Why does the love of God make Christians so nervous?

    Why do calls for Christians to unconditionally love people scare us to death?  When you see a church sign that says, “All people welcomed in love” does it concern you that they may have “become comfortable with the world”?  When someone posts on Facebook that Christians should be careful to show grace not judgement, there always seems to be “that guy” who feels compelled to share an imprecatory Psalm, or quote Jesus out of context as he uses strong language to chastise religious leaders.  Ironic.
    It seems to make some Christians nervous to talk about grace and love.  As a Christian, I struggle at times with the same inner thoughts.  You may be feeling that same stuggle right now as you read this.  You have the urge to add a caveat to the call to love.  “But what about sin!”  I completely agree that we ought to preach against sin.  Sin, and the idolatry of self is at the heart of what separates us from God.  We cannot be true to God and His Word without standing up against the things that separate people from Him, and calling people to holiness.  My caution however, is that we ought to be doing so out of convictional kindness, not fear or prejudice.
    The truth is that God’s love is beyond us.  His mercy and grace come from a divine nature that our fallen nature is opposed to.   Discipleship is about casting off that fallen nature and embracing the divine.  It stretches us and challenges us to become more like God.  Discipleship involves embracing God’s standards for love and moving beyond our old prejudices.  What is more, the process of sanctification involves struggling with worldly notions of fairness, our fear, and paranoia.  Here are three categories that we must strive to overcome as we try to love like Jesus, without getting too nervous about it.
    Category 1: There are individuals in our churches who have let a worldly notion of fairness contaminate their view of love and grace.  For those in this category, it seems offensive to offer the extraordinary grace of God to unrepentant sinners.  It is a struggle to get the words out. “They haven’t shown that they deserve it.  They don’t even want it!” the cry goes.  In one way it does seem outrageous to offer God’s unconditional love to those who are in full rebellion against Him.  But that is not the way of the Kingdom. God’s love IS outrageous, and it is NOT fair; not by this world’s standards anyway.  Jesus loves according to a Kingdom standard that is completely foreign to this world, and that is a reality which we simply need to come to terms with.  God is God and he is sovereign.  It is His heaven and he will welcome into it those He sees fit.  He need not have our approval.  Matthew 16 records a relevant lesson from The Parable of the Workers.  A man who owns a vineyard hires workers for an agreeable wage throughout the day.  At the end of the work day, each worker receives the wage for which they were hired.  Those who worked all day are outraged when they find that the ones hired late in the day receive the same rate of pay as they do.  They begin to grumble against the owner.  (12) “These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”  At this, the owner of the vineyard replies, “(13)… ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
    How quickly we begin to feel entitled to this divine love, which we no more deserve than the ones from whom we begrudge it.  We must not be threatened by the generous grace of Jesus.  We must not begrudge it, or withhold the promise of it to those who we deem not worthy.  If God treated us fairly in the way we understand “fairness”, we ourselves would be doomed.  Those who dwell in the shadow of the cross live in constant awareness of their own desperate need for grace.  When we stray from the cross we get judgmental.
    Category 2: Then there are those in our churches who are obsessed with the slippery slope.  This is a tricky one, because there are slippery slopes which should be avoided.  The road to compromise is real, and we must guard against it.  We must encourage and challenge each other to stay true to the Word of God.  Jesus displayed for us the perfect example of loving those who were lost while calling them out of their sin.  This is no easy example to follow.  Too often Christian groups stray from the example of convictional kindness, and fully embrace the sin along with the sinner.  It’s hard relational work to care for a person who finds their identity in a sinful lifestyle that openly rebels against the Creator.  But that is our task. The gospel calls people to find their identity in Christ and his sacrificial love for us. It speaks not only to our fallen condition, but more profoundly to our worth in the eyes of God.  And the truth of our worth in God’s eyes is a testimony to His generous love, not any achievement on our part.  When we yield our hearts fully to Christ, his agape love becomes the norm for how we behave.  Agape love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love that flows from a grateful heart, which has been transformed by Christ.  Caution against the slippery slope is warranted and appropriate when observed with faith and courage.
    On the other hand, we can respond inappropriately with fear to the threat of the slippery slope.  We fear that we will not be able to maintain that balance of convictional kindness.  We fear that we will wake up one day and be over-run by the world.  We fear that if we get too close with sinners that our neat and tidy Christian lives will become tainted.  In response to this fear we become closed off and harsh.  We become obsessed with rules and standards of dress and behavior that are the constructs of men, not God.  Instead of caring for the heart of the broken, we safeguard ourselves against their brokenness, and in so doing we faithlessly abandon God’s missionary call on our lives.  Paranoia is not a trait of victorious life in Christ.
    Category 3: Finally there are those who are not confident in the power of the Holy Spirit alone to convict. They cannot comfortably separate “grace teachings” from “warnings of wrath and judgement”.  They feel somehow that it is selling Jesus and the gospel short if “God loves you” is not followed with “and you will split hell wide open if you don’t turn from your sin”.  These are the churches that put slogans on their signs during the summer such as, “You think it’s hot here?”.  There is a certain inappropriate and disturbing glee to this sort of hellish threat that is unbecoming a follower of Christ. Warnings of wrath and judgement are a part of gospel teaching, to be sure.  They are not, however, the central theme of gospel teaching.  The theme of gospel teaching is love and grace.  Jesus did not hurl condemnations at the thieves between whom he was crucified, though they were quite guilty.  He offered grace that was free, but not cheap.  When our Lord offered stern words to the religious leaders of the day, and called out sin for what it is, the scriptures tell us that he was motivated by compassion and a broken heart.  A heart broken over the lostness of the world is not amused by clever threats of judgement.  The proper context of “judgement warnings” is through sincere pleas in the pulpit, or a compassionate personal relationship.  Yes, Jesus threw over the tables in the temple and drove out the money changers.  He did so out of righteous indignation towards a religious system that was taking advantage of people.  Following this example means holding those who call themselves Christians accountable to show grace and mercy to the masses, and not abuse them.  We must not appeal to Jesus if we take his example out of biblical context.
    The reality of our human condition is that apart from salvation we are doomed to eternal death and separation from God.  Without the reality of deserved punishment, grace has no meaning. We must however have confidence in the Holy Spirit to convict sin, and not attempt to force conviction ourselves out of a lack of faith.
    A high view of God would inspire confidence in His grace to convict as well as comfort.  When sinners experience the loving call of God’s salvation, the first response of a grateful heart is humble repentance and worship.  We are not called to shame, threaten, or argue people into the Kingdom.  We love, and God convicts.  Let me be clear, we should preach the whole counsel of God’s Word.  We should preach God’s call for sinners to repent.  When the scriptures name a sin, we should faithfully and publicly oppose such behaviors.  We must not compromise, and we must remain true to God’s standards.  But as 1 Corinthians 13 guides us, if we want our service to matter, we must do so in the context of love.  “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
    In all likelihood, the challenge of living out convictional kindness is the defining issue of our generation in the church.  I believe that there is equal danger of the church becoming cold and closed off to the world, as well as infiltrated by it.  We must guard against both. We must do so out of confidence in Christ and not misguided or worldly motivations.  The best part is that we have a perfect example to follow, Jesus Christ.

