I Can Quit

“Jesus came to liberate us from the weight of having to make it on our own, from the demand to measure up. He came to emancipate us from the burden to get it all right, from the obligation to fix ourselves, find ourselves, and free ourselves. Jesus came to release us from the slavish need to be right, rewarded, regarded, and respected. Because Jesus came to set the captives free, life does not have to be a tireless effort to establish ourselves, justify ourselves, and validate ourselves.”

Tullian Tchividjian, from One Way Love

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleepe as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

– John Donne

You Wouldn’t Love Me If You Knew Me

I’m afraid of being known and so are you.

I talk a really big talk about vulnerability and transparency much of the time. I believe that a commitment to really knowing and being known by the people God has put in my life is critical to loving well. I genuinely believe all of that, but down deep … I’m terrified.

I know that if I had a speaker attached to the back of my head that blurted out the things I think as I go through my day, or if there was a TV screen on my back that displayed the things that play through my head on a daily basis … that I would have no friends. None. People would recoil in disgust. No one would want to mess with that level of “broken.”

We all “manage” how well we are known, even with those closest to us. There is no friend that you have with whom you are completely transparent. We pretend and pose as naturally as we breathe. It is what we do.

Why? Because we have come to believe a lie. We have bought the lie that we can either be fully known or fully loved, but we cannot be both.

I believe it for very good reasons. I know very well just how much of a failure I am. I know that I make a total mess of the most simple of demands to do good. I know that my heart is full of self-protecting, me-worshiping devotion to Rick. I know that I think, say, and do things hundreds of times a day that need forgiving. I know that my life is a vivid demonstration of man’s desperate need for the Cross. I know this. Even when I’m trying very hard to deny that it’s true, I know. The really terrifying reality is that I am also known. I’m found out, stripped naked, and laid bare. I have nowhere to hide. He knows me.

Psalm 139 says it gorgeously this way:

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.

He knows it all. All of it. Everything. Every secret thought. Everything I embarrass myself by letting slip before I’m able to take it captive. Every thing I’ve said behind another’s back. Every gesture and muttered word in traffic. Every image I’ve ever placed before my eyes. All of it. I am fully known.

And here is where the tragedy happens. I let the lie inform my thoughts about God, rather than allowing His revealed truth to speak to the lie. I carry the knowledge that it’s impossible to be both fully loved and fully known into my relationship with God. I know that He knows me. Thus, I assume that He cannot really love me. He must be angry. He must be distant and aloof. He must be sitting somewhere in a comfortable room, perhaps even unaware and unconcerned that I’ve been away. No way possible that He’s been sitting on the front porch every day, watching for my return. No way that could possibly be Him running down the road toward me all undignified-like.

The Cross shatters the lie. Jesus breaks it in pieces.

He says to me “I know all your ways and your thoughts. I know every word before it is on your tongue. Your frame was not hidden from me when I was making you in secret. I saw your unformed substance and have known every day I have ordained for you before the first one every happened.”

He also says to me “I have written your name on my hand, you are my beloved, and I have loved you with an everlasting love. Nothing can ever separate us. I will be with you and you will be with me forever.”

I’m slowly starting to believe Him. It’s changing everything.

 

I’m Not Pretending, I’m Practicing

I was talking to a friend of mine online last night and he was asking me how I was doing. I told him that things were hard but that I believed God was faithful and that the battle for me was in fighting to be satisfied in Christ for all the areas where the pain makes me want to give up.

He said something about that showing who I was and that I was an example to him. I realized I was being super “Jesusy”, and I tried to set him straight.

I told him that this was desperation for me. I told him I was at the bottom of things, that my life hurt. That the degree of rejection and agony I was feeling frequently made me really mad at God. I told him that I yell at God. I cry. I sob. I scream. But that at the end of the day I find that all I’ve done is walk a giant circle around Him, sometimes beating my fists in anger against His chest, sometimes holding onto Him like a terrified child, but always … always in a circle with Him in the middle. Because there’s no one else worth it. Because there’s nothing else that can take that level of abuse and desperate need. I run to God because that’s the only thing that works.

