Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Odd & Marvelous Work Of Grace

This is the devotional message
I gave on 12/31/17 at my church,
Huntingdon Valley Presbyterian Church.
It’s been edited very slightly for this pos

A couple of weeks ago, while I was attempting to prepare this message, BethAnn asked me what my topic was.

“Grace,” I said.

She replied, “That’s a big topic!”

And I thought to myself with a sigh of desperation, “No kidding!”

At that time, I’d been thinking about this big topic for a few weeks. After all, Advent and Christmas is all about grace. When I volunteered to speak, I knew immediately grace was to be the topic. I even had a pretty good idea of an outline for the message. At least I thought I did.

I started reading, making notes, and mulling.

One night, as I lay in bed, I began thinking through how to structure the message. All the pieces seemed to come together. I was pretty confident that I had a plan and went to sleep.

You may be able to guess where this is going.

The next day, when I finally got the time to sit down and start writing -- “Poof!” -- all those pieces came apart and evaporated.

Well, maybe not totally “Poof!”

The general ideas were still rattling around in my head and heart. But, as happens sometimes in the process of writing, getting those things in my head to appear on the page -- or, rather, my computer screen -- just wouldn’t happen. At least not in any cohesive way.

I had an outline. I had ideas. But I just couldn’t make it all coalesce into whatever it was that God wanted to communicate through me.

After all, that’s what preaching is. Even when it’s what this is supposed to be -- a brief devotional thought. When you stand up here, you’re -- well, as Peter puts it, an “oracle of God.”

That’s a little scary! Which may have fed into my sermon block.

The context is in 1 Peter 4:10-11 where Peter writes, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ....”

Even this cautionary encouragement mentions grace.

Which is what I’m supposed to be talking to you about.

Okay, as I mentioned, I had an outline in my head early on. It started with five or six items, got trimmed to four, and finally, I landed on three basic points. Here they are:
  1. Grace is a stupendously marvelous thing.
  2. If grace is working in us, it should show.
  3. All we covet about grace for ourselves, we must freely extend to others.
I mean, that’s all pretty obvious, right? I’m sure everyone here agrees with these points. How hard should it be to flesh them out?

I thought about opening with a few facts about the word grace. Like how in the New Testament, the original Greek for grace is charis -- c-h-a-r-i-s. And that charis actually appears around 159 times in the New Testament.

By the way, many passages are about grace even though the word grace is not used. Practically the entire Bible is about grace! Even the book of James.

Anyway, charis, when not translated as grace, is usually translated as favor or pleasure, or some version of thanks such as thankful.

A more expanded definition for grace is “that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness, good will, loving-kindness; of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues.”

So says Strong’s Concordance.

A simpler definition, and the one you’re probably most familiar with, is that grace is the unmerited favor of God.

You get the idea.

But I also thought it would be important to really punch up how truly marvelous grace is -- redeeming us from sin and making us new creations.

You know, like in the hymn that says, “Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt | Grace, grace, God's grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.”

I need this grace!

I can’t speak for you, but David speaks for me in Psalm 51:3 where he says, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

A quirk of being an introvert is that memories of decades-old failures can pop-up out of nowhere, any time, feeling very present, and make us cringe.

As a result, I covet all the grace I can get.

I love Micah 7:19 that declares, “[God] will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. [He] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Or how about Psalm 103 -- you could call it the Grace Chapter -- that goes into wonderful detail about how God forgives all our iniquities, crowns us with steadfast love and mercy, is gracious, slow to anger, does not deal with us according to our sins, or repay us according to our iniquities.

And my favorite part declares, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

I don’t know about you, but having my sins removed as far as the east is from the west sounds like a really good deal.

But then there’s Isaiah 43 that goes further when God declares, “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

Talk about something going “Poof!”

All this is done by grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound! Bring it on and save a wretch like me!

So that’s more or less what I had in mind to try to get across how stupendously marvelous grace is.

The second point of my cut-down outline is, “If grace is working in us, it should show.”

