Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A lesson from the Links

Reading the blogs from our team in South Africa has brought back a flood of memories. The adage we heard over and over again was that "once Africa gets into you, it will never leave" is true. My heart and mind are continually drifting back to the people and places we have experienced in Zambia and South Africa. Bustling cities with people walking, biking, crowding on small buses; wide open vistas dotted with small villages; beautiful smiling children reaching out for a handshake or a hug; warm friendly men and women opening their hearts and their homes to us; semi-arid bush country to tropical jungle; exotic foods (read caterpillars, crocodile, pasty corn meal and antelope; wooden doors with skeleton keys; the Apartheid museum; gated upper-middle class estates next to sprawling settlements and townships; wild animals.... it all is part of my life that I can never forget or put aside.

I am so happy that 18 people from Calvary - some of them for the first time - get to experience the primal, beautiful, rich place that is Africa. Part of me is jealous because I am not with them. Part of me is counting the days (and money) before I can return. Part of me is living their experience with them. But here I am blogging when I should be writing a sermon. At least I have my afternoon pick-me-up of an Iced Americano at my side.

I guess I can't complain. Tuesday I got away from a little bit to play golf with some church guys. Beautiful blue sky! lush green grass. All varieties of birds. gently blowing breezes! The sounds of golf balls clunking off trees. Teasing comments from friends like "Nice putt Alice!" Traipsing through dense woods and slashing through reeds at the edge of ponds looking for a little white orb.... All part of the experience of golf - especially when one hasn't played in over a year.

Had I been by myself, I might not have counted every stroke or I might have been prone to use my "toe mashie" to kick the ball further ahead. Since I was with impressionable church members, I needed to play by the rules. So my score was less than stellar to say the least. Or to put it another way, my score was much more than I wished it had been.

Playing by the rules, keeping score, taking your proper turn, making sure you follow golf etiquette - it's all part of the game. For those who really take it seriously, any violation of the rules can have serious consequences. For the pros it could mean the difference of several thousands of dollars in prize money.

There are a certain set of mechanics of a golf swing that need to be religiously observed as well. Keep your knees bent. Head down. Right elbow in tight. Take the club back slowly. Follow through to the target...on and on it goes.

Playing as seldom as I do, obeying all these rules and remembering all those steps for a good swing remind me that I need lessons and practice. I am painfully reminded that there are others much better than me. I will probably never excel at the game, especially if I can't just relax and play for fun.

I need something more. That is, in a slight comparison, the dilemma facing the Galatian Christians. There were those who were insisting that, as new Christians, these believers should keep the Old Testament Laws. Along came Paul who preached a gospel of grace through simple faith in Christ. That left a big question: What was the purpose of the law then?

The purpose of the law served (still serves today)as a reminder - a teacher if you will - of a greater need. It leads the believer to a place of readiness to meet Christ. Since no one could ever really keep the law, God put in charge of us to bring us to grace.

This week, I am preaching from Chapter 3 of Galatians. It is all about Grace through faith in Christ. And it is a reminder to me, that all my attempts to live by a legalistic set of rules in life only reminds me that I am - to use St. Paul's words - the "chief sinner." I sometimes feel I am about as good at living the Christian life as I am at swinging a golf club. I need help. I need Jesus. I need grace.

A friend of mine just posted a quote on her website from Ann LaMott's book "GRACE (Eventually):Thoughts on Faith. I like it because it speaks to me about this amazing thing called grace and my utter need:
“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Ann LaMott knows what she is talking about. Her life's experience has not been the sheltered, rosy, prosperous, smooth-sailing life we sometimes associate with Christianity and with Grace. It has been messy, difficult, and rocky at times. When she met Christ, she was at the low part of her life and she wandered into the back of a church, curious and seeking anonymity and what she found was redemption. In her book "TRAVELING MERCIES" she recounts that her view of religion; of Christianity; had been one of negativity and legalism. Yet Jesus met her where she was at and didn't leave her where he found her.

Law only takes us so far. Yet it has a purpose. It leads us to the place where Christ meets us with this mysterious thing called grace and there, he begins to transform us.

