The Imperfect Disciple – A Book Review

The Imperfect DiscipleOn the last page of “The Imperfect Disciple” Jared Wilson writes, “I wrote this book for all who are tired of being tired. I wrote this book for all who read the typical discipleship manuals and wonder who they could possibly be written for, the ones that makes us feel overly burdened and overly tasked and, because of all that, overly shamed.” And if we start with the ending, reading this page first, it really gives us a synopsis of “The Imperfect Disciple.”

Wilson’s sub-title for the book is, “Grace for people who can’t get their act together.” He reminds the reader throughout the book that discipleship is not just working harder, better, or more efficiently. We can only get to where we need to go through Jesus, not through our own efforts. Jesus is not looking for people who have it all together, Jesus is actually looking for people who can’t get their act together. It is those of us who don’t seem to be able to get our acts together that understand better that we are unable to get to where we need to get on our own.

Jared Wilson shares stories from his own experiences in ministry as he walks through what discipleship really can look like. We cannot simply manage our sin and think that’s enough to make us good disciples. In fact, if all we are doing is sin management, then we’ve missed the gospel and the essence of discipleship as it goes so much further than simply outward appearance and action. The essence of discipleship and the gospel penetrates to our hearts and souls, changing us from the inside out. That kind of change is not something that we are able to achieve on our own and the harder we try, the more frustrated we will become.

We cannot think that discipleship is all about us fitting God into the nooks and crannies of our lives. But Wilson says, “…God owns all of life, and worshiping God means we must revolve around him, not us. So God shouldn’t be confined to his own compartment in our schedule. Jesus does not abide in his assigned time slot; we abide in him.”

Wilson explores sabbath rest, worship, and other key areas of the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. He challenges those of us who think we can achieve and encourages those of us who feel like we will never measure up. While there was nothing here that was earth shattering to me, Wilson’s writing style and delivery made this book a worthwhile read. If you’re looking for encouragement after having tried to measure up to impossible standards, the message of grace that is presented here could be salve for your soul and encouragement for the way forward.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

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Grace Is Greater – A Book Review

The word “grace” is thrown around so often that it hardly seems amazing, writes Kyle Idleman. When a word has been around for as long as “grace” and when it has been abused and misused, it’s important to try to breathe new life into it and remember just what it means.grace-is-greater 

In “Grace Is Greater” author and pastor Kyle Idleman reminds people of the importance of grace. As followers of Christ, when we go about doing things without grace, we can easily suck the life from those things. We need to remember just how much grace we have received in order to be reminded of just how much grace we should be extending to others. 

Idleman shares from his own personal experiences and expounds on some accounts within the gospels to speak the message of grace that we all need to hear. We all live with guilt, shame, and regrets, but we can give all of those up when we remember the grace that we receive through Jesus Christ.` 

While a large part of grace is accepting it ourselves despite the things that we have done, Idleman also reminds us that we need to extend that grace to others. That’s easier said than done when we’ve been hurt and wounded by others. We want to see justice, we want to see someone pay for our pain, but we need to move past that, not demeaning the significance of what was done to us but realizing that holding onto things reaps bitterness and does more damage to us than it does to the person that we are supposedly hurting. 

“We are never more like God than when we forgive,” Idleman writes. A true statement and a reminder as we are on this journey of transformation. Forgiveness is not optional, it’s required of us. Idleman shares stories of people who have moved beyond their own bitterness and desire for vengeance and embraced the love, forgiveness, and grace of God. That grace transformed them to be able to do unthinkable things, forgiving people who didn’t seem deserving of forgiveness.

He reminds us that when we hold back our forgiveness, we are forgetting just what we have received ourselves. While we may be expecting a certain level of repentance from people, we can’t forget that our own level of repentance doesn’t match the level of our offense against God.

As Idleman writes, “we’re able to receive God’s grace only to the extent we’re able to recognize our need for it.” We need to examine just how deep our sin goes in order to fully appreciate how desperately we need grace. We may always want to have answers to our circumstances and situations, but there are times when answers won’t be given. We need to look past the lack of answers to see what God has in store for us.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Idleman has written a few others books that have been popular. I missed them and may even have purposely avoided them. Given the opportunity to read “Grace Is Greater,” I seized it and I was not disappointed at all. “Grace is Greater” is a reminder again of just what I deserve, what I don’t deserve, and what I have been given. It stands as a challenge and conviction to move past my hang-ups to a place where I see my own need for grace and in doing so, see my need to extend that grace to others as well. 

