Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Grace: Available to all with no conditions

I found this essay online and thought it was worth reprinting here. It speaks about the nature of grace and I thought it was especially timely during Holy Week.

Every once in a while we get caught up in discussions about what a person needs to do to be saved. We like to set pre-conditions. We like to make rules especially when it comes to baptism and church membership. But do we have the right and authority to do that? Is it enough if a person confesses Christ as their Lord and Savior for them to be able to access that grace or do they need to make radical changes before they receive the forgiveness and grace that Christ bought for us on the cross? Well, read this and let me know what you think.


The 15th chapter of Luke is a pivotal and compelling bit of storytelling because there are three stories told sequentially, each illustrating the same lesson. In many ways, Luke 15 has been considered "a gospel within the gospel" because it so typifies the message that Jesus embodied. The three stories he told are in response to how he is received by the Pharisees who note that, " … a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently … the Pharisees and religion scholars growled, 'He takes in sinners and eats with them, treating them like old friends.'" (Luke 15:1-3)

The notion of grace and forgiveness is uniquely divine. Only in the mind of God could such an idea come among us. It's not in our nature to think up the idea of grace. In order to see that the divine message of grace gets shared, we have to treat the subject with care so that our own fallen natures don't corrupt that which is divine.

The church has always wanted to intervene with the idea of grace and forgiveness by making the church a ticket booth to God's grace. In order to receive grace, you need a ticket that only the church can dispense. That's the human twist we give to grace: We take that which is free and liberating and we make it cost something. In order to obtain the ticket of salvation, you must meet the prior approval of the church.

We question whether the grace of God is enough for certain sins. We expect that you clean up appropriately before receiving God's grace and afterwards that you meet our expectations of behavior and belief. That's why Jesus had to tell these stories about a lost coin, a lost sheep and ultimately a lost son. Why, we've even gotten the nature of the stories confused. They are not stories of things that are lost; they are stories of things that are found.

Jesus wanted in the deepest way possible for the Pharisees to discover how they had missed the point of the message. The point was God is out on the front porch looking for any sinner who realizes they need acceptance and forgiveness. He is out there waiting and willing to offer grace to them all, no matter how lost they have been. He has already paid the price for their sins … all they need to do is simply come home and receive it.

That's our message, too, if we are willing to hear it for ourselves. We see ourselves mirrored in the lives of the two sons. We're either the younger lost son who took everything that was due him and left, or we're the older son who obediently stayed at home and yet resented the father who gladly welcomed the wayward boy. We're both lost and broken and we come to realize it, or we're lost even while we're obediently trying to earn our acceptance by being good enough.

I guess ultimately in the good grace of God, there is even a grace for us lost older sons who are lost in our goodness, our niceness and our morality. That's what Robert Capon calls, "being a bookkeeper." He says, "The human race is positively addicted to keeping records and remembering scores." You stay at home, near God, where it is safe and predictable. What you don't realize is that, given time, your bookkeeping behavior has, in fact, become your god, and you, too, are far away from "home."

Grace is a kind of mercy that we in the church have had a notoriously difficult time handling. We've taken that which is free and we've made it something to earn. It's sad in a way because we first come to God seeking forgiveness and the desire to be whole. And then, after experiencing the liberation that only God can bring, we go out and get lost all over again.

Seminary Professor Tom Long tells of one of his seminary students who went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and his father, who was a pastor in the inner city, related experiences of his own with his son. About halfway into their run, they decided to call a local pizzeria to order their lunch to coincide with their arrival back home.

A phone booth (remember those?) was on the corner and as they stopped, a homeless man approached them and asked for spare change. The father reached into both pockets and pulled out all the change he had, offered it to the man and said, "Take what you need." The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, "Okay, I'll take it all," and scooped the coins into his own hands. It only took a second for the father to realize he now had no change for the phone so he called out, "Pardon me, I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?"

