Where you might not find grace…

grace in churchGrace has changed my life in countless ways, but I didn’t always find it in church.  John Updike said, “In general the churches…bore for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola: they promoted thirst without quenching it.” As I write this and reflect on my many years in church I realize that most of what I have received on Sunday mornings has been law and not grace.  It should be the place that our thirst is quenched, but I often left frustrated.

Paul Zahl says most of what you hear in church is, “always the same: here is what you should do, you are not doing it, so get out there and try harder.  This is the “three point sermon” of churches.  I sometimes suggest to clergy that they carve over the main door to the church the following words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  From the pulpit, what you are likely to get is the law.”

A lot of sermons I have heard have been filled with what I should do instead of what Christ has done for me.  I have often heard of how I was not measuring up to what church expected of me, and how I had to do certain things in order to be accepted in the fold.  What I should have been told is I was accepted without doing anything at all!  In truth, a lot of sermons resemble titles of self-help books and you often can’t distinguish them from what you might hear on a talk show.

A lot of our churches are full of pharisees.  The world is hungry for grace, but we give them rules to live by in lieu of a Christ that took their place because they couldn’t keep the rules.     

I love what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

What if church were a place where you heard death, burial, resurrection instead of ways to bootstrap your life?  What if  church were a place where freedom was proclaimed instead of fear of sin and mistakes?  What if church were a place you didn’t hear moralism, but you heard you were loved in-spite of the fact you aren’t moral?  What if we just preached Christ instead of all the other stuff that doesn’t help anyone?

If you don’t find a place like that I hope you know that God loves you just the way you are warts and all.  ”But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”, “there is therefore now no condemnation…”

I’m sorry to say you might not find grace in church, but you will find grace by simply looking to Jesus. If you are in a church that doesn’t extend grace then you have my permission to leave.

Cash, Jagger, and God is Selfish

god is selfishOne of the things I continue to learn about God is he always gets what he wants.  God is selfish.  As I say that I hear Mick Jagger singing: “You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometime you find, You get what you need.”  Whether we know it or not, we all get what we need, and God gets what he wants.  The world around me may seem opposed to Him, but ultimately control is in his hands, and not mine.  He is sovereign.  

God has no plan b, other options, or second guesses.  Nothing, and I mean nothing takes him by surprise.  My sin and my disobedience doesn’t take him by surprise, nor does it mess up his plans.  Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 1:11:

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”

Wherever you are right now is where you are supposed to be.  That is crazy to think about.  It goes against our thinking, but God has us right where he wants us.

God is Selfish!

The Bible actually has some funny ways of referring to Him.  God is selfish and God is jealous.  God is the most selfish being in the world. He is the only being that can actually have his way all the time.  His love is so great that it causes him to be jealous of us.  He is going to get his way.  I might kick and scream to get my way, but ultimately, the counsel of his will, will win.

What astounds me about this is my kicking and fighting.  If I “fight” against what he wants…it doesn’t matter because he will win.  This may be what Paul was experiencing when Jesus said to him in Acts 9:5, “And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”  In a sense, God is saying, “Paul, just stop it…I’m going to win this one way or another.”  Maybe my fighting and kicking is somehow a part of the process and His plan???  

In the words of Johnny Cash, “Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.”  God is beating the hell out of his drum, and we are marching to the beat of it whether we realize it or not. 

Think of Jonah.  If Jonah went to some of the churches I’ve been to then we would say Jonah was backslidden or Jonah was going to be cursed for his disobedience.  Jonah should watch out because he was now out of the “will of God” because of his sin.

BUT, Jonah is really not out of God’s will!  Even Jonah’s disobedience could not stop God from getting his selfish way.  On the surface Jonah looks like he is being selfish but really God is the one who gets His way. The fish was God’s redemption for Jonah.  God sent the fish to save Jonah from himself.  Even your sin can’t stop God.    

What if I forgot about what I wanted and just enjoyed Him?  Did Job get what he wanted, doubtful, but what he did get in the end was good.

I may not get what I want, but I will get what he wants, and that’s good.

Spiritual Performance Reviews – how to fail them!

