Yesterday was a pretty stressful day for me. As those of you who have been following my journey know, this year I became a middle school science teacher. And one of the responsibilities of teachers is to occasionally measure to see how well the information we are passing along to our students is being recorded in their brains. In other words, we give a test. And it was so stressful! It was almost like one of those, “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” moments. Here I am asking them to give back to me all I’ve poured into them for the last nine weeks and I soooo want everyone to pass with flying colors…but not everyone was ready. Sure, some of them did great. Some of them even performed right in the middle where you would expect them to be. But some of them failed. And my heart broke for them. I immediately began to try to find ways to help them recover their grade (and don’t worry, a fellow teacher helped me come up with a fair and equitable solution). But I felt like the test was for me almost as much as it was for them.
I mean, think about it for a minute. For nine weeks we have worked on projects, had teaching moments, lectures, home assignments and group discussions. To even top it all off, there was a review they have had access too for about 4 days. I gave them all of these resources to succeed and some of them still struggled during the test. The funny thing is, I never really struggled with tests when I was a student; yes, I was one of those kids. But it doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with them now. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to help them any way I can now. I’m reminded of the passage of scripture in the letter to the Hebrews about how God sees us during times of testing. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15-16 Did you see it there? Jesus has dealt with every test/temptation that will come our way, was faultless, but empathizes with our situation to the point of pouring out grace to help.
You see there are so many ways that God continually pours grace into our lives. We see it in the sunrise each day. We feel in in the breath that we breathe. We read it in the pages of the Bible. We hear it from the saints that go before us. We’re reminded of it as we gather to sing songs about God. The moments of beauty and love in this world are being poured into us moment by moment so that when we face difficult times and hardship and temptation, we know where our strength lies. And even if we do fail or we don’t measure up or we forget about all that has been poured into us, we still have a high priest who empathizes/feels for us and is ready to lavish grace on us yet again to help bring us through. So maybe you’re the student who always feels like the tests come when you aren’t ready. There’s grace for you. Maybe you’re the student who knows the material, but just can’t seem to recall it. There’s grace for you. Maybe you’re the student who gets so worked up by the test in front of you that the truths you know that you know seem too far away to be real. There’s grace for you.
I pray that you would find yourself being poured into moment by moment and day by day, by the God who knows you and wants to see you succeed as you are clothed by grace for the times that test.
Today my little girl graduates from Kindergarten. Now I realize that for some of you this may not be that big of an accomplishment. Perhaps you may think that learning to write one’s name, reading a few sentences and mastering the art of coloring and cutting is not something that deems a ceremonious occasion. As a father of a beautiful six-year-old princess, I would have to respectfully disagree. Perhaps you are one of those who thinks that our society has become soft…that we celebrate kindergarten graduations and everyone gets a participation trophy and we don’t celebrate true achievement anymore. And I would have to simply reply, “Okay, let’s celebrate”. As a Christ follower I see no greater justification for a celebration than that which you deem unworthy of said celebration. Why you may ask? Grace.
Grace is defined within the Christian tradition as unmerited favor. It is that which God bestows upon us in a lavish manor even though we are undeserving. Someone once said it is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. The apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the church in Rome, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8 Christ died for us while we were powerless and unworthy. The highest and loftiest ideal in all of Christian tradition is the notion of grace. We sing songs, write poetry and stories and even create movements and name our churches based on the idea of grace. And what is it, but a celebration of something we didn’t earn; of something that we cannot achieve.
At the close of his letter to the church in Philippi we read these words from Paul, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8. Might I suggest to you that kindergarten graduations and participation trophies and celebrating people in all facets of life is a practice of Paul’s challenge to the church and to us. The church has bought into the idea that we need celebrate only merit and things that can be achieved (an idea born out of our western consumerist culture)…but this is the exact opposite of grace. And if we are called to think about the noble, the good, the pure, the lovely, then shouldn’t our thoughts, our celebrations, our trophies, our graduations, our reasons to party be based in grace. There is no higher aspiration and the best part about it…we did/can do nothing to earn it. So bring on the Kindergarten graduations. Bring on the participation ribbons and celebration of what you may call mediocrity. Because in this “lack of merit” I see the truth about the only thing that truly matters. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me.”
In 1992 there was a film released starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise that received a lot of notoriety known as A Few Good Men. Although I am sure many of you, like me, may not have seen the entirety of this film, we are all on at least some level familiar with it…or at least one scene. The plot deals with a Marine Colonel Jessup who ordered a code red on a fellow marine that ended up costing his life. Tom Cruise’s character Attorney Kaffe is trying Jessup on this account and it all culminates in one of the more famous dialogue exchanges in all of cinema. “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.” “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I want the truth!” “Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!” You can’t handle the truth…wow. And yet on some level he was right. Kaffee, like many other characters in the story and many of us have a version of the world that exists in our minds that if it gets challenged could really upset the balance.
