Because He Lives

“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

risen_8008cI have sung the Gaither-penned Easter hymn Because He Lives countless times. About fourteen years ago, the hymn became deeply personal. It took on a whole new meaning when my father died on Easter Sunday, April 2001. It changed the way I understood Easter and the resurrection.

And then one day I’ll cross death’s river;
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain -
And then as death gives way to victory,
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns.

It is because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have a hope to face tomorrow and whatever it may bring. It is because of this resurrection that death is not a big deal, because not only do we know the One who holds tomorrow, but we know the One who holds eternity.

The past few days as I’ve been pondering the reality that I will be a dad in January. As such, I’ve been thinking about this hymn in a different way.

How sweet to hold our newborn baby
And feel the pride and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance,
This child can face uncertain days because He lives.

A week like the one the world has seen where everything seems to have gone crazy, causes just a bit of worry about brining a new baby into this world. A world filled with terror, hate, war, violence, injustice. And the list goes on.

Planes being shot down. War breaking out . . . again. Politicians debating the livelihood of immigrant children. Drive-by shootings on a daily basis. Corruption in government and in churches. Education systems struggling to provide the best for its children, and some barely surviving.

When you look at all of this, how can you not wonder, “How can we have a baby in this?”

But then we remember that we are people of faith. And while we may not live in a restored universe, we live in hope. A hope grounded in the promise that God has given through the ages, “I am with you always.” Just as Jesus was with the lame man as he ran through the streets, Jesus is with us. Just as Jesus was with the Samaritan woman as she spread the news about the Messiah, Jesus is with us. Just as Jesus was with Martha as she weeped the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus is with us. Just as Jesus was with Peter as he stepped out of the boat to walk on the cool water, Jesus is with us.

And because Jesus is with us, we have hope. A hope that assures us that God has this. A hope that tells us that all of this sorrow and tragedy we see in the world is not a part of God’s plan. A hope that tells us that in the midst of an unrestored universe, God is working in us and through us to work all things for good.

And we have this hope, because Christ lives.

 

The Perfect Wave (2014)

The Perfect Wave At a time when movies like God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real have motivated movie goers – both evangelical and progressive – comes a film from South Africa: The Perfect Wave. It is billed as “more than a love story.” The film is based on the real life events of Ian McCormack, who is well known as an atheists turned born again Christian. In fact, the story that the film portrays is a story he has told to millions of people around the world.

Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) plays Ian as he skips around the world including Australia, Indonesia, and Africa, in search for the perfect wave. Ian is portrayed as a somewhat selfish 24-year-old not concerned with his mother’s charity work or anything to do with the church. His family, on the other hand, are devout in their spiritual life and in their care for others.

Out of the blue one day, Ian decides to sell his car and tells his mother (Cheryl Ladd) that his going on his dream trip in search of big waves. He keeps a journal of the different waves he surfs on along the trip. Even though she cannot convince him to stay home, the mother has a bad feeling – a sixth sense, if you will, that something is going to happen to Ian. She makes no bones in telling people that she has heard the voice of God – there is a scene or two where she describes the occasion – as such, her Holy Spirit sense may have some weight to it.

Ian and his best friend set on this journey. As he searches for the next best wave to ride, he realizes that he is searching for something more. “I’m chasing something,” he narrates, “that’s more real than this.”

What Ian is in search for is love. It is the story of a young man’s love for surfing. It is the story of a faithful mother’s love for her son. It is the story of young men and women falling in love. And it is the story of persistent love of God. For the most part, the film is about Ian’s desire to find the perfect wave. Everything else in life seems to not matter as much as that perfect wave does. Then, after a relationship breaks up, the film takes a turn toward the deeply spiritual. Ian has a near death experience. After being pronounced dead, Ian experiences not only the love of God, but the voice of God. Who knew a jelly fish sting would have such an effect?

While the film has a few rough edges in its writing and occasionally in its acting, it is a solid family film. It is not, however, a film that will be attractive to the “unbeliever.” But perhaps, that is not the point. Perhaps the filmmakers want the mostly Christian audience to experience Ian’s story in a new way and then feel compelled to share it with others.

Perhaps.

The film gets points for not beating the audience over the end with Biblical “truth.” It is open just enough for people to come to their own conclusions – meeting them where they are in their relationship with Jesus Christ. The film, for a brief moment, suggests that a person can be spiritual without being religious. Were not for the relationship Ian developed with a spiritual woman, he may not have had the Paul-like blinding light Jesus experience that he did.

For a complete listing of cities where the film is playing, you can click here.