At the Point of Your Breaking

“You will find me at the point of your breaking. 

 Behind all the noise. 

When there’s nothing left, I’ll be.”

I’ll explain in a moment where that line comes from.  Feeling the need to write tonight…I’m not even sure I will post this.  But it will be cathartic to write so here goes. This entry will be written very much in the stream of consciousness.  Ha.

Psalm 27:7,8 says, “Hear, O Lord , when I cry with my voice,
And be gracious to me and answer me.
When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You,
“Your face, O Lord , I shall seek.” (NASB)

The Message puts it this way, “Listen, God, I’m calling at the top of my lungs:
“Be good to me! Answer me!”  When my heart whispered, “Seek God,”
my whole being replied, “I’m seeking him!”

I am so thankful God’s promise that we will find Him if we seek Him with all our heart is true.  The only problem is that “seeking Him with all one’s heart” is harder than it sounds.  It’s all-consuming.  It affects your heart, circumstances, emotions, and can have physical implications as well.  It can be exhausting.  I mean if your really seeking Him, not just playing at it.  Sometimes I am guilty of playing at it, and sometimes I “come to” and realize I’ve got Psalm 27:7,8 going on in full force.  That’s what happened to me today.

We’ve been doing 40 Days of Community together as a church and it is amazing on many levels.  Personally, I am loving the experience.  The small group sessions are strong.  The daily devotions are slapping me in the face constantly…in a good way.  I’m glad we are doing it.