I believe that He allows us to fall into these times of discipline, where He lets us suffer the consequences of our actions. I know that’s where I am right now. I’m beginning to get to this place where I can see this as a mercy, Him saying “I won’t let you go farther down that road because I love you, because I’m putting limits on what access your enemy has to you.” This burden I carry is heavy, but it could be heavier. His mercy is new every morning, even when He is allowing me to go through excruciating pain. It is for a purpose, and that purpose has at its heart His eventual glory and my eventual good.

This is a gift, if I allow it to be.

A friend of mine last week posted a FB status that said “I’m not pretending, I’m practicing.” I’m still not 100% certain what it meant to her, but it means tons to me. In the past week, I’ve been accused of falseness, of hypocrisy and pretense. There are a couple of folk who thought I was posting about pain in my life in order to curry favor, to make people think more highly of me. I’m not sure what to say to that, except to use the words of my friend: “I’m not pretending, I’m practicing.”

When I talk about the beauty of the gospel in the middle of a divorce, when I write about truth and glory in the middle of my soul’s darkest night, when I quote scripture when everything in me wants to scream in pain … I’m not pretending to be something I’m not. I’m not pretending to have it together. I’m not pretending that I’m a “good Christian”. I’m not pretending that I don’t struggle everyday to believe, to hope, to trust.

I’m practicing. I’m practicing mercy instead of hoping for justice. I’m practicing grace instead of trusting the law. I’m practicing giving what I want to be given, saying what I want to hear, and doing what I want done to me. I’m practicing surrender instead of attempting control. I’m practicing being satisfied in Christ instead of trying to manage and provide for the wounds in my heart on my own. I’m practicing to be the man I hope God is turning me into. I keep hoping that enough practice will develop patterns. So far, the results are meager.

I’m in training. I don’t have this figured out. If you thought that’s what I was saying, I’m sorry. I don’t.

I am guilty and broken and prideful and sinful and lost.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, April 22, 2013.

Vulgar Grace

“Some have labeled my message one of “cheap grace.” In my younger days, their accusations were a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge. But I’m an old man now and I don’t care. My friend Michael Yaconelli used the phrase unfair grace, and I like that, but I have come across another I would like to leave you with. I believe Mike would like it; I know I do. I found it in the writings of an Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon He calls it vulgar grace.

“In Jesus, God has put up a “Gone Fishing” sign on the religion shop. He has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it- to trust the bizarre, unprovable proposition that in him, every last person on earth is already home free without a single exertion.: no fasting till your knees fold, no prayers you have to get right or else, no standing on your head with your right thumb in your left ear and reciting the correct creed- no nothing… The entire show has been set to rights in the Mystery of Christ- even though nobody can see a single improvement. Yes, it’s crazy. And, yes, it’s wild and outrageous and vulgar. And any God who would do such a thing is a God who has no taste. And worst of all, it doesn’t sell worth beans. But it is Good News- the only permanently good news there is- and therefore I find it absolutely captivating.”

“My life is a witness to vulgar grace – a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten til five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck towards the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request- “Please, remember me”- and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”

– Brennan Manning, from his memoirs

Love Doesn’t Rule My Heart

I like to think of myself as a loving person. Love is one of my top priorities, but when I’m honest, I place a much higher priority on being loved than I do on loving well.

I am convicted when I read things like I Corinthians 13, which tells me that love is more important than having great knowledge, fantastic communication skills, awesome faith and charity. It tells me that sacrifice, even to the point of martyrdom is worthless without love. It tells me that when I love rightly, I will be patient, kind, not jealous, humble, above reproach, not selfish, not reactive, forgiving, and rejoicing in truth and not unrighteousness. It tells me that I will bear and endure all things, with belief and hope.

In John 13:34-35 and 15:12-17, Jesus makes it clear that to love one another as He has loved us is a commandment, and is tied inextricably to our testimony of Him. Ephesians 5:2 further unwraps it, as Paul tells us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

I’ll readily admit to you that I have no idea what it means to love someone, even those closest to me, like Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me completely unconditionally. I was not just neutral toward Him, I wanted everything He wasn’t and nothing that He was. He loves me with no regard to my sin. He loves me sacrificially, to the point of death. He knows more about me than anyone, every dark, bitter, lustful, angry thought, and He still loves me on a level that isn’t humanly comprehensible.