 

 

Jaws (1975)

Jaws_MovieCoverBased on the best-selling novel by Peter Benckley, Jaws did something that no other film had done. In the careful and deliberate hands of director Steven Speilberg, Jaws is an action flick and a scary thriller, making use of a real shark as well as a mechanical shark. At times, you don’t know the difference. To our benefit, Speilberg made the thriller part more than on-screen blood and guts. It was in the context of a well developed story with well developed characters.

While all the elements are there for a typical archetypal story, Speilberg is careful not to draw too much attention to it. He leaves that work to the viewer.

Brady (Roy Scheider) moves his family from the streets of New York to a New England beach community (think Martha’s Vineyard). It is his first summer there as their chief of police. The Mayor and other locals are getting ready for the town’s big Fourth of July parade and events. It is a high tourist time of year, and the community relies on those tourist dollars for their economy.

Which is why when a teenage girl goes missing, and parts of her are found on the beach, that the Mayor and others are not happy that Brady wants to shut the beach down. The ME who first told him it was a shark attack, changes his mind to say that it was a boating accident. The biggest fear for the town leaders was not what might or might not be in the water, but losing money.

Brady has a fear of water. He does not swim, and sits patiently and anxiously on the beach watching the waters after the missing girl is found in pieces. While he is watching, other town’s people are coming up to him asking him when he is going to take care of this problem or that problem. It is not so much that the people are missing the immediacy of a shark attack, it is that they are not aware. There is a lack of awareness.

Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) comes into town and is another voice of caution and awareness. Hooper is a rich kid who has found his niche as an oceanographer. In a quick, to the point tone, Hooper tells the town people that they are not safe until they rule out what is out there in the water. He knows all there is to know about sharks, and is even willing to get in the water with them.

Quint (Robert Shaw) is a typical crusty old seaman. He is the kind of guy you don’t want to mess with after a long day at sea. For most of the beginning of the film, Quint is part of the background. He tells the town during a town hall meeting that he can catch the shark, for the right price. And we see him glide by as other locals and non-locals board their boats to go out and catch the shark for the award money. He snickers at them, because he knows what they do not.

This isn’t just a shark, it’s a great white shark.

In a five-minute monologue while the three men are at sea hunting the shark, Quint shares his story and why he hates sharks. Quint has faced his fear and triumphed. But there were many of his comrades who did not, and for them he hunts this shark.

Brady has a fear of water. He does not – will not – get into the water. But he does get into the boat with Quint and Hooper in search for the great white. At point, while shoving raw meat into the water, Brady comes face to face with the giant of a shark, and says, “We need a bigger boat.”

Each man has boarded this boat in search of the great white that is holding a community in the bondage of fear

2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  These three men – Brady, Quint, and Hooper – live this verse. They have their own fears, but they overcome them. God did not give us a spirit of fear, God has empowered us with power through the Holy Spirit and love and self-control. We are in control of how much we fear. We are in control of how much we love. And we are in control of how we use the power from the Holy Spirit. All three men, wise men in their own way, are hunting the shark because of the people they love, where the other shark hunters were hunting for the prize money.

These three men use their power to overcome the great white shark.

Jaws is a modern day parable reminding us that we decide how much fear controls our lives. We have to choice to love others as we have been loved, using the self-control that God has given us, and we have a choice to use our power for good. Let us all be hunters of great white sharks.

The Ten: Honor Your Parents

Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12, Common English Bible)

The Ten - jasoncstanley.comEvery Sunday my mom goes to a local nursing home to visit with her mother. Some days she knows who Mom is, some days, she’s not so sure. Some days she is warm and comforting. Other days, she is cold and violent. My grandmother suffers, as so many older adults do, from dementia. More than 5 million Americans live with the disease, in its various expressions. It is the sixth leading cause of death, and affects one in three senior citizens. (For more about dementia, visit alz.org.)

Honor as a verb means to “regard with great respect.” It is a wide range of a definition, leaving it quite open for children to find ways to honor their parents. Scholar Terence E. Fretheim suggests, as others have, that the commandment is intended for adult children. In a time and age when care for the elderly has become a major focus for some many families. Nursing homes. Social security income. Health care.

We are called to honor our aging parents.

Mission KidsIn the Jewish tradition, age was something to respect. We too often choose to neglect those who are older than us. Like a child who thinks his parents don’t know anything, we treat older adults more like a burden than the treasures they are. This past Sunday we took a group of third through fifth graders to a local retirement home for women. We did not have the children sing and do all the traditional things children do when they visit such homes. Instead, they went around the room asked the women questions like, “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?” The kids got some really awesome answers. One woman shared how she jumped out of a plane when she turned 70. Another shared about growing up in England. The women then asked the children the same question. Everyone enjoyed themselves – both children and older adults – because someone took the time to ask them about their lives and listen.