As a minister it’s wearing me out in some ways, and inspiring hope in others.  We started out with 9 different viewing stations around the church for the DVD small group lessons.  Now we have 12.  Apparently it’s too difficult to walk a short distance to view the DVD then come back for discussions.  But hey, almost every group is making the effort so that’s good.  What we’re doing is different for these 6 weeks, and that freaks the daylights out of some folks.  I realize that.  In order to justify not wanting to do something different some people resort to fault-finding.  Whatever.  God’s plan throughout the Scriptures is to use imperfect people to spread His perfect love.  I hope that when people find the perfect system and perfect spokesperson they are holding out for they will let me know so I can get it on the church calendar.  Don’t want to miss that, but in the mean time…

I show up two hours before small groups every week and check and double-check the TV/DVD stations.  Still, every week somebody pushes the wrong button or the DVD times out and people can’t navigate the menu screen to get it going so they miss most of the lesson.  I am going in the morning to literally lay hands on each TV and pray God would let the thing work for that critical 2o minutes on all 12 stations.  If I end up posting this, and you read it…pray please.

The lesson last week was about Jesus feeding the 5000 and how he uses the same pattern in our lives to minister.  He takes what we have to offer, breaks it, blesses it, and uses it.  I kept coming back to the “breaks” part.  I’m sure that is where I am in the cycle.  I’ve been meditating on what spiritual brokenness means.  Here’s an example of one of the ways I’m experiencing this: This week I walked into the office one morning and was met by a young lady crying as she explained how she needed help with an electric bill.  I took her and her mother into a side room and listened to their story.  I wanted to explore how we could help, and I wanted them to know we cared on more than one level.  One of the best ways to do that is simply to listen.  So I did.  Heartbreaking.  I don’t have space to share all the details, but here are the highlights.  A young woman (with a half shaven head) suffering from brain cancer.  A mother with her who clearly suffers from Alzheimer’s.  Both divorced.  Small kids involved.  HUGE electric bill, power being cut off that day.  No jobs, no income.  Broken bodies and hearts.  I listened, offered what I could to help with their physical needs, and shared the Gospel in the clearest most honest way I could.  Later that morning I tweeted this to try and express my heart, “The Gospel is an urgent answer for urgent need. We are surrounded by pain, and must pray for compassionate eyes and urgent spirits.”  I pray they heard the hope in the Gospel.  I know that we couldn’t touch their need.  (But we are trying)  I brush shoulders with the despair in our community almost weekly.  I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take its toll on me not to be able to fix those people’s problems.  It is so hard for me to go home to a warm house and food on the table when I have seen children’s faces that don’t have either.  We can provide it for an evening, but what then?  I get overwhelmed with how many people there are with overwhelming problems. 

But then there’s that lesson in Jesus feeding the 5000.  I look at my 5 loaves and two fish and shake my head.  The cries of the hungry crowd threaten to drown out Jesus’ voice in my ear as he says, “you feed them”.  I have offered what little I have Lord.  You are breaking it.  I long for the blessing and use of it.

Tonight (Saturday) late I was doing some things around my house that needed attention. Why late?  Because I worked 8 hours today and I know Sunday will be a marathon.  Then the week begins and it will be Friday before I get 5 minutes to come up for air.  I was (how can I say this and make it sound spiritual) meditating… on all I had to do at church today and the anxiety I have over the TV/DVD drama in the morning.  Why am I writing this? Because tonight I’m tired. No doubt…I love my job. I am thankful for my opportunity to minister and I love the people I serve and serve with. Sometimes I get frustrated that it isn’t easier to balance family time and ministry time. Lately that’s been more difficult. But the people I give to first and most has to be my family, no matter how hard it is to work that balance out. If I post this and you read it, I know you get tired too. Tonight I’m tired and seeking God for what I need to keep giving. I hope you will too.

As I was thinking and seeking tonight the words of the Newsboys song which had been playing on repeat for 45 minutes sank in.

“You will find me at the point of your breaking. 

 Behind all the noise. 

When there’s nothing left, I’ll be.”

This is Grace.  Thank you!

UPDATE: Monday morning – Every TV/DVD station worked Sunday.  Praise God! 

Also, reports are coming in left and right about small groups experiencing renewal of fellowship.  Small gropups are adopting ministry projects that are revolutionizing their group’s experience and the lives of others.  I am humbled and thankful.

I just became a fan of Mark McGwire

I have to tell you how refreshing I felt Mark McGwire’s comments were today.  In case you haven’t heard, McGwire admitted that during the 90’s, including his record-breaking season, he was indeed using performance enhancing drugs.  You can read about it here

I have written lately about how disappointed I’ve been that so many of the sports figures I have pulled for over my life have turned out not to be who they appeared.  Tiger Woods being exhibit A.  I can’t just pull for someone because they dominate the sport.  Ron Artest has in earlier years been a dominant basketball player, but watching his life unfold makes me cringe, and therefore I couldn’t be a fan.  I just can’t separate who a man is off the field or court from what they do on it.  I can’t in good conscience let my son and daughters see me pulling for a player that everybody knows beats his wife or is seriously unfaithful to her.  Nor could I let them see me pull for a guy who uses/used steroids without shame. 

