A Tale of Two Sermons

I once heard two sermons. They spoke of the same little passage—a mere eighteen verses, hardly a column of text. But how different they were. 

It was not merely a matter of skill or style. It was not a matter of truth or falsehood, right or wrong.

One told me what I had to do. 
The other, what had been done for me. 

One sent me off with the suggestion to reflect on what I was doing wrong. 
The other sent me with thanksgiving of the One who came for me in my lostness. 

One piled on guilt. The other mercy.
One gave a word of law. The other the message of grace. 

I am no master homilitician, but I know which I prefer. 
I know which one drives me to awe and praise, and which to morbid introspection.
I know which one inspires me to change, and which makes me despair of ever being good enough. 
I know which one turns my eyes to Jesus, and which turns my eyes to myself. 

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The secret to true transformation is never law. It is never the litany of my wrongdoings, my misplaced loves, my sins. It is never the rehearsal of how I don’t measure up. Yes, I fall short, this I know—the Bible tells me so. But I thought the song was about Jesus.

How easily we forget our own message—the one that tells a story of grace coming to us in our unworthiness, the story of what has been done for us—not of our performance or our rehabilitation. All we truly have to give the world is Gospel—all else is just a Christianized rebranding of the “earn your way” slave drivers. 

Grace transforms us. It transforms my behavior and my attitudes. It possesses me with its glorious, excruciating, intoxicating light.

The Spirit transforms us. He peels away the thick dragon skin of my selfishness and pride and makes me a new creation. He gives me a soft heart, an obedient heart. My life bears His fruit.

To assume that this can be manufactured through guilt tripping or pump-you-up inspiration is to miss the point. It’s to forget our history. It’s to forget the gateway through which we walked into glory.

Our story will always be about grace. Our life will always be shaped and molded through a response to what has already been done for us. It is finished. We respond in thanksgiving. This thanks changes our hearts, and our newly transplanted, resurrected hearts change our lives.

This is the message I can never get enough of. It’s the one my parched soul laps up in rejoicing desperation.

Grace in Weed Removal

I knelt in the dirt, gripping the weeds low to the ground, pulling firmly until I felt the slip of roots and found one loose in my hands. We’d been at it for nearly two hours. The garden had been sorely neglected, and we had a great deal of catching up to do. I had a routine by this point: hack at the hardened earth with the garden hoe to loosen the clods which anchored our intruders, then bend close and work them out of the soil, toss the green carcases into the rusting handcart, and repeat. Slowly, we were regaining order. Slowly, our vegetables were being given tidy prominence. 

For the first thirty minutes, it was fun. My hands were in the dirt. The air was cool. It was good to be outside in the summer air. Then it gradually became a bit more like work. I was determined to see it finished, but my back was aching and I was leery of blisters on my bare hands.

I was in amongst our friend’s celery stalks, and I was thinking of the garden metaphors of the Bible. I was thinking of how difficult and dirty the weeding and the pruning really is. I was thinking of the pain when things are ripped up by the roots from your heart, no matter how necessary or beneficial. 

And then my mind was slipping away to another garden, years ago. 

I was standing proudly, admiring my work. A large hump of limestone protruded from the middle of the bed, sprawling through the mulch like a sleeping animal bewitched and turned to stone. Creeping phlox stretched its thick floral carpet from one corner. The flowers bloomed in shifts here. First the peonies. Tiny ants would crawl over the unopened blooms, skittering along the tightly wound knots of petals unborn, until they burst open in dark pink clumps. Then came the delicate Shasta daisies and the purple coneflowers, with their rough protruding centers. By mid-summer, the black-eyed Susans took on the color of the sun in a child’s drawing. A holly bush held its ground on the far side, dropping its crisp brown leaves in wait of my perpetually summer-bare feet.

I don’t remember why I’d signed myself up for the project. Maybe I was bored and set my mind on an ambitious project. More likely, I was trying to earn some money for the annual summer trip with the youth group. 