This is why Mom goes every Sunday to see her mother. Even though their relationship has not been the best, Mom has forgiven and forgives. Even though she doesn’t always know who Mom is, Mom still goes and listens. She tells her about life and bears through her mother questioning where Dad is, even though Dad has been gone now for 14 years.

To honor our parents is to care for our parents through all the stages of life.

Maya Angelou penned some amazing words around this in her poem “On Aging.”

On Aging by Maya Angelou

When you see me sitting quietly,
Like a sack left on the shelf,
Don’t think I need your chattering.
I’m listening to myself.
Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me!
Hold! Stop your sympathy!
Understanding if you got it,
Otherwise I’ll do without it!

When my bones are still and aching,
And my feet won’t climb the stair,
I will only ask one favor:
Don’t bring me no rocking chair.

When you see me walking, stumbling,
Don’t study and get it wrong.
‘Cause tirer don’t mean lazy
And every goodbye ain’t gone.
I’m the same person I was back then,
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.

Follow Friday: Susan Irene Fox

I first discovered Susan Irene Fox and her self-titled blog after she started liking some of mine posts. Out of curiosity I started reading her blog. Susan has a way of sharing profound, spiritual thoughts that are welcoming and not threatening. After a twenty-year career as an elementary school teacher, that ended due to a permanent disability, Susan started blogging to get her name out there.

She had started a Bible curriculum projected for grades K-6 called Branches. The blog was to give her an online fingerprint for potential publishers. Ever since then, both the curriculum and the blog have evolved. “The curriculum,” Susan says, “is now a biblical devotional series for families.”  Branches, which is based on John 5:14-15, is currently in the editing stage. Meanwhile, the blog has greatly expanded as “a way to edify, encourage, enrich – and sometimes gently exhort – the Body of Christ,” Susan says. The blog has become, for Susan, a way to abide in the Spirit, while building the Kingdom of God.

As I have lifted the focus off me and onto God, the experience has become rich with new insight. Followers have increased organically as the Spirit has led them. And when just one person tells me the words I write have reached his or her heart, that comment keeps me motivated for weeks, because I have been an obedient vessel.

At times, Susan will post a poem, which is an incredible way to express a gospel truth. “Poetry,” Susan says, “is a rekindled love.” She wrote poetry during high school and college. She would teach grammar through poetry writing. Often, as she writes in her personal prayer journal, she will write poems. She never, however, had the courage to make any of the poems public. With great delight, the poems were welcomed and well received. Susan got a number of reassurance and support for them, including from other poets. She now posts a poem every Sunday – “my small way of praising Him.”

Susan, like other bloggers, will occasionally do a series. Currently she is doing a series on the Beatitudes. Susan says there are two reasons that went into her decision to do a series. “The first,” she says, “is because writing a series keeps me motivated, interested, and educated.” It gives her the opportunity to “dive more deeply into a small amount of Scripture,” and then share what she gleaned from that dive with others. “The second reason,” she says, “is that, as I’m editing Branches, I’m relooking at this living text called the Bible.” Susan says that each time she ponders on the Bible, “it seems to speak differently” to her. These new ponderings lead her into areas she may not have been ready to see previously in her life. “It’s an adventure,” she says, “and I love to follow each new path.”

The topics in the series are the same topics that are included in Branches. The first series was on the Fruit of the Spirits. The series after the Beatitudes will be The Twenty Third Psalm. Each series gives an opportunity to chew and digest small pieces of Scripture at a time.

I was curious to know who Susan reads. Every so often she will quote a Christian thinker and ponderer. When Susan first came to faith, she “soaked up Lee Strobel’s books.” She names her pillars as N. T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster and Henry and Richard Blackaby. She also reads Max Lucado, Tullian Tchividjian, Jonathan Merrit, Francis Chan, Phyllis Tickle, David Platt, John Ortberg, Beth Moore, and Tim Keller. But that is just to name a few.

Blogging has its rewards. I wanted to know what the most rewarding part of Susan was from blogging.

The most rewarding part of blogging is the discovery of new things about Scripture from the most amazing blog writers. I have so much to learn as a new believer, yet just this week I was greatly comforted and inspired that I am not unlike all those other “new believers” in the first century – Mary and Martha, Priscilla and Lydia, Titus and Timothy – and I am humbled and enriched to be in such gracious company.

You can read Susan’s blog at susanirenefox.com and you can follow her on Twitter @susanirenefox.

