The coming of the Promise. Fulfillment of prophecy in a mystery of yes and not yet. A baby born of a virgin on a not-so-silent night who grew up and changed the world, even to the marking of the calendar days. BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini) divide human history, even though the terminology has change with the secularization of the West. The “common era” of CE still begins with the events of this liturgical season.
As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the Incarnation of God in human flesh, we take time to consider the magnitude of God’s greatest grace toward humanity: the virgin conceived (Isaiah 7:14), a child was born (Isaiah 9:6), and hope entered the world (John 3:16).
“We are rescued by grace poured out” (Jason Cook, 11/07/2021).
The text for the sermon was Ephesians chapter 2, and theme was “one new man.” Pastor Cook, with his usual wit and eloquence, compared the Church to a magnificent mosaic, made up of individual tiles. Alone, each tile may be beautiful or plain, but carefully combined by a master artist, the collection of tiles makes up a masterpiece. He proclaimed, “Salvation is possible by works—just not yours.” Only God’s grace with His mercy and love can redeem us to the Body of believers, a collection of mosaic tiles brought together to be a picture of Jesus to the world.
As followers of Jesus, we know intellectually that we cannot begin to approach the holiness of the Creator. Our egos, however, often forget. We begin to think about our legacy, our influence, and even our popularity as essential elements of how we live out our faith. Advent is an opportunity to consider with great awe and wonder the mystery of grace poured out. The Creator joined the creation through the very human process of birth. He who spoke the universes into being with a word subjected Himself to a physical (and messy) delivery of a squalling baby, born to a young, unmarried woman and her faithful betrothed without the benefits wealth might procure. From the great throne of the King of kings, He humbled Himself to the lowest and weakest of all humanity.
Love. Mercy. Grace.
Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to His mercy through grace He saves us (Titus 3:5-7).
The grace revealed to us came in the form of an infant, physically born. Fully human, yet still fully God, Jesus offers a grace we can never fully understand, but one in which we can rest, secure in knowing that God’s grace is perfect.
Real talk here. Total transparency. I am writing about the need for grace, but I’m not always good about extending it.
When I’m not writing I work at a fast food restaurant. It’s a perfect side gig: I love my teammates, the managers are fantastic (and patient), the hours are flexible, and when I clock out, my time is my own. I even enjoy most of the customers, especially when I’m working the drive through line. A couple of well spoken lines, jokes that I can repeat multiple times, and often a laugh. The hours go by quickly.
On the down side, I am by nature an introvert, so by the end of a shift, I am utterly spent, which means I’m still trying to keep this job in balance with my real work (writing) and all the other things that make up a life. It’s when I am at the end of my “people-ing” that grace slips away.
For the most part, customers are soothed by being heard and by making their experience as pleasant as possible, no matter how chaotic the day becomes. Sometimes a smile is sufficient. Other times there is just no satisfying the customer: the line is too long, the drive-through is too busy (although, with an average wait time of under four minutes, it does move along), the drinks aren’t mixed correctly, the order is wrong (a fair criticism), and on it goes.
I had one of the never-satisfied the other day. I had just cleaned the empty dining tables, taken out the trash, and swept. I was washing my hands when a manager asked me to check the dining room because a customer complained there was “no where to sit.” I looked around; there was ample open seating. As it turned out, the customer wanted to sit at a table that had been vacated while I was sweeping. No problem. I pulled out the sanitizing wipes and made my way over. The I recognized the customer as a member of a church I used to attend. She evidently did not recognize me as she scolded the staff for not having enough clean table. I pointed out the half dozen clean and empty places as I began to wiped down the booth she wanted. She said, “I may change my mind when everyone gets here, but this is where I want to sit.” She didn’t move as I began to wipe down the table, which meant I could not reach to the far side. It would have to do; the line was long, customers were waiting for pick up orders, and every team member was running just to keep up. A moment after I cleaned the table she went to the register and asked for table coverings. She did not attempt to hide her displeasure when the team member informed her that this restaurant doesn’t have them. Moments later her family came in. Nothing was good enough. They wanted more napkins, more sauce, more salt, all of which was supplied by a series of employees. All I could think was that I knew this person claimed to be a Christian, was recognizable as a church member, yet treated employees with contempt and distain for not anticipating her expectations on a very busy day. When the family left, they left sauces and napkins untouched on the table. I admit, that last bit annoyed me.
Where was the grace? We were obviously working to make the dining experience pleasant for everyone who came in. Not a single employee was still; everyone was at full speed. Food was flying from the kitchen. The drive through cars sailed through. Most customers were cheerful and understanding of the inevitable order errors. Not this one lady that I recognized from church. Not an iota of grace.