The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins and said smilingly, "Here, take what you need." Long claims we're all homeless prodigals and beggars. "Head home," he says, "and expect nothing. Be astonished beyond all measure when the dancing begins, the banquet table is set and the voice of God says, 'Here, take what you need.'"

Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

He brings us peace

God is so good. Whenever I am seeking an answer to something, whenever I am troubled by the events happening in my life, God sends me little things that ease my mind and bring me peace. That's been happening a lot over the last few weeks.

Like everyone else, I find that there are seasons of life that bring challenges. I confess that I don't like them. They are especially rough if I find myself in conflict or disagreement with people I care about. When it happens at home in the family and at church or at work it can leave you unsettled and distraught.

The image of the storm comes to mind. Jesus often told stories about storms that come out of nowhere to threaten and scare the disciples. Well I think that happens in life. The good news is that Jesus told us that when we call on him he will bring us peace. I have found this to be true. He does still the storm.

If you are in the midst of a storm and the waves are threatening to undo you, then call on him. He will come to you with his peace.

If it doesn't happen there are at least three different reasons. First, you may be listening to the wrong voice. God has an enemy who wants to mess up whatever is good in your life. He will jump in and deceive you. He will not bring peace. He will lead you into strife and lead you to fights with people you would never dream of fighting. This happens in churches a lot unfortunately. Second, you may be forgetting to call on Jesus. It is so easy to try and wrestle through things on our own. We may even use the tools he has given us, like the Bible. But if you don't involve Jesus then you will never have peace. Finally, the testing may go on and force you to rethink whatever you have been thinking. Maybe it is you who has to change what you are doing or what you are thinking. This is the process that often leads us into repentance. The troubles you may be experiencing could be God's way of getting your attention. He wants to teach you something. It usually involves grace and healing.

This week I have been at peace even though I have been troubled by something that happened. God has helped me reach out to the people involved. In one case there has been prayer and resolution as far as it can be had. In the other there is still more work to be done but I am praying that Jesus will work his will and that there will be peace for my friends who are hurting. I am resting in Jesus right now and feeling his presence in the things that have happened.

So is there a storm brewing on the sea you are traveling? Then call on Jesus and invite him into your boat. He will bring you peace.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Loving, God's way

Here is another song that God sent me this morning through David Warfield, the director of camps and conferences for the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut. It is the theme song for our camping program this summer. It also speaks to God's love. May we all reach out to our brothers and sisters with this kind of grace so that they will feel welcomed at the table of grace.


God loves you

Found this music video this morning and it came at just the right time. Every once in a while God sends us something to lift our soul. I hope it lifts your soul today. God loves you. God forgives you. God wants to spend eternity with you.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Is there a welcome there?

I recently had a conversation with someone who suggested that a person should be excluded from their congregation because they were living in sin. The thought was that if they wanted to join the church, they needed to repent and clean up their act beforehand.

I don't disagree with the fact that we should all be working on those sinful parts of our lives. The thinking that only those folks who have their act together can become part of the fellowship seems to go against everything I had ever learned about Jesus. The truth is that Jesus seemed to seek out the rejects, the fallen, the broken, the sinner and welcome them in.

Neil Livingstone says it something like this: In a world of religious in-groups and out-groups, Jesus created a "Come on in" group. The kingdom of God is open to every one who will come, he said. It's like a party to which everyone is invited, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, clean or dirty. So scandalously inclusive was Jesus' teaching that it took decades before his top disciple, Peter, could really accept it (Acts 10) and even Peter waffled in his endorsement of Jesus' come on in policy. It was just too radical. Yet Peter and the other disciples were probably considered just as dirty as most of the people whom the religious leaders often pointed to as being unclean. After all they had a tax collector, a religious zealot and murderer, and a bunch of other very ruddy men in the group.

The truth is that Jesus was crucified because he was the friend to sinners. The religious leaders thought he was polluting the faith by his blatant disregard for the ritual cleanliness laws. A good Jew was not to associative with sinners. Yet Jesus supped with them, healed them, forgave them, loved them. He once told the religious leaders that he had come to seek and save the lost. He then claimed the title of the great physician.