Follow Friday: She Offered Them Christ

I took a break from my Follow Friday posts during the season of Lent  . . . .  and then some. I return today with the blog of a dear friend of mine, Sarah Wastella’s She Offered Them Christ. Sarah is a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church and says that the name of her blog comes from John Wesley’s charge to “offer them Christ,” which Sarah takes seriously. “Christ is the center of my ministry,” she says, “and I chose to de-emphasize my name by referring to myself only in pronoun. I would be pleased to know that my legacy will not be about me, but the things I did for Christ, to honor the Lord, and further the mission to make disciples.”

And She Offered Them Christ is very much about making disciples. Even if it was an accidental creation. Sarah explains:

In February 2011, I was given the website as a gift, a place to put my sermons online. At that time I was preaching less than once a month, and I had other products of my theological reflections, which I refer to as ponderings, that I started to post. It was never my intention to start an online ministry or have a daily post presence. That grew over time as people started to tell me that they use my posts for their daily devotions. That really rocked my world; it humbled me, but also challenged me to continue to provide new content for consideration and for growth.

A large part of Sarah’s blog is devotional material. She says that after posting daily for a few months, she missed a day or two, and people noticed. As she stated above, it is challenging to provide new content on a regular basis. For Sarah, her devotionals, such as “Praying for our Enemies, Bullies, and Opponents,” cite a specific passage, a brief meditation on that passage, followed by a prayer. The formula works well. “I tend to write devotionals,” she said, “when I come across a passage that really strikes me, or when I have an insight about it that might be impactful for someone else.”

These ponderings are the result of Sarah’s own theological reflections. At times they may come from experiences in pastoral ministry or from personal events, “such as raising a young child, or struggling with disappointment,” Sarah says. On Sundays, she tends to post prayers. Her regular Sunday morning responsibilities in worship include prayer, and she may from time to time post that prayer that was offered in worship on her blog. The prayers have a connection with the liturgical calendar and/or events of the day.

It is without doubt that Sarah’s posts, devotional, prayer, or otherwise, come from a place of prayer. “All my posts result from prayer and Scripture reading,” she says. “I feel the presence and the movement of the Holy Spirit in what I write, and I hope that others do too.”

UMC logoIn the midst of prayers and devotionals, Sarah occasionally writes about church polity. When she does, like in a recent post “Breaking Discipline: Accident or Willful Disobedience?”, Sarah does not join a team. She raises her own voice, which is not unlike the voice in the desert, calling for each “team” to see or hear the other perspective. She is not concerned with stirring people up, as much as she is concerned with encouraging the people of God to see another way in which Christ calls us to think, reason, reflect, speak, feel, or act. Sarah tends to ask us to consider our mission as the Church in the current debate, and how we will faithfully respond. This is what she says about that:

I write about church polity when I feel that I may have an alternative way of looking at it, or articulating it. I do not think we need one more voice on this side or that side of whatever hot button issue is going on right now. Usually I feel the urge when I find myself inundated with it online and through social media. I do not comment on everything, because I do not have something of use to say on everything.

Sarah admits that when she writes such a post about church polity, it is a little uncomfortable. “Those are the posts,” she says, “that make me hold my breath and wait to see what the response will be.” Sarah does not write about church politics very often because she feels like her pastoral voice would get lost in the politics.

I think that if I spent all my time posting about politics of the church or the secular world that people would start to ignore the things I have to say about the rest of our lives. I can turn people off, and I want Christ to get us excited to mature in our faith. When I do post about those topics, it seems to be more impactful because it means that I really have something I felt I needed to say, rather than just my constant reaction. I think I say things that others think but do not say, or struggle to articulate. I do not want people to blindly agree with me either, but consider what is being presented, what Christ might have to say to illuminate it, and draw their own conclusion after theologically reflecting on all sides.

It is statements like that, that it is obvious that Sarah’s blog is a tool of discipleship. Sarah says, “My writings tend to be less evangelical, and more about pushing us to go deeper in our spirituality, looking at things from a different vantage point, but still well within the lens of Christ.”  Because that is the case, Sarah is careful not to be a stumbling block to her readers. While some of her church members read her blog, she doesn’t write solely for them. “I do not write for my church members,” she says, “although some of them have discovered it and follow it.” She goes on to say, “I see this as a wider ministry to the greater Christian community.”

As a blogger, I am always interested in other bloggers’ writing process. Sarah tells me that she typically writes in the evenings, “when things calm down in my household.” Sarah takes time to think about what is impacting her and what struggles she is going through, or the struggles that she sees around her. “Some of my most well received posts have been reflections about traumatic events in the community, such as a rash of suicides and violence,” she says.

Sarah composes a post – a prayer, pondering or devotional – and then lets it sit. She comes back to it later to make sure she still feels called to share it before she publishes it on her blog. “No matter what you read on my site,” she says, ” rest assured it was created and shared in concert with a lot of prayer and Bible.”