And then I stopped short. Where was MY grace extended toward HER? I couldn’t know her circumstances. Even though she appeared to be a grandmother having lunch with her family, maybe there was something else going on. I don’t know–and frankly, it shouldn’t matter. As a Jesus follower, I need to show grace to others the same way the Father demonstrated grace to me, in spite of my failures and flaws.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
I read this tweet the other day and it made me reflect on the grace we as congregants need to show our church leaders. Exhausted and hurt are not part of the description of pastoral work, but based on the comments in the thread that followed the tweet, it seems to be a common sentiment. Part of the reason may be self-imposed “bad boundaries,” as this post notes, but it is my observation that we generally don’t treat our pastors very well. We expect them to be on call, to do the work of the church, to teach, to counsel, to evangelize, and to deliver a dynamic and entertaining sermon every week. We often complain when other teachers in the church take the pulpit. We skip church when the senior pastor goes on vacation. We resent the sabbatical.
Of course, I am painting with a very broad brush, but I don’t think I am too far from the experiences of many senior pastors. Many pastors leave the ministry within a few short years of their callings, with 1,500 clergy leaving pastoral ministry every month (Barna Research Group). In fact, most clergy (up to 90%) across all denominations will not stay in ministry to retirement age. So, the question is, how can we, the lay congregation, show grace to our leaders, especially our senior pastors? How can we help them know they are appreciated, prayed for, and supported?
I think the first thing we as congregations can do is stop putting our senior pastors on pedestals and expecting them to be all things to all people.
The character of a pastor-shepherd must be beyond rebuke, to be sure, but scripture never places the entirety of church ministry on the shoulders of one man. In fact, the principle role of a senior pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). The work is supposed to be carried out by the congregation, not the pastor.
Elders share the teaching and leading responsibilities of the congregation. They are godly stewards who give instruction and have authority within the local body to ensure that the responsibility of managing church policy, ordaining teachers, and being role models to the congregation. Deacons also share in the responsibility for the maintenance of the church and ensuring it runs smoothly. Dividing the load allows the senior pastor to focus on teaching the congregation so that they are able and confident to do the work of evangelism and discipleship.
What might that look like? Pastors should be free to allow elders to visit the sick, preside over weddings and funerals, care for the shut-ins, and meet the physical needs of congregants. We, as laity, should not expect our pastors to accept every invitation we offer, nor should we grumble when we are shepherded by our godly elders (Acts 11, 14; 1 Timothy; 1 Thessalonians 5; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5). We should rejoice when elders step in to teach from the pulpit; we gain from their knowledge of the word. Our senior pastors are called to equip us, not to serve us. At the same time, they are not Jesus; they are broken human beings just like us.
Secondarily, we must cooperate and submit to their leadership, being appreciative of the work they are called to do.
Yes, I used the word. Submit. But we are called by God to submit.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Hebrews 13:17 ESV
Included in the idea of submission is to esteem and appreciate the work our pastors do (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). We support them in our giving, paying them a fair salary so they are free to do the work. We seek to understand their vision for the church so that we are able to cooperate.
We can show appreciation through attention during teaching times, asking questions, sending notes of affirmation, and taking concerns to him directly. We demonstrate support by imitating his leadership and remembering his teachings.
The most important thing: Pray
Church leaders take on a greater share of spiritual attack than most of us because they are equipping us to do the work of the kingdom. We must be on our knees for our pastors, praying for courage, wisdom, faithfulness, and joy.
“Pray for your pastor. Pray for his body, that he may be kept strong and spared
many years. Pray for his soul, that he may be kept humble and holy, a burning
and shining light. Pray for his ministry, that it may be abundantly blessed, that
he may be anointed to preach good tidings. Let there be no secret prayer
without naming him before your God, no family prayer with carrying your
pastor in your hearts to God.”
If we as congregations begin to treat our pastors as shepherds instead of servants, perhaps we will see a resurgence in long-term relationships between leaders and churches. It may mean a loss to UPS, but what a tremendous gain for the eternal kingdom.
Resting is hard for many of us, especially those of us who grew up in a community where work was prized above almost anything else. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise…” Productivity, even in ministry, becomes an idol, but it is an acceptable one. We take pride in how much we accomplish and we hold up our calendars as trophies of superiority.
The pandemic that rocked 2020 should have been a reset of rest and work in balance, and for many people the reset was real. For others of us, however, resting led to guilt over falling behind on plans and goals and work, so when restrictions were lifted, we jumped in doing double time to compensate for the jigsaw puzzles, movies, and books that kept us entertained for a year.
I know the feeling because that’s what I’ve done for the last few months.
