as opportunities.  It’s in those moments that I’m most able to display the character and love of Jesus.  It’s in those moments where my life has the greatest redemptive potential in the hands of God.

Ashley Madison

Ashley Madison

As far as I know, there wasn’t one single person at our weekly gathering this past Sunday whose name was revealed through the Ashley Madison data hack.  And that’s a problem.  In fairness, if my name or one of our leaders names had been on the list, that would have been a bigger problem.  But I don’t want us to ignore the problem we do have.

It seems like people are responding to Ashely Madison in one of two ways: condemnation or amusement.  Condemnation seems more prevalent within the church and amusement in the broader society.  Both are deadly.

At it’s core, amusement says, “none of this really matters.”  Marriage isn’t that big of a deal, people cheat, the operators of the site made a fortune and it’s kind of fun to watch people get outed.  Of course, if it’s a high profile person being exposed, that makes it even more fun.  To be honest, I have trouble understanding how the destruction of marriages, family and trust can be sport for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, I do understand the temptation to condemn.  It’s so easy to take shots at a site so vile and at people who have done something so stupid.  God’s been using two passage of Scripture to help me fight my condemning spirit: 1 Corinthians 10:12 and Matthew 5:28.  The 1 Corinthians passage is a helpful reminder, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”  This whole mess should push each one of us deeper into community, into accountability and into establishing boundaries that protect our faithfulness and integrity.  We need to focus more on ourselves and less on casting stones at others.  By the way, in case you’re still tempted to fling a rock or two, let Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 sink in, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

People on the Ashley Madison list don’t need our jokes or our judgement.  They need Jesus.  Only in Jesus will they find a God who draws near to the broken.  Jesus doesn’t sweep sin under the carpet.  He carries it to the cross.  Jesus died for every single person on Ashely Madison’s list.  He offers hope, cleansing and restoration.  He offers a new day, a new life and a new way of living.  He breaks us free from the chains of sin and death and allows us to experience life and joy.

If that’s true, why wasn’t Restoration City filled with people looking for that kind of hope this weekend?

We should have been.  Churches all over this country should have been packed with outed adulterers who knew they would be welcomed, cared for and loved.  It seems like we still have some work to do in broadcasting the message of grace.

I’m not writing this to condemn the church.  I’m writing this to remind all of us that we are the church and you’re living your life this week as an ambassador of Christ.(2 Cor. 5:20) Stand for truth.  Don’t laugh at the jokes.  Show grace.  Broadcast hope.  Point to Jesus.  People don’t need to come to a church to hear the gospel.  They just need to meet you.  And if you know any one on the Ashley Madison list, tell them we would love to have them with us this Sunday.

The Discipline of Grace

The more I study the lives of Christian men and women I admire, the more I realize how much they resemble a sailboat.  From a distance, sailing seems effortless; you glide majestically over the waves powered only by the wind.  But the closer you get, the more you realize there’s a tremendous amount of work going on to make the ship sail.  The same is true of our lives with God.  On one hand, we’re powered by the breath of God and hopelessly adrift without the grace we need to fill our sails.  On the other, following Jesus takes a lot of work.

If you want to grow spiritually, it’s going to take grace and discipline.

Paul hints at this in Colossians 2:5 when he writes, “For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.”  Paul rejoices in both their good discipline and their faith in Jesus.

As our churches pursue gospel centeredness, we run the risk of ignoring the need for discipline in the Christian life.  If you fall into that trap, you will face spiritual stagnation.  If you want to spend time with God every morning, it’s going to take discipline to get out of bed – angels aren’t going to magically transport you; you need to turn the alarm off, get up and move to that first cup of coffee!  If you want to read books that nourish your soul, it’s going to take discipline to turn off the tv.  If you want to experience the joy of giving generously, it’s going to take discipline to reign in your other spending.  If you want to preach a great sermon, it’s going to take discipline to prepare.  If you want a great marriage, it’s going to take discipline to prioritize your relationship.  Stop thinking any of this is going to come easy without you having to do some work.

On the other hand, you can have the greatest crew in the world on the fastest yacht ever and you’re not going anywhere without some wind.  Discipline doesn’t move the boat, it can only help you catch the wind of God when it blows.  Our only hope of real momentum in life is the grace of God.  All the discipline in the world won’t get you out of bed in the morning if God doesn’t give you a love for His Word.  It’s only as we understand the gospel more, embrace the lavish grace of Jesus and learn to find our identity in Him that we experience real growth in our lives.  If you want to know how central grace is, consider that even the discipline we have is a gift of grace.  Paul points that out in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.

If we want to live the life God created us for, it’s going to take discipline and grace.  The key is getting the order right.  Grace motivates discipline.  Discipline never produces or earns grace.  So, pursue grace.  But you’ll know you’ve found it when that grace produces discipline in our lives.

Catch the wind, work hard and see how far God will take you!

John Newton on The Character of a Christian

“The dignity, offices, blood, righteousness, faithfulness, and compassion of the Redeemer, in whom he rests, trusts and lives, for wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, are adequate to all his wants and wishes, provide him with an answer to every objection, and give him no less confidence in God, than if he were sinless as an angel: for he sees, that though sin has abounded in him, grace has much more abounded in Jesus. With respect to the past, all things are become new; with respect to the present and future, he leans upon an almighty arm, and relies upon the word and power which made and upholds the heavens and the earth. Though he feels himself unworthy of the smallest mercies, he claims and expects the greatest blessings that God can bestow; and being rooted and grounded in the knowledge and love of Christ, his peace abides, and is not greatly affected, either by the variation of his own frames, or the changes of God’s dispensations towards him while here.”

– John Newton, former slave trader turned follower of Jesus, on the character of a Christian.  “Select Letters of John Newtown, Letter 29”