Read more at www.sheofferedthemchrist.com. You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @SarahWastella.

3 Shades of Grace: Justifying Grace

Three Shades of GraceRead the Introduction to this series here.

Read about prevenient grace here.

“Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and God will give you more grace.” (John Wesley)

Through prevenient grace we are made aware of our sinfulness and our need for divine grace. Along with that awareness comes an invitation which we can choose to respond to or not. When we do respond to the invitation, we experience the second shade, or movement, of grace: justifying grace.

Justifying grace pardons us of our sins and makes us right with God. Again, God acts. This time through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is because of what God did through Jesus out of a great love for us that we have this amazing grace. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is considered the ground of justification. It is the basis or foundation of our salvation.

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved gift given to us. Theologian Randy Maddox refers to grace in the Wesleyan understanding as responsible grace. What he means by that is that God’s grace gives us the ability to respond. Faith is the response on our part to that gift of grace. To claim faith is to do two things: repent and believe. John the Baptist began his ministry with just such a call to repentance and believing. Jesus summarizes the gospel in this way, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15).  Paul, throughout Acts and his epistles, preached a similar message.

In the New Testament, which was written in Greek, the word for repent means “to turn around.” In other words, we make a U-Turn, we change the direction we are headed in. John Wesley called repentance, “a change of heart from all sin to all holiness.” All sin is lack of acknowledgement of and separation from God, while all holiness is being fully aware and fully acknowledging God.

The younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 provides a good example of what repenting change looks like. In the parable, the younger son leaves his father, claiming his inheritance early. He parties it away and ends up with a job feeding pigs more food than he can afford. This experience led to a new self-understanding for the son, which lead to a conviction that what he had sinned and he should return home.

When we repent, the change we undergo involves a new self-understanding of who we are as sinners and the need for us to return home. This is what it means to make a U-Turn back to God.

While repenting is the first act, belief is the second act. Belief is more than memorizing scripture and reciting creeds. Belief is putting and having full trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness. John Wesley wrote, “To believe in God implies, to trust in him as our strength, without whom we can do nothing . . . . as our help, our only help in time of trouble.” Our minds understand that Christ died for our sins, and our hearts commit to living in Christ.

sixthsenseWesley would save that once we claim the gift of faith, we gain a sixth sense. And not the “I see dead people,” sixth sense. Our eyes are opened and we see the world differently. We are awakened to a spiritual reality, and we see ourselves, others, and the world through that reality. This awakening leads us to respond to faith by doing good. We feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, we visit the sick, we love as Christ has loved us.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline says this about faith and works:

Both faith and good works belong within all all-encompassing theology of grace, since they stem from God’s gracious love “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, this does not mean that we will never sin again. Justification cancels sin. When we repent we turn back to God and accept the gift of faith. In justification, we still have the chance to respond. Too often Christians think that salvation is sealed in a single moment. Wesley would add that in that moment we begin a journey. This process of being cleansed and freed from sin is called sanctification. We will look at sanctifying grace in the next post.

 

 

3 Shades of Grace: Prevenient Grace

Three Shades of Grace

Read the Introduction to this series here.

In recognizing that humanity is crippled by the disease of sin, John Wesley identified three shades, or movements, of God’s grace as a remedy. It is important to note that there are not different kinds of grace. However, we experience grace at different stages of our spiritual walk. Grace is always grace. As Steve Harper says so well, “We define grace in different ways because of how we experience the grace on our end of the relationship.”

The first shade is prevenient grace. As the prefix implies, prevenient grace is the grace that comes before. Before what? Before we are aware of God or know we need God. Before we respond to God’s redeeming grace and before we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Prevenient grace comes before.

This means that God makes the first move when it comes to humanity’s redemption. Bishop Scott Jones talks about prevenient grace as wooing us to God. In other words, prevenient grace is grace that is active in our lives and leads us to an awareness of God. Wesley believed that once we were aware of God, we would be led to repentance. This is because once we are aware of God, we also become aware of our humanity and its brokenness. We become sensitive to God’s will in the world and in our lives and how that has been violated. We want to do something about it. We want to fix it. We want to solve the “whole trouble.”

We can’t fix it on our own, but we can respond.

Grace is about God’s love for humanity. Just as God’s love is for all, God’s grace is for all as well. As the writer of 2 Peter says, God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (3:9).

Prevenient grace leads us not just to awareness of God but to awareness of our need for God and God’s grace in our sin-filled lives. It is an invitation into a relationship with Jesus Christ. This awareness enables us to respond to God’s grace by repenting. John Wesley believed that prevenient grace enables us to use our free will responsibly. Because grace is given so freely, it was important to Wesley that we understand that our response is also free.