“Grace Is Greater” isn’t full of deep theological ideas, but then again, it’s often the simpler ideas that can be the hardest ones for us to grasp or accept. Give this book a try if you need a reminder of just how much you have been forgiven. You’ll never look at grace the same again.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Give It A Chance

So many things have been swirling around my head over the last week. There have been times I’ve had to simply remove myself from social media and all media outlets because of the things that I was reading and thinking. I’ve seen friends on both sides of the political spectrum crying out. I’ve heard and seen all kinds of different emotions. Fear. Anger. Joy. Relief. And so many more.

There has been a little glimmer of hope as I’ve watched people process through the election and the state of our country. The refreshing part has been watching people working together, encouraging one another, listening to one another, crying with one another, hearing one another’s story. Difficulty and adversity has a way of bringing people together, causing them to see what’s most important. As I’ve watched some of my friends vent and process their emotions, I’ve noticed a change in some of them and those around them, including me. That has been encouraging to me.

While there’s been some encouragement, there have been a lot of troubling things to me as well. The most troubling thing to me has been that people have been wishing that the president elect would fail. Before the inauguration, before he actually takes office, they’re hoping he fails.

Wow!

In the midst of all of this, I’ve thought, “These are my friends?!” Yes, it’s a question and a statement. I’ve sat in stunned disbelief that there is no grace in that wish, the wish for someone to fail. Regardless of how much I disagree with someone, no matter how much I might dislike someone, how gracious is it to wish for their demise and failure?

My biggest thought with some of these friends has been, “I feel bad for their children.” Is this the same kind of attitude they take with their children? Are they wishing for their failures? Or is it just the people with whom they don’t agree, and if it is just those people, what kind of level of maturity are we showing when we wish for the failure of anyone who “wins” when we fail to get our way?

But this is what we’ve come to, a place where we draw lines in the sand, where there is a definite “winner” and a definite “loser” in the struggle. Why can’t we find a middle ground? Why can’t we find and extend grace?

Yes, there is hurt. Yes, there have been horrible things done and said. I understand that, but wishing for the failure of the leader of your country?

After September 11th, living just outside New York City, I watched the City respond. I watched people come together. There was a unity across ideologies, across party lines, across ethnic lines. In those days after the terrorist attacks, we weren’t blacks, white, Asians, gays, straights, Republicans, Democrats, or whatever, we were Americans. There was a coming together that people somehow knew was more important.

I’m not comparing our election to the tragedy and disaster of September 11th, but the response could be similar. Like I said, I have been so proud of so many friends on both sides of the political spectrum who have understood the importance of listening. I’ve done my best to listen and observe, to hear the things that I’ve been missing all along. I’ve tried to put aside my own discomforts and listen to what’s making others uncomfortable. It’s hard, I want to talk far more than I want to listen, but that’s growth.

I’m not sure what the next four years will hold. I’m skeptical. Heck, I was born in Brooklyn and raised in New England, skepticism is part of my DNA. But I also have an otherworldly hope, a hope that isn’t in a president, a government, or a country, but in a King and a Kingdom.

I know that I can’t convince anyone of anything, so this post may be simply a release of hot air to those who disagree with me. But I do think that we all need to ask ourselves some things. Have we ever said something stupid, something that we’ve regretted? Have we ever had viewpoints that changed, morphed, and evolved over time? Have we ever been given a second chance? Have we ever given a second chance to others? If we had failed miserably and acted unkindly in the past, wouldn’t we want someone to give us a chance to show that we could act differently.

No, my confidence in the president elect is not at 100%, but I know that I need to give him a chance. That’s what I would want someone to do for me. Like I read somewhere in the last few days, wishing him to fail is almost like wishing a heart attack on the pilot of the plane in which you are flying. I’ve found myself praying more since last Tuesday, and I will continue to do so. Among my prayers is the prayer that we might find a way forward….together, and that when given a chance, maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised that failure was not on the horizon.

How Many Times?

This time of sabbatical for me has been restful, but it has also been challenging. Not only was it a challenge for me to step away and disengage from work and my world in ministry, but I have been challenged as I’ve spent time alone with God. It’s not that I don’t spend time alone with God during other seasons of life, it’s just that the time during sabbatical is different. When everything else in your life is stripped away, there’s really nowhere to hide when you begin to look in the mirror and see some of the flaws that need to be addressed in your own life.