Spiritual Performance ReviewsIf you have spent any time in the workforce then at some point you would have had a performance review. No matter how they are conducted these are all based on how well and not so well you did at your job in the previous year.  These meetings are about as fun as a root canal! They are seldom based on grace but based primarily on your merit. Unfortunately, performance reviews are not just found at your job, but they are in the bible, church, and in your personal spiritual lives. For fun let’s call them spiritual performance reviews!

Spiritual Performance Reviews

Beginning with the Bible we find spiritual performance reviews with Job and his friends in chapter 4 of Job:

7 Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed?
8 As I have observed, those who plow evil
and those who sow trouble reap it.

According to Job’s friends, because he has lost everything it’s his fault. He should just try harder next year.

How about the New Testament? Paul and Cephas (Peter), Galatians 2:11:

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

Paul taking Peter to task!  But why?  What gives Paul the right to jump on Peter?  Paul aint perfect either.  

There are more examples in scripture, but these are just the first two that came to mind.

Church is a funny place because it promises freedom, but doesn’t always deliver. I really don’t know where to begin with this one because a lot of church is performance based religion. If you don’t believe me then you haven’t been in it long enough. Give it time and you will see.

I wrote here about accountability relationships in church. Accountability relationships are just one big performance review that leads to nowhere. I take that back, it leads to the leader feeling puffed up and the other person feeling like a loser.

In our own spiritual lives there is the feeling that we have to measure up. There is the feeling that if we do enough spiritual disciplines, try harder, and get serious with God then He will accept us.

The good news is you already are accepted and there is nothing more you can do to get more accepted. You’re already in the club and your dues were paid for by Jesus.

I often feel condemned, not good enough, and that I should be doing more for God. I have to remind myself every day that God is fine. He’s at rest. He finished the work that I couldn’t do.

If God really had a review for us it would simply say there is therefore now no condemnation

Our names are written in His book and that’s all that matters. All of our bad performances, thoughts, sins, etc. were erased from his memory. All he sees is our name.

In the words of Robert F. Capon:

“C’mon up here and plunk yourself down by my great white throne and let’s you and me have a good long practice laugh before this party gets so loud we can’t even hear how much fun we’re having.”

The Curse of The Law

the curse of the lawPaul writes in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”  The law is an evil taskmaster.  The reason why it is evil is because it is impossible to keep.  No matter how hard you try and how much effort and sweat you put into doing right and living right you will always come up short (For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God).  It cannot be kept and will leave you frustrated and mad.  Whether we realize it or not we are all under its oppression and it rears its head in every arena of life.  In your home, relationships, church, and where you work.  This is the curse of the law.

The curse it is cast - Bob Dylan

The Curse of The Law

I believe the law works around expectations, said and unsaid.  For example, when two people get married each spouse has expectations (laws) that the one spouse feels that the other should meet.  What happens when that law is not met…punishment, anger, frustration.  You take a job and your manager has an expectation of you, but you don’t meet it, and then there is punishment.  Your church is wearing you out, doing God knows what in the name of religion, but you can’t do it all, and then there is punishment.

The law cannot be satisfied by you.  No matter how hard you try, it continues to ask you for more.

The law communicates to us that there is a debt to be paid.  This doesn’t just happen with God’s laws, but every law says “you must do this.”  But you can’t do it.

Adam and Eve could eat the fruit of any tree they wanted, except for one.  The law says don’t eat that!  Sounds simple enough.  But it’s not.  You would have ate it too!  We can keep trying to do better, but we can’t.

The good news is that we can’t pay the debt, but Jesus paid it for us.  What makes that so awesome is we can quit trying.  We can quit trying to be someone we are not.  We can quit playing games in our churches.  We can quit doing silly religious activities that God doesn’t care about.

God is satisfied: “But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.” Acts 3:18

How can this work in our law filled lives, marriages, churches, and jobs?

The amazing thing about God’s love and grace is that it is in full operation in Jesus and has nothing to do with us!

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)”   There is nothing required of us to have it.  We don’t have to try to get it, and when we realize that “it is finished”, then we become dispensers of grace.

“We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).”  Who can you show grace to without expecting anything in return?

Buying a Stairway to Heaven – or not

Buying a Stairway to HeavenI have weird musical habits.  Currently I am binging on Stairway to Heaven.  This week I took a short drive from my home in NYC to Greenwich, CT for a meeting, and listened to Stairway the entire ride there and back!  Weird, I know.  For your enjoyment I have included a video of Led Zeppelin playing Stairway live at Earl’s Court in 1975.  It is possibly one of the best versions I have ever heard, and Jimmy Page’s solo…wow, he definitely has lift off and leaves planet earth.  As I listen to the song and the lyrics get embedded in me, one phrase continues to haunt me, “buying a stairway to heaven.”