I wonder if this is ever something we struggle with when it comes to our living out the life of Christ? I especially tend to think on this during this season in the life of the church known as Advent. It’s a season of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ. But all to often it becomes a season of stress, busyness, economic abundance and distractions that couldn’t be further from the truth of what the Christmas story was all about. Even though the book of John doesn’t formally retell the Christmas story, the writer does give us a testimony as to what this story was all about. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 The Word of God himself, Jesus, took on flesh and came to us full of grace and truth. I love this last phrase. Full of truth…what is that truth? That we are hopelessly lost without God. What is that grace? God has made a way for us to be found.
Sometimes I think we haven’t been able to handle this truth. I don’t care if you are a brand new believer, still seeker, or someone who has been in the church all your life. To think you have a chance at making it without God’s grace daily being poured out into you and through you is another version of the truth altogether. Even the apostle Paul, towards the tail end of his faithful ministry had this to say, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” – 1 Timothy 1:15 I wonder if we live out of this truth or if we somehow have started living into another version. A version that says, ‘I’m okay’. A version that validates our comfort, our possessions, our indifference towards others, our embracing of ideologies not of God or our piety. Jesus himself said that He was the truth and here is someone who was called a friend of sinners, prostitutes, drunkards and tax collectors; a blasphemer and the son of the devil. How often does our truth align with Him? Or has our version of truth aligned us so well with society that we don’t subvert the selfish norm anymore?
Maybe during this season of Advent we might find that we can’t handle the truth…but that through the grace offered to us through the Word made flesh, we just might try.
Yesterday morning I had the privilege to gather with ministers from around Odessa, TX as we met for our monthly ministerial alliance meeting. However, this meeting was unlike any that I had attended before as we had set the agenda to discuss race relations in Odessa and how we as the church were addressing these issues. We set around and heard stories from Latino, African-American and Native American ministers and how the church was doing in regards towards racial-reconciliation and healing of historic and systemic wounds. Much of the conversation seemed to be framed around how our differences ultimately shouldn’t divide, but lead to conversation which should lead to understanding which would ultimately lead to healing. And many of us concluded that a large part of the problem is that often these conversations aren’t happening in churches not out of fear or hatred, but rather indifference or apathy…which might actually be worse. What is it about our current situation or way of life that keeps us from approaching, conversing or even relating to each other?
Sometimes in the church, maybe specifically the Church of the Nazarene, we struggle with this on an even grander scale. You see, those of us who believe in Holiness doctrine believe that God does something special through a second (or continued) work of grace through the Holy Spirit. In this work on God’s part we believe that God does away with our sin-nature or our desire to sin and leads us to living more Christ-like lives. However sometimes this work on God’s part becomes a thing that we think we have done on our part and we forget who we were and who we still are apart from grace. In his first letter to his young protege, the apostle Paul put it this way, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” – 1 Timothy 1:15-16 Of whom I am the worst? I’m not sure Paul minced words about who he thought of himself in regards to his condition. And yet…he was Paul.
I think about what this should say about us and how we relate to people who aren’t like us. I think sometimes it is easier to relate to those who look like us, dress like us, behave like us, smell like us, the list could go on forever. And yet God has called us to relate His story of grace to those we come into contact with regardless of their situation because in God’s eyes…in Paul’s eyes…we really are no different. So there isn’t any space for feelings of superiority in our Spirituality or our piety because at the end of the day, we didn’t save ourselves and it’s only by the grace of God that we are even able to be partners in God’s saving work. So maybe today we should cast aside our indifference, our apathy, our piety or anything else that makes us feel distant from those around us and lavishly extend God’s grace as it was once lavishly bestowed upon us.
I’m not sure how many households that read this still hold on the magic of Santa, but if you are one of those households and you are reading this out loud to your children (although I am not sure why you would) you may want to hit the pause button. That being said, this morning my 10-yr-old and I were having a conversation whereupon he made it known that he would like an in-ground pool for his birthday. After spraying the living room with the sip of coffee I had just taken, I quickly explained to him that an in-ground pool costs roughly about $20,000. He thought for a moment and then announced that he would just ask Santa. Being relatively quick on my feet I responded that Santa kind of works based on our economies. He really can only bring us what we already can afford. He thought for a moment and then said, ‘well what about an above ground pool?’
I love the imagination that surrounds childhood and the acquisition of stuff. They really don’t get economics and how things work. You have to earn a certain amount of money to be able to afford certain things. Someone else who really didn’t get economics was Jesus. There’s a parable he tells in Matthew 20 about some workers in a vineyard who are hired at different parts of the day. And those who worked one solitary hour got the same amount of pay as those who had worked all day. It really didn’t make any sense at all and it infuriated those who had worked all day to ‘get what they deserved’. Then he ends the parable with this statement, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” – Matthew 20:16 I think Jesus must have been confused. You see, those who are first are first. Those who work the hardest to achieve what they deserve should get everything they work for. Those who come sliding in at the last moment do not deserve the same reward as those who have worked so much harder.