As I’ve had time to think and reflect, I keep thinking about grace. I’m really not the best at meting it out. Although I’m always grateful when it’s extended to me, I don’t seem to so easily dispense it to others, especially when I feel like I should be seeing something significant in them. If there isn’t forward progress, if I don’t see the kind of progression that I think should be there, I seem to be very judgmental and often put myself in the place of God.

As I thought about it, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could really put myself in the place of God. No matter what, my perspective is always going to be jaded and skewed to be very subjective. I’m never going to be able to see things clearly, at least not on this side of eternity. Something will always shift my vision and if I’m completely honest, make me be a judge and jury.

I remember when my dad was alive and would counsel people who were stuck in the throes of addiction. It seemed that they would take three steps forward and four steps backward. They would seem to be doing well for a while and then they would eventually fall off the wagon and find themselves back in the addiction that they had been trying so hard to avoid.

Through it all, my dad always seemed to be gracious to them. Despite the chiding of my mom, he would always continue to love on these people and extend them grace. It didn’t matter how many times that he had seen the scenario play out, he would keep extending that grace.

Looking back now, he set an incredible example for me. He wasn’t supposed to determine whether or not he should keep extending someone grace, he was just supposed to extend it. Yet somehow I’ve managed to convince myself that it’s my place, that I’ve earned the right to do the judging. How did I earn it? How did I find this pedestal that I’ve managed to put myself on?

How many times? How many times should I extend grace? How many times is enough? What’s the limit to the number of times that I extend grace?

If I’m really honest about it, the answer to that question should be the answer to the question that I need to ask myself, “What’s the limit of the grace that should be extended to me for my repetitive sin?” If I can’t put a limit on that for myself, why should I come up with a limit for someone else? And if I can come up with a limit for someone else, why shouldn’t that limit be applied to me?

So I sit here realizing that there really should be no limit to the grace that I extend to others. That’s not to say that I make myself a doormat for the world, but it also means that I can’t limit grace to others while fully basking in it myself.

May I learn more and more each day just the extent of the grace that I require, the extent of the grace that is given to me every day. When I come to that realization, may I freely dispense that grace to others as I hope and pray it will be extended to me.

Grace

I’m two weeks into my sabbatical and I feel like so much has happened in that short amount of time. Some of my days have felt like two or three days combined into one. I’ve had some great conversations, some great experiences, some great rest.

My wife and I spent nearly four years in a place not too long after we got married. My wife had married an engineer and then I was called to be a pastor. It was a big shift for both of us. That call involved a move far away from our family and all that was familiar to us. I was green and inexperienced in the new world in which I found myself. I made mistakes, I spoke too quickly, I offended, I probably thought that I knew way more than I really did.

When things ended in that place, there was hurt, there was anger, there was confusion, there was uncertainty. We didn’t know for sure where we would end up, but God did. He opened the door for us to a new place. We left behind many great friends and I felt like I was leaving a bit of my heart there as well. We had made an investment and to leave it all behind was hard for me to do.

This past week, I spent some time with some of the people who were part of our experience there in that place. I’m not even sure what words to use to best describe the meaningfulness of that time. Healing. Growing. Learning. Moving on. Grace.

Grace.

It’s a word that came up in our conversations and a word that I continue to go back to. If we are truly growing in our faith journey and in our spiritual depth, grace should be something that naturally pours from us. We shouldn’t tout that we have grown up in the church and been Christians for 40 years and then fail to exhibit grace. We shouldn’t expect grace to be given to us and then refuse to extend it to others. Grace has been given to us and to whom much has been given, much is expected.

Grace.

I feel like I experienced an immersion of grace over the last week. As conversations took place and we shared, I felt that grace and I was so grateful for it.

I still have many weeks to go as I move through this sabbatical. It’s always hard to come hard out of the gates, it can easily set your expectations high for what else is to come. But I don’t think I should worry. Much of what I have experienced over the last week was not planned, at least by me, but I know that God orchestrated it, he made it happen, he gave me the privilege of experiencing it.

This is going to be a fun ride!

A Broken Toy Christmas

Christmas with Steve and Jon-2I’ve had so many people make reference to this story that I’ve shared personally, via sermons and my old blog, that I felt the need to dig it out, dust it off, and retell it for the sake of those who have never heard it before. Maybe also for the sake of those who have heard it because sometimes a retelling can make you notice something else.

