Tag Archives: grace

Sola Gratia

It is a beautiful phrase, rolls over the tongue like a dessert at Macaroni Grill:  sola gratia.  By grace alone we are saved, undeserving sinners though we are.  By the kindness of God, by the compassion of Jesus.  Grace is our highest doctrine, our most precious inheritance.  For 500 years we have repeated, sola gratia.  And still, we stray.

It’s a very human problem to struggle with grace.  Consider Jesus’ favorite critics, the Pharisees.  More than any other group, those guys got an earful from Jesus.

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger,” Jesus lamented in Matthew 23.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”

“They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues.”

“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

camel-05The Pharisees’ main problem was a problem of grace — receiving it or extending it.  Surely by their diligent effort and hard work they had earned the glowing “well done!” of God, and as His representatives on earth, could advise, discipline, and judge others.  They were the doctrine police, and qualified for the job.  Down to the tiniest speck in someone’s eye they could sniff out sin — or, in Jesus’ case, well, they couldn’t call it sin, exactly.  Rule breaking?  Unorthodoxy?  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The evangelical landscape right now is brewing a perfect storm for Pharisees.  On one hand we have a collection of incredible minds, learned scholars, a resurgence in theological conviction even among lay people, and a beautiful commitment to our best roots — “sola gratia” among them.  On the other hand, our culture has all but abandoned truth, goodness, beauty, even decency.  We are nervous.  In the distance we see brooding clouds.  The waves rise higher; we are taking on water.  Batten down the hatches, folks, we are in for rough weather.

Conditions are perfect for us to turn on each other.  One of us defects to culture’s immoral whims?  We do not weep, we hiss.  There is a rampant tone of snarky haughtiness in the blogosphere.  Well, we think, don’t read the comments.  They aren’t representative of our spokespeople.  But aren’t they?  Where else have the commenters imbibed such un-grace?

Where are the weepers?

Tighter and tighter we draw the circle of who’s in — whose theology is tight enough?  Whose lifestyle is above reproach?  Who reads the right books and makes disparaging comments about the wrong ones?  images

Sola gratia is no dry theological exercise (is there any such thing?) We have not understood the gospel grace we’ve been given if we then deny it to others.  At bottom, grace is grace because I do not deserve it, have not earned it, could not merit it now that I’ve got it.  There is no room for smugness.

Jesus Himself modeled for us both lavish grace and impeccable truth.  He did not sacrifice one for the other, but upheld the unwavering, holy Word of God and spoke it boldly, with grace.  He didn’t gossip or mock or belittle people, even when they miserably failed or publicly mis-spoke.  He never gave up on Peter or the Sons of Thunder, even when He must have sighed.

Truth isn’t a stick to beat someone with.  Truth is a person who laid down His life for His ordinary, imperfect friends.

When our friends return from the latest “Christian movie” spouting questionable theology, it is possible to examine those ideas gently.  We can imitate the Bereans, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  (Acts 17:11)  When our neighbor enthusiastically endorses a gay evangelical blogger, we can speak the truth in love.  When we come across an article that makes us see red, we can close the laptop and pray instead of firing off an angry, graceless monologue.

We have been saved once and for all by grace alone.  What if we lived by grace alone every day?  It has happened before.  “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:46-47)

Mamas and Boys

Four mamas, nine boys between us.  The oldest is fifteen, the smallest fiercely five, and we’ve been through it.  From infertility to a whole lot of surprising fertility, from spectrums and conditions to hand-wringing and tears.  We’ve seen the inside of a lot of hospitals and churches and counselors’ offices and McDonalds, laughed and snorted and cried and blushed and spent a lot of time with the mouth hanging open and the did-you-really-just-do-that shrieking at a high pitch.

Being a mama of boys (or girls, for that matter, though our particular batch of girls is awfully well-mannered and easy…  Girls are not any more or less wonderful or necessarily simpler to raise, but this post is not about them.  That’ll keep for another day.)  But back to my point — being a mama of boys is not for the faint-hearted.  You realize after a while that these little creatures are making plans, and they are not your plans.  They are diving into danger with gusto and not much forethought, and pretty soon all the mamas are running full-tilt behind them, hollering out cautions and suggestions aplenty.  We are raising little men, and they are rocketing into the future faster than we can rein them in.

These are the men who will shape the world.

