Stuck in my Heart

Sometimes getting a lyric stuck in my head is annoying. An “ear worm,” we sometimes call it.

But today I got a lyric stuck in my heart, and it turned out to be a good thing.

It’s a line from “Jesus Paid It All,” and probably not the one you would expect.

“Sin had left a crimson stain….”

Instead of all those lines about Jesus, grace, and forgiveness, it was this line about sin that got stuck.

And, for me, on this day, it was a good thing. Because after taking some time to consider and remember the toll sin has taken on my life, I can better appreciate Jesus, grace, and forgiveness.

An Atmosphere of Grace

“No one is comfortable. You have to prove your worth every day.” That is how one NFL player described his team. I don’t know if that is good strategy or not. I’ll leave it to the coach to decide how to run his team. But I do know this for sure, this should not be the climate in our homes or in our church. Let’s build an atmosphere of love and grace that eliminates fear and competition.

“It gots to be….”

For years Mary had abused drugs. It began with alcohol. Then she began smoking marijuana. In no time she was smoking crack cocaine. But her drug of choice was heroin. After being scared of the needle that first time, she lived for it.  Eventually, she would die for it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Mary and I sat in my office talking about life. I shared some of my struggles. She shared hers.  As we sat and talked about life, she eventually opened up about what was really on her mind. She recounted the years of shooting heroin. She recounted weeks living in a “shooting gallery” where addicts gathered to satisfy their cravings. She told details about her first time to sell her body for a fix, and mentioned the hundreds of times that followed.

Mary wiped tears from her eyes as she told me she had HIV/AIDS. Since she was dying, she needed to talk to someone about her soul. She needed someone to listen. So she sat in my office and she talked.

She talked, and I listened, trying to be fully present in the moment. She talked some more, and I listened, trying to care about her as a person rather than be entertained by the lurid details of her story.

She talked and I listened. But I confess, at some point I was ready for her to finish dumping her feelings so I could tell her of God’s love. I had good news for her. Good news of God’s grace.

And that’s when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

Mary surprised me by telling me of her desire to repent. Unfortunately, her idea of repentance–of coming back to God–seemed warped.  She did not talk of God’s love. She never mentioned God’s grace. She didn’t say a word about God’s desire to forgive.

“It gots to be the Church of Christ!” Mary said with conviction.

“It gots to be!” she repeated twice for emphasis.

Sadness filled my heart as I processed her words. Here was a woman who desperately needed God’s grace, but instead trusted in her membership in the right church. In that conversation and dozens that followed, I tried to tell her of God’s grace. She always responded, “It gots to be!”

I would love to tell you how she finally came to the end of herself and reached out to God, trusting in God’s grace. But, honestly,  that’s not how the story ends.

Mary’s “repentance” consisted of renewed acknowledgement of her identity in “the one true church,” as she said. She never stopped shooting heroin. I frequently saw fresh needle tracks on her arms. I always suspected the prostitution continued, though she never did admit it. Her repentance was never expressed in a broken heart or behavior change.

Her idea of  “repentance” was simply to say, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!”

Mary died a very proud member of the Church of Christ.

Mary was not the first person to ever have this misunderstanding of repentance. She won’t be the last. But I still think of her every time I read John the Baptist’s call to repentance in Luke 3:7-14.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Have you ever confused repentance with being “children of Abraham?”  Have you ever cried out, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!” like Mary? Perhaps we need to ponder the words of John. If God can raise children of Abraham out of stones, I think God can raise “the Church of Christ” out of stones, too.

“The sacrifices of God are  a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.”
Psalm 51:17

To Live By Grace

It happens all the time to people who talk in front of people.

You mess up. Your tongue gets twisted or tangled. You get a word or two confused. You say the wrong word at the wrong time.

It happens.

And one day it happened to a dear friend of mine. He was leading the church in a time of prayer and he just messed up a couple of words.

No big deal –at least to me and the rest of the church.