We recognize that prevenient grace is active in our lives through other people and our experiences. If we pondered for a moment about our lives before we were aware of God or of the need for divine grace, we would remember people, places, and things that happened in our lives who made a difference in us. These have been agents of God’s grace. Parents, pastors, youth ministers, grandparents, peers, co-workers, coaches, and church members are all agents of prevenient grace.

For me, it was my family – grandparents, aunts, and parents. They were always at church because they love the church! There was a point in my childhood that whenever they went to church, I would go too. No matter what they were doing. If they were cleaning on a Saturday, worship on Sunday, choir practice on Wednesday, whatever it was, I was there. For awhile, my mom worked at the church preparing and running the bulletin every week. One of my aunts led the children’s choir and another taught Sunday school. I remember sitting in the pews on Tuesday nights when Dad would practice with the Gospel 7.

These people and these experiences led me to an awareness of who God is and why I need grace.

And grace is for everyone. God’s grace is active in all our lives, and as such baptism is the mark of that grace. God has made a promise of grace. And because God does not turn back on God’s promises, we only recognize one baptism.

As United Methodists, we baptize infants because of prevenient grace. Do you remember in Toy Story, how the bottom of Woody’s foot had Andy’s name written on it? That is what happens in a baptism. God’s name is placed, not on the bottom of your foot, but on your heart. You have been claimed by God, just as Andy claimed Woody. Baptism is also an initiation into the Christian community.

credit: fanpop.com
credit: fanpop.com

While United Methodists are known to primarily baptize infants, we are not limited to only baptizing infants. We do baptize infants as a sign-act of God’s grace that is already active in that child’s life. But there is more happening in the baptismal covenant. The community of faith – the congregation – is making a promise to aid his or her parents in bringing them up in the faith. The congregation promises to nurture the child and to be agents of grace in their lives.

Finally, prevenient grace offers us hope. Hope that we will not be broken forever. Hope that we can change. Hope that we will be healed from the disease of sin.

Prevenient grace is not the whole story, it is just the beginning.

In the next post we will look at justifying grace. 

 

 

3 Shades of Grace: Introduction

Three Shades of Grace“We know no gospel without salvation from sin.” -John Wesley

Charles Schultz’ Charlie Brown says to his friend Linus, “Life is just too much for me. I’ve been confused right from the day I was born. I think the whole trouble is that we’re thrown into life too fast. We’re not really prepared.”

Linus replies, “What did you want . . . a chance to warm up first?”

It could be said that “the whole trouble” of humanity is original sin. Original sin is the corruption of the nature of every human being. In the beginning, God created, and it was good. God created humanity in the image of God, and it was good. John Wesley referred to this original righteousness as “original perfection.” But, when the first humans ate the fruit of the tree, sin entered the world. The Fall, as the Genesis 3 narrative is commonly referred to, left humanity fallen from perfection.

Sin is the “whole trouble” with humanity. It has left the image of God within humanity disfigured and diseased. As Paul says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Wesley understood that what we inherited from Adam and Eve was not so much guilt, but corruption and disease.

There is no escape from sin.

This is why humanity is in need of divine grace. Grace is the undeserved, unmerited, loving action of God. It is grace that renews and restores the fallen image of God within humanity. Grace is the answer to the problem. Grace is the medicine for the disease of sin. Grace transforms us from a sinful state to a righteous state. As United Methodists, we affirm that salvation comes through this loving action of God we call grace.

John Wesley understood grace in three shades, or three movements. Prevenient grace is God’s love at work in our lives from the beginning, even before we realize our sin-filled reality. While justifying grace pardons us through Christ, sanctifying grace empowers us to participate with God in healing our sin sick selves. But only if we choose to cooperate. This has been called Wesley’s “Way of Salvation.” It is the story of how grace restores us to original righteousness.

The next few posts will explore these three shades of grace.

 

Empty Eggs

Easter PonderingsDeath is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)

When I was a kid all of us cousins would hunt Easter Eggs at our grandparents’ on Easter day. It was what made Easter Easter. As we got older the hunting got more challenging and our parents got more creative. But the end game was always the same. Candy!

A few weeks ago Kara, my children’s ministry colleague, and I were sorting Easter eggs for the Easter Egg Hunt at the church. A number of people came through and assumed that were in the process of filling the eggs with candy. We, however, were not. The eggs were going to be hidden empty. The reason was practical. The empty eggs would then be traded in for a scoop or two of candy. We get the eggs back, and there is some candy-control.

But when tasked with doing an Easter theme for preschool chapel, my senior pastor and I used an empty Easter egg. In fact, we got a lot of traffic out of that empty Easter egg. We used it in a lot of places. When I used it for the children’s moment for Easter Sunday, I asked the children why did they think the egg was empty? One little four-year-old girl leaned in towards me, and loudly, but proudly, declared with great enthusiasm, “Because Jesus lives!”