I am called to love like that. Whether I’m capable of it or not, I am commanded to do it. Most often I rest in my inability and ignore the call because it’s hard.

God, help me to be Jesus to the world around me. Help me to understand what it means when I say that, that Jesus came to bear the world’s wrongs in His holy self and demand no return on His investment. Help me to see that love that is Christ-emulating will always place another’s need before my own, will always consider others as more important than myself, and will always seek new and creative ways to deny myself for their benefit. Take up the slack between my inability and Your call. Help me walk into the impossible.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 21, 2013.

A Prepared Vulnerability

I had an acquaintance once. It would be a stretch to call him a friend. As my father used to say “Whoever it is you’re thinking of, it’s someone else.” Suffice it to say, this happened years ago.

At any rate, this guy taught me something about honesty, but probably not in the way that he would have hoped. He showed up at the metaphorical front door of my life speaking a language I’d spent most of my life waiting to hear. He spoke of authenticity and vulnerability, of living life naked in the face of a world that demands that we cover our brokenness and difficulty. He was bold and brash and full of ideas that he wanted to talk about loudly.

I was all in. Not only had he shown up at a time that I really needed realness, he was able to articulate and describe the culture’s resistance to authentic living in ways that inspired me and made me want more. I latched onto him and said “Yeah! Let’s DO this!”

He didn’t respond well.

In retrospect, part of his reaction was probably due to the zeal with which I pursued living the kind of life with him that he talked about. I can be pretty zealous. I reached out, he pushed back. I revealed, he shut down. I was ultimately left empty-handed as he bolted. I’ll readily admit that my response to his reaction was less than Christ-like. I’ve since repented and asked his forgiveness.

After a while, when the initial hurt had faded, I began to understand something about the guy. I understood that he was young. I understood that he was full of ideas that hadn’t been tested yet. I realized that he was probably one day going to be much, much better at this than he’d been when we met. I started to cut him some slack. At the same time, I started to take up some of the slack I’d given myself. Ultimately, I learned something about the way I do transparency in a dishonest manner.

I painted a word picture of it in my head. I called it “a prepared vulnerability.” The picture consists of me as the owner of a house. It’s an old house with a nice, big front yard, a wide front porch, and a deeply dark basement. The basement is a loss. It’s awash with mess, refuse, and horrifying embarrassments I’ve been throwing down the stairs for decades. The only thing that has kept the city from condemning the place is the whitewash and air freshener I employ liberally. At all costs, I have to keep things looking plastic, shiny, and unsuspicious.

But I need to be “real.” Authenticity has become a buzzword, and there are so many books that all my cool friends are reading that mention it. In order to fit in, I really need to make an effort to display some honesty.

So, I square my shoulders, take a few deep breaths, timidly open the door to the basement and venture a few steps down the stairs. I squeeze my eyes tight shut in a grimace of disgust and plunge one hand beneath the surface of the fetid pool of filth, grasp desperately, and quickly run back up the stairs. I slam the door shut, lean against it breathing heavily and look at the results of my efforts. This is good. A little cleaning up and these will work.

I wash them off in the kitchen sink, removing most of the stink. Real, authentic sins. There, some pride. Here some struggles with lust. Maybe that’s some doubt. Admittedly a little nondescript and vague, but real examples of missing the mark nonetheless. I scrub and scrub to make sure no hint of the real nature of where they came from remains. Then I take them out into the front yard. I erect small pedestals and artfully arrange my sins beneath glass cases. I put little brass plaques beneath them very clearly describing each one.

Now I’m set. When people from church or work or other arenas of life stop by, I’m prepared. When they come to the front gate, I can call them in. I can be real. I can say “Hey, welcome! This is me. This is where I live. This is the genuine article!” I’ll point to the multiple cases on their scattered stands and say “See? Bonafide sins! Real, actual instances of wrongdoing, transgression, and offense. See how disgusting they are! I’m the real deal!”