You realize when you’ve been around the ring a time or two that after a while the decisions to be made come down to your boy and God.You realize after a while that the decisions to be made come down to your boy and God..jpg  None of the steam you can produce from both ears, none of the dreams you’ve dreamed can alter the story written for him; your boy is on a journey you haven’t scripted, making choices you would undo and letting the chips fall.  Think of the long history of the world, the Jacobs and Esaus and Moseses, the Roosevelts and the Edisons and the MLKs.  Think of all the mamas, running behind, waving a handkerchief vainly to keep them from boarding that train.  Wouldn’t you have cleaned up their stories a bit?  Wouldn’t you have wiped away the ugly parts?  But then they’d never have become who they were, and our collective story wouldn’t be what it is.

If I were Mary, and I could somehow save my boy from his long, troubled road, I would, I would.  But the nail that sank into his story turned out to be the fulcrum that levered the whole broken world out of the mess we were in.  That ugly nail was grace.

So how do we pray these boys into men?  What do we do when they’re rushing headlong into disaster?

Well, I guess there are a lot of squawks that sneak out before we get the hand over the mouth, a lot of lurching stomachs when we peek through the fingers.  God give us the grace to hide our face in His shoulder and let Him do all the watching and worrying.

I find myself praying for grace a lot these days; praying for the grace to let go, the grace to be patient, the love to expect all things, believe all things, endure all things.  I pray for faith in the Author and His perfectly beautiful story, and I remember all of the great men who started life as impetuous, not-always-wise boys.  I pray for grace to put down what I’m doing and listen, really listen, whenever I can; for the first thing I say in the morning and the last thing I say at night to be sweet, and not overfull of finger-wagging.

I pray for my friends’ boys, the ones with impossible hurdles ahead, and I remember that with God all things are possible.

Four mamas, nine boys.  Boys who will break bones and forget homework and visit tattoo parlors and leap off of tall things, scale mountains, raft rivers, join rock bands, and kiss girls.  Nine men who will be overcomers—courageous, visionary, strong, kind, humble, and mostly?  Very, very loved.  Four women who will learn (sometimes the hard way) to trust in our good, good Father, and share His delight in the escapades of silly, impulsive, fearless, wise-cracking little boys.

The Sun Also Rises

It’s between the rock and the hard place.  Between the devil you know and the devil you don’t.  It’s at the crossroads of unanswered prayers and thwarted desires, deeply held but conflicting priorities, impending doom to the one side and catastrophes to the other.  It’s where ironies tumble one upon the next and paradox makes your head spin.  God is working the intersections.

Here where what you hoped for proves to be a nightmare, you might yet catch a glimpse of Him.  Or there, where the worst has happened and it seems to be strangely turning out for the best.

You’d think a benevolent God would show up with a third choice when you’re stuck between two equally abhorrent options.  So often He doesn’t.  Through the agonizing pros and cons, the Wise One teaches wisdom.  We learn to cry out for help when we stumble.  And the church always shines brightest, grows strongest, in the throes of persecution.

It shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, this is a God whose greatest moments seem to coincide with the ugliest history:  the drowning of an army, the murder of a king.  This is a God who gave us Job and Ecclesiastes, who doesn’t flinch at the hammer and anvil, but pounds out blessing with a weighty thump.

But this is also the God who, right from the beginning, spoke light into the darkness.  “And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.”  Dawn, as it’s been said, always gets the last word.

This is no distant, clean hands God, but a born-in-a-barn God, a get-down-in-the-muck God.  He doesn’t dole out suffering nonchalantly, He is a weeping God, a longing God, God of passion and compassion.  Whatever else we know, we know He is Love.

It doesn’t do us any good to downplay the obstacles, to trade in fortitude for fluff.  But it’s not any better to sink under calamity like a broken boat in a storm.  Listen, if the only thing you know for certain is that God is good, and God is in control, that’s enough.  Hope will be an anchor for your soul.

Should CNN batter our hearts with relentless bad news, we can hang on to that hope, grip the ropes, ride the waves.  Healing follows pain, beauty’s born in ashes, grace always bends to meet us in our brokenness.

Maybe this will be a year for beatitudes.  Listen to Jesus’ words from Matthew 5.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

The Fray found God at the corner of 1st and Amistad.  I say we can find Him between a rock and a hard place, under the mercy, in the mystery.  And hey — what’s that gleaming in the shadows?  I’ll be darned.  Hope leads straight on to joy.

We’re not home yet, not by a long shot.  But one day soon(ish), the sun will rise and just keep on rising.  (There is evening, and there is morning, the Last Day.)  image

Live free.