We have in our culture the idea that heaven can be earned.  We have the idea that the things of God can be somehow purchased through our good deeds, abstaining from sin, and just trying harder.  None of that is Gospel.  This isn’t just foreign religions but this ideology is rooted in the American church.

I can vividly remember as a child and up until my early 20′s believing that if I sinned that God was done with me.  I had to do penance, cry, get on my hands and knees, and beg for his mercy.  If there was a such a thing as a rapture, and if it happened in that moment, then I would definitely be left behind.  I didn’t realize that all along I had God’s acceptance and love without even knowing it, and it had nothing to do with what I did or didn’t do.  I was buying a stairway to heaven.

The good news is everything in God is free of charge.  It cost him everything and you get to enjoy it free of charge.  There is no need to try harder with God.  He loves you.  He just does.

Buying a Stairway to Heaven

Ephesians 2:8-9; “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

Has someone ever gave you a gift that you had to pay for? That’s not a gift.  A gift costs the recipient nothing.  It cost the giver.  In our case it cost the giver his life.

God doesn’t want you to work for any of his gifts. Romans 8:32; “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”

You now have permission to quit being religious.  Just enjoy the free gift.  I close with a word by Robert Farrar Capon from one of my favorite books Between Noon and Three:

“…there is therefore now no condemnation for two reasons: you are dead now; and God, as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, has been dead all along. The blame game was over before it started. It really was. All Jesus did was announce that truth and tell you it would make you free. It was admittedly a dangerous thing to do. You are a menace. Be he did it; and therefore, menace or not, here you stand: uncondemned, forever, now. What are you going to do with your freedom?”

Dwight Schrute and Christian Accountability

christian accountabilityMy wife and I are working our way through the television series The Office, and we watched an episode the other day that was funny but also very much relevant to the Christian life.  The episode focuses in on the weird character Dwight and his attempt to hold the office accountable to their actions.  The show does a great job hilighting how accountability doesn’t work!  If you are a Christian, I’ve got good news for you…Christian accountability doesn’t work.

Here are a few lines from the show:

Dwight: The accountability booster. It registers every time a mistake has been made in the office. From a late delivery to an accounting error. Five strikes in a day equals a home run. One home run and you’re out.

Andy: Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean the thing about this office is, we make a lot of mistakes.

Dwight: But the device will change that. Without a safety net, people will improve.

Andy: Alright everybody, looks like we need to be getting to work. Be extra careful. Double check everything or the accountability booster will getcha.

If you’ve seen this particular episode then you will remember that the office staff is on pins and needles. They are at each others throats, and everyone is walking on egg shells throughout the episode.  The fear of mistake has taken over the office and now work and production has been halted because of accountability.

Christian accountability relationships are varied I’m sure, but after watching this I realized that my experience with Christian accountability is sort of like this accountability booster that the characters on The Office had. The device (as Dwight called it) or accountability was supposed to change me, but sadly it did not. In one my favorite books, Grace in Practice, Paul F.M. Zahl writes about accountability and says:

“…start using words with me like “accountability,” or, if you are a Christian, “discipleship.” You start to “speak the truth in love” in my life.  You tell me that you intend the criticism you dole out to be for my own good.  You tell me there is really love beneath the lecture. But all I can hear is the lecture….tell me one thousand times that your law is in the service of love. I will even tell you I believe you. But I don’t. There is no law in existence that can be heard as grace by sufferers and sinners.  The cliche is true: we need unconditional love.”

Christian Accountability Doesn’t Work!

Here are 5 reasons why Christian accountability doesn’t work with some of my pithy comments.

1.  Authoritarian – Jesus is the ultimate authority not your accountability partner.

2.  Fear – you’re afraid just like Adam was.  Except this time your accountability partner is the one you are afraid of.

3.  No Grace – Grace is the ultimate life changer not accountability.

4.  No Gospel – “It is finished.” ‘Power of God unto salvation”…not accountability. 

5.  Works – How about we talk about what He has done…not what I’ve done?

Here is the big reason why Christian accountability doesn’t work: people by nature are going to do what they want to do, and no relationship can stop that.  I’ve known ultra spiritual leaders in multiple accountability relationships that have had moral failure.  What happened?  I’ve seen ministries with boards and financial committees do shady things with money, and no one knew.  I thought they were accountable?