But I don’t walk with them through the display. I have to call out to them and guide them through from a distance. That’s because I’m doing something very important. I’m sitting in a chair placed squarely and deliberately in front of the triple-locked front door to my house, and I have a shotgun across my lap.

The reality is that you can walk through the display in my front yard as long as you want. Heck, you can live here. I’d love nothing more than to really “do life” with you and “walk with you” as long as this is all it costs me. You there amid the material that I’ve carefully prepared to represent me as the kind of noble sinner I want to be seen as, and me here making damn sure you don’t get anywhere near the basement door.

That’s not vulnerability. It’s not authenticity. But it’s what passes for such in plastic circles. It’s sadly what passes for such in much of the church.

I don’t want to be that guy.

I want to be the guy who meets you at the front door holding a couple of shovels, not even proud enough to apologize for the smell coming through the open basement stairwell. I want to be the guy who hands you a shovel and says “Come on down, if you’re willing. I should warn you that I have no idea what’s even down here, but I need some help.”

God’s Little Helper

“Tonight I have nothing to offer You but weakness and fear.”

I wrote that two days ago. It was night and my heart was breaking … again. My world doesn’t look like I want it to look. I’m alone and lonely a great deal of the time. People I love don’t always love me back. Growth trajectories stagnate and plateau. Brokenness and pain and suffering seem to thrive in the lives of those around me. I ache for “all things new”, an end to this.

And so, in the middle of it, I cry out … and say stupid things to my Father.

“… I have nothing to offer You but weakness and fear.”

As though, on my good days. I have more to offer Him. As though there is anything of any value that I could possibly add to the solution.

The picture that jumps in my head this morning, in the light of day, is that of a dad assembling a gift for his toddler. He delights at the giving of a gift that will bring joy to his child. He sits on the floor amid sheets of hieroglyphic instructions, tiny plastic bags full of screws, bolts, nuts, and very specifically-sized hex keys. He struggles to hold two pieces of wood in the right configuration with only one hand so as to line up pre-drilled holes for a long bolt held just so in the other. He is working. He is creating something for the good of his beloved.

And his beloved? … his beloved is toddling awkwardly around the playroom trying to “help”. He squats gingerly and grabs hold of a wooden block with the letter “G” on it. A fluffy under-stuffed rabbit catches his eye, and he grabs that with his other hand. He wobbles back to his feet, confident that the tools and resources he has acquired will assist his father greatly. He makes his halting, stumbling way across the floor to his daddy and holds out his offerings with grubby hands. He says what he’s sure means “Here.” He waits.

His father fiddles with the noncooperative bolt for a moment longer, then stops. He looks into his son’s eyes — eyes that gleam with the anticipation of praise and validation — and then he drops the bolt and the two pieces of wood. He reverently takes the alphabet block and the toy rabbit, immediately granting them an honor that has nothing to do with their intrinsic value, and certainly nothing to do with the helpfulness of his assistant. In that moment, a block and a stuffed animal become half of a one-sided transaction that only happens because one party decided to be both giver and recipient. The father reaches out and pulls his boy onto his lap, sets the block and rabbit before them, and says “Can you help me, buddy? Let’s do this together.”

So yeah, I say stupid things to my Father … and He doesn’t care. Because His heart toward me is not the heart of a bookkeeper with lists of my near constant wrongdoings. His heart toward me is the heart of a father who loves his ridiculous, helpless, and beautiful son.

He’s making something glorious and amazing for me, He said so. Sometimes He lets me think I’m helping.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 10, 2013.

Listen to the Words

I have an acquaintance who recently visited a drive-through Christmas light display at a local park. I know that she visited the display because she was very vocal about how offended she was that there was no mention or depiction of Christ anywhere in the production. She’s kind of an angry Christian. I’m pretty sure she’s at her happiest when she has some Godless element of modern culture to decry. I’m not sure that’s really what Jesus was thinking of when He said “By this will all men know that you’re my disciples,” but that’s probably for another post.

