(this article was originally published in the January 2019 Communique)
I often find myself at this time of year both reflective and scattered, which often leads to an inability to share a singular thought in this space, and I find that to again be the case this year. As such I just want to share a few thoughts with you all. Amusingly, as I put them to paper, an almost Dickensian structure presented itself, so let’s visit my thoughts of the past, present and future.
As I looked back on this past year, I realized that without intending to do so, the first 3 years we’ve done this ministry there has been a single song each year that has been the anthem of my heart for Claycomo. Just as I Am (I Come Broken), and For the Cause were the first two and this year it’s been The Lord is my Salvation. I don’t know what this next year holds but I know that the God who takes our broken pieces and makes them new, who is also the purpose for which we live, and is the absolute source of our salvation, is the God that will be with us through all of the triumphs and trials that await us in 2019. We need to keep our focus on Him and, as it says in Psalm 139, He will hold us fast.
The Present (A Thank You)
I am beyond blessed to be able to serve our church in this position. I want to thank all of you who support us through prayer. I also am beyond blessed by those who invest their time and talents in our worship-related teams. To the choir, the booth workers, and the musicians I want to say a huge “Thank You”. The ministry, and in turn the environment for our church to be able to engage in corporate worship would not be the same without all of you. Additionally, I also want to thank Becky. She’s my partner in planning, she’s everything for the choir, and she has a worshipper’s heart that I cherish. I would find this attempting to do this job without her as challenging as trying to nail Jell-o to a tree
As we begin 2019, we will be doing so focusing on what God’s Word says about worship and specifically prayer both in and as worship. It is my heart’s cry that we hold tightly to biblically accurate prayer and worship as pillars of our lives each and every day so that we as the body at Claycomo are a true light to our world around us and so that we accurately reflect the heart of our Father in heaven to those searching for hope. It’s also my hope that we will actively work to build one another up and work diligently to promote peace and unity within the body of Christ, avoiding the relationship damaging “friendly fire” (to borrow a military term) that all too often keeps the church from flourishing and takes our focus off of the things of eternal significance.
The Uncommon Power of Grace
I’ve been ruminating a good bit on the concept of grace recently and was going to put some thoughts down about it, but then a friend of a friend wrote much more eloquently about it than I ever would have, so I wanted to share that here and I hope it is impactful for you as well. This is from Peter Wehner, who served under 3 of the past 6 U.S. Presidents:
In his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Philip Yancey describes a conference on comparative religions where experts from around the world debated which belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis happened to enter the room during the discussion. When he was told the topic was Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
Lewis was right. No other religion places grace at its theological center. It was a revolutionary idea; as Mr. Yancey puts it, grace “seems to go against every instinct of humanity.” We are naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive.
Grace is different. It is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving. It’s a difficult concept to understand because it isn’t entirely rational. “Grace defies reason and logic,” as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. “Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”
There’s a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and the unheralded, rule followers and rule breakers.
If you find yourself in the company of people whose hearts have been captured by grace, count yourself lucky. They love us despite our messy lives, stay connected to us through our struggles, always holding out the hope of redemption. When relationships are broken, my wife Cindy told me, it’s grace that causes people not to give up, to extend the invitation to reconnect, to work through misunderstandings with sensitivity and transparency.
You don’t sense hard edges, dogmatism or self-righteous judgment from gracious people. There’s a tenderness about them that opens doors that had previously been bolted shut. People who have been transformed by grace have a special place in their hearts for those living in the shadows of society. They’re easily moved by stories of suffering and step into the breach to heal. And grace properly understood always produces gratitude.
Of course, grace can easily be exploited by people who don’t want to be held accountable for their misdeeds; the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as “cheap grace.” Nor is it easy to balance grace with the requirements of justice. We obviously can’t organize society entirely around the concept of grace. Yet the problem today is more the absence of grace than its presence.
It’s easy to understand why. Living a grace-filled life is hard. Most of us, when we feel wronged, want payback. Our first impulse, when hurt or offended, is to strike out, justifying our anger in the name of fairness. We forget the words of Edward Herbert (the poet George’s brother), “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself,” and we forget that only grace can break the cycle of ancient hatreds among peoples. (It is notable that while I have regretted not granting grace to others, I’ve never once regretted extending it.)
When Mr. Yancey was young, he rejected the church for a time because he found so little grace there. There is a tendency among many people of faith to come across as holier than thou, more eager to judge than to forgive. Jesus encountered this throughout his ministry, which helps explain why he was more comfortable in the company of the unclean and reviled, the lowly and the outcast, than religious authorities. The odds are that you know people who have had scars of ungrace inflicted upon them by the Christian church. Yet when we see grace in action — whether in acts of extravagant, indiscriminate love, in radical self-giving, or in showing equanimity in the face of death — it can move us unlike anything else.
In 2014, Steve Hayner, my spiritual confidant, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Upon learning it had spread, Steve wrote, “In all probability, the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months.” (He died in January 2015.) Steve acknowledged that pain and death are reminders of the nature of our broken world. Yet he went on to say: “There is a much bigger story of which this is only a tiny part. And it is God’s story of love, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. We went into this journey choosing to trust God and to offer our fears to God. We’ve been so grateful for the freedom from fear and the abundance of peace that we have experienced.” He added, “There are, of course, times of discouragement, grief, pain, and wonder. After all, there are a lot of unknowns ahead of us.”
I sent Steve’s reflections to my friend Jonathan Rauch, who responded, “It’s letters like this — the wisdom, the grace — that make me wish I weren’t an atheist.”
When I recently asked Jonathan how, as a nonbeliever, he understood grace and why it inspires us when we see it in others, he told me that grace is “some combination of generosity and magnanimity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy — all above the ordinary call of duty, and bestowed even (or especially?) when not particularly earned.” We see it demonstrated in heroic ways and in small, everyday contexts, he said. “But I guess, regardless of the context, it’s always at least a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.”
A lot like if the incarnate deity, veiled in flesh, were born in a manger in Bethlehem. (nytimes.com – 12/23/18)
In Christ Alone,