Which leads me to the question that has often been asked about the nature of the church. Is it a repository of the saints or a hospital for the sinner? I believe it is the latter. All of us come to the church to be nurtured back to health and wholeness by Christ. It is through our fellowship with one another and the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives that we come clean over time. Joining a church fellowship is the first step in a process that may take a lifetime, but it is a process that leads to a growing awareness that we are loved and that God is calling us to a more excellent way of life.

I don't know if my friend and I will ever agree. We read the same scriptures but we read them differently. I like to say that I will err on the side of grace and let Jesus sort it out.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pushing each other to do our best

I am in this weight loss competition with a friend from church. We started off like gang busters with a lot of trash talking while we were still in Mexico on our mission trip. We both had put on a few pounds over he last few years. He wanted to lose weight so he could look good for his daughter's wedding. I wanted to lose weight to put off my doctor's concerns about my blood sugar levels.

We both jumped at a chance for a weight loss competition. We set our goal at 35 pounds. We agreed that we would weigh in each Sunday after church. The first to reach 35 pounds would win.

It's been a lot of fun so far. We really ribbed each other a lot once the particulars were decided. With a cockiness that Mohamed Ali would be proud of, we went after each other. Even after our initial weigh in we kept goading each other on.

Three weeks ago we got on the scale and the race was on. The following Sunday I stepped on the scale first. I lost 2 1/2 pounds and was feeling good. Mark stepped on the scale and he blew me away. He lost 8 pounds. He smiled and laughed and I conceded round one. I simply reminded him of the story of the tortoise and the hare.

This week we stepped up for round two and i lost another 2 1/2. Mark began apologizing right away. He stepped up and the scale showed a 1/2 pound loss. Things had evened out for him. He is ahead but the gap has shrunk going into week three.

Our weight loss competition is fun. In the end we will both help each other lose weight and be in a healthier place. It struck me that the church is at its best when we are doing the same thing. When we are challenging each other to grow in faith. That's why Bible studies are so important. We look at the Scriptures and talk about what they are saying to us. Then we see how they apply to what's happening in our lives.

Brian McLaren, in his book "A Search for What is Real: Finding Faith," says that if you really want to grow, you need to find a church. He says it is in the church that you can find others who are also seeking to walk with God. He warns us it won't be easy. (Hey the trash talk between Mark and me was pretty brutal.) In the end you will be blessed by the efforts.

So stay tuned to hear how Mark and I are doing. Meanwhile, check in at your church and see if there are any Bible studies you can be a part of.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

The long lasting effects of ministry

I got my royalty check yesterday. It was a whopping $61.90. The Church Newsletter Handbook was published by Judson Press back in 1997 and every year I have received a nice little check in the mail. The book evolved out of my doctoral project at Andover Newton Theological School and I presented it to Judson for their consideration. They accepted it and then the rewriting began. I worked long and hard to turn it into something that they really were excited about. They had high hopes for it. They printed off 5,000 copies for the first run.

I think it sold over a thousand copies that first year. It wasn't in league with John Grisham or Stephen King, but for a book about church newsletters, it did very well. Every year I get this little reminder that my hard work in the mid 1990's is still reaching people and paying dividends.

Each time I get that check, I am also reminded that no good deed goes unrewarded. When we reach out and bless someone, it always comes back to us. The Scripture says, "Cast your bread upon the water and it will com3e back to you in many days..." It is so true. we don't know how or when or even why it works, but when we love someone, share with someone, encourage someone, it always finds its way back to us in some form or another.

The other day I was meeting with a group of colleagues. I was sharing the fact that I was struggling with something that was happening at church. I was blessed by the kind words of encouragement I received from them. One person told me afterwards how I had blessed them with my counsel in a very similar matter a number of years ago and he repeated what I said to him. He told me it was as true today as it was then. He was right and once again, the blessing that was shared in another time and place came back to bless me again.