One year, when my brother and I were probably about 11 and 7, respectively, we had been pretty terrible in the months leading up to Christmas. We were constantly fighting and getting at each other and my parents had constantly warned us that if we didn’t stop, “Santa” would be bringing us nothing but broken, old toys for Christmas. Now, regardless of the fact that we didn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor had we ever), we still used that language for whatever reason. My parents knew that both my brother and I were not believers in the big, fat guy in a red suite.

My parents were jokers, although not many of our friends and some of theirs didn’t believe it. They could joke with the best of them and I think my brother and I thought that they were kidding in this instance too. Our parents would never dream of withholding presents from us at Christmas, right? After all, everyone should get presents, right?

Regardless of their constant threats, Christmas morning approached with little to no improvement in our behavior. I guess we were just stupid enough to believe that our parents would never dream of holding out on us.

Christmas morning finally arrived and we woke up with excitement to see what might be waiting for us under that tree. Imagine the surprise on my brother’s and my face when we arrived at the Christmas tree to find that the only thing underneath it was a pile of broken and old toys with a note that said something to the effect of, “You’ve been naughty, and here’s what you get!”

My brother and I were devastated. Me being the younger of the two of us, I think that I was probably more so. I remember whining and crying and trying to convince my parents that this was unfair and unjust (trying to capitalize on the biblical notion of justice, because that’s what pastor’s kids do to win an argument, invoke the “God” excuse).

I’m not sure how long my parents let this whole thing go on. Like most things that happen when you’re young, it probably went on for far less time than it felt like it had gone on. Finally, after my parents had felt that their point had been sufficiently made, they went to a closet and pulled out all of the “real” presents. Replacing all of the broken toys under the tree were these beautifully wrapped presents. Of course, my brother and I played it up as if we knew our parents would do this all along. We were overjoyed by this gracious act, telling our parents that we knew all along that they would never do this to us, while secretly taking in a deep sigh of relief.

No matter how far I get away from this story, I just can’t forget it. Years go by, both of my parents are gone now, but I still remember the Christmas which has affectionately become known to my brother and I as “The Broken Toy Christmas.”

Parenting experts may call the exercise cruel and unjust, some people may think that it was harsh, and to be frank, I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it. My leaning is towards the fact that my parents showed my brother and I an incredible amount of grace. What we deserved, based on our actions and behavior, was the broken toys. What they gave us were the presents that showed that despite our imperfections, they loved us. My parents had shown grace in a way that rarely gets seen in this world.

Too many people cower to the whines and complaints of their children. There rarely seem to be consequences when behavior that is less than stellar is displayed. Instead, parents idly threaten their children and then give them what they never deserved with no hesitation.

I didn’t have to go through years of counseling to get over this and yet I still remember the Christmas vividly. In a lot of ways, I can’t help but connect what my parents did to what God did for us when he sent Jesus to the world. The history of God’s people is full of stubborn and obstinate people who thought that regardless of their behavior, a loving God would never turn his back on them and would never mete out justice on them. They were right, but someone still had to pay the price. That someone was Jesus. He is the gift of grace that God gave to us. When we deserved nothing but “broken and old toys” God gave us the best thing that he had to offer: his only son.

As I raise my kids, I hope and pray that I can instill in them the fact that Christmas isn’t about getting what we deserve, it’s about receiving the gift of grace from God. Christmas isn’t about all the commercialism that is preached at us from Black Friday on, it’s the realization that no gift could ever compare to what we receive in and through Christ.

May we come to the realization that the best thing that we can get and give is the news of this gift of grace. May our hearts always be reminded of what we deserve and be thankful of what we receive instead through grace.

Merry Christmas!

For the Love – A Book Review

For the LoveAlthough this is the first of her books that I’ve read, Jen Hatmaker has been on my radar for years. If you roll in Christian circles at all and aren’t familiar with who she is, chances are that you aren’t paying much attention. Her book “7” garnered rave reviews and a faithful following as she counter-culturally challenged people to cut down the excess and move towards a life of less, pointing people towards ways of narrowing things down to just 7 items in all areas.

Jen Hatmaker wrote “For the Love” to remind women (and anyone else who reads her book) that in this world of impossible standards where grace is hardly extended, that same grace is necessary for survival. In a society driven by social media, Hatmaker says that it has a way of making it seem like everyone else is just killing it at life, cooking meals, parenting like a boss, and being as creative with projects so as to be called a master artist in the world of Pinterest.

She talks about the need to stay connected. In a society where the hum and buzz of social media and technology can too easily replace the actual heartbeat and breath of real life flesh and blood, she stresses the importance of community, noting that, “Instead of waiting for community, provide it, and you’ll end up with it anyway.”