I of course wish there was more Jesus in Christmas. I wish there was more Jesus everywhere and everywhen. But I guess it doesn’t surprise me as much as it does her when secular, unbelieving culture fails to give Christ His due.

I tell you what does surprise me, though. It surprises me that one time a year, I can walk through the mall and hear lyrics like this blaring from hidden speakers:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Go back and read them again, and try not to sing the melody in your head. Just read them, and listen to the words.

See the Godhead veiled in flesh, hail Deity incarnate. This is Jesus, Emmanuel, come to live as man with men. Bringing light and life, with healing in His wings, He lays aside His glory to be born in flesh. He comes to raise us, comes to give us new life.

That’s theology ringing through the halls of shopping centers. That’s the gospel being proclaimed and sung and celebrated. Even with the secularization of the holidays, Christmas is a pretty awesome time to be a Christ follower.

Forgiveness Is Not A Transaction

I don’t think forgiveness is a transaction between me and the person who wounded me. I believe that forgiveness is a transaction between me and God. Rather, I believe that forgiveness is an internal acquiescence and recognition of a transaction between me and God that has already happened.

When someone sins against me, confesses, repents, and asks for forgiveness, what is my duty? Clearly to offer that forgiveness. Colossians 3:13 says that “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

But what is happening to the weight of that sin that was committed against me? Do I take it from the shoulders of the one who has sinned against me and put it on my own? Can I carry that weight? No, the idea that I get to grant forgiveness in a legal sense gets blasphemous pretty quickly. There is nothing I can do or not do that will add or subtract in the slightest from Christ’s all-sufficient work at Calvary.

I believe that when I choose forgiveness, what I am doing is acknowledging the forever all-sufficiency of the cross of Christ. Choosing to no longer hold accounts of wrongs done with those who have hurt me means that I am admitting that Christ’s death was sufficient for their sin as well as mine. It is me admitting that holding unforgiveness in my heart is tantamount to telling Christ that this particular sin will require a little more payment, and that I’ll work it out between me and the one who wounded me, thanks.

Forgiveness is not me lifting a weight from a friend’s shoulders. It’s me telling a friend that it’s okay to drop it at the foot of the cross and leave it there.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 15, 2012.

Grace is Not a Transaction

When we extend mercy, grace, and love for any reason other than for the sake of mercy, grace, and love (which is to say for the sake of the Kingdom), it’s not really mercy, or grace, or love that we’re extending.

If we extend love only so far as we are loved well in return, if we extend grace only so far as we decide it is “safe”, if we are merciful only so far as we don’t feel like we’ll be taken advantage of … then what we’re doing is conducting a transaction. We are being merciful, gracious, and loving for the purpose of being treated well in return.

The definition of biblical love leaves no room for this. The definition of grace demands that we give with no regard for a return on our efforts. The definition of mercy precludes any thought of me.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, April 11, 2012.

The Defining Spirit of Authentic Discipleship

“Unwavering trust is a rare and precious thing because it often demands a degree of courage that borders on the heroic. When the shadow of Jesus’ cross falls across our lives in the form of failure, rejection, abandonment, betrayal, unemployment, loneliness, depression, the loss of a loved one; when we are deaf to everything but the shriek of our own pain; when the world around us suddenly seems a hostile, menacing place – at those times we may cry out in anguish, “How could a loving God permit this to happen?” At such moments the seeds of distrust are sown. It requires heroic courage to trust in the love of God no matter what happens to us… I can state unequivocally that childlike surrender in trust is the defining spirit of authentic discipleship. And I would add that the supreme need in most of our lives is often the most overlooked – namely for an uncompromising trust in the love of God. Furthermore, I would say that, while there are times when it is good to go to God as might a ragged beggar to the King of kings, it is vastly superior to approach God as a little child would approach his or her papa.”

Brennan Manning, from Ruthless Trust

What You Appear To Believe

I was up reading before the rest of the house was awake this morning. I’m reading Tullian Tchividjian’s One Way Love (and I couldn’t possibly over recommend it). He was talking about the Law and referenced Romans 2:15:

“… they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them …”

The point Tchividjian was making was that “the law is a universal human reality. Conditionality is written into the fabric of every society and relationship because it is written into the fabric of every heart and mind.”