I looked forward to those trips. I remember we had to give our testimony to the church. I remember thinking mine was boring and dreadfully short. I was raised in the church as a part of a Christian family. I’d never left. Somewhere along the way, the faith had become my own, but I hadn’t crossed through a tumultuous season of rebellion or doubt. I had simply grown up into a knowledge of who Christ was for me—and I chose to continue to follow Him. Short. Sweet. Uninteresting.

The flowerbed I was now admiring had been overrun by weeds and shriveling dead blooms a few hours before, and now order had been restored. The weeds pulled and thrown into the overgrow wooded area behind the house, the flowers trimmed and dead-headed for another round of colorful blossoms. 

My dad stood beside me. I was commenting on how nice it looked, how much better it was in contrast to how it had been before. 

“Yes, it looks nice,” he said, “but would it be any less beautiful if it hadn’t gotten overrun in the first place?”

There is grace in weed pulling, in the restoration and transformation. There is also grace in the staying power that keeps weeds from sprouting up and forming a stranglehold. An unseen, unacknowledged grace.

See His Gospel, Live Out Grace

There’s a purple sticky note that’s been a long-term resident of my desk top. It’s a little maxim of Ann Voskamp’s (if you aren’t familiar with her work, check out her website). It reads: Inhale Gospel. Exhale Grace in this place.

Breathe in the Gospel, of the unmerited forgiveness and unconditional grace of God, poured out on us through Jesus. Rest in the Truth of being chosen and adopted as a child of God and an inheritor of his promises. Lavish love, merciful justice, undeserved favor.

And breathe out Grace on those in the space around you. Grace for foibles and faults, for the ways you’ve been sinned against and slighted. Grace for the moments another’s imperfect humanity rubs rough against us. Letting go of the need to get even or the desire to keep a grudge. Forfeiting justified angst or repayment. In the fashion of our Savior, pouring unmerited forgiveness, unconditional grace, undeserved favor.

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Confessions of an Israelite

I find it incredibly easy to criticize the Israelites. I marvel, incredulous, at their obstinacy, lack of faith, and thickheadedness. How could a group of people be so dull?

You have just watched a sea split open and walked across a stretch of dry land that just a short time before was covered with water, trapping you from escape. Your enemies, who outnumbered you, and could have slaughtered your family and friends, were wiped out behind you, through no effort of your own. You’ve been fed by miraculous food that appears on the ground overnight and have had your thirst quenched by water spout from a rock, in spite of your complaining. Then, after all of this, you create a calf of gold, with your own hands, and bow down to the god you’ve created for yourself - and this is only the beginning.

After seeing God’s faithfulness and provision, how could you doubt that He would meet your needs? After watching him crush your enemies, how could you be afraid of another foe? How could you forget so easily? How could you turn away? 

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Do You See Me?

There is such a deep seated need within our hearts to be seen.

Children feel no need to hide this aspect of human nature. How often have you heard a child beg, “Look at me!” or felt little fingers tapping on your arm for attention? Have you ever noticed how often they glance up, checking to see if their parent—or even a complete stranger—is watching, observing and delighting in their antics? It’s as if there is something embedded in their little souls with an unrelenting, insistent need to be seen, to see the shine of delight and affection in someone’s eyes. It’s as if in this big, overwhelming world, caring eyes turned on them provide a secure anchor for their play, their creativity, their adventure.

I’m convinced we change little in this regard as we grow older. We’re merely socialized and disciplined to not make our hunger for seen-ness so obvious or insistent. Perhaps we’ve learned to discern whose eyes and attention to care about. But in our souls still hides this same aching desire, the same questions: Do you see me? Do you delight in what you see?

When I look deeply at my own soul, these are the questions I find, and they are particularly poignant in my relationship with the Lord. In some moments, I am a small girl, twirling and dancing, skirts and ribbons flying, in fields of sunshine, face upturned: Do you see me? In others, I am cowering, hugging my knees to my chest, lost in the darkness with a storm swirling around, calling out to be found: Do you see me?

 

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