Hatmaker has some quality wisdom and advice to share, reminding people of the fact that they are not alone in their imperfections and shortcomings. She reminds people that there are others out there and points people to find those people; build relationships so that you can hang with people who get it.

In “For the Love,” Hatmaker takes the opportunity to vamp on everything from getting older to calling, fashion to using your gifts, cooking to parenting, children (“If they don’t love Jesus and people, it matters zero if they remain virgins and don’t say the F-word.”) to school, marriage to difficult people, and church (“If folks don’t recognize God is good by watching His people, then we have tragically derailed.”) to mission trips (“The world is so done being painted by the American church.”). She shares her heart with honesty and spunk, using her own brand of self-deprecating humor and wit to get her points across, and she does it masterfully.

Throughout the book she has a section called “Thank-You Notes” where she takes the opportunity to sarcastically thank people, places, and things. From NetFlix to the skinny girl in the dressing room, from Facebook to Angry Birds to Yoga pants, Caillou to Target to Pinterest to automatic flushing toilets, it seems that no stone is unturned and nothing is “off-limits” while Hatmaker takes time to vent about humiliating, frustrating, or fulfilling experiences.

I know I’m not the target audience for a Hatmaker book. As I read this book, there were moments along the way when I felt like I was eavesdropping on a women’s book club, Bible study, or phone conversation. There’s no denying that she has to offer a lot to anyone who takes the time to read her books.

As a pastor, there were moments when I resonated deeply with some of what Hatmaker writes. She says so many of the things that I have thought and often wanted to say but either never had the opportunity or knew that if I wanted to keep my job, I couldn’t. It’s an interesting thought considering that she’s a pastor’s wife, so it’s encouraging to think about the kind of culture that she and her husband, Brandon, have created in their church.

After reading “For the Love,” I can see the draw of Hatmaker, Where we’re so used to being politically correct and pussyfooting around issues, Hatmaker has a knack for telling it like it is. She doesn’t hesitate to voice her thoughts and opinions, opinions that some might feel are a bit abrasive.

The book isn’t for everyone, especially those who are easily offended. There were moments when I bristled a little bit and thought, “Can she say that?” Ultimately, this Northern boy felt like it was a breath of fresh air and was actually surprised that a Southern girl could speak so frankly without adding “bless your heart” to the end of the phrase.

If “For the Love” is any indication of who Hatmaker is and the insights that she has to offer, then I think I’ve just added a few more books to my “To Read” list. If you want to laugh, be encouraged, and be challenged, then pick up “For the Love.” You won’t be disappointed.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Jared, Josh, and Jesus

jared and joshUp until a few weeks ago, I had no idea who or what Ashley Madison was. While I probably knew that websites and services like Ashley Madison existed, I didn’t know them by name. Maybe I hoped that they weren’t true, kind of like those stories that you hear about as a kid that you keep hoping beyond hope aren’t true. Maybe it was a case of “ignorance is bliss” for me and I didn’t want to know that Ashley Madison existed.

I’ve never seen an episode of 19 Kids and Counting either. I’ve heard the Duggars name tossed around here and there, but I just kind of figured they were one of those crazy homeschool families that all of my homeschooling friends didn’t want to be associated with and all of my non-Christian friends wanted to label as “those weird Christians.”

While I eat at Subway from time to time, it’s not among my favorite places to go, regardless of its ties to my home state of Connecticut. I’ve not found myself gravitating towards the Subway diet and Jared’s connection and promotion of the food chain has had no influence on my preference or lack thereof for it.

And then, like that, all that I needed to do to hear about Ashley Madison, Josh Duggar, Jared Fogle, and the downward spiral of all of the above was to turn on the TV or hop on the internet. These names were plastered all over the screens. While it’s been said that no publicity is bad publicity, I don’t think that this is the kind of publicity that you ever want.

I mean, who wants everyone to know that the values that you touted and stood so strongly in favor of were actually a sham and that you had been living your life as a phony and a hypocrite? Who wants everyone to know that the position that you had gained to influence the world for good had actually been turned around and used for bad? Who wants everyone to know that despite the “put together” outward appearance that you had been conveying, there was a whole lot of other stuff going on beneath the surface? Who wants everyone to know what evil REALLY lurks in the hearts of men?