I am profoundly, deeply, absolutely and only human.  No surprise there, right?  But I think there are a lot of people who are confused on this point.  You see them all around — outraged, entitled, critical, and despondent.  People who expect other people to part around them like they’re Moses crossing the Red Sea.  (Although, truth be told, Moses was an incredibly humble guy, so maybe that’s not the best analogy.)  There are folks who feel inspired to crow about their triumphs and bullishly blast their opinions (thanks, Facebook.)  People who delight in grinding other people to dust under the spike of their ultra-high heel.  People… and here’s the sad part… who despair when they look in the mirror one day and realize they aren’t actually divine.antique-tiled-floor-mirror-o

But this old school Reformation doctrine is actually incredibly liberating:  I am totally depraved.  I’m a sinner, a screw-up, a miscreant, a nobody.  I can’t do anything to earn grace, nor un-earn it, neither (which I’m pretty sure sounds best in a purely redneck accent.)  In spite of my obvious, repeated, shameful failures, I am loved, celebrated, and empowered by the only one who’s Somebody.  Which is altogether great.

What baffles me is that there are a lot of other nobodies out there who gleefully understand this, who revel in this thing called grace, but still sorta think maybe they’re just a little more somebody than anybody else.  I mean, y’all, I do it, too — it’s kind of Total Depravity 101.  But it’s an ugly thing, a ruin-your-day stench that sits heavy over everything like a green fog.  Out of that prideful swamp comes a lot of hurt:  little smirking remarks turn into bruised egos and mean spirits and spite.  Roam around on the internet for five minutes and you’ll start to see it everywhere — people, Christians, just completely scornful of other people, supposedly in pursuit of truth but fully devoid of beauty or love.

HCH4KWE_mxThis is the world where we send our babies off to kindergarten, the world where we launch our books onto Amazon, the world where we brace ourselves to take a stand about anything sweet under the sun.  We have got to do better.

Next time I want to say something sarcastic, what if I just… don’t?  Next time I post a review, why not season it with kindness and not drown it in salt?  What if I held my tongue more often than I thoughtlessly spouted off, read that email a second time before I hit send?  Back in the day, people named their daughters Prudence and Mercy — time for a counter-culture comeback, y’all.

But here’s the other thing, the thing I actually do have some measure of control over (because I’m thinking no one is going to jump on the Prudence and Mercy bandwagon.)  Tim Keller calls it “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.”  Wow.  To get to a point where it really doesn’t matter what other people say.  To make like Elsa and let it go.  Not to define myself however I want or to pat myself on the back, but to really lose myself altogether, to be completely astonished and delighted and transfixed by Somebody — Somebody brighter, better, bigger than me.  Keller points out that in Christianity we get the verdict before the performance, so that now we can joyfully live out the verdict — live free.

“That He might become greater, and I might become less…”  That’s my prayer today.Untitled design-3

Guest Post: Their Parting Gift

My sweet friend Heidi Treibel joins us today.  I asked her for permission to share this beautiful story, knowing that many of you can relate.  These are her words.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 1 Peter 1:3-5

I cannot be who I once was.

Fingerprints from hands not formed leave their impressions on my heart. Silent voices whisper deep inside me, sounds only a mother can hear. Avery Rose and Everett James lived only weeks in my womb, but now live forever with my King.They are the heaven-born babies swept up into my heavenly inheritance.

And I cannot be who I once was.

My feet too long have been firmly planted on this foreign land; and my heart has been sinking into it. I’ve fallen for the lie that what I see is all there is, while mouthing the words to songs of an unseen reality. Though I have not seen Jesus with my physical eyes, I have imagined him waiting for me in heaven. But my mind has gotten sidetracked with mortgages and grocery lists and one more cup of coffee…

But I cannot be who I once was!

For if my two babies cannot be used to change me, who can? I have seen their tiny frames. I have held their lifeless forms in my hand. I have grieved all the plans I had in mind: their births, nursing them from my body, snuggling them as their sleepy infant eyes closed. They are real to me. They really lived inside me, gaining their very lives from my life. And then, like dreams that fade upon waking, they were gone.

I have not seen my Savior in heaven, but I have seen the children who await me in heaven. And in the devastation of my loss, they have given me a very sweet gift.

I am not who I once was.

Now, my mind is not pretending to dwell on heaven; my daydreams take me there. My heart is not forced to long for eternity; it aches to be swallowed up by immortality. I am not just mouthing the words to the songs longing for Christ’s return; I sing “Come, Lord Jesus,” with the saints of the ages.