But it was a big deal to my friend who walked stright up to me after the assembly. “Take my name off the list of those willing to say prayers. I messed up, I am not going to do that again.”

And he didn’t do that again. Ever.

I have not forgotten my friend and his decision. This whole event has haunted me for years. It haunts me not because we didn’t have plenty of people to step up and replace this brother on “the list.” But because of what I think this whole thing revealed about my friend’s faith and view of God.

He was a very progressive thinker who was in his 60’s. He understood it was impossible to earn your salvation. He understood salvation was by grace. In fact, he would have been offended if anyone suggested he was not “grace-oriented.” And rightly so, because he was all about grace.

What troubles me is that by his “giving up” my brother revealed that he had no place for grace and forgiveness in his life. He was still demanding perfection from himself. He may have understood he was saved by grace, but I am not sure he grasped living by grace.

I am not sure I do.

Do you?

I wonder how many times we fail to take risks or make a bold or courageous moves because we fear failure. And I wonder if that fear of failure might reveal that we are operating under a need for perfection.

Gracious God,
Thank you for saving us by Your grace.
Help us to live by Your grace.
Every hour.
Every day.
In Jesus’ name,
AMEN.

Grace Before Time

“For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:9 NLT).

Before there was sin, there was grace.

Before there was time, there was grace.

Grace before time.

For years I have pondered God’s relationship with time. I have wrestled with the idea that God, as an eternal being, exists outside the realm of time. The result of trying to get my mind around God and time has been praise. As God is revealed, I am moved to praise God for what I can know and understand.

But on the outer edges of revelation — some smooth edges and some rough edges — there are hints of a God beyond our capacity to fully comprehend. As we understand the revelation of God I am moved to praise. But as I consider what is out there beyond those edges of revelation, I stand in awe of God’s mystery before falling on my knees in adoration. Paul’s description of grace before time both reveals God and hints at more than we are able to fully comprehend.

So why does Paul tell us there was grace before time? Because grace is in the nature of God. Grace is in the character of God. Grace is at the center of God’s heart. So gracious is God that before time began, God planned to show grace through Jesus.

I want to know the grace of God. I don’t mean know that I am saved by grace or that I live by grace — I have come to understand that intellectually and emotionally. But I want to know the grace of God in the sense that I want my nature to be grace. I want my character to be grace. I want my very heart to be grace. And I want to show that grace to people no matter how they behave themselves or how they treat me.

Often that is not the case.

When I am relating to others and thinking about what they might do or say I often plan my response in advance. “If she says this, here’s what I will do. If he does that, this is how I will respond.” My relationship strategy often flows from my fleshly nature rather than from grace. I automatically respond with indignation, self-righteousness, criticism, even judgment. I want my heart to be filled with godly grace rather than harsh judgment. I want my automatic response, no matter what she says or he does, to flow from a heart of grace.

I want to be like God — a God of grace before time.

Gracious Father God,

As Your nature is revealed, I respond with praise.
As I encounter the outer edges of revelation, I respond with praise.
For what I know about You makes me adore You.
And what I don’t know brings me to my knees in worship.

You are a gracious God.
You are a God of grace.
Grace before sin.
Grace before time.
And I want to be like You, gracious Father.

Fill my heart with grace.
Take away the judgmental spirit.
Reform my critical nature.
Ease my desire for revenge.
Relieve any anger or bitterness in my heart.

Pour out Your grace.
Until my heart is full.
Then keep pouring out Your grace.
Until my heart is overflowing.
And I am gracious, like You.

In Jesus’ name,
AMEN.

Opening The Heart

“It takes compassion to own a part of yourself that you previously disowned, ignored, hated, denied, or judged in others. It takes compassion to accept being human, and having every aspect of humanity within you, good and bad. Ultimately when you open your heart to yourself, you will find you have compassion for everything and everybody.”
–Debbie Ford in The Dark Side of the Light Chasers