News of Josh Duggar’s involvement with Ashley Madison, as is often the case with the downfall of vocal Christians, was cause for rejoicing for those who consider Christianity to be a sham and who are looking for any and every possible way to disprove it because of the imperfections and flaws of its followers. It made me wonder if every ideology that was ever embraced should be questioned because of the flawed and imperfect people who embrace it.

It’s so easy in the midst of all of this to point fingers and say, “That would never be me,” but I’ve lived enough life of my own to know that the distance between me and an act of indiscretion is probably much shorter than I can even imagine. How many times have we heard someone publicly condemn a behavior only to be found guilty of that very behavior not too far in the future? How many times have we judged a person’s behavior without actually examining our own heart to see what really lurks there beneath the surface?

I’m not saying that what Josh and Jared did wasn’t wrong, it was and there are consequences for bad behavior, but instead of pointing fingers, maybe it’s an opportunity for us to examine ourselves and see if there are safeguards, guardrails, and other protections that we need to put in place in our own lives to avoid making some of the same mistakes. Not that we’re all just one step away from an affair or from being charged for child pornography and soliciting minors for sex, but maybe there are other things that seem more innocuous in comparison from which we are only one step away.

There have been times when I’ve stopped to look at my heart and I’ve been ashamed of what I saw there. There have been times when I’ve realized that as much as God has transformed some areas of my life, there are some other areas that need far more transformation than I’d like to admit. There have been times that I have begun to fully appreciate and understand just how deeply I need to be saved. There have been times when I see just how far I fall short of representing him and of being made more and more like him every day.

I don’t know what’s lurking in the hearts of Josh Duggar or Jared Fogle, but I know what’s lurking in my heart, and it’s not always pretty. I guess admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step towards fixing it. I’m not perfect and I won’t stand up and attest to any contrary admission. I need Jesus. On my own, I could be the subject of countless headlines, the recipient of endless public ridicule and scorn. On my own, I would simply do my best to present a whitewashed image of who I am while desperately hoping and praying that no one peeked to see what was really inside. Just like the Wizard of Oz said to the misfits seeking answers and gifts, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” On my own, I could do a really good job pretending that I had it all together and that the filthiness of sin hadn’t touched me.

I need Jesus.

I am striving every day to allow my life to be changed and transformed by a power that lies outside of me. I am striving every day to stop pointing my fingers so desperately at others in an effort to make me feel better about myself. I am striving every day to let the trips, falls, and failures of others act as a mirror instead to help me see just what’s lurking inside of me that desperately needs changing. I need these things to be revealed in me so that I know what needs to be changed.

Tomorrow, there will be another story in the news of someone who has fallen from grace, someone who has pretended to be something that they’re not. Tomorrow, there will be another story in the news of someone who has done something that appalls us, that may even make our skin crawl. Maybe instead of pointing our fingers at them, we need instead to take a closer look at ourselves to find out just what we’re pretending doesn’t exist within our own hearts. I think if we spent a little more time looking at our own areas in need of transformation, we might fixate less on what needs to be changed in others, and in the end, maybe we could actually help others with their stuff after we’ve allowed transformation to happen in ourselves.

Redemption Free

The other day, I was reading through a thread on a Facebook page that was created for my hometown. I grew up in a town that can easily be described as privileged and many would suggest that an attitude of entitlement was felt throughout much of the community. Even though most of the friendships that I still maintain from there can’t be categorized by that same privilege and entitlement, it seems that a few bad apples spoil the bunch and we, as a society, consistently characterize and categorize based upon the negative behavior of the few rather than the exemplary behavior of the many. But I digress…

The thread that I was reading had to do with the current status of a man who, when he was in high school, had been accused of raping girls. At the time, he was the co-captain of the wrestling team, a popular athlete in the school. On the brink of his trial, he fled to Europe where he lived off of his parents’ money for years, continuing his life of privilege as he was hiding out, until he was discovered and extradited back to the United States to finally stand trial.

Someone had posted an article about this man’s current life, what he is doing and trying to do and how he is living. The article listed not only his successes in the business he was pursuing but his failures as well, indicating that some of the behavior which had characterized him so many years ago seemed to still be present in him. The article was posted for information purposes, but the thread underneath quickly escalated into a battleground as strong opinions emerged on both sides of the argument as to what this man deserved.

I took the time to read through the remaining thread (some of the initial posts had been deleted before I had arrived). I was fascinated at the vitriol that flowed through the black letters on the screen. It seems that the sexual assault of women is one crime for which justice is rightfully demanded. The severity of the crime was seen clearly through the passion with which people approached this thread. People were lamenting the fact that this convicted rapist was now creating a new and successful life for himself.

