The Grace Memo

“Grace is given so that it can be lived. That was the memo the elder brother of the prodigal son missed.” (Laurie Short, Finding Faith in the Dark, p.151)

Laurie Short drives it home. Grace comes as both a gift to us…and through us. We receive a fresh start so we can give a fresh start.

memoWe struggle to think in these terms. Somewhere within us, our system of justice insists that people get (or should get) what they deserve. “What goes around comes around.” We believe this deeply; more deeply than we may realize.

Merit matters to us. Good people deserve a break. Bad people deserve nothing. Tit for tat is only right, in marriages and marketplace alike.

This thinking has marked humanity for eons. Even Job in the Old Testament found himself surrounded by a wife and friends who, much as they liked him, concluded he must have done something terrible to suffer as he did. He might as well just “curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

But grace doesn’t function like that.

“Grace, by its very nature, is unexpected. It’s the last thing you think you’ll get. It’s a party when you expect to be punished, and acceptance when you’re used to being shunned.” (Short, p.125)

Grace. It’s a great word for a new year. It means rising above retribution and resisting the urge to retaliate. It means choosing to bless, not curse (see Romans 12:14). It means extending to others the same forgiveness that we ourselves have received (Colossians 3:13) — undeserved, unhesitating, and complete.

Grace is a game-changer for us and those around us. It’s not soft, weak, or easy. Don’t let anyone suggest that grace is for the feeble-minded. Just the opposite. It stretches us beyond our natural inclinations. It changes everything within us and around us.

Laurie Short concluded that “grace was the memo that the older brother of the prodigal son missed.” Let’s not miss it ourselves. Let’s resolve, by God’s grace, to freely give that which we have freely received. Therein lies freedom for our marriages, families, churches, workplaces …and our own hearts.

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The Gate of the Year

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, “Give me a light so that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a known light and safer than a known way.” — Minnie Louise Haskins, The Gate of the Year, 1908

Many of us have started 2017 hoping for a better year; better health, better marriages, better families, better churches, better workplaces, better finances, perhaps even better grades at school. If 2016 involved some dark days, we’re hopeful that this year will include better times.

minnie-louise-haskinsGive me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” That seems a reasonable and fair prayer. But Minnie Haskins, in her famous poem quoted by King George VI, knew that what we need is not light and understanding, but trust and Presence. Our lives are not transformed by clarity but by confidence. Some of us, of course, believe that clarity is what breeds confidence. But our hope is in the Lord, not any certainties about circumstances.

Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a known light and safer than a known way.

May we find Christ all-sufficient for all of us in all circumstances this year.

Because of Grace.

 

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All Things New

Happy New Year!

There’s something about the word new that I like; a new pair of running shoes, a new book, a new car (in my dreams). The word elicits all sorts of warm feelings. It speaks to freshness; something unspoiled and something pristine. It involves hope and happiness. Perhaps that’s why “Happy New Year” sounds good.

happy-new-yearSocial media has certainly marked 2016 as a year to be forgotten; spoiled by violence in our cities, incivility in our politics, and deaths among the superstars. The year included European chaos; Brexit, Russian pressure in eastern Ukraine, Syrian and Libyan refugee crises, and radical Islamic terrorism. In other parts of the world cyber-terrorism has made front-page news, while Boko Haram and similar groups continue to oppress innocents in northern Africa.

Out with the old and in with the new” sounds very appealing. If only we could change everything by changing the date. How nice if we could sweep the house clean by flipping the calendar over from December 31 to January 1.

It’s never so easy.

Yet, Christian faith (deep trust in Christ) asserts that indeed a time is coming when all things will be made new.

New is one of our great and most assured words! We have already been made new as individuals, and put on the new self (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:24) when we said “Yes” to Jesus and His Way. He makes us a new creation (Galatians 6:15). He can have “a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20), even as we anticipate a new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1) that will one day supersede the decay and the brokenness that surround us every day.

Last year was fraught not only with international conflict but many of us experienced that at a personal level, I’m sure. Our marriages suffered, our children wandered, our churches fractured, and our workplaces restructured. Yet, for all of the heartache and heartbreak, we hold onto one of the most distinctively Christian words in the New Testament — new.

New times await. New opportunities lie just around the bend as we place our confidence in the One whose “mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23) and who declares in the great final vision, “Behold, I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).