When “wait” became my word for 2021, I should have know this season would be one of forced rest. God know that my temperament is one that seeks after accomplishment, so He ensured that this year, I would not be able to show a list of doing. Instead, He gave me opportunities to practice being. I haven’t been entirely cooperative, if I am perfectly honest. I looked for jobs in my field for months. When none materialized, I started up several side projects and looked for part-time work somewhere doing anything. I found that my resume made me look overqualified for pretty much everything, so I didn’t get call backs for entry level jobs. When I finally settled down to examine why, it was like the Lord told me to wait–and write; He would provide.
I started this blog with the intention of writing a book about the need for grace in the church. I still believe I need to write that book. This season of waiting and being seems to be designed for following through. It is also a reminder that Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). God designed a day for resting and worshipping because we (I) need it.
So now, I enter that rest with a little trepidation, but certain that the Father will supply my needs. I will fill my mind with His word. I will learn and write about grace. I will keep my calendar flexible, knowing that God will put me where He wants me too be while keeping me free to do the work He has called me to do. In time, not all at once. Day by day, practicing the gift of rest.
For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works”…So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:1-11).
How to please the Lord 101: Love God, love people. There is nothing complicated about what God wants his children to do. He says it over and over in every book of the Bible. Jesus himself summed up the commandments in two sentences: Love the Lord your God will your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).
What does it look like to love the Lord with everything you have? It looks like loving others. It looks like true judgments, showing kindness, and offering mercy. Zechariah says it in chapter 7, verse 9. Micah says it in chapter 6 verse 8. Paul wrote in Romans 12 that believers should outdo one another in showing honor, and how else do we do that but by true judgement, kindness, and mercy?
The author of Hebrews and Peter and John all emphasized the importance of loving one another the same way that the Father loves us.
James wrote that faith without works is dead. It might be equally said that loving God without loving others is הֶבֶל (hebel), a vapor, nonsense, or foolishness, what King Solomon called “Vanity of vanities.” Love for God isn’t real unless it is demonstrated by loving one another through justice, kindness, mercy, and humility.
Love isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy, either. We are human. We have annoying habits. We have strongly held differences of opinion. We interpret Scripture differently. Our experiences vary, our cultures conflict, and our expectations of how things should be often sit in opposition. In the US, the differences between us have been amplified in 2020 and 2021 by a pandemic (and how people should respond to it), racial strife (and how government should mitigate it), and disasters, both nature and human-caused. Human nature lashes out and social media makes it convenient to insist on being right instead of being unified. We must carefully consider not only what we say, but how we say it. Love is quick to listen. Love pursues goodness and truth. Love judges the self truly so that each one might be humble. In humility we act out our love for God by showing kindness and mercy to our brothers and sisters, just as the Lord commanded.
If God demonstrated His love for us by sending His only Son to be the atoning sacrificefor our sins, how much more ought we demonstrate our love for God by loving one another in right judgements, showing mercy, and being kind?
It has been a rough few weeks. My father, who lived a multitude of lives in his 81 years, passed away on July 29. I took a last minute trip to my hometown earlier in the month when he was hospitalized and not expected to walk out of the facility. True to my dad’s stubborn nature, he did walk out, but only to travel to a place he loves where my step-brother had set up hospice. My dad said for years that he would never die in my hometown. He made that happen.
It’s a long and complicated story (aren’t most family stories complicated?), and I may tell the whole of it later. For now, it is enough to know that, as hard as it was to see my once proud father frail and weak, I am sure that his destination is a heavenly one.
It is confidence in God’s Word that gives me the ability to grieve without despair. My father was a flawed man. He had a tremendous heart and a temper to match. He was generous to a fault, but not wise with his finances, something that overburdened his children in the last decade of his life. He had an infectious laugh that lit up the bars where he spent too much time over his life. He, like all of us, was a product of a fallen world, doing the best he could with the resources he had.
But he had faith. He knew Jesus was his hope for eternity. In his last years he eschewed all reading material except the Bible. When he came to visit me in the fall of 2019, when I was teaching in Las Vegas, he had a small backpack that included a couple changes of clothes, toiletries, and his Bible. He liked reading the prophecies, from Isaiah to Revelation, and he would debate the meanings of the signs with anyone. At the same time, he trusted John’s affirmation that those who remain in the Son and in the Father would have eternal life (John 3:16; 1 John 1:24-27); there was no debating that. Remaining in Jesus means that, when this life is over, we will live with him.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that God’s grace extends to everyone who calls on His name for salvation. The sting of death is sin, but the victory over death is through Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). My dad, even as flawed as he was, inherited the imperishable on July 29 at 2:22 p.m. because God raised Jesus from the dead and released the gift of eternal life to anyone who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:19-26).