As I read through the comments in the thread, I was struck by the lack of grace exhibited. Of course, I realized that if the article that had been posted was true, this convicted rapist was still exhibiting some of the behavior that was indicative of his character. At the same time, when we cry for justice to be served, a conviction is handed out, and time is served, when do we stop vilifying someone for their wrongdoing and sin? At one point is it acceptable, in our eyes, for someone to move on with their life? At what point have we paid for our transgressions?

Reading through the thread, I thought to myself, “I’d hate to be friends with some of these people because I’m not sure how well they would forgive me when I did something wrong.” It struck me that we as a society are passionate about asking for and pursuing tolerance, but it seems that there are things for which we think that tolerance is unnecessary or even a moot point. While we may verbally seek tolerance on what we would consider to be ALL levels, when the chips come down, we want people to be tolerant for the things that we want them to be tolerant for.

I keep trying to reconcile in my head how a society that promotes such tolerance can be so unforgiving and graceless when it comes to perpetrators. Please hear what I am saying in this and don’t read into it what you want. I’m not saying that there should not be consequences for the crimes that people have committed, but I am saying that when justice has been meted out and sentences have been served, at one point do we promote restoration and reformation?

To be honest, the way that I see this is that true reform, restoration, and redemption can only come from one place: Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, those who claim to follow Christ can be just as guilty (if not more so) than those who don’t of pissing on the grace that has been given to them. The headlines have been hot with stories of Josh Duggar and his own indiscretions. His story is a post all its own, but I think a lot of that has to do with vilifying others for things with which you currently struggle yourself all while pretending to be living a model life.

Can people show reform, restoration, and be redeemed without Christ? I think that people can accomplish a lot on their own. I think that people can experience a certain amount of reform and restoration on their own, but redemption doesn’t seem to be achievable unless it’s perfect redemption.

This is why I think that we need a perfect savior and a perfect sacrifice. None of us by ourselves can do it. The problem with living and imperfect sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. We needed a sacrifice that was perfect, that wouldn’t back down, that would perfectly pay the price for what was owed.

The problem is that we willingly accept the gift, we willingly accept the price that has been paid, but when it comes to graciously giving the grace that’s been given to us, we stink. We’re great at receiving grace and horrible at giving it.

But we continue to try, we continue to press on, that’s the process of spiritual growth and maturity. We stumble and we fall, we continue to push forward, but we may fail more often than we succeed. That’s why we need a perfect savior, because…..We. Will. Never. Measure. Up.

I’m grateful for grace and I am trying more and more every day to mete it out as well as I receive it.

Just keep swimming….

Searching For Sunday – A Book Review

searching for sundayI’ve never met Rachel Held Evans in person. I’ve never even had a digital conversation with her. My guess is that if we ever met face to face that we would hate each other, love each other, or love to hate each other. She’s spunky, witty, snarky, and smart. She shares with a verbal eloquence and a truth-telling ability that will make the open reader ask helpful and valuable questions of themselves.

I picked up “Searching For Sunday” because I had committed to reading books by those with whom I knew I would not necessarily agree. I had read enough of Evans’ blog posts and articles and had heard enough about her to know that we were most likely at odds with each other in the areas of our theology and ecclesiology. But I didn’t pick up the book to refute everything that she said, I picked it up to learn, to hear, and to hopefully understand just what I might be missing.

“Searching For Sunday” is the story of her journey away from the church and back again. In fact, it may be aptly subtitled “There and Back Again” if she were honest about it, and just like Bilbo the hobbit’s tale, it involves twists and turns that might never have been planned for yet which rarely left her the same. Evans tells her story and shares her experience with raw boldness and honesty. Anyone who has had experiences with the church in America will most likely relate to much of what she writes and shares.

Along the way, Evans makes many generalizations, often looping everyone into the same bowl without taking into account that all evangelicals are not created equal. The evangelicalism to which Evans reacts is the same one that I have reacted towards, the one that emphasizes a “closing the deal” approach towards evangelism, the one that seems to be more about sin management and less about showing love to one’s neighbors regardless of their political views or sexuality. She criticizes the church for, “taking spiritual Instagrams and putting on our best performances.” This is her experience, an experience that she realizes has shaped her and formed her, that has caused her to be cynical and that colors every other experience that she has, an experience by which every other experience will be measured.