He slowly disrobes the Western ideal and ethic and reveals it to be nothing more than a legalistic screed that could be summed up simply as “Don’t mess up. There are no second chances.” Every time we turn around we are bombarded with another image, another “role model,” another standard we will never meet. We are sold the lie that a better body, a better car, a better house, or even a better wife will finally make us feel significant. It was this little snippet that Tchividjian wrote that really got me thinking, though:

“People themselves can represent the law to us (and us to them!). For example, a particularly beautiful or successful person next to whom we can’t help but feel inadequate. Or maybe a boss whose very presence makes us feel like we’re not working hard enough, no matter how many hours we put in. They are not the law, but that is how we perceive them.”

I realized as I was reading how much I fall prey to believing lies like that.

Everyone, believers and non-believers alike, knows the problem. We know that we don’t measure up. It’s a universal awareness. We all know that we’re class A failures, that despite our very own best efforts, we barely make it off the finish line before face planting … again and again and again and again. Our deepest insecurities and fears always live in these corners of the heart. We are not good. We do not do good. We cannot.

Everything up to here is true. We have correctly diagnosed the problem. We really are that broken and helpless. But the horrific nature of the lie that we’re sold makes us believe that we’re the only one. We’re terrified of being found out, of being fully known as a failure. So we hide. We bury our true selves beneath layer after layer of pretense and posing.

We start this as kids, telling other members of our recess playground community that yeah, of course we’ve done things that we know we haven’t. We lie simply because we are completely convinced that if we were to appear weak/inexperienced/uncool in that moment, it might somehow make our mask drop and we might be discovered as the losers we know we are. As we “mature,” nothing really changes much from that initial model of social transaction. We get a little bit more sophisticated with our methods, but the heart of the exchange is the same.

We all know that the masks and lies and misdirections we hide behind are false. No matter how many long years we’ve been wearing them, inside we still know it’s a costume. But we completely lack the ability to really believe that’s true of others. We know that our facades are fake, so it should stand to reason that the one the guy I work with throws up, or the one that the lady in my moms’ group shows, or the one that my friend wears every Sunday morning to church … it should make sense that theirs are artificial constructs also.

But in those moments of conspiracy, where we’re all putting our best foot forward, full of fear that we’ll be seen and known, we agree to believe each other. In that moment, it doesn’t matter that I don’t believe my mask is real. It doesn’t even matter that, at the heart of things, I don’t really believe my friend’s mask is real. It only matters that right here, right now, he appears to believe that his mask of constructed personality and identity and worth is very real. It also matters that his mask looks better than mine.

This is what we do to each other. And I participate in it almost every Sunday morning of the world, in the one place where real vulnerability should be safe.

Faking it is not a victimless crime.

Holding out for Grace

“At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

Bono

Stop It!

I like thinking about grace and conditions. One of the things I love most about the gospel is that it doesn’t have any. You will search the Scriptures in vain for hoops that you have to jump through in order to be worthy of grace. Except for one hoop. That one hoop is “surrender”. I have to give up.

I don’t want to get into a discussion about what comes first, the surrender or the grace to surrender. I just want to focus for a moment on the idea of giving up itself. I think, as with most things that God thought up, I tend to want to add a lot of unnecessary mess to the equation.

There’s a hysterical Bob Newhart sketch where he plays a therapist dealing with a woman who can’t stop thinking about being buried alive in a box. (If you haven’t seen it, go watch it before I ruin the punchline.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow0lr63y4Mw)

Everyone back? Newhart’s delivery is always brilliant, but this bit is both hysterical and poignant for me. I don’t for a moment believe that all people who need therapy should employ his methods, but I did think of this sketch yesterday when I was talking to a friend over tea.

I think I add a lot of requirements to surrender. In doing so, I add a lot of steps to the gospel.