Now my mind is not pretending to dwell on heaven; my daydreams take me there. My heart is not forced to long for eternity; it aches to be swallowed up by immortality.I do not love my babies more than I love Jesus. But they were tangible rays of light sent to me, light that I could see and touch and grieve and miss. They came to me on this dusty earth, then went ahead of me to wait until the Lamb returns for His bride. They are my tethers to heaven, pulling my heart in the direction it needs to go.

I am not who I once was.

Christ is risen from the dead. My living hope in him is to be raised to life, along with my babies and all who long for his appearing. This inheritance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfailing. The brief earthly lives of Avery and Everett have bridged a gap within me: the gap between my head and my heart. My head always knew what the Bible said. But now my heart knows. I am a stranger and foreigner on this earth. I long for a city with foundations, whose builder and designer is God. There my hope is kept. There my babies are safe. There my Savior reigns.

I will never be free of the grief of losing the children of my womb. I cannot be thankful they died. But I can be thankful that in their deaths, they have awakened my heart to my true life.

I will not be who I once was.

These Are The Days

I read recently of a homeschool family that ran afoul of local authorities.  Someone looked at this little-bit-different, little-bit-strange family, raised their eyebrows, and made a phone call.  Evidently one of the kids had been brought to the hospital and Mom and Dad left the older kids in charge of the small ones.  Child Protective Services came to the rescue, snatched the kids away, farmed them out to foster families, made inquiries.  What kind of education were these kids receiving?  What kind of parenting?

It’s a heebie-jeebies kind of story, a night-terror.  It’s all of our worst fears come alive:  what if they came for my kids?  What if I lost control?  What if someone sat my son down under a bright light and grilled him with division facts, state capitols, parts of speech?  What if they found out how inadequate I am?

There’s not much we want to get right as much as we want to raise our kids brilliantly.  We remember our own childhoods — the homework, the bullies, the stresses, the disappointments.  We want to shield our children from the things that smarted, to give them the opportunities we never had, to launch them laughing and shining into the world.  We watch other families out of the corner of our eyes and we judge.  One family obviously pushes too hard, one clearly never disciplines.  That mom is too uptight, the other one oblivious.  But of all the parents we criticize, we reserve the harshest condemnation for ourselves.  After all, we know the bitter truth:  we are not enough.

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All the while we fret and analyze, the kids are growing.  Our experiments in educational psychology are not bouncing off bright colored blocks, they are soaking into living sponges that absorb it all and swell before our eyes.  My own kids are almost fully saturated now — at 15, 13, 11, they are almost fully who they will be.  Think, Kate, before you speak; we are down to the wire.  The days dwindle, the season draws to an end.  Only a fraction of what I still want to say will soak in, the sponges are starting to drip.

I can’t afford to waste time on the wrong lessons.  The authorities are coming to see if we’ve caught any fish, but I can’t let that distract me.  The lesson we need to work on is how to fish.  It takes longer to teach.  We might still be empty handed when the squad car pulls up.

But if I scoop up the fish and hand the kid a bucketful, how will he ever fish for a lifetime?

Does he know how to diagram a sentence?  Or does he have something beautiful to say?

Does she know her Presidents?  Or does she value history like a treasure store of wisdom?

Has he learned the Periodic Table?  Or is he endlessly fascinated by science?

And more than all of the reading, writing, arithmetic I can teach, there’s theology.  Do they know the 10 Commandments?  Or do they know the love of God?

Can they recite the books of the Bible, or do they long to know who set the world in motion?

The day is coming when they will fall in love, get a job, apply for college.  It will be a day for courage, integrity, determination, responsibility, self-discipline, and love.  Did I mention grace?  Joy?  And of course, the kids’ll need some of those things, too.  🙂

So we pour out.  For all those years, all the great moments and the battles, all the forgiveness and all of the laughter, we pour out.  As fast as God pours in, we pass it on — love upon love.  And then we have to trust.  We have to let go.

Hopefully they won’t come and snatch my children away.  Hopefully I’ll get my full measure of years before the empty nest.  And hopefully my kids will merrily launch into the wide world with aplomb.  But I know there will be regrets, wistful questions, woulda shoulda couldas.  Because (here’s a little secret for you) they are not perfect.  And neither am I.  (SO not perfect.)  Fortunately I have a Father who will keep on pouring into me.  And it turns out He’s not inadequate.  He’s enough.  And that’s enough for all of us.