For this reason, death has no victory and I do not grieve without hope (1 Thessalonians 4). I will miss my dad, for sure. His gregarious spirit, his laugh, and our frequent conversations will be bittersweet in my memory: sweet because I got to enjoy him for all of my 56 years and bitter because there won’t be any new experiences with him. But because both he and I trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, I am confident that we will be with the Lord forever. And that is an encouraging thing.
Henry (Hank) Thomas Tuey. September 10, 1939- July 29, 2021
It was just after sunset. The sky was dusky, and the shadows in the alleys grew deeper. The Temple took on hues of pink and gold as the marble reflected the last rays of day, a glorious sight for those who had eyes to see. The women did not see the beauty; they were consumed with making the perfect meal, centered around lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. The tradition dated back centuries, to the time of the great exodus, and it was surrounded by specific rituals, prayers, and songs. Jerusalem was crowded as people from all over pilgrimaged to the holiest city they knew. Many of those pilgrims had surely been part of the great crowds that sang, “Hosanna” on the first day of the week. While the sacred meal was primarily for families, individuals could also gather as companies, temporary families united by being among the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
By this time, the noise of the crowds had diminished as the sacrifices were completed and the men returned to their homes to partake in the Passover meal. They led their children for a search of hidden leaven in the house. As guests arrived, servants would wash the dust from the travelers’ feet. Wine was served for both sacred and non-ritual consumption. Throughout the meal, family members would retell the exodus story as they recalled God’s miraculous freeing of the people of Israel from slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh.
This night, a group of men met in the upper room of a home they knew. There were thirteen in all, but when the meal was eaten, one left mysteriously, before the final cups of wine were blessed: “Blessed are you, o Lord our God, King of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine…[who said,] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements.”
By now, the men in the group were concerned. Why had one left their midst before the final prayer? Why did Judas not sing the words, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever?” And then the Master spoke to them, words of a new commandment to love even though some of them would shortly depart, even denying they knew Him. He told them He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He reminded the remaining eleven that, even when He left them, they would not be alone, but that He would send a Counselor, a Holy Spirit, to walk with them and through them as they kept His commands.
He spoke plainly to them, that the next moments and days would be the worst they could possibly imagine. And then Jesus spoke these words:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
As the group departed when the meal was complete, Jesus told them more about what was to come. He finished by warning them that they would indeed face tribulation, but they could endure because He conquered the world and the sin that inhabited it (John 16:33).
The world in which we live is indeed troubled. Culture is as evil as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it seems there is no redemption ahead. What was once thought to be evil is now celebrated as good, and what was once good is now portrayed as offensive to a progressive society. As Jesus followers, it might be easy to be discouraged by the daily manifestations of Satan’s rule in this world. We may fear the consequences of expressing our faith in the open. It’s true, our livelihoods may be threatened by our spoken convictions. We may lose credibility with our secular friends when we speak the truth, even when we say there IS Truth (not my truth or your truth, but REAL Truth). The disciples lost more than credibility; they all lost their lives in their proclamations of Jesus as Lord and Savior. For hundred of years, Jesus followers around the world have faced everything from ridicule to persecution to their very lives. Yet Christianity has endured.
Christianity has endured. Not because Christians are perfect. People have done horrific and vile things claiming the name of Jesus. The name “Christian” has been misused, misplaced, and maligned for so long that its very meaning has been altered in the eyes of a secular society. But being a Jesus follower is unchanged over the centuries. It is not an easy road to travel. It requires stamina, discipline, and trust in the One who gives us peace.
That Passover meal so long ago was the portal to a world where ordinary people did extraordinary things because Jesus. As complicated and complex and corrupt this world becomes, we can persevere. We can sing, “His love endures forever” no matter what we face. Jesus is our salvation. He is the Cornerstone of all Truth. He gives light in the darkness, hope in distress, and peace in all the trials we face.
A year ago the novel coronavirus was a story of interest, but not headline news in most of the world. It had been identified in China and had just been confirmed in the Mediterranean region (World Health Organization interactive timeline). Daily briefings from WHO didn’t begin until February 5 and it wasn’t until February 24 that WHO issued a warning about the potential for rapid spread.
The epicenter moved to Europe in early March, and interest in the US began to rise, but still, other news, mostly political, ruled the headlines. But by the middle of March, following the official declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, people in the US started paying attention. On March 11, the day WHO declared the virus as “the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus” (npr.org), it had spread to eight countries and killed 4,000 people.