I know that I’m broken and hurting, so I add time for healing. “No, no,” I say. “I’m going to surrender, but it’s not realistic for me to just do this cold-turkey. I need to take some time to get ‘okay’, then I’ll dig into this surrender business.”

I know that I’ve got a lot of history not surrendering, so I give myself time for negative momentum. “I’m full-on going to surrender, I really am. But this bad habit/unhealthy pattern/self-medication/etc. has been going on for a decade or more. It’s gonna take this ship a while to turn around and point the other direction!”

I know that I’m weak and that I’ve failed in the past, so I put myself on probation – or I try to gradually roll out the surrender. “This is definitely what I need to do,” I tell myself. “Surrender is the only option, but I need to prove myself. I’ll implement full surrender in three months if I can perform well enough to convince me that this time it’s gonna stick.” Or I say “Full surrender right now, given my proclivities, isn’t realistic. Let’s shoot for 37% surrender, and if that works well for a couple of weeks, I’ll dial it up.”

I was reading Pascal’s famous quote the other day about how all men seek happiness above all else. He ends his thought by saying “The will never takes the least step but to this object [happiness]. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” I know that I do the things I do because, ultimately, I want to. I know that my avoidance of surrender is no different. I run from it for all kinds of reasons. I’m afraid of what living without the comfort of sin will feel like. I’m offended that I have nothing to bring to the table, that the gospel does all the work for me and treats me like a beggar. I like carrying bitterness, picking at the scars of old wounds until they bleed fresh, and know that giving up means letting go.

There is no preparation required for surrender. There is only surrender. There is no getting ready, there is no setting your affairs in order, there is no “one more time”, there is no management of it. The great theologian Yoda hit the nail on the head (inadvertently) when he says “Try not! Do … or do not. There is no ‘try’!”

Just stop. Stop moving in the direction you’re moving. Stop behaving the way that you’re behaving and give up. Quit. Just stop it!

I was thinking of it yesterday specifically in the light of relationships, which is where it comes home to roost so often for me. It was almost like I heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me in the words of Newhart’s Dr. Switzer.

“God, you don’t understand how much he/she/they hurt me … “

“Stop it!”

“I’ve got so much history/baggage/pain/etc. I don’t know how to …”

“Stop it!”

“If they/she/he would only …”

“Stop it!”

“I’ve failed so many times before.”

And then I hear him slowly and gently smile. “I know,” He says. “We’re one time closer to the last time. Stop. Quit. Don’t take one more step in that direction. This is the first day. This is where you start. You don’t have to prove anything to Me. You don’t have to do penance. There’s no amount of grovelling or guilt or hoop-jumping or even successful running from sin that’s going to impress Me. I’m only pleased by your complete and utter dependence on Me. I’m only pleased when you recognize that total surrender to Me is all that will satisfy. Surrender to me. I love you.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, July 31, 2012.

My Father’s Pilot

One of the things I will be doing frequently on the blog is posting things I’ve previously posted elsewhere. This one was from the original blog, was posted November 2, 2010, and was a response to a call for definitions of the gospel.

There are few people who have shaped my view of God and the Gospel more than this next contributor.  I learned from at his knee, and occasionally across it.  This is my father.  His name is Wayne Sams.  He lives in Springfield, MO.  Please join me in suggesting that he write a book some day!

We often use the expression – “now that is good news.”

It was just yesterday (as I type this) that a very good friend of mine, Brent Hulett, left a work/mission assignment in the Middle East.  When it was time to head back home to his family in Florida he caught a plane out of Dubai headed for JFK International Airport to catch another flight south to Florida to his waiting family.  All unknown to Brent his life was hanging in the balance.  Indescribable enemies were threatening to blow up planes with packaged explosives one of which was believed to be on his plane.  However, the plane landed safely escorted by fighter jets courtesy of the United States Air Force.  Now that is “good news.”

