Archives For Grace

On March 18, 2014

God Loves Fred

““[When he heard the party] The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” -Luke 15 in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.  -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

youngfredphelpsHis name was Fred, and he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about equality and fairness. And so after Fred got his law degree, and became a civil rights lawyer. For years Fred served and fought for dis-enfranchised people who were being treated un-fairly. Eventually the NAACP gave him an award for the way he fought for the rights of African-Americans.

And then Fred Phelps left civil law and planted a church.

The Westboro Baptist Church.

As in the God-hates-fags-American-soldiers-and anyone-who’s-not-a-Phelps-church.

For years, the WBC has been picketing the most tragic of funerals, giving the most vile television interviews, and repeatedly talking about who God hates.

I’ve actually had to deal with the aftermath of some of Fred Phelps’ messes. Back in 2003, before people knew what a hate-monger the WBC was.  I lead a spring break campaign to San Francisco, to the Castro district, right after the WBC had been there yelling about God hating gay people.

For a couple of days we just hung out and handed out free water, telling people that Fred Phelps was wrong. We heard people’s stories, saw their tears and realized that some of these people actually believed him.

It was heartbreaking.

And now Fred Phelps is dying. He’s been kicked out (by his own family members) from the very church that he  started, and the hell that he helped create has started to envelope him.

And I’d like to tell Fred the same thing that we told those people he condemned. Fred you’re wrong about God, and that’s good news for you too.

A Graceless World

One of the things that is so central to Scripture but so foreign to our church cultures, is the idea that we create with our words. The Bible starts off with the famous lines, God said “Let there be Light.” And because God gets what God wants, light had no choice but to exist.

The point Genesis wants us to pay attention to is that God creates with language. He creates a world with words. The Bible tells a story in which the words we use with each other matter a lot.

We grew up saying that words can never hurt us, but does anybody really believe that? Our words create, they name, they can heal and destroy.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t say certain behaviors are wrong. But If we are Jesus followers than we need to create worlds, where no matter what, whoever you are, we welcome and see the image of God in you.

We’re not going to going to label and dismiss you. When we confront you it will not be because the world we have created is too small to deal with your sin, it will be because the world we created is large enough for you still.

Maybe you heard last week, that Mark Driscoll, the controversial pastor has once again done something controversial. He used a company that unethically helped him get his book on the New York Times Best-Seller list. When the news broke that he cheated a system to gain influence, everyone took to Twitter and Facebook to talk about it.

But over the weekend, Driscoll employed the most Christian of virtues…humility. He apologized, pretty robustly, and not many people in my social networks are talking about it. I think that’s a shame. We’re loud when we disagree and we’re silent when the wrong people do the right things.

We’ve accepted a polarized, binary view of the world and we don’t know how to be in community with people we disagree with.

We progressive Christians, the ones who used to be known for emphasizing the grace of God in the places you’d least expect it, don’t know how to forgive sin, or at least specific kinds of it. Or to use the language of the Prodigal son story, we don’t know how to let Mark back into the party.

Ministry of ReconciliationFred Phelps

I’ve noticed that for all the complaints against fundamentalism these days, we haven’t moved very far beyond it. It’s just now the fundamental foundation for many of my friends is a a kind of cultural narrative of progress.

We’ve been taught to think the world is slowly getting better, and with the right politics, organization, medicine and education we will usher in a better world. And anyone who stands in the way of that objective is vilified and written off.

I’m progressive, I want to help serve the world and my neighbor, I don’t want to have some kind of nostalgia about the past, I want to deal with the time I actually live in.

But the thing that drives me isn’t progressive politics/theology it’s reconciliation.

Here’s the thing that bothers me about the inability to reconcile with people we disagree with, even people who are blatantly wrong, and have done great evil….Do we realize the question we are actually asking and answering isn’t “Does God love Fred?” or “Should we forgive Mark Driscoll?”

The question we are really asking is “How does God view me in my sin?” In those places of my life where I don’t share with others, the parts of my heart that make me aware I’m not God’s solution to the suffering of the world, I’m also a part of the problem.