So why am I saying how refreshing it was to hear McGwire confess to cheating?

Because he was man enough to say he was wrong.  Yesterday I was a former fan of McGwire’s who became disenchanted when it became clear that he used drugs, but he wasn’t willing to be honest.  Baseball is riddled with players who deny what everybody knows already.  I can’t get behind someone who isn’t willing to be real.  Today McGwire represents something totally different.

What impresses me so much about McGwire is how broken and honest he was in his confession.  Somehow his contrite spirit doesn’t make me feel justified in resenting him, or wish to mock him, it makes him compelling.  I want to forgive McGwire and become a fan again.  There is something powerful about a person admitting that they were wrong, and that they are devestaed by regret over their mistakes. 

You see, ever since I got a small taste of how desperately lost in sin I was without Jesus, and how  fatally flawed I was…I became a big fan of Grace.  I have a good freind who is fond of saying that grace is the greatest thing he has ever heard of.  Jesus is grace embodied.  This is the gospel pure and simple: a man realizes how foolish and wrong he has been, confesses it, and receives forgiveness he doesn’t deserve.  Of course there are consequences, I don’t think he should be given any awards back if they were taken from him.  I probably oppose his entry into the Hall of Fame at this point, unless he accomplishes some great feats as a coach in the future.  I don’t oppose it as a means of continued punishment.  I simply feel that way because he cheated to accomplish much of what he did, and you can’t reward that.  And repentance isn’t genuine if real change doesn’t occur.  If he secretly encourages the hitters he will be coaching to cheat by using steroids then obviously I have been fooled by his sincerity.  But I pray that won’t happen. 

I just love that his story is turning out to be something honorable and brave. It is something I can hold up to my kids and use as a way to model the right way to handle life after you do wrong.  I also love that I can use this opportunity to model grace for them.  Yeah, the guy was dead wrong.  He lied to his family, friends, and fans.  But he admitted it, and said he was sorry.  We have to show him grace because God has shown us grace we didn’t deserve.  Because of Jesus’ love, we are the people of the second chance. 

I’m hoping the best for Mark McGwire.  And I’m thankful that because I have been forgiven, I can find such joy in watching others be forgiven too.

who did you pull over??!!

My grand father-in law tells a funny joke about Billy Graham. As the story goes, we join Billy on his way home from one of his crusades when he lands at an airport. Relieved that the crusade went well, Graham steps outside and meets the limo driver on the curb after he gets his bags. He steps up to the driver and says, “You know, I have always wanted to drive one of these things and have never had the opportunity. Would you mind if I drive home?” The driver, amused by this turn of events, conceded to let Mr. Graham do whatever he wants.

So Graham take to reins and pulls away from the airport. Somewhere on the long windy roads in western North Carolina, Graham eases the limo well over the speed limit…just to see how it handles. And wouldn’t you know it, a state trooper emerges around a bend in the road and pulls him over for speeding. The officer strides confidently up to the limo window as Graham is rolling it down. “Afternoon officer, I apologize for speeding. I am afraid I was caught red handed.”, Graham says.

Without saying a word, the officer turns and walks back to his patrol car, slightly less confident than a few moments before. “Hey chief”, he says over the radio, “I have just pulled over a limo for speeding and I’m not sure what to do. I know we’re not supposed to show partiality in enforcing the law, but this one might be a legitimate exception.” “What are you talking about?”, replies a voice across the radio, “The law is the law. Who did you pull over?”

“I really don’t know” answered the officer, “But I think it might be God because Billy Graham is his driver!”

pause for laughter

This is just a fun story, but life does throw us some serious curves some times doesn’t it? Sometime reality isn’t what it seems. Sometimes, “just having some fun” gets a little out of control and things get serious. Sometimes people don’t turn out to be who you thought, or hoped they would be. At times like this we we feel hurt, wounded, an disappointed. How do you respond when life gets away from you, and what you felt in control of turns out to be a major let down?

It’s important to remember when things go wrong that God is still in control, and that He loves us. There are so many consistant themes throughout all the scriptures, but perhaps the most prominant is that of God’s never wavering love and redemption. God has always been in the business of redeeming human mistakes. God has always been at work healing our hurts when life gets away from us. (as if we are ever really in control to start with)

God’s grace is able to reach farther than any distance we can wonder away. And there is no hurt so deep that His healing power cannot reach.