The greatest change I’ve seen happen in my life is when I’ve been pointed to the Gospel.  The Gospel is powerful and the only thing that can change.  A watchdog will not change me.

I’m forgiven…I don’t need accountability if my sin is a non-issue to God.

Rest in Jesus – grace for the religiously tired!

rest in jesusMy grandmother passed away a few years ago, and being at her home when she was alive was rather interesting. Her house was immaculate. You could eat off the floor it was so clean. However, this cleanliness didn’t come without paying a high price…even amongst her guests. As a child I can remember multiple times being chided for running in the house, laying down on the couch, putting my feet up on the furniture, and the list goes on.  Would Jesus be welcome to put his feet up on my grandmothers couch?

It is easy to recognize the law that operates in others and harder to recognize where we are plagued by the law. It is easy to see the law in operation in my grandmother because it was so visible and vocal! She reminded me so much of Martha in Luke 10:38-42:

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

I have not seen many people work like my grandmother did. She was busy about many things. My grandmother reminded me of a lot of people I’ve known in ministry. To be truthful she reminds me of myself when I was really involved in ministry. There are a lot of rules in church. There is a lot of unnecessary work to be done in church, and if you weren’t doing it then you were a second class saint, and I really thought and hoped Jesus was impressed by all that I was doing for Him.

Rest in Jesus

I didn’t understand that the one thing Jesus wanted from me was to get lost. Mary chose the best because she was lost in him. We so want our lives to be perfect and in order that we are afraid to stop doing all the nonsense that doesn’t even matter.

You can’t find most of what we do in Bible. What you can find is getting lost. He came to save that which was lost, not those who have it together.

When I think about grace, I immediately think that Jesus completed and finished the work that he was sent to do, and he rested from his labor. The Gospel is completely unfair in that what we were supposed to do, Jesus stepped in and did for us.  Now he is our Sabbath. 

Jesus doesn’t mind if we relax. He doesn’t mind if we take a rest in him.  In fact he seeks to take the burden off and invites us to take it easy. However, religion seeks to give us lots to do.  Don’t let it. Rest in Jesus.

Does God Keep Score? Exodus 12

when I see the blood I will pass over youThe majority of my life has been lived under the shadow of religion. I’ve often wondered throughout all of my childhood and adulthood if I was in or out with God. Does God keep score? Does he have a record of my good deeds and my bad deeds? If I sin enough does that make God love me less? If I do enough righteous actions then do I score a point? This madness will drive you crazy!

Throughout this tospy turvy life of religion seeking to please God by not sinning I wondered, “is there enough right actions that I can do to make God passover my sins?” The short answer…no!

As I was reading through Exodus a few weeks ago I was struck by the night the death angel came rolling into town. The first born was going to die that night, and there was only one way to prevent it. Put blood on the door. One simple act secured redemption for every person in the house.

when I see the blood I will pass over you

Exodus 12:13: The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”

The revelation I had was that their redemption had nothing to do with what they did or how many sins they committed. They were just as full of sin as the Egyptians were.

They couldn’t save themselves by doing anything, only the lamb could do that. All they had to do was sit in the house and eat, rest, and relax.

What are you doing trying to make yourself right with God? When you miss it do you feel condemnation?

There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it
By the saving grace that’s over me.
-Bob Dylan

The good news is there was a lamb that took away the sin of the world 2000 years ago, and if his blood is on your door then you’re covered.  That is the saving grace that is over you.

So is God keeping score? Is he keeping tabs on you? If he keeps score then maybe the score is, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” My guess is the only thing he sees when he passes over you is blood.

“Your life in grace is the life of a cripple on an escalator: as far as being able to walk upstairs is concerned, you are simply dead; there is nothing for you to do. But then you don’t need to do anything, because the divine Floorwalker has kindly put you on the eternally moving staircase of Jesus — and up you go.” – Robert Farrar Capon

Let Your Speech Be Always With Grace

let your speech be always with graceGrace in relationships is easily identifiable based on conversation.  How we talk to other people, and what we are willing to share with others is a clear indication if the relationship is rooted in grace or law.  This may be why Paul said in Colossians 4:6, “let your speech be always with grace.” When you are in a relationship that is based on grace and not law then you are free to say anything you want to say without condemnation and judgement.