I have a hunch that forgiveness is best born out of awareness of our own sin and brokenness, and the people who are the most merciful are the ones who have received mercy in their most broken places.

I have a concern for my progressive brothers and sisters that is just as deep as my concern for my more dogmatic siblings, I don’t think we have replaced the old fundamentalists’ Gospel, we’ve just changed the labels on the categories. That is we no longer think it’s orthodoxy that earns God’s love, it is our love for justice or compassion as we define it.

If the Gospel is good news it has to be good news for the KKK and the African American civil rights workers, it has to be good news for the Westboro Baptist Church and the communities they’ve condemned.

If this is shocking to you, it might be helpful to remember just who was in the early churches. Slaves and Slave owners, pacifists and Generals, Zealots and Tax collectors. It was a community of reconciliation, the kind of community only God can create.

Because the problem at the heart of all of this is sin, and how we sin against one another in a million different ways. The part the Fred got wrong wasn’t how bad sin was, the part he missed is how good God is.

Not that God is okay with the evil of the WBC or Fred Phelps, not that he’s okay with slavery or racism or sexism or any of the ways that we have carved up the world to suit our own ends. But that God, at His core, is good.

As Fred Phelps lays dying, I know plenty of people have been hurt and hated on by this man who did so much evil. I know the natural thing to do has to be to want justice. To seek out revenge. And if you are not a Christian, I can’t imagine a reason in the world why you wouldn’t want to.

But I believe Dr. King was right, to fight the monster with the monster’s game plan is to eventually become the monster. To hate Fred Phelps and to claim God does is to invoke his idea of God and just replace the villains.

The part that Fred Phelps was wrong on wasn’t that God hates sin (and not just the sin that Phelps picked out because he doesn’t deal with it) but the universal human tendency to screw up everything.  God hates the way we destroy and use each other, how we pillage the creation, sex trafficking, corporate greed, religious self-righteous sanctimony…God hates lots of stuff.

But God never hates a person. Not Mark, not Fred, not me and not you. That’s the answer to the question we’ll all be asking when we hit bottom, and we will believe the answer we give right now about someone else, to the worst of people.

What the world needs now isn’t just pure justice and retribution. That as a sole pursuit, will eventually turn ugly (just ask Fred Phelps), what the world needs now, is what is has always needed in a world of sinners.

Grace.

P.S. If you want to tell a story that’s better than who God hates here’s a Facebook page. 

On December 10, 2013

ChristmasTime: Christmas Past

 “If a lion roars, who will not be frightened? And if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?” -Amos 3:8

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. -Luke 1:29

Christmas Time PictureA few years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Randy Harris about how someone had wronged me. I was waxing eloquent about how righteous I had been, and how villainous I thought this other person was acting.

Then Randy told me something that has stayed with me ever since.

He said, “Have you ever noticed that it’s really not the thing that happened that bothers you? It’s the story you lay on top of it?”

Immediately something in my heart started to soften. I began to realize that for several weeks I had been re-interpreting the recent past with a story that helped me to nurse a wound and keep me the righteous victim.

The way I thought of the past was infecting my present.

Last week I mentioned how right Charles Dickens was. There is a sense that Christmas is about the past, present and future. Christmas time feels magical because time is different here.

This may sounds strange, but I’ll be it’s something most of us have intuitively experienced.

Have you noticed that at Christmas time your sense of nostalgia stands out? Have you noticed how much more profoundly the ache is for deceased loved ones this time of year?

It’s that empty chair or that present you didn’t give…it’s the longing for what used to be.

It’s a longing for Christmas Past’s.

ReVisioning The Past

Last week, I read a book by James Kugel called The God of Old. Kugel is a Harvard professor of Ancient Judaism, and one of the things that he stresses is that this need to lay a story on top of things is something that religious people have always been tempted to do. And it’s not always a good thing.

For example, there is a Jewish document that dates back to a little before the time of Jesus called “The Book of Jubliees.” It’s basically a retelling of the entire book of Genesis, with some running commentary added. (This was a common way for Rabbi’s to teach back in the day called Midrash). What the Book of Jubilee’s did was tell the old stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, by trying to fill in some of the plot gaps for questions that people had.