What I think I had in mind was looking at the characteristics, impacts, effects, and results of grace. And here’s where I think the subject just blew up bigger than I could wrangle it.

Seriously, pull out your concordance or go online to any of the Bible sites
-- I like -- and search on “grace.”

Depending on the version of the Bible you choose, you’ll get around 130 to 150 or so results. And in reading just these verses, you’ll begin to see the magnitude of the work of grace in our lives.

By the way, Dan and others will be taking us on a deep dive in Romans all year long and a big theme with Paul involves grace. It’ll be coming around again in the New Year.

Okay, so a handful of sub-points under “If grace is working in us, it should show” is that the grace of God, when it’s being effective in us -- justifies us, redeems us from sin, fuels gifts, transforms our thinking, reforms our behavior, re-centers our motivations, heals our emotions, empowers our love -- essentially does the yeoman’s work of undoing the horrendous damage of sin and making us into all God intended for us to be. Day by day. Moment by moment.

This is the oddity of grace -- it’s like grace is a solid, a gas, and a liquid all at the same time! Whatever we need, God provides the grace that is sufficient. Grace is the Swiss Army knife of faith!

This is a big, big deal!

Coupled with this is another sub-point -- which overlaps with the first point -- something to the effect that for all of this good stuff to happen, grace first gets us out of jail free! It removes the shackles of sin. It ends our slavery to sin. It lifts the crushing weight of condemnation from our lives.

Grace takes us from a place of closed in, suffocating bondage and sets us out into open air and sunshine. Grace gives us room and nourishment to grow -- in grace.

I knew this is important and struggled with how to convey it. I thought maybe something like this:

Being weighed down by the condemnation of sin, perhaps, is like being locked inside a dark cell. You have nothing -- no tools or supplies -- yet you’re expected to, let’s say, bake a cake.

You don’t even have an oven or fire! Yet every hour someone opens a little window on the door of your cell, sticks in their ugly face, and starts chiding you for not baking. They call you all sorts of belittling names. They mock you, shame you. Lay on the accusations and condemnations big time. You feel small, weak, useless, powerless.

But then grace takes you out of the cell, puts you in the most gloriously equipped and stocked kitchen you’ve ever seen. There are cookbooks, supplies galore, open windows, perfect lighting, a modern oven, and even helpers (also known as ministering angels). Everything you need to succeed at baking is freely and generously supplied. Regular and gluten free.

Now that we’re in the kitchen of grace, we ought to be baking grace cakes to give away. The work of grace in us needs to be visible and productive.

I think maybe Colossians 1:9-14 captures this, at least in part:
“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
This is the work of grace.

So those are the first two of my three points I wanted to make: That “Grace is a stupendously marvelous thing,” and, “If grace is working in us, it should show.”

The third point is, “All we covet about grace for ourselves, we must freely extend to others.”

I think some of what was fueling this thought is my own failure to show grace to others. Especially people who have, as the Country Western songs put it, “done me wrong.”

I’ve been “done wrong” a few times in my life. Some of those wrongs really, really hurt. At least one has hurt hard for decades, and there’s no end in sight. Yet, I’m supposed to extend grace to the wrong doers.

It’s not easy and I’m not always gracious in my actions, words, or thoughts toward them.

Another factor prompting this point are the really horrible posts I see way too often on social media -- and many posted by Christians -- that communicate the idea that “toxic” people are expendable. We should ignore them, shun them, toss them aside.

It seems anyone who annoys us in anyway can be labeled as toxic. That’s a pretty low bar to view someone as disposable.

In fact, a rather extreme post I came across recently lists “8 toxic people you should get rid of.”

It declares that if a person spreads negativity, criticizes, wastes your time, is jealous, plays the victim, doesn’t care about you, is self-centered, or keeps disappointing you, you need to get rid of them.

Be honest with me. If being tagged with just one of these eight characteristics makes a person “toxic” then I am, and, frankly, so are you. Who among us has not ever disappointed someone? And when it comes to being self-centered -- another term for selfish -- I’ll admit I’m really quite skilled. It sort of comes natural for most of us.