So whether you are in Africa, on a golf course, stuck in a drab office, sitting anxiously at the bed of a loved one in the hospital, reeling from economic strain or broken relationship, "grace will meet you where you are at and won't leave you where it found you." Hard times, legalism, rules, life - they are all ways God uses to lead us to his grace.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Tis Grace Hath Brought Me Safe Thus Far"

John Newton lived an amazing life. Born in 1725 as the son of a Merchant Ship Commander his life was spent at sea from the time he was a mere eleven years old. When he was 19, he was pressed into her majesty's service aboard the HMS Harwich - a British Man-of-War. Finding conditions of military service harsh, he deserted and was soon recaptured. As punishment, he was assigned aboard a slave ship where a friend of his father's found him and asked him to serve on his ship - a slave trader. Soon he captained his own ship and began transporting slaves from Sierra Leone to Great Britain.

One dark night, during a particularly violent storm, he was convinced that the ship would be sunk. Though he had been trained as a child in religion, life had long since convinced him that he had no room in his life for God. But this night, he cried out to the Lord for mercy and later, as he reflected on his prayer and the ship's deliverance, he admitted that this had been "his great deliverance." That day was May 10, 1747, a date he remembered each year as the "day of his humiliation when he submitted his will to that of a higher power."

Though he continued in the slave trade for several more years, he was known to have been kind to and treated the slaves on his ship with more dignity. It wasn't until sometime later, after he had become a minister of the Gospel that he repudiated slavery all together.

When Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, he chided them that even though they had experienced grace in their salvation, they had fallen back into a way of life and practice that was law-based, not grace-based. "After beginning with the Spirit are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law or because you believe what you heard?" (Galatians 3:3,5)

It is when we are in the storms of life that we realize our helplessness and we cry out to God for mercy. And God in faithful, abiding love hears and answers our prayers. God gives us grace so that we can say with John Newton "tis grace hath brought me safe thus far." However, once the storm is passed, that is when we - or at least I - tend to think that God's grace is no longer needed and that we can safely navigate through life on our own "compass and wind."

A new friend of mine was recently injured in a motorcycle accident. In that accident, he suffered a broken neck and spinal cord damage in roughly the same level that I experienced 13 plus years ago. Living through this trial with him, I have reflected a lot recently on the mystery of "why and how" God's sovereign grace restored and healed me to the extent he did. I don't have an answer to that question and it haunts me. Yet I believe somehow, God's grace not only saw me through that time in my life, it calls to me yet today, reminding me that my life belongs not to me but to the Lord. "Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far."

It's also grace that will lead us safely home. God's grace is not like a chicken pox vaccine or a tetanus shot; kind of a one time cures all salve. Yes, Christ Jesus' work on the cross was a once for all sacrifice through which we have life with God. But that grace needs to be applied daily. We live in grace. Paul reminds us that "the righteous will live by faith: faith in Christ, and by the faithfulness of Christ. It is our daily bread. It is the air we breathe. It is the substance, hope and gift that energizes and equips us to live lives that make a difference in the world.

Think of your own life of faith as we continue our journey through Galatians. What is the balance of power in your priorities and life-choices between grace and law or works. Are you motivated, like the Galatians had been seduced into believing, that the Christian life is defined by the things we do make ourselves look religious or make us feel better about ourselves.

The Gospel is all about the grace of God and what Jesus has done for us. In gratitude then - not in an effort to win brownie points or rack up "spiritual frequent flyer miles" - we seek to live lives that reflect God's grace in the world to others.

If we live under law, the reflection others see is of joyless obedience. If we live under grace the reflection of Jesus people see is that of God's love for the world and of joyful gratitude.

John Newton, during the later years of his life, served as rector first for the church at Olney in Buckinghamshire. In 1780 he became rector of St Mary Woolchurch in London. His preaching was powerful and the church became so crowded that people often couldn't find a seat. It was there, under the preaching of grace by Newton, that William Wilberforce was touched and became a leader in the movement to abolish slavery.

Grace truly had brought Newton safe through that May 10 storm at sea and through to the end of his life. And it was his confidence, that in spite of being blind and in old age, grace would lead him safely home.

Having begun by grace, am I one who reverts back to law and works as if to somehow earn God's favor? I pray not. I pray that somehow I would live by faith in every circumstance and that my life would reflect, not my effort but the marvelous grace of God through the finished work of Christ.