It was, to say the least, a proud pastor moment.

These chapel/children’s moments with the empty Easter egg inspired this craft in one of the Peakland Preschool classrooms:

photo by Mollie Ledford (Peakland Preschool)
photo by Mollie Ledford (Peakland Preschool)

The empty Easter egg reminds us of the empty tomb. Though we don’t wear the empty tomb around our necks or on our lapels like we do the cross, the empty tomb says with all the mightiest of God that victory has been won. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us quite humbly, “It is not we who are victorious, but Jesus.”

This is why we sing old hymns like “Victory in Jesus,” because we acknowledge that Jesus has conquered death and lives! This past Sunday during my sermon, I asked the congregation to pay close attention and every time I would say, “He is Risen!” they would respond, “He is Risen Indeed!” It is an ancient practice of the church to acknowledge that the sting of death has no power over us. The sting of death – the wages of sin – are no longer capable of holding us captive. Jesus’ victory has rendered them powerless. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

They are powerless; they still rage, like a mean dog on a chain, but they can do nothing against us, for Jesus holds them fast. He remains the victor.

And yet, we find ourselves living as if nothing has happened. We live as if grace is a license to sin. We take Jesus’ victory over death for granted. Instead of acknowledging the power of the empty tomb, we submit to fear and death. Maybe because it is easier. Maybe because the world’s voices are louder than the stillness of the empty tomb. Maybe because . . . . . you know we could do this all day. We could think of a billion reasons why we fail to acknowledge the power of the empty tomb.

But when we come to this table:

communion

we accept the power of the empty tomb; we accept the victory over sin and death. And it is for you and me, whoever we are and whatever we have done. That’s how much God loves us. And so every time we come to this Table and break the bread and drink the wine, we remember the victory that has already been won, and all we have to say is:

He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

Stranger Among Us

Easter PonderingsRead Luke 24:13-35.

The two travelers in our text were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the broad daylight of Sunday, yet they were still walking in the shadows of Friday.  They were tangled up in disappointment, grief, fear, confusion, and the list could go on.  The man they thought would redeem their people had been nailed to a cross.  The man they thought would bring them a new way of life was sealed in a borrowed tomb.  And now there was a rumor running around that the tomb was empty.  All the hopes and all the dreams that they anchored in this man named Jesus, had come crashing down around them.  Belief and hope had come to a dead end.  They were walking somewhere between the grief and hopelessness of Friday and the joy and hope of the Resurrection.

In the midst of this walking a stranger joined them.  We know that the stranger is Jesus only because Luke tells us so in his narrative.  We find ourselves shouting to the story like we would to a game show or reality TV show, “Come on!  Open your eyes!  It’s Jesus!”  But, if Luke hadn’t have told us that the stranger was Jesus, would we see Jesus?  Would we recognize Jesus?

While their minds were occupied with their bitterness, grief, disappointments, and hopelessness, the unrecognized Christ was walking in the midst of their tangled lives.

This is not the only time we see the risen Christ as a stranger – a mere bystander in the Resurrection narrative.  In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Christ.  She thinks he’s the gardener.  Later in John’s gospel, Peter and others are in a boat fishing doing what they know best, and a stranger appears on the beach, asking if they have caught any fish.  Here in Luke’s narrative of the two travelers, Jesus is walking with them and they don’t even know it.

Jim Palmer, in his book Divine Nobodies talks about how religion almost destroyed him.  After a hard childhood, Palmer went to college and got involved in campus ministry.  This led to a calling which took Palmer to seminary and put him on a fast track to a booming ministry.  He would become a part of the ministry staff at a large North American church, become front-page news in the local newspapers when he started his first church on his own, and was on his way to becoming one of those Christian gurus you spend lots of money to go listen to.

But Palmer was tangled up.  Listen to what he writes:

Like Jesus, I began in humble circumstances, but unlike him, I rode high on the palm branches of people’s praise.  I’m sure that was where my addiction to becoming a mega-something (anything) was born.

So Palmer began a journey down a road to his Emmaus.  He left the ministry and began working any job he could find.  And on this journey of rediscovering his faith, he met various strangers.

This is what Palmer says about the experience:

On this journey God has provided the necessary epiphanies to save me from complete self-destruction and has opened my eyes to deeper realities.  With a seminary degree under my belt, you could think those epiphanies would have come when caught up in a deep theological treatise – Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Ethics.  But that’s not what happened. . .  God opened my eyes . . . through the unlikeliest people – people I, well, just kind of ran into along the way.  The cast of characters includes a Waffle House waitress, a tire salesman, a hip-hop artist, and a swim teacher.