 

More, Please

Seems to me there are two ways to handle the Thanksgiving feast this week without gaining a million pounds: there’s the less plan and the more plan.  The less plan says less fat, fewer carbs, no fried food (hello, exploding turkey fryer!), and for Pete’s sake, no pie.  The other plan says more.  Give me a bigger glass of sparkling water with lemon, please.  I’ll take seconds on the salad.  How about another scoop of apples?  Then, when I am cheerfully filling up, I’ll try a little of everything else.  Just a taste, mind you.  No need for a Pike’s Peak pile of potatoes and gravy, I’m already full!

I was thinking about this the other day, how every time I browse the internet I see a dozen new things I ought not eat, a dozen new ways I’m doing something wrong.  There are articles on why I’m vacuuming wrong, why I’m exercising wrong, why I’m parenting wrong.

Lots of people live by the less plan.  There’s a strict list of no-nos, what not to buy, how not to cook.  And it’s not just less sugar, less butter, less wheat.  It’s a don’t list that expands to cover practically every aspect of life.  No mess, no disrespect, no waste, no intolerance, no pollution, no hate speech, no racism, no sexism, no immigration.  Even more radical is John Lennon’s prescription:  no greed?  No possessions.  No war?  No countries.  No hell?  No religion, no heaven.  Imagine — it’s easy if you try.  It’s a radical vision — strip away anything negative from the world.  Improvement by amputation.  But what a narrow vision!  It’s pessimistic, joyless.  And to achieve it we must erect epic fences, for freedom allows the possibility of epic mistakes.

We see the vile things floating downstream, so we head upstream.  At first we try a filter, but when that doesn’t work, we dam up the whole river.  If there is a possibility that ugly things might be said, we mandate silence altogether.  If one bad apple spoils the bunch, we outlaw fruit.  But the less plan doesn’t make anything better, not really.  It just cuts down on some of the bad.  And it’s like that whack-a-mole game — no sooner do you whack one than another pops up.  Our less-than virtues just expose more flaws, one after another.

Take tolerance.  It is imperative in America that we tolerate one another, no matter our differences.  Carefully we litigate less offensive language, less stigma, fewer restrictions.  But what an anemic ethic!  Imagine a Valentine that said, “To my sweetheart — I tolerate you.”  On the inside it might add, “I tolerate your bad habits, your frequent offense, and your morning breath.  Heart.”  Love sees your tolerance and raises you a hundred-fold.  It’s the more, please plan.  Instead of not disrespecting, love appreciates.  Instead of not taking, love gives.  Love may speak a difficult truth, challenge a flimsy excuse, or encourage real change.  But love patiently, kindly, believes the best, hopes for better, goes the distance.

What if we pursued a bighearted, generous approach to life — celebration and joy replacing caution and disapproval?  That’s grace.

Undeserved, overflowing, above and beyond goodness.  As opposed to religions of self-denial and the politics of squelching, grace looks for opportunities to surprise with abundance, to bless with lavishness.

What if we quit our silly diets that gradually restrict what we eat to, well, not much of anything, and instead gave thanks?  What if we learned to delight in what is really good for us instead of outlawing all that might be bad?

What if we learned to be “more, please” parents?  To replace, “Kid, don’t hit your brother,” with “let’s blow your brother away with generosity.”  Instead of “hey, no ______,” we’d say, “hey, be courageous, be kind, don’t settle for less than awesome.”  What if we replaced skimpy tolerance in our homes with love, rich and full?

And what if we prayed “more, please” prayers?  Not couching our requests in bite-sized pieces, the easier for God to feebly answer, but the upping the ante every time?  To say, “God, I was going to pray X, but you are an infinite God.  Help me to dream bigger.  Help me to ask for X2.”  Because ultimately that seems to be the root of our problem.  We serve too small a God, too untrustworthy.  How can we forgive when He might not uphold justice?  How can we extend freedom when He might allow anarchy?  How can we accept good gifts when there might be bad repercussions?

Mark Batterson writes that we must pray bigger, bolder prayers, we must worship a bigger, bolder God.  If I continually whittle my prayers down to the size of what I think I can reasonably accomplish, I forfeit the wonder of seeing God do the impossible.  Why settle for a less-than life?  Batterson says, “When imagination is sacrificed on the altar of logic, God is robbed of the glory that rightfully belongs to Him.  In fact, the death of a dream is often a subtle form of idolatry.  We lose faith in the God who gave us the big dream and settle for a small dream that we can accomplish without his help.”

God asks us to take the leap, dream big, relish life, laugh more, and give thanks.  Maybe this Thanksgiving we can make a step in that direction.  Pass the pie.fontcandy