MORE GRACE

There are a lot of things that as Christians we are supposed to be against, I suppose.  We're supposed to be against things like abortion, and gay marriage, and premarital sex, and drugs, and cursing, and transgender bathrooms, and I guess democrats. 

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The truth is, it's hard to keep track of all the things Christians are supposed to be against. I've tried to find a list in the Bible. I found one instead that said this - 

"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." (Colossians 3:12).  

Interestingly, it seems like Paul, the guy who wrote that list, knew we'd have trouble with it.  It's like he knew that it would be tempting to notice when the people around us aren't living up to the list, so he goes on to say,

"bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you." (v13)

It's true, Jesus was certainly against some things. There were definitely some things that really bothered Him, and there were even things He took a stand against. What's most interesting to me is that the things that really got Him worked up were usually the faults of the religious leaders, not of the sinful crowd. 

The problem with the list of things that the religious leaders of today often come up with for us to be against, is that it's all about what's wrong with the "sinful crowd."  I remember reading Jesus' command to the woman who had been caught in adultery, when He tells her "go and sin no more." Jesus definitely was against adultery, but I don't think it's insignificant that He says this to her only after He had literally saved her from being stoned to death.  

Before He said anything to this member of the "sinful crowd," He dispatched with every single member of the righteous brigade that was ready and waiting to execute their personal brand of religious rule enforcement. The religious leaders were against not only her sin, but against her.  

Jesus certainly wasn't for her sin, but the difference is that Jesus was FOR her.

In fact, it seems to me that Jesus was "for" a lot more than He was against.  As I read the Bible, I find a Jesus who was for compassion. Quick aside, it's not an accident that the very first words used by God to describe His own character to Moses include the word compassion (Exodus 34:6).  It's the first thing He says about Himself.  

Jesus was for abundant life.  He was for forgiveness, and for truth.  He was for holiness.  He was for love.

But mostly, Jesus was for grace.

Grace changes things. It changes things now, and it changes them eternally.  Grace is the pathway that allows us to be forgiven and experience eternal life. Grace is the oxygen of relationships, which is why it's the foundation of our faith. Without grace, we would have no relationship with Christ. It's precisely because of the grace He extends to us that we are able to be in relationship with Him.

It was grace that moved Jesus. It was grace that motivated Him to heal. It was grace that motivated Him to embrace those who had been rejected. It was grace that motivated Him to raise the dead. It was grace that found him at a dinner party with a bunch of society's worst - a sinful crowd. It was grace for us that moved Him step by step towards the cross.

It's also grace that allows us to experience the beauty of relationships here on earth.  It's the pathway that allows us to forgive and experience community. Grace is what allows us to sit down and share compassion with those who are different. Those who disagree.

Grace is what reminds us that our value doesn't come from our positions, or place of birth, or job, or status. It reminds us that it comes from what was done by the one who is for us.  It comes from our identity in Christ - which is the result of, well, grace.

Imagine what a little grace might look like in your life, in your family.  Imagine what it might look like in your conversations on social media (yikes).  Imagine what it might change about your relationships at work, or in your marriage. Imagine what it might change about the way you are raising your children. Imagine how grace might change the way you think about that person you disagree with, especially the one that's a Democrat.

As Christians, we are called to be for grace.  We are called to be for far more than we are to stand against. If you are a Christian leader, you are accountable for what you are for. If the only thing you are for is pointing out what Christians should be against, I think you're doing it wrong. 

Don't get me wrong, personal holiness is a real thing. Sin is a real thing. But the Gospel isn't a list of what to be against, it's a story of grace. The Gospel compels us to share that story - and that grace - with the world around us, even when the world around us makes us uncomfortable. Even when the world seems to be against everything we believe. Even when the world around us is broken. Even when it's surrounded by a sinful crowd, or maybe Democrats.

(Just to be clear, I like plenty of Democrats just fine, but it's saying something that many Christians would much rather spend time with a sinful crowd than with a crowd of Democrats.)

Grace allows us, actually it commands us, to be for each other. That's something we could all use a little more of right now because there are a lot of things that need changing, and grace changes everything.

THRIVE

I used to think I had a lot of stuff. My wife would probably agree. When we got engaged and I moved from California to Michigan, I had to pack up all of the stuff I had at the time, which didn’t seem like a lot until I had to put it in boxes to have it shipped back across the country. She allowed me to bring some of the stuff with me, but much of it she gently encouraged me to get rid of.  

Most of it really wasn’t all that important, especially looking back. Most of it was things like silverware and plates and cups and bowls that don’t go together.  There were some t-shirts - mostly from various mission trips I’d been on and hadn’t worn since, and old shoes. And probably a couple of suits. I think I might remember a few DVD’s and a guitar. I left all the fun stuff with my at-the-time roommate - like the couch I found on Craigslist for $25, and the TV and entertainment center.  Oh, and I had to leave behind my bed. 