So cast your bread on the water. Go ahead and reach out to someone in need. Be a friend, share the gospel, lend a helping hand and then rest assured that some day the fruit of that act will come back to you as a blessing.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day five - Saturday

Saturday was our fourth and final day of work at the church. The week went by so quickly. Unlike the previous three days, we waited to pray until we got to the church. We wanted to establish it as holy ground. I know that sounds silly considering the fact that we were working in a church. Yet, when you are working in concrete and drywall, it feels different. I invited everyone to offer up their work as an act of worship.

Andy Scheuermann finished putting in the copper piping needed to hook up the urinal, toilets, sinks and showers. The guys brought the blocks up as high as time would allow. Upstairs the group actually finished painting one of the rooms and finished prepping most of the others.

The work is always more than we can do in the time allowed. Pastors Ramon and Alma would have loved for us to do more but they were so appreciative of what we did do. We gave them a big jump start and we provided the materials for their dreams. This year we worked four mornings and two afternoons. The first two years we came down here we only worked mornings because of the extreme heat. Temps topped 95 - 100 degrees. Last year we came in February and it was a little cooler, only topping 80 degrees. Some of the group decided to go back a couple of afternoons to finish up projects they started in the morning. This year we built that into the schedule.

Some people wanted to work all four afternoons. I discouraged that. For one thing, no matter how many extra hours we worked, we would only be able to accomplish so much. Second, a part of our mission on these trips is to experience the culture of the people we are working with. Spending four days on church property wouldn't allow us to do that. So we build in these opportunities.

This morning we had an extra opportunity as Rick took us to a brand new ministry site in one of the poorest areas of the city. The new church is La Ladrillera. It reaches out to the folks who are brickmakers. You have to see the photos to get a sense of how precious this ministry is. The folks are dirt poor and they live right on the border. It was an eye opening experience.

In the afternoon a group of us went into the city. We had a good time picking up a few souvenirs, trying new food and watching the police in action as they rounded up some "women of the evening." We got back to the cars to find that someone had tried to break into one of the vans. That was a bummer. Fortunately Ramon is a police officer and Rick assured us he would help us with whatever we needed.

At 5:00 p.m. we were back at the church and ready for vacation Bible School. It ewas a beautiful night. It rained a bit during the day and that left the skies looking gorgeous. Amanda captured a few photos that are breath taking. While the kids were in class, sharing three or four Bibles among twenty or more kids in each class, Mark Hopkins came to me with the suggestion that we buy some Bibles for them to use in the Sunday School. Amanda happened to overhear it and chirped in that she and Jake actually had some money that was given to them to buy something for the children. It was like an answer to prayer. We talked to Mercy and we made plans to make sure it happened.

The kids came out of their classes and ran for the craft table. They really had fun. We played a variation of musical chairs during game time. Andy played his guitar an when he stopped, the kids had to freeze. They had a blast. After snack Michelle Chaffee gave away some Barbie Dolls she had brought along and a whole bunch of goodies that Chris Colter had sent along from Mad Science. T turned into a free for all with all of the kids reaching for a prize.

As the kids headed home, we packed up the vans and went back to the seminary. It was a great day and a great end of our work week.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 4 - Friday

If we ate like we did on mission trips all the time we would all weigh well over 200 pounds. Of course some of us do and we are over 200 pounds but that’s not the point. The point is that our cooks do a great job. Mark Kane and Mark Salomon are up early and have the food ready for us when we get up. Verna cooks up a great lunch and it is ready for us when we return at 1:00 p.m. Every night we have left overs and there’s always something good to nibble on. Tonight Left us hot dogs and beans – an authentic American meal. Mark fried them up and we ate all of them.

The group works hard during the day. The work is messy and not very easy. The two major jobs have involved sanding and laying concrete blocks. I felt badly for the people doing the sanding. They were covered with white dust. Everyone wore masks but the dust got into everything and the crew looked like ghosts when they came out into the sunlight. Ramon, helped out today and he did it without the mask. He came out looking like something you see in the zombie movies. He was totally white faced. He wore a big smile though. He was so excited at the progress we were making. We worked a full day today and by the end of the day we were able to prime the big Sunday School room upstairs. That made he people who did all the sanding very happy because they felt they had really made some progress and that they would be able to see he result of all their efforts.