Posts like these are totally graceless. They are anti-grace and they are heartbreaking.

There may certainly be times when we need to step away from certain people. And grace does include accountability. But our first instinct should not be shunning or disposal -- especially when the issues are merely annoyances.

Rather, it should be seeking to come alongside in grace. And, when there is repentance, we should be like the father of the prodigal son -- expectantly longing and looking for the opportunity to extend grace and restoration.

One of the functions of grace is to protect both offender and offendee. Grace makes room for accountability, repentance, and restoration to happen. Grace keeps the door open.

Instead of posting or agreeing with these kinds of messages -- instead of too easily and almost joyfully denying grace to others -- we should be over-the-moon abundantly grateful that God doesn’t view us like this! If He did, we would have zero hope of heaven. We’d all be doomed.

We need to take to heart that at least one of our grace-fed superpowers as Christians is supposed to be the ability to spread grace to others as freely as we are receiving it. Yes, as a Christian you have access to superpowers -- or, rather, supernatural powers.

All the good stuff about grace that we covet feverishly for ourselves we must share with others. It’s really not an option.

R. C. Sproul wrote, “The more we understand how kind God has been to us and the more we are overcome by His mercy, the more we are inclined to love Him and to serve Him.”

I contend that an excellent way to understand and more fully appreciate how kind God has been to us is through the very hard work of ministering grace to others.

As I mentioned, there are a handful of people in my life that, when they come to mind, my first instinct is to wish them -- shall we say -- not good things. What stops me is looking in the mirror and admitting to myself that there have been times I’ve been the one doing the hurting. And that ultimately all my sinning has really been against God.

In other words, when it’s hard for us to extend grace to someone else, we should think about what God has gone through -- and goes through -- to extend grace to us.

We all know the Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13.

Nearly every Christian wedding includes it in the ceremony or the invitation or on a candle. When we read it, we get all dewy-eyed and warm inside.

Love! Yes! This is it!

Well, at least how we’d like it to be, especially when aimed at us. Doing it? That’s another story. But we try our best.

The Greek word -- agape -- translated as “love” in this passage is sometimes translated as “charity.” Oddly, the word for grace -- charis -- is also sometimes translated as charity. Love and grace are related. Who knew?!

So I thought, “What if we replace ‘love’ with ‘grace’ in this passage.” Here is what we get:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not grace, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not grace, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not grace, I gain nothing.”

“Grace is patient and kind; grace does not envy or boast; grace is not arrogant or rude. Grace does not insist on its own way; grace is not irritable or resentful; grace does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Grace bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

“Grace never ends.”

The thrust of what I want to get across is that, when it comes to grace, we need to be giving as good as we’re getting. We shouldn’t be insisting others cut us slack while we tighten nooses for them.

If we aren’t being gracious with those around us -- even those who have hurt us -- well, then, grace is not working in us.

Withholding grace from others is the same as being a bully. It de-magnifies God. It tries to manipulate vengeance and bring on punishment. It’s refusing to forgive, refusing to show mercy, refusing to share in God’s provision, refusing to admit our own desperate dependence on grace.

So, these are the three basic points I wanted to get across:
  • Grace is a stupendously marvelous thing.
  • If grace is working in us, it should show.
  • All we covet about grace for ourselves, we must freely extend to others.
There was a lot of other stuff that came to mind. I accumulated about 20 or 30 pages of notes. The rabbit trails -- all worth chasing -- are legion and they go everywhere!

Like this one, that hoarding grace for ourselves is somewhat like the Israelites did in Exodus 16, trying to collect more than a day’s worth of manna and store it. It will just turn rotten and bitter.

Or how about the golden rule in Matthew 7:12 -- do to others as you would have them do to you -- a rule I probably break at least once a day
-- it’s about grace.

And, of course, Lamentations 3:22-23, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Which shows us every day -- not just every New Year -- we can and should hit the reset button to start over with fresh grace, for ourselves and others.