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Interestingly, it turns out that most of the stuff I thought I had, wasn’t even mine. It turns out that most of the stuff I thought I had, belonged to someone else. I might have been the one packing it in boxes, and stressing about whether or not it was going to make it back to Michigan, and whether there would be room for it all when we got married and had to learn to share our little condo, but it wasn’t mine. I definitely thought it was mine, and I absolutely acted like it was mine. I was proud of my stuff.  Especially the t-shirts.  Even the ones I never wore.  

But none of it was mine. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve never had more stuff in my life than I do right now. One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about it is because the way we look at our “stuff” has a lot to do with how we treat it, and what we do with it - which is probably way more important than most of us think.

There’s a story in the Bible that really helps me put this into context.  I like it because it’s straightforward and simple, and I’m very much a straightforward and simple guy. It’s in Matthew chapter 21, and it starts with a wealthy land owner who decides to plant a vineyard. It says he “put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower,” (v33). Basically, he did everything necessary for the vineyard that he planted, to be fruitful and productive.

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Before he planted the vineyard, he was just a guy with a piece of land, a piece of land that he could have done anything he wanted with. Of all the things he could do with a piece of land, he chose to plant a vineyard, and he did everything necessary for it to thrive.

It actually reminds me of another story in a garden.  In Genesis 2:8 it says that “the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden… The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground.”   See, like the landowner, God could have done whatever He wanted.  It was His earth, and He chose to plant a garden, and it was His garden. 

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In fact, it’s all His.  

Psalm 95: 4-5 says “In His hands are the depths of the earth, the mountain peaks belong to him, the sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.”  It’s all His. All of it. Even us. 

“Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” Psalm 100:3

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This is important because it’s easy to misunderstand our relationship to “our stuff.” The reality is it’s all His.  All of it. Your home, your iPhone, your laptop, your twitter account, your shoes, your money, your time, your gifts and abilities, your family, your influence, and even those t-shirts I never wore. All of it belongs to Him. 

It’s not mine, it’s not yours - despite what you might think and despite what the world tells you 24 hours of every day. This changes everything. 

Here’s why.

Look back at the parable in Matthew 21. The land owner goes away, only to return later to “collect His fruit.” You see he entrusted it to some tenants, who had a job to do while he was gone, but there was always an expectation that he was coming back.

In the meantime, they had a job to do.

There’s another story close by, over in Matthew 25, called the parable of the Talents, or the Bags of Gold. I’m not going to go through the whole thing, but the bottom line is this: a wealthy guy leaves on a journey and entrusts his property/money to his servants. After a while he comes back to see how they did and take account. Two of the servants had done their job and multiplied the owners money, and received a “well done good and faithful servant.”

One of them didn’t. Jesus’ description of this guy doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings.  He calls him a “wicked and lazy servant.”

Ouch.

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Here’s the thing. You have a job to do called stewardship. That’s a word churches use a lot when they talk about money and giving and tithing and building buildings. But it actually the word has very little do with giving. In fact, stewardship simply means to manage something that belongs to someone else.

God actually explained it like this, back in that first garden. Genesis 2:15 says that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

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Work it and take care of it. That’s our job. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s the thing that is expected of us as we manage the “stuff” in our lives. The NASB describes it as “cultivate and keep it,” which I like because it sort of paints a picture of the two things required of our job here.  Cultivate means to make something grow, or be productive. Keep it means to protect from harm, sickness or loss. Together, they mean to make something thrive.

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Think about every area of your life. Your time, your abilities, your money, your stuff, and your family. Your job is to cultivate them, and protect them. It’s your most important job - more important than anything else you’ll ever do. I don’t know about you, but for me, the struggle is thinking it’s mine to do as I wish. But to God, it’s literally why man was placed in the garden in the first place.  And it’s so important that God is going to hold each of us to account.

We are accountable. 

Remember the servants with the bags of gold? There is an account to be given - literally. 2 Corinthians 6:9-10 tell us that “we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ… to give account.” God cares deeply about what you do with what he’s given you. He cares deeply about the way you spend your money, how you use your time, how you honor him with your gifts, and how you are raising your family.

"Be sure you know the condition of your flocks” Proverbs 27:23

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Most of us never think about our family as a function of stewardship, but I think it might be the most important area of all. After all, if you can’t be trusted to cultivate and protect the people God has placed in your home, why would He ever trust you in any other area of life? You were entrusted with His greatest treasure - people. Someday, you will be called to account for what you did to cultivate and take care of your family. Let that sink in for a minute.

If you’re a father like me, you are accountable for your wife and your children.  Are they thriving? Are they healthy and growing - emotionally, physically and spiritually? Do they know Jesus? Here’s a tip - if you walk with Jesus, you’ll always lead your family in the right direction.

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By the way, you are accountable for your influence beyond just you family. You are accountable for the interactions you have with just about everyone in your life. God has given you gifts, abilities, and opportunities, and He is expecting a return on that investment in you. Every time any of us has an opportunity to serve or be a blessing, we are accountable for what we do with it. Are we helping the people around us thrive and grow?