And it gets really interesting when they talk about Abraham.

In the original story of Abraham in Genesis, Abraham is given no special introduction. In fact, it’s kind of non-sequitar. Genesis goes almost directly from the Tower of Babel story to “And God called Abram to leave his home and be a blessing to the world.”

But apparently, Jewish people started asking the question “Why Abraham?”

So the Book of Jubliee’s gave them a story to put on top of the story.

In the book of Jubilee’s, Abraham is no longer just a regular guy. He’s now a pillar of righteousness, he’s bothered by all the idol worship that is going on around him. In this story, the people’s pagan worship disturbs Abraham so much that he starts praying to God for Him to please do something  This new Super-Abraham prays and fasts and then God acts.

In other words, in this story, Abraham initiates.

God doesn’t take the first step, Abraham does.

Here’s how James Kugel says it:

What’s interesting about Genesis account of Abraham is what Abraham does to bring about this encounter with God: absolutely nothing. He does not pray. He does not fast, he indulges in no acts of self-mortification such as those practiced by mystics and seekers in later times…What Abraham was doing or had done was just not important from [Genesis] standpoint. God spoke to Abraham and that was all that mattered.

Now this re-writing of story wasn’t just specific to Abraham. Over time, Moses and other heroes were also given more pious backstories. Because, Kugel says, “It just didn’t seem right to the religious people that God could just choose anyone, anytime and anywhere.”

Christmas Grace

This matters more than you probably think. Because what you think about the past will shape your present, and how you think God is working in it.

Which brings us to the Christmas story.Christmas scene

One of the most overlooked details about Christmas is the passive nature of everyone involved. Zechariah and Elizabeth aren’t actively trying to get pregnant, Mary certainly isn’t…and Joseph has to be talked into the whole thing!

The first Christmas wasn’t filled with pious people praying fervently for God to act, as much as it was filled with people who were absolutely shocked that He was acting. Christmas is a divine initiative…

Christmas was a surprise to everyone.

In my experience with religious people, we tend to think so much like those ancient Jews, re-reading those ancient stories. We like to take the mess out of the “heroes of Christmas.” We make Mary so heroic and Joseph full of virtue….and rightfully so. But we must never forget those parts of their story, like Abraham, only begin to come out….after God has acted in surprising ways through surprising people.

In the Bible, no prophet ever seeks God out first, God always initiates. In the words of the prophet Amos: “If a lion roars, who will not be frightened, and if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?”

The Christmas story, is one of many stories, that make us reconsider how strange and good God is. He just starts talking to people who are not considered sane by the right authorities. He initiates this whole thing.

And if he did that then, maybe He will do it now.

We never know how or when, but anything is possible and it could just be around the corner.

And whatever it is, and whoever it’s through,,,it’s always grace.

On November 26, 2013

Contentment and Thanksgiving

“A Grateful person is rich in contentment.” -David Bednar

Writing about ThankfulnessOne of my favorite parts in the Bible is where Paul is writing back to one of the churches that he has planted. Apparently they had started to argue and create factions within their church, some of them had started to consider themselves better than others, in fact, when they would all gather for a meal each week, some would go ahead and eat,  gorging themselves before the other people (the poorer ones who had to work on Sundays) could get there.

And Paul tells them not to receive the Grace of God in vain.

In other words, Paul says, “Don’t be entitled.”

The Most Dangerous Time of The Year

Sunday at Highland, I mentioned that I think this week is the most spiritually dangerous time of the year.

Because on Thursday we will stop to give thanks for what we have. Then we rush off on Friday, almost breaking the doors down at stores just to get a little more.

There is this time in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is about half-way to Jerusalem. His journey is interrupted by ten Lepers who stood at a distance, and screamed to this man they had heard so much about, “Have pity on us!”

And Jesus does. He makes the whole, and then tells them to go show themselves to the priest (the expert back then on whether someone had been healed) and they would discover they could re-enter their old lives.