Each of these strangers that Palmer encounters becomes a Christ –figure, teaching him something else about his faith and through these various encounters with strangers, Palmer began to slowly be untangled.

This story of the two travelers, on a deeper level, is the transcript of human experience: a history of God’s gracious dealing with the human soul.  Jesus doesn’t make a big deal that the two traveling believers didn’t recognize him. He doesn’t make a big deal that Mary thinks he’s a gardener or that Peter and the others think he’s some random guy on the shore.  Jesus sees what we sometimes cannot see – that we are tangled up in our fears, our doubts, our anxieties, our disappointments, and our addictions. That’s because Jesus is grace, mercy, and love walking beside us.  Jesus is healing through the hurting we cannot understand.  Jesus is a risen Savior that could not be killed, a risen Savior that is always with us.

We cannot forget that these two travelers, for the most part, are unknown.  Luke reminds us that Jesus did not appear just to the cast of characters in the Gospel narrative that we’ve learned to love.  Jesus appears to the unknown believers as well.  And I can’t help but wonder if Luke wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of these two travelers.  When considering the narrative of the road to Emmaus, James Hastings writes: “Here is the Master of all those obscure lives that are yet precious in the sight of heaven.”

Here in the midst of two obscure, unknown lives, the Risen Christ is in their midst, walking right beside them.  Our lives for the most part are obscure lives.  We go to school, we go to work, we go to the movies, we go to the park, we go to the grocery store.  For the most part, there is nothing extraordinary about our lives.  And yet, the Risen Christ is walking in the midst of our tangled lives as well.

Easter Feet

Easter Ponderings“But, go, tell his disciples, and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7)

A few weeks ago my friend Jennifer posted on Facebook a quote from her daughter. The three year old had placed two Easter eggs on her feet and declared, “Look, Mommy! I have Easter feet!”

So adorable and innocent. And theological.

Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, in Mark’s Gospel, are commissioned to go and tell the others that the Christ is Risen, Risen Indeed! The command to go and tell is not unlike other times in the Gospels when the followers of Christ are told to go and tell. After Jesus had healed lepers in Luke 7, he tells the followers to go and tell John the Baptist about the things they had seen. Mark and Matthew record Jesus telling the disciples and go and tell (preach) the good news.

Go and tell.

That is what it means to have Easter Feet. To walk or run with our Easter Feet is to go and tell. Mary and the other women were a sent people with a mission.

We, too, are people who are sent. We are sent out beyond the boundaries of our church walls to share the gospel message – a message filled with love, grace, and hope. The church is an important and vital place for the believer. Christians gather together at the church on Sundays and throughout the week for worship, studying the scriptures, prayer, and participation in the sacraments. Then, followers of Christ are sent to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, to love others as Christ has loved them.

We gather with other people of faith to engage in works of piety so that we can be sent to engage in works of mercy.

We are sent out on our Easter Feet.

The mission of the sent is to continue the work of making God and God’s ways known to the world. In this sense, the world needs the Church. It is through the Church that the world responds to Christ in faith and accepts the grace that has been given to the world. All of this is made possible by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But, there are days when it is not easy to walk on Easter Feet. There are days when it would be so easy to act like all those other people who are rude and just plain mean. We are assaulted by this meanness at work, at school, in our communities and yes, even in our churches.

Recently, a minister in town attended a children’s ministry event at our church. He took issue with the children’s moment that we had, where we shared the Easter story. About 80% of the children were not part of our church, and were 3 and 4-year-olds. The children’s moment presented the story using language that was age appropriate and focused on the meaning of Easter – a risen Jesus!

This visiting pastor, who was present with his children, took to Facebook to share three or four theological points that he considered were left out of this outreach event. He did not come to talk to any of the clergy. He did not write an email. He did not place a phone call. He took to Facebook and shared very publicly that our church was leaving out the truth of the Gospel. Some members who knew him took him to task for his actions. He later edited his Facebook post deleting the rude statement and replacing it with scripture. The meaning, however, was the same.

There are times when people will assault us with meanness and they think they are doing the right thing. They think they are being faithful to their God. They use their Bibles, quoting scripture to put others down.

Friends, this is not what it means to stand on Easter Feet. 

We can stand on Easter Feet and be in dialogue with those that we disagree with. We can stand on Easter Feet and walk in grace, showing the grace that Christ extended to us to others. We can stand on Easter Feet and use the word of God to build up instead of tear down.

Jesus did not say, “Go and tell others all the ways in which they are wrong.” Jesus said, “Go and tell that I have risen!”

How are you walking on Easter Feet?