There’s lots of good news actually.  I cease not to marvel that I have lived this far into the 21st century.  When my Dad, in his preparation for a ministry assignment, wanted to find a good definition of, let’s say, the word “gospel”, it took my Dad hours of study gleaning bits and pieces from several different authors in several different books to come up with an answer.  It took me 30 seconds to type in the word “gospel” in “Wiktionary” to come up with:

Old English godspel (corresponding to good +‎ spell, i.e. “good tidings”), used to translate ecclesiastical Latin bona annuntiatio, itself a translation of Ecclesiastical Latin evangelium / Ancient Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion, “evangel”), literally “good news”. Compare Old Norse and Icelandic guðspjall.

Call it laziness or whatever name you want, but to be able to sit on my couch in my pajamas, with a 5 pound electronic magazine and have immediate access to a virtual library of congress at my finger tips, is marvelously “good news.”  In just a minute or two I’ll push a button and send this document postage paid to the publisher.  Done!

I did nothing to sit where I sit as the calendar pages are turned.  I’m just here.  And I’m glad.

So, this is the picture that I see as a somewhat decent picture of the good news that is the Gospel as Christians use the term…

I’m still sitting on the couch in my pajamas – hey, it’s Saturday and it isn’t noon yet.  Some centuries ago, an indescribable enemy was responsible for designing a somewhat explosive package called sin that my ancestors took on board.  It was passed along from father to son (sorry about that Rick) and from mother to daughter.  And without exception, I and all my cousins – even the in-laws – have embraced the package.  We sinned.  I sinned.  I didn’t want to but I did.  I wanted to quit but I couldn’t.  I could tell you more, but it’s a mess.  Going over it again wouldn’t make you or me any holier or happier.

But here, as I try to wrap words around it, is my understanding of where I am today.  I lean back in this flight this morning trusting the Pilot to bring me to my desired haven.  I’m as guilty as sin because I have sinned.  I’ve pretended otherwise and was arrogant.  I was a humble preacher and missionary and I was quite proud of it.  I’ve picked at moats in the eyes of my brothers and sisters and told them that what they saw in my eye was a gleam – it was a beam.  I have spit shined my halo – there was lots of spit and no halo.  In fits and starts I’ve worked hard at this job of being holy.  I pushed, as it were, very hard on the seat in front of me to make sure this trip ended in heaven.  No matter that my pushing and cajoling my fellow passengers was not helping them or me either.  I gave other passengers important lists of things they should and should not do, what they should and should not wear on the plane, how they ought to act and not act.   Most of them wanted me to just shut up, lean back and trust the Pilot.

This flight isn’t over.  I still get a little panicky when I see a passenger that just doesn’t quite have the look of a Delta passenger, Pan American passenger, or a United passenger (choose your own denomination).  I expect many of them get a little nervous seeing a passenger like me riding along age spots and all, bald, criticizing the other passengers – still at times pushing and shoving the people around me — still in my pajamas no less.  If someone deserved to be kicked off the plane – it is I.

But here’s the fun conclusion of this.  As unworthy and as unlikely as it seems, I’m very much on board.  The price of this passage was prepaid many years ago, interestingly enough, by the Pilot’s Son.  I’m learning to trust this Pilot who has promised us a safe landing.  I sense the presence of heavenly escorts off the right wing and off the left wing.  I sense the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But if I did not sense a thing – and frankly there are seasons that I do not – I know we will land safely.  “Now THAT is Gospel. That is Good News!”

And so it begins … again

I tried this once before. When I first launched this blog in 2010, I said this in the introductory post: “I feel completely unworthy to talk about something on which I’m so clearly not an expert.”

If I felt “unworthy” then, the idea of me writing about the gospel now is sort of a bad joke. In the three+ years that have passed, lots has happened to illustrate the fickle nature of my devotion to the pursuit of Jesus, the Gospel incarnate.

Some things are still true. I’m still overwhelmed by the power and the beauty and the scandalous offense of the gospel. I still want to be turned inside out, inconvenienced, horrified, and forever changed by its lifelong pursuit. I want to be more desperate to know Jesus tomorrow than I am today. I want to chase the truth.

So, this will be my place for asking the questions. This will be where I wrestle with the answers. This will be where I come undone.

This is the journal of my time on the potter’s wheel. This is the sinner’s gospel … again.