But Jesus began this parable with a statement that often ushered in his stories that didn’t always make sense. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” The Kingdom of Heaven. It’s one of those phrases is scripture that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around because it is now and it is coming. It is present and yet it’s not yet here. But what it truly is, is. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is an alternate reality to the reality we find ourselves in. In this Kingdom the lowly are exalted and the exalted have to learn to become lowly. The last become first and the first must become like the last. In this economy one is praised for losing their life and if they try to save their life on their own they are missing out. Jesus says to us, ‘Your effort to save your own skin is void, the only real effort you must put forward is to lose your life on behalf of those around you’. Grace shows us that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, but all of our efforts should go to seeing those around us, even the last, lowly, meek, poor, outcasts, etc. know what grace looks like. The economy of mercy doesn’t make sense in this world sometimes, but it really is the only economy that matters. May you find yourself caught up in bad economics today as you extend the grace that none of us could ever deserve.
It amazes me sometimes how quickly a year passes. At one moment you find yourself in sweltering summer heat then you turn around and it’s the middle of November. November is special in its own right as it is a month, at least in America, that we set aside to be thankful. There is even a holiday we call Thanksgiving that is typified by overeating, football watching and the navigation of familial conflicts that have laid dormant for most of the year. Come to think of it, it’s kind of odd that we call this day Thanksgiving. Others sometimes take the opportunity afforded by this month of Thanksgiving to offer up things they are thankful for throughout the month. While this can be a good practice, and also one that yours truly is participating in, sometimes it tends to lean towards lip-service and I begin to wonder if it is a true expression of Thanksgiving at all.
Let me explain a bit further. According to Miriam Websters, thanksgiving is the act of giving thanks, a prayer expressing gratitude, or a public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness.I think the first part of that definition is a violation of all that I was taught in school, but the latter two pieces are a bit more important. Thanksgiving is a prayer or a public acknowledgement/celebration of Divine goodness. In other words Thanksgiving is a response. There is a parable Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke that I think might help to clarify this. He is addressing some of the piety he sees around him and he shares the story of two individuals praying in public. The first goes like this, “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’.” The latter was just slightly different, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ – Luke 18:11-13
I find it funny that the Pharisee “thanks” God that he is better off than those around him. But then again I wonder how often my “thanksgiving” is similar. I do appreciate the blessings in my life, but does that truly call out a response of thankfulness from me? Or am I simply thanking God that I am well off compared to others around me? The tax collector maybe understood what he truly needed to thank God for; mercy. Grace is that which we ultimately should be thankful for. It is grace that is the primacy of our thankfulness and brings about the only real response of thanksgiving we can make. We show our thankfulness by extending that grace, mercy and love to others. We don’t thank God that we are not in there position, but rather we show our thanks to God by extending compassion to those who aren’t as well off as us. This is thanksgiving. This is giving out of our spirit of thankfulness. And this is what it means to be truly thankful.
Okay, let’s get something out of the way. Sometimes the Bible is just weird. There I said it. And I am still typing so I didn’t get struck by lightning. But really. Sometimes when we try to take concepts or illustrations from the Bible and put them in today’s context…it’s just, well weird. I ran across one of those instances just this last week as I was preparing for youth group with our students. The passage is a familiar text to most of us. It is commonly referred to as The Parable of the Workers in The Vineyard and it is found in Matthew 20. But in verse 15 it get’s a little weird. The owner of the vineyard is speaking to the workers hired first and he says, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”. At first glance this isn’t that weird (and I just realized I have used the word weird a lot…I need a thesaurus). But there is a phrase in the Greek that stands out a bit if we go back to the original text and it is ophthalmos ponēros. Which the translators in the NIV labeled envious, but a more literal translation would be ‘evil eye’.
I don’t know what this sparks in your mind, but I almost picture a pirate or something with his evil eye staring down at me, ‘arrrr’. But that doesn’t really help us here. We have to look a bit more about what Jesus was saying in regards to the owner of the vineyard and the early workers. He is actually asking them if they are looking to do harm to the later workers because of his paying them the same wage. Now I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as strange at first. Why in the world would Jesus accuse these workers as wishing harm upon the other workers? But then I think about human nature.
We all have those people who we are a bit envious of, frustrated by, hate to be around, etc. etc. Maybe it’s someone who seemingly has been blessed more than you. Maybe it’s that person who has made a life of taking advantage of the system. Maybe it’s the person who just rubs you the wrong way because of the life they lead. But here’s the true rub of it…Jesus died for all of those people. And he extends Grace (unmerited favor) to not only us but to EVERYONE. I think sometimes we forget that. Sometimes in our desire for retribution or equality (really this version of fair is only about us coming out on top) we really want some people to get their just due. I think if some of us were honest we might even wish Hell upon some of these people…talk about an evil eye. But if God doesn’t want Hell for any of these people, shouldn’t we be the same way? Shouldn’t we be so consumed by Grace that we become instruments of God’s imbalanced economy? I know for me this is insanely convicting and I hope you and I can start to see people a little bit differently…regardless of when they start working in the vineyard.