I still have a lot of stuff in my life, but none of it’s mine. It’s in my house, or my pocket, or in my garage, or on my laptop, but it’s not mine. I’m just taking care of it, and trying to be faithful and productive with it for a greater purpose. It’s actually quite liberating to know that I’m simply responsible taking care of and protecting the things God has put in my life, and knowing that He’s already provided everything I need. I don’t have to worry about what I don’t have, only what I’m accountable for.

What does it look like in your life to cultivate and take care of the things that God has entrusted to you?

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WHAT THE CHURCH GETS WRONG ABOUT FAITH

I guess it makes sense that the church spends a lot of time talking about faith. Faith, it turns out, its a pretty important part of what it means to be a follower of Christ, and it also happens to be one of the most misunderstood parts. I’ve been a part of the church for a long time, and I’ve heard a lot of sermons preached about faith. Unfortunately a lot of them go something along the lines of "if you simply have enough faith, God is going to do/give/provide/show you the thing you are believing for."  

That sounds great, except, sometimes He doesn't.

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Sometimes we pray for people to be healed and they aren’t.  Sometimes we pray for a friend to overcome an addiction, and they don’t.  Sometimes we pray for God to move in one direction, and He doesn’t.  In fact, sometimes He moves in the opposite.

So my question is, why? Is it because of a lack of faith? Does God actually withhold the things He wants to do for us because we simply don't "believe enough?"  That doesn't seem likely to me based on who I know God to be.  

Don't get me wrong, I believe it's certainly true that most of us have far less actual faith than we'd like to imagine.  But I don't think that's the issue here. I think there's something else going on that has far more to do with the character of God and the nature of our relationship with Him - and specifically the nature of His promises.

One of the biggest problems is that I think that often we are believing for God to keep promises He never made to us.  And I think the church is part of the problem.  I think the church does a poor job helping people to understand that faith isn't trusting that God will do the thing we want Him to do.  Faith is trusting Him to do the thing He promised He would do.  

Faith is believing that God always keeps His promises.  It’s taking Him at His word.

Kind of like Mary and Martha expecting Jesus to show up and heal their brother Lazarus.  After all, when they sent word to Jesus that their brother was sick, He promises that “this sickness will not end in death.” (John 11:4).  But that's not what He does.  He doesn’t heal Lazarus. He doesn’t do the thing they are expecting Him to do. In fact, Lazarus dies. 

Later, when Jesus does show up they give Him a hard time. "Jesus, if only you had been here, our brother wouldn't have died.”

Did you catch that? “Jesus, if only you had…” There’s a sense of almost indignation that Jesus hadn’t done what they expected him to do.  He hadn’t healed their brother and the sisters were upset. They had asked Jesus to do something, and they expected that He was not only able, but that He would come through and deliver.  I’ve had a lot of “Jesus, if only you had…” moments in my life.  Maybe you can relate.  

“Jesus, if only you had healed my sister...” 

"Jesus, if only you had gotten me out of trouble..."

“Jesus, if only you had come through on this job I prayed for...”

"Jesus, if only you had made my wife understand…"

But that wasn't the promise Jesus made. He promised that the sickness would not END in death. The sisters only understood that as a promise on this side of death. They only understood it to mean that Jesus would do one thing, heal their brother. But Jesus’ promise is much better. If they had truly understood, they would have realized that Lazarus’ death meant only one thing - it’s not over yet. This isn't the end. That’s what Jesus told them.

There’s something else about the promise. It comes in verse 5 and reads: “It is for God’s glory, that God’s Son may be glorified.” Did you catch that? The sickness, and the promise has a purpose.  The thing you’re going through has a purpose.  The thing that you’re praying about but God doesn’t seem to answer, despite your faith, has a purpose.  Take Him at His word.  Every one of God’s promises accomplishes His purpose, and His ultimate purpose is His glory.  

Later Jesus says to the sisters “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)  God is always working according to His purpose. He is always about accomplishing His plan, which the Bible tells us is to bring about His glory.  There’s no doubt, we’ve been getting in the way of that since the garden of Eden, but that doesn’t stop God from working to accomplish exactly what He set out to accomplish in each and every one of us.

Paul writes that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, and are called according to His purpose.”  (Romans 8:28) The trouble is, we often want to be the one to define “good.”  We have our own idea of what is good for us, according to our plans and our agenda.  So we imagine that God’s promises align with our purposes.  Yet, the truth is that God is always working for our good, despite our misunderstanding of what that means.  We can always trust that no matter what, He is organizing and ordering our steps to lead us towards the best possible outcome - our good. 

If only the church spent more time talking about faith as trusting in what God was doing - what He said He would do, instead of faith as trusting that God will do what we want Him to do. I know, it preaches well to stand in front of a congregation of people, each with a list of things that they need from God. I get it.  Superstar pastors have preached it well, and churches have been built on this concept of faith.  So have a lot of disappointed and disillusioned Christians, who are wondering “Jesus if only you had…”

So church, stop encouraging people to believe in promises that God never made, and instead help people grow in faith - the steadfast belief that God always keeps His word.  He always keeps His promises, His promises always accomplish His purpose, and His purpose in your life is good.