In the midst of her sharing her experience though, I find myself asking the question about what we ground our stories to. Do we connect our stories with God’s story and do we call others to do the same? Are we seeking to be grounded to God’s truth as we connect those stories? Is it enough for us to just find common ground on our experiences, or do we need to find something unmoving and unchanging in the midst of culture’s constant shift?

“Searching For Sunday is broken into seven parts, each named after a sacrament, the sacraments practiced by the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox churches. As she shares her own story and experience with the church, she shares what she sees as the church’s work and responsibility. She emphasizes the church’s work on us through these sacraments, claiming that the church tells us we are beloved (baptism), we are broken (confession), we are commissioned (holy orders), feeds us (communion), welcomes us (confirmation), anoints us (anointing of the sick), and unites us (marriage).

There is much that Evans says that I can support, so much that is so eloquently put that it’s hard to argue or disagree. It seems that we can find common ground on our influences such as Bonhoeffer and McKnight, but somewhere, our paths diverge and we separate. There are times when it seems that she cops out on the call of the Gospel, the call to come and die, the call to lose one’s self in a pursuit of holiness. In her pointed indictment of those who would put themselves in Jesus’ role in the story of the woman caught in adultery, I fear that she plays the role of the defeatist, not explicitly saying it, but implying that because the pursuit of holiness is difficult it should just be abandoned, asking, “So how’s that working out for you? The sinning no more thing? Because it’s not going so well for me.” Are we to abandon a pursuit of holiness because it’s hard?

Like much of our culture, Evans talks of love but it seems that her definition of love is based too much on her surroundings and experience rather than the sacrificial and holy love that we know from God. She claims that evil and death are powerless against love but what of God’s other characteristics of holiness and immutability? She seeks an “adapt or die” approach towards the church rather than calling us to do the same. When we ask the church to “adapt or die” are we still taking God at his word? Do we still believe that the Bible is God’s self-revelation or do we view it as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” from which we pick and choose the things that feel good or are least likely to offend?

Evans wrestles with good questions, she wrestles with the need to stay connected to her beliefs with both her head and her heart. I agree with her that the church has in recent decades been a place where it is unsafe to wrestle with doubt, where we can’t come to the table without assurance. The church needs to be open to those who are questioning and searching, knowing that the journey is often messy and will result in more than a few bumps along the way. We need to reconcile that connection between heart and mind without feeling the need to have everyone check both at the door.

Evans writes, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” Does this all mean that we simply continue “to be” without accountability and reform? Is truth-telling enough or should we allow the truth to mold us and shape us; does truth remain the same or does it bend and break with the culture and the times?

In the midst of creating safe and comfortable environments within the church, do we forget that there is an offensiveness to the Gospel? It’s easy to point out the offensiveness of grace that makes us scratch our heads and wonder as to the worthiness of the recipients, but we need to keep a balanced approach and remember that there is still the need for accountability, there is still a call to holiness. No, we will never “arrive” at that holiness on this side of eternity, but the process of sanctification should not be abandoned because it’s hard or because it won’t reach its completion on this side of eternity. Evans understands God’s tendency to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and holy, but what sacrifices are made by us as we allow God to perform that transformation in us?

One of Evans’ many criticisms of evangelicalism is the “alliances and coalitions formed around shared theological distinctive elevate secondary issues to primary ones and declare anyone who fails to conform to their strict set of beliefs and behaviors unfit for Christian fellowship.” Does she recall Paul’s urging to expel the unrepentant brother from the church in Corinthians? We let everyone in but is there a call to repentance, is there a call to holiness? Do we simply let people come in and enter into the Gospel journey with no accountability with no call to repentance and a pursuit of a Christ-like life?

Evans comes to a great conclusion and makes the statement that, “following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.” I agree with that. When we enter into the journey to follow Christ, that journey is not just relegated to Jesus and us as individuals, but us as a community, as a body. We can’t “do” Christianity alone, and that’s where I think Evans gets it right. It’s an arduous journey on which we find ourselves, a journey that hardly goes the way that we would expect or even wish it to go, but a journey in which we will find reward in the end.

I appreciate the way that Evans challenges and questions. I appreciate her brutal honesty and her authentic sharing. What she shares, she shares well and I think that she knows how different she looks at this point along her journey. Anyone wishing to hear the experience of another would appreciate her story, anyone seeking to prove her wrong will have missed the point of her book. No, Rachel Held Evans and I might not agree on everything, but there is enough here from which I can learn.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)