Now you probably already know just how much these men had lost at this point. They had been cut off from their families, their vocations, their home. Everything, and in an instance, Jesus gives it all back. But what happens next is really the point of this story.

Ten men are restored, but only one comes back. He’s not a Jewish leper, he’s a foreigner, and he’s thankful.

But what’s interesting to me is the story that is right before it. It’s some of the most difficult words that Jesus says:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

Now this almost seems out of character for Jesus. Where is all this love and grace stuff? “We are only unworthy servants? We have only done our duty?”

Bu’t what if Jesus isn’t getting rid of that whole Love and Grace thing with this paragraph? What if this is one of the many loving things he could says. And what if Luke puts these two stories together on purpose?

I am a BUICK, a brought up in church kid. And I”m very thankful for that, but one of the dangers that comes with growing up worshipping the LORD is that it can become old hat. Familiarity can breed indifference, or worse, it can breed entitlement.  In the words of Randy Harris, “Many of us were born on third base and think we’ve hit a triple.”

Maybe this is why Jesus says this hard word to us.

Maybe that’s why it’s only the Gentile Leper who comes back to thank Him.

There’s something about familiarity with God that makes us less grateful for His actions in our lives. I think Jesus says this hard word because He knows the toxic kind of life that is void of gratitude. It’s good for us to remember who we are and who God is. We forget that with every rise and falling of our chest we are breathing in oxygen that is a gift. With every sunrise and sunset God gives us another day.

This is a story about being grateful for all of that.entitled

Having Nothing, Yet Having Everything

So back to 2 Corinthians. Paul is frustrated with this church because they had started eating without people. And we can understand their logic can’t we? They probably had brought most of the food, they were wanting to start on time, and if people couldn’t make the party that’s on them.

But Paul knows the toxic nature of this line of thinking and so Paul tells them about his life:

I’ve had glory and dishonor, bad and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed;  sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

There’s one of the best verses in the Bible. Having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Paul’s answer to entitlement and selfish hoarding is to remember that everything belongs to God, and every meal is a gift.

You know I wonder how often those nine lepers thought about this?  I imagine they followed the Jesus news of the day. They heard about him being killed and raising from the dead. They heard about this group of disciples that actually started going around the world doing the very things he was doing, and they had walked away from all of it.

They had been healed but it could have been so much more. They could have taken part in the healing of the world. Starting with themselves. They might have lived a life of radical graditude filled with the joy of knowing how generous God is.

May this be a season for you to step back and appreciate how good God is. May you come to recognize the shoulders you stand on in life. May we fight entitlement with gratitude. Materialism with contentment, and selfishness with generosity.

May we be rich in all the ways that count.

On January 8, 2013

Changing Resolutions

IRS LETTER TO NEW PARENTSThere is something about the first couple of weeks in January that make us want to try and become someone better. So you set your goals, get your memberships, or buy the patch.

You want to be a better person.

For the past ten years I’ve set pretty ambitious New Years resolutions for myself. I’m not a Type A personality, but I’m close. Like a type A- or something. I love to work hard toward accomplishing a goal, and the thrill of having done something difficult. So in the past I’ve started rigorous work-outs or planned to read through the Bible in a year, or combine the two (B90x) or whatever it was.

But not this year.

This year Leslie and I didn’t have any goals, we had a baby.

And for the past few days our little family has just been living life through the baby fog.

I saw the above picture sometime last year, and I loved it. It’s an actual return letter from the IRS. A couple apparently was being audited because there was some discrepancies in their tax report. And the couple gave as their excuse that the human brain turns to Jell-O when having a baby.

And the IRS accepted it!

Which makes me feel better about where we are at in life. Because if the Federal government accepts this line of reasoning then we are at least somewhat in a normal frame of mind.

Hannah Grace has already gained a couple of pounds, along with her daddy, (generous church members and no resolutions don’t mix well). She’s already growing taller, doing new things, and making new faces. And if our experience with the other kids holds true, these days are long and the years are short. She will one day become a toddler, then an adolescent, and then a woman.

She’s born to change.