As of this writing, COVID19 has taken 2.16 million lives across every continent on the planet. It’s far more devastating than anyone could have imagined a year ago.
Through this year of loss, God has not forgotten His children. We may feel like our prayers are unheard, but He hears. We may momentarily wonder where to find respite, but He is with us in the middle of our pain.
How long will this endure? There’s no telling. But God has not abandoned us. He is eternal and waiting for us to focus less on loss and to take refuge in His everlasting arms.
When this pandemic is over (and it will eventually end) we will look back and see how God revealed Himself in the middle. He will be glorified by the testimony we share because He brought us through it all. When we abide in Him, we are safe in His arms, no matter what happens in the chaos of the world around us.
There’s an old song that keeps playing in my head today. The words I recall are these:
This world is not my home; I'm just a-passin' through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
The events of the last several weeks that culminated in the events of January 6, 2021 just confirm to me that I don’t belong to this world. I knew there would be a time when many people calling themselves “Christians” would turn away from the gospel of Jesus and the love of God; evidently that time is now. I am horrified by the events at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Ironically, Wednesday was also Epiphany, a day set aside by liturgical traditions to remember the Magi and to ponder the baptism of Jesus by John. It was at the baptism that John introduced Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:19-34). Epiphany, a sudden illumination of something. Epiphany, the recognition of Jesus as fully God and fully man. The wonder of the Incarnation, now a man beginning his public ministry. How far the Church has fallen from the wonder of God’s mercy and grace for us. How devastating is that fall!
The Church in the US and much of the West is broken. It has been broken by teachers and pastors who sought recognition and fame. It has been broken by church attendees who stay for the music, but leave as soon as the teaching gets serious. Cultural Christianity (churchianity) focuses on blessings instead of trials and boasting instead of truth. The Church in the US, for the most part, has moved away from worshipping the righteous and holy God who created all things and holds all things together, replacing the Father with a national identity and the human leaders they elect.
Whether or not people believe that the 2016 or 2020 elections resulted in fraudulent officials is irrelevant. The kind of violence exhibited on January 6 was illegal, seditious, and wrong on every level. Those who hung up the name of Jesus in the process defiled his holy name. Amos wrote that God’s people must seek good, and not evil, especially when they live in a country that thrives on the titillation of wickedness. “Hate evil and love good,” he wrote. “Establish justice in the gate.” Amos goes on to describe how the Lord looks upon self-indulgent and proud people who claim they have “rights” because of their affiliation with God. The Lord abhors that pride. Amos spoke for the Lord saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen.” Displays of nationalism and religiosity do not honor the Lord. He is not the God of the United States of America. He is the Lord of ALL creation. To honor the Lord means His followers pursue justice rolling down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s righteousness, not self-righteousness. The actions of people on January 6 revealed the utter wickedness that dwells within all people. They pursued a path that would vindicate their self-righteousness and the false gospel of nationalism. They put a political figure in the place of the Lord.
Nations rise and nations fall. Institutions are built up and torn down. There will come a day when the US will fall, just as every empire has fallen. But the people of God are not to be part of that destruction. We are to seek peace. We are to pray for the welfare of where we live (Jeremiah 29:4-14), not listening to those who seek to deceive. God is abundantly clear about what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord. None of the humility, kindness, nor justice were on display by the people who called themselves Christians while they broke into the Capitol, wreaking havoc in their violence. Make no mistake, these people were not acting in the will of God and God was not glorified. In fact, Malachi wrote that people like those who use the name of Jesus and the idea of Christian the way they did on January 6 weary the Lord with their words. They say that doing evil is doing good and that God is too slow in enacting justice. These claims illustrate just how self-serving these people are. They worship a nation, a Constitution, and institution, not the Living Lord.
The Lord will refine His Church. The pandemic has revealed those who used church as a social gathering place by closing the physical doors. The ugliness of the campaigns of 2020 revealed just how deep the corruption of ethical behavior has become. The riots of summer 2020 demonstrated the inadequacy of church teaching, especially with the notion of the prosperity gospel or the social gospel that infiltrated many churches. The refining has begun. The heat has been turned up, and unless there is general repentance and lamentation of the Church’s failure to teach the Word to the people, things will continue to get more difficult. All the dross must be burned away in order for those of us who seek Jesus first to fully reflect Him in all that we do and say.
In the end, however, this world, this country, this national institution is just a place of passing as we journey to our eternal home. For those who fear the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing. We will look to the Lord, waiting for the God of our salvation. He hears us. He is our light. His love is steadfast.
And that song? It has an interesting story that I’ll share another day. For now, enjoy one of the first recordings of it by the composer, Jessie May Hill:
Philippians 3: 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.