I picked up on this a few nights ago when my family and I went over to some friends house to eat.  These weren’t new friends, but it had been a while since my children had seen them. Normally, when my kids get around people they haven’t seen in a while they become shy, hide behind me, and don’t say much. This house was different.  The couple are a graceful couple that welcomed us in there home like we were their own children.

My son was comfortable enough to be himself (picture above!), tell jokes, play, laugh, and so was my daughter.  In a home based on grace all are welcome to come and to be themselves.  Matthew 9:10 says;

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”

Jesus is relaxing, eating, and look who feels welcome to and sit with him.  Scum, sinners, bad people. Why?  Grace!  They knew that to sit at the table with Jesus was not a place of condemnation but a place of grace and acceptance.

In atmospheres where the law is present you cannot be yourself because you have to make sure you are following the rules.  It is not about you anymore it is now about the rules.  You have to be conscience of what you say because you might say the wrong things.  Not so at the table with Jesus.  With Jesus you relax!

I’ve noticed in my relationships that are based on the law I think about what to say instead of communicating my heart.  In my head I think, “what are they going to to think if I say this?”  I can’t relax.  Grace is not present.  In law based relationships you cannot be yourself.  In relationships based on grace you can be “naked an unashamed”, you can be free to express yourself, share your heart, and be silly.  In relationships based on the law, you have to be “on”, it’s like a job interview.

Let Your Speech Be Always With Grace

I have found the people that I’m most open with are the people that have shown me the most grace.  The people that I clam up on are the people that have shown me the most law.  We see this in the garden:

And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

The law makes you want to hide.  You hide because of fear of what someone else might think about your nakedness.  You are silent because of fear of what they might really think about you.  Have you ever seen anyone that has had too much to drink, and they start sharing intimate details of their life.  That’s grace.

I pray that you let your speech be always with grace.  Have a drink.

Seinfeld The Opposite – aka religion

seinfeld the oppositeMy all time favorite T.V. show is Seinfeld.  I’ve been watching it since I was a kid with my parents, I own all of them on DVD, and can quote it…probably better than the Bible.  The show is timeless.  One of my favorite episodes is titled The Opposite, and in the episode George Constanza, the loser of the group finds his religion…

Seinfeld The Opposite

His religion is he will begin doing everything the opposite of his natural instinct.  He says, “my life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.” Later, George says, “this is no longer just some crazy notion. Jerry, this is my religion.”

George then begins to change how eats, dresses, talks to people.  He gets the girl, gets a job with the Yankees, and life is starting to look up for him.

As I think about the episode I couldn’t help but think about what Paul writes in Romans 7:

“18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

George is starting to sound an awful lot like Paul.  If we could all just do the opposite.  If we could all just try a little harder then maybe we could save ourselves by our own efforts.  Sadly, we can’t keep it up. The act can only be performed for so long before the real George comes out again.  Before the real sinful me and you comes out.

There are times I try to do the opposite, but it just doesn’t work.  And then there is the law.  I really like to do the opposite of the law.  I know at my core I’m a rebel.  I love rebelling against everything.  It’s in my nature, and if you were honest with yourself, it’s in your nature too.

I identify so well with the AC/DC song Bad Boy Boogie:

On the day I was born the rain fell down
There was trouble brewin’ in my home town
It was the seventh day I was the seventh son
And it scared the hell out of every one
They said stop
I said go
They said fast
I said slow
They said yes
I said no
I do the bad boy boogie

Theologian Paul Zahl writes; “If the law says, “Jump,” I sit.  If it says, “Run” I walk. If it says, “Honor your father and mother,” I move…to Portland.”  I understand now when I tell my son not to do something…he does, you guessed it, the opposite.

Here is the deal we can’t help it.  It’s called original sin.  BUT there is hope.  Romans 8:1, 3-4:

“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus…3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us…”

Probably the best news you will read all day.  The law is weak.  No more opposite games are needed to be played.  Jesus fulfilled the law for you.  What you couldn’t do and what the law couldn’t accomplish in you, Jesus did for you.  You are not condemned.  Go have fun.