The bathroom crew was zooming along too. As the bricks were going up Andy Scheuermann began to install the copper piping that would support the toilets, urinals, sinks and showers. Mark Hopkins continued to work on the electrical so that we could supply power to the restrooms. The Salomon men worked in one half and Randy Sargent and Roger Mainville worked the other side. Our goal was to go up at least eight blocks high.

At one point Mark Salomon and Mark Kane went over to Ramon and Alma’s house to do some more work in their bathroom. They were going to grind out a layer of concrete so that new tile could be installed. That meant getting rid of the sludge and mold that had built up over time.

My job on these trips is four fold. I’m the chaplain of course. That puts me in charge of the spiritual welfare of the group. My goal is to help the team pray together and reflect on what God is doing in our midst. I do some of the devotionals but I always invite others to take a turn. God has this wonderful way of speaking through others. I admit that it is hard for me to keep quiet but when I do, great things come of it.

I also am the supply sergeant. I am in charge of getting everything people need to do their job once we get there. I work with Rick and Mercy to get what we need. For example today I got directions to the hardware store to get respirators for the two Marks who were working in the bathroom. The masks they had just weren’t doing it. When I dropped in on them the dust was so thick you couldn’t even see them. That wasn’t good. So I ran out to get them something that would give them better protection. I also picked up some scrapers and a level for the crew. I am also the one who gets the coffee and snacks for break time. I like that job the best because everyone really appreciates the effort.

I am also the official photographer and media person. I take photos, collect them from others and put them together in slide shows. I’ve also been trying to keep the world back home updated on what we are doing. We have had wireless internet at the seminary this year and it made it a little easier. The problem is that we have been very busy and I haven’t had a lot of time to write up these entries and post them. For example, this is day four and I am two days behind in getting it posted. I’ve been able to get some things up on facebook I’ll catch on Monday on the way back to San Diego.

The last thing I provide is overall leadership. This year I didn’t have another Pastor to bounce things off but the team has really come through. Everyone has accepted more responsibility and made the trip go very smoothly. I have gone to several people for advice on various matters and they willingly gave it.
Friday was a long day and after lunch the majority of the group went back to the church to finish some of the jobs they were working on. The big room upstairs got its first coat of primer and Andy Scheuermann really made some progress laying the copper pipes. Mark S. and Mark K. went back to Alma’s house to finish cleaning up the bathroom. Melanie S. Lisa L. and Michelle C. stayed back at the seminary and filled water balloons for the night’s games.

At 5:00 p.m. we went back to the church and participated in Vacation Bible School. Tonight Doreen, Michelle and Erica got up front when the kids sang the Superman song. It was great. When they broke up for classes, Doreen and her crew set up the chameleons the kids were going to make. Matt Salomon and I also figured out where we were going to set up the balloon toss game.

We set up the game on the road in front of the church. When the kids came down it turned out to be a big success. Roger, Randy and Mark S. volunteered to take the hits for the team. They sat in chairs with large inner tubes in front of them while the kids tossed water balloons at them. It was very funny and with 150 water balloons the fun last for a while. Carol, Matt and Jake fed the kids the balloons and tried to police the crowd. It was a huge success.

Earlier in the day I had Rick ask Ramon if he and alma were satisfied with the stuff we were doing. Nothing had gone according to plan so far. Chaos usually ruled. The kids didn’t mind. They actually seemed to really enjoy everything we were doing but it was Alma’s opinion who mattered. She and Ramon told Rick they were very pleased. The kids smiles didn’t lie.

We closed out the games and the kids received a snack and we took off for our annual visit to Dairy Queen. What a blast. We did our devotional there in the middle of Mexicali. It was a familiar setting in a distant land. It was a perfect end to a busy day.