And the passage in Matthew 18 about forgiving seventy times seven -- which is about grace countlessly multiplied. If someone offends us and then repents, our only grace-fueled option is to forgive them, extending grace to them.

Or how about this? Grace is not just passively applied to us -- we need to choose to engage with grace and encourage others to continue in grace. Acts 13:43 states in part, “Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with [some devout Jews], urged them to continue in the grace of God.”

Oh, and this is kind of fun. In Romans 12:6 where it states, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us...” The Greek word for gifts in this verse is a form of charis; it’s charisma. So, since everyone who comes to Jesus is gifted to serve him -- none are left behind in this area -- it means that, in a sense, we’re all charismatics!

Anyway, see my dilemma? Grace just goes on and on, and on and on!

But this was supposed to be a brief devotional message (not so brief, sorry) so I should start wrapping up.

Phillip Holmes, the Director of Communications at Reformed Theological Seminary, writing on the Desiring God website, states:
“[God] is not ignorant of all the ways we’ve sinned against him. He knows everything we’ve ever done and is able to stomach it. His knowledge of who we really are will never hinder his love for us. He’s even aware of the evil behind our righteous deeds. The intimacy by which the Lord knows us but is able to lovingly embrace us as his children is supernatural. God’s grace is mind-blowing. Every time I think of this reality, I’m brought to tears because I serve a God whose love and grace baffle me.”
Yes. Exactly. Me too.

So, in 2018 and beyond, as grace upon grace is being lavished on us by God, may we be transformed more and more into His glorious image, and may his grace flow through us to others abundantly.

And that’s what I wanted to share.

Yes, this is a long post. Sorry about that. But it seemed a good way to end the year. Do you agree with my assessment of grace? Are you baking grace cakes for others or tightening nooses for them? Please share your thoughts in the comments! And have a blessed New Year.

You can listen to this message at

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Eve, Older ( #PoetryMonday *)

Singing carols in church I recall
the advice of my high school
choir teacher and work
on exercising breath control
on the long Glooo-o-o-o-o-o-ooorias
rather than gasping for air
halfway through.
Still, the voice cracks
on the high side of “O Holy Night,”
the easy, clear tenor having been left behind
some years ago.

I mine my memories for the good ones
-- like searching a bag of candies for
that cream filled caramel --
comparing then to now, to complain about now.

Like, Christmas Eve was never a time for shopping.
The gifts were bought, wrapped, and under the tree.
Instead, we went to my grandparents
for a feast of family. Food, too.
Back home, on TV, we found Christmas caroling,
concerts, worship services, and more,
broadcasting the news that Jesus was born,
on channel after channel.
Even leading up to Christmas
there were movies, specials, and animated shows
all centering around the theme
of Christ breaking into the world with hope.
Later, I’d tune into the midnight mass
at St. Patrick’s coming live to Indiana
from the faraway land of NYC.
(I visited the church on my first trip
into The City and was awed.)

Now, shopping is all there is right up until the bitter end.
That and weather is the focus of the news.
The rest of TV is crowded with unholy sports and schmaltz
and movies that have nothing really at all
to do with the true Christmas story.
Any message of hope is as tenuous
as the weak, cookie-cutter story lines.
The St. Pat’s mass faded from TV years ago.
And Jesus? Who’s that? Macy’s insists
that we “Believe!” but in what or whom is
questionable. But it's yours for 50% off!

My grandparents are gone, the farm sold.
Gone too, mom and dad, several aunts and uncles,
and even a few cousins. New people populate
what gatherings there are, if there are

Yet, while the trappings have changed,
the center holds. At least for me. I know
the point of it all is to point our attention
to the miracle, the amazing grace
of Jesus come to rescue us from
a fate worse than death. This truth
is immutable. Immanuel! God with us!

It’s enough to take your breath away.

* Its PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here.  
Okay, this is the obligatory Christmas-themed poem. It's raw, literally just written over yesterday and today. I'm sure it'll get tweaked over time. For now, enjoy and have a Merry Christmas. Any thoughts? Please share them in the comments!