So I’m thinking about change, and resolutions and becoming a better person, all while I hold our new little baby that can’t really do anything, and I realize that this season just might be a word from God for my life. And maybe for you too.

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On October 16, 2012

A Graceless World

Andy Stanley says that the greatest casualty in most of our churches is grace. It’s hard to extend grace to people who don’t seem to need it, and it’s really hard to admit you will need it when you don’t think you will receive it. I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to their own pet sin, or that we can’t say certain behaviors are wrong. But what I am saying is that we need to create communities, we need to create worlds, where no matter what, whoever you are, we accept you.

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On September 18, 2012

The Symphony of Grace

For anyone who is about to confront someone, I think it’s important to remember that in every single instance in the Gospels when Jesus is approached by a religious person and a sinner. The sinner connects to him and the religious person doesn’t. Because if you are confronting a brother or sister out of a sense of entitlement or pride, chances are you aren’t the right person to talk to them. Because there’s a chance you might not understand the Gospel.

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On July 12, 2012

More Than a Fish

I just finished a series on Jonah at Highland, and it’s one of the most surprising series I’ve ever done. We’ve developed all these ways to keep Jonah at arms length, we pretend that it’s a story about a guy and a whale, and try to reduce Jonah to some Veggietales story, but it’s not. It’s a story about national idolatry, and racism, and arrogance, and unforgiveness, and a story about people who speak for God but don’t really like God.

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On February 21, 2011

Second Chances

After all the fanfare has died down, and the confetti was cleaned up, the greatest event of this NFL’s season is still in progress. And it has little to do with touchdowns.

I’ve been following Michael Vick ever since he was the quaterback at Virginia Tech. I can’t say I’ve always liked the teams he’s played on (especially Philly), but I’ve always liked him. He’s a phenom on the football field, with that rare combination of speed to evade the rush, but with also the ability to make some difficult throws. But like most people these days with extra-ordinary talents, there was some dangerous stuff lurking just beneath the surface.

And in 2007 it came crashing down on him.

Now, I’m no Public relations expert but it seems like making money off of dogs killing each other has got to be one of the stupidest things someone can do for their image. I grew up on a farm, have always had and loved dogs, and while I’m not about to join PETA, I like millions of others were angry and disappointed by what this Multi-millionare was doing with his spare time.

But I have a friend who saw this whole thing differently. He grew up in the projects too, and as soon as he heard about Vick’s conviction he took it personally. He saw it as more a snapshot of the human condition than just a stupid mistake.

Because here is a guy who seems to have everything, and now in a moment he is losing all of it.

Vick epitomized the tug of war that all of us feel inside of us. He later admitted that he knew he was making a series of mistakes, but he felt a profound sense of loyalty to these friends he had known forever.

It was inevitable that Michael Vick’s career was over. If Vegas was placing odds on a comeback it would have been up there with the Montreal Expos’ winning the World Series…next year.

But nobody counted on Andy Reid. Continue Reading…

On November 8, 2010

Jonah Serves Chicken Wings

I remember as a kid, watching baseball phenom Darryl Strawberry play. I had a few of his cards, and had the opportunity to follow him somewhat through his career. Unfortunatly, that was not so much because of his raw talent (which was certainly there), but because of his off-field exploits. Watching Strawberry’s life unfold was kind of like a real-life exposition of Romans 7.

You were seeing a man, who did what he didn’t want to do, and just couldn’t seem to do what he wanted to. And maybe that’s why I was always so interested in him. I think Darryl Strawberry’s life was kind of a snapshot into the human condition. And I believe, that most of us who are honest would admit that we know exactly what this kind of failure feels like. Continue Reading…

On October 25, 2010

Professional Prodigals


Friday night, the Texas Rangers defeated the Babylon of the Major Leagues. Poetically, ARod strikes out looking (and sweet justice rolled down like rolling rivers). And nothing was left but the celebration. Everyone was celebrating (except the Yankees). But not everyone was celebrating the same way. Most players were drinking Champagne, but not Josh Hamilton. He was drinking Ginger Ale, and that was okay. Continue Reading…