So, we embrace the new year, as we embrace the conviction that faith in Christ makes new things possible, every day. Indeed, the more we lean into Him, the more the old things pass away. Behold new things come.

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Christmas: Then & Now

It’s obvious that Christmas today resembles nothing like the first Christmas.

Plenty of people contrast the original simplicity with our current excess. The reality of a pregnant woman with no sanitary place to give birth has been usurped by fir trees, light displays, pageants, and online purchases.

human-natureBut the two Christmases also have much in common. Human history has changed dramatically; human nature has not. The age of technology and materialism has not corrected human cynicism, competition, or selfishness.

In Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ (Matthew 2) we’re introduced to a villain, an anti-Christ by the name of Herod, and “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (v.4). Herod, the regional ruler, gets wind of the birth of a potential political foe (Jesus) and wants to kill Him. He calls the religious scholars and leaders together and asks them where the Messiah (the new King) would be born. Interestingly, these Jewish leaders provide Herod with the precise prophecy (Micah 5:2) but apparently make no effort to go and check out the rumors themselves.

Just not interested.

Biblical stories, like all good stories, draw us in. But the Gospel writers do not intend to merely fascinate us. They want to challenge and confront us. They tell their stories so that we can understand both human nature (ourselves) and Divine grace more deeply.

Matthew makes Herod the chief figure in his version of the birth story. Why?

It is human nature to respond with hostility (Herod) or apathy (the religious elite) to anything or anyone who might change our status quo. And Jesus certainly does that, still. As others have said so often, “He comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

It’s appropriate that Christmas should be followed so quickly on our calendar by the New Year. If we welcome Christ unreservedly, then “old things pass away; behold, new things come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

This Christmas, will we thoroughly and recklessly embrace the babe of Bethlehem who threatens to turn everything about us and within us upside-down? Or will we walk in the steps of Herod and the religious elite of that day? Hostility and apathy remain two of the most common responses to the coming of Christ.

Seems like Christmas hasn’t changed that much at all.

I’d like to take this moment to thank each of you who has graciously received “Because of Grace” throughout 2016. It has been a joy to share the Journey this year with you. May this Christmas and New Year season be filled with faith, hope, and love for each of you. Blessings. — David Timms

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Here To Be Seen

Cultures develop their own unique greetings. In American culture, we shake hands or hug. In Italian or Arabic culture, they kiss. Asians prefer to bow. Maoris touch noses.

High-fives, fist-bumps, and dance-moves all have their place, too.

I See YouIf we met each other in Zulu culture, you would likely say sawubona: “I see you.”

It declares, “I’m focused. I’m listening. I’m fully attentive to you.” The word has power. It transcends a simple hello. It says more than howdy or gidday. It speaks to presence. Sawubona: “I see you.”

But here’s the twist.

Before you could, would, or should say sawubona, I ought to say sikhona: “I am here to be seen.” These three short syllables express my vulnerability. “I bring myself fully into this moment. I am what you see. I present myself to you without secrecy or duplicity or hypocrisy. I am here to be seen.”

First sikhona. “I am here to be seen.” Then sawubona. “I see you.” It’s rich. It invites relationship, in a way that “hi” does not.

The story of Scripture declares that God first walked in the Garden of Eden, then later walked in the Garden of Gethsemane. He became flesh and dwelt among us, that we might see Him. On one occasion, Jesus told His disciples, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). The Father whispered, through the Son, sikhona. “I am here to be seen.”

God has not hidden Himself from us. He reveals Himself through creation, and most fully through Christ. Even the Revelation affirms that in the end “the dwelling place of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them” (Revelation 21:3). Indeed, the glorious name of the eternal city will be YHWH-shammah: “The Lord is there.” Sikhona. “I am here to be seen.”

The only part of the biblical-human story that remains uncertain is whether or not we shall reply with a strong sawubona. “I see you.”

The work of Satan continues to blind the eyes of those in darkness. Veils continue to shroud the minds and hearts of the wicked and the complacent. Ignorance and denial continue to flow from the mouths of those who don’t see. Suffering sometimes shuts our eyes.

The coming of Christ (Christmas) provided the ultimate divine greeting. Sikhona. “I am here to be seen.”

What do you see or not see in this moment? Pause for a moment right now. Open your heart. Be truly Present. Perhaps today we can respond to Him: Sawubona. “I see you!”

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Urgency not Anger

Curt Harlow tells a powerful story.

Years ago, he made a quick stop at Walmart to buy some cat food for the feline at home. He had his eight-year-old (Jesse) and three-year-old (Maddy) in toe, and sent them up the cat food aisle while he made a brief detour to another aisle for something else he needed.

Front view of a Walmart supercentre store exterior sign logo Ontario Canada KATHY DEWITT. Image shot 05/2012. Exact date unknown.When Curt came around the corner there was Jesse holding the cat food (per the instructions), but no sign of Maddy. Every parent can imagine the heart-skip that happens. Where’s the three-year-old? Trying to maintain his composure Curt called out (loudly): “Maddy Harlow! Maddy Harlow!”

She was gone.

Fifteen minutes passed! With each passing minute, Curt had grown increasingly frantic. Store personnel were looking everywhere for Maddy. Finally, a store employee came walking towards Curt, holding the little girl’s hand. He had found her hiding behind ride-on mowers in the garden section.

Immediately, her brother Jesse ran to her and hugged her. Then Curt whisked her up and held her tightly.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“I was hiding,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t go down the cat food aisle. I went to look at Barbie dolls and then I knew that you’d be angry. And I could hear your voice, but I was afraid!”

As Curt relayed the story to us, he concluded: “It’s easy to mistake urgency for anger!”

Perhaps that’s what happened in the Garden of Eden, as the Lord called out “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and Adam and Eve hid themselves. Perhaps that’s what continues to happen all too often in our own lives.

Advent (this Christmas season) declares that Christ has come to us, seeking us. Sometimes we are plain lost. Other times we may be hiding, ashamed and afraid of the voice. But He comes to us with urgency, not anger. We may have strayed down the wrong aisle, and then felt we needed to hide behind the ride-ons, but the desire of the Father is simply to hold us and never lose us.

Historically, these early weeks of Advent (literally “the coming”) focus on the darkness of the world and our desperate need for a Savior. The dark places where we have fallen or hidden are never the places of freedom. If you feel gripped by guilt, shame, or fear, the message of Christmas is one of grace … and God’s relentless search for you.

Perhaps it’s time to step out from the garden section and back into the arms of the Father.

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Recognition-Conviction-Activism

To impact the world for the cause of Christ is to recognize the problem of brokenness, to develop deep theological convictions which become our moorings, and then to live a life of gracious activism by restoring broken walls and raising up age-old foundations. (Dr. Barry Corey in Christian Leadership Essentials: 262)

I read this recently, and it quickly settled like a burr under my saddle.

christian-leadership-essentialsOver-simplification usually hurts more than it helps, but I have seen the paralyzing and stultifying fruit of over-complication. On the one hand, some say that the Christian life is just a simple matter of following Jesus (as if there’s anything simple about it). On the other hand, others keep adding layer after weighty layer until the burden of faith stifles us.

Barry Corey, it seems to me, strikes a powerful path down the middle. He provides a profound approach to authentic discipleship. In three simple statements, he aligns us with the work, ministry, and heart of Christ in the world. Here’s his simple proposal:

First, recognition. Recognize the multiple ways in which people experience brokenness in the world. Until we open our eyes to see the depth of woundedness, pain, and suffering around us, we’ll see little need for Christ, grace, or Gospel.

Second, conviction. This conviction reflects more than a strong feeling that flows from a personal sense of justice or fairness. It wells up from the deep theological convictions (firmly grounded in Scripture) which moor our souls. It reflects an intimacy with the heart of God and the Word of God.

Third, activism. This involves the gracious (and oftentimes hazardous) work of rebuilding broken walls and raising up ancient foundations. It demands that we participate, not merely spectate. It calls us to engagement and drives us to redemptive and sacrificial service.

This model of Christian faith compels me. And all three elements must combine. If we embrace just one or two but not all three, we will surely undermine our impact for Christ. Consider this:

Recognition and conviction, without activism, leads to heartless passivity.

Conviction and activism, without recognition, leads to legalism.

Recognition and activism, without conviction, launches us into self-reliance and destructive subjectivism.

Dr. Corey’s quote might deserve a place on the cork-board or refrigerator. It certainly deserves our reflection and response.

Would friends or family use these three